luftrausers

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics often subscribe to a narrow-minded view of “worst” that results in self-congratulatory dogpiling of games like Sonic Boom. The following list shows that games in “working order” can be far more problematic, where an illusion of technical and artistic superiority hides insidious marketing; ignorance of video game and art history; disdain for thoughtful communication and potential audience; soulless repackaging of banal features and practices; fragile and unenlightened creator egos; and misrepresentation of human experience and culture.

Note: You can check out my 10 best video games of 2014 here.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Inspired by dark and trashy television, Ground Zeroes is a sly press release for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Hideo Kojima dresses his “stand-alone prologue” in 24 clothes, that is, Kiefer Sutherland and torture porn. Ground Zeroes’ rape-bomb combo is its answer to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and other “shocking,” “must-see” TV moments. Some call Ground Zeroes misogynistic, but the game shows contempt for everyone, not just women. For an appearance of real-world relevance, the game evokes Guantanamo Bay only to utter banalities about hopelessness. The stealth is also a joke, with trendy bullet time for those who thought the superior Metal Gear Solid 3 was unfair.  The incongruous side missions depict a stealth sitcom without the laugh track.

(See full review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes here.)

2. Mountain

Mountain wins the Most Insignificant Game with a Significant Amount of Press award. The game’s “novel” approach to simulation is presented as a cute and mundane mystery, complete with smart-assed messages and backhanded features that prod players as if they’re cattle. Confusing condescension with creativity, developer David OReilly has nothing to say.

(See a comparison of Mountain to the superior Temporality here.)

3. Fantasy Life

Don’t be misled by the “addictiveness” of Fantasy Life. It’s just an old drug that prefers advertising over truth. The game’s commitment to childish banter and meaningless checklists exposes its cited freedom as a lie. Fantasy Life is only acceptable if one forgets every simulator and role-playing game that has ever been created. If you buy into Fantasy Life’s drivel, walking through a doorway is a quest or work. Publisher/developer Level-5 should be temporarily imprisoned for wasting composer Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliance.

(See full review of Fantasy Life here.)

4. Always Sometimes Monsters

Developer Vagabond Dog’s world of “no right or wrong” is preposterous, yet we’re supposed to be moved by Always Sometimes Monsters’ immature understanding of human experience. This (no shit) feces-obsessed game suckered some publications into thinking its depictions of sexism and racism are profound, but no matter what gender, sexual orientation, or racial group you choose, the story doesn’t recognize the privilege of its whiny protagonist writer. Like the diverse cast of characters, spirituality and labor are tokens on Vagabond Dog’s “progressive” checklist, casually addressed but never detailed in sociological or believable terms.

(See full review of Always Sometimes Monsters here.)

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Obsidian Entertainment tries to fool you into thinking The Stick of Truth is a good role-playing game by demonstrating what the fanboy consumer calls “faithfulness to the source material.” Standards in game criticism are so pitiful that if a game can manage to look like an episode of a popular cartoon series, the release will be hailed as a breath of fresh air. In reality, The Stick of Truth offers recycled jokes from the television show and parodic role-playing games, as well as an amateurish combination of Super Mario RPG battles and Elder Scrolls inventories/quests.

(See full review of South Park: The Stick of Truth here.)

6. Child of Light

This Ubisoft swing at the “indie” market pretends to be sophisticated and hopeful, but only the sound design and music suggest talent was involved. With poetry and hip visuals (that is, an awkward combo of bland polygons and water color backgrounds), Child of Light announces itself as an epic. Too bad the creators’ (mis)understanding of rhyming poetry is disrespectful: the game treats the rhymes as a feature rather than as part of a classic artform that requires skill, timing, and inspiration. The role-playing aspirations are similarly out of touch. The battles rely heavily on a real-time helper gimmick, ignoring the variety of turn-based possibilities in Penny Arcade 3. All of this inept execution exposes Child Light as a cynical display of fairy tale marketing.

(See full review of Child of Light here.)

7. The Plan

This five-minute game thinks dreariness amounts to a worthwhile existential statement. The use of Grieg’s classical masterpiece “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” merely makes The Plan’s pretentiousness laughable. The game’s biggest mistake is prompting players to type words at the conclusion and then sharing previous player-written text (“kkk” was among the stupid things I read last time I played). This ending of uninspired player quotes suggests developer Krillbite Studio is unaware of Chris Johnson’s Moirai (one of the best games of 2013), which used player-to-player text to illustrate moral consequences and misfortune.

(See full review of The Plan here.)

8. Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game, recently praised in The New York Times, ensures its creator’s mystique at the expense of insight. Developer Porpentine deleted this Twine 24 hours after releasing it, with the idea that others would have to curate it to keep it alive (the deletion served as a forced metaphor for the loss of human life). The complexity of the subject matter, suicide and trauma, is equivocated by C-grade horror descriptions (“fridge dimension with endless icy corridors full of condiments and womens dead and mutilated bodies”) and a mathematical structure that requires hundreds (for some, perhaps even thousands) of tedious mouse clicks. The trapped feeling is no more than a wretched aesthetic, a tool designed to toy with your emotions rather than enlighten.

(See full review of Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone here.)

9. Luftrausers

Not even the old-school shooter can escape modern game development’s condescending vision to tutorialize and reward every player (in)action. In Luftrausers, Vlambeer attempts to lend gravity to its mindless instructions via Nazi and wartime suggestions, but the result is too antiseptic to approach an aesthetic. Unlike the remake of Gauntlet by Arrowhead Game Studios, Luftrausers doesn’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of traditional OR contemporary game design.

(See full review of Luftrausers here.)

10. Residue

The intentions behind Residue seem genuine, which makes the game an honest mistake. Awkward movement and choppy animation do enough damage to the seriousness of Residue’s narrative, but the storytelling itself never rises above a hackneyed sense of futility. This game is one more log on the reductive “Middle East sucks” fire.

(See full review of Residue here.)

Dishonorable Mention:

The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 3 and 5 (see review of Episode 5 here)

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Traitor Gives Meaning to Shootin’ ‘Em Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The second mission brief in Traitor says “You [the protagonist] don’t really care about the absurd complexities of politics.” With this phrase, developer Jonas Kyratzes sums up the appeal behind most, if not all, great shoot ’em ups — the cathartic simplicity of shooting away without responsibility or consequence, particularly when ammo is limitless (an ammo problem, typical in more “realistic” shooters, stalls catharsis). Kyratzes’ phrase can also apply to how game criticism operates: the innovation of Traitor, released two years ago, has largely been met with critical silence.

Traitor challenges the shoot ’em up tradition without completely overturning it. Through well-written text that I wish was the standard in video game scripts, the game weaves a conflict of interests between the protagonist and the standard shoot ’em up decree. The moral conflict either compels you to stop pressing the fire button or comments on the precious life that you choose to extinguish. This moment of the game is stunning in its originality. The hesitation it can inspire is unlike anything one normally experiences in the excitement of shoot ’em ups.

After this conflict, Traitor returns to the “shoot everything” roots of the shoot ’em up, though modernity is present in the upgrade and reputation systems. Traitor feels like a scrolling Space Invaders with RPG elements. The use of “HP” alone suggests the RPG connection; the exploration confirms it. Even the outstanding soundtrack by Chris Davis seems to have more in common with the majesty of 1990s Final Fantasy themes as opposed to the blood-pumping tracks from vertical shooter classics like Soldier Blade.

The shooting is about as simple as it gets, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the upgrading as far as challenge is concerned. After saving up credits, it’s possible to upgrade enough so that the missions are a breeze. Some later missions may catch you off-guard, but the most frustrating parts of the game are sections where enemies or obstacles block your way and your weapon isn’t upgraded enough to destroy them before the scrolling screen essentially kills you. I also wish the bosses were more challenging — even the final boss was a pushover, as it cannot travel the horizontal length of the screen.

Kyratzes’ storytelling overcomes these gameplay limitations for the most part. Each mission is preceded by concise dialogue (some of which is quite witty) from faceless characters who represent downtrodden and alienated peoples. This dialogue builds political purpose (at the risk of oversimplification: Marxists in space). Even buying upgrades can become more about helping others, in clear contrast to the upgrade screens in Fantasy Zone and Lords of Thunder. The story also goes beyond text. While Traitor’s visuals represent an old-school style, they create a distinct and mysterious galaxy. I often wondered about how a particular enemy design came into existence.

If it were a “AAA” release or heavily marketed indie title, Traitor would give big game critics (who fainted over Luftrausers) something to talk about. Traitor is another rebel unrecognized by the gaming empire, but a historical perspective suggests that it is an important shoot ’em up that can be improved. In its flaws and strengths, Traitor points toward the hope of greater games.

Luftrausers Sells Glitter, Not Substance

by Jed Pressgrove

One might wonder if some critics went easy on Luftrausers based on sympathy for developer Vlambeer and its cloned game, Radical Fishing. Luftrausers is a slick product that combines arcade/Atari shooting and scoring with mindless achievements disguised as missions. Simple yet not simple enough.

Everything about Luftrausers subdues player concerns about launching, saving, and dieing — old-school shooting without grit and urgency. The purpose of Luftrausers is to die trying and get rewarded for it. Is it fun killing five enemies in a continuous boost when the game tells you to? Should anyone feel proud to have destroyed a battleship during a “MAX” combo by intentionally dying to set off a nuke? No matter. You’re making steady progress, and here’s another upgrade for playing. The game is tedious not because of its difficulty but because of its modern, commanding banality.

The question isn’t whether Luftrausers is playable but whether it’s worth playing compared to its peers and ancestors. Luftrausers bastardizes rather than revives old-school shooting in contrast to less-marketed games like Titan Attacks, which combines arcade gameplay with modern upgrading in a more logical and skill-based fashion. Luftrausers’ control scheme apes Combat on the Atari 2600, a game that lacks glitter and single-player but whose neanderthal emphasis on face-to-face gaming blows away an online leaderboard for mediocrity. Hydorah, Asteroids, Vorpal, Tempest — good shooting has many names, and Luftrausers ain’t one of them.

Then there’s the imagery of Luftrausers that Game Informer called an “edgy, stylized faux-Nazi aesthetic.” Most critics don’t discuss this aesthetic, as pointed out by Nick Capozzoli. Indeed, it’s hard to care when the game itself doesn’t care. Vlambeer merely uses Nazi suggestions for style points. This approach should come as no surprise, as the developer once described Radical Fishing as “our simulation of the noble pastime that is traditional redneck fishing.” I sincerely question whether Vlambeer would know a real Nazi or redneck if it slapped them in the face.

There are far worse shooters than Luftrausers, and Vlambeer should be commended for its technical attention to detail. But all the hype over this game raises a question: has shooting fallen so far that the soulless missions of Luftrausers provide a new standard? As long we can remember why we have Space Invaders and Space Invaders Extreme, the answer is simple: No!