Games of 2012: New Star Soccer

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

There’s something strangely attractive about sport RPG games. Pushing through a career of a pro athlete from minor league rookie to a world champion naturally lines up with RPG gameplay. It doesn’t need an elaborate story with revenge plots and the end of the world – there is enough drama that naturally comes from the competition. While the archetype soccer RPG experience is FIFA career mode (which [I struggled with last year](, I have to point out how much silly fun New Star Soccer provides for a fraction of the cost.

It’s best to think of NSS as two parts: the matches themselves, and everything else. To that end: the matches are reminiscent of MLB: The Show‘s career mode, in that you’ll only be in control of the action when your player is actually involved in the play. You’ll patiently watch the clock tick by until a message about you getting the ball pops up, and then you’ll usually get a simplified overhead view of the field. Dragging on the screen sets the direction of your kick, and sends you into the reaction test. A soccer ball will fly through your view, or bounce off the ground, or otherwise move around you. Tap the ball and based on a variety of factors (where you tap, how high off the ball it is, how far you dragged when you set your direction), off the ball goes. What happens then really isn’t up to you – passes can get intercepted, shots can ricochet off the bar. You’ll generally only get about 5-8 touches of the ball per game, so make those chances count.

Games can fly by pretty quickly. The rest of your time will be spent in the menus dealing with the rest of your life. You have five relationships to manage – your boss, your team, the fans, your girlfriend (if you’ve managed to get one), and your sponsors. You also have five stats (pace, power, technique, vision, and free kicks) that directly effect the matches. Now you can play a minigame to keep your relationships happy or increase your stats – but they cost energy, which can be replenished with energy drinks. Drain all your energy and you’ll be left on the bench.

The meta-game in NSS is the fight to balance this cycle. Upgrade your stats so you play better and people are happy; play better to earn more money; use the money to buy items that replenish your energy better; use your energy to squeeze in more upgrades. It’s a precarious cycle – have a bad game, and you might not have the money you need to refill your energy to keep your fans happy, who won’t hesitate to boo you if they feel poorly about you. It can be crushing to miss one shot on goal and have that lead to you not seeing the field for weeks, but that’s not too far from how the world actually works.

There’s a bit of chance that creeps into the game as well with random events between games. A newspaper might say you look dumb, sapping your morale. Your girlfriend might ask to borrow your car – maybe she crashes it and ruins most of your relationships, or maybe she doesn’t. You can get told you’re being traded to a lower division team, which is terribly insulting when you’re leading the league in scoring.

Eventually, you can find a way out of the upgrade/relationship cycle. The sponsors start to come knocking, and the bonus cash rolls in. You get a bit better at the minigames, and the stat raises come easier. The relationships stop being in competition with each other and you just start rolling. You can start to buy up all the property and accessories. You’ll start hoarding the energy drinks, and then eventually you won’t even need them. You’ll win domestic titles, continental titles, maybe even a world one with your national team.

NSS probably needs an addiction warning on startup; it can be a short enough experience that you can pick it up and knock off a match in a minute or two, but you can also keep winding through seasons that hours can melt away in a play session. Even after you’ve seemingly mastered the game, you’ll still feel the urge to keep taking the field.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go. My team needs me.

New Star Soccer is available for iOS and Android. On iOS, the game is free but career mode is an in-app purchase of $1. There’s also a more complicated PC/Mac version, but I haven’t spent any real time with it – yet.


Games of 2012: Borderlands 2

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Has it really been three years since the original release of Borderlands? When I dug back to find [whatever I had written about it]( (“the best role playing/first person hybrid since Deus Ex, perhaps”), I was a bit surprised to see a 2009 on those posts.

That reaction is probably my expectations of the gaming industry. We’re in an era where any title that shows reasonable sales success is almost immediately announced for a sequel. Popular franchises are boiled down into a fine slurry that’s slopped out the door as quickly as possible year after year. How did Borderlands, which was both a critical and commercial success, manage to get a multi-year development cycle for its first sequel? It just seems beyond belief.

However it happened, it was worth it. I think out of all of the big budget “AAA” titles I’ve played this year (which admittedly wasn’t a ton), it was the one that felt the most realized, complete, and fun. The game world is huge, the combat feels satisfying, the writing remains sharp. The little annoyances and quibbles from the first game (like the decision to use Gamespy for online functions) are largely eradicated. And the pacing feels just about right – you can get lost in side quests if that’s your thing, or you can just grind away at the main storyline. It just feels so well balanced that I’m really glad it wasn’t rushed out the door under a tighter deadline.

One thing that Gearbox absolutely nailed was a feature they dubbed “Badass Rank”. Dedicated Borderlands players will likely end up with a stable of characters, one for each class in the game. The Badass Rank system provides general milestone objectives, which gradually convert into tokens. The tokens are redeemable for perks that boost stats for all of your characters, not just the one you’ve earned the points with. It’s a really smart method to reward the player for dedicated play. I hope other games won’t be afraid to steal it – it may be my favorite innovation I’ve seen in a game this year.

Actually, let me take that a step farther: I’m surprised that no one has tried to rip off Borderlands wholesale yet. And why *are* there so few quality first-person RPG franchises? Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls, Fallout (although New Vegas was a letdown), Borderlands…what else is there? You could argue to include Dead Island in there, even though the first game was rough around the edges. It just strikes me odd that for an industry that’s generally quick to flood the market with clones, there aren’t more first-person RPGs.

Maybe it’s a budget and time constraint – making a sufficiently deep game takes energy most companies don’t have. If that means that titles like Borderlands 2 are that much more unique, perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining too loudly.

Borderlands 2 is available for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Windows and OS X. My experiences were with the PC version.


Games of 2011: Bastion

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not you’re going to love a game. Ain’t so hard with this one. I knew within five minutes.

Supergiant Games’ debut title, Bastion, is extraordinary by every measure.

The art style: lush and meticulously drawn watercolors gives the many worlds of Caelondia a unique feel and personality. It’s not just the art, but also the animation, as many of the worlds within Bastion are either forming or disintegrating before your eyes.

The gameplay: Bastion is a well refined twin-stick action RPG. Multiple weapons, skills, and abilities allow you to adapt to your play style. The combat is not quite twitch combat, but certainly not slow by any stretch – it feels real and substantive.

The voicework: Logan Cunningham’s voice work as Rucks, the narrator, is unforgettable. Not just his voice, or the style in which he tells the story as you play through it, but the multiple versions of each line recorded, ensuring that even the slightest change in attack plans is accompanied by an appropriate monologue.

The music: Darren Korb’s beautiful, haunting soundtrack rounds out the performance, and is easily the most memorable soundtrack I’ve come across in years. I’ve embedded two tracks below to show the range of what Darren called “acoustic frontier trip-hop”:

This is a game that oozes love from every pore, and yet they chose to release it at a $15 price point via digital channels. If youve been reluctant to download games – if you’re the sort of person who only shops at Gamestop – Bastion is the game that will change your mind.

Do not miss this game, under any circumstances.

Bastion is available on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, and somehow also through Chrome.