I think we as a gaming collective have lost sight of something.
Something very crucial.
Something that brought us to these contraptions to begin with.
Now, don't go throwin' some hissy fit here or anything. Of course, we play games to have fun. To escape from a dreary real life. To vent some steam. To experience fantastic new worlds. And those are all fine and good; don't get me wrong. There's just.... Something missing much of the time. And it's especially prevelant these days. I can write almost countless articles on retro games on a weekly basis, but I sometimes have to struggle to think of a new modern game to write about every month.
I fully admit to having my head stuck in the past. Part of why I can write with such dedication about Retro games every week is because of that. I have a lot of thoughts to vent about stuff I've played in my youth and from years before. But what is it about the games of old that strikes such a liking from me that a lot of modern games don't?
Well, as said above, it's the level of fun they invoke.
To demonstrate this fact, I'm going to bring TWO games to the table this month! (weren't expecting that now were ya)
Just Cause 2 and Skyrim.
There are many factors that are different between them, but at the core, these two run quite a few parallels.
1) Both are sandbox games.
2) Both of them have a main storyline, but it can be done at your liesure. There's no time limit between them or great pressure to complete them quickly.
3) Both feature staggeringly huge virtual worlds that are packed with amazing amounts of detail put into nearly every nook and cranny.
4) Both can boast a great number of side quests and non-essential missions to complement the main story.
There may be more, but I think this works as a basis.
The point I'm getting at is; both these games can be played at whatever pace you want with no consequences, and getting 100% completion in either one would literally require months of time. (without some measure of cheating, of course)
But the two take a drastically different approach in many ways. The most prominent aspect, and the one we'll be discussing the most today, is how much fun these games are.
Okay okay! Stop yelling at me! Let me rephrase that better!
Fun is, of course, relative. Different people have different opinions. Some like their modern gunslinging and car driving, others enjoy Tolkein-esque settings with bows, axes and magic in plentiful supply. The two games are set in completely different types of worlds. Just Cause 2 has guns, jets, and nukes. Skyrim has swords, potions and dragons. The two treat their audiences very differently simply out of the fact that the time periods are starkly different from each other. But it runs a bit deeper than that! Quite a bit deeper, actually. The people who made these two games had very different idea's behind them. They both set out to accomplish two very different things, despite the similarities mentioned above.
For brevity's sake, let's put it simply: One takes itself seriously, the other does not.
This is a very important, and obvious, distinction. Almost every gameplay element is impacted by this simple fact.
In Skyrim, you feel like a badass because you're accomplishing inhuman feats through grit, magic, potions and heavy equipment made of iron that you crafted yourself. In Just Cause 2, you feel like a badass because you tethered a tank and a fighter jet together, drove the tank as fast as possible, then braked at the right time to fling the jet right into a military colonel and his squad.
I admit a slight bias to one of these games; feel free to guess which.
The difference made to the game itself through the choice of tone can be made most simply by the most basic part of the gameplay: Movement. Skyrim has you walking around, sometimes running, often jumping, riding horses, sometimes using various powers to gain bursts of speed, and a fast travel system where you can go anywhere you had gone previously. Just Cause 2 has you walking, sprinting endlessly, using a grapple hook to hoist yourself in any direction, endless parachutes that aid your maneuverbility greatly when you get the hang of them, vehicles, planes, boats, helicopters, goodness knows what else, and a fast travel system where you can go anywhere you had gone previously.
But sure, there's more methods of mobility in Just Cause 2. It's a modern game. That's to be expected. More importantly, however, is the mood those methods of transportation get across.
Skyrim is a rather seriously presented game. Getting around by slowly plodding there on foot or horse serves to make it more realistic, so it feels more grounded, and thus evokes a more serious mood. As if you were actually there, in this amazing world, walking to the next town, picking plants as you go, fending off bandits and wolves as they come.
Just Cause 2 throws anything similar to that kind of emotion out the window. Walking from one place to the other gets boring quite quickly, and even going at a full sprint is still not ideal. Which is where the grappling hook and parachute come in. Moving around quickly under your own power with these is possible, and quite fun. Mastery of the hook and parachute, especially working them in tandem, is the key to success here.
The motif of each game goes beyond what it allows you to do. The way the animations and sound effects display what is happening all evoke a certain mood in each game. Hard pounding of feet while your breath heaves and your armour clanks is a very good way to get across that you're a medieval knight-errant clad in heavy steel, charging to your objective. Enemies taunt appropriately for how cocksure they can be, animals act and howl savagely, and the special kill animations that occur on critical hits show just how savage one has to be to survive in a world like this. The critical kill animations don't occur very often, but when they do it always evokes a reaction from you. They're quite varied between one and the other, and very brutally animated. They occur sufficiently often to be familiar, but seldomly happen enough to get old.
By comparison, Just Cause 2's protagonist barely seems to tire at all from anything, even when sprinting for entire kilometers. Then again, that's kind of the point. Skyrim is built to make you feel like a realistic badass; where determination is what wins you the day. Just Cause 2, however, is made to make you feel like an empowered badass. You casually perform superhuman feats of strength and physics all while absorbing all too many bullets than seems reasonable. Even when moving around, the animations given are fun to watch. When you're flying a jet fighter straight towards an oil rig, and you decide to hop onto the wing of the jet to better jump off, he doesn't carefully climb out of the cockpit and anchor himself into place or anything. He leaps out of the jet and grapples onto the outside of the jet mid-fall. Or when you're riding on the roof of a vehicle while it careens down the highway and the military are hot on your heels with jeeps and bullets, the way that he does a front flip to hang onto the front bumper of the car is just so fun and silly to watch that you just can't take it seriously. Little things like that, again, go very far towards reinforcing the light-hearted nature of the game.
Naturally, another major player in setting the mood here is the music. Of course, everyone knows Skyrim's theme song. For good reason; it's a fantastic piece of choir and percussion. Comparing its theme to the previous games brings further light to the game. Morrwind's theme evokes a strong sense of mystery and intrigue. It almost immediately tells you 'This is a land of grace and the unknown.' Oblivion's theme has a bombastic orchestra playing a song that perfectly evokes a feeling of high fantasy and imperial cities. The song wouldn't be amiss in any fantasy movie at all. Skyrim's theme? Within seconds you know just what this game is gonna be about. And you're pumped as hell.
For what the two developers set out to do, they both accomplished their goal with fantastic results. Playing Skyrim, one is inclined to grit their teeth and cheer out in victory after defeating a tough opponent, whereas in Just Cause 2, my first impulse is usually to laugh, as often something unexpected happens that sometimes brings about either glorious victory or hilairious defeat. Win or lose, it's all fun.
Then again, even dying is something treated differently in the two games. Dying in Skyrim is an inconvenience at best, and is never a pleasent experience. You're losing progress with each death. Albiet not much, as the game autosaves very frequently, but loss nonetheless. This is an understandable trait for a video game; as it has been since the beginning. But when you're at a tough point in the game and you just keep dying and dying and dying, you start losing fun and start getting more and more irked at the game. You can easily save-scum before every single thing to get past a difficult part, but that tends to lead to frustration through repeated tries.
Just Cause 2, it autosaves at death, and nothing is lost. Sure, when you start again, you're very far off at one of few Strongholds you can 'respawn' at, but I feel that works to my advantage. Just Cause 2, when you die, you start off far away from where you were, with full health. You didn't lose anything in your death aside from perhaps a killstreak you had going. Each time you try again, even though you may have hit 'Continue' and are thrown back in the game within seconds (give or take your computer's processing power), you start with a fresh mindset. You didn't lose anything, so open up the map, set a new destination, and just go. Very soon after you've hijacked a car or ordered a helicopter from the black market, and memories of your previous death are long gone.
This reminds me of another crucial difference between the two... Inventory management and leveling. Skyrim has loads of both, and Just Cause 2 has none. This is a natural descision, since Skyrim is a full-blown RPG in most every aspect of the term, and Just Cause 2 is made to be an action game. Still, this impacts everything that they made for each game.
In Skyrim, you can improve any skill in the game from a pidly amount of talent to the absolute best in the land. You improve these skills by, well, doing them. Make some armour and weapons to increase your Smithing skills. Hide and crawl around silently to increase your Sneak skill. It's a simple system that works well and makes sense. Learn by doing and all. What this changes, though, is the fact that your 'build', for lack of a better word, will never be the same. A thief build varies greatly from a Fighter build which is again different from a Mage build. Thus, every single encounter in the game has to adjust to the fact that everyone will be different. Every boss and enemy has to have an equally valid approach for archers, fighters, mages, thieves, and everything in between.
Not so with Just Cause 2. The closest thing to a build you can have is which three weapons you're carting around. These vary nicely, in some ways, but other than which weapons you've chosen to upgrade, your abilities in the game never change. Rather, the gameplay is open-ended and flexible enough that your 'build' comes about in the form of your own personal style of gameplay. How you move around in the world and how you go about destroying things varies upon the person. Even if the style you grow into isn't the most effective way to play the game, it's still YOUR style of playing. No levelling system can recreate that.
In the end, I think what makes up my mind for which of the two I prefer is the fact that for much of the time, while playing Skyrim, I was wanting to play other things. Mostly Dungeons and Dragons, which has similarities but is a completely different type of game. While walking about and exploring, a few times came up where I longed for the freedom of movement from Just Cause 2. Sometimes I was reminded of exploring the world in Shadow of the Colossus, which made me want to play that. (imagine how amazing the dragon battles would be if one could climb up on them to attack while the dragon whirls and writhes under you to try and shake you off? God, that woulda been amazing.)
Is Just Cause 2 better than Skyrim? God no. The two are different enough to satisfy most anyone's playstyle and preference. It's strictly a matter of opinion.
Is Just Cause 2 a better game than Skyrim?
Well.... Kinda, yeah.
There's enough small flaws, glitches and poor design choices in Skyrim to bring me out of my immersion. The sometimes awkward critical animations, namely on the dragons, townsfolk coming near you and barging their thoughts at you, and the inventory system just not being much fun to organize. The inventory, I find, hinders much of my fun to be had in the game. Not for the carrying capacity thing; I can live with that. Just the... Idunno. It just bores and holds me back. For an example of a limiting, but fun inventory system, try Legend of Grimrock.
Also to consider is that once I finished writing this article, my drive to play Skyrim dropped almost instantly. I don't want to go crafting or exploring or anything in Skyrim right now. Just Cause 2? Yeah I'll keep playing that for a while more. At some point I'll want a break with it, but I'll get back into it with the same fervor down the line.
Why? Because I have fun playing Just Cause 2. Sure, Skyrim feels good to play, but I don't get much fun from it. Just Cause 2? My god, I have a blast. There's so many ways I can go about blowing crap up just by what the gameplay allows me to do that I never get bored. If I feel stagnant while playing, I shake it up and do something completely different. Even if I die, it was still great fun.
And that's what brings us to these, isn't it?
Hey, whatever works for you. This is what works for me.