>Assassin’s Creed 2: postscript


My previous AC2 post was cut short, but in retrospect that’s probably a good thing. I was still at least a good 5-6 hours away from finishing it, and yet my original intention with that post was to try and guess where/when/what the sequel was going to be. Now that I’ve finished it (as well as being finished with it), I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea – and that’s also a good thing.

First things first, though – the game itself. At the end of the day, there’s really only 2 things that really bothered me about the experience – the freerunning controls tend to get screwed up at the worst possible times, and the final boss is one of those bosses that refuses to die, no matter how many times you kill him. I hate that. It’s absolutely my #1 pet peeve in game design. And in this particular case, it’s not like the guy is a wizard, or has particularly strong armor, or superpowers – he is, in fact, a fat fuck. And the fact that the game forced me to whittle this asshole’s health down to zero 5 times and he still didn’t die… GAAAAHHHHHHH.

That aside, AC2 is a lock for my #3 position for Game of the Year, which is remarkable considering that as recently as a month ago I wasn’t even sure I was looking forward to playing it. Everything in it is refined and polished, from the combat to the graphics to the storytelling. I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by the end result of the glyph hunt (especially since I was hoping to assemble the pieces myself), and I ended up getting the super-badass armor a bit earlier than I was expecting – I almost thought I’d done something wrong – but it’s a remarkable experience through and through, and if the improvements from AC1 to AC2 are any indication of Ubisoft’s dedication to getting it right, then AC3 is going to blow us all away.

And speaking of AC3, let me get back to my opening paragraph. A lot of people were pissed off about AC1’s ending, which was less of a cliffhanger and more of a dull thud. (I kinda liked it, actually, since it was abstract and vague, but I understand the criticisms.) AC2’s ending could technically be called a cliffhanger, since nothing is resolved, but it’s a bit more satisfying in that you still feel like you accomplished something, even if it’s mind-bogglingly enigmatic. It doesn’t feel like a setup for the final part of a trilogy – it feels wide open, like they could go anywhere.

I could see AC3 taking place all over the place, actually. My knowledge of history certainly has quite a few holes, but considering that the game ends in the very late 1600s, and the codex map that you eventually unlock in AC2 is ultimately a map of the world, with certain locations marked on each continent, it’s entirely possible that you could go all over the globe. I think the most logical place to go would be the colonial US in the 1770s – lots of political intrigue, Freemasons, and different cities to visit. Plus, one gets the feeling that the events of the near-future are taking place in the US, so since Desmond is already on the run, you could see him following the literal footsteps of his ancestor. But I could also see the game taking place in WW2 Europe, too. The glyphs talked a lot about Rasputin, too, so I could foresee some time in Russia. And if the game requires some globetrotting, there’s lots of Mayan ruins to run around in. Considering how strange AC2’s ending is, I could even see Atlantis showing up.

Anyway: Bravo, Ubisoft.

>Assassin’s Creed 2: The Medium Is the Message

>I apologize in advance for the repetition – all I can think about today is Assassin’s Creed 2. Minor spoilers ahead.

Current Status:
I’m… let’s say, 12 hours in. I’m a few missions into Venice – my most recent story-related Achievement indicated that I am in the middle of DNA Sequence 7, and so if the Achievements are a reliable measure of game progress I am just around halfway through the story.

I Was Wrong:
I wasn’t really all that negative, but the the thing that bothered me the most in Friday’s initial impressions was the disconcerting nature of how utterly meta the game is. Which is to say, the game never stops reminding you that you’re playing a game, which seems fundamentally at odds with the level of detail that went into designing these Italian Renaissance-era cities.

And yet, now that I’m fully invested in it, this design makes absolute perfect sense. As you probably know by now, you are not actually playing as Ezio, your long-dead Assassin ancestor; you are actually playing as present-day Desmond, and you are looking through Ezio’s memories through the Animus, a sort-of computer-controlled Matrix-esque brain scrambler machine. You have a HUD; you have a map; you have shimmery graphical cues and clues as to points and persons of interest; and you have all these things because you, as Desmond, need to search through Ezio’s life to discover the answers to a mystery/conspiracy that is still ongoing.

I didn’t really figure this out until Desmond finally got to take a break from the Animus. In the first game, Desmond got out of the Animus after almost every significant mission; in this sequel, I’ve only seen him at the very beginning and at this particular junction, upon arriving in Venice, which was after around 10 hours of playtime. In the first game, Desmond was put into the Animus because the evil organization that kidnapped him was trying to figure something out; in this sequel, it seems that Desmond’s primary goal is to absorb Ezio’s assassination skills (via osmosis, transference, etc.) so that he can be a fully-trained Assassin in addition to figuring out whatever it is that Ezio was up to.

And so, during this little break, Desmond is taken from the Animus room to a warehouse area and is asked to turn on the security system, which happens to have power switches right up near the roof. Desmond needs to jump and climb and leap just like Ezio in order to do so, which are skills that he didn’t necessarily have before – if the Animus is to be believed, Assassins would absolutely murder the Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

And it was during this particular break in the action, while I was taking in how the same graphics engine that was powering these remarkably detailed Italian cities was also taking in this quasi-futuristic warehouse, that I suddenly noticed that there was no HUD, no map, no on-screen indicators of any kind. And right after I noticed that I was no longer “playing a game,” Desmond suddenly fell into a hallucination which: (1) also didn’t have any on-screen indicators, because (2) Desmond wasn’t actually plugged into anything at the time.

This is all a long, not-terribly-interesting way of saying that the meta-game construction that so confused me at first is not confusing me any more. It’s a contrivance, sure, but it’s absolutely justified and makes the game’s larger fiction that much more effective.

Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine:
And while we’re speaking of gameplay mechanics that disturb the reality of the Italian 17th century experience, let us also talk about the glyphs. This is maybe my favorite part of the sequel, and it gets me absolutely giddy when I think about the next game. It’s really just another collection mini-game, but there’s a lot more to it than that:

I forget exactly how it plays out, but the basic idea is that there was a previous person in Desmond’s position – Subject 16 – who was a casualty of the evil corporation’s Animus experiments. Subject 16 managed to smuggle out, at great cost, a certain “truth” that has been chopped up into 20 different sections.

The first layer of this mini-game is that as Ezio explores each city, he may happen upon a famous landmark; a picture will pop up with some relevant historical information, along with a little red eye notation which indicates that there’s a hidden glyph in the area. At which point, if you’re so inclined, you’ll scamper onto the rooftops and switch on your Eagle Vision, looking for anything that seems out of place. And then you’ll see it: a line of Hebrew, a bar code, an Egyptian hieroglyph. You’ll press Y, again, to scan it.

Once you’ve scanned it, you’re taken out of Italy and into Subject 16’s program. He’ll warble something enigmatic, and then you’re given a series of increasingly odd puzzles involving assorted historical figures. The first few are easy enough, as in: what do 5 of these 10 classical paintings have in common? (Answer: the prominent character is holding an apple.) But I’m now into my 10th (or so) glyph sequence and instead of find-the-missing-thing, I’m getting into these decoder-ring puzzles that involve base3 number systems, and these align-the-circular-disc puzzles governed by a maddening, impenetrable logic; and these puzzles are presented alongside photos of the Moon landing, correspondence (fictional(?)) between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, footage of nuclear bomb tests as well as the electrocution of an elephant… it gets very bizarre and spans across all eras of recorded history, implying that the powers that be have always been seeking these “Pieces of Eden”, which is also what the Templars/Assassins have been seeking in the game itself.

And so once you’ve solved a short series of these puzzles, you then unlock about one second’s worth of film footage. I’ve collected roughly 10 of these snippets thus far, and it appears to me that they’re out of sequence; they are CG and appear to be a nearly-naked man and woman (Adam/Eve?) either being chased or running towards something.

I’m at a loss to explain what any of this stuff means; it’s just that it’s so friggin’ cool.

Less Is More, Except When More is More:
In my earlier write-up I said that I felt overwhelmed with things to do, which was in direct opposition to how I felt about the first game, where there wasn’t enough. I no longer feel that way. There’s certain side missions that I’ll admit I don’t really care about; the races are fine, except when the auto-parkour controls get a bit wonky, at which point they get endlessly frustrating; this is also true of the courier missions. The assassination missions simply give you more opportunities to formally assassinate people, instead of just killing random patrol guards or important historical figures. I haven’t felt the need to pursue these just yet; at this particular point I’m not really hurting for cash, which appears to the the main tangible benefit for completing them. I am, however, looting as much treasure as I can. I’m also finding the Codex pages – those are easy enough to do, and aside from the cash/health benefits for finding them there’s yet another meta-level puzzle that goes along with finding all of them.

The best side-mission to go for, though, is the Assassin’s Tombs. These are 20-minute long, self-contained areas which feel just like levels out of Prince of Persia, and they are show-stoppers. And unlike the rest of the side-missions (including the glyphs and the codex…es), you know right off the bat what the reward is – it’s a bad-ass suit of armor that (I think) belonged to Altair, the hero of the first game.


I have to cut this short, unfortunately. But I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’m done with it.


>That didn’t take very long at all, actually. I hit 50K late last night in Assassin’s Creed 2, after finishing a particularly flashy bit of killing.

AC2, by the way, is amazing. My initial concerns were probably just me trying to keep my expectations in check; I’m now at least 5-6 hours in and I’m totally in love all over again. In fact, I think the only reason why I’m awake so early on a Sunday (especially since I was playing until around 1:30 in the morning) is because I’m so anxious to jump back in.

My only real complaint is that sometimes the controls get fucked up. For the most part, the game tries to keep thing as simple as possible and so it’ll more or less guess what you’re trying to do and just let you do it without a series of convoluted button presses, but sometimes it guesses wrong and sends you careening backwards off a ledge instead of up the side of a wall.

OK – Venice, here I come!

>Assassin’s Creed 2: the first few hours

>If memory serves, and my blog posts (from almost exactly 2 years ago!) are accurate (1), (2), I enjoyed the first 70% of the first Assassin’s Creed.

Gabe at Penny Arcade made a pretty insightful newspost about this the other day; I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says that his impressions of most of the negative reviews implied that the reviewer didn’t really take his/her time, and just kinda sped through the game in order to see everything and make their deadline; if you actually take your time and play the game at its own speed, it’s infinitely more rewarding…

…I kinda rushed through the last section of Creed, and suddenly all the 7.0 – 7.5 review scores made sense. You really do need to play Creed at a slow, thoughtful, deliberate pace – it helps you “get into character”, so to speak, because when you’re in that mode the game absolutely shines.

In my defense, I was rushing through the end of AC1 because I was desperate to start Mass Effect, but that’s neither here nor there. The truth is that for everything it did right, AC1 was fundamentally flawed. Setting up assassinations became tedious because you were just doing the same things over and over again, and in doing so the incredibly detailed game world suddenly became very artificial. More to the point, it started to feel like a game, with a set of clearly defined rules and guidelines, which ruined the illusion of being an assassin who was free to do whatever he chose. And if you started to get impatient with the game’s incredibly slow and methodical pacing and decided to run around and just try to get it over with, everything just fell apart. Animations and crowd dialogue were endlessly repeated; the much-touted “crowd physics” just felt clumsy; the combat became a nuisance. And then the story just… ended; it was intended to be a cliffhanger but felt more like a sudden crash into a brick wall.

According to the reviews I’ve read, the team at Ubisoft heard all this and decided to fix everything that was wrong. And judging from the reviews, they’ve been largely successful. I can’t necessarily speak to that just yet, though.

One of the main complaints is that for all its open-world-ness, there was not very much to actually do in the first game. To counter that, there is almost too much to do, now – I’m only 2-3 hours in and I’ve unlocked a ton of side missions that are almost entirely optional. It’s a little overwhelming, actually, because I’m generally compelled to do as much as I can in a game like this and I feel like I don’t know where to start; and so I’ve mostly just been sticking to the main story missions.

The thing about Assassin’s Creed is that it very much has a very specific feel to it, and that can take a bit of getting used to. The trailers make it seem like it’s this fast-paced free-running action-packed adventure, but if you actually play it like that you get your ass kicked. You have to be slow and stealthy; you have to pick your battles carefully. It certainly took me a little while to adjust to it, but once I got it, I got it.

The game also has this weird meta-level to it that can be a little disorienting – this was true in the first game and it’s doubly true in this one. The game features an incredibly detailed recreation of 16th century Italy, from the architecture right down to the shoes on the feet of the crowds. And yet for all of this, the game is constantly reminding you that you – the player – are from the future, and everything you’re seeing is really just a memory of someone long dead; there’s lots of weird futuristic visual glitches and every once in a while you’ll get a voiceover from someone in that futuristic room with you.

Not only that, but the game’s first real tutorial takes place at least an hour into the game, where you learn how to blend with crowds, how to pickpocket, and how to really do combat. And everything you do is just so plainly artificial and unnatural – the crowd blending in particular is just weird. (It reminds me a little bit, both in concept and in execution, of the motorcycle gang-riding thing in GTA4’s Lost and Damned storyline.) Add to this the random side missions, which include races and courier missions and finding hidden feathers and other non-sequitors – basically, it feels very much like you’re playing a game, instead of living and breathing as this character.

Also, Nolan North is the voice of your futuristic self, and as much as I like that guy and his performances, he’s becoming a bit overused. He is the Prince of Persia; he is Nathan Drake; he is the dude in Shadow Complex; he is everywhere; he is everyone.

And for a game called Assassin’s Creed, you actually kill a lot of people, not just the one dude you’re aiming for. It’s a weird sort of disconnect, similar to Condemned, where you’re hunting down this one serial killer and in the process you yourself end up killing hundreds of people.

It really sounds like I’m shitting all over it, right? And yet I’m really, really into it this time around, just as I was at the outset of the last game. The story is engaging, in spite (or because) of being convoluted and maddeningly vague; and when you’re actually doing it – when you’ve spotted your mark and you’ve figured out your entrance strategy and you’re moving in for the kill, slowly, methodically, silently – it’s breathtaking.


>The quest for 50K is going much better than I’d originally anticipated; I’ve got 6 weeks to get 327 points. I’m pretty sure I can get that relatively quickly from Assassin’s Creed 2, with an assist from Left 4 Dead 2. So, hooray for that.

This past weekend was a little weird, gaming wise, but when I think about it it actually worked out to my advantage. The weekend’s primary goal was working on music, but every once in a while I needed a break, and so I’d dive in to something on the 360; and since I’d finished Modern Warfare 2‘s campaign already, I didn’t feel pressured to pick one thing and finish it.

I keep grinding away in Forza 3; I kinda messed up and bought the wrong car for an upcoming race in the Season Play mode, and so now I’m just going through tournaments in an effort to make that money back. I can’t remember if I made the analogy here or in an email, but here goes anyway: Forza reminds me a lot of the Tiger Woods games, in that there’s an absolute ton of stuff to do, a lot of which I’ve already done in previous versions in the franchise. On the flip side, Forza 3 does not in any feel like it’s treading water, the way the Tiger games have for the last few years.

I’m also still running around in GTA4: BOGT, which is making me love the original GTA4 a little less. The game just feels dated; not in its story or setting, but in its actual gameplay mechanics. Combat feels incredibly clumsy, and the game is just brutally punishing if I fail a mission – I lose cash, armor (if I had it) and ammo (which doesn’t get replenished), plus time keeps moving forward so if I had something I wanted to do at a certain time, I probably don’t get to do it if I have to keep doing a mission over and over again. Saints Row will never be confused with GTA in terms of story and emotional resonance, but in terms of having fun and not being endlessly frustrating, it’s not even really all that close anymore. The Houser brothers are starting to make a little bit of noise about GTA5; I know there’s tons to think about in terms of making a great GTA game (story, setting, dialogue), but I would suggest that they also add some refinements, if not a complete overhaul, of the way the game is actually played. Let us recharge our health; let us have mid-mission checkpoints; let us not be punished so harshly for failure.

I’m starting to get really excited about 2010 Q1; specifically, Mass Effect 2. And it occurred to me that I never finished my 3rd playthrough of ME1, so I decided to give that a bit of a whirl. As it happens, I’d stopped playing near the end of the last DLC they released; said DLC was more or less a glorified combat tutorial, which is arguably the least successful aspect of the original game. But whatever – I turned down the difficulty and plowed through the last few missions and got 100 Achievements for my efforts, and then I saw where I actually was in the story, and then I decided to call it a day. (If you’re familiar with the first game, I’d just gotten off the Citadel and hadn’t yet started those first 3 long missions you get in order to advance the story; in other words, I’d have a looooooooong way to go.)

And then, in a bit of idle panic, I downloaded the Torchlight demo from Steam, just because I’d heard it was good and I was curious to see if my aging PC could run it. The short answer is yes, it can, and shortly thereafter I’d purchased the full version and now I’m totally hooked.

This week: Assassin’s Creed 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and the God of War Collection for PS3.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to Pandemic Studios, who very well might be getting shut down today. Mercenaries was one of my favorite games on the original Xbox, and Star Wars Battlefront was a lot of fun, and even Destroy All Humans! was worth a few chuckles. I’m hopeful that Saboteur will at least be a fine farewell from one of the more ambitious developers out there.

>Modern Warfare 2


For years now, there’s been a growing discussion about the importance of Story, specifically as it applies to videogames. The people having that discussion also may bring up the concept of Art, as in: “Are videogames art?” As the game industry grows larger and fights for legitimacy in the public eye, this question becomes important, even if it’s not necessarily relevant.

A lot of great game franchises have been ruined by Story. The Tony Hawk franchise is a perfect example; the first few games really just focused on capturing the experience of skateboarding, and to that end they succeeded mightily. Eventually, though, as the game kept churning out sequels with marginal technical improvements and the need to innovate became stronger, the game developed a story mode. And that’s really where the franchise fell apart, for me. I didn’t care about being a little skate punk, I didn’t need to stick it to the man, etc.; all I wanted to was skate, and do the things that I couldn’t do in real life. I suppose I could’ve hung in if the story was at least told well, but it was bland and unoriginal. What was I supposed to expect? The developers had been making a skateboarding game, but now they were supposed to tell me a story? How do those particular disciplines mesh?

Then there’s games like Brutal Legend, which is so focused on its story and the design of the world you play in that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. On the opposite side of that spectrum, a game like Borderlands has almost no story to speak of, but the gameplay is so well-designed and focused that it almost doesn’t even matter that there’s no story-driven motivation.

And then there are franchises like Metal Gear, where the story is so central to the experience that there’s almost no actual game to play; a 10 minute action sequence will be followed by a 40-minute cut scene, and then you’ll walk down a hallway and another 30-minute cut scene will ensue. I’m not going to get into MGS’s story quality, because that’s an entirely different 10,000-word blogpost, and in any event I’ve already written about it.

But story quality is important, and that’s my real bone to pick with Modern Warfare 2.

The Call of Duty franchise’s defining characteristic has been its scripted events. You’ll play as an American soldier, and then after a big “event” you’ll switch perspectives and then play as a British soldier, or a Russian soldier, etc. Call of Duty 4, which moved the franchise out of the trenches of WW2 and into modern day, kept this perspective-switching intact but also took it in intriguing and shocking new directions; the very beginning of the game features your character suddenly being executed, and the end of the game features your character dying in a nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of watching yourself die, totally powerless to save yourself, was unnerving and visceral and powerful.

The stakes for MW2, then, were set very high. How could the game’s developers manage to top the jaw-dropping moments of the first game? The answer to this question was, unfortunately, “if some is good, more is better.”

The “airport level”, as it’s been called, is genuinely controversial, and rightly so. You play an American soldier, undercover, who somehow has managed to be inserted into a Russian terrorist cell right next to “the most dangerous man in the world.” The scene begins in darkness; you hear the sound of guns being loaded. The lights fade up; you see that you are in an elevator. The most dangerous man in the world says a few words, and then the doors open, and you see that you’re in an airport, and you and your fellow terrorist are slowly walking through the airport, killing everyone you see. The creepiest thing about this sequence isn’t the killing of civilians, or the obvious parallel to 9/11 and the lingering paranoia about airport security; it’s the fact that you’re all walking so slowly, making sure you’re all taking the time to kill as many people as possible. You don’t even have to pull the trigger during this sequence; the rest of your gang members will do all the killing for you. The lingering sense of dread is almost overwhelming; it’s disturbing and uncomfortable.

So this is all shocking, and this occurs only about 1-2 hours into the game. But this isn’t where the level ends. After you get out of the airport, you’re back to shooting police and soldiers trying to stop you, and then the level ends with the Most Dangerous Man In The World suddenly revealing at the very last possible moment that he knows you were an American the whole time, and shooting you in the head.

Let’s set aside for the moment that your identity as an American sets off a chain reaction that plunges the U.S. and Russia into a global conflict that eventually sees you, among other things, staging an assault to reclaim the White House in the wake of an aborted nuclear missile attack on Washington D.C., and let us instead examine the other ways in which your player character is suddenly killed at the last possible moment in an unforeseen twist. Your character is also in a helicopter that gets shot down and when you wake up you are trapped in the wreckage, with no bullets; an enemy helicopter approaches, and the screen goes white.

Then, for no apparent reason, your perspective shifts and suddenly you’re an astronaut doing a space walk by the International Space Station, watching a nuclear missle’s arc cross the horizon. This is shocking enough – that’s probably why they put it in the commercial – but suddenly the missile is detonated and the electro-magnetic pulse generated by the missile’s explosion sends you flying out into space.

And then, the scene flashes back to you being trapped under the helicopter wreckage – it turns out that the EMP happened directly overhead, and so everything electronic in the area suddenly conks out, and the helicopter that was about to kill you crashes, and so you escape. Hooray! Except that it turns out later that, after you’ve raided the Most Dangerous Man in The World’s safehouse and retrieved valuable “intel”, you’re shot in the head by the main U.S. General in charge of the war effort, who then also sets you on fire.

And THEN, you’re in the desert, for some reason – I’m not even sure who the “you” is, at this point, since “you” have already died several times – and you’re chasing this same U.S. General, who manages to get into a helicopter from a moving speedboat, and then you manage to shoot the helicopter down, and it explodes, and then your speedboat falls over a cliff, and somehow you survive, and as it turns out the U.S. General also survived, and then he stabs you in the chest with a knife, and then eventually you regain the strength to pull the knife out of your chest and throw it (the knife) directly into the General’s eyeball. And then the credits roll, while people walk around in a museum, presumably showcasing certain famous scenes of the war, which are really quite violent for a kid-friendly museum.

This is all to say that the story is so over the top that it becomes melodramatic and nonsensical and just plain weird. And the thing that really makes it ridiculous is that, at least in my experience, you die a lot during the campaign. The game is hard; it only takes a few bullets to put you down, and there are a lot of enemies who fire a lot of bullets. The game has a relatively generous checkpoint system, as well as recharging health, but therein lies the breaking of the suspension of disbelief – I’ve already been shot a hundred thousand times in the course of this level; why shouldn’t I recover from being shot in the head at close range? Again?

The game part of the game is, of course, expertly well done. It’s graphically impressive, the weapons feel incredibly powerful, the atmosphere is charged and violent and unsettling. The rag-doll animation following a kill shot is especially unsettling; people just drop. And then of course there’s the multiplayer suite, which I dabbled in briefly last night and which better people than me can pontificate on. It’s all very well done, and it’s certainly worth a purchase, which is maybe a ridiculous thing to say given that anyone reading this probably already owns it.

But the story… wow. Here’s a suggestion for the sequel, which was inevitable even before it was set up by the game’s surprisingly clunky cliffhanger of an ending: maybe don’t kill the player character as much. It’s already been done far more than is necessary, and it ceases to mean anything since it’s not like your character even says anything, or is even clearly identifiable. There were a number of times during the campaign where someone would shout something to someone, and it took me a while to realize that they were shouting at me.

On an unrelated note, a hypothetical question: who kills more people, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, or your player character(s) in Modern Warfare 2? I could probably actually look this up and get real numbers, but off the top of my head it seems like the numbers would probably be pretty close.

>WIPTW: Confessions of a Crack Addict

>Me and my level 36 Soldier finished Borderlands early Sunday morning, and after selling off my excess loot and giving my skills a re-spec, I decided to screw around with the Playthrough 2 mode and see if it would really be worth playing through a second time, and about two hours later I forced myself to turn off the 360. That shit is dangerous; I was getting ridiculously awesome loot drops just outside the very first town.

I remain totally amazed at how much I enjoyed Borderlands, especially considering that I have absolutely no idea what the story was about, or who anybody was, or what I was ultimately supposed to be doing. I’m even more amazed that I never really cared about any of that stuff. My main focus was leveling up and getting better gear, and that remained constant even as I began my 2nd playthrough. The story is ultimately irrelevant. It would be nice if a sequel addressed this specific flaw, but the mechanics of the game itself are so well-designed that I’m not entirely sure I’d notice, one way or the other.

The only time I was bummed out by the lack of story was at the game’s ending, which can’t even be called “ambiguous”, as that would imply that something actually happened. And it’s really only a bummer because it was the first time since I’d started the game where I wasn’t engaged in some sort of forward motion, towards something. The game’s promise of the Vault was just vague enough to keep me somewhat interested, even though I couldn’t really tell you what of the game’s missions were actually about, besides going to point A and killing a bunch of people, or going around the map to collect certain items. I never really questioned why I was doing any of that stuff, as long as it meant that I was getting XP and new guns. If the game had even touched upon that element, in a sort of meta/Portal/Bioshock way, that would’ve been nice. Instead, the game’s ending just felt obligatory, as in: the game is over now.

If Modern Warfare 2 weren’t arriving tomorrow, I could easily see myself spending another 10-12 hours playing through again, and even more than that if I somehow didn’t hit level 50.

Also spent a little time with the 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins, which is… a little disappointing, although to be fair I haven’t really sat down with it and allowed myself to get sucked in. I will say, though, that it feels awfully weird; I keep expecting it to have real-time combat, and it most certainly does not, and I suppose I’d be more into it if I were playing it on the PC.

>The Quest for 50K, or, the world’s saddest violin playing just for me

>Today is November 3, 2009, and my Achievement total is currently sitting at 48,723. That gives me 2 months to get just under 1300 Points. Hitting 50,000 wasn’t necessarily a stated, determined goal of mine, but I hit 40K on my birthday last year, and getting 10,000 points in a year seems like something worth pursuing. However, I’m not entirely sure I’m going to be able to cross the 50K threshold in time, and maybe there’s a tiny part of me that’s a little bummed out about it.

Yes, I’m going to be busy with other stuff over the next 2 months; we all are; the holidays are nearly upon us and we all have stuff to do. But I’m also just not entirely sure that the games are going to be there.

There are 5 major Xbox360 games left in the calendar year, as far as I’m personally concerned: Dragon Age: Origins (currently shrinkwrapped, sitting in my messenger bag), Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Saboteur. I’m also still heavily invested in Borderlands and Forza 3.

So that’s 7 games, not including Brutal Legend which I don’t know that I’ll ever finish (and certainly won’t get any multiplayer achievements for), and not including the 500 points for both episodes for GTA4, which I’ll be lucky if I get half of.

I can rule out getting more than 300-400 in both MW2 and L4D2; I don’t really play multiplayer all that much, and in the case of MW2 I’m sure I’ll only do the campaign on Normal difficulty. I’m sure I can rack up 400-500 in Assassin’s Creed; I have no idea how much time I’m going to put into Saboteur, and if it gets shitty reviews I might just hold back from renting it altogether. So it’s really about finishing Borderlands (which supposedly isn’t all that difficult), getting as much as I can out of Forza, and doing my darnedest with Dragon Age, which is anywhere from 40-100 hours that I probably don’t even have.

It’s going to be close. It would certainly be nice if the 360 did something cool to mark the event; I’d even settle for a “I got 50K gamerscore and all I got was this stupid t-shirt for my avatar” thing. Most likely, though, I’ll cross 50K and nobody will know but me; I’ll pour myself a glass of single-malt scotch, pat myself on the back, and then blog about it here, for an audience of none.

>WIPTW: World Series edition

>I am incredibly superstitious when it comes to the Yankees in the postseason, and the incredibly annoying feature is that the superstitions are always changing from year to year. During the 2004 meltdown against the Red Sox, I feel like I let us down; the first three games I’d listened to on the radio, and because I was traveling on the 4th game I ended up watching it on TV, which is where everything fell apart. This year’s winning formula is apparently that I cannot watch any of the game on television, or even be in the same room if the game happens to be on. I’m serious. Within 5 seconds of me turning the game on, something bad happens to the Yankees; I turn the game off; they end up winning.

As a result, I’ve been able to get a bit more quality time on the 360. This weekend was all about Forza 3 and Borderlands, with a tiny bit of GTA4: BOGT on the side.

Forza 3 is definitely the best in the series. All the pre-release hype made special mention of Turn Ten’s desire to make the game as accessible as possible for all kinds of gamers, not just driving sim enthusiasts, and to that end they have succeeded. The single-player campaign is long, robust, endlessly customizable, and thoroughly rewarding; just about every single race ends up giving you something new. And since I know nothing about cars, I feel much freer to simply buy cars that I’m somewhat interested in, since I can always auto-tune them up before a race if they’re underperforming. The franchise is really only guilty of two things; recycling content and less-than-spectacular graphics. I suppose I can forgive the graphics; they’re certainly not bad, they’re just underwhelming compared to, say, DiRT 2. The recycling of tracks, though, does get a bit annoying; I feel like I’ve been driving the same tracks for years.

Ultimately, Forza reminds me a bit of the Tiger Woods franchise, in that they’re both great time-sucks and, simultaneously, great for just a quick dip. If only Tiger Woods could make the same sort of advances in terms of keeping the game fresh.

Borderlands continues to be the game that keeps on giving. My soldier is now up to level 28, I think, and I feel like I just can’t put the damned thing down. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the story, and I couldn’t care less; I pick up a bunch of missions in a particular area, I clear ’em all out, I score tons of loot, I cash them in, I level up, lather, rinse, repeat. That the game does a pretty terrible (i.e., nonexistent) job of letting you know which of your 10-15 missions is actually essential to moving the story along ends up freeing you to explore more of the world because, well, why not – there’s loot in them thar hills, and sticking to the main questline would render a lot of it unexplored.

One can’t help but be reminded of Fallout 3 when playing Borderlands, as post-apocalyptic first-person RPGs aren’t really a dime a dozen. And yet the two games could not feel more different. Leaving aside from the drastically different art styles – which I don’t really want to do, as Borderlands looks absolutely incredible and utterly unique – they move at completely different paces. Fallout 3 was slow, ponderous, and dark – and it absolutely worked in that particular context. Borderlands might as well be a first-person shooter, on the other hand, as it plays fast and furious. It’s dark as well, but it’s also zany. I think I enjoyed the overall experience a bit more in Fallout 3, and yet I’m probably having a bit more fun playing Borderlands.

Ultimately, Borderlands is clear-cut proof that a game – specifically an RPG – doesn’t need a great story in order to be fun. That kinda sucks to admit, because I wouldn’t at all mind being a bit more emotionally invested in what’s going on in Borderlands, and it flies in the face of what Tim Schafer and Valve and GTA represent. We’d all like to see better writing and storytelling in games. And yet even without a clear motivation to get from one side of the game to the other in terms of story, here I am, compulsively doing missions and killing dudes and exploring and wanting to turn the game off after just finishing up this last thing and then holy shit, another hour has gone by, and look at all the cool stuff I have now.

I almost feel bad that I barely gave The Ballad of Gay Tony any time this weekend; I did a few missions, got a feel for the story and the characters, remembered how to get in and out of cover, and more or less left it at that. It’s still good old GTA4, even though the game is starting to look a little rough around the edges.

Which reminds me – there’s a lot of driving in both GTA4 and Borderlands (and Forza), and the controls are totally different for each game, and it takes more than a few minutes to remember which is which. I do wish there was some sort of control scheme that all game developers could agree on when it comes to driving in 3rd-person action games.

Jeez, I almost forgot – I also tried out the first hour or so of the new Ratchet & Clank game. It’s good, fun, solid, and I just don’t have the time for it right now.

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