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2012: A Year in Review

Early in 2012, I posted an article discussing the amazing line-up of games and movies that were due to appear in 2012. It seems only fitting that, as the year draws to a close, I take the time to return to this list and see how a year that had the potential to be among the best and nerdiest years in the last decade really shook out.

Without further ado, let's head to the scoreboards.

Diablo III

There was a certain simplistic beauty to Diablo II. Yes, it had bots, dupes, hacks, and corruption galore--though Blizzard, to their great and eternal credit, did everything they could to address these issues in subsequent patches--but there was an addictive wonder in the grind to find gear. There was comfort in knowing that, even if you couldn't find precisely what you were looking for, there would be some other poor soul who was looking for something, and might be willing to make a trade. Maybe you'd even do a few Baal runs together, souls touching but briefly in the majestic dance that was THE GAME.

From these glorious unions, a child sprung, fully formed, and focused solely on the greediest, most deplorable aspects of its parents.

Though Diablo III has some of the inherent beauties of Diablo II, its general watering down (loss of major skill trees), and replacement of a player-driven economy to a centrally-managed auction house may have stripped it of its soul. While I can only applaud Blizzard for its ingenuity, and its goal to build a sustainable, profitable business model around a free-to-play game, I can't help but feel that the result is so much less palatable than its predecessor, less focused on the addictive-like-crack rewards-for-time-invested elements of runs than it is on the "buy what you need" consumer model.

OK. Maybe I'm becoming a crotchety, bitter old nostalgic gamer; maybe I just have issues spending real money on in-game items; maybe those issues are complicated by a general watering down to appease the masses of WoW addicts that value a simpler style of character development and skill building. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.


Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Starcraft

Not entirely surprisingly, HotS remains in Beta. Good on Blizzard for taking their time, even if it sometimes feels like WAY TOO MUCH time. I will continue to wait patiently, provided it shows its face in the next couple of years.






Borderlands 2

If there's a spiritual successor (or perhaps a bastard child) of Diablo II, then it is probably the Borderlands series, and Borderlands 2 brought back everything that was important to the first one: an addictive items-drop scheme, reasonably large areas to explore, decent characters with (mostly) interesting abilities, and ultra-violence. Each of these traits may appeal more to different groups, but there's no denying the potency of the completed cocktail.

Really, if the genre appeals to you, there's no reason not to pick up Borderlands 2. If you keep an eye out, it even drops to about $30 on the Steam sales.


Assassin's Creed III

WARNING: THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD

I appreciate that not everyone is quite as enamored of the AC series as I am; while others have been finding their niche blowing off zombie heads, I have generally preferred to stalk my victims in silence, determining their guilt, and "take care of things." Beautiful scenery and visuals took this simple stress relief to another level, allowing me to visit ancient cities in their glory, climb the coliseum, and explore the streets of Constantinople.

AC3 was a detour from the series in a number of ways, most notably in its expansion into the "New World." Now, instead of jumping from roof to roof, climbing European historical landmarks, players find themselves free-running through American forests, hunting redcoats and protecting innocent settlers from the hands of their oppressors.

Some of this works surprisingly well: combat is reasonably fluid, free-running is better than it's ever been, and the addition of hunting and trapping, while a bit of a novelty, is reasonably entertaining. The story (in animus) is also done quite well, in my opinion, though Connor lacks the flamboyance and humour of Ezio Auditore, the protagonist from the previous few games, maintaining a stiffer, more stoic personality, like Altair from the first AC. Despite this, I found myself engrossed in Conner's storyline and interested to see where it led.

I'm by no means a history scholar, and I won't pretend to know how closely the events of AC3 mimic the real struggle for independence in the United States of America. However, the story seems believable, and an attempt at balancing the typical American manifest destiny spiel was made in the form of a few betrayals, and a differing point of view, courtesy of Conner's father.

All that said, the weakness of AC has always been the frame narrative around it--the "real life" world of Desmond, assassin descendant. Through the entire series, Desmond has been plugged into the Animus, a machine designed to allow him to relive collective memories of his assassin ancestors, in the hope of discovering the location of certain godly artifacts. These artifacts are toted as the deciding factor in an ongoing war between Templars and Assassins, which will determine the fate of the world. This search has carried on throughout the AC series, with the culmination coming in AC3, where Desmond finds the seal that will unlock the god's temple and decide the fate of the world. Super.

Unfortunately, the Desmond portions have always been the weakest part of the AC series, and AC3 really hammers it home; after completing Connor's life story (or the parts that matter, anyway), Desmond returns to the temple, steps from the Animus, and opens the temple. What follows is the worst ending to a video game series since Mass Effect 3 (I know, it really hasn't been that long, has it...but still). We find out (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) that the whole fight between Templar and Assassin has simply taken too long, and the Earth is doomed...OR Desmond may choose to save the world, but you will die in the process and unleash the goddess Juno (Hera to those of us that prefer the Greek to the Roman) to subjugate the human race.

And best of all, that choice isn't even left up to the player; it's part of the 15 minutes worth of cut-scenes that form the end of the game (albeit with two short running-toward-a-door sections interspersed). Better to subjugate oneself and leave a chance that the human spirit will rise again to throw off the shackles, I suppose.

Really Ubisoft? That's the best you can come up with? I appreciate that Desmond may have had to die--that's something that everyone familiar with heroic fantasy should be familiar with. However, chocking the entire series up to nothing, denoting the entire assassin/templar conflict as meaningless, and cutting to what must be 25 minutes of credits is one terrible bloody way to end a game!

Some suggest that this may be an attempt to leave the game open for yet another sequel, in which the player can play as Desmond again (via the Animus). NEWSFLASH: nobody likes Desmond anyway, and there is absolutely no reason that a game relying on a central premise that is, essentially, time travel, can't make as many spinoffs and sequels as it wants. The only thing standing in its way is the poor writing.

/rant



The Avengers

I have two distinct reactions to The Avengers. After watching it once: "THAT WAS AWESOME!" After attempting to watch the first half a second time: "how long is this movie again?" In a nutshell, the movie was well done--though exceptionally long, and slow in the first half. However, that's easy to overlook given the high calibre performances, particularly by Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman, and Mark Ruffalo, who filled some very big shoes as the Hulk. The movie has already taken its rightful place in my collection of well-adapted Marvel superhero movies, tucked nearly between Captain America and the Iron Man series.



Prometheus

Admittedly, the greatest draw of Prometheus was its nostalgia. As a fan of the Alien movies, and particularly Aliens , I was interested to see what could be done in the form of a prequel (or even a mildly-related movie functioning in the same general universe as Aliens). What I got was a movie appropriately filled with eldritch surroundings, suitable for the mood of an Alien flick, but very little else. Passable acting, generally lacking storyline, and poor workplace health and safety--really, who takes off their helmet on a strange alien world, even when the oxygen levels appear sufficient?

Worth watching the first time, but definitely not worthy to stand alongside the earlier Ridley Scott works.




Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

OK. I didn't really expect much from this film. While the book did often leave me laughing, and compel me to read far more about Honest Abe than I ever would have otherwise, the previews made it clear that the focus of AL:VH would be action. What I didn't entirely grasp is just how far they would go.

Need an example? Sure. Two scenes stand out very vividly in my mind: in one, Abe battles a vampire while jumping across the backs of stampeding horses; in the other, he fights them on top of a moving train that is climbing a burning railway bridge as it collapses. Now, I appreciate that these films are meant to be a departure from reality; I do. But there is a limit to what an audience is willing to accept, according to the rules of the fictional world, before a work loses all integrity and shocks the watcher/reader out of the world altogether. Those two scenes pulled me out of the movie like the skyhook from The Dark Knight. I don't think I ever did find my way back.


The Amazing Spiderman

Poor Spidey. He must have done something to severely piss off the cosmos to deserve so many terrible movies in his name. From the 1980s/90s spandex-clad adaptation to the three modern movies starring Toby Maguire, writers and producers seem to have been unable to capture the spirit of the webslinger, with additional troubles adhering to the Marvel canon. This finally hit a breaking point with the third installment of the Toby Maguire movies, in which Spiderman faced a confusing and unrelated set of three enemies while simultaneously crying and feeling sorry for himself...for an entire feature-length film.

Fortunately, the powers-that-be saw fit to reboot the series and give Spiderman a clean slate--and he seems to have made the best of it.

The Amazing Spiderman is very well done, sticks closely enough to canon to be palatable, and replaces both lead actors with great success. I was also particularly happy to see that the movies have gone back to Spidey building his webslingers instead of having webs shoot from his wrists...I mean really: this isn't Spiderman 2099. Anyway, if you haven't seen The Amazing Spiderman yet, you're missing out.


The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan revolutionized the Batman brand, there's no question. After a series of ever-worsening movie tripe, the brand was all but dead, with Batman and Robin providing the final coffin nail for anyone still unconvinced that the franchise was dead. Fortunately, in Hollywood, there are always second (or third, or fourth) chances.

Nolan chose to abandon the silly, comic ridiculousness that had taken over the series and return to some of the more gothic roots found in the comics, and in the 1989 and 1992 Batman films (albeit without Tim Burton's odd dystopic fantasy feel). Batman was back, and he was very, very pissed off.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes Nolan's redone Batman film trilogy, seeing the Dark Knight cast to his lowest, forced to face what he has become and learn to balance Gotham's need for him as a symbol with his own needs as a human being.

There are a number of easy criticisms to level at The Dark Knight Rises ; it undeniably follows a similar story arc to the previous movies, having Batman broken down and rebuilding himself, becoming emotionally compromised and learning to fix his own broken soul. Bane's muffled speaking is another source of consistent viewer frustration. However, these few quibbles aside, Nolan does a wonderful job of ending Batman's story and beginning Bruce Wayne's, revealing the light and shadows that linger inside heroes and villains alike, and showing the Dark Knight shattered, and repaired.




The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I'll be candid: I haven't yet seen The Hobbit . This is what having young children will do to you--significantly fewer release-date movie attendances. However, I can tell you precisely how I felt when I heard Peter Jackson/MGM had chosen to make it into a trilogy: appalled.

For those of you who may not have read it, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, is a lovely, kid-oriented novel that serves as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings . It has a much more mythological feel to it, in my opinion, though not so much as something like The Simarillion or even the much more recent The Children or Hurin . It has a much more simplistic and accessible storytelling style, often addressing the reader directly, and is, above all, quite short--like the hobbits themselves. This isn't to say that The Hobbit isn't a good read, or a decent novel in its own right; it just isn't nearly as dense (in a literary sense), nor as action-packed as The Lord of the Rings .

So, given its short length and more simplistic nature, why would one want to break The Hobbit into three pieces, you ask? Money. Money, money, money. Here's the thinking: if you can film one movie for X, and bring in Y revenues from the theatres, why not pick a film you know you will have an audience for (nearly guaranteed for The Hobbit , given the success of the LOTR films, and the continued strong following of Tolkien's original works), and break it into three? X stays the same, but you get 3Y in revenues. At this point, all artistic values get thrown out the window in an attempt to stretch that compact piece of art into 2.5 hours that won't leave an audience dead asleep in the theatre. Thanks MGM, and Mr. Jackson; Merry Christmas to you, too.

Will I still see it? Yes. Will I be as happy about it? Not so much.






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