TA Top Five: Swansongs

By Andrew Ogley,
One of the nice things about writing for the site is that more often than not we get to report exciting and good news. We eagerly cover highly anticipated titles, wax lyrical over screenshots and trailers, and it is genuinely fun to write about. However, there are times when the harsh financial reality of the business world kicks in and we have to report on studios being closed or dissolved. Whilst some might choose to withdraw quietly, there are also those that step into the limelight one last time, to go out with a bang; a last hurrah. In their darkest hour they managed to shine brightest and produce a glorious swansong. It's to those studios who saved their best work til last that we pay homage to this week.

Honorable Mentions

Ensemble - Halo Wars Achievements
Halo Wars

Ensemble was formed back in 1995 and quickly gained a reputation for developing RTS titles on the PC including the Age Of Empires and Age Of Mythology franchises. In 2001, it was acquired by Microsoft but continued developing expansions for their existing titles. However, in 2006 they started work on bringing their RTS expertise into the Halo universe in 2009 they released their one and only console title, Halo Wars. The game was generally well received by critics, and was recognized as bringing a more workable RTS interface to the console showing that the genre could make the transition between platforms. The game also maintained the high level of quality that the franchise demanded. The artwork and imagery, the music, and the storyline all stayed true to the Halo universe and had seemingly taken the franchise into a new direction and introduced it to a new genre. However, the studios fate had already been sealed a year earlier even before the game hit the shelves with Microsoft having decided in September 2008 that the studio would close after the games release. Even with the pending closure hanging over them, the studio went on to finish what remains one of the top selling RTS titles on the Xbox 360.

Black Rock Studio - Split/Second Achievements

It might be going back a bit, but Black Rock Studio producing two good racing titles back-to-back with Pure Achievements in 2008, and Split/Second Achievements in 2010. Despite both titles receiving good critical reviews and with the latter still scoring a respectable 3.8 in our community, it was not enough to save the studio. Originally formed in 1998 as Pixel Planet, the studio underwent a number of name changes including Climax Racing, under which name they continued producing racing titles in the ATV Offroad and Moto GP franchises. During this time, in 2006, they were taken over by Buena Vista and a year later the name changed one last time to Black Rock Studios. Sadly the newly named studio didn't last long, and in 2010 they produced their last title, the very solid racing game, Split/Second before the parent company decided to shut the studio down. Not around long enough to make a big name for themselves, they make our honorable mentions list.

Swordfish Studios - 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand Achievements
Blood on the Sand 2

To be honest, this one really crept on to the honorable mentions list largely due to the love and praise that the TA Community had recently shown for the title. When reading through the list of defunct studios, of which there were sadly many, it was not a name that stood out. Swordfish Studios were originally founded back in 2002, and started developing sports titles for cricket and rugby. Things were looking good and in 2004, they even earned the award "Developer of the Year". In 2005, they branched out and produced their first FPS title, Cold Winter, for the PS2, which was generally well received. However, the studio then went through a tumultuous period where it was acquired by a number of different owning companies. In 2009, they went on to develop their only Xbox 360 title which was to be their final game, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. Despite fairly good reviews from the critics, it was not enough to save the studio and in 2010 it was finally closed down. However, as proven by our own community, the title was mostly underrated and deserved more love than it got, to such an extent it became a community nominated Easter Egg, in which we revealed the hidden virtues of the title.

Top Five

5. Team Bondi - L.A. Noire Achievements
Phelps and Bekowsky leaving the precinct on their way to a crime scene.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we are jumping the gun on this one by saying that the studio is closed and their particular swansong has been sung. However, the controversy and intrigue surrounding the studio's demise and current state, has all the plot twists befitting the noire masterpiece they are best remembered for. Team Bondi were an Australian based development team responsible for the critically acclaimed Rockstar title, L.A. Noire. The game was set in Los Angeles 1947, with the player taking on the role of Detective Cole Phelps solving a number of different crimes. The selling point of the title, other than the semi-sandbox world of L.A., was the facial animations during the interviews with the suspects displaying realistic expressions. The title had all the polish associated with any Rockstar title, and the game was a commercial success. However, behind the scenes all was not well. There were allegations about had working conditions, bad managerial styles, poor working relationships, and bad debts. Only a few months after the title hit the shelves in 2011, it all proved too much and the studio was wound up. The team had managed to produce a single title; a glorious debut and swansong all in one. However, the intrigue doesn't end there with the team allegedly later reforming to work on a sequel entitled Whore of the Orient. However, the exact status of that project also remains a little bit of a mystery; it was confirmed in 2013 that the title was in development and seeking backing, then it was cancelled, only to later receive additional backing from an investor sufficient enough to release a gameplay trailer in August 2013. Since then however, it's all gone quiet again. Whilst we wait in hope for the new title, we are left with a Team Bondi's crowning glory.

4. Vigil Games - Darksiders II Achievements
Argul's tomb 1

Vigil games was originally founded in 2005 and was taken under the wing of publisher, THQ, in 2006. However, the studio didn't actually produce its first game until 2010, but Darksiders Achievements was worth waiting for. The hybrid action-roleplaying hack and slash title in which the player took on the role of War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalyspe, received both critical acclaim and admiration from the gaming community. Not waiting to rest on it's laurels, the studio quickly produced the sequel Darksiders II which hit the shelves only two years later. In the sequel then took on the role of another one of the horsemen, Death. Again the game was well received by critics and gamers alike, however THQ were having problems. Ultimately, the publisher was wound up and many of the assets were sold off. Sadly, Vigil studios received no bids and no-one came in to save the studio, even though Crytek had been rumored to be interested. Eventually, Crytek did open a new subsidiary and a number of form Vigil staff joined the new studio. Vigil's actual output covered just the one franchise, but gamers still hold both titles in high esteem. Despite their short lifespan, Darksiders II was a good title to bow out with.

3. 38 Studios / Big Huge Games - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Achievements

This is another example of a very underrated game that never quite got the recognition it deserved, and another title that deservedly made it in to our Easter Egg list. On the surface it was an action role-playing dungeon crawler, but as mentioned in our Easter Egg article, it also included an additional hook in the form of the 'reckoning' mode, a sort of bullet time during which players can increase damage, gain additional XP, and dispatch enemies a little easier. It was a unique feature and one of the things that set the title apart. However, back in the real world, financially all was not well with 38 Studios as we previously reported. A large multi-million dollar state loan was not being paid back, and the staff payroll was also missed. Sales of the game, although good, were not sufficient to cover costs and the situation became unsustainable. Eventually, the studio was forced to close. The title itself remains popular, and has very credible rating of 4.2 within our community making it a worthy swansong.

2. Rockstar Vancouver - Max Payne 3 Achievements
dc 2

Rockstar have never been shy in delaying games to ensure that they meet their own high standards, but with Max Payne 3 they really tested the patience of the gaming community. Originally planned for release as early as 2009, the title was delayed numerous times before eventually hitting the shelves in 2012. Whilst it was worth waiting for with reviewers and critics scoring the game extremely high, it was just not enough to save the development team behind it. For Rockstar Vancouver, it was both their crowning glory and their final bow. Originally formed back in 1998 under the name of Barking Dog Studios working on PC titles, the studio was eventually taken over by Rockstar in 2002. Under the new guise, the studio initially developed Bully and Bully: Scholarship Edition Achievements before eventually starting on Max Payne 3. The title was in total contrast from the earlier games in the franchise, with the story taking on a darker and grimmer tone. However, the game's trademark bullet-time mechanic returned, along with the additional mechanics of cover and last stand. The title also brought multiplayer to the franchise for the first time. A massive game spread over two disc's, highly stylised, and brilliantly realised, it was a stunning achievement but sadly not enough to prevent the studio eventually being dissolved.

1. Pandemic Studios - The Saboteur Achievements
EE 2

Pandemic Studios was founded in 1998 developing a number of titles across a number of platforms including the original Xbox for various publishers including THQ . Titles such as Mercenaries, Star Wars Battlefront, Full Spectrum Warrior and Destroy All Humans were all generally well received. In 2007, the studio was taken over by EA and the tenure on the Xbox 360 was rather short lived with only three titles ever being published, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Achievements, The Lord of the Rings: Conquest Achievements, and their final swansong, The Saboteur. The game received favorable critics at the time but, for whatever reason (perhaps the WWII setting), it still seemed to be overlooked by the masses. For those that did play it, it was a memorable and enjoyable game sandbox game in which the player took on the role of the eponymous saboteur wreaking havoc in Nazi occupied Paris. Sadly, it was not enough to save the studio and in 2009 the offices were finally closed. Massively underrated and unsurprising that it became the inaugural entry into our Easter Eggs hall of fame. However, it was not all bad news with some of the former employees moving on to join 343 Industries, Treyarch, and a number of other studios.

The TA Team will be bringing you The TA Top Five every Sunday until we run out of coolness to debate and discuss. If you have an idea for a Top Five you'd like us to do, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.