Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Glorious Praise of the Eight-Five

To hell with the Nine-Ohs.

To hell with the games greeted like goddamned conquering generals, honored with release parties and festooned with stratospheric ratings – and preceded, by the way, with a year’s worth of press releases, teaser videos, interviews, and in some cases, viral marketing campaigns. The Nine-Oh trots onto shelves not like a videogame, but like pedigreed livestock at the state fair; like the blue-ribbon cash cow it is.

The success of Modern Warfare 2 has nudged the six-game franchise over $3 billion in total sales, causing series faithful to proclaim it the Greatest Entertainment Franchise of All Time, and Baron Harkonen Bobby Kotick to pull a boyservant’s heartplug in a fit of glee. Its Metacritic.com rating sits pretty at 94. It’s a very nice game indeed.

But it’s the Eight-Fives that truly carry 2009. Eight-Fives are games typically graced by innovative mechanics and a striking concept – you know, good games – but flawed in story, graphics or presentation, or lacking the luxury package of bells-and-whistles that make games like Modern Warfare 2 (rightfully) shine. Eight-fives are perennial silver-medalists, heroes for a month, but quickly forgotten after being shunned by Game Of The Year lists.

Two of my favorite games this year are Red Faction: Guerrilla and Borderlands, both games that score in the 80s on Metacritic. They’re flawed, certainly, for some reason, I keep playing them after I burned through Modern Warfare 2 like battery acid.

In our broken schema of rating, an 8.5 can often be read as: great fun. Rough around the edges, but more memorable, and more worthwhile, than the Editor’s Choice suck-ups.

Take Red Faction: Guerrilla (but forget the story). The game gives you a hammer and requests that you knock the shit out of a bunch of buildings. On Mars.

Guerrilla (Metacritic: 8.5) comes from the nutcases at Volition Studios. Anyone accustomed with Saint’s Row 2, their lighthearted, sociopathic spin Grand Theft Auto IV: Tolstoy, will be familiar with the fluid controls and brisk pace of combat. The meat of the game is simple as Donkey Kong; once you strip away the scant dressing of narrative, most missions boil down to effectively demolishing a ton of structures. You can blow up a building by pounding out its supports with your sledgehammer. You can blow it up by mining its foundations. You can bombard it with rockets until it disintegrates or you can snipe its support beams with an antimatter rifle. Perhaps it’s my lizard-brain speaking, but it never gets old. The homely graphics and generic story almost serve to illuminate the gameplay’s worthiness in high relief.

As an effective reboot of an aged franchise that never quite found its legs, Guerilla enjoyed a spell of commercial success due, perhaps, to the uncluttered summer release calendar. Multiplayer matches are still plentiful, but the game’s longevity seems destined to be disproportionate to its worth.

Borderlands (Metacritic: 8.3) will fare better. It heralded itself as a hybrid (“The first-person-shooter and RPG had a baby,” says the ads), and seemed to live up to that promise when early reviews branded it as “the new Diablo.” What Borderlands proposes is something so simple it’s elegant: do you like first-person shooters? Here, shoot. A lot.

Borderlands, like Diablo and World of Warcraft, is a lot of grind. It can’t sell itself on cinematic moments – the game has fewer staged sequences than Mario, I’m pretty sure – and it doesn’t try to. Borderlands’ mouthy, in-your-face ads made it clear that those seeking anything resembling dramatic tension should seek elsewhere.

Like Guerrilla, Borderlands was faulted for its story, which hardly even seemed to try. And once again, a lack of story only seemed to highlight the game-ness of the product. Neither Borderlands or Guerrilla can be confused with a movie, and it seems both were docked for their lack of narrative. To be fair to the Reviewing Public, Guerilla seemed to grasp for drama; its narrative failings detract from the game. But Borderlands seems to eschew drama altogether. The plots twists are so lazy, they’re hardly even notice. Mouth Gearbox dev Randy Pitchford has called Borderlands a gamer’s game, and I’m inclined to agree. Its gameplay is achieves a wholesome, retro simplicity. With Borderlands, any points docked for a lack of story should be considered points added.

Obviously, not all Eight-Fives are fearless innovators, strong in mechanics and noble in purpose – just look at Call of Duty 5, a lesser Modern Warfare. And not all Nine-Ohs are soulless cash ins. I pick on Modern Warfare 2, but it’s an excellent game. Arkham Asylum deserved its 9s with a cinematic presentation back up by rock-solid gameplay.

But that slim margin of critical acclaim is home to some pretty incredible and often neglected titles. Maybe, just maybe, we can use this broken scale as a roadmap.