My Favorite Video Games of 2013

My previous Best-of lists for 2013:

Before focusing on the new games I enjoyed most this year, I have a few additions to make to my list about movies from last week.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is a spectacular film, definitely worthy of being included on the list. Of course, in order to make a slim children’s book into three movies, Mr. Jackson and his crew took a few liberties that might not sit too well with Tolkien purists. All in all however, the movie is a great ride and puts the newest technological improvements in filmmaking on display.

One movie I forgot to mention is This is the End, featuring a celebrity-filled cast desperately trying to survive the apocalypse. I found it to be one the funniest movies of the year, especially because it has actors poking fun at themselves. Emma Watson, Michael Cera and Mindy Kaling shine as guest stars, while the main cast surrounding James Franco, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride are as hilarious, over-the-top and charming as we’ve seen them many times before.

Okay, that was it for movies, so it is time to look at the three games that captured my attention long enough to get me to stop playing MMOs for a moment.

BioShock Infinite

I loved the imaginative world of BioShock Infinite. The atmosphere is breathtaking and I felt transported into this extremely creepy, but still fascinating city in the clouds. Booker DeWitt is the reluctant hero of the story. The mystery surrounding not only his back story, but the whole world shown in the game, was a driving force for me. And of course, Elizabeth, who needs to be saved by DeWitt, is a fantastic character definitely worth saving. I don’t play many FPS games, but BioShock Infinite is an extremely well-told and well-presented tale that shows what storytelling in video games is capable of nowadays.
BioShock Infinite is available for PC, PS3, Xbox360 and Mac OSX.

The Last of Us

I’m nowhere near through with this thrilling game, but the Last of Us is simply stunning. It feels like a movie I’m playing through. I’m just at the beginning of the Joel and Ellie’s journey to safety, but so far I’ve loved every second I didn’t spend terrified by the zombies. The voice acting and writing is terrific. The Last of Us allows players to immerse themselve in this very realistic and scary apocalyptic future. As with BioShock Infinite, I don’t normally play games with this genre background, but I’m drawn to great stories.
The Last of Us is available for Playstation 3.

GTA V

Of course a list of this sort would not be complete without the biggest game of the year: GTA V. Rockstar Games did it again. It took everything people loved about the series – the freedom, the pop culture references, the cars – and catapulted it to another level. Everything in GTA V is bigger, flashier and more spectacular than in the previous instalments. Having played a few of the older versions I did feel like I’ve seen it all before, but the opportunities in Los Santos, the virtual Los Angeles are seemingly endless. The game includes countless mini-games like golf or tennis and dozens of weird, quirky and interesting characters to interact with. I wasn’t very comfortable with the constant switching between the main characters Michael, Franklin and Trevor, but it did allow Rockstar to showcase different personalities and abilities. GTA V is not a story-driven game. It offers great opportunities to discover a beautifully crafted, human-designed world full of hidden gems.
GTA V is available on PS3 and Xbox360.

Of course, I spent the rest of my gaming hours this year on MMOs (as detailed in my series on them), on FIFA or on the 2010 release Civilization 5, a round-based strategy game. What games did you enjoy most in 2013? And what are you looking forward to in 2014?

I’m looking forward to the new WoW Add-on Warlords of Draenor and I’m very excited for Elder Scrolls Online. Otherwise I’d love to try out the new generation of consoles, but I don’t see me getting one of the machines until the latter part of the year. Also, I’m very intrigued by the Nintendo 3DS and I’m thinking of giving handheld devices another chance.

Sincerely yours,

Albert

Shows for Short Days

With the days growing shorter and colder, winter invites everyone to cozy up at home and to seek relaxation in form of a good TV show.

Television has enjoyed a kind of Golden Age with many great movie actors giving the small screen a chance. Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards or Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock have brought a whole new quality of acting to TV. I’ve talked about some of my favorite series before, so I wanted to add the shows I’m currently watching to that list.

Breaking Bad

The first show I’m catching up on is AMC’s Breaking Bad. I’ve seen parts of the first season and have loved it so far. Bryan Cranston, whom I loved on the comedy “Malcolm in the Middle” plays Walter White, a High School chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer. In order to ensure his family doesn’t suffer financially, he turns to his old student, Jesse Pinkman and begins to cook Meth. The show finished its five-season run about one month ago and has been one of the most critically acclaimed series around. Even after seeing only a small fraction of Breaking Bad, I can tell why it was so adored. The story is gripping, the writing feels real and the acting is special. I can’t wait to see more episodes.

The next show I enjoy is far more cheerful than the bleak Breaking Bad.

New Girl

New Girl is one of the pleasant surprises for me. I remember watching the first few episodes and being annoyed by the quirkiness of Zooey Deschanel. Normally a big fan of the actress, I felt she was overdoing it at the beginning of the show. But I recently found myself giving New Girl another chance and I haven’t regretted it. Ms. Deschanel tones down the awkwardness of her character to acceptable levels, while Max Greenfield as Schmidt and Jake Johnson as Nick continue to steal the show. Coupled with strong guest stars such as the stunning Olivia Munn or Carla Gugino, the show hits its stride at the end of the first season. It’s funny and relatable. I’ve enjoyed many of the storylines on the show like Nick planning on getting back together with his ex-girlfriend or Schmidt trying to win back his model ex-girlfriend Cece.

Sherlock

Sherlock, based on the novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, is the show that has impressed me most in the last few years. With the third season coming up in a few weeks (January), you should definitely catch up on the famous British detective. After all, there are only six 90-minute episodes. The show, which runs on BBC, features the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It transports their cases to the modern world. Seeing Mr. Holmes work with modern technology and laboratories is fascinating and intriguing. The cases are extremely gripping and well written. But without wanting to spoil too much, the highlight of the series so far have been the confrontations with his famous antagonists, Ms. Irene Adler and Prof. Jim Moriarty. Two more months remain until season three arrives!

Which shows are you watching currently? And what should I definitely check out?

Thank you very much for reading, see you on Friday with the next chapter in my story.

Sincerely yours,
Albert

My Wishlist for Future MMORPGs

This week I continue my series looking at my favorite genre of games. MMORPGs. The first part looked at the games I’ve played (and still play) and last week’s second instalment was a commentary about the most recent developments in the genre. Today, I want to talk about what kind of MMORPG would be able to get a long-term commitment from me:
A fantasy sandbox game with a strong IP behind it.

What do I mean by sandbox game? I’m looking for a world that gives players a sense of progression without having to fight if one does not feel like it. As far as single-player games go, the Elder Scrolls and GTA series have shown what virtual worlds can look like. Skyrim offered a fantastic, open world with tons of content to discover and the ability to be modified by fans all over the world. GTA V, which releases on September 17, has awed players with a realistic and beautiful recreation of Southern California and will allow players to do whatever they feel like in its virtual world. The space MMO EVE Online is famous for letting players do battles and trades while creating their own story lines. A few weeks ago, two of the largest alliances fought one of the largest battles in history, which was covered by mainstream websites such as The Verge.

Nowadays MMORPGs seem so focused on letting players just get new gear and beat bigger, badder bosses. It has become somewhat like the rat race in the real world with gear and better stats being the only worthwhile goals. I’d really relish a game which awards crafting and exploring. A game which would allow guilds to build alliances and enemies, with ways of getting NPCs as support.

I prefer the fantasy setting over the sci-fi setting. After all, there are so many dystopian novels out there about humans leaving the real world for the perfection of an online utopia (Ready Player One as a prime example). With a fantasy world, that wouldn’t happen. After all, who would want leave behind electricity and modern sanitation devices?
But a world with a healthy emphasis on story by developers and players alike, with innovative methods of progression, would be a step in the right direction. Players often need an incentive to do things. But how about giving guilds the ability to recruit NPCs for them, which in turn offer quests to either fight an enemy, craft a weapon or explore a ruin, depending on your play style? Or all three options for completionists? I’m sure that if players are given the option to create or choose a way, they will cherish it.

More freedom to choose and the choice having an actual long-term impact would be great. Guild Wars 2 had the right idea with their origin stories. But how about being able to choose to be a noble human with your mate choosing to be a low-born soldier. Now, you as a noble get the opportunity in quests and story to work together with your friend. In the end you can secure him the knighthood he has long coveted. On the other hand, maybe another friend is playing a noble with a totally different agenda working against your plans and plotting your downfall.

I also feel that a game like this should have a strong or unique IP behind it. This would attract other fans and make it easier for new players to see where the source material has come from. For instance, I think an MMO set in Westeros about the various houses of Game of Thrones could be a massive success if done correctly. Existing IPs also have the benefit that they often engage players on a different level, since players have always aspired to be like Luke Skywalker or Aragorn (Darth Vader or Loki if you’re looking to play the Dark Side).

As you can see, I have a few ideas about future MMOs, but without a background in-game development, I don’t know how feasible they are. But one can dream.

What are your wishes for future games? What would you envision? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Please also like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

Football season is here!

Last weekend, the first major European league, the Bundesliga, kicked off their new season. Today, Switzerland faces Brazil in a much anticipated friendly to prepare for the upcoming World Cup qualification games. And in three day, my beloved Arsenal FC starts the new Premier League season with exactly one new signing against Aston Villa. But most importantly, it’s only eight days until I can play my first game of the new season with my local club, SC Zollikon. What’s special about the first game of the season is the fact that it’s a highly competitive winner-takes-it-all cup game against our local game.

This year in football will be a very intriguing, so naturally, I’m extremely excited. In Germany, FC Bayern will try to repeat it’s brilliant triple year with the highly rated Pep Guardiola at the helm and a squad featuring almost unparalleled squad depth. Borussia Dortmund is widely seen as the only challenger with the rest of the 16 teams left to scrape for the third place.

In Spanish La Liga, the departure of the Special One, Jose Mourinho from Real Madridwill have a great impact on the yearly fight between them and FC Barcelona. The club from the capital invested heavily in new young, talented players, but their most expensive transfer, Gareth Bale from Tottenham FC, hasn’t been confirmed despite a rumored world record 120 million bid. And their Catalan rival was able to sign the biggest prize of the summer with Brazilian superstar Neymar, who showed his class with during Brazil’s Confederations Cup win.

Whereas Spain and Germany are constricted by a duel at the top, the Premier League is primed for a highly competitive season. The top three of the last season have all changed their managers, with David Moyes replacing the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho returning to Chelsea and Manchester City getting Villareal coach Manuel Pellegrini. Only Arsenal have kept their manager, but have missed out on every reported transfer target they had this summer. It remains to be seen how the clubs will fare with their new coaches.

Looming large at the horizon however, is the World Cup next summer in Brazil. The biggest sport event of the world will be sure to on the minds of every player wanting to play themselves into their national teams. This virtually guarantees a highly competitive and interesting season in all of the major leagues, unlike next year, where most stars will be suffering from the lack of rest and increased need of focus. I hope Switzerland manages to qualify, but am looking forward to celebrating the beautiful sport in 11 months time nonetheless.

On a local level, my local club will look to improve on our fantastic last season, which ended with us missing out on promotion by one point by playing better football and progressing past the first round of the cup for the first time in years. For me, this is my second year after knee surgery, so I definitely feel more fit and comfortable than last year.
I’m really looking forward to show that feeling on the pitch. Should you have the time and enjoy football, you should definitely check out the games of your local club as you’ll be able to meet a lot of interesting people from your village.

See you on Friday with the next chapter of An Elusive Hero!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

The Joy of going to the Cinema

I’ve written in-depth blog posts about books and video games a few times in this spot, so it’s time to take a look at the next fantastic form of entertainment: Movies and more specifically, watching them in a cinema. Summer is a weird time for movie fans. On the one hand, Hollywood normally goes all-in and releases their summer blockbusters with gigantic marketing budgets and a whole lot of name recognition. On the other hand, the weather outside is so beautiful that sitting in a dark room staring at an admittedly large screen doesn’t seem so attractive. With clouds making their first appearance in Switzerland after two weeks of clear sky, my friends and I took the opportunity to watch the heist movie “Now You See Me”.

I’m glad to say the quality of the movie experience in Switzerland has improved in the last few years, with ticket prices becoming slightly more affordable. Watching the well thought out illusions and tricks the magicians / bank robbers pulled off in the film on the big screen, made think about my appreciation of seeing movies at the cinema. The atmosphere of the surroundings is an important part of how I perceive and rate a movie after seeing it.

Star Wars – Episode 1 in 3D didn’t suddenly turn JarJar Binks into a less annoying character, but the big screen brought Anakin’s race to a whole new level compared to watching it on TV. With the special effects becoming more spectacular and complex with every passing year, movie theaters still are the best stages for movies to work their magic. The spectacular superhero movies, some of which I loved (Avengers, Iron Man, Batman by Nolan) and some of which I found rather poor (Man of Steel, Toby Maguire’s Spiderman), are still best viewed in the darkness of movie theaters including their bombastic sound environments.

Of course, it is not only the technical advantage which make going to the cinema one of my favorite pastimes. The habit of getting friends together, ready to see what kind of story the director and writers have planned out and how the actors will bring their characters to life, already gives the build-up to the movie a sense of excitement and wonder. And then, as soon as I’m sitting in my comfortable (depending on the theater) seat, the ad and previews commence. The trailers are one of the most important part of my cinema experience. They get me into the right mind set and show me a glimpse of what’s yet to come. It also signals the time to turn off your cellphone, making the cinema one of the only places nowadays where people actually are disconnected for 90 – 120 minutes. After the movie ends, it continues with discussions about the movie, especially if it was either spectacular or spectacularly bad and looking up actors and actresses on IMDB, making the movie stick with me for longer. I still remember the worst movie I saw in the cinema, while I couldn’t say which one was the worst I’ve seen on TV.

Unfortunately, living in a small country with a tiny movie market also means some of the smaller independent movies don’t make it here. Mostly this concerns coming-of-age movies or dramedys, which are loved by critics at Sundance. However, these films also transfer best to the small screen and are not the movies most of my friends enjoy. So I guess I can just wait for the DVD or iTunes release. Four of the top five movies I’m most looking forward to this year belong in this category: Don Jon, Joseph Gorden-Levitts directional debut; Short Term 12, with the stunning Brie Larson as the lead; The Way Way Back and The Spectacular Now, two coming-of-age films capturing the imagery I enjoy so much best. The only blockbuster I’m still waiting to come out is Thor 2, which will hopefully add another entertaining milestone to the Avengers movie universe.

How about you? Do you prefer watching movies at home or at the movies? Which movies are looking forward to? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to like, subscribe and share!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

What I’ve learned from Video Games

Over the last weeks I’ve noticed how video games have become a vital part of daily life and culture in general. The kids on the bus are busy playing on their cellphones, conversations in bars are about the newest gameplay video for GTA V and hangouts are dedicating to battling each other in FIFA. For this generation, playing games on a console, computer or cellphone is totally normal, like watching a movie or reading a book. I’ve looked at how books, movies and videos are intertwined in this post, so today will be dedicated to the benefits and perks of (video) gaming.

I’ve played games on a Gameboy or on PC for years (my gaming history). My favorite genres are roleplaying games (RPGs), which allow me to immerse myself in fantastic adventures.  They take me to faraway worlds based on the medieval age or the distant, dystopian future. These games can be compared to “choose-your-adventure” books, as the developers often tell an elaborate story, while allowing you to pick the path your hero will wander down. Many of the them are set in an expansive universe, with in-game books and codices with stories and background information waiting to be discovered. Playing them, I’ve learned to not be afraid to explore your surroundings, but instead to check out every corner and nook for a hidden item or easter egg. Good RPGs award the curious.

The next genre I’m fond of are Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), which take roleplaying games to the next level by adding other players to the equation. They’re similar to RPGs in wanting to tell a great story, but they include various elements of teamwork and competition. Throughout the game, you’ll encounter challenges that can’t be overcome alone and you’ll need to seek out help from others. This encourages teamwork and makes gaming a very social affair. I’ve met a lot of interesting people just by asking them if they would help me out fight virtual monsters. Unfortunately recent MMORPGs have made a lot of their content easier so they can also be completed alone. This has lead to the decline of one of the most interesting aspects of the genre: actually playing with others.

Another element in MMORPGs are Player-vs-Player (PVP) environments which allow you to test your skills against others. This can be compared to most modern-day team sports. Most PVP battles also involve a great amount of teamwork and strategy. Putting players in the right spot, preparing a plan for a battle or surprising the opponent with a well-timed attack is a great way to learn the value of great leadership and teamwork. It is important that every player tries to improve their own skill as much as possible and then plays their position as the team needs them to do. This is no different to football. Of course, sports has various health benefits, but studies have also shown that gaming can improve your reflexes and visual skills.

Last, but not least, I’d also like to talk about strategy games. If the game is properly balanced, this genre can be compared to the centuries-old board game chess, where every move from an opponent can and should be adequately countered. The name of the genre already says it all, playing these games has shown me that choosing the right strategy is everything. Knowing when to fight and how to pick the right spots for a confrontation have helped me in confrontations. And of course, they’ve taught me that access to advanced technology often leads to victory.

People used to look at video games as an inferior form of entertainment, asking why a person would waste his or her time playing them. On the other hand, you rarely see someone asking a person reading why they are wasting their time reading. I haven’t heard many question people who like movies. Of course, this also depends on the quality of the books and movies in question. Games are no different. Some games are definitely not worth the time, but many modern-day classics should be experienced and savored.  Even if they do not teach you anything, they will hopefully succeed in telling a fantastic story or make you appreciate the art they’ve created. As you can see, the time I spent in virtual worlds has inspired me and taught me a fair deal of things institutional education never achieved.

On Friday, “An elusive hero”, the story, returns after a two-week hiatus. I hope you’re looking forward to it! Thank you for reading and please like, share and subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

Albert

Getting into the world of graphic novels

Summer is here and I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time reading and exploring the worlds fantastic authors have created. I wrote a bit about my current reading list in this post. To celebrate the end of my exams I rewarded myself with the complete Sandman series, which I’ve been diving into the last few days.

And I have to say, I love the series so far. The Sandman series chronicles the adventures of the it’s title-giving main character, the ruler of the realm of dreams. His adventures include journeys to the past, greek and norse mythology and modern-era noir fiction. The diversity of stories is striking. It took a while for me to get used to the format, as chapters were first released in different comics before being bound together as the graphic novel, so they felt very disconnected at first. But after grasping the main context, the style became very enjoyable and I’ve learned to appreciate how the story branches out and comes together again.
I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman and his writing is not only very gripping, but also extremely inventive and beautiful.

Another reason why I want to get into the world of graphic novels is the rise of superhero movies. I looked at the connection between movies, games and books in my blog post last week. Yesterday, I watched the latest summer blockbuster, Man of Steel. While I was impressed by some of the actors (most notably Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe), I found the movie as a whole to be overly long and disappointing. In my opinion, the newest Superman reboot lacked focus and dragged on for an unfortunate amount of time. Some of the scenes had impressive special effects (the crashing buildings were particularly impressive), but the movie failed to show Superman’s vulnerability to me. He just comes across as too powerful and invincible. At no point of the story I felt as if he was in danger of losing the fight against his enemies. Obviously, this doesn’t make for compelling cinema. His invincibility made me think about the superman comics and if and how they’ve managed to convey his weaknesses. Are they more successful? And if yes, which books should I look into?

My favorite superhero is the other big character from the DC universe: the caped crusader also known as Batman. Growing up, I loved the animated series with their animated “Bam!” and “Pow!”s. In the recent Christopher Nolan films, the Dark Knight is constantly seen fighting with his inner demons or an enemy completely unpredictable and different from him. I feel like graphic novels as a medium are more forgiving of this kind of interludes as they inject some much-needed context and backstory. However, in movies they can feel overly long, especially if the enemy is not threatening enough. While it’s clear that it’s difficult to kill off the titular character, it should at least feel like there’s something at stake during their journey. “The Dark Knight” stands out in this regard, with the late Heath Ledger playing his Joker as a menacing and destructive force capable of anything. Watching the film, you can’t help but wonder what he’s up to next and if he’ll be successful. In general, I feel like a superhero is only as strong as his villains are. And in the comic book universe, there is much more room to explore these villains. So: Which Batman books would you recommend? The Frank Miller series?

This post is just a brief overview of some of my thoughts on graphic novel and comics. Most importantly, I would like to hear some of your recommendation for comics or graphic novels which I shouldn’t miss. So let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

I’m back Friday with Chapter 9 of an elusive hero and some exciting news about the blog.

Sincerely yours,
Albert