>Weekend Recap: here comes the hyperbole

>Are you ready for some outlandish statements? Good, because I’m really tired after watching the Lost finale last night and work is slow today and I can’t stop thinking about Red Dead Redemption, so here goes:

1. Red Dead Redemption might just be my favorite Rockstar game ever.

Let me qualify that a bit.

RDR is not the groundbreaking, industry-shifting watershed moment that GTA3 was. But there’s a difference between being groundbreaking and being a truly great game. My affection for GTA3 – more specifically, for the times I personally spent in GTA3 – helps me overlook a lot of that game’s glaring problems, of which there are many.

As with each subsequent Rockstar open-world game, RDR, then, is simply the latest refinement of the ever-evolving open-world platform. In this particular case, it most clearly resembles GTA4. But it’s where it differs that gets me all hot and bothered.

GTA4 was a staggering achievement; it managed to create the most immersive city ever seen in a game, while also creating a truly fascinating narrative around a singularly unique protagonist. But GTA4 still suffered from old ideas; the game’s gunplay was still a bit tricky, even in spite of being retooled, and the punishment for mission failure was still brutal.

RDR fixes almost all of what was bothersome in GTA4, and I would expect/hope that GTA5 will borrow almost everything that RDR gets right. The snap-to targeting might make the game a little too easy, but frankly, I’d rather have fun with the story than struggle with the controls. If you fail a mission, you can continue from the most recent mid-mission checkpoint, which is fantastic. There’s regenerating health and fast-traveling, which is crucial. You can save anywhere, at any time, which is essential.

And the world – oh, the glorious world – is a sight to behold. It’s easily the prettiest game Rockstar has ever made, and utterly convincing at every turn. I do wish that the game would let you take screenshots – and I’d buy the PC version if only so that I could. I’ve had to call my wife in from the other room just to have her look at something – like standing on a cliffside watching the sun rise over the valley below.

But it’s not just the graphics – it’s everything. The wildlife; the random people in trouble; the “ambient challenges” – there is always something to do. I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but I’ll make it again anyway – it reminds me an awful lot of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, because getting from Point A to Point B usually meant that you’d get sidetracked about a dozen times doing other things, which were always just as much fun as the actual missions.

According to Rockstar’s excellent Social Club, I am just under 19 hours in and just over 42% complete. I don’t know that I’ll be able to finish the game before I leave for Jamaica next week; as much as I want to be done with the campaign before I go, so that I don’t have to miss it, I kinda don’t want the campaign to be over with, either.

2. The new Prince of Persia game isn’t nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe.

Let me qualify that one, too – it’s certainly not bad, and indeed it’s the best-looking game in the series, and it easily has the best combat system. The problem is that it’s arguably the least essential. There’s nothing inherently special about it. It’s not magical. The story feels slight and flimsy. Too much work went into the game to call it a mere cash-in for the movie, but I finished it in 6 hours or so and haven’t thought about it since, other than to write this paragraph. It’s certainly worth a rental, if you’re a fan of the series and you’re not already sidetracked with RDR or Super Mario.

3. I really want to like Alan Wake, but the opening chapter didn’t grab me nearly as hard as I’d hoped, and RDR has pretty much overshadowed it for the foreseeable future.

That wasn’t really all that hyperbolic; it’s just the way the weekend went.

>Red Dead Redemption: the first 2 hours

>I am very much wanting to talk about Red Dead Redemption this morning, even though I’ve only played a little bit and don’t really have very much of substance to discuss. Here’s what I can say:

I was thoroughly sucked in from the moment the opening cinematic started rolling, and I only stopped playing because the hour was far too late. It’s absolutely Wild West GTA, but it feels a lot more important than that phrase might indicate. The world that they’ve created is a sight to behold; every thing you see might as well be a photograph. I remember being impressed by the level of detail in GTA4, and RDR pretty much blows it out of the water. Take a stroll down the main street in one of the towns and you’ll see what I mean – the way the telegraph wires wave in the wind, the way the tumbleweeds roll down the plain.

You can definitely feel the GTA4 engine in the way the game controls, and there are a number of subtle improvements that I’m hoping will make it into the next GTA. The biggest thing: regenerating health. Ignore that it’s not “realistic” – nothing in any of these games is realistic. Regenerating health answers maybe the biggest nuisance in the GTA games, which is that after you finish a mission, you have to buy a new bulletproof vest and eat a cheeseburger before you can feel comfortable that you’ll survive the next mission. Here, if you get in trouble, you take cover and wait it out.

Speaking of which – RDR also makes it a lot easier to tell if you’re getting shot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a firefight in GTA and had no idea I was getting peppered until I was finally killed; here, the screen turns red. It’s maybe not as tactile as some force feedback in the controller, but it’s at least an indication that you should maybe get out of the way.

At some point this week I’m forcing myself to pull away from the single-player in order to try out the online stuff; I need to get a posse together.

Also, at some point this week, I’ve got to try Alan Wake, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Split/Second, and the new Prince of Persia. When it rains, it fucking RAINS.


>I got a message from Caro over the weekend, asking me why I was suddenly playing so much GTA4. The answer is needlessly complex:

1. I am freaking the hell out for Red Dead Redemption, and playing GTA4 seems to be the best way to prepare;

2. It looks really, really, REALLY good on my PC; and

3. I’m mostly just playing The Ballad of Gay Tony, since I’d never really given it more than a quick hour’s play when it first came out.

I’m actually playing it on both my 360 and my PC. I was trying to match my 360 game’s progress on my PC, but I ended up doing things a little bit out of order, and then I was trying to match the 360 back to the PC. THIS IS ALL TERRIBLY INTERESTING, I KNOW. The point being, I’m about 8 hours in, at least on the PC – and I’m probably a little bit behind that on the 360.

TBoGT is pretty amazing, actually. I soured on the first GTA expansion, The Lost and Damned, mostly because the idea of motorcycle gangs in NYC is totally ridiculous, and TLaD took itself pretty seriously. And also because I’d gotten stuck in one of those Rockstar-patented controller-throwing missions where the task is made incredibly difficult because of certain arbitrary parameters that you cannot deviate from. Specifically, in TLaD, it was the mission where you have to destroy a bunch of non-stationary vans by throwing molotov cocktails from your motorcycle. (Why that particular weapon, and not, say, a rocket launcher, which I could just as easily procure from the local gun shop? Why do I have to stay on the motorcycle? And why is this specific action so incredibly difficult to manage, given the game’s control scheme?)

TBoGT, on the other hand, reminds me of the zanier sections of San Andreas; the cast of characters are very well acted and very, very funny (especially Yusef), and the missions are as diverse as they are insane. The emphasis in TBoGT appears to be on super-powerful weaponry and base jumping. I have thrown a celebrity blogger out of a helicopter, only to then dive after him and parachute to safety. I have hijacked an APC and bulldozed my way through Central Park. I have shot down helicopters with explosive shotgun shells from the roof of a moving subway car – a car that I eventually stole with the help of a helicopter.

Hmm. Maybe it’s the wrong game to be playing in front of the gritty Western style that is Red Dead Redemption…

>Picross 3D

>I’m trying to remember the last time I was heavily invested in my Nintendo DS. The last game I played on it was probably the most recent Zelda game, which I didn’t particularly care for. In any event, in less than 12 hours I have become totally addicted to Picross 3D, which is somewhat of a surprise for me since I never particularly cared for the 2D iteration.

It hits all the right notes, for one thing. It’s a puzzle game, which means it can be played on the go, in short bursts, with the sound off. And it uses the stylus and touch screen about as well as you could ask for. (The only way it could be cooler is if there was a version that came with Project Natal, which you could manipulate a la Minority Report, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it better.)

In a way, on a total base level, it feels a bit like sculpture; you chip away at a lifeless mass of cubes until a shape is revealed within. Of course, it can be hard to tell just what the hell the final shape is supposed to be. Just a few minutes ago, in fact, I finished a puzzle and the solution was revealed to be a Clione.

I had absolutely no idea what the hell a clione was, and when I googled it, I wasn’t necessarily convinced that what the game presented had anything in common with what it actually is. But that’s OK; it’s a logic puzzle, it’s not something that requires 1080p graphics.

>The Lull

>Now that I’ve finished Final Fantasy 13, I’ve got all this free time on my hands. I guess it’s time to look at the calendar and pinpoint when exactly I’m going to go completely broke. [May 18th, as it turns out. -Ed.]

Bold = games I’ve already pre-ordered, or intend to own
Italics = games in my rental queue
Plain = games I’m keeping an eye on, just in case

May 11

  • 3D Dot Game Heroes
  • Lost Planet 2

May 18

  • Red Dead Redemption
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • Alan Wake
  • Prince of Persia
  • Split/Second

May 25

  • Blur


  • Alpha Protocol
  • Tiger Woods 11
  • Singularity
  • Crackdown 2
  • Mafia 2

And then there’s another little bit of a lull, and then Starcraft 2 comes out. My interest in Starcraft 2 is mainly due to my PC’s ability to run it successfully; I’m terrible at strategy games and never played the original. Frankly, I’m on the fence about Civilization 5, and I was obsessed with Civ 4/Civ Revolution – I played it on PC, 360, and DS. But we’ll see.

>the end

>Took a sick day yesterday, and, well, I ended up finishing Final Fantasy 13. I couldn’t possibly tell you what happened; I’m not sure I’ve ever spent 60 hours playing a game while being so thoroughly confused about what was going on, and the ending is even more nonsensical than the setup. I think I had fun? Yeah, I had fun. I really started to enjoy the battle system towards the end (although not enough to go back in and keep playing).

Here’s my box quote: “I have no goddamned idea what the hell happened, but it sure was pretty.”

>uh-oh, pt. 2

>Sorry if that last post was too cliffhanger-y; I suddenly looked at the time and realized I had to be somewhere else in a hurry.

So, then: yes! I finally finished FF13’s infamous Chapter 11, and now I’m a few checkpoints into Chapter 12. And I’m still very much on board.

The game’s got some issues, of course, and the biggest is its pacing, which is all over the place. The first 15 hours are relentlessly linear and incredibly confusing, story-wise, and then suddenly the game pulls a 180 and gives you nothing but side missions and wide open spaces to traverse. The game picked up for me once I decided to be done with the side missions and start getting back into the story, and now the game feels perfect: I feel like I’m making legitimate forward progress, the environments are more and more stunning, and – most importantly – I’m really getting into the battle system.

To wit: for the first 40 hours or so, I mainly just stuck to the “Diversity” paradigm – i.e., melee/magic/medic. Even if it was slow and inefficient, it still generally got the job done. But now, suddenly, the Synergist and Saboteur roles are becoming more and more useful, and finishing a battle is now a bit like solving a puzzle – there’s a strategic element to planning everything out, and as a result the combat is far more engaging and enjoyable.

It is ridiculous that I’ve spent this much time with the game in the first place, but in the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Especially considering how dry the release calendar has been of late – a game this long couldn’t have come along at a better time.


>It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s Resolution, but my intention for 2010 was to stop spending so much money on music. Not that I was going to suddenly start stealing it – I was just going to be a little less brash and recklessly impulsive. And so far, I’m actually doing OK – I’m definitely on pace to spend less money on music this year than last year.

The problem, of course, is that those reckless impulses don’t just die; and now that I’ve got a bitchin’ computer and a Steam account that I can actually start paying attention to, I’m falling into the same patterns. To wit: Steam had a gigantic sale on a bunch of Codemasters racing games – 4 of which I’d already played on the 360 – and I bought ’em anyway. Shit, I ended up buying the GTA4 – Episodes from Liberty City pack, which I also own on the 360, and that wasn’t on sale.

I’m such a goddamned whore. And I still haven’t even really touched Dragon Age. (Although it must be noted – even though I’ve only played it for about an hour, it is soooo much better than the 360 port.)

And the thing is, I still spent the most time this weekend on Final Fantasy 13.

Speaking of which – I’m done with Chapter 11!

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