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Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

zombiu

Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

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Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

FIFA13

Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

nintendoland

Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

bookofspells

Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

minecraft

Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

tokyojungle

Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

journey

FIFA 13

We may not be the most active of blogs but the last couple of weeks have seen a drop in productivity that is poor even by our standards. Apathy, illness, or the loss of use of our fingers is not to blame. Instead you can point the finger squarely at Electronic Arts; FIFA 13 had taken over all our lives.

I’m not an annual subscriber to the FIFA franchise, having a tendency to dip in every three-years or so, and as a result the wealth of updates and features that are on offer when compared to my last foray has astounded me. More so than that though, the gameplay itself feels as good a simulation of the sport as you’re going to get from a joypad. It captures so many of the subtleties, from the mis-controlling your first touch to shooting when off-balance, the tangle and clatter of accidental clashes or the nasty slice of a hurried clearance. By comparison it’s easy to get the beautiful parts of the beautiful game right, but to capture the “off” moments so naturally is a talent.

That may sound a strange but it’s the incidents where you’ve given possession away or swung a peg at completely the wrong moment that help you learn. It’s a very visual and gratifying feedback that helps describe just what you were doing wrong, be it being plain too ambitious or snatching at a chance that wasn’t really there. This definitely isn’t the type of game where a single man can dribble past the entire field and score as so many elements come into play from the defensive jockeying of the opposition, your first touch, the lightness of your touch and so on.

On a basic level you can point the stick in a direction and run but without the awareness of the number of elements likely to do you over, chances are you’ll quickly have handed possession away. Yet knowing this means that when you do carve through the opposition with a through-ball, sprint past the right back, before cutting it back to arriving midfielder who then buries it in the back of the net, is a deeply satisfying experience. Having said that, with my prowess in front of goal I’m happy if it spins in off my shin with a miskick.

Over the years the gauge has always swung back and forth between favouring defence or attack, and I think this year the balance is with the former. As such, unless you’ve Messi at your control, chances are FIFA 13 will be a game of through-balls down the line and patient passing. For one I really enjoy this balance of power. I’m the fool who optionally chooses to be the defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of the back four, and there are a pleasing number of tools on offer to help me relish this roll. Jockeying and shadowing offer far more to those who prefer to defend the onion bag and round out the team nicely.

However, it’s not just the feel of the game that has drawn me in so. The number of ways available to play that game is quite overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms crazy new ways to play football, the sanctity of which remains reverently intact, but in respect to that almost every “what if” my brother and I could have thought of playing ISS ’98 on the N64 over a decade ago has come true.

The most compelling one for me has to be the online club, where you and your friends team up under one banner and take on the world. Taking the lead from the Pro mode, each of you takes a position and then holds that role for the full 90 minutes. At first this may sound like an exercise in futility as everyone flocks, playground-like, too the ball, but given a modicum of common sense and discipline it produces very rewarding results. On the base level there’s the knowledge that you’ve bested another team of humans (always a better feeling than doing the same to AI; you know someone somewhere is ruing your very existence). On another, it’s the moves, the coordination and the runs that could never be accomplished with non-sentient team mates. It can take you back to that time when your work’s 5-a-side team for five-minutes one night played like Brazil. Nothing was planned, no one said anything, but every pass, every flick, every back heel came off. Except digitally and with less chance of opposition getting shirty and hacking down Dave with the dodgy ankles.

Ultimate Team is also an intriguing prospect. In there you collect footballers as though they were Panini stickers to form a team. Starting out with an unnatural number of Australian and Paraguayan second division players, the greater your team does the more opportunity you have of collecting or buying better players until you’re mixing with the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Rather than just relying on the skill of your players however, chemistry also plays a part. Players from similar clubs, countries or leagues are more likely to gel, making the team more than the sum of its parts. It’s a devilishly addictive mechanic that has you gambling on lesser talented players to boost your overall level, sending you down avenues such as scouting for a Hungarian leftback with a tendency for the 5-4-1 formation.

Combine this with online auction houses for players, contracts, healing cards and a whole extra layer of depth, Ultimate Team could have effectively been a complete standalone game. For something that on the face of it could have been nothing but a cash cow for EA, there’s an awful lot to lose yourself in.

With further lovely tie ins such as league tables as to how well your real-life team’s supporters are playing (currently Rotherham sit top of the Premiership thanks to their fans’ gameplay talents), the chance to download current form for teams, weekly challenges, skill games that cleverly coax you through tutorials and many other nuggets tucked away, I will barely want for interesting ways to underperform with Tottenham ever again.

Some stalwarts of the series may be reading this surprised at how enthusiastically I’ve greeted features that have possibly been in place for the last few FIFAs. I know the club has been around before, and the Pro mode, but to me all this is new. Having only dabbled with the decidedly average Vita versions with any real conviction over the last couple of years, the wealth of ways to play and the quality of the gameplay should not be forgotten and taken for granted.

The levels of polish and ease of accessibility to bring in new or returning players and then keep them hooked is a level beyond anything I’ve seen before. There are multiple avenues to get sucked down, about the only question is which one will you succumb to.

Turnover

There’s something eerily strange about playing old sports games. Picking up and putting in an EA game from a couple of years back is tantamount to rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of the past, with names and faces that are both familiar and at the same time disconcertingly out of place.

I’m not quite sure what it’s like for your own team, but down at White Hart Lane there has been a reasonable amount of player turnover during the last few seasons. As new managers come in so do players that suit their style, and a broom is swept through the dressing room to remove those that don’t have a place in the new regime. Last minute transfers can play havoc with a developer’s nicely tuned roster but a season’s worth of change leaves it a mere shadow of its former self.

Spurs seem to have it worse than most, though. Despite only being FIFA 09, last year’s edition, our default starting line-up was ajudged to be Darren Bent and Giovani Dos Santos, strikers who are now plying their trade at Sunderland and Galatasaray respectively. The Sunderland connection continues with appearances from both Fraizer Campbell and Alan Hutton making the squad, with Didier Zokora, currently playing for Sevilla, playing alongside them.

The squad is completed with Chris Gunter (now of Notts Forest), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Portsmouth), John Bostock (Crystal Palace), Jamie O’Hara (Portsmouth), Adel Taarabt (QPR), Ben Alnwick (Norwich), Hossam Ghaly (Al-Nassr), Ricardo Rocha (Portsmouth), Paul Stalteri (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Dorian Dervite (Southend). In fact, out of the whole squad of 30 players, only 11 are still with us this season. And do bear in mind this is only last year’s game.

When so many changes have been made, it’s hard to take the team seriously. The sense of playing a part in your club’s virtual success is soured by the history that has since been made with the players you are now making dance to your will. That star striker that left you citing his intentions to “take his career to the next level” is more likely to be plunged into dubious and red card inducing challenges. That defender with the now dodgy knee might just skirt the edges of the action as you resisting to urge to send him into the heat of battle for fear of recreating that career ending tackle.

Play as a team from a foreign clime and all might be well, but it seems easier to pick up SWOS and examine the Totttenham Hotspurs line-up of the early Nineties than it is to turn the calendar back just 12 months. It’s all too easy to see how EA keep making their money.

First Impressions: FIFA 09

So I’m a few days into FIFA 09 now and I’ve had a chance to – excuse the pun – tackle a lot of what it has to offer and so far I am not regretting my switch from Pro Evo one bit.

From the traditional season through to the Be a Pro mode and on to Live multiplayer I can’t say I really have any complaints. Players are responsive, play is fluid and the game is another step in the series’ movement away from the high-scoring pinball football of its past.

There are moment when I forget myself and think I’m in a FIFA from a decade ago, trying to charge my way through defences or shoot from 30 yards on certain angle but never to any joy.

The biggest challenge I’ve found myself facing so far is that of the Be a Pro mode. I’ve chosen to be a midfielder in the current Spurs team and it’s proving to be a bit of a slog. Whilst I can track back and help out on the defensive side, the rest of my team seem unable to score or even willing to pull the trigger in front of goal. With my limited forays upfront and my lack of skill when faced with the onion bag I don’t think we’re going to push for the league title this season as so far out of seven games we’ve drawn six, won one with a debious penalty and only scored another solitary goal from open play.

My traditional season is fairing better with my team in a European spot. I still struggle in front of goal but this version of FIFA brings out what I loved about the Pro Evos of the past: it allows you to string together some swift, cutting play that you’ll want to watch again and again and again, or it’ll sit you back and let you lump the ball forward all day long for a lofty centre forward. What it won’t do is make it easy when under pressure so you do really need some space to make a difference, just like in the real game.

Of course, if you do have a moment of magic you can always capture it, upload it and then replay it again and again and again.



Pretty sweet finish, eh?

Do you “FIFA”?

So what did you take away from TGS? Anything monster?

Back home I’m still without a Xbox hard drive and I’m twiddling my thumbs, relying on a storage device that is only just large enough to hold my profile and a Halo save game. It’s a good job my copy of FIFA 09 appears to be lost in the post as I don’t think I’d have room to save out a season’s campaign even if I wanted to.

Why are they using

This year the classic choice of FIFA or Pro Evo has swung in EA’s favour, for once. It’s been a good few years since I’ve bought into their highly polished version of the beautiful game but with all their leaps and bounds forward, compared with Pro Evo’s continuing insistence to neglect to fix up niggles that have plagued the series for years, I’m happy to invest. Play seems smooth and natural, and for as much as I have the greatest respect for Konami’s efforts they just haven’t evolved enough, in my opinion.

Continuing on from my enjoyment of UEFA 2008’s multiplayer, FIFA brings with it what can really only be described as a clan system. A whole squad of you and your friends can get together, form a “club” and then up to ten of you can play online at the same time in the same team. Obviously this could be disastrous and I initially had visions of a school playground where players would flock after the ball like birds in migration, but when executed well with a group of competent team mates it does have tremendous potential.

The sticking point may be which team we adopt as I’ve seen one friend obsess over Cheltenham town, we have a Cardiff support in our ranks and Spurs aren’t exactly setting Europe alight this season. We may have to go for some neutral ground… Spain or Brazil, maybe, as a compromise.