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Actual New Games of 2012: The Half-Time Verdict

We pass judgement on the candidates from January and add a few to the list.

Back at the start of January, we wrote of our hope that 2012 would bring us more Actual New Games. As much as we like stuff like Diablo 3 (when we can play it), we also want games that "invent new styles and genres", as I said at the time.

"We want games that we can't easily decode from the first half an hour of play. We want more fantastic artwork, inspirational sound design, unexpected mechanics and inventive ways to succeed - and fail. We want more Would You Kindly and more Gravity-Gun-meets-saw-blade and more Katamari Damacy... We want games that leave us brimming with wonder and excitement and babbling to one another about the amazing things they do."

Coming off the back of a resoundingly violent and unimaginative E3 ('resounding' being the operative for anyone whose eardrums lived through Microsoft and EA's conferences), it's a hope that seems even more relevant - and perhaps more forlorn - than it did back then.

In January, we highlighted a few examples of games that we hoped would justify being referred to as Actual New Games. The likes of The Witness, Dishonored, Last Guardian and Wii U have still yet to be released, but Fez and Journey have now both emerged. So what do we think of them in hindsight? Actual New Games, after all? And have any other potential Actual New Games come to light since we last wrote on the subject? Let's find out.

Fez - Actual New Game?

When we first put this list together, I was slightly conflicted about Fez. It looked unique and beautiful and was clearly a labour of love - usually good signifiers for Actual New Games in my experience - but it was still just a 2D platformer with a perspective-switch gimmick. I sort of bullied myself into including it because the one-line pitch I settled on - "doing interesting things with the line between the second and third dimensions" - sounded quite poetic.

Little did I know that I was low-balling it. As Oli explained in his 10/10 review (I would give it 209.4%) and we expanded on with our Fez notebooks feature, this is a game that makes us tingle with the sort of pleasure that only the presence of genuine originality can elicit. There are so many reasons for that, but one of the best it that it had a made-up language based on Tetris blocks to decipher and then express using the game controls in order to unlock secrets.

So, Actual New Game? Yes! Ding ding ding!

Journey - Actual New Game?

Journey's creative director Jenova Chen says a lot of things that make a lot of sense, and sometimes he does this while eating hamburgers. This we knew. But Journey, which Chris Donlan gave a glowing review, was the game that elevated thatgamecompany from an interesting if slightly pretentious indie curio into PlayStation Network superstars, and it did it by exploring the social aspects of multiplayer.

And I don't mean social in the sense of going on Facebook and 'liking' a picture of the Mexican Master Chief, I mean social in its most basic, biological sense - as Wikipedia puts it, the interaction of people with each other and their collective co-existence. With a carefully prescribed range of interactions and no means of direct communication, Journey threw random pairings of online gamers together in beautiful landscapes filled with oblique architecture and shifting sands. Stuff happened. It was pretty magical for as long as it lasted.

Actual New Game? Certainly leaves you brimming with wonder and excitement and babbling to one another about the amazing things it does. So yes. Textbook.

What's New?

There were a lot of new games announced during the first half of 2012. OR WERE THERE ETC. And a lot of games came out, too. Here are a few examples of games we think might qualify for Actual New Game status when they see the light of day, or which didn't make it into the original list but have won our attention and already qualify.

Day Z - Actual New Game!

Or at least an Actual New Mod. Bohemia Interactive's zombie survival modification for ArmA 2: Combined Ops is a rickety construct at present - one might reasonably argue that the hardest thing about a zombie apocalypse should not be gaining entrance - but the emergent potential of it is already writ large. Quintin said it might well be the best zombie game ever, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Day Z diaries catalogue memorable moments that even extend beyond the limits of the game world itself.

Actual New Games should make us feel things we haven't felt before. That's the whole point. Scrambling across a barren landscape at night, bleeding to death, not sure whether the next real-life player you meet will help you or murder you, is definitely that - and to find that feeling in a zombie game, one of the most oversubscribed sub-genres in pop culture, just goes to underline Day Z's achievement.

I Am Alive - I Am Actually New

Interestingly, for a game with that name, critics struggled to identify a consensus around I Am Alive. I read a few reviews that slagged it off for being a platform game with dodgy controls and repetitive combat. I saw something else. I saw bleak survival fiction - not unlike Day Z in its Cormac McCarthy-inspired post-apocalyptic vision of a grey, craggy world, in this case choked by poisonous dust - and a few people sharing an interesting journey together through it.

"The last bits of humanity are pretty much going to hell all around you and you're just a guy with a couple of bottles of water and an empty gun. Maybe you will escape with your dignity and integrity, but you probably won't. You and the game know it... It's not a new message, but I Am Alive delivers it as well as anyone ever has in a game." It still doesn't feel like a new message, but it felt like a new game because of the way it conveyed it. (And, if that doesn't scrape it into this list, then the fact it's a game that had to escape from development hell in the process surely earns it some bonus points.)

Watch Dogs - Orwell I Dunno

I'm on the fence about Ubisoft's new action-adventure. Not about whether I'm interested in it, you understand - the behind-closed doors demo at E3 only reinforced everyone's interest and helped make Watch Dogs our Game of the Show. But I am on the fence about its Actual New Game status.

The biggest argument in favour is the sense of possibility you get from the scenarios Ubisoft has presented. Games like Deus Ex and Skyrim are endlessly fascinating because of the range of possible outcomes ("Which guy did you kill?" "Oh, I didn't realise you could kill all three!" "Oh, I didn't realise you could kill the quest-giver!") and when that possibility spectrum broadens to include, for example, disrupting traffic signals to cause a pile-up, which dynamically becomes the setting for a cover-based gunfight, then you can colour us interested. But Ubisoft has flattered to deceive with this sort of thing in the past (remember how repetitive the original Assassin's Creed was?) so we need to reserve judgement. I also get the feeling people are struggling to look past the visuals a bit. We'll see.

Beyond - Heavier Rain?

I pinned my colours to the mast on this one before E3 even started, arguing: "Fahrenheit - Indigo Prophecy to some - was stuffed with so many contrasting ideas and references to philosophy, history, myth and science fiction that it eventually buckled under their weight. This approach, even in the tempered form it found in Heavy Rain, usually means that Quantic Dream games are divisive and easy to mock. But it's also what makes them so fascinating and unusual, and so easy to lose hours discussing."

Then David Cage turned up at Sony's conference and lectured us about mortality, before showing us a video of Ellen Page - presumably hired for Beyond at astronomical expense - sat in front of a camera doing nothing for several minutes. These are similar tricks to those Cage has pulled before, or so they appear so far, but they still work, and Beyond will probably qualify for Actual New Game status in the end in the absence of anyone else playing Cage's game, and his desire not to repeat himself.

Honourable Mentions

Far Cry 3 - If for no other reason than Fred felt compelled to subtitle his preview The Social Philosophy of Shark-Punching. Ubisoft's being very ambitious with this - the entire adventure is potentially just an abstract psychological episode taking place within the game-addled mind of its protagonist. There's a whiff of familiarity creeping out from beneath the story layer though, and we need to see whether burning tigers are just meme-bait to disguise that or genuinely A Thing.

P-100 - Wii U's Secret Weapon was how we described it. Hideki Kamiya's isometric crowd-of-superheroes game (love writing that) makes everyone who plays it babble with excitement. We want to see how it lasts over time.

The Existing List

And finally, let's not forget the other games that we highlighted in January, even if the question with The Last Guardian is less "Actual New Game?" these days and more "Actual Game Of Any Sort?" We still hope so.

  • The Witness - Jonathan Blow's latest
  • Dishonored - Harvey Smith and Raph Colantonio/Arkane Studios
  • The Last Guardian - Fumito Ueda/SCEJ
  • Monaco - Pocketwatch Games
  • Dust 514 - CCP
  • Wii U - Nintendo

We will return to Actual New Games in the Full-Time Report in six months' time. Probably.