Do AAA X360 Games Lack Originality? Part One

 
It’s amazing to think that the Xbox 360 has nearly reached three-and-a-half-years in age. Well, very few individual Xbox 360 consoles have actually reached that long due to so many hardware issues (that have hopefully ended), but Microsoft has still managed to keep the white, concave tower selling despite its less-than-stellar reliability due to the quality of software such as Halo 3, Gears of War and Bioshock.
 
In those short few years since its release, the 360 has clocked up an impressive array of titles in a variety of genres; all the way from the basic first person shooters, to downloadable puzzlers, to the birth of the console RTS and even a train simulator. While there has been some rubbish titles, the good have indeed outweighed the bad — with 20 games now sitting on 90 or above over at Metacritic. The consoles in the previous generation managed to get their top twenty titles above 90 too, so this is quite an achievement for the 360. But we must ask questions of the scores behind some of these titles… do they deserve their plaudits and accolades? A quick look at the list raises doubts (Metacritic scores in brackets):

1. Grand Theft Auto IV (98)
2. Bioshock (96)
3. The Orange Box (96)
4. Gears of War (94)
5. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (94)
6. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (94)
7. Halo 3 (94)
8. Street Fighter IV (93)
9. Fallout 3 (93)
10. Gears of War 2 (93)
11. Braid (93)
12. Guitar Hero II (92)
13. Rock Band (92)
14. Rock Band 2 (92)
15. Mass Effect (91)
16. Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned (90)
17. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (90)
18. Portal: Still Alive (90)
19. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (90)
20. Forza Motorsport 2 (90)

Look closely. There are only four completely original (to this generation of hardware) full-priced titles in that list. Four. Bioshock, Gears of War, Rock Band and Mass Effect. Rock Band and GoW already have sequels on the list. Bioshock and Mass Effect have sequels coming. And you wonder why publishers and developers are being risky with new IPs? Neither of the four are entirely original either. Rock Band is made by the team behind Guitar Hero I & II and features the same kind of content as the latter titles. Mass Effect is BioWare doing what they do best: an RPG sci-fi epic. Bioshock, meanwhile, is simply an FPS with small RPG elements and an interesting story. Gears of War actually looks like the most original of the lot, which does not go well with me. Are these really the top twenty games on the console? Let’s look at it all closer.

20. Forza Motorsport 2 (90)

This was Microsoft’s newcomer to the racing simulation field at one point. It watched on from the back of the grid as Gran Turismo took all the credit. But when the lights went green, it left GT in a cloud of dust from which it has struggled to recover from. The scary amount of customization in the original was a car enthusiast’s wet dream. The ability to change not only a car’s appearance, but also the inner workings made it an instant success. The seamless inclusion of online alongside single player was also a joy to behold — even for a non-car enthusiast like me.

Forza Motorsport 2, on the other hand, felt like it had done nothing to beat its predecessor. New graphics and better handling, but the seamlessness between online and single player was lost along the way. This was not the giant leap forward we were hoping for in terms of content. That’s not to say it is a bad game though. To the Forza newbie, I’m sure it’s fantastic. But to veterans of the first, it’s just an upgrade so that you’re not left behind on the grid.

What we said: “Turn 10 has created one of the best racing sims around” 9.2 out of 10

Deserves its top twenty status and score? No. Despite still being fun to play, Forza Motorsport 2 does not offer enough over its predecessor to be considered one of the top twenty 360 games.


19. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (90)

Another sequel. But this time to a game that proved cheap, downloadable games could become as played as full retail releases. Geometry Wars started off life as an arcade game within the in-game garage of Project Gotham Racing 2. After the PGR fans showed their love for this little title, Bizarre Creations decided to take advantage of the 360’s live arcade platform. The result was a lovely title that was full of charm, addictiveness and high definition looks that wowed us all — never had 2D gaming looked so pretty.

Its sequel also hit home with gamers everywhere. Introducing a slew of new modes over the original’s two modes, Retro Evolved 2 most certainly evolved. While the game may not have enjoyed the success of the original, it showed us how truly wonderful a sequel can be: different, yet familiar enough to us all. Yet despite the new modes, the new graphics, the new music — it all felt a bit too much. The modes did not capture the beauty of the original, and multiple leaderboards meant multiple kings of different modes. Who wants to be the King of ‘Pacifism’? Not me. I’d rather be the King of ‘King’(s). Bizarre have previously said they have a ton of ideas for future Geometry Wars titles, so don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.

What we said: “Follow up to a great arcade game” – John Laster, Editor in Chief

Deserves its top twenty status and score? Yes. One of the Geometry Wars titles deserves its place among the top twenty. Both are quintessential of the arcade genre and with Retro Evolved 2 doing the whole bigger-more-bad-ass-sequel thing that we all love, it seems only right to allow the king of arcade its status.

 

 
 
Will we ever stop talking about this game? No, and nor should we either. Portal proved to be a breath of fresh air to the genre. Originally featured in The Orange Box, an arcade version was released featuring the original game, new challenges (from Portal: The Flash Version) and new achievements. Since The Orange Box is already featured in the top twenty, we have to question why Portal deserves its place here? Yes, it was released at a new low value point and, yes, it includes a few extra features… but The Orange Box, at the time of Portal: Still Alive’s release, was at a low price point. Since we could pick up the whole of the Half-Life 2 saga, plus Team Fortress 2 and Portal for such a great price — why did reviewers go on to point out its value for money? Portal is a superb game, but this enhanced version should not be recommended over The Orange Box.

What the fans said: “The cake is a lie, the cake is a lie, the cake is a lie…. but the game is fun, the puzzles will leave you breathless, and you may have trouble playing because you’re too busy laughing. On a side note, the ’Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Centre’ would like to remind you not to place the ’Aperture Science Thing We Do Not Know What It Does’ on the ’1500 MegaWatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button’…” – tommystockley, TGR forum user.

Deserves its top twenty status and score? No. Portal: Still Alive cannot even be considered Portal 1.5. It took already existing content from Portal: The Flash Version and made it 3D. While it may be the definitive version of the original Portal, you’re still better off buying The Orange Box. Its average score of 90 is too much.

I was a massive fan of the original, highly-strategic Ghost Recon. The console friendly action blockbuster that was Ghost Recon 2 killed the series for me. But GRAW met the action and strategy of the previous games somewhere in the middle — and I liked that. At the time of release, GRAW was an audio/visual masterpiece. We were treated to the sights of Mexico City from above in our helicopter; the beauty intersected by the harsh reality of war as we had to take down a soldier who had an RPG primed at the mechanical bird. The chopper lands and suddenly you’re back into battle. It was beautiful and seamless and, to be fair, it still is. Few games since then have proved as immersive or as awesome as GRAW. The single player was backed up with enjoyable multiplayer and a fantastic co-op mode where you and a team of 15 online buddies could hold out against an onslaught of ‘terrorist’ soldiers. While the AI was far from perfect as it could easily be ignored as you dashed from behind one wall to the next, deploying strategic directions on the ground and in the sky, it’s the war machine as beautiful as it gets and, perhaps, as ethical as it gets.

The sequel offered more of the same, but was released post-Gears of War and, despite a PS3 release, failed to live up to the commercial success of the original.

What we said: We never reviewed it so…move along.

Deserves its top twenty status and score? Yes. It’s a game that may be showing its age, but it’s one gaming experience I can remember as clear as day; and with it being one of the first big releases after launch, I’m sure many have fond memories too. A blockbuster single player, addictive multiplayer and fantastic co-op features made this the hottest action game of 2006…until Gears reared its gory head. Perhaps even deserves to be rated higher.

 

 
Microsoft paid $25 million for this expansion, and $25 million for the next — that’s a lot of spondoolies. But we’re talking quality here, not money. The Lost and Damned’s low price point of $20 was perfect reason for us all to revisit Liberty City. With Niko’s haunting story far behind us, Johnny Klebitz steps up to the usual role of GTA protagonist we all love but should hate. He’s temporarily in charge of biker gang ‘The Lost’ and is doing a pretty good job in appeasing gang tensions until his boss, Billy Grey, gets out of jail and sends the gang into a good ole fashioned biker war. It’s much of the same we have been expecting from the GTA series, with 10-15 hours of new story content, new and improved bike handling and a slew of new innovative multiplayer modes to keep us happy.

That‘s great… but the action is over as soon as it starts. We’re used to our GTAs being 30+ hour journeys through mass characterization and mass killing; 10-15 hours isn’t what we expect from GTA, regardless of it being downloadable content and cheaper. One must also question if DLC should be featured on Metacritic. Not all DLC is covered on the site, only those deemed to be game changing or expansions. Arcade games are new and original; we must ask if downloadable expansions are worthy of inclusion on Metacritic.

What we said
: “The best DLC ever, and extremely enjoyable to boot. Go download it now if you haven’t already” 9.5 out of 10

Deserves its top twenty status and score? Yes. The Lost and Damned is an exceptional piece of DLC, one that is certainly an example of how good the downloadable format can be. If PC and console retail expansions can be featured on these lists, then there is no reason why this non-retail expansion cannot.

 

15. Mass Effect (91)

BioWare’s beautiful, space-faring sci-fi of epic proportions landed and blew us away at the tail end of 2007. It provided us with a truly unique sci-fi story that was both endearing and easy to emphasize with in general. The characters were balanced just right, the storyline was intriguing (if, at times, a bit predictable) and the relationships formed between you and the other characters was rewarding; though minor criticisms do exist. BioWare made the whole RPG interface a lot simpler to the dismay of their ardent fan base. Customization and characterization were scaled down from the likes of Knights of the Old Republic. Nevertheless, it’s another magnum opus for the BioWare resume. With sequels and a possible movie abound, we can’t wait for this original IP to kick up an even bigger FU to the conventions of hardcore RPG.

What we said
: “Despite its minor flaws Mass Effect is an amazing recreation of the space opera genre that everyone who plays RPGs should play just to experience what BioWare has done” 9.0 out of 10

Deserves its top twenty status and score? Absolutely. Mass Effect’s unique world captured the interest of sci-fi fans and BioWare fans (looking for the next KOTOR) alike, as well as the mainstream market. For good reason too, as the game is beautiful to look at, plays well, sounds good and is solidly scripted. A fantastic start to a new IP.

It’s been fun taking a jaunt down the memory lane of Xbox 360 thus far. We’ve managed to oust two games from the top twenty — how many more will suffer such a fate? You’ll have to join us in part two where we will look at Rock Band 1 & 2, Guitar Hero II, Braid, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3 and Street Fighter IV. Join us then!

Now, where’s my copy of GRAW…

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