You would be fumble for excuses not to attend when handed your ticket to this dismal event, dear reader. I would receive stuttering falsifications about mythical prior engagements and sick relatives; the thinnest of veils and most inept of obfuscations. But who could blame a person for skirting the tragedy that is the NGAAT Boat Festival for 2012. Without further ado, let me smash the Pink Mink against the bow of this rickety beast, await non-existent applause and wave to an empty dock as the most unseaworthy of events rolls down into the waves to sink immediately.
Unlike last year, we shall pile it on like Creosote’s breakfast and not stop merely at gaming. So, tuck into those wafers and settle the heaving rump. Behold, a wreck to end them all.
Julius Marlow’s Prostate Check Award for Most Stylish Reboot
Perhaps it’s not so much of a stretch when set against the Western rise of the Visual Novel, but imagine my surprise when I find a long-lost genre reanimated in a glorious shower of cybernetic gore and language parsers. CYPHER: Cyberpunk Text Adventure is a vibrant modern take on the Infocom experience of yore. Roaming through a classic Eighties-style rain-soaked-and-neon-lit vision of the future with nothing but your ability to linguistically knife your way through the puzzles and situations, this Argentinian creation by the Cabrera Brothers was certainly an unexpected delight.
Not only was the quality of the writing great – a given, considering the style of game it is – but the developers rustled up a massive slew of printable accoutrements in the spirit of the text-adventure heyday. Massive reams of mocked-up commercialism from this near-future dystopia, a paper-craft robot, artwork and wallpapers – the whole Deckardian spread. A terrific, if a little parser-inflexible, game that will sort the adults from those things we tend to create a lot of. You know. When the, uh, goes into the, um…
As an aside, the last text adventure I played was Legend Entertainment’s Gateway. Frederik Pohl would be proud.
Roger Federer’s Chest Award for Damn Serious Gaming
I have this chronic and terminal love for Eugen Systems. Those French Gods. Those divine le Dressay brothers, bathed in the light of celestial faultlessness. After RUSE, I thought – in some strange and largely positive take on the Mortal Kombat mythology – that heaven and Earth had collided and we were free to shunt tank stacks in the presence of angels. But no, Eugen were about to take us beyond Ragnarok and into a realm of synaptic pleasure so rich, no mere human could possibly comprehend where reality ended and fantasy began.
This hyperbole was uttered in feeble, final breaths from the smouldering carcass of a shattered Scimitar, as Soviet gunships thwopped past to inspect their handiwork. Wargame: European Escalation is, at the risk of setting the New Gamer Movement back ten years, a Man’s Game. And by Man, I mean pudgy grognard and those who know a little too much about Cold War military technology to be trusted beyond ‘uneasy acquaintance’ in the teledex categories.
Featuring 2012’s best – yes, I didn’t unload the palette of Kenobian absolutes for nothing – graphics, which did justice to the highly detailed environments and units, Wargame: European Escalation remains a lonely watermark of excellence. Lonely in that, while incredible, was just a touch too niche in concept for the bumbling herd of ruminate consumers. I shouldn’t judge, given that 2012 was dominated by strategy experiences in the MOBA/DOTA sphere. But I will. I will judge. People should be all over this masterpiece. They should be relishing the delicious era of burgeoning electronically-controlled weapons systems and all the steel tonnage that is part and parcel of conventional warfare.
Wargame: European Escalation is a game for all to enjoy, and a pox on all the houses who forewent it for some fantasy-themed cheese fondue with a toxic community. Lords Manage yourself the hell out of my office and DOTA you come back.
Jean-Claude’s Warm, Wet Tears Award for Big Guns Going Small
While I towel off to avert an pressure front of pheromones wafting over all of you, my tumescence remains and points proudly at the offices of Amplitude. The Kevin Bacon here is that one of the production heads on RUSE, Mathieu Girard – formerly of Ubisoft – decided to drop from the cruising altitude of triple A development and fly gleefully over the treetops of independent game-making. What we got was a double-barrelled blast of goodness.
One, Girard and his team set up the GAMES2GETHER model of community interaction within the development process. Active members on the forum could suggest ideas and have a close and constant discussion with the developers from milestone to milestone. An integrated voting system highlighted what the community wanted, but at the same time, it was managed effectively as to not dilute or bastardise Amplitude’s vision. It worked.
Oh, and yeah, that other barrel discharge? A terrific 4x space empire builder. And a coup for UI design in the strategy sphere. Endless Space remains a divine thing to play, with any deficits in character or mechanics amiss either already seen to in updates and patches, or on a list being stalked by the authoritative nib of a marking pen.
While we’ve seen a lot of big developers turn to smaller projects over this increasingly carnivorous and ultimately unsustainable production and industry environment, the Girard story is my pick for not only striking out without the usual saddlebags of Kickstarter or turning to iOS, but for creating a viable system of consumer enfranchisement that, instead of producing another Elemental, gave us a killer experience with an invested future.
The Come In, Palmerstone Award for One-Man Army Antics
Christopher Lambert must be haunted by that one line. However, unlike it being some sort of tragic allegory for the man’s cinematic cardiogram, sometimes it is truly for the best. And while the Internet is a treasure-trove of dedicated one-dev projects, I cannot in good faith consider anyone more apt for this nomination. Chad Mauldin, formerly of Day-One Studios, set out to create what is ostensibly Chromehounds for PC. By himself.
If there can only be one, then I’ll take it.
Modular Assault Vehicle, or MAV, is just one of those rarities in the wild realm of independent video game production where there is such a solid mechanical core, implemented by a bloke who knows not only his craft so deeply, but knows exactly what the target is. A high-concept yet ultimately lean multiplayer-focused mech game. As such, there is no airy-fairy nebulousness about it, no tortured idealism or message. Not to say those things aren’t warranted or worth investigating, but damn it if I would deny myself the gravitational pull of this hydraulic heaviness. One man carving a game from the dreams of a niche collection. A stunning effort thus far, with the FCS directing all weapon groups towards a big, broad horizon.
The Jason Gillespie Chittagong Award for Tail-Ender Surprises
Two splendid efforts here, and one on that infernal iOS device. First of all, Starfarer. While most people were indulging in their Star Trek Dating Simulator, or whatever that Bioware jug of soggy tissues was, a tiny band of indie space cadets unleashed an early build of what is possibly one of the best tactical space combat games we’ve seen since…hell, I blame the herd in saying we’ve not seen something like this in years. See what the buffoons have done? Robbed us of exciting and intricate gems because they’d prefer to hand over their wages to corporate monstrosities and their evil sausage machines.
In short, Starfarer is a highly-detailed top-down combat sim-lite, with a wealth of customisation and RPG elements. Configure your ships, configure your weapon loadout, configure your weapon grouping, configure you passive and defensive systems, configure until the cows come home. What’s more pleasing is that the entire experience is rock-solid, has an beautiful interface and wildly accomplished controls. Now, you CAN roll about with Commander Shoppert or Shipfad and muster a diminished chub in an awkward, laughable polygon root scene on the Citadel…OR, you can tear off that flimsy member and grow a new one, made entirely from Starfarer-brand Space Steel™, and walk proud and menacing as you master the ins and outs of technical combat.
The other effort is a little Splash Damage spin-off. RAD Soldiers is an asynchronous multiplayer-centric squad-based strategy for iOS, and while that combo of awesome settles on the palate, I will offer a Bordeaux Riesling – on the house – in reminding you it is free. Not only that, but unlike the usual pitfalls of the Free-To-Play market, it seems to have its head squarely screwed on. Expansion packs for maps and challenges are reasonably priced, with in-game currency well-tuned for accumulation simply by playing. Great customisation, which has become the official Word of the Jason Gillespie award, with new units, weaponry and items built into player levelling. Of course, spend a little real-world coinage and you’ll find a faster-tracked experience, but it does seem like we’re dealing with a game where ‘pay to win’ has been relegated to sitting quietly in the back alley, aptly ignored.
Highly recommended. And free, so unless you’re some sort of cork-sniffer or lacking the platform requirements, there is literally no excuse. Literally. Could not be more literal. Monasteries, parchment and a quill-toting abbot-level literal.
The Dili Downpipe Shotgun Blast of Honourable Mentions
Like that vile but oh-so-satisfying hawking of phlegm in the shower, sometimes you’ve just got to get it out. The following make the exclusive race, and while edged out by a nose in the prestigious awards delivered above, still get a lifetime subscription to The Watchtower and a complimentary one night stay in the Grong Grong hotel. Second prize is two nights at the Grong Grong hotel.
The Walking Dead – Wow. I am the first to roll my eyes are characterisation in games. But this one? While having an increasing appreciation for the AMC television series, this game made the intellectual property more than simply a half-decent TV show and comic books I’ve never read. I measure this moving Choose Your Own Adventure book against good dramas, instead of applying the usual caveat of “…well, for a game, at least!”. Incredibly tense, great use of episodic content and a benchmark for all games that concern themselves with player investment and storytelling. An absolutely essential experience for both game narrative snobs and those who are interested in seeing the medium at its most enthralling.
Hotline Miami – A blood and neon-soaked slice of top-down puzzle-solving by any means necessary. You simply cannot honestly say you had your finger on the pulse of gaming in 2012 if you did not play Hotline Miami. Intoxicating, bilious, empowering, humbling, grubby, surgical, toxic insanity. Go and read the review I did with Tristan Dutch Damen and feel that blood on your hands.
Faster Than Light – Getting from A to B. Well, getting from A to B with a raft of crazy adventures between. From rescuing stranded cosmonauts to battling pirates, upgrading ships with drones and weapons to boarding enemy vessels and targeting subsystems. And fires. Oh, the fires. If you’ve an appreciative bone in your body for science-fiction – yes, even if it’s one of those little tympanic bones – then you owe it to yourself to play Faster Than Light. Serious geekery packages within serious game. Good friend Mark Whiting wrote a massive review that takes a light year to read, but is well worth it for deep insight into why Faster Than Light matters.
Teleglitch – This bizarre Estonian indie outing plays like top-down Doom. In fact, it kind of feels like a rewired Hotline Miami, sent through a more industrial pixelator and stapled onto a rogue-like. It’s not a true rogue-like, but Teleglitch is similarly hard as hell and takes no prisoners. This sci-fi survival horror feels very much like ALIEN3, rather than ALIENS, and since that’s the franchise’s most underrated cinema outing, you can kind of see where the appeal lies. Brutal, lonely, haphazard and deliciously good. Review for the curious.
Cargo Commander – Absolute gold. No, better than gold. Platinum. Platinum stripped from space derelicts by the weary old hands of a space trucker dreaming of home. This Dutch effort stole my heart early this year with its light-hearted and somewhat subversive take on, again, the rogue-like formula. Optimising your way through the darkened hulks of drifting containers on the edge of a black hole, accumulating loot for the company and dodging alien menaces within the containers snagged from the void, Cargo Commander is one of the year’s must-play games. Have a damn review, if you need more convincing.
Krater – This is actually my Game Of The Year, but I figure I can link to the GamesAreEvil article when the contributor-supplied event goes live. In short? Here, I’ll shamefully quote myself:
From an artistic perspective, Krater is a treasure trove. From a gameplay perspective, it’s a rollicking, chunky globule of MOBA combat with ARPG trappings in crafting and upgrading. From a holistic point of view, Krater is the damn finest thing I’ve played in 2012.
Sister’s Panties Award for Unexpected Pleasure
I’m no music snob. Well, not really. Like any shmoe, there are the comfortable fits and familiarities that are easy to tune in to, but it is the path not usually taken that deserves special mention. And this year – pretending for a moment that this is not the award’s inauguration – I bestow it upon Lana Del Rey and her expanded Paradise Edition of Born To Die.
Without sounding like a Pitchfork Media review – i.e., enjoying the spine-snapping satisfaction of roosting inside one’s own rectum – I think Lana Del Rey encapsulates a large slice of modern American mythos. The adulation of the fake. The vacuous watermarks of success. The vapid Dada-esque idealism of society and celebrity. Del Rey’s very own blatantly manufactured retro-songbird sound and look are part and parcel of this curious celebration. Especially when set against the backdrop of a powerhouse culture on uneven economic footing and the core of this social idolatry, it feels somewhat perverse and more than a little insipid.
And yet…and YET…I think that’s part of the Del Rey experience. It is a shining example of this nebulous, uncountable mirage writ large. A compact, gorgeous, unintellectual pondering on the American Dream. A modern take on a classical era. An Anna Nicole Smith scraping for Marilyn Monroe cred, and while Del Rey never descends to that level of deplorable tragedy, most of Born To Die feels like it comes from that same place. Del Rey seems to want to exist in this dreamscape. It’s an intoxicating blend of kitschy romance with a forlorn contemporary narcissism that makes me forgive the slightly shallow lyrics and just dissolve comfortably in this strange creation.
I’m very much looking forward to further things from Miss Lizzy Grant, but for the time being, I’ll be here, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and swirling my toe in the narcoleptic wonderland that is Lana Del Rey.
You’re Also A DJ, Aren’t You, Chad! Award for Solid Synthetics
I had no idea who Matthew Dear was at the start of the year. And if you went solely off his website, you’d be excused if you broke the glass and punched the Hipster Alert. However, Matthew Dear’s Beams album is an astoundingly solid slice of electronic music. In the vein of Mouse On Mars with an infused loungecore vocal styling, Dear has created a very playful and never boring release. Not a single dud on the CD. In fact, the last album I heard which never incited a gravitational pull towards the skip button was the aforementioned Mouse On Mars’ Radical Connector, oh so many years ago.
There isn’t much more I can say about this one, outside of it being my imagined party album of 2012. But I don’t have parties. And as such, the fact Beams scythed through my social interaction glacier should be seen as a victory of outlandishly massive proportion.
Skrillex Who? Award for Drum And Bass In The Place, Innit!
A double-header for this cleansing brand of dance music. A bold bid to rid us of dubstep’s cloying reverberations, I pick two stunning DnB releases for trash duty; S.P.Y.’s What The Future Holds and Machines by Russian producer Enei. An aural peeling cream for those afflicted by the lazy, squelchy musical equivalent of prefabricated housing.
S.P.Y., not to be confused with the Korean horse trainer, has produced one of those albums that takes you back to the days of Roni Size; to the era of Goldie and those layered, club-friendly female vocals drizzled over the top of surgical snares and hats. It has a mysterious, wet weather quality about it, not unlike the 3AM drizzle found in Burial, but this one is pure 11PM concrete. Dare I suggest that more than a few tracks on What The Future Holds are, ahem, anthemic? Yes, I dare.
Enei’s Machines is on the darker end of the spectrum, with a crazy bag of sonic tricks pressed into the crunchier beats. Honouring the Jungle roots, Machines is a minor monster when it comes to delivering a slightly more raw and ready sound. That said, it’s not a perfect album. Listening to it from go to woe probably does more to dampen the experience than emphasis the terrific song structure on an individual level. Samey? No. It just works better in chunks. Perhaps dropped into a playlist where you can savour the flavour in smaller servings. Either way, don’t play it when driving, as Machines has the propensity to cause the accelerator to stick to the floor.
Stafford City Carpark Award for Quickest Listener Burnout
This prestigious award goes to that affable, cuter-than-a-button ditz Claire ‘Grimes’ Boucher and Visions; ushered upon the Canadian starlet because she crafted a clutch of songs just so damn listenable. And as such, I listened until I could listen no more. I am very much done with Visions like an American is done with three kilos of smoked ribs. Satisfied, but any more and I run the risk of chundering.
Which is not what I want to do, because she’s a summertime Enya for drug-addled 20-something festive goers and her stuff is great, in a bubblegum electro kind of way. The follow-up to Visions is the real question, because that seraphic echo and the simplistic Casio beats are ripe for warping.
The Russell Crowe Arena Award for Being Very Much Entertained
Without question, the standout television event of 2012 – despite the season being still underway – is American Horror Story: Asylum. This show, given what the writers stuff into the show, should be an utter trainwreck. A completely inoperable shemozzle. However, it works. It works deliciously. Being an anthology, the writers never have to worry about season carry-over arcs and are thus offered far more freedom than confinement by the limited number of episodes.
There’s a wild, unbridled, saucy enthusiasm by the cast; performances are visibly relished. If the first season was a sexed-up reinvigoration of a tired trope, this is pulp horror and the kitchen sink. We’ve got serial killers, demonic possessions, Nazi experiments, alien abductions and a slew of other insane narrative injections; defying what would otherwise birth a wheezing, malformed chimera and creating a maniacal beast of irresistible, racy delight.
From Zachary Quinto to Jessica Lange, James Cromwell to Lily Rabe and Evan Peter; every single actor seems to be having as much fun as I am, sitting there on my arse loving the absolute bejeezus out of the show. Not many series get that kind of personal reaction, even the greats from HBO. Absolutely stellar, off-kilter fun.
Oh, and Ian McShane’s guest role? The year’s most sinister performance.
Mariana Trench Award for Fastest Drop-Off
This appalling award goes to none other than Homeland. How can a show go from something so great to something so silly? I’d like to think that we’re paying for our sins in accepting such a gutless final episode in the first season – one of the very few marks against Homeland’s name in an otherwise stellar run – but you can’t hold it against a production company for wanting to keep a good thing going.
Turns out you can, and you damn well should.
Season two kicked off rather strongly, but decided to show its hand too early. There simply wasn’t enough meat left on the bone to continue the cat and mouse psychology between the CIA and the conflicted hero-terrorist Nicholas Brody once his charade was turned against former captor Abu Nazir and company. Homeland thereafter struggled. We had silly side-stories involving hit and runs and Carrie Mathison acting in such idiotic fashion that you wouldn’t hire her for shopping trolley collection, let alone keep her on at the CIA. Jessica Brody and the wearyingly torturous consternation of Dana are, strangely, the least offensive of the bunch. Which leaves Saul simply to offer that joyless bearded smirk. His line from the last episode of Season two summed up this year’s continuation.
“You are the smartest and the dumbest f***ing person I’ve ever known.”
Creator Alex Gansa has admitted as much, so hopefully the third and final season should be a lot better than what we got in 2012. If I could Skynet the whole operation and deploy a contained season-length arc directive in the same way American Horror Story does it, then by God, do I think it’d be some bold television; to not have the fire that burned so brightly reduced to such middling intellectual embers that you’d be hard pressed to get a marshmallow toasted.
Straight To The Pool Room Award for Top Australian Production
There’s a nice little homegrown rat-pack of acting talent lurking down under these days, and frankly, there always has been. While most tend to abandon the Antipodes at the first sign of bigger things across the Pacific, good work does get done before they leave. Names like Damon Gameau, Lachy Hulme, Brendan Cowell, Asher Keddie and Jessica Tovey might not be household names – especially in the United States – but these young performers are absolutely magnificent and coupled with what I truculently nominate as Australia’s Aaron Sorkin (minus the artesian smug basin) in Christopher Lee (no, not THAT one), are utterly world class. Enter Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War.
But maybe I’m being parochial or jingoistic. Or perhaps, Lachy Hulme’s portrayal of the late media mogul ‘who not only looks like a hammerhead shark, but acts like one’, Kerry Packer, and his tenacious struggle to get World Series Cricket into the limelight, rightly deserves the exultation and adulation from all and sundry. It’s a corker.
Yes. It’s the latter. A two-part miniseries that celebrates the growth of international cricket, an age of sporting personalities and their incremental marketability, the voracious and often loathsome Packer, and an era in Australian history that continues to bear fine fruit for screenplays.
While the first episode is stronger than the second, it culminates in a fascinating representation of one of the biggest feats in not only sporting history, but entrepreneurial prowess on a global scale. Unlike the comfortably insular world of American sports, this was a grassroots movement for cricketers across the globe that was engineered by a single vindictive, ruthless but ultimately passionate newspaper magnate. Truly a sport that deserves ‘World Series’ attached, but moreover, truly an effort worth examining. Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War is a drama raht orff thuh meat of thuh bhet. And if that little description means anything to you, you’d have already watched the damn thing.
The Eastman 910 Award for Unexpected Excellence
Oh my. To think I’d be listed this as one of the best films of 2012. Oh, how the intelligentsia must be picturing my cultural credibility dribbling down the drain. Their loss, I say, as it is with remarkable pleasure that I list John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning as this year’s film that caught me completely by surprise.
The action genre has been dominated by dismal, creatively-beached juggernauts for years now. We get the odd flash of brilliance here and there, but ultimately, the straight action flick is a thing of the past. This is either out of embarrassment on the part of production companies – who wants to make non-ironic action films?! – or simply this inability to revitalise such films for a modern audience. You only have to squint at the Die Hard franchise to see where things went pear-shaped (hint: it was when terrorists tried to ‘hack the internet’). And thus, we are left with over-produced Michael Bay wankfests. CGI semen absolutely everywhere.
In walks John Hyams, son of old directorial hand Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010, Sudden Death, End of Days, etc.) and reboots this classic cornball franchise in 2009 with Universal Soldier: Regeneration. While a very serviceable and very enjoyable throwback not only to the token action films of the late 80s and early 90s, it had a touch of Frankenheimer and other great directors that worked their magic in the later stages of the Cold War. While the premise was fairly cut and dry, the greenlight given to make another offered Hyams the creative freedom and impetus to craft something much more unique.
Indeed, Van Damme and Lundgren are back, but in very enigmatic supporting roles. That’s a very useful word to describe Day of Reckoning. Enigmatic. It’s a stylistically subversive film, given what people might come to expect from both the franchise and the actors within. Day of Reckoning feels like a lucid dream, with little characterisation or explanation outside of the bare minimum. This may confound some viewers, but instead of the blunt plots we’re used to in action films, this is a refreshing change that only helps to emphasise the dislocation of these once-government-run human attack dogs.
With superb cinematography from Yaron Levy and Carpenter and Noe-esque sound design by Michael Krassner, we wander through this bizarre and subtle apocalypse of burnt, compressed humanity through the tortured half-lives of zombie Übermenschen. This is ostensibly a sci-fi horror film of sorts, with a curious and rather legitimate psychological bent weaving throughout. The action scenes are some of the best choreographed I’ve seen in years, foregoing the sloppy quick-cutting techniques now proliferated as the norm in Hollywood today. Hyams has a deft eye for combat and his previous master stroke in casting MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski returns here. The fighting is brutal and harrowing, never glorified. Gratuitous, yes. Celebrated, no.
After all, the strange tragedy of these testosterone-ridden husks is simply their violent, constricted outlet being so singular in nature. We can appreciate their prowess, but never envy their reason to be.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a remarkable semi-arthouse action film. It might not work for everyone, but those who want something different from a film style of yore without having to settle for the usual cheese fondue would do well to check this one out. See if the Red Band trailer does anything for you.
And that, dear reader, is the NGAAT Boat Festival List for 2012. Winners will receive a poorly-photocopied certificate in the mail.