>Remembrance of Things that Almost Were

>I feel like I have about a million things I want to talk about today; I’m not sure how many are actually post-worthy, and I’m definitely not sure how much time I have to write, so we’ll see how it goes.

But first things first – I’m now only 15 measly Points away from my goal of amassing 10,000 Points in a year. It’s probably too difficult to try to get to 40,000 before the end of the year unless I go on a Points-whoring binge, and to be honest I’d much rather actually enjoy the games I’m playing right now; then again, I’m only 1227 Points away…

And here are some quick recaps before we get to the meat:

  • I think I’m almost done with Tomb Raider: Underworld, in every sense of the word. I’m pretty sure I’m in the last level, and unless I feel the need to chase after some (minor) Points, I’m probably not going to play it again. I think they dropped the ball with this title, big time; Legend and Anniversary had generated a lot of goodwill towards a franchise that had been plummeting into oblivion, and Underworld was a fantastic opportunity to really blow us all away, and instead the game feels a bit under-developed. Even something little like cutting out the Croft Manor minigame is a bummer.
  • I played another 30 minutes of Left 4 Dead with some friends last night – for some reason I got booted off of Xbox Live after we all wiped in the middle of a stage and I couldn’t log back in. That game is friggin’ awesome. The computer AI is absolutely fantastic – you almost can’t tell the difference if one of your friends is handing the reins over to the computer – and the overall pacing is absolutely incredible.

This is where I was going to talk about the recent discussion of the reviews of Mirror’s Edge that have been circulating around the ‘tubes, as well as answering a question from the MTV blog about waiting for DLC, and I was also hoping to put up the synopsis of a conversation I’m having with a friend of mine who is somewhat anti-gaming. But as the fates would have it, I’ve gotten super-busy at work and so those things will have to wait. Have a great holiday, everyone.

>Weekend Recap: pre-Thanksgiving 2008 edition

>Last Tuesday I noted that, among other things, I was hoping to increase my Gamerscore by 10,000 points over my total at the end of 2007:

I started the year at 28788; I am currently at 37403. There’s still 6 weeks left in the year, so I still have time to make it to an even 10,000 point swing.

I certainly made up a lot of ground over the last few days; by my calculation, I’ve gained 1075 Points in less than a week, which means I’ve only got 310 more to go.

At least 600 points came from Scene It: BOS, which doles out the points like they’re going out of style. (My wife likes playing the Scene It games, which means I buy them as soon as they come out.) I like this new game a lot; it uses Avatars, which make them seem a little less pointless, everything’s gotten a nice graphical make-over, and they seem to have a healthy obsession with Simon Pegg, which is OK with me. The only real problem with the game are the announcers, who are even more horrible than they were in the last game; I mean, they’re FUCKING HORRIBLE. Thank God there’s an option to mute them.

A few more achievements came from Fallout 3, but that game should not be played for points AT ALL. I was all set to name GTA4 as my Game of the Year, but I have to say that every hour I spend with Fallout 3 makes that decision a little less concrete. I’m about halfway to level 10, and I’m probably going to stay away from the main quest for a little while longer and work on some side stuff. There is so much to see in this game, and the level of detail is simply staggering. Perfect example: I was doing one of the very first sidequests in the game, which required me to go to this bombed out town and pick up some mines; while I was there, I decided to break into some houses and see what there was to loot. And each house that I broke into featured this little unspoken short story of each family’s last moments – one house in particular had a pair of skeletons lying in bed holding each other, and it actually made me stop for a second and think about what I was actually seeing. What I love about Fallout 3 is this deeper notion of history; everything you’re looting is stuff that belonged to a different time and place – and, well, it belonged to a human being who died. Not many games are able to convey that sense of a lived-in world very well – even Bioshock struggled with it at times.

What else, what else… oh, well, yeah. I caved and bought Tomb Raider: Underworld, mostly because Gamefly kept pushing it back and when I checked Sunday morning, it was slated to ship this coming Tuesday, which is bullshit. My initial reaction is pretty much par for the course: it’s Legend with a gorgeous new coat of paint and a really shitty camera. I’m in the Mexico level (which is, I think, the third level if you don’t count the prologue), and it’s got a wierd non-linear progression which is actually a little annoying, to be honest – Tomb Raider games shouldn’t be sandbox-y. I’m also missing the Croft Manor exploration level that’s been a favorite feature of mine in the last 2 games, although considering that the very first thing you see in the game is the Manor exploding, it probably makes sense that it’s missing. (Maybe it’s unlocked after you finish the game?)

Played a tiny little bit of Left 4 Dead; that game is awesome and I need to give it another go.

Oh yeah, also played a bit of A Kingdom For Keflings, which I think I really only downloaded to be eligible for some stupid contest. It’s basically a super-lite strategy game, with Avatar support; it’s actually a decent time-suck, although I’m not sure how much time I’m going to spend with it. I’ll probably finish one game and then go back to Civ Rev for my strategy needs.

>Oh, Eidos, what the hell is wrong with you?

>The general sense of bummer-dom that I am feeling towards Tomb Raider: Underworld is only getting worse.

1. Gamefly keeps backing up the release date. When I checked on Monday, it indicated that I would already have the game in my hands; as of 12:18pm today, however, they’re not even sending it out until tomorrow, which means I won’t get it until probably next Tuesday at the earliest.

2. And I should probably be glad I’m not playing it, if the reviews are to be believed. There aren’t very many reviews out there, though; I’ve only seen scores from IGN (7.5) and 1UP (B), and one other review from action button dot net. I’ve been a little surprised that there haven’t been more reviews thus far, but then I came across…

3. …this morning’s Joystiq article about Eidos UK blocking TR:U reviews under 8/10 from publication, which is just mind-boggling.

From the Joystiq piece:

Really Eidos? Really? You didn’t lose enough goodwill being blamed for getting the world’s most popular video games journalist fired and bringing a respected games portal to its knees? (Yes, we know you denied any involvement. This sort of thing certainly makes that seem credible.) You thought maybe journalists would keep this quiet because you were buds? Because they were worried about not getting advance copies of Just Cause 2?

It’s funny; after the Kane&Lynch fiasco, I rescinded my membership from Gamespot in protest and solidarity with Gerstmann and started up this blog. I felt so hurt and betrayed – startlingly so, to be honest, because I certainly wasn’t prepared to have such an emotional investment in a fucking videogame website – and it took a rather long time for those feelings to subside.

In the process, though, I was forced to open my eyes a bit and really see what was happening to the industry as a whole. The fallout from Gerstmann-gate revealed a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes goings-on, not just with the press but with the publishers; suddenly it was revealed just how important things like Metacritic were to the perceived success of a particular title.

I was going to put something in here about how the movie industry does something similar to this, but the more I think about it, the comparison isn’t totally fair. If a movie studio is releasing a movie that they know is going to be savaged in the press, they simply elect not to show it to the press so it can’t be reviewed, hoping to get as much as they can on the opening weekend before word of mouth can trickle out. What Eidos is doing here, though, is a bit more slimy and evil; they thought they had an AAA title, and they shuttled it off to get reviewed, and now that the first reviews are starting to trickle in with less-than-hoped-for scores, they’re trying to suppress the rest of the reviews unless those reviews are favorable.

I read something the other day about how one of the CEOs of a major publisher was saying that “the videogame market is recession-proof.” With the economy falling apart and any number of developers closing up shop, though, I’m not entirely sure that it’s fair for the market to be taken for granted. And shit like this only makes “the market” that much more skeptical. Until I read this article, I was pretty sure I was going to forgo Gamefly and spend my lunch hour buying TR:U at the Best Buy near my office; now I’m somewhat tempted to take it off my queue altogether.

In the words of The Dude, “this aggression will not stand, man.”

>GTA DLC; TRU bummer; Gadgets

>1. GTA IV DLC revealed (sorta)

It’s not quite enough for a Guessing At Future Games feature here on SFTC, but it is certainly something to look forward to during the post-holiday doldrums of 2009. Everyone was wondering what DLC for a GTA game would look like, and this is apparently what it will be – a new character in a new story, and featuring “a whole new side to Liberty City” (which presumably means that it will take place in areas of Liberty City that were not central to Niko Bellic’s adventures). No word on length or price just yet; I’m going to guess 800 Points, although I think I’d be prepared to spend up to 1200.

2. Tomb Raider’s disappointing reviews

My fondness for the Tomb Raider franchise starts with Legend. Having never owned a PS1 or PS2, I never played the original games and so I never really paid much attention to how terrible the series had gotten (although I do recall playing a demo for whatever TR title was released on the Dreamcast, and absolutely hating it). Legend, however, scratched a very specific itch for me – it had all the fun Prince-of-Persia environmental puzzle solving that I liked, it had decent-enough combat, and it looked and played fantastic. Anniversary was more of the same, which was just fine with me, and so I have rather high expectations for Underworld.

Unfortunately, the reviews are starting to come in, and for the most part everyone seems to be a little disappointed in this one. I obviously can’t agree or disagree, since my rental copy still hasn’t left Gamefly’s offices, but I must admit I’m a little bummed out by this. I’m curious to see if my fanboy-ism will blind me to the game’s obvious faults, or if my knowledge of the game’s apparent crappiness will only make these things even worse than they actually are; if nothing else, I’m certainly self-aware enough to know how easily swayed I can be by external opinions… except in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4, because nobody will ever convince me that MGS4’s storytelling is anything other than a normal-mapped turd.

3. I am in need of a new cellphone. I covet the iPhone, but there’s two big things preventing me from pulling the trigger:

  • I’m a Verizon customer, and I’m not looking to switch service providers; and
  • There isn’t nearly enough storage on the iPhone for me to use it as my primary music storage device.

So I was eagerly awaiting for the Blackberry Storm, Verizon’s first big attempt at making an iPhone killer. And, unfortunately, it looks like it still needs some time to cook.

I suppose I can wait a few more months for them to fix the bugs (and, by doing so, avoiding the crush when it launches tomorrow), but still: damn.

>Guessing At Future Games: Valve

>I can’t help but feel that Valve is up to something big.

I’m going to come right out and argue that Portal and Left 4 Dead are experiments and tech demos for something bigger, as much as they are self-contained gaming experiences. The technology that makes the Portal gun work and the “Director” AI program that governs the L4D pacing and spawning are both somewhat radical and yet also totally seamless; you’re never “aware” of the complicated math that makes it possible, you’re simply swept up in the experience.

More to that last point – the storytelling method and the notion of narrative in both Portal and L4D is incredibly unique for modern FPSs… it’s never explicit, but rather subtle and environmental. Rather than throwing in a long opening cutscene full of exposition that means nothing to you and giving your player character a backstory, they simply drop you into a strange world and you learn about the world (and yourself) as you progress, and they manage to do this without succumbing to the worn-out “amnesia” cliche. The gameplay is incredibly tight and the pacing is perfect, so even if you’re not paying attention to the story you’re still having a good time; but if you take the time to explore, you are rewarded with all these clever little details that fill out the world without beating you over the head. Seeing “The cake is a lie” scrawled on the walls of a hidden room reveals far more about the Apeture Testing Facility than any voice recording or cutscene could ever accomplish.

I would expect to see some of this stuff used in HL2 Episode 3 – the last level of Portal certainly posits a link between the Portal universe and the Half-Life universe, so it seems pretty likely that Gordon Freeman will get his hands on a Portal gun at some point – but it wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL to see Valve working on a totally new IP that uses all these technologies and methods (as well as other stuff we don’t know about, and I’m sure they’re going to beef up the rapidly-aging Source engine) to some other, grander purpose. Let’s face it – Half-Life 1 had an unconventional narrative method but as the sequels have borne themselves out, the overall story arc isn’t terribly absorbing, and they certainly couldn’t start using these new techniques in a sequel without messing up Half-Life’s DNA.

It also needs to be said that having Erik Wolpaw on Valve’s payroll ensures that future Valve games will have, at the very least, a very twisted sense of humor.

I couldn’t possibly begin to guess where Valve is going, but Valve keeps very close tabs on what people do in (and with) their games, and I suspect that they’ll be very curious indeed to see how the public responds.

>Best of 2008: Inventory

>There’s something about this time of year – and it seems to happen earlier and earlier – that just gets me revved up. Obviously, I’m talking about making Best-Of-The-Year lists.

2008 was a notable year for me in the gaming category. This was my first year owning all major systems, and I spent quite a lot of money in the process. As a result, I’ve got a lot more ground to cover, and since it’s a slow Tuesday morning in mid-November, I figure now is as good a time as any to figure out what the hell it was that I actually played this year.

Also: The year in Points: I started the year at 28788; I am currently at 37403. There’s still 6 weeks left in the year, so I still have time to make it to an even 10,000 point swing. I could put a serious dent in that if I get the new Scene It? game, and I just might; I really enjoyed the last one.

And some notes, before we get into the business:

  • This list simply reflects everything I played this year, not just what I bought.
  • This is going to be as chronological as I can make it.
  • It will also probably omit XBLA and PSN titles, because I can’t keep track of all of them. (But I have not forgotten about Braid.) EDIT: Added at bottom.
  • All titles were played on the 360 unless otherwise indicated.
  • These are only the games that came out in 2008; I also bought up a bunch of 2007’s best titles for the Wii and PS3, but those will not be reflected in this list.

OK, on to the madness.

  1. Burnout Paradise
  2. Devil May Cry 4
  3. Lost Odyssey
  4. Professor Layton (DS)
  5. MLB2K8
  6. Bully
  7. Condemned 2
  8. Flatout: Ultimate Carnage
  9. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 (PSP)
  10. God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)
  11. MLB08 (PSP)
  12. Okami (Wii)
  13. Grand Theft Auto 4
  14. Boom Blox (Wii)
  15. CrossworDS (DS)
  16. MLB08: The Show (PS3)
  17. Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds (PS3)
  18. Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2 (PSP)
  19. Lego Indiana Jones
  20. Ninja Gaiden 2
  21. GRID
  22. Dark Sector
  23. The World Ends with You (DS)
  24. Mario Kart (Wii)
  25. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)
  26. Alone in the Dark
  27. Unreal Tournament 3
  28. Battlefield: Bad Company
  29. Frontlines: Fuel of War
  30. Tiger Woods 09
  31. Civilization Revolution
  32. Civilization Revolution (DS)
  33. Tales of Vesperia
  34. Mercenaries 2
  35. Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise
  36. Infinite Undiscovery
  37. Pure
  38. Too Human
  39. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
  40. Silent Hill: Homecoming
  41. Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood (DS)
  42. Fable 2
  43. Saints Row 2
  44. Dead Space
  45. Little Big Planet (PS3)
  46. Motorstorm: Pacific Rift (PS3)
  47. Fallout 3
  48. Rock Band 2
  49. Gears of War 2
  50. Mirror’s Edge
  51. Bond 007: Quantum of Solace
  52. Left 4 Dead (not yet released)
  53. Tomb Raider: Underworld (not yet released)
  54. Prince of Persia (not yet released)
  55. Last Remnant (not yet released)
  56. Chrono Trigger (DS) (not yet released)

XBLA titles

  1. Rez HD
  2. Poker Smash
  3. N+
  4. Penny Arcade 1
  5. Geometry Wars 2
  6. Braid
  7. Bionic Commando Rearmed
  8. Fable 2 Pub Games
  9. Duke Nukem 3D
  10. Portal: Still Alive
  11. Penny Arcade 2
  12. Kingdom for Keflings

>Mirror’s Edge: so close.

>Had a pretty busy weekend, but was able to get in some time with a rental copy of Mirror’s Edge.

I argued for a parkour game a million years ago on my old blog and while Mirror’s Edge isn’t what I had in mind, it’s the closest thing there is right now. (Prince of Persia doesn’t count, even though it kinda should.)

Mirror’s Edge has a lot of great things going for it: a simple control scheme that isn’t intuitive the first time you play it but very quickly becomes second nature, a fantastic visual design, a female protagonist that isn’t overly sexualized or half-naked, and, well, a unique concept that’s actually compelling. And when the game is cooking, goddamn, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to play.

It’s also got some maddening problems, and this is ultimately why I elected to return it instead of trying to finish it. And the problems here are the same problems that Prince of Persia had, and even the recent Tomb Raider games have had; the combat fucking sucks. The combat sucks especially bad in Mirror’s Edge because your character is incredibly fragile and if you mis-time the buttonpress to disarm your attacker, you are totally fucked, always. The enemy AI is dirt-stupid and yet also psychic; they will stand in the middle of a hallway and shoot you, but they also seem to know where you are even when you’re totally hidden from view. At the point I stopped playing last night, I had tried and re-tried this one particular section at the very end of Chapter 5 about 30 different times, and when I finally succeeded it wasn’t through skill but through sheer dumb luck, and so when I finished the level I didn’t feel rewarded, only pissed off. I knew what I was supposed to do, and the game felt like it was broken at that particular point, and there was no way of getting around it.

It’s an ambitious game and, again, when the game is working, it’s exhilarating and breathtaking and everything I’d hoped it would be. It just feels like in every game of this type, the developer feels compelled to break up the awesome running-jumping bits with combat, which slows the pace down and never feels quite right. Either cut out the combat all together, or treat the combat as less of an afterthought and more of something just as integral to the game. Of all the games that ever did this sort of thing, Crackdown is the only one I’ve ever played that really felt like it could handle both, and what’s funny is that Crackdown wasn’t necessarily about either.

>Quick Shots

>1. In seemingly direct opposition to The Thing I Cannot Talk About, the New Xbox Experience knows exactly what it is and offers some exciting features that I have already been able to take full advantage of.

2. One of those features is the ability to play games off of the HDD. I spent a considerable amount of time earlier this afternoon installing the games in my current rotation, and all of them loaded faster and even seemed to play a little smoother. Fable 2 benefited incredibly well from preloading; menus were readily accessible and the sluggishness that I’d mentioned before was pretty much completely gone. The initial load-up for GTA4 is noticably shorter. It’s been noted elsewhere and I must agree: everything on The Orange Box loads very, very quickly. Saints Row 2 feels a lot smoother (and the 360 itself is much, much quieter). And Fallout 3 is quick and responsive and rock solid.

3. Fallout 3 deserves its own section. I hadn’t gotten very far – maybe 1-2 hours out of the Vault, maybe level 4 – and I realized that the character I’d created was totally out of balance with the way I’d decided I wanted to play, and I wasn’t having any fun; it didn’t help that Gears and Fable and other titles then appeared and so it was easy for me to put it on the shelf and forget about it. I think what happened was that I took the “Oblivion with guns” comparison literally, and maxed all my stats in strength and melee, which is absolutely useless in Fallout.

Having finished Gears last night, though, I decided to re-roll, concentrating on weapons, stealth, medicine and hacking – either I or the game conveniently put a save point right before I left the Vault, which allowed me to change everything – and now I’m having a ball. Stealing items lowers my Karma score, which is fine since I’ve already decided to blow up Megaton. It’s still hard for me to be a real asshole in conversations – mostly because I don’t want to lose any potential side quests in doing so – but at the very least it’s nice to steal items with impunity.

4. Back to the NXE. I don’t really care about Avatars, at least not in their current form; there’s nothing to do with them. I do care about the Netflix thing, though, and I was able to sync up my account with absolutely no hassle. The problem, though, is that the number of streamable movies on Netflix is pretty low, and the selection is pretty weak; if I have 200 movie title in my queue, only 20 of them are streamable, and I can’t say I’m terribly excited to watch any of those 20. BUT. The option is there, and hopefully Netflix will get its act together and get more movies available online.

5. Oh, and as for Gears… it seems odd that I should be writing so little about such a big title. It is what it is, basically; it’s Gears of War 1, but better. The story is still ridiculous but it doesn’t really matter, because the gameplay is so astoundingly solid. It looks great, it feels great, the campaign is well paced and presents a nice challenge. It probably won’t be in my top 3 candidates for Game of the Year, but there’s not a lot to complain about.

>Can’t Talk About It

>

Heard on Major Nelson’s podcast a couple weeks ago that Microsoft would be pre-releasing the New Xbox Experience to a small percentage of the respondents of a specific survey. For some reason, I was utterly convinced that I would be one of those lucky people, and was actually a bit crushed when I wasn’t. A week or so later, they gave out even more pre-release NXEs, and I again missed the cut. The NXE officially launches in 7 days, though, so I guess I can wait another week. I’m not sure why I was getting so bent out of shape over it, though.

On the other hand, I got an e-mail from __________ last night, telling me that because I’d downloaded the free __________ PS3 dashboard theme about 3 or 4 months ago, I was now eligible to participate in that beta program.

Maybe my luck was starting to turn around, after all. Maybe I’d finally be able to talk about something substantive and new here instead of just listing all the games I play.

Except, according to the beta EULA, I’m not sure if I can talk about it… here.

1. As a condition of your participation in the Trials, you must:

a. keep the contents of the Trials, including any information, software and service in connection with ___________, confidential as between you and us and not discuss any portion of the Trials with anyone beyond your close friends and family and other Trialists. You shall not discuss or disclose any portion of the Trials with any third party who is a competitor of ___________ or is linked to any news, press or information service (whether on television or radio, in newspaper or magazines or via the Internet or any other online medium) without the express, prior, written consent of ___________.

See, the phrase “anyone beyond your close friends and family” is what’s tricky, here, because I’m not sure anybody reads this blog besides people who actually know who I am. But the internet is the internet, and I’m pretty sure this blog is Google-able, and I don’t feel like getting sued.

Understand, it’s not even like I have that much to say about it. The truth is, there’s really not very much to talk about.

Consider me even more skeptical than I already was.

Keeping my fingers crossed, though.

So there.