Welcome to the space year 2011, then. As is traditional at this time of year, the games media is about to unleash their campaigns for us, that's right US to decide the game of the year through online votes and features where hundreds of nominees are assessed and given the nod or the boot. On a one game per page basis. Surrounded by lots of lovely, lovely ads.
Of course, all public votes are meaningless. Why? Because when it comes down to us, yes US, the games playing public, we're all dribbling nincompoops. Just as years of radiation from cathode ray tubes (and to modern gamers, the laser beams emanating from Kinects) has rendered us all largely sterile and unable to reproduce, so too have our long term memories all been shot. The public's game of the year won't be the best game made in 2010, but the most recent disc spinning in our drives. Face it, if there was a global poll right now on top one hundred meals of all time, the Cheeto you fortuitously just found nested in your belly button would probably rank right up there.
Of course, it takes a simpering moron to know one, and with that in mind, my game of the year was one that dropped into my Christmas stocking- Need For Speed Hot Pursuit.
Discussion of Criterion's revival of the riches to rags to riches racing dynasty is of course impossible without mentioning Autolog, which is also a front runner in the 'best mechanic in a game we've played in the last ten minutes' award. The feature, for the uninitiated, is a kind of less obnoxious Facebook wall within the game, wherein updates to your single player times are continually pushed to people on your friends list along with a challenge to wipe the smug grins of your face. It's been hailed as almost single handedly reinvigorating online multiplayer. In years gone by, you see, if we wanted to play games competitively, we had to do so in the same room, crowded around the same TV. From there, advances lead to playing in different rooms and in different parts of the world, widening your playmate circle from the childhood buddies on your street. Now, preach the Autolog faithful, you don't even have to be playing at the same time as your friends to compete. It's asynchronous multiplayer! It's a revolution!
Is it though, in either case? No, it's neither. I've aired my distaste for the status quo of online play in the past, and asked for more asynchronous multiplayer options then, but what Autolog is, really, is a well placed high score table. Yes, when Criterion was looking at future proofing their online options, they looked to the past, of spending coins in arcade cabinets just so the mighty games god ASS could supplant FUK on top of the high score tree. Unoriginal, yes, but by heavens is it addictive. Hot Pursuit is on its own a fantastic game, but by dangling the top spot carrot on the Speedwall stick the whole time, you constantly have reason to practice, play and replay routes in single player.
In fact, as I invest more time into Hot Pursuit (and Pac Man CE DX, which with load free restarts, handles its competitive high score nature arguably better than HP), I'm convinced that time spent on deeper single player games that I've picked up recently, the Fallouts, the Fables and the Enslaveds, will dwindle. Could it be that the narrative driven game is most under threat, not from online multiplayer, but arcade style quick bite single player with leaderboards?
I started playing Vanquish before Christmas.As Platinum developed games seem to be wont to do, it divided opinion in the press. I rather liked it, but feel that rather than being a modern console game, it is an old school quintessentially Sega arcade game renovated for the twenty first century. It is brash, shiny and in your face, and rewards creative play with a high score system, but goes wrong in its checkpointing.
Vanquish is split into fifteen to twenty minute chunks, scoring you with quite an in depth system and giving you a grade. Its narrative is willfully dumb- the game is entirely about the experience of play. So why is the leaderboard left on the main menu screen? Vanquish could do with an Autolog of its own, giving you updates on friends' scores as you bust through a checkpoint and inviting you to either brag about your performance or instantly restart the checkpoint to do better. Of course, for this to work, it would have to go the whole arcade hog, and shorten the fifteen minute gameplay chunks to two or three minutes a pop. Quick, frenzied addictive sessions would suit the game much better, and help make the bitter pill of its short length go down easier.
I realise writing this that I'm becoming my own worst enemy. Having grown fond of games weaving me a story (when they do it well) and feeling threatened by multiplayer encroaching on things, I feel the ressurection of the high score table is bringing me right back to the days of the arcades, willfully throwing away narratives for concentrated gameplay. The online proselytising 'community manager' ex-journos might finally have me, the bastards. I'll be renewing my XBox Live account next. Still new year, new (old) beginnings…