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Barnes’ Best 2012, Console Edition

Reflecting back on the year in video games is pretty grim. There was plenty of mediocre junk and really just a couple of really significant titles. The industry kept truckin’ on toward its self-circumscribed oblivion, writ in DLC, preorder bonuses, shoehorned multiplayer, sixty dollar price points, and endless iteration. Vaporware was popularized by Kickstarter, and indie games apparently brought innovation to the medium by whimsically mimicking twenty and thirty year old design concepts and game styles. Then there was that long, dreary summer where almost nothing of note was released. And then there was Lollipop Chainsaw. Come, Armageddon, come.

But there were some great games this year, none of which have “Walking Dead” in the title. That overhyped, over-feted game is by far the biggest disappointment of 2012- not only because of the lack of actual gameplay, the disjointed Z-grade TV writing, and goofy graphics but also because gamers actually liked this garbage. Are standards of writing and character development in video games that low these days? Look, I like the idea of sophisticated, serial storytelling in games. But when it’s delivered in little more than BioWare-style dialogue trees (sans sleazy come-ons) in a game that makes Heavy Rain look like a video game, we’re moving in the wrong direction.

But these games, unlike Walking Dead, most certainly did not suck. They are Barnes’ Best 2012 material.

First up, two honorable mentions. ZombiU, one of Ubisoft’s WiiU launch titles, received mixed reviews that it mostly deserves because it is hampered by a couple of design-level fumbles (the cricket bat thing) and some hideous visuals. But it’s also full of amazing ideas, pairing up Dark Souls’ fatalism with classical survival horror gameplay. The gamepad makes for some surprisingly compelling mechanics- having to actually look down and rummage through your bag for a grenade while a bunch of zombies are lumbering toward you is one of the tensest, most nerve-wracking experiences I had in games this year. It’s gloriously slow-paced, not at all the shotgun massacre that most murder-fantasy zombie games are.

The other honorable is Dragon’s Dogma. I gave this game a mixed review myself, and it remains a hot mess. It’s an Engrish version of a western RPG, and out of that comes some truly innovative ideas. It’s sometimes infuriatingly obtuse, the game never holds your hand at any point, and it can be ruthlessly difficult. But moment-to-moment, the game is as good as anything released this year. The combat is straight from a brawler but the intricate character development is squarely RPG. There’s no other game in 2012 that let you grab on to a burning Gryphon and stab it to death in the air. I think about this game almost every day, and every day I think “man, I need to get back to that one.”

Now, Barnes’ Best 2012- digital edition. Consoles first.

Sine Mora


This incredible game is the definitive “shmup” of this generation. Beautifully executed, masterfully designed, and accessible without shying away from very hardcore difficulty, Sine Mora is the best game that’s ever had the Grasshopper Manufacture brand on it. Working with Digital Reality, the Japanese developers gave us some of the best bosses, levels, and shooter gameplay of all time. And man, that Akira Yamaoka soundtrack. Influences ranging from Cave shooters and UN Squadron to Blacksad and Giorgio Moroder made for a sophisticated, visceral action gaming experience that was hard to beat in 2012.


I’ve played thatgamecompany’s Journey only one time, but the two hours or so I spent with it were among the most profound and moving that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Partnering you up with an anonymous online player with no voice communication was a brilliant masterstroke, enabling players to actually experience things like the development of language and the nurturing of relationships. I think those are far more interesting concepts than shooting brown people or anything to do with Kratos. It’s been argued that there’s not much game here and that may be the case, but the sense of exploring more spiritual and transcendental material made this brave, one-of-a-kind games one of the most important video games of the year.


Firaxis did the impossible and resurrected X-COM in a way that was both throwback and modern. It is the same game you remember. But it shows almost twenty years of design improvement, refinement, and editing. What’s left is everything that really matters about the original game, and almost all of the clunky filler and old fashioned content cast by the wayside. Of course, bitchers gonna bitch about something or other not being in the new game, but they’re dead wrong. This is the perfect version of XCOM, circa 2012. One of the best squad-based TBS games I’ve ever played, if only because it’s so masterfully pared down to the key values.

Rayman Legends Demo


Yeah, that’s right, I put a demo on my Game of the Year list. It’s my show. Write a letter if you don’t like it! This Wii U demo blew my mind, plain and simple. In just three levels, this demo showed more heart, joy, passion, and creativity than any number of AAA bloodbaths or fake 8-bit retro nostalgia exercises. The game pulses with energy and excitement, incorporating recent gameplay ideas cribbed from Cut the Rope, Rock Band, and other modern titles. But it’s still a pure platformer, even though you’re using the gamepad to perform touchscreen functions. The co-op is great, the art style is to die for, and the graphics are as good as anything on the market today. This is definitely one to watch in 2013, and it may be a compelling reason to buy a Wii U- far more so than Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros. Wii U is.

The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition

Even though it was a reissue of a 2011 game, there wasn’t anything on shelves in 2012 better than the Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition on the 360. This game absolutely blew my mind with its intelligent, thoughtful writing, great characters, and completely immersive setting. Add in viscerally strategic combat, brilliant quest design, and sex scenes that were actually intimate and adult rather than the puerile sleaze companies like BioWare slop into their games and you’ve got the makings of something special. I never play 50-70 hour games twice. But I played The Witcher 2 twice. And I would play it again. No part of this game was disappointing, lackluster, or badly handled, and it is your Barnes’ Best GOTY 2012.

That’s it then. Had I started playing Little Inferno before this morning, that may have had a berth on here as well. Brilliant, brilliant game that I’m afraid many just won’t get.

City of Horror Review

City of Horror art

Zombie board games tend to focus, like the films they emulate, on the players surviving by putting up barricades and beating the undead to death with whatever they can find. But if you’ve seen enough horror movies you’ll know there’s a second string, a darker theme where cooperative groups mercilessly pick the weakest member to sacrifice to the shambling hordes so that the others might survive. That’s the grim base on which City of Horror rests.

And grim is the word. There are few games more callous than this. It’s not a game to play with relative strangers. It’s not even a game to play with friends that you can’t rely on not to hold grudges. Players control a variety of characters, spread around a zombie-infested city. Each turn there is a vote in each board area that’s accumulated sufficient zombies. Each character in that area gets to vote for who dies, and the character with the most gets eaten. Gone. No second chances, no dice, nothing. Eliminated.

There’s something refreshing about the brutal purity with which the game approaches death. But it also creates an instant rich get richer problem. Once a character dies, the owning player has less characters on the board, and so less votes, which makes it slightly harder for them to keep their other characters alive. You can always play the sympathy card to try and avoid being tossed to the ghouls but the mechanics encourage picking on the weakest. It’s been my experience that players tend to lose all their characters, or hardly any.

So the answer is to try other approaches to negotiation and trading. This is where the meat of the game is to be found. There’s a lot you can trade: promises, which may be kept or broken of course, but also material. Food is worth bonus points. Zombie plague antidotes are required to score points for any surviving characters, their precise value being dependent on whether they’ve used their special ability or not. And every player has a hand of action cards.

City of horror zombies

These action cards and, to a lesser extent, the abilities of the characters, are the primary way players exercise control over the whims of fate in the game. Many kill zombies, or allow you to move them to other locations, some at a cost of making areas of the board unstable to the point of eventual demolition, resulting in further carnage. Others allow you to sidestep the gruesome result of the voting process and other, more minor effects. They can be discarded in certain locations in exchange for beneficial effects.

They’re incredibly useful, and the urge to play them is constant. You only have five, used over four rounds each of which will see several votes. New ones appear on locations occasionally, along with other resources, which are distributed amongst characters there based on another vote, but they’re pretty rare. This sets up a situation in which the choice of whether to play an action card or keep it should create delicious tension.

Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just plain frustrating. The cards are basically your most precious resource and are wonderful negotiating tools. But there’s no way of knowing whether it’s sensible to save them. play them or trade them. The game just doesn’t give you enough information to plan a meaningful strategy with the cards. And once they’re exhausted, the otherwise compelling negotiation loses some of its spice.

You may have noticed by now that although voting to distribute resources seems fairly realistic, voting to see who gets eaten isn’t. In practice the strong and the fast would have a considerable upper hand. So the mechanical link with the theme falls apart. There’s plenty of quality zombie art to compensate but sadly the card it’s printed on is rather lower quality, warping and splitting with worrying ease. There’s a lot of it too since the game uses cardboard standee figures rather than miniatures.

City of horror in play

And without the theme you begin to see that underneath all that gory art, City of Horror is just another twist on the classic cut-throat negotiation game, exemplified by Lifeboats, Intrigue and I’m the Boss. None of those games does much better at presenting a theme than City of Horror does, but they don’t particularly pretend to do otherwise. They’re also a lot simpler and more direct than their undead relative. And, crucially, it’s debatable how much extra game the added baggage in the newer title creates.

We’ve already seen how the voting mechanic leads to a rich get richer problem, and how the use of cards as both currency in deals and board effects backfires. The value of the food and location effects varies tremendously from game to game. The ability you have to move one character each turn from one location to another is unthematic and, since selections are made in secret, basically random. What’s left is the character powers, the fact that using them reduces their score, and the need to collect antidote to score your survivors. That does add a fair amount of interest, but it just ends up compensating for the dead-weight rules.

Not that the game is overly complex. As is often the case with European games iconography has been used heavily to keep things language independent and as is often the case with iconography it’s largely confusing and impenetrable. But that’s a fairly minor annoyance. The game is also fast playing, taking sixty to ninety minutes to complete and that’s a poweful saving grace. You don’t mind too much if your characters start ending up as zombie chow and your game slowly falls apart when you know there’s an end and a re-rack within sight.

City of Horror is not, on the whole, a bad game. I’ve had more fun with it than the tone of this review may suggest. Its collection of mechanical niggles and rather blunderbuss approach to adding new and mostly ineffectual twists and theme to a classic genre are counterbalanced by its sheer, overwhelming nastiness. It’s not often that a game allows you to be quite so delightfully mean to the other players, and that’s something to be savoured. But ultimately while it’s likely to provide considerable amusement for a few games, it has issues enough to ensure either a limited shelf-life or only occasional table time. And in a crowded marketplace and a well-worn genre, that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #154

No High Scores Podcast Logo

The gang is all here for Jumping the Shark #154, which makes two episodes in a row with a full house. Don’t look now, but it could be a trend. This week Mr. Abner brings you more details on Tomorrow, including the launch of its already successful Kickstarter campaign. The group takes a stroll with The Walking Dead, what with Mr. Binky having completed the final chapter of TellTale’s incredible episodic adventure. Brandon also spends some time with the new Borderlands 2 DLC, Torgue’s Badass Crater of Badassitude. Seriously, that’s the title. I decide to put my time with Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition on hold in order to wait for the iOS version (unbeknownst to me, it would arrive the very next night), but in the meantime I’m very excited about my new Windows Phone 8 and forthcoming Pathfinder campaign (it’s a D&D like pen-and-paper RPG). Finally, our apologies for the quality of Bill’s audio this week. His mic has been spotty for awhile, we know, but a quick plug and unplug has always done the trick… until this week that is. Be sure to send him some hate mail for it as encouragement to pick up a new headset for this week’s show! (No, really, you should absolutely do that. Be as vulgar as you want to be. He likes that!)

After the break, an Honest Trailer for Dark Knight Rises, just because it’s awesome…

iTunes Link
Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)


I love this. I really, really love this:

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Telling Tales on Telltale

Walking Dead from Telltale iTunes Page

A couple of weeks ago, after all the great reviews here on No High Scores and a heartfelt recommendation from Lucy James, I bit the bullet and bought Telltale Games’ Walking Dead: Episode 1 for my original iPad. I figured it might put a bit of a strain on the hardware so before buying I looked at the iTunes page, which you can see reproduced above. It said nothing about iPad 1 compatibility issues in the bottom left where the requirements are, or the description, so I went ahead and bought it.

It ran, but so slowly as to be unplayable. An installation problem, surely, since I’d carefully checked the requirements before buying! So I restarted the device and closed all the background processes. Still too slow. So I googled it. And then, only then, did I discover that it’s not compatible with the original iPad. And the description does in fact mention this fact: several paragraphs down in the description, only visible if you click the “more” tab.

So I felt justified in emailing customer support, pointing out how I’d checked carefully beforehand, politely asked for a refund, and mentioned that I’d go buy it on XBLA once I’d got one. They refused, saying it was stated clearly in the description. I sent the screenshot above, and my receipt so they would know I wasn’t freeloading. So they agreed, great! But then, a couple of days later, another email saying they’d examined the issue and the compatibility was clearly stated, so no refund. So I again pointed out that it wasn’t clearly stated when I looked. And they agreed again, great! But then same again, another support monkey replies to say it’s clearly stated so no refund.

And so here we are. Telltale have now updated the iTunes page to put the warning at the top of the description where it should be. But as my screenshot demonstrates that’s not what I saw when I bought the app. I won’t be buying any more Telltale product, so over £3 they’ve lost an XBLA sale for the whole series and a lot of potential future purchases. Madness.

I’d like to ask you all to look at that screenshot and tell me if you think it’s clearly stated that the app wouldn’t run on my device, and that I’m out of order asking for my money back. If you agree with me, I’m left with little recourse but to warn you all not to expect great service from Telltale games.

Wednesday Morning Multimedia Blowout

YouTube video

A smart man would make all of these disparate screen shots and trailers and what not into three different posts, thereby bringing people back to the site throughout the day, tantalizing them with new content. I am not a smart man. I am, however, a lazy man, hence you getting what you get. Don’t worry though, I have zombies, Russian soldiers and giant, sentient robots in my bag of tricks.

First up, the robots. That trailer up there is for Fall of Cybertron’s multiplayer mode. There is a seriously rad amount of customization shown up there. I would go so far as to call it redonkulous. When War for Cyberton was out, I made a teal and orange scientist. I called him EVAC. He was awesome. I can guarantee that I will spend a lot of time making robots that I never use. It’s not that I won’t like the MP, it’s that once you set down the road of leveling a character up, switching to one of several dozen other characters isn’t as compelling.

On the zombie front, the first episode of The Walking Dead hits iOS on Thursday, July 26th for $4.99. If you purchase it, you can then buy the rest of the season for $14.99, a savings of five bucks over buying all episodes individually. I played the first episode at E3 and from what I could tell, it looks and sounds identical to the console versions. Being an iPad junkie, I am sorely tempted to go this route, despite having enough PSN money to buy a season pass for the PS3. On the one hand, it wouldn’t cost any money out of pocket for the PSN version (I get PSN bucks from using reward points from my PlayStation card, really, the only good use of said points) but if I have the iPad version, I’m more likely to replay the episodes and make different choices. Decisions, decisions!

Finally, THQ sent over some screen shots for Company of Heroes, this time focusing on their new weather simulation system. I have to say, this game looks absolutely gorgeous. Between the snow deformation and how it affects troop and vehicle movement, the TrueSight fog of war system and the combat animations, it is one amazing looking RTS. The weather system isn’t all for looks though, due to the extreme temperatures, troops left out in the cold for too long will eventually freeze to death. That is when they’re not being killed by Germans or slaughtered by their countrymen in an attempt to retreat. Games like this make me wish a) I was smart enough to play RTS games and b) I could afford a PC beefy enough to show it off in all of its glory. Until either of those things happen, I’ll just have to gaze longingly at the screen shot gallery.