Games of the Year, 2015 Edition

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Games of the Year, 2015 Edition

I haven’t done one of these in a long time. But this year, with the little bit of extra time I have over the holiday break I thought it appropriate to bring back.

These are the best game I’ve played this year. I will say that I haven’t played every game this year. There are several that are still sitting on my shelf or in my Steam Library that I will hopefully get to soon. But this list represents the opinion of a true “everyman.” I’m not a paid reviewer, which means these games caught my attention enough to purchase and play through from beginning to end. Well, I say “end”, but two of my top three don’t exactly have endings, and that is okay. The list is in no order. These are just the best that I’ve come across. This is one of those years in gaming that will hopefully be looked back at like wine snobs look at certain vintages and talk about how the additional sunlight helped bring out the grapes…flavor…or something like that. Suffice to say, this was a damn good year for games. Here’s my top three.  

 

Rocket League

I’ve fallen out of love with most sports games. However, I have fallen in love with this game.

I’ve fallen out of love with most sports games. However, I have fallen in love with this game. I don’t buy sports games anymore because I typically don’t care about annualized games that don’t improve drastically on the gameplay from year-to-year. Most sport games overly complicated, aren’t user friendly, and try to throw more and more content at you to try and cover up that most haven’t changed since the days of SNES.

Rocket League, though, is a breath of fresh air. It’s soccer, but with cars. It’s easy to pick up and learn even for someone new to a sports game, but has infinite playability. I’ve never played this game with any of my friends despite a few of them owning this, but I don’t care. Every goal that I score makes me want to get up and do an end-zone dance. Other version of football, I know, but you get the point.

Each game is fast-paced and the skill level of those around you can vary from game-to-game, but that adds an additional level of challenge to the game when you cannot speak to those around you. I never play with a headset, and most people don’t either. So you have to try and read your team’s movements the best you can and signal each other with a very small amount of pre-programmed sayings using a controller’s D-pad or a few programmed buttons on your keyboard.

It has extremely good replay value, but hits me in the soft spot like few games have. I spent a lot of my childhood playing games like Dusty Diamonds All-Star Softball and Mutant League Football. This game reminds me of those quirky “sports” simulators on the NES and SEGA Genesis—infinitely replayable, quick to pick up, but would take forever to master.

 

Splatoon

Honestly, a lot of the best games on the market right now are on the Wii U. From Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart last year into new IP’s like Splatoon this year it’s been consistently one of the best consoles of this generation.

But what makes Splatoon hit the Best Of list this year is its execution. It’s a neat concept, that is easy to understand and keeps you coming back to your Wii U every time you think it’s okay to disconnect and wait for whatever the NX is supposed to be. Any level of gamer can play this. You can have kids that are just starting out in gaming to adults who are creating complex strategies (and complain when the “sniper” class isn’t holding down their position) all playing in the same arena.

The control scheme takes full advantage of the Wii U’s hardware in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s gimmicky. If you’re like my wife and often have a hard time with traditional FPS control schemes, this takes it to another level by giving you the opportunity to “feel” the physics of the game, something other FPS games cannot. It’s fantastic, but it doesn’t stop there.

“Games as a Service” is a term that is generally used by the EA’s and Ubisofts of the world to justify cutting off significant amounts of content and making you pay for an additional Season Pass to get the game. In the past, and with the way I run with my Battlefield Crew in the future, I am guilty for paying for these to finish seeing all the content in the game.

However, Nintendo doesn’t make you pay extra for these in Splatoon. They just keep releasing content for the game. Are these huge updates? No, but they’re enough to keep the game feeling fresh and interesting.

And I want to reiterate these updates are free. That’s not just because it’s customer-friendly, but it solves for a very frustrating trend that happens in a lot of online multiplayer games. Let me paint the picture for you: You and your mates are about to sit down for your nightly session of Battlefield when, low and behold, another member of your group shows up after a few weeks away! Everyone is excited to chat with their friend and have a few good games. But what’s this? While said friend was away EA released an expansion pack. Most of the “regulars” have this expansion and have been playing the new maps and game mode for a few days now. But the friend does not. And does not have the scratch to purchase and download the new expansion. Should we get mad at him for not forking over additional money to keep playing the game that he already bought? Absolutely not. That is exclusionist and petty. So the group plays the vanilla content until that friend leaves for the night and they can go back to playing the new content. But in Nintendo’s world, those same friends are just waiting for a free download and they’re playing alongside the rest of their friends. If more companies acted like this, said friend would only have to chat with everyone while he waits for a download to complete before jumping into the action. No one is left behind, everyone enjoys the game.

(Side note: just what the hell is Battlefield going to do until BF5 comes out late next year? Hardline did not take off like they expected, Battlefront is a waste of time and energy, and DICE doesn’t seem to be working on anything else until then. A little worrying, honestly.)

 

Fallout 4

Of course. Yes, of course this is on my GOTY list. The immersion of the story alone makes this on the list. Like other Fallout games there is a moral choice system and a litany of endings you could get depending on some of the choices that you make. However, this is the first installment of the game (or any with a multiple ending scenario) that actually made me pause the game and walk away from it before I moved forward toward an ending.

This is also the first game since Saints Row 2 that I actually felt a connecting to the character. It was my story that I was telling, but at the same time taking in the events of what this character has been through and what their motivations would look like in the story that was unfolding. The story was gripping to me, and the wonderful dialogue options and ability to just generally be a complete smartass through the game (given the character’s circumstances), was a nice touch.

The cities are memorable, the NPCs are unforgettable, and the crafting system is awesome. I was a huge fan of that in Skyrim and previous Bethesda games, but the amount of customization is awesome. This game feels like an epic adventure RPG. When you’re done with the first play you have a story to tell, and it is likely very different than the story someone else had with it. I know, because a small group of my friends bored our significant others a little bit at a party I was throwing this year because we were all comparing notes.

The game isn’t without flaws, but they are negligible and able to be overlooked for the story and gameplay they provide. 

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Just keep swimming...

I am in the midst of creating my first real personal project in years. It’s a short story collection written by a few buddies and myself. We’re looking to publish and promote it to start a series of short stories and a tabletop roleplaying game later this year. It’s the first time one of these side projects with friends hasn’t gone completely mental and sideways.

I’ve spent many a night at this computer staring at this screen trying to make a coherent thought come out of my brain. Some days it works, others it doesn’t. But, I persist, because I’ve been told that to do something really well you have to practice like 10,000 hours to finally get good at it.

So I’m still sitting here, writing. Last night I wrote about a completely new character in the world that I wanted to create because she needed to be there. For about three hours I sat down and through almost constant re-writing and editing I banged out a four-page scene that shows the basics of her character and what she means in the world.

It was fulfilling, even if it was tiring. Trying to write for that long straight can be a killer. There is a reason they say to take many breaks when you’ve been sitting all day. But, nonetheless, the ideas flowed and they came. Something that I half-formed during a boring meeting at work blossomed into a decent flower when I got home.

It’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but it is getting the work done that needs to get done. And, hopefully, it will lead to more and more writing. I’ve been told by numerous people, and using evidence by my own writing and design career thus far, that this is the way to go. Just keep going.

Now, if I could only do the same thing with the gym. 

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The Flag, the people, and the problem (Do the Right Thing)

Yesterday, I watched the Governor of my home state stand in the shadows of the flag that represents the losing side of a war she had no part in and try to hold back tears brought on by a senseless act of violence. Still today, the Confederate flag flies proudly, while the American flag and the S.C. flag both are at half-mast. 

Today, the Governor’s office defends this action, saying she has no authority to affect the monument or the flag that stands atop it. The flag is not on a pulley system like other flags on the Statehouse grounds, and that I can only be removed, not lowered. I ask, Governor Haley, after seeing what you saw just the night prior, after experiencing racism yourself, what could you possibly defend? How can you, in good faith, put your hands up and make excuses.

I expect better. 

You’re a 43-year-old 1st-generation South Carolinian with Indian parentage. You’re a person born long after the Civil Rights movement yet was once ridiculed and reviled for your heritage and called a "raghead" during your first Gubernatorial campaign (by a fellow politician). 

Governor Haley’s rationale in her most recent Gubernatorial campaign—that the flag is not offensive and not detrimental to the growth and healing process in S.C.—comes from business meetings because she has ”not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

Yes. CEOs should be our moral compass. That has never worked out poorly for America in the past at all and the many, many white men that are CEOs and sit on the boards of major American companies are completely reflective of the demographics of the people in your state. 

Of course CEOs are not going to talk about it. Why would they? It’s a business deal: South Carolina needs jobs, they can supply them. In return, they get tax breaks and other incentives to move their operations. For them, if it’s not a problem staring them in the face. They have no need to talk about it.  

But for the rest of us it is a problem. And we need to talk about it. 

In that same debate you went on further to say that South Carolina is already becoming the progressive state you always knew it could be. That we still don’t have racial issues that surround the state on a daily basis. 

“But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor,” Haley said. “When we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator, that sent a huge message.”

Clearly, someone did not read the message. 

That flag was flown (and still is in the case of Dylan Roof) by a people that believed someone was less of a person because of the pigment in their skin. It comes from a time when most of the people in the state couldn't own property, didn't get paid for work, and didn't get any basic freedoms most of us enjoy today.  

It's a symbol—a message not dissimilar from the message you claim to be today. It's a reminder that when South Carolinians look to their government, they see of piece of history that scarred America for years. Over 150 years after the Civil War, minorities are constantly reminded that they're still in a fight for equality in some aspects. 

Many argue that its a part of the state's heritage. Even more with that thought argue the Civil War was an act of Northern aggression. I peacefully disagree. 

The man that opened fire in the church was driven by the belief that his country had been taken over and is actively being ruined by the very people that were taken and brought here against their will in the first place. (Meanwhile, Native Americans still can't get recognized.)

He was angry. Possibly confused. Woefully uneducated about historical and current events. But he was motivated by radical ideals. And, unfortunately all too often in this country, a motivated person can be a dangerous thing.

Racism is just one tool of terrorism. It's a learned behavior enforced in many ways through radical religious beliefs, misinformation, inequality, torture and many other ways. That flag, whether its intent or not, is a symbol for many S.C. hate groups that breed the kind domestic terrorism that we apparently cannot defend against. 

This wasn't a crazy person that committed this act. This was a methodical strike, meant to send a message. He left someone alive so they could tell the story. He wanted everyone to know what this was. That is terrorism. 

When similar terrorists flew planes into the WTC in 2001, the government spent trillions and threw the entire might of the U.S. military behind stopping any future attacks. They put troops on the ground to try and build cultural bridges with locals to stem the tide of violence, to educate both sides of the argument Countless lives were lost trying to fight enemies all over. 

When, as it seems, we have just as deadly enemies are at home. 

I'm not saying we spend trillions to fight domestic terrorism. (In fact, I'd rather you spend those billions on education initiatives and tax-breaks for working families). i'm also not saying that taking the flag down will magically fix some of the issues that are plaguing the state, but at least it will symbolically put all South Carolinians on the same level. 

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What You've Become (2004)

An original song I wrote a long time ago about (at the time) a scorned love and friendship. The always make for the best songs, right? You'll see the notes in there for verse and chorus and all that.

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The Wicked and The Divine

I don’t usually review books on this thread, but I have to take a moment to talk about a new series from Kieron Gillen called The Wicked and The Divine.

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The first issue of this series has me hooked. I’ll admit that as a writer, I still don’t tend to jump on first issues of new stories. I’ll wait for the trade and then jump into the story and see a much larger sampling of what it has to offer before I bite. That method also tends to work really well with my deadlines.

I wasn’t very familiar with Gillen’s work before picking this up. He’s done some Uber stuff and some Original Sin stuff before, but I typically stayed away from most of those because of the content. They just never fit with the style I wanted to read.

This, though, explodes with some new thinking and ideas. The presentation is gorgeous, the action is fast paced, the story is dense without being tough to chew and the characters are ones you can immediately get on board with. I’m already hooked on a few of them. Without giving anything away, their dialogue is fantastic.

Also, for other writing geeks out there, Gillen did an extensive writer’s notes of the first issue. You can find it here. (Obviously, spoilers).

TL;DR – Start the series, you will enjoy it. It does what a good comic series should do, get out with an idea as soon as possible and get you to buy into the narrative.

Also, support your local comic shops. None of this Comixology stuff. Buy direct from the pub or give money to your locals, they can be your best friend in stories. 

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New art!

Well, not exactly new. 

These two pieces have been sitting quietly in my studio's closet for a while now. I'm just finally getting around to getting them in some frames and up on the wall. 

The first is a print from one of best friend's—Jon Jennings. This print has to be at least four years old? Not sure. It's made a the 4000-mile east-to-west coast journey with me so far. I'm beyond excited to have it finally up and displayed. 

The second is a more recent acquisition from Scott Kurtz, creator of PvP and Table Titans. I attend ECCC each year to catch up with some of my favorite writers, illustrators and shop owners that make the trek to the Pac Northwest. So, when Scott had giclee prints of one of the first strips, it had to make it to the wall. 

I still have way more art from Beth Hammer and others to put up on the wall. Unfortunately, between Amazon swag, art and some character sketches for an upcoming comic that I am working on...I'm out of space. 

Oh well, guess it's time to move. 

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13 years a collaboration...

There is very little dispute the Gorillaz was an amazing project by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. As a budding artist in high school the mix of hip-hop, house and rock music with an animated band (and world) was something astounding to me. It was an entire package: the music, the videos, the on-stage personas, all of it. 

One of the best things that Gorillaz did for me was introduce me to Del the Funky Homosapien.  It started innocently enough, I just wanted to know who the rapper was that sung on the track. Followed his name to several iTunes tracks and off I went. 

I didn't know at the time that Damon and Del had never met. The track was created in collaboration in separate parts of the world. It wasn't until the video below that either had performed together, 13 years after the song was released.  

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Titanfall...

...and the magic of fluid gameplay.

I'm not big for playing betas. They create more problems for me than they help. I don't normally like to have my opinions colored of a game prior to its full release. 

However, for Titanfall, there was so much marketing hype I had to try it out. 

Really glad I did. 

The game does remind me of CoD at least in the pacing and "spectacle" that the original CoD creators bring to a game. But the combat is so fluid, the controls so tight, it feels like you're driving a German sports car. 

I've been playing it on XBOX One, cannot vouch for the PC experience, but I've heard it's equally as good. I still will not preorder the game, but I will definitely pick it up on the day it launches. 

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iOS 7

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Anyone who knows me knows that I like to make things pretty. Even things that shouldn’t be pretty, I like to make pretty. I will admit sometimes I get caught up trying to make things look pretty when it doesn’t serve the betterment of a particular design. Design for design’s sake—we are all guilty of this at some point.

Which brings me to the design of iOS 7. Depending on where you fall on the human spectrum, you either love this new “flat” design that Jony Ive has art directed, or you think that its the worst decision ever made by a group of people since Starship Troopers 2.

Let me start by saying I really and truthfully dislike the iconography. At first I thought it was just shock of seeing the change at WWDC, but since then I’ve played with the OS several times now and I still feel that way about the iconography.

The overall style that is presented, with its pastel backgrounds and bright icons, makes me think one of the characters from My Little Pony have thrown up all over the home screen.

So when picking up my friend’s iPhone with the beta version of iOS, I was completely ready to have my initial hatred of this version confirmed and I could move on peacefully with my life.

(If I’m honest, there are a lot of things I dislike about the iPhone: For instance, the fact that you cannot remap webpages to open in Chrome instead of Safari. Also, why can you not save your documents from mail into other programs, or send files from one program to another in iOS? How about Apple’s insistence on using iCloud, even though their service is horrible and would need a huge upgrade before it became anything close to resembling the user experience you get with Google?)

And so, the more I toyed with the new OS the more I felt like these issues would still be the creeping bug in the back of my head reminding me why I left Apple’s phone market in the first pace.

But I put those software issues aside, and I started to look at the design deeper. I started to  ponder about where Apple’s sense of wonder went. I’ve always favored the iPhone over all other devices because it actually looked like some thought went into the design of its UI instead of Android that looks like a couple of engineers built it in paint.

Surely there was brilliance here, right?  Ive and his crew weren’t going to let me down. There had tol be something in this “new era” of Apple that will make me regret buying an HTC one.

It took me awhile, but I might have found it.

A friend of mine took this screencap of his phone to show some of the detail in the design of the UI of the phone. In redesigning the lock screen, Jony Ive’s team thought to sample colors from the user’s background and integrate it into the new button style on the lock screen. In this case, the original image was a very darkly lit photo of his child reading.

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This feature might not be new to phones (I am prepared for someone to leave a link to an Android app that does the same thing), but it’s a great little touch that was never there before. It breaks away from the traditional black buttons and allows for a more straightforward approach. Because it blends with the user’s background, the UI does not get in the way and welcome the user into the experience rather than remind them they’re using a piece of hardware.

It’s a brilliant little addition.

There has also been a lot said about the new fonts. The new panoramic backgrounds that feel nausea-inducing if not cool. The new feel to reminders and how Siri interacts with you. These have all been redesigned.

But it’s not just that they’ve been redesigned, it’s that they all carry the same design. They feel like their integrated into one experience. Unlike Android where HTC will design part of the phone, but rely on Android for some of its stock UI patterns to carry it through, and the T-Mobile will add some software on top of that with a completely different design. It all screams of always looking at the file folder structure from Windows XP.

And while that works for power users, for a designer who enjoys the experience of what a device can bring, it breaks the fourth wall. You have to acknowledge that something is there, even if you don’t want to.

Don’t get me wrong, my HTC can answer several of the questions I presented about software above, but it doesn’t look very pretty doing it. It’s your work truck: scratches and dents, a little rust on the hood, standard-issue white paint that help hide the dirt just a couple extra days between washes.

When I look at the latest iOS design, I see a beautiful hot rod. It’s a little slower and coming in second perhaps. It’s not damaged. It’s amazing to look at, but you wouldn’t want to drive it everyday. Once you get past the candy paint, chrome rims and loud exhaust, you realize there is no A/C, no power locks and—most importantly—no cupholders. It’s car porn—design for design’s sake—it might not get the job done, but it’s beautiful to look at.

And what designer doesn’t love a little of that from time to time?

 

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