Game of the Week: SSX
I've just arrived in San Francisco for the 2012 Game Developers Conference. GDC is E3's alter ego, the games industry's other face; looking inward rather than outward, this show is about what people are saying rather than what they're selling.
This year, as the last few, the conference will be dominated by talk of what's next, where the money is, where the creativity is, what the solution is to some industry-wide problem we can't quite articulate but know, in these days of recurrent studio closures and redundancies, is there. Zynga will strut its social stuff, indies will show their stylish iOS games, and German companies with unpromising names will struggle to get me and my peers to turn up to see their ugly free-to-play online games, even though they are printing money.
One thing you can be sure of; no-one will be stood on a soapbox sticking up for the good old-fashioned boxed console game. And yet I can guarantee you with equal certainty that post-mortems of games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Mario 3D Land will be among the best-attended sessions of the week, and that no-one is suddenly going to start ignoring what Cliff Bleszinski has to say just because he's sharing the limelight with Notch.
In fact, Bleszinski's observation that games development was polarising into AAA and indie was one of the most astute, not to say prophetic, of last year's conference. But does that mean we should welcome the demise of the "double-A" game?
Look back at February's releases. There haven't been any juggernauts, but it's been a diverse, interesting and entertaining line-up of games from the second tier: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Catherine, Binary Domain, Asura's Wrath, UFC Undisputed 3, The Last Story, The Darkness 2 - hell, I'll even stand up for NeverDead's idiotic charms.
These games are an endangered species right now. None of them is a classic, none of them set the charts alight; some are better than others, some are more generic than others. But they all do something valuable, interesting and fun within their chosen corner of gaming. I don't want to lose these games any more than I want to lose Mass Effect 3, Journey or the wonderful Beat Sneak Bandit. Some of my best friends are double-A games.
So, I know times is 'ard, but I'm asking you to look inside yourself and see if you can find it in your heart (wallet) to adopt a AA game today. Think of Toshihiro Nagoshi's tear-lined face of gratitude as Sega racks up one more sale of a shrink-wrapped copy of Binary Domain. Think of the pizza you'll put in the mouths of hungry coders across the world (Canada). Think, most of all, of all the like-minded gamers who you'll be helping to keep in obscure sports games, interesting-but-flawed RPGs, strange genre hybrids and shooters with ideas above their station.
And if you do decide to lend your support to gaming's squeezed middle, you could do worse than start with our game of the week.
An early casualty of the double-A cull has been the extreme sports game. No-one's to blame for the mess that standard-bearer Tony Hawk's Pro Skater finds itself in but Activision itself - but still, it's exactly this kind of middle-budget, big-niche title that's currently threatened with extinction.
So it's all the more heartening to find EA trying, with genuine energy and ingenuity, to put its mistreated snowboarding series back on the straight and narrow. The new SSX is gorgeous and generous, but it's also smart and futuristic, with an inventive set-up for asynchronous social multiplayer that takes Criterion's AutoLog ball and runs with it.
"Few series have enjoyed such an assured and enjoyable update in the current generation of consoles," wrote Simon in our SSX review. "Far from being a weary evolution, SSX is a vibrant, eager advance for the Cool Boarders/Tony Hawk's lineage of extreme sports video games.
"EA Canada has effortlessly married the score-attack DNA of arcade gaming's earliest days with some of the most interesting and exciting multiplayer design seen in the past few years. A towering achievement then, as tall as the mountains it so diligently reconstructs."
A sports game sequel from a massive publishing house, SSX is hardly an underdog, of course. But that doesn't mean it's safe. The mid-range console title is a gaming flavour we could all too easily lose. My name is Oli Welsh, and I'm a AA-oholic.