It's eight weeks since we last featured a boxed home console release as game of the week, and we've only had five of them so far this year. The thin ice that the traditional games business finds itself on has been a regular topic in this column for a while, but it's hard not to return to it in the week that Kingdoms of Amalur was judged a failure for "only" selling 1.2 million copies, and that the founder of a young UK studio told me that everyone thought he was "insanse" for wanting to set up a business making console games.
And frankly, as I glance through my schedule for E3 in a little over a week's time, I don't see anything that's going to turn things around (unless Sony or Microsoft has a genuine surprise planned). Nor do I see it in this week's new releases - even though most of them are worth a go.
It's such an unexciting selection that Tom and I debated awarding game of the week to the unputdownable (but rather old) New Star Soccer instead, on the technicality that it was patched with Turkish language support this week. The outright best game that any of us has played this week was probably the Arma 2 mod Day Z - but it's only in alpha and probably worth waiting out a while before diving in.
Next to such arresting hybrids, it's hard not to be underwhelmed by a cartoon sports game, a shouty arcade racer, a sprawling fantasy role-player and a military shooter. It's easy to see why escalating costs and narrowing margins are driving publishers into this cycle of conservatism, but hard to understand why none of them seem to realise that the cycle needs to be broken. After all, Kingdoms of Amalur was, in all respects other than not actually being a sequel, the definition of playing it safe.
However, at least each of our uninspiring quartet is the only thing that really matters: fun.
"Mario Tennis Open... is excellently put together, and as much fun as it's ever been against competitive mammals," said Johnny in our Mario Tennis Open review. "But the content around it feels insubstantial, with little incentive to persist with single-player after the first few hours. What the game lacks in ambition and depth, though, it makes up for in the ageless pleasure and pain of a finely-balanced multiplayer battle."
Even Nintendo's second-stringers are so well honed at their core that all the company needs to do is occasionally remake them for new formats. It doesn't matter; you know the moment you make Mario hit the ball, the pitch-perfect control and effervescent audio feedback will put a smile on your face.
All the same, I'd rather give credit to Capcom, whose release this week, Dragon's Dogma, is actually more interesting than it seems, not less. As a Japanese take on the Western style of role-playing game, it's got more character than its artwork and quests might suggest - and more ideas too, even if most of them are borrowed, as Simon pointed out in our Dragon's Dogma review.
"The excitement of encountering a new beast never fades and this, more than any potential quest reward, provides the true reason to press on," he wrote. "Ambitious, grand, at once derivative and pioneering, Dragon's Dogma may not be a classic but it's an important title nonetheless... The game echoes the adventurous, dragon-hunting spirit of its (second- and third-hand) literary influences: that sense of unpredictable peril that could be lurking in every cave and thicket."
Dragon's Dogma's title may be drab, but at least it's a new one - and Dead Island proved last year that being new IP isn't a death sentence in itself. But nor is an established franchise a guarantee of success. As with Ridge Racer Unbounded, you suspect that Dirt Showdown's umbrella brand might actually be doing it a disservice - raising rally sim expectations of what is, in fact, a knockabout arcade racer. And a thoroughly, if temporarily, enjoyable one.
"You'll gorge on it for a few days, dancing the game's mixture of real-life Mitsubishi and Ford ballerinas around Battersea, busying your way through the campaign buying up entertaining fakesters like the hulking Growler and pacey trucks, and then smashing friends and strangers to pieces online," wrote Tom in our Dirt Showdown review. "You'll love pretty much every minute, and then you'll move on... Dirt Showdown's wonderful, but it's probably also a flash in the pan. As long as you know that going in, then you shouldn't be disappointed."
All the same, why can't games just be themselves instead of leaning on former glories, appending themselves to brand strategies or surrendering their identity to hit-chasing market research? Our game of the week poses the same question.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Ghost Recon: Future Solider might well be the archetypal 2012 mainstream video game - sporting expensive production values, genuinely high standards of quality and an identity that only persists despite long periods when it's been made to look like something else. In this case (as in most), Modern Warfare.
Don't get too upset - much of Future Solider harks back to the tactical action you loved in Advanced Warfighter, while the multiplayer is intelligently tailored to the game, and even the out-of-character sections are well done. It's just that Ubisoft has deemed it necessary to cloak its strong military series (which, lest we forget, predates the Activision juggernaut) in a veneer of similarity to sneak it past gamers. Are our tastes really that narrow?
"The lure of Call of Duty and Gears proves impossible to resist," wrote Dan in our Ghost Recon: Future Solider review. "Fantastically compelling and strategic stealth sections are bookended by slow-motion, door-breaching shooting galleries and mayhem-fuelled turret sections... Any cliché you can think of from the current shooter playbook gets an airing at some point. Worst of all, it never feels like the game's heart is behind the bombast. It's the sad sight of a series abandoning its own identity to follow the lucrative herd... Future Soldier is too often an excellent tactical stealth game forced to play at being a very good shooter.
"But while Future Soldier risks losing itself in the crowd of similar widescreen War on Terror blockbusters, it at least borrows its elements wisely, serves them up with style and polish, and retains enough of its strategic core to make it an easy recommendation for those hungry for another tour of duty."
I don't mean to make this recommendation sound half-hearted; a good game is a good game, and Future Solider is a very good one. By mixing Ghost Recon's trademark tactical stealth with more populist flourishes, Ubisoft might well be widening the audience for intelligent shooters, which would be a good thing. But it's also narrowing the gene pool for console games as a whole - and right now, that's the last thing we need to be doing.
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