further adventures in Amalur

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and my hand-eye coordination isn’t what it used to be, or if it’s that I just don’t have the enduring patience that I used to have, but I’m finding that I’m no longer compelled to finish games that I’m not enjoying.  I used to be obsessive about this, spending hours and hours playing games that had stopped being fun shortly after the opening cut-scene, just so that I could get Achievements, or just to have said that I’d finished it, or (worst of all) because there wasn’t anything else I felt like doing.

Whatever the reason, I’m most likely done with both Final Fantasy XIII-2 and The Darkness 2.  I’d already put some quality time into FFXIII-2, and even sorta enjoyed myself in spite of its ridiculousness, and so I don’t feel badly about giving up on it.  (I’d put it down a week or two ago; my current quest involved me going to previous areas and looking for hidden objects, which didn’t sound terribly compelling, especially since I couldn’t explain why.)  As for the Darkness 2, well, I think it’s just straight-up shooter fatigue.  The art style is really remarkable, the story was moving in an interesting direction, and it puts enough of a spin on traditional shooter mechanics to make it compelling, but at the end of the day I’m still just shooting monsters in dark corridors, and I’ve done that before.

And so it happened that I was home sick yesterday, which was as good a time as any to devote some serious time into Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is yet another game that I’d been having a tough time sticking with.  As noted a few entries ago, I’d dabbled in it for a few hours, but there wasn’t really anything terribly compelling about it, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed in it, considering the named creative talent on the box.

I’m now around 15 hours in, and my dude is somewhere around level 18 or 19 or something.  (I can’t remember; it doesn’t matter.)

I will concede that the game does have some addictive qualities – this is certainly one of the best combat systems in an action RPG that I’ve ever played – and there’s lots and lots of loot, and the crafting systems (of which there are many) yield some pretty kick-ass rewards (i.e., almost everything I’m currently wearing/wielding is something I made, salvaged from stuff I picked up along the way).

Addictive though it may be, it’s still serving something that feels, for the most part, inconsequential and derivative.  The game’s outdoor environments are nicely varied (and are pleasantly reminiscent of Fable)*, but the indoor environments are just as reused and revisited as those in Dragon Age 2, which is saying something indeed.   The voice acting is fine, but the script is dull and charmless, and I am constantly skipping over conversations because they never, ever matter.  The quests themselves are pretty much all of the fetch variety, anyway.  I’m not playing the game for the story, in other words – I’m playing because the combat is fun and I get lots of treats.

In any event, this is probably all moot, as 2012’s first must-play just arrived at my desk.  I don’t know how much SSX I’ll get into tonight (as my wife and I are going to try and finish the last few episodes of Mad Men), but that’ll be occupying the majority of my playtime for the foreseeable future – at least until Mass Effect 3 shows up.

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*  Before I turned the game off last night I entered a totally different environment, one which had a lot more in common with Road Runner cartoons and the Mexico of Red Dead Redemption than the foresty areas of Fable.  So that’s something to look forward to, I suppose.

CouchCast: 022212

Very pleased to present the first-ever CouchCast!  While I figure out how to get it on iTunes, feel free to listen and download.

CouchCast: 022212

UPDATE:  The CouchCast now exists on iTunes!  Search for “Shouts from the Couch”, or just click on this link:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/shouts-from-couch-couchcast/id505138918

long overdue

Once again, I apologize for the lack of posts of late.  There’s a good reason for that, though – we were finally going to be launching the first-ever CouchCast this past week, and I wanted to have some stuff to talk about there.  Alas, we got held up at the last minute, and since I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to reconnect, I might as well get some of this stuff out of my brain.  Consider this a transcript of a solo podcast.

[cue “What Have You Been Playing?” music]

Old Republic:  My bounty hunter finally hit level 40.  And I was all excited to FINALLY start using my custom-build speeder, after spending hours and hours power-leveling my crafting skills just to be able to gather the materials to make it, only to find that the cost of training to use the damned thing is more money than I’ve ever had over the entire course of my playtime.  So, that was a little discouraging.  Also, Hoth is very white and boring to walk around in.  I ended up revisiting my level 3 Jedi, who I’d abandoned in the Jedi Temple for almost a full month – I quickly got him halfway to level 8, but I’d forgotten how goddamned SLOW the default walk speed is in that game.  Good grief.

Twisted Metal:  Does nostalgia matter?  And is it fair to judge a game based on your first 5 minutes with it?  I’ve never played the original games, and the only other David Jaffe game I played was God of War, and I preferred God of War 2 (and wasn’t he off to other things by that point?).  In any event, the game isn’t for me.  I watched the opening cutscenes (which looked like Sin City outtakes), and for someone new to the series, it felt a little distasteful for me to be excited about playing as a homicidal maniac.  I finally got into some actual playtime, and fought with the controls for 5-10 minutes, and turned it off and sent it back to Gamefly.  I will admit that I probably should’ve spent a little time getting used to the controls before writing it off completely, but it also would’ve been nice for the controls to have made sense (and also to have been in any way related to the way most driving games have been controlled for the last 5 years).  I also gather that the game is a lot more fun playing either online or with friends on the couch, but since I was renting it I didn’t have a code for an online pass, and there’s absolutely no way that my wife would be interested in playing with me.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning:  I am trying very hard to give a shit about this game, but it’s just not doing anything for me.  Everything about it feels borrowed and unoriginal.  I can’t get over how much it looks like Fable – but it should also be noted that Fable hasn’t looked good in years.  The inventory UI is bulky and cumbersome, which is a pain in the ass since there’s a TON of loot that needs to be dealt with.  I don’t really give a shit about the story, and the quests feel generic and contrived.  The best thing about the game is the combat, but if that’s all there is to this game, then, well, ugh.

Final Fantasy XIII-2:  It’s not like I can take FFXIII-2’s story seriously, either, since it’s completely insane.  A more interesting question to me, though, is wondering if it has any idea how ridiculous it is.  It goes out of its way to have the characters emote over every little plot development, but then it has Mog, one of the most annoying characters ever created by man – possibly more annoying than Jar-Jar Binks, for fuck’s sake – this flying little marshmellow beast who incessantly adds “Kupo” after every sentence like a nervous tic.  And I’ll be honest – one of my new favorite things to do in the game, now that I’ve unlocked this ability, is to throw this little thing off of every cliff I can find.   So, yes, it’s completely batshit insane and I have no idea what’s going on or why any of it matters, even though the characters go out of their way to explain what’s happening in every cutscene (of which there are dozens) – and yet there’s something utterly compelling about it, and I find it hard to stop playing.  The combat system is still as engaging as it ever was, and considering how much of it there is, that’s a good thing.  I’m a little stuck in the story right now, though, and as such I’ve found my attention wandering.

The Darkness II:  I’ll be honest – I liked the first Darkness game well enough, but didn’t really have any plans on playing this sequel.  I’m not even sure why I put it on my rental queue, to be honest.  And yet I did, and I got my copy on Friday, and while I’m only 2 hours in, I’m totally hooked.  The art style is fantastic – I don’t recall the original game having this quasi-cel-shaded look to it, but it looks great.  The gameplay is fun, fast and sometimes frantic – I’m fighting with the controls a little bit, but (to be fair) it’s a bit more complicated than just running and gunning.

Oh, and I gave the Mass Effect 3 demo a spin, which was maybe not the best idea.  I think I’d rather just wait for the full, final experience.

Most of what I’ve been playing lately, though, is on my iPhone – which is especially handy now that my gadget lust fot the Vita is peaking.  I’m way overdue for a Subway Gamer column, so let me just quickly run down some of what I’ve been playing:

  • Triple Town
  • Zen Pinball
  • Pinball Arcade
  • Fairway Solitaire
  • Ghost Trick

Those deserve a column of their own, but the short version is – yes, you should be playing them.  All of them.  Both pinball games in particular are outstanding, although they make me want an iPad because the iPhone screen is very small.

kickstart the jams

I’ve got things I want to say about Final Fantasy XIII-2, and also Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning, and a few more words on Skyrim and the 1.4 patch.

But first I’ve gotta talk about Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign, wherein Tim Schafer & Co. asked the community to help fund an old-school point-and-click adventure game.  That it’s raised its initial ask amount of $400,000 in 8 hours is amazing.  That it’s now almost a million dollars over its initial ask amount – in less than 3 days – is nothing short of extraordinary (indeed, it might break $1,400,000 by the time I finish this post – it’s a little over $50,000 away as of 12:34pm EST, 2/10/12).   I contributed $40, and I will play it on every platform it arrives on (especially since, with all this extra money, it appears likely that it’ll head to iOS devices), and I will devour the accompanying documentary.

I’d like to think that this experiment would radically change the current development system, which every small developer has repeatedly described as “fundamentally broken.”  Double Fine owns this project outright, and since they’re distributing it over Steam (and presumably other download services), they don’t have to pay retail costs – and consequently, they don’t really need a publisher, either.  It’s pure profit after they recoup their expenses, they retain complete creative control, and they’ll deliver a product that lots and lots of people apparently want.  Why can’t this work for other game developers?

Well, the answer to that question is very complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can answer it.  From my limited vantage point, the only real thing I can compare it to is Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-want” release of “In Rainbows”, which they released without a label behind them.  (Similarly, one could also bring up Louis CK’s recent “pay-what-you-want” release of a filmed comedy special.)

The worlds of game development, music and stand-up comedy are so different that to compare them is almost meaningless, but in this particular case these three entities (Double Fine, Radiohead, Louis CK) do share one rather important thing in common – they are adored by their fans, and they have many, many fans, and those fans very much want what these artists are providing.

This is important, I think.  These three entities are in unique positions within their respective industries – i.e., they are near-universally loved from both without and within – and they have a certain amount of clout that allows them to pull stuff like this off.  Tim Schafer’s past work has made him an adored cult figure, and yet none of his games have really sold in huge numbers.  They’ve sold well enough to make back their costs, and he’s retained an adoring fanbase, but he’s not pushing GTA or Call of Duty off the bestseller charts.  That he’s going back to his roots to make the sort of game that made him famous is, for many people (myself included), a dream come true.  That he knew that no publisher was ever going to give him the money to make this sort of game is, sadly, a reality of today’s marketplace.  New IP is very, very risky, and new IP in the shape of a point-and-click adventure title is basically asking to set your money on fire.

I’m not sure Tim Schafer expected this kind of success this quickly, though; I’m not sure anybody did.  And let’s also be clear here – at this point, he’s only raised the money; we haven’t actually seen the game yet.  The game could very well be terrible.  (Unlikely, but hey – Brutal Legend wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be, either.)

Are there any other developers that could pull something like this off?  I’m not sure.  Rock Paper Shotgun is reporting that Obsidian is considering it.   You could see Jonathan Blow (of Braid) working in this way in the future, perhaps.  (My personal dream would be for Erik Wolpaw to break off from Valve to develop his own game.)  You’d need a developer with vision, is the thing.

The great irony to this whole thing is that not 48 hours before Double Fine’s Kickstarter kicked off, Minecraft’s “Notch” was offering to fund Psychonauts 2.   Tim Schafer’s said, though, that such a project would cost between $20-40M, and that kind of money isn’t going to come through Kickstarter, and I can’t imagine that Notch has that much money to kick around.

Anyway, this is a very exciting time, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.  If Radiohead is any example, though, this sort of thing might not end up catching on beyond artists who are big enough to support such an endeavor in the first place; considering the prohibitive costs of game development, I have my doubts that lightning can strike twice.  Still, we can always hope.

FFXIII-2: the first hour

It occurs to me that there are quite a few reasons why I feel pathologically compelled to play as many new games as possible these days.  Certainly there’s a desire to be able to “take part in the conversation”, as it were.   It also gives me something to talk about here, and I’ve not kept it hidden that I’d like to turn my experience in blogging here into something more professional (although I recognize that (a) I’ve got a long way to go as far as that’s concerned, and (b) it’s not like professional gaming journalism is a hot racket).

But I think there’s a more fundamental reason at work here, and it’s that while I’ve always been a huge fan of videogames, I also had a rather gigantic gap in my playing resume.  I started with an Atari 2600, but never had any of the Nintendo machines of the 80s.  My little brother – 6.5 years younger than me – had a Sega Genesis, and we both played the hell out of that, but after that I was totally out of the loop.  I never owned a PS1 or a PS2, nor did I own an N64 or Gamecube.  After I graduated college, one of my best friends bought a PS1, and we spent a lot of time playing the Oddworld games and Crash Bandicoot, and I suppose it was at that point that I caught the bug again.  My girlfriend (at the time) bought me a Dreamcast, and after that I started turning into the man you see before you.

[I feel like I’ve said all this before.   I probably have.  I’m too lazy to search the archives.  I’m in a reflective mood today; indulge me.]

Anyway, I bring this up because I’m playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, and I feel bad about it.

You’ve gotta understand – I never played the early, “classic” FF games.   As I said the other day, I’ve downloaded FF7, 8,  and 9 on PSN out of obligation (and I’ll probably download 6 at some point, too), but with the exception of the 10-15 hours I put into FF7 for a blog feature that never quite went anywhere, I’ve not touched them.  I bought the PSP-only FF7: Crisis Core, but didn’t get more than a few hours in without putting it down.  And I think I put a few hours into the remakes of the early titles on the DS, but – again – I couldn’t really stick with it.

I came to FFXIII as a noob, ultimately.  But the point is:  I showed up for it.  I deliberately played the PS3 version, because I wanted the best experience.  I wanted something gigantic and epic for my PS3, too, since I hardly ever use it for gaming, and I’d figured that the first HD FF experience would be something special.

I was wrong.

FFXIII had a fun combat system and gorgeous visuals, absolutely.  It was also relentlessly linear – which I didn’t necessarily mind, because I was overwhelmed by the incredibly annoying cast of characters and the utterly nonsensical story, a story that could generously be called “convoluted”.   I finished the game, eventually, because I wanted to be able to say that I finished a Final Fantasy game, but it certainly wasn’t a pleasurable experience.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was because I’d finally fallen out of love with JRPGs, or if it was simply that FFXIII was just a shitty one.  But the general consensus from FF fans was that FFXIII was a shitty game, and that made me feel a bit better.   [I still sometimes feel like if I’ve had a bad time with a game, it’s somehow my fault.  I genuinely thought that I was somehow to blame for not understanding how to play the infamously awful “E.T.” on the 2600.]

Point being, SquareEnix knew that FFXIII was a disappointment, and supposedly FFXIII-2 is a direct response to what everybody hated about the original; it’s more open-ended, it refines an already great combat system into something even  better, it adds dialogue trees (sort of) – it’s catering to what it thinks the West wants.  The problem is that these characters are still annoying, and this story is still stupid.

An hour isn’t enough time to form a valid opinion – I know that.   It took me 40 hours of FFXIII before I started having “fun”, and your guess is as good as mine as to why I felt compelled to spend 40 hours playing something that wasn’t (besides the aforementioned compulsion to finish a Final Fantasy game).  But an hour is enough time for the developer to introduce the story and the characters and get the player acclimated to what’s about to happen, and HOLY SHIT I don’t care.  The dialogue is awful, and I genuinely feel bad for the voice actors, most of whom do a really good job with truly terrible lines.  The characters are ridiculous.  There’s really no other way to put it.  I don’t like any of them, and it’s certainly not because they’re emoting at every single moment.  (Seriously – do they need to insert every grunt and gasp and voiced utterance?  It’s bizarre.  Not even movies include that much sonic detail; it’s terribly distracting.)

And yet, after all this, I’m sure I’m going to keep playing through the weekend (except for the Superbowl, of course – go Giants!), and probably right up until next week’s Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning, which I am legitimately looking forward to.  I am a whore.

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