the first dozen hours: Sleeping Dogs

It’s times like these where I’m glad that I’m not a professional game writer, because then I’d have to be a bit less wishy-washy when describing my experience playing Sleeping Dogs.

On the one hand, I greatly admire what it’s trying to do.  It’s true that the number of GTA clones has decreased considerably in recent years, but even so, there are still 2 directions that most of these open-world games seem to take – there’s the batshit crazy direction, best personified by the excellent Saints Row 3, and then there’s the serious, thoughtful, contemplative direction first explored in GTA4 and then in Red Dead Redemption.   Sleeping Dogs, to its tremendous credit, is aiming for something serious here – or, at least, is doing everything it can to avoid being unintentionally funny, which is a verydifficult thing to do when you have Chinese accents peppering a game meant for ‘Murican audiences.  (There are too many YouTube-able instances of prominent American celebrities/sports stars/newspeople saying stupid shit like “ching chang chong” as a shorthand for Chinese for me to link to here, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

It also brings a lot to the table in terms of gameplay.  First and foremost, it’s probably got the best melee combat we’ve yet seen in an open-world game, and while it’s not quite as good as the recent Batman games, it’s still great fun.  (By the same token, some of the fights are quite difficult, which can be frustrating – but when you do win a fight, it’s all the more satisfying.)

And enough can’t be said about the open world itself.  Hong Kong, even if it’s fictionalized, is an exotic and unique locale for this type of game – or, indeed, any game, really – and the city is incredibly well-designed and is a lot of fun to explore.  If I were to make a Top 10 Best Open World Cities list – and I very well might, when the next generation of consoles launches and I need to do a current-gen wrap-up –  I’d probably put this in my top 3.  It’s that good.

But where there’s a sandbox, there is also jank, and Sleeping Dogs has some very strange jank.  Not the usual jank, where there’s bugs and broken AI and shit – more like inconsistent game design.  Without spoiling anything, your player character is an undercover cop, and you will be performing missions for both the police and the gangs you’ve infiltrated. After each mission, you receive performance grades that reflect how you did for both factions.  Now, here’s where this gets weird; regardless of which faction you work for, you will get docked points for the police faction if you do anything wrong – if you shoot a civilian hostage while aiming for the bad guy behind them, if you crash your car into a civilian vehicle during a chase even though the civilian car drove through an intersection, if you happen to run over a streetlight.  And yet, during the missions, you are not only beating up thugs, but you can brutally murder them by, say, impaling them on a pallet of swordfish heads, or by breaking an aquarium with their face, etc.  Indeed, you get rewarded for such brutality.

There’s also a bunch of weirdness in the story – it feels like certain scenes may have been edited out without smoothing over their rough edges.  Characters suddenly appear out of the blue and yet interact with your character like they’re old, trusted friends.  A wedding takes place out of the fucking blue.  And then there’s the character of Winston’s mother, which I can’t talk about without spoiling it, except to say that it is SUPER FUCKED UP and your character seems more than willing to help her do the things she does.  Which, as a cop, he should maybe not do.  Is all I’m saying.

I have no idea how far along I am in the story, but I’m enjoying myself for the most part, and it’s certainly worth a look if you’ve got some free time.

Death takes a holiday

Finished Darksiders 2 over the weekend, and I’m finding myself in the weird position of urgently wanting to talk about it and yet having a hard time finding anything to say about it besides “yeah, man, that game is awesome.”

I think I read (or heard) someone describe DS2 as a game that was not ashamed of being a game.   Which is to say, it’s not trying to be something it isn’t – it’s not an interactive movie, it’s not a “work of art”.  It is telling a story – an interesting story, actually, with strong dialogue and excellent voice acting – but it’s also got furious combat and puzzle solving and pleasurable platforming, and lots of side stuff to do simply for the sake of doing them.

It’s true that the first game wore its influences very clearly on its sleeve, and I think it’s very safe to say that this second game is very much more its own thing.  Indeed, if I had to compare it to anything – and I really honestly don’t feel like I have to, but for the sake of argument I will – I’d probably compare it to Rocksteady’s Batman games.  They’re similarly paced, they take place in huge, detailed environments, they very rarely hit a wrong note.

DS2 rarely stumbles.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the combat can be a little tedious at times – the Soul Arbiter’s Maze, for example, was goddamned ridiculous.  And occasionally the bosses can feel cheap – quite a few bosses can teleport, which is rapidly becoming my #1 pet peeve.

I did most (but not all) of the side quests pretty much right before the very last quest, and it also should be noted that some of those quests are, also, ridiculous, in that you’re simply travelling from one “world” to another, relaying a conversation that you yourself aren’t even involved in.  This form of quest is not uncommon in these types of games, but they are unbearably tedious in a game like DS2, where travelling from world to world – and then travelling from portal entrance to quest objective – takes time.  Surely these creatures have email, or smartphones, or even a goddamned telegraph.

Those minor quibbles aside, it’s a magnificent game, and I’m sure I’ll engage in a New Game+ playthrough during the next lull in the release schedule.  Right now it’s somewhere in my top 3 for the year, and I imagine it’ll stay up there as the year winds down.

a brief sojourn back into Hell

Well, first – thanks for everyone’s feedback yesterday.  I ended up buying my rental copy, and I also decided that I will check out the DLC – as long as it’s not, like, shitty.  That way, everyone wins.  Darksiders 2 is a game I can see myself playing more than once, which is something I’ve been known to do (i.e., a rather high percentage of my Steam library are games that I’ve already played on the 360).   Hell, right now, even though I’m finished with the 2nd “world”, I’ve gone back to the 1st world just to finish up all the side quests that I somehow missed – I somehow spent the first 15 hours of the game without finding the Lure Stone, which led me to believe that it was a thing that only unlocked with a new copy.  (I kept seeing all these bright, shiny gems sticking on every wall and was unable to do anything with them, and it was driving me up the wall.)

As to the topic at hand – I didn’t have access to the TV last night, so I decided to revisit Diablo 3 and see what the hubbub about 1.0.4 was about.  I’d put the game down rather abruptly a few weeks ago, once I saw that I was still getting utterly decimated by elites in Act 1 of Hell difficulty, despite spending hundreds of thousands of virtual gold in the auction house, and that started to get old very quickly.  1.0.4 seems to have made rather sweeping changes to almost every aspect of the game – Hell difficulty has been tweaked considerably, each player class has received numerous updates, and there’s a new XP system for people who’ve already maxed out at level 60.

I would’ve liked to have tried out Hell difficulty, but the thing is, I’d put the game down in a rather sorry state – almost all of my equipment was heavily damaged, and I only had 66 gold to work with.  So I decided to go back to Act 3 of Inferno and farm gold for a bit so that I could at least approach Hell with enough gold for the inevitable repairs I’d have to do, and maybe also see if I could notice any difference.

Can’t say I noticed much of a difference, actually, although it’s hard to say if that’s because of the patch, or because my character is just that powerful.  Back when I was still heavily addicted (and having trouble with Hell), I’d periodically go back to Inferno and farm for a while, and I never had too much trouble.  But last night I mowed through the Battlefield section of Act 3 like a goddamned tornado – I’m not sure my health ever dipped below 50%, actually.  Some of my critical hits were 5 digits long.  I may very well end up farming Inferno Act 4 once more before giving Hell another go – it’s pretty quick, after all, and I should be able to scrounge up enough gold for a few high-quality Auction House items and be able to cover repairs if Hell starts to go bad, again.

Then again, I’m still in deep with Darksiders 2, so maybe I don’t need to do this right away.

Plus, I don’t want to forget about Sleeping Dogs – that’s a game I’d like to finish.

And Borderlands 2 is going to suck up a lot of time, I’m almost positive of that.

Anyway.  If you’ve been away from Diablo 3 for a while, the 1.0.4 patch is substantial enough that you might want to give it another look, if (for some reason) you’re not playing anything else.

rent / buy / steal

“It’s a question of ethics.”

Here is my dilemma.  (Which, admittedly, as far as dilemmas go, isn’t really anything to get terribly concerned about.)

As previously alluded to, for reasons that I’ll reveal in a future post, I am trying to keep my spending habits down.  I’m not buying any Blu-Rays, but the wife and I are known to spend $5 on an On-Demand movie; I’m not buying any music, but I am a premium Spotify user (which has probably saved me at least $1000 dollars since I signed up last year); and I’m not buying any video games, so I’ve been using Gamefly’s rental service.

These are all legal, paying services; I’m not getting anything for free, and I’m working under the assumption that, at the end of the day, the right people are getting my money.  (I’m aware that Spotify’s rate-of-return for the artist is absurdly low, but it’s still better than outright piracy.)

Still, though, there’s a part of me that likes to own things.  And, also, I like to support the things I like.

So, in the case of Darksiders 2 – a game that I am enjoying the shit out of, and which, if I were to enjoy the full breadth of what it has to offer, would need to own a new copy of the game in order to validate certain codes and thus unlock certain content – I am tempted to buy it outright.  I want to support the developer, as I imagine DS3 on the next generation of consoles will look fucking amazing, and I want them to know that I am interested in such a product.  I also want to throw THQ a bone, a publisher in dire financial straits that nevertheless has still put out some truly compelling IP in the last few months (i.e.Saints Row 3).

Here’s the question, then.

I can buy my Gamefly copy for $44 – the disc has never been used by anyone but me since I got it on launch day, so it’s not technically “pre-owned” or “used”.  But I’m not sure that THQ or the developer will see any of that money (though it’s entirely possible that they’ve already received it through Gamefly’s purchase of the original game, although who knows).

Or I can buy a new copy on Amazon for $53.

Or, I can suck it up and just enjoy my rental copy, knowing that I have other things that I’ll need to be able to afford.

this is more like it

Topics covered today:

  • Darksiders 2
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • discovering new bands through game soundtracks

I’m actually going to start with the last thing first, because despite the mega-marathon sessions I had this weekend with both Darksiders 2 (hereinafter, “DS2”) and Sleeping Dogs (“SD”), it’s the third thing on this list that’s made the deepest impression on me.

To wit:  I am obsessed with the band White Denim.  I had never heard of them before, though it’s entirely possible that I may have noticed their albums reviewed with mid-level scores at Pitchfork and the AV Club and simply skipped past them.   In any event, at some point last week (i.e., before my rental copies of DS2 and SD arrived), I was playing Saints Row 3 on my PC with my headphones on, kinda just screwing around, looking for hidden packages, not really interested in any of the missions I had to do, when I suddenly noticed that whatever was on the radio was really, really good.  I stopped what I was doing, pulled out the radio song list (in order to make a custom mix – a great feature in SR3 only limited by how little of the music I actually like), and discovered that the song in question was White Denim’s “Paint Yourself.”

And from there, I quickly went to Spotify, found all of their albums, and now it’s all I’ve been listening to ever since.  They are some perfect hybrid of Broken Social Scene, Deerhoof, Blitzen Trapper and Phish – which shouldn’t make any sense, but it does, and then some.  I was annoyed with myself that I hadn’t noticed them sooner, when I was playing SR3 on my Xbox – but, then, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed it coming through the TV instead of my kick-ass studio monitor headphones.

This is not the first time I’ve learned about a band through a game – Rock Band turned me on to Maximo Park and Silversun Pickups (though, in those specific cases, I mostly just like the songs they picked and not the albums as a whole).    Frankly, the way certain games shove their soundtracks down my throat really just turns me off (I’m looking at you, EA.) GTA4 turned me on to a few things – somewhere out there, someone’s made a fantastic mp3 playlist of every GTA4 radio station – and, really every GTA game’s had a fantastic soundtrack.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten this obsessed with a band before simply by hearing them in a game, and I think that’s kind of awesome.  (And the weird thing is, the song they picked isn’t even necessarily a lead single-type track.)

(Should you be interested in more of their stuff, I’ve made a Spotify playlist with all their albums, which can be found in the widget below (except I don’t think the widget can contain everything – the native Spotify application should, though).)

Moving on, then.

If my Raptr profile is to be believed, I spent twice as much time in Darksiders 2 than in Sleeping Dogs last week, though that doesn’t necessarily feel right.  I kinda rotated between the two of them for a while, switching if I found myself frustrated or if I came to a natural break in the action.  Funny thing – while the two games couldn’t be more different – one is a GTA clone set in Hong Kong, the other has you playing as Death (one of the Four Horsemen), slaughtering demons, traversing platforms and solving puzzles in strange, fantastical realms – their melee combat is just similar enough to make the combat a bit difficult to adjust to right after a switch.  

I guess the Raptr timing is right, though – I have no idea how far I am in DS2 but I suspect I’m at least at the halfway point, being that I just picked up my 3rd special ability (out of 4).  I’m enjoying the hell out of it, just as I did the first.  Great art style, great story (and great voice acting to boot), and the game experience is pretty much exactly what I want to be playing right now.  My only frustration is that I’m just not as good at the combat as I’d like to be, leading to boss battles that take forever to get through; and, well, on rare occasions the camera makes the platforming a bit more difficult than it needs to be.  That aside, it’s really quite good.  Maybe it’s not a WORK OF ART, but it’s a really enjoyable experience all the same, which is the part that really matters the most.

The thing I said above about not being great at combat applies in equal measure to my experience with Sleeping Dogs, which is (again) a pleasant surprise.  (I’m not great at the driving, either, though I’m getting better – the cars are a bit floaty and the handbrake takes a lot of getting used to.  OH, and people in Hong Kong drive on the wrong side of the road, so there’s that.)  But the thing about the combat is that, by and large, it’s how missions get completed, and sucking at the combat means that the game can be quite frustrating at times.  And yet I still find myself enjoying the experience, at the end of the day.  Hong Kong is a fascinating location for an open-world game, and it feels pretty authentic (not that I’ve ever been there, of course, but it still feels like a real city).  The story is definitely interesting, with quite a few compelling characters, and I’m certainly invested in what’s happening.  There’s lots of little side things to do, there’s tons of hidden packages to locate (which is one of my favorite things to do in these games – this also applies to DS2, which has hidden packages galore), and in spite of its occasional jank, it’s a compelling experience.  There’s some neat social touches in it, too, which (unfortunately) I can’t really explore, since I’m apparently the only person on my friends list who’s playing it, but in any event the game keeps track of various things you do (like how long you can drive without hitting anything), and then it ranks you with your friends.  I’d like to see Rockstar’s Social Club incorporate more of this kind of thing in GTA5, frankly.

Anyway.  It’s nice to be playing new games, again, finally.   My hands will be full with these two for the foreseeable future – or at least until Borderlands 2 arrives in a few weeks.

approaching austerity; fun with bullet points

It’s been busy times here at SFTC HQ, though not for any particularly good reason.   I spent the bulk of my free time last week working on a quasi-review of Quantum Conundrum, one of my (too) many pickups from the Steam Summer Sale, and the piece itself (as I worked on it) became intensely negative, which might’ve been a bit unfair since the game is not, in fact, a piece of shit, but in any event I didn’t want to suddenly appear here after a long silence  with 1000 words of bile.

Speaking of which, since I realize that it’s been almost 3 weeks since the last post, here’s my complete haul from the Steam Summer Sale:

  • Galactic Civilizations II (super pack) – [why did I even bother?  I saw “turn-based strategy in space” for under $8 and couldn’t help myself.  have I played it yet?  of course not!]
  • Bulletstorm [#10 on my Best-of-2011 List.  looks AMAZING on my PC.  I’ve been playing this a lot over the last few weeks, actually, and I think I like it even better the second time.  A real shame the sequel got cancelled.]
  • Alan Wake (complete pack) – [I played and sort-of liked the first game on the 360.  I tried the first few minutes of American Nightmare on the PC; it’s a little ridiculous.]
  • Quantum Conundrum – [half of me is really appreciative that there are first-person puzzle games still being made; the other half of me hates first-person platforming.  this game could’ve used a bit more focus testing, a bit more polish on the narrative (and maybe a different voice actor entirely, or at least one who bothered to show up and not just phone it in), and maybe it didn’t even need to be 1st person.  I’m still glad I finished it – despite the many frustrating bits, there are some glorious “eureka” moments, too – though I won’t be playing it again.]
  • SOL: Exodus – [This space combat-ish game got a lot of talk earlier in the year on various podcasts, which is how I presume it wound up on my wishlist.  I tried the first 10 minutes or so; it’s promising.]
  • Legend of Grimrock – [I was sorta hoping to wait for the iPad version, but the sale price was too good to pass up.  I played the first few minutes; I need to spend some serious time with a tutorial to figure out just what the hell I’m doing.]
  • Saints Row the Third [which I’ve already finished on the 360 – but how could I pass it up for 75% off?  I’ve been playing this and Bulletstorm over the last few weeks; they’re both so good, though they’re a bit confusing to play side-by-side – I keep wanting to do Bulletstorm-type stuff in SR3, which usually ends up getting me killed.]
  • Indie Bundle 2 (Botanicula, EYE, Universe Sandbox, Oil Rush, Splice) – [bought this only for Botanicula, which I haven’t yet played.]
  • Anno 2770 – [as with GalCiv2 above, I have no idea why I bought this.  I opened it up and played the first 5 minutes and didn’t know how to do anything.]

This splurge is likely to be my last for the foreseeable future, for reasons I’m not quite yet prepared to get into.  (It’s a good reason, is all I’ll say at this time.)  It is nice to have all this stuff to play, though, considering just how shitty 2012 has been so far in the quality-new-release department.  (It’s true that next week sees the release of both Darksiders 2 and Sleeping Dogs, but I only have high-ish hopes for one of those games.)

Splurge aside, my iOS devices have been getting quite a workout lately, too – and for not a lot of money, either:

  • Agent Dash is a free-to-play endless runner (similar to Temple Run), which looks fucking incredible (and is also quite difficult – I’ve installed it on both my iPad 3 and my iPhone 4, and the iPad version is superior if only because you can see future obstacles a bit easier).
  • 10,000,000 is a simple, fun puzzle RPG thing – I’ve beaten it already on my iPhone and so now I’m playing it again on the iPad.  Hoping there’ll be future content updates; this could use some new objectives and such.
  • Wizorb is a Breakout clone done as if it were an SNES RPG that first surfaced in the Xbox Indie Game library; it’s a perfect iOS title (again – it plays better on the iPad, because you can actually see what you’re doing.)
  • Orc: Vengeance is a frankly gorgeous Diablo-ish adventure, which I haven’t spent nearly enough time with.
  • Nihilumbra is a gorgeous puzzle/adventure game – reminds me a little bit of Okami, in a vague way.
  • Finally, the classic game Another World was on sale for $0.99 (down from $5), and I figured I should give that a shot at that price.

Looking back at that last post, I see that I was just days away from playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD.  I ended up spending quite a bit of time with it, and I came away from it with mixed reactions.  It does indeed look great, though ironically it now feels really empty;  the level designs (while pleasingly familiar) seem a bit sparse, and the level selections themselves are hit-or-miss.  (Seriously – the shopping mall and the downhill jam are levels I never needed to see again.)  Ultimately, while I am not nearly as good at it as I thought I was, I am somewhat relieved to see that I’m not noticeably worse.

So, yeah.  I know this post is far from substantive, but it’s a hell of lot cheerier than the depressing QC review I ended up not posting.  (Though, if you really want my in-depth thoughts on that game, I suppose I can be persuaded to whip it into publishable shape.)

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