Twenty-four games sit behind the windows of our festive pagan Endless Bear calendar, each one a thing that made the year of 2009 brighter and more interesting. But which game comes first? And what will we have to say about it? Follow the excitedly trembling hand of the one true leader of the Autobots to discover...
Jim: I sometimes worry that games aren't weird enough. Occasionally you get little bubbles of weird, like Sacrifice or Psychonauts, popping up and restoring the balance, and they're often enough to shift us into the weird for months at time. Zeno Clash did just that: it was visually peculiar, had a deeply strange story running through it, and introduced some of the strangest characters I can remember. I was glad of it precisely because it tried to be unusual. Occasionally such efforts feel contrived or immature, but Zeno Clash delivered it with an air of mystery, and a Half-Life-like lack of exposition that made it intriguing.
It was far more fortunate, I suppose, that the hand-to-hand combat actually worked. I've seen a few people comment that they felt it was awkward or unwieldy, but I personally found it to be precisely right. It was brutal, fights were never too long, and it genuinely felt up-close and personal. Melee is difficult to pull off in an FPS, and I felt this sort of concession to the dynamics of boxing made perfect sense.
Perhaps what's most pleasing, however, is to see a new team creating a world and making a success of it. I'm double keen to see what ACE Team get up to next. Apparently it's a sequel of sorts, and more open worldy, which should please those - like me - who regularly sound the anti-linearity trumpet.
John: Like Jim says, the biggest surprise here was that the fisticuffs worked. Melee is so often the curse of games, and for an indie developer with their first major game to be putting all the emphasis upon it seemed like it would spell certain doom.
When we first gained access to some early preview code I was, oddly enough, no less concerned. It still felt wrong at that stage, too difficult, too frustrating. I’m not sure how much was that I was no good at it, and how much was the improvements they made in the following months, but what a man-sized phew it was when it finally came out.
In fact, so well implemented was the biff-punching that it wasn’t what stood out most about the game. Which is exactly as it should be – it felt naturally part of the world. What of course stood out was the remarkable creature and world design. There’s not a moment that isn’t beautiful to look at. There wasn’t a time when playing it I didn’t hammer at the screenshot button. At least one of these sat on my desktop for months. It's such a smart game - that's what impresses me the most. It's intelligently put together, intelligently designed, and the combination of limited ranged weapons and powerful melee attacks reversed the norm while not breaking the logic of a first-person perspective. The story may have made no sense to me at all, but the experience was what mattered.
Kieron: Instead of echoing John and Jim - who are entirely right, and I agree with every word, except the subtextual bit where Walker looks at you with hurt eyes and says I am not a bad healer - I'm going to pick up on another something about Zeno Clash which impressed me, and I think a lot of developers (especially smaller developers) would do well to follow.
For a game that's so often described as "mad", Zeno Clash is eminently sensible. As they described in their Gamasutra Postmortem, Zeno Clash was their second take at a game. The first, based on similar material, fell apart. It was the sort of sprawling open-world joy which Jim spends much time lusting after it. Problem being: too ambitious. They couldn't pull it off.
They sat down, had a little think, focused and pulled off Zeno Clash. It's a game born of almost perfect compromise between their vision and their resources. People who say they want it to be longer are actually saying "we'd like it a little shitter, please". The one game which followed Portal in its careful focusing on its strengths, it narrowed itself down to a level where - on its own stage - it could compete with close to anyone else in the world. And, of course, it helps that what it chose to show on its stage was an act which you couldn't find anywhere else.
That's the secret of Zeno Clash. Just because you're being mad, you don't have to be stupid. I can't wait to see what ACE team do next.
Alec: I really like the weirdo guns too. No-one ever talks about the guns. Poor guns. Come to me, I will hold you and love you.