Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 2013 Retrospective

So if people aren't tired of me just sharing all of my opinions about this last year, well too late, I've already gotten this written.  This comes somewhat due to the fact that a number of these were culled from my initial list, as I worried it might get a bit too long as it was.  But given that I got a great set of responses the first time around, and that it incites interesting discussion, then I wanted to present the rest of my list.
I'm also giving this one the Story That Could've Been Solved if Everyone Just Went to the Cops award.  Not only did the game never adequately explain why Ethan didn't even consider taking the box of origami to the authorities (not to mention all the previous fathers), but it also called into question the credibility of much of the developments.  Just imagine: the cops could've gone to the power plant, shut the place down, and scoped it out for the next computer chip.  They could've gone to each new place, realized that the computer chip was already there somewhere, and found it without having to do anything drastic.  The box of origami would've given them more insight into the mind of the Origami Killer.  And once the player learns who the killer is (and that he's essentially walking around the city pretending to look for himself) then it becomes more obvious that he's not hanging out with Shaun ready to kill him if Ethan screws up in any way.  Which makes the time limit entirely based on the fall of the rain, rather than any potential actions from the Killer.  I mean, the moment it became obvious that Shaun's location was on a street named Roosevelt, I wondered why they couldn't have just had every cop in the city checking all the storm drains along Roosevelt.  Surely that would've taken less time than all the arguing, equivocating, finger chopping, and running from the police that we did get. I also write this fully aware that if calling the ending to BioShock Infinite "convoluted" got me in trouble, there are a couple on here that may very well get me evicted.  (Now see if you can resist the urge to just scroll down and see what I'm talking about.)  Please bear in mind, neither of these are meant as an assault on people who legitimately enjoyed the games in question - they are simply my own opinion.  And as always, you're welcome to disagree with me in the comments - just please keep it civil.  
Best Rewatch of a Classic TV Series
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I haven't done a full watch-through of the entire show more or less since it ended in 1999, so it was a pleasure to go back, especially given that I'm quite a bit older now, and better able to appreciate its virtues.  While I have enormous affection for both The Original Series and The Next Generation, DS9 easily wins the contest when it comes to best Star Trek series.  Building on the strengths of its predecessors (and taking advantage of a studio distracted with the launch of a new network) this series found its voice by being very, very different from what came before, without ever radically deviating from the basic tenets of the most imperative Star Trek motifs.  In the process, we got the best - and best developed - ensemble, a stunningly well-realized and enormous supporting cast (including the best villains the franchise had since Khan), a rich and complicated mythos in the villainous Dominion, the first true serialization Trek fans ever witnessed, and the pushing of moral boundaries and the questions they raise even farther than its predecessors.  Not only does this show demonstrate why I love Star Trek and why I love science fiction, it's also a great example of why I love television.  
Best Climax
Journey This game gets a lot of credit for its music and multiplayer, and both are well-deserved.  The soundtrack is noted for getting a Grammy nomination (first ever for a video game), and no doubt about it, the anonymity of the co-op is something special.  But the one factor of this game that sticks out to me in the most memorable way is its final moments.  After trudging through the wind and snow and finally collapsing, your nameless protagonist is revived, given an enormously long scarf, and thrust up past all the leviathans to the crest of the mountain - a reward for making it as far as you did.  The final level is pure joy: with the long scarf and the water made of magic, you essentially just fly up and up and up ever higher, while the music swells into its best, most emotional theme of the entire game.  And walking through that bright light into the heart of the mountain, with an end that is also a beginning, the game shows you why it is so aptly named Journey.  
Most Overhyped Game
The Last of Us Have you ever found yourself reacting - no matter how subconsciously - to the reactions of others regarding a game or a movie or a book?  You don't do it intentionally or willfully, or in any way mean-spirited.  But when you don't love it as much as others, then there reaches a certain point when you find yourself saying, "It's good - but it's not that good"; until eventually, that pretty good experience you had is only okay.  In retrospect, I think The Last of Us was an okay game.  I love Naughty Dog, and when it comes to developers in the industry, they are definitely at the top.  Heck, I even think that narrative is very well structured.  But unfortunately, it just never emotionally connected with me.  The two main characters - especially Joel - were just unlikeable enough that I never really engaged much in either (not like I have with, say, Nathan Drake).  And I never really bought into their relationship.  Combine that with the somewhat-too-similar-to-Children of Men story, and the fact that I kind of guessed at least part of the ending, and it just didn't register with me like it did others.  
Worst Action Film Posing as Science Fiction
Elysium Between this and Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm starting to sincerely believe that Hollywood has forgotten what science fiction actually is - and in its place, has been creating action films that take place in traditional science fiction settings.  (Let's hope Jupiter Ascending and Interstellar do better.)  This wasn't necessarily a bad film, but it was a bit bland - and that likely could've been fixed if it had actually stuck to its guns when it came to the science fiction elements.  To be an actual in-depth examination of class disparity (and the probabilities of the upper class creating something like Elysium) and using the sci-fi elements to infuse them.  But in the end, what it ultimately boiled down to was a mano y mano between Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley  By the end of the movie, I was bored.  And an hour after I walked out, I had largely forgotten most of it.  
Best Opening
BioShock Infinite If there's a video game moment that I would add to my favorites list from the year, this would be it.  And I certainly wasn't expecting something so affecting when I first booted up the game - especially given that, at the outset, it starts roughly the same as the original BioShock.  Our first-person protagonist is out on the ocean and guided to a lighthouse, which he enters, and is then transported to our out-of-this-world city.  But once Booker reaches the clouds, holy cow, is it amazing!  The color palette is stunning, the framing of the angel on Monument Isle is gorgeous - giving us our first glimpse of Columbia - the music is truly perfect in every way (both themes) and then the exploration of the baptismal area with all the candles and quotes is surprisingly serene.  Now that is how you start a game!  
Movie Too Connected to Current Events
Captain Phillips This is not a bad film, by any means.  I have a few minor criticisms about its make, but no denying - Paul Greengrass knows how to make a taut, tense thriller; and Tom Hanks has rarely been better.  To say nothing of how terrifying the situation is, especially one that imposes upon an otherwise mundane sort of day; and the kind of heartbreaking socioeconomic circumstances our antagonists come from, reminding us that these pirates are very different from our romanticized pirates of old.  But unfortunately, given that these events only took place a couple years ago, then it largely took away from the suspense.  Much of the film is built around wondering whether or not our title character is going to die - but if you know the story (as many people do) then you know not only that he lives, but how the final moments play out.  It really robs a story of its power when you know exactly where it's headed and what the consequences are.  
TV Series Most in Need of a Cast Change
Agent's of SHIELD Oh, Agents of SHIELD.  I still have faith in you.  I'm still holding out hope that you will be good - in spite of a somewhat disappointing 10-episode start.  There's still so much potential.  But after our mid-season break, I've never been more convinced: someone in the main sextet needs to go.  For whatever reason, it just isn't working as is.  And plenty of other series have shown us how much benefit can be made when good characters are brought to the forefront (and bad characters dropped by the wayside).  While May and Coulson are the only must-haves so far, it's really the trio of Skye, Simmons, and Fitz that are proving the most annoying.  And not just on an exclusive basis - we can pretty well expect that from them week to week.  Simmons should stay, since she's demonstrated a great deal more maturity when interacting with characters other than Fitz.  Skye, meanwhile, is vacillating between a manic pixie dream girl and a Mary Sue.  And Fitz is a willfully obnoxious 12 year-old (and saying so is a bit of an insult to willfully obnoxious 12 year-olds), completely lacking in self-awareness, and more annoying than fingernails on a blackboard.  Replace either with anyone more mature and more experienced, and it will help escalate the entire experience.  
Biggest (Somewhat Forgettable) Relief
Ender's Game It's difficult when you're watching someone adapt a text you're attached to.  I say this as someone who, by and large, still stands by the notion of their inherent value.  Almost anyone can point to an example where it was screwed up - and you never want that to happen to something you love.  Ender's Game is not only one of my favorite books, but I've watched people discuss its possible translation into film for years now.  And unlike Lord of the Rings, its trailers weren't exactly promising.  I've only seen it the one time; but primarily, my response to it was a sense of relief.  It wasn't the most brilliant film ever made, but at least they didn't screw the story up - which was, in it of itself, an accomplishment.  Unfortunately, it was just underdeveloped enough in the characters that it's also been somewhat of a forgettable experience.  I'll just go back to reading the book (and its sequel) again.  
Most Rage-Inducing Experience
Shadow of the Colossus In retrospect, I'm actually not all that surprised I didn't like this game.  Given that it's basically a series of different boss fights - and that I generally hate boss fights - then I view it as a good lesson to not let myself always buy into the hype.  I liked the sparsity of the gameworld, and once I looked up the story, it seemed pretty cool.  But I gave up after the completion of one boss when I realized something: I hated this game.  And there is no quicker way to make me hate something than by making me feel stupid - and not just stupid, but stupid in the sense that I felt like the game kept expecting me to know everything I was supposed to do and how to get there...without telling me hardly anything of how to accomplish it.  Truly, there's nothing that enrages me more than implying something, and then becoming upset with me when I can't just figure it out on my own.  This is the first game I've rage quit in a very, very long time.  And in the process, it kind of demonstrates why I hate boss fights.  
Best Replay
Metroid Prime Trilogy I have a hard time not returning to this one too frequently - and I put it that way, because I have the unfortunate habit of playing games I love into the ground, until I become a bit more tired of them than I would like to admit.  This has kind of happened with the first Metroid Prime (even with three years since the last time I played, I can still walk into any room in the game and tell you all the suit upgrades hidden there and how to get them) and so it's good to take a breather.  But still, it's such a pleasure to return to them - and play through them in succession (on the Wii, no less).  Each individual gameworld and its sense of exploration is glorious, the soundtrack is perfectly tuned to the experience, and the stories are so beautifully conveyed through the scanning of objects and inscriptions.  Truly, one of the greatest game collections ever compiled.  
Best New Soundtrack
Assassin's Creed II (I'm refraining from discussion of Xenoblade Chronicles until I actually finish the game, but needless to say, it also has a wonderful soundtrack.)  I love the platforming in this game - and the sense of free-roam while scrambling over rooftops is a ton of fun.  But it's really the music that sealed the deal for me.  While the title theme has already become a classic, it was the variations I really appreciated.  From the Racing theme, to the cycle of different music that plays while exploring the likes of Venice and Florence; it makes the experience even more a joy - climbing up the side of a building, listening to lookers-on down below express their surprise, and feeling the swell of that subtle theme underneath perfectly express all my emotions as I'm hurdling between buildings.  This alone helps make Assassin's Creed II a great game. 
Best New Combat System
Dragon's Dogma There's a lot to enjoy about this new IP; and the combat definitely stands at the top.  Once the player reaches the capital city of Gran Soren, you gain the ability to switch between vocations (i.e. classes), and that's when the combat system really starts to open up.  Each different vocation (typical base classes like fighter and mage, and sub-classes that combine the above, like mystic knight and magic archer) has a different set of skills, more of which become available the more enemies you defeat.  And the player has complete freedom to switch between vocations at any time, choosing out which abilities to use, and where to map them on your controller.  When you start playing around with them, the wealth of abilities - and openness to the gameplay - makes the combat sections a true pleasure.  Yeah, the Pawn system's pretty cool, but I haven't had so much fun killing things since Kingdoms of Amalur.  
Most Convoluted Story
Final Fantasy XIII-2 I don't even know where to start with this one.  Protagonists Serah and Noel begin traveling the timeline; they begin jumping between time streams to alternate timelines while ending paradoxes to restore the "true" timeline, then at some point there's a diversion to a mechanical tower where there are alternate versions of the antagonist Caius and his companion Yeul?  And then Yeul is...some kind of oracle that's re-born every generation?  And Caius wants to destroy time so that she'll stop dying?  And there are multiple versions of Yeul?  And then Serah dies at the end before a "To be Continued"?  Ack.  I'm so confused.  
Better the Second Time Around
Iron Man 3 My first sitting of Iron Man 3, I didn't really love it; or like it, even.  I don't know what I was expecting.  But I was kind of, meh.  (And annoyed at Hollywood's continued presentations of "ugly" people vs "pretty" people.)  But circumstances took me back a second time, and wow, did I like it a whole lot more.  I love the idea of taking Tony away from everyone and everything; I love that there are repercussions from the attack on New York; I even love the Mandarin twist, and the social commentary it brings.  Plus, the battle with all the Iron Man suits at the end is just so darn fun.  I'm glad I took the effort to see it again - it's a good reminder that my perceptions of a story can change, and even a second viewing can be a different experience.  
Not as Good the Second Time Around
The Walking Dead Early in the year, I gave The Walking Dead a try, and did my best to catch up (all the while the second half of third season aired).  I sincerely enjoyed the series - for its pacing, for its ruminations, for its themes, and for its clear interest in the deterioration of humanity over the zombies themselves.  But when I sat through it all again with my sister as she tried to catch up for fourth season, I found it overall less compelling.  It's good one time around, but when you know where everything's going and ends up, then the pacing really starts to drag.  
Most Offensive Rehash of a Great Film
Star Trek Into Darkness I don't know what's worse: that this really isn't a Star Trek film at all, that this isn't even a science fiction film at all, or the irony of the fact that there were clear attempts at fan-service in recreating classic moments from Wrath of Khan that wound up alienating the majority of Trek's fanbase.  JJ Abrams has absolutely no idea whatsoever what makes Wrath of Khan a great film.  Which is because he probably doesn't really like it (and Star Trek in general) near as much as he claims.  
Most Rehabilitated Character
Lara Croft Thank goodness Crystal Dynamics finally decided to turn Lara Croft into a human being.  No, she's not perfect - but she's so much better than she was.  There was a bit too much of her upset and crying (which I chalk up to our combined depictions of women heroes as constantly being emotional, while not letting any of our men heroes show hardly any emotion at all - two sides of damaging gender roles).  But there's no denying - between Rhianna Pratchett's writing, and Camilla Luddington's voice acting, Lara Croft has never been better.  And she's headed in a really interesting direction.  
Most Convoluted Ending
BioShock Infinite There's a lot I enjoyed about BioShock Infinite; the stunning graphics and setting, the interplay between Booker and Elizabeth, and the commentaries on American Exceptionalism, religion, and what to do when two warring factions are both equally terrible.  But the ending was about as confusing as the latter seasons of Lost (which also - perhaps not un-coincidentally - involved time travel).  I'm all for innovation, and I don't necessarily think that it was terrible.  At the same time, I wish the game had given me something definitive.  Speculation from the audience should come in the middle of the story, not after the end.  
Best Film to See on the Big Screen
Gravity If you haven't seen this film yet, then get thee to a movie theatre!  In all my years of theatre-loving with the likes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter (among others) I have never seen another film that demands more the big-screen experience.  While the film is exceptional and brilliantly made, no way will it have the same impact on the small screen.  This disturbingly plausible depiction of survival in outer space is wrenching and thrilling, and there's nothing like feeling like you're right there with Ryan, watching the destruction of the ISS, or floating out toward nothing with no hope of stopping.  Give to Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock all of the awards, please.  
Best Atmosphere
Demon's Souls From a game most notorious for its difficultly, it's the setting that really won me over.  What's more, I really enjoyed the way that difficulty and sense of exploration worked in tandem.  Combine the thrill of finding out what's around the next corner, with the very real possibility of encountering something that could kill you with one hit, and it makes for a very tense and engaging experience.  Especially given just how well the environments are built.  (Except for Valley of Defilement - which is just wandering aimlessly in the dark.) The Boletarian Palace alone is to die for (pun intended).  
Best New TV Character
Ichabod Crane What is it with British men named Tom?  On a show that really shouldn't work (really, really shouldn't work) that manages to function incredibly well on the shoulders of a very absurd premise, Crane has risen above as the best new character of the fall season.  In a change from Irving's original wilting and superstitious school teacher, Crane is fastidious and proper, all the while bold, intelligent, and very, very capable.  What's more, the show milks a ton of humor and drama out of his adjusting to life in the 21st century.  And it succeeds based on his character (and resulting relationship with Abbie) alone.  
Best New Film Character/Actor
Loki Do I really need to explain this one?  I'll just leave this picture here and let anyone who reads this contemplate the awesomeness that is Tom Hiddleston as Loki Laufeyson, while I get back to trying to convince my sister to let me buy a cardboard cutout for the living room.  
Most Tedious Gameplay
Heavy Rain This game has lovely graphics, an aptly composed soundtrack, and a decent story.  But oh my, is the gameplay eyebleed-inducing.  It's even worse than The Walking Dead (walk around in a confined circle until you find the prompt for the correct item) because it's not just QTEs - it's QTEs on steroids.  All it really shows is that the mundanities of life don't make for interesting gameplay.  And that the success of a repeated task that boils down to the nature of one's reflexes is the opposite of an interesting or legitimate challenge.

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