Game of the Year: Spider-Man
Until recently, I considered myself a PC gamer. I wasn’t elitist or anything, but I valued the ability to choose my own hardware and to fiddle with graphics display options as I saw fit. While I owned Nintendo consoles, I was always a generation behind and generally waited for a consensus on “the best” games (e.g., GameCube exclusive Resident Evil 4, Wii exclusive Super Mario Galaxy 2, etc.) before I gave it a shot.
Marvel’s Spider-Man single-handedly changed that policy. I was one of the 3.3 million people who bought Spider-Man during its opening weekend, and I was one of the unknown number of people who bought a PlayStation 4 console just to play the game. I do not regret my decision.
Apart from a few unwieldy stealth missions, Spider-Man is an absolute joy from beginning to end. The nuts and bolts are covered in Russ Pitts’ review (and in pretty much every review) — swinging around New York is fantastic, the free-flowing combat is a blast, and the various open-world missions, collectibles, and to-dos make the city feel like home. All of that is true. But there are two aspects of the game that really stand out when it comes to Game of the Year discussion. First, this game pretty much screams: “I was made by people who love Spider-Man!” at every turn. At one point, Spider-Man finds himself at a college Halloween party (at Empire State University, of course), and we get to see him interact with costumed versions of himself and fan-favorite villains who aren’t otherwise depicted in the game. It was as though the developers wanted to say, “We weren’t able to include every villain, but we wanted to let you know we care about them, and they weren’t forgotten.” As a Spider-Man fan, I really appreciate that, and it really makes the game pop.
But what I find most impressive is how memorable the game is even after I’ve completed the main story. Like a thought-provoking movie, the game has wormed its way into my mind, and I find myself thinking about character beats, moral dilemmas, and crazy stunts that I (yes, me!) pulled off even though I finished the game months ago. One particular interaction at the end of the game was just as dramatic, haunting, and gut-wrenching as the now-classic “sadistic choice” scene from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man. It is that staying power, more than anything, that elevates Spider-Man from just another Batman: Arkham City copycat to my pick for Game of the Year and, potentially, best game of this console generation.
Honorable Mention: Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far
One of the consequences of being a primarily PC gamer is that, until now, I’ve missed out on a ton of great games that were console exclusives. One of the games that I’ve coveted the most over the years has been Kingdom Hearts and the dozen or so related titles.
One of my favorite games growing up was Disney’s Villains’ Revenge. The premise of the game was pretty simple — Captain Hook, Snow White’s evil stepmother, the Queen of Hearts, and Dumbo’s Ringmaster teamed up to steal the happy endings from our favorite Disney characters, and it’s up to me (yes, me!) to stop them. I absolutely adored this game, so when I heard about Kingdom Hearts — which came out three years later and had a similar enough plot — I was hooked, and I vowed to someday check it out.
Well, that day finally came, because after finishing Spider-Man (except for the DLC!), I was delighted to see that Square-Enix was going to release an HD compilation of all of the Kingdom Hearts games, exclusively for the PlayStation 4. I guess it’s like the old saying, “Come for the Spider-Man, stay for the Keyblade” … or something like that.
Altogether, Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far, includes a whopping seven games and two movies, which, according to howlongtobeat.com, amounts to something like 240 hours of gameplay. All for $39.99. Now that is value.
So how does it play?
Since I am only a mere mortal, I am not ashamed to say that I have only completed the first game in the collection and, as a result, haven’t formed an opinion about the compilation as a whole. Nevertheless, I can say that I’m impressed with how the first game held up. The story was as charming as I expected, and while the gameplay was not … ideal, it holds up pretty well, considering that it originally came out in 2002.
I’m now a good chunk of the way through the second game in the series — Re:Chain of Memories, an HD remake of a PlayStation 2 remake of a Game Boy Advance game — and I’m still enjoying myself, even though the gameplay is a bit repetitive.
At this point, it’s unclear whether the games will wear out their welcome.Even if they do, it’s beyond dispute that Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far provides the most bang for your buck of any release this year. When you add that to the fact that the games are actually pretty good, it’s clear that the collection has earned an Honorable Mention.
If we’re lucky, I’ll be back in another year or two with a complete review of the compilation. Of course, Kingdom Hearts III will have come out by then, so I’ll have to play through that, too.
Honorable Mention: Magic: The Gathering Arena
Magic: The Gathering was first released in 1993 and has gathered (pun intended) a pretty large following over the years. In 2002 (yes, the same year as the Spider-Man movie and Kingdom Hearts), Wizards of the Coast released Magic the Gathering Online, a multiplayer-only video game version of Magic that included a complete rules engine and supported almost every playable card in the game. At the time, this was an impressive achievement.
Unfortunately, Magic Online was not built for scale, and it could not keep up with its burgeoning popularity. While Wizards of the Coast has updated the program over the years, it never really operated as intended. The program still exists, and has a sizable following, but it also has a confusing user interface, and a massive list of bugs and functionality problems.
Recognizing Magic Online’s limitations after 16 years, Wizards of the Cost developed Magic Arena. Arena was built from the ground up to provide a smooth, attractive Magic experience, and allow Magic to compete with modern equivalents like Hearthstone, Artifact, and other card game esports. Arena entered its open beta just a few months ago, and it is already shaping up to meet expectations. Gameplay is smooth, intuitive, and flashy. While there are still some bugs to work out, it looks like Arena has a bright future ahead of it.
By itself, this wouldn’t be enough to warrant end-of-year recognition. What really makes Arena stand out is its marked improvement over what came before. It’s as though Magic fans were playing years of baseball with a weighted Magic: The Gathering Online bat, only to discover that they should have been using a lighter Arena bat the whole time. This is improvement with celebrating, and I’m excited to see what 2019 has in store for Arena and for Magic in general. Sign me up, coach!