Fall 2014 Battle Plan: Indie Really Has Beaten AAA

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The reveal of the release date for the enhanced Grand Theft Auto V  finally made me take a hard look at what I may or may not buy this fall, and I think I’m finally coming to grips with my slow turn away from AAA games. Most importantly, I’m hoping this turn is temporary until developers start moving entirely over to more modern hardware.

In August I did a post here noting how a lot of 2014’s console gaming schedule is made of indie games, enhanced versions of old games, and cross-generation games. I’ve talked about cross-generation more than once here. On top of that, if you go all the way back to my game of the year blogs for 2012 and 2013, you’ll notice a distinct abundance of indie games with full-size retail games in the minority.

I have bought zero console games since the middle of last year. Despite upgrading my PC last year to a GTX 760 instead of getting a PS4, I haven’t bought any games that were initially released on the new consoles, meaning there isn’t a single PS4 game I’d own right now if I had one. I intend to buy Wolfenstein: the New Order, but that’s literally it so far. Dark Souls II  is the only full-retail-sized game I’ve bought as of this writing that came out in 2014. I think I’ve already talked at least a little bit about how I’m getting genuinely bored of a lot of the games with the biggest budgets. I think it’s a trend that started around 2012.

As you may have guessed, it’s because a lot of these games are simply too safe in their design. Recently I came across a review of Destiny  (which I have not played beyond the PS3 beta) basically saying “Yep, it’s a big-budget video game with all the things big-budget video games have, and nothing else. It checks the boxes, but doesn’t do much else.” That’s how I and a lot of other people, maybe even you, have been feeling about Assassin’s CreedFar CryBattlefield, or whatever. I haven’t even touched a Call of Duty  game since Modern Warfare 3.

My tier-1 game purchases for fall 2014 were going to be Super Smash Bros. on 3DS and GTAV on PC, but the PC version’s delay to the end of January has set free $60 I could spend on another game. The natural choices seem to be Far Cry 4Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Assassin’s Creed Unity — the AAA games of fall 2014. The GTAV date probably has EA and Ubisoft shook, but If I were them I’d drop some kind of PC-focused advertisement along the lines of “Can’t wait till January to get to Los Santos? Try Kyrat. Or Paris. Or Thedas.” I’m hesitant however, and it’s mostly because of what I’ve seen form past editions of these games.

I know why we buy these big games: they have the content to satisfy the appetites of dedicated consumers. They’re the games guaranteed to have 60+ hours of pretty entertainment. They have more things to do than an indie developer could possibly afford to put in their game. But honestly, all that “stuff” to do has lately felt like a vast, flat, dry expanse with little meaning. Ubisoft’s open-world games are the most guilty of this. Games like Far Cry 3Watch_Dogs (according to what I’ve heard), and the last couple Assassin’s Creed games, have felt like huge maps of meaningless icons to travel to and gameplay mechanics that are there simply to fill out the game. Does FC3 really need all those jewels scattered across the landscape? Does Assassin’s Creed 3 really need you to maintain an entire homestead full of characters who have no bearing on the overall story? When Assassin’s Creed 4 actually asks you to rate missions I really get the feeling Ubisoft is just making the game it thinks everyone will buy instead of the game it wants to make — literally game development by survey. The last couple BioWare games I played — Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2, feel like this as well. It’s easy to see how rushed DA2’s development was, and ME3 very often feels like it has little to do outside collecting resources on a map and shooting people in a bunch of arenas. Compared to its predecessors ME3 has almost no environments outside the Citadel — the one hub area, and all those combat arenas. BioWare’s surveys about what players want don’t make me optimistic about the company’s confidence in its own design. Right now there is little to suggest FC4 and DA:I are set to take a swerve, but I’ll still watch with cautious optimism.

Now let’s look at the other three retail games I’m heavily interested in this fall: Alien: IsolationThe Evil Within, and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. For starters, just look at Isolation. Did anyone reading this really think SEGA would greenlight a true horror game with one enemy and no weapons for $60 in a retail box? I was (and still am) excited for the indie game Routine because I thought that kind of game could only come from indies these days. The Evil Within not only looks like a sort of successor to Resident Evil 4, but a much-needed alternative third person shooter judging by recent gameplay impressions. Shinji Mikami strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t feel the need to check all the boxes to ensure his game sells. He didn’t think Vanquish needed multiplayer, not to mention that game’s unique design and features. Part of it might be because Japanese designers are less compelled to check the west’s boxes (one of my two favorite retail console games last year was Metal Gear Rising). Part of it might be publisher Zenimax’s leniency. You ever notice how they’re still willing to publish games like DishonoredWolfenstein, and Skyrim which can be fully enjoyed without logging into any multiplayer or social features? Lastly, with Ultimax Arc System Works really seems like it’s trying to push forward its singleplayer design for fighting games. Ultimax will apparently feature one large visual novel (as opposed to the character-specific ones in Persona 4 Arena, which Ultimax will include) with branching paths for characters for its story mode. It’s also going to have some kind of dungeon-crawling mode which sounds like a great idea for a fighting game, especially one based on an RPG franchise.

Let’s not forget about the indies. The “big” indie I’m looking at right now is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which looks to be the kind of adventure game I’ve wanted to see for a while now. It’s shaping up to be a detective story where you simply explore a large area and solve mysteries. I’ve been appreciating the recent rise in 3D indie adventure games — games with technology advanced enough to provide believable worlds but budgets small enough to allow for huge creative risks. Most impressive about Carter is its use of the Unreal 3 engine and amazing textures despite its small budget.

The one sequel among the indie games I’m sure to get this year is Hotline Miami 2. I think you should just search for what I’ve written about the first game on this blog to see why. Azure Striker Gunvolt is a game I’ll get when I’m ready, ideally between now and Thanksgiving to get the free 8-bit game that comes with it. Gunvolt represents a whole class of action game that stopped being made on consoles over a decade ago and then lingered on through Nintendo’s handhelds for a while. Indies have been trying to emulate the side-scrolling action greats, but having some of the guys behind one of those greats — Mega Man Zero, enter the space is an event. Hopefully Koji Igarashi can follow suit. Another such case is Yatagarasu which I’ve mentioned before — an indie fighting game from some King of Fighters veterans.

One kinda-obscure emulation attempt coming out soon is Chasm, which I’ve mentioned before feels like it has an extra sense of polish I haven’t seen in most indie metroidvanias. Two other very obscure emulations supposedly coming out this year are Frogotto & Friends, and Odallus: the Dark Call. The only thing I can really say is that both games seem to emulate the old classics better than most attempts. Frogatto (which is actually available now, but the developer is readying an enhanced version on Steam) looks like a straight-up GBA platformer, or maybe a late Genesis-era one, and a great platformer at that. The demo for Odallus, along with developer JoyMasher’s previous game Oniken, tell me that group knows what made 8-bit games what they were. Odallus could provide an experience that fulfills for the same reasons Shovel Knight does.

What these games seem to have that the big guys are missing is innovation, or at least challenging and interesting concepts. To me, it has felt like over the last three years AAA games have just been parroting each other’s mechanics in order to check boxes without pushing things forward. More than usual I mean. The aforementioned Destiny review renders my point well. It’s “Like this game mixed with that game, or similar to that game BUT…” And I think (or hope) the reason this is happening is cross-generation game development. The Xbox 360 will be nine years old this year, and developers are still having to tailor games around it. They’ve probably tapped out what they can get it to process. On top of that because AAA games cost so much money they have to be safe in their design, so that’s pressure discouraging innovation from two sides.

What I really hope happens is when these developers start stretching their legs in making games only for the new hardware, they’ll start to push their design forward, if only a little bit. When new consoles launch it usually takes around a year for the first wave of real defining games to come out on them. That wave was supposed to arrive for the PS4 and Xbox One (and by proxy PC) this fall with EvolveThe Witcher 3Assassin’s Creed Unity, and Batman: Arkham KnightWitcherUnity, and Arkham Knight all promise to provide an open world scale not seen before on consoles, and Evolve to me looks like a multiplayer experience fresher than Titanfall ever aspired to be. But all those games save Unity slipped into 2015 to join Bloodborne — the only PS4 game I care about this side of Uncharted.

My hope is Unity ends up being the vanguard for this wave of next-generation advancement. Not only is its scale impressive, but I already did a whole post on how much the game seems to be willing to change about AC. What catches my eye isn’t necessarily the features they’er adding to the game — big games add crap all the time just to fill themselves out, it’s that Ubisoft is now actually willing to subtract things from the formula to make room for changes, and not really small things either. I just hope Unity doesn’t end up being another Ubisoft collect-a-thon with far prettier graphics than the last one, but the odds make me hesitant to pull the trigger on a pre-order. Still, it is the most alluring of all the AAA games hitting this fall.

Some people may find it unthinkable to subsist entirely on lower-budget games for a year, especially if your whole gaming world is consoles, but for the last three years I feel like I’ve been sliding towards that eventuality. There was a time when the industry was small enough that even the biggest games could afford to do risky, challenging, and interesting things. To tell the truth the games I’ve been enjoying the most these last three years have probably been around the same production size as what was considered AAA 10 or 15 years ago. Maybe what I’m subsisting on is just a substitute while I wait for the pig publishers to squeeze everything they can out of the old consoles and switch entirely over to the new ones on a delayed schedule. What’s funny is, I’m not a connoisseur at all when it comes to things like books, movies, or even food. I’m fine sitting through that well-produced Hollywood explosions many other see as junk food.

BULLETS:

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3 thoughts on “Fall 2014 Battle Plan: Indie Really Has Beaten AAA

  1. I got an Xbox One last week, so my gameplan is Forza Horizon 2, Killer Instinct Season 2, Halo Master Chief Collection, and either Sunset Overdrive or Alien Isolation.

    • RedSwirl says:

      Yeah I heard the Horizon 2 demo was hotness. The Chief Collection is probably the only Xbox One game I’d get though.

  2. […] Fall 2014 Battle Plan: Indie Really Has Beaten AAA […]

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