belt tightening

Last night, the wife and I had a tough conversation about money.

Our 3-month old son (that’s him in the site’s header image, by the way) had his first “transition” daycare visit this morning, and he starts going in earnest in 2 weeks.  And for us to be able to afford daycare – and keep ourselves in baby supplies, and pay the rent and the rest of our bills, and also eat – well, we’re already cutting it pretty close, and there’s not a hell of a lot of wiggle room.  I’ve also got some rather sizable debt to pay off, too, and while I’ve made considerable progress on that front I’ve still got a ways to go, which makes this all the more anxiety-inducing.

Something’s got to give, basically.

And after some online banking and some soul-searching (and a little bit of drinking), I came to the realization that the only thing I really spend any extra money on these days is games.

This kinda sucks, as you might imagine – I am a self-professed consumer whore – but the more I think about it, this is not the worst time to be a broke gamer.   If I’m truly honest with myself, there’s really only one game coming out this year that I need in any sort of non-negotiable way.  Steam will have having its Summer Sale any minute now, too, and I could probably see myself picking up one or two things on my wishlist if they’re discounted enough – but let’s be honest here, after all the previous Steam Sales, there’s really not all that much that’s left for me to buy.  And I can certainly pare down my Gamefly account to one game at a time, as opposed to three, to be able to handle the rest of the to-do list.

Hell, let’s look at that to-do list (aka my GameQ) while we’re here, and I’ll take this opportunity to debut a new feature I’m calling Keep or Cut:

  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – I don’t even know what this is, to be honest – I’d just heard some positive word of mouth, and I wanted any excuse to keep my 3DS busy.  Will most likely CUT.
  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team (3DS) – if I can finish The Last of Us quickly enough, I should be able to rent this close to its release date.  Since Mario Golf: World Tour got pushed to 2014, this is the only must-have 3DS game I can see for the rest of 2013.  KEEP.
  • Saints Row 4 – I’m a big Saints Row fan, but I’ve had my doubts about this ever since they first announced it.  I do not expect high review scores, though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.  KEEP, but with reservations.
  • Splinter Cell: Blacklist – this was always only going to be a rental.  Chaos Theory was the high watermark for the series, and everything since then has been pretty disappointing.  Haven’t seen any indication that I should revise my expectations.  CUT.
  • Rayman Legends – Assuming this is as delightful as Origins was, this is an automatic KEEP.  Though I really ought to go back and finish Origins first.
  • GTA V – I’m not sure why this is still on my rental queue, as I’m probably going to pre-order it as soon as I finish this post.  (Still hoping for a PC release, though.)  KEEP.
  • Beyond: Two SoulsIs this the PS3’s final swan song?  More to the point – do I care?  While I remain in awe of David Cage’s wild ambition, I never finished Heavy Rain and didn’t really enjoy what I’d played, either.  Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, so this gets a KEEP.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins – as far as I can tell, this is the last “big” release of 2013 for current-gen consoles that I have any real interest in, since I don’t care about Call of Duty and I’ve lost all my faith in Assassin’s Creed.   But we all know this isn’t a Rocksteady joint, and this game is starting to smell like a cash-in.  CUT.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s no next-gen titles on this list.  That’s because I probably can’t afford a next-gen console this year; but even if I could, I still haven’t yet decided between the PS4 and the Xbox One.  I’m obviously leaning towards the PS4, but if Microsoft continues its backtracking ways and decides to play ball with indie developers by putting a less-restrictive self-publishing policy in place, well, that might keep the pendulum swinging the other way.  In any event, the only real “next-gen” game that speaks to me in any meaningful way is Watch Dogs, and that’s also coming to PC – which is a platform that already speaks to my current gaming habits anyway.

And speaking of the PC, the other clear upside to being on an austerity budget for the foreseeable future is that there’s really no excuse anymore for me to not finally tackle the GIGANTIC backlog of unfinished games I have in my Steam library.  Hell, even if I only stuck to seeing all the stuff in Skyrim that I never saw on the 360, that would be plenty.  (Now I just need to get over my seething Skyrim rage, which I’ve never quite managed to quell.)

I kinda don’t feel so terrible about this anymore.  I’ll call that a win.

Animal Chaos

Further to what I was saying about Animal Crossing, here’s the guys from What’s Your Tag basically drawing out my nightmares.

What's Your Tag?

Animal Chaos

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a beautifully addicting game. My obsession with this stylized chore simulator is borderline unhealthy. Maybe it’s just me, but lately it seems like I spend more time working on my house in Animal Crossing, than I do my actual home. This week’s comic is an interpretation of what it feels like everyday I don’t play. Please tell me I’m not the only one…

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of zombies, peaches, and time

I’ve had very little game-playing time in the last week or so.

This is actually a good thing, as far as The Last of Us is concerned; its relentlessly grim atmosphere can start to feel suffocating after a while.  I’m not sure how far I am into it, actually, because my time with it has been so stuttered; if you’ve already played the game, then you’ll know where I am when I tell you that I just recently picked up the bow and arrow for the first time, and am in that booby-trapped town, trying to help this guy find auto parts so that he can build us a car.

It’s weird how I can binge-watch a show like Hannibal and have a really great time (even if I end up having trouble sleeping), but that I can’t play TLoU for more than 30 minutes at a time without feeling restless and agitated.  Of course, I’m also having trouble enjoying TLoU.  It’s an incredibly well-crafted experience; it’s probably the best-looking game on the PS3 (which is no mean feat; how Naughty Dog managed to top its own Uncharted 2/3 is beyond me).  But aside from the oppressive atmosphere and the overwhelming sadness that pervades every inch of this apocalyptic wasteland, it also suffers from the same kinda-shitty combat that plagued the Uncharted games.  To be fair, the body count thus far is much, much lower than in Uncharted, and the stakes feel much higher – the violence actually means something this time around.  But it still feels awkward, and I die an awful lot (even on Normal), and one-hit kills stop being devastating after you’ve been one-hit killed 20 times in a row.   I feel compelled to push on, as it’s one of the last truly significant games of this generation, but I can’t honestly say I ever look forward to playing it.

I suppose I’ve also reached my saturation point with zombies.  In the mid-’00s, I was getting tired of killing Nazis; now it’s zombies.  They’re a very convenient enemy – you don’t feel bad killing them, you won’t offend anybody by making them the bad guys, and it’s easy enough (if you want) to drape your own morality tale over whatever metaphor you want the zombies to represent.  I get it.  And zombies are still a hot commodity right now, and if there’s anything you can do to get a new IP off the ground, zombies have a proven, successful track record.  But how many more goddamned zombies are we going to have to kill before the industry feels comfortable inventing something new?

*     *     *

The having-no-time thing is a bit of a drag, though, with respect to Animal Crossing: New Leaf.  Ordinarily I’d appreciate the slow pace and the do-what-you-want gameplay, but because my time is so limited, I feel this weird sort of pressure to try and finish all the town maintenance stuff I need to do as quickly as possible.  Now, to be fair, it’s not the game’s fault; it doesn’t necessarily punish you for not staying on top of things all the time (though it does mean there’s more weeds that need to be picked up, and sometimes you’ll end up missing on certain special events).  I fully acknowledge that my previous addictions to stupid timer-based town-maintenance shit like Farmville have informed my approach to AC:NL.  Still, though, it is what it is, and my weirdness about not having any time is making the game less fun to experience.  Which is a drag, because it’s clearly something that everyone else on my twitter feed is madly in love with.

Don Mattrick’s first draft of the Xbox One update annoucement

Don Mattrick’s first draft of the Xbox One update annoucement

Here’s the other side of the coin.  Just goes to show how terrible Microsoft’s messaging has been; if they’d actually said this, I’d have been sympathetic.

The Xbox180

Before I get into today’s post, I just want to congratulate Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek on breaking the story about the Xbox DRM policy reversal.  Say what you will about Giant Bomb’s cult of personality, but Klepek has been an ace reporter, a fount of knowledge, and my primary reason for tuning in to / putting up with the Bombcast every week.  His audio diary of this year’s E3 was arguably more interesting/informative than any other reporting I absorbed, and he deserves all the credit in the world for getting this story right.

And, so:  the morning after the backtrack heard ’round the world, I find myself still leaning in the PS4’s direction, even if I’m appreciative that Microsoft paid attention to the backlash and did something about it.   As I’ve said before, I was never particularly troubled about the always-online aspect of the Xbox One, because I’m fortunate enough to already have an always-on wi-fi in my apartment, and I don’t buy used games.  (It would’ve fucked up my Gamefly account, though, and that is a big deal.)

Still, my hesitance about the One is less about the online stuff and more about their very stubborn refusal to play ball with indie developers and self-publishers.  As I find myself increasingly turned off by AAA shooters, I find that the indie space is where the really neat stuff is happening – maybe the graphics aren’t as impressive, but the gameplay mechanics are more interesting, the narratives take real risks, and the overall experience is far more satisfying because it feels crafted by people who actually give a shit, and that means something to me.   It’s the exact opposite of the feeling I get about knowing that Ubisoft has 1,000 people all over the world slaving away at various Assassin’s Creed sequels that get shoved out the door every year.

Sony made a very big deal out of the indie space in their press conference, and some of the games shown in their little stage demo montage are the games I’m probably most looking forward to.   And the rockstars of the indie scene (Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow, to name a few) are very appreciative of what Sony is trying to do, as well as being increasingly frustrated with what Microsoft isn’t doing.

Here’s the deal:  I’m in a financial position where I could only afford one of the new consoles at launch – assuming that either console had a Day One launch lineup that was actually worth getting in on (and neither console is offering anything must-buy with launch, as far as I’m concerned).  Ultimately, my decision will depend on the following factors:

  • which console will have better exclusive titles?
  • which console will have the better version of a multi-platform title?
  • where will my friends be?

I’ve been a very happy 360 owner, even if I’m currently on my 4th 360 (which has been dying a slow death for a few months now).  And to be honest, I originally only bought a PS3 so that I could have a blu-ray player, once the blu-ray/HD-DVD format war was decided.  As it happens, I still think the 360 is the superior console of this current generation, and it’s certainly where I spent the bulk of my time; but I also must say that Sony’s 1st party library in the last few years has been the strongest by a pretty wide margin.   (Speaking of which, I’ll have more to say about Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us in a future post.)

Ultimately, it’s the games that matter.  It’s why I haven’t bought a Vita, or a WiiU (and it’s why I got rid of my Wii).  The PS4, right now, has a brighter future on the software front.  There’s still plenty of time left for things to change, of course, and Microsoft can still turn their ship around.  But they’ve got a lot of work to do on that front, and a lot of the work involved requires a radical rethinking of their business philosophies, and I’m not entirely sure how willing they are to do what needs to be done.

meanwhile

The story of this year’s E3 is still Sony’s press conference.  This is a little disheartening, now that we’re a few days into this thing, because it also means that there aren’t any new games that are blowing people’s minds.

So I figured this is as good a time as any to get a few “First Few Hours” profiles out of the way.

Remember Me:  There’s a lot to like about this game; it’s got a fantastic visual aesthetic, an interesting narrative idea, a female protagonist who isn’t overtly sexualized, a very cool memory-remixing mini-game, and a “design-your-own-combo” system that ought to make the combat sections feel like personal statements.  Alas, the combo system isn’t nearly as creative as I wanted it to be, and in any event the combat is nowhere near as satisfying as the Batman: Arkham games it so clearly is inspired by.  And the environments, while jaw-droppingly beautiful, are claustrophobically linear.  And the load times are absurdly long, even if you install it to the hard drive.  And I got hung up on a boss fight that checked off way too many boxes on my pet peeve checklist (i.e., teleporting enemies, enemies who change the rules of the fight without explaining what it is they’ve changed, etc.).  I still might recommend this to someone who’s better at button mashing and who also has a bit more free time and patience, though; I’d be curious to see where the story ended up.

Animal Crossing: A New Leaf:  I just started playing this morning – long enough to buy a shovel and a fishing line, dig up a few fossils, shake up a few trees and sell some fruit, and put up a $10,000 down payment on a house.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all I can do for the time being; my house won’t be ready until tomorrow morning, and there’s no more fruit on the trees or fossils to dig up.  I suspect (well, hope) that there will eventually be more to do, but for now I’m just… waiting.

Scurvy Scallywags:  Ron Gilbert’s had an uneven ride the last few years – I was a big fan of the first DeathSpank but the second one fell flat, and The Cave, while interesting, didn’t really do all that much for me (or at least enough to do more than one playthrough).  Still, when he says he’s doing a pirate-themed Match-3 RPG for the iPhone, I download that shit immediately.  The big twist in this game is that, unlike most Match-3 games where objects only fall down, here the objects come in depending on which direction you swipe – and your enemies appear on the board as objects, too, and you need to be sufficiently powerful enough in order to handle them in combat.  This makes the game a great deal more strategic than you’d expect a Match-3 game to be, as you’ll need to pay attention to enemy placement as well as combo potential.  There are also mini-quests and stat buffs and spells and costume changes and sea shanties and the whole thing is delightful.  Suffice it to say, I’ve been heavily addicted ever since I downloaded it last week.  The only things I’d want changed – and which are probably easily patchable, although what do I know – are the ability to listen to my own audio, and an easier way to compare new costume loot with what I’ve already got equipped.  Highly, highly recommended.

E3 2013: Nintendo and the morning after

As per usual, I missed most of the Nintendo briefing due to the day job.  The little I saw, though, didn’t interest me all that much – which shouldn’t come as a surprise, as I am not, nor have I ever been, a Nintendo fanboy.  I suppose I was hoping to see some new, exciting stuff for the 3DS, but from my vantage point Nintendo isn’t all that worried about the 3DS – it’s the WiiU that needs all the TLC it can get, and that’s what was mostly talked about this morning.  But, again, since I don’t particularly care about first-party Nintendo titles, and since I can realistically only afford one of the new consoles, I would’ve needed something tremendous and undeniably exciting in order to turn my head away from Sony.

Speaking of which.

The question for every E3, for the last however many years, has always ultimately boiled down to this:  “Who won?”  And for the most part, every console’s fans could make reasonable sounding arguments that their console won that particular year, and flame wars and impolite discourse would ensue, as per usual.  So it strikes me as highly unusual to see a clear, unambiguous, unanimously decided winner crowned even before E3 officially starts.  

What Sony managed to pull off last night was unprecedented.  They fired their shots with grace, tact and humility – and they did not miss.  And as much as I get confused by cheering audiences during what are supposed to be press-only events, the excitement in the room seemed genuine and sincere.  It’s not just that Sony delivered good news; it’s that they delivered the right news, at the right time, and completely owned the moment.  Twitter was exploding once those announcements started rolling out.   We all gasped as the former champion-turned-underdog delivered one knock-out punch after another.  And then, when they announced the $399 price, pretty much everybody wrote “Game Over” in their notebooks.

I did, in fact, go to sleep last night without pre-ordering a PS4, though I must admit I was dangerously close to doing so.  (I  even got as far as putting it in my Amazon cart and trying to figure out where I wanted it shipped.)   There’s still a lot (well, all) of E3 left, and I’d like to think there are some surprises left as far as console-exclusives are concerned.  So even if Sony has “won”, I’ve still not seen any games that I need to put on my must-play list.

And, again – even if Sony has won, I still can’t see myself committing to a purchase until I see how the multi-console development shakes out for third-party developers.   The biggest reason why Microsoft won this last generation, in my opinion, is because, by and large, 360 versions of multi-platform games looked and played better than their PS3 counterparts.  This is why Sony’s announcement of their new partnership with Bethesda took me utterly by surprise – PS3 owners got shafted with a piss-poor port of Skyrim, and I seem to recall Fallout 3 being somewhat inferior as well, and wasn’t there a lengthy delay between the 360 version of Oblivion and the PS3?  I probably spent over 250 hours in those 3 games alone on the 360.  So for the PS4 to be getting a console version of the Elder Scrolls MMO – as well as a console exclusive beta – well, that’s huge.  That’s Sony saying to Bethesda that they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that PS4 owners get the experience they’re pay for and expect to receive.

Now, on the other hand, it will be very interesting indeed to see how Microsoft answers, if at all.  Their messaging ever since the console reveal has been inconsistent, wishy-washy, and wildly tone-deaf to the consumer; the only thing that has been clear is that they are aiming to please publishers.  Nobody wants Kinect; even people who have Kinect (like me) don’t want it or use it.  The Xbox One will continue to be the primary home for multiplayer FPS games, and, so, good for those people.  They are a large audience, they will eat that shit up.  But there’s so much more that games are capable of, and Sony seemed hell-bent on letting us know that they are intent on courting developers of all sizes in an effort to make their library as diverse as possible.

Very much looking forward to the rest of the show – my RSS feed is exploding and I must get caught up!

E3 2013: Sony and the death of the Xbox One

Sweet Jesus, Sony just won E3.  It’s over.  Mic is dropped.  Microsoft is dead.

Even if the software lineup hadn’t been so spectacular – and it was – the 1-2 punch of the used games policy (i.e., they’re OK with it) and not needing a constant internet connection was utterly devastating.  PLUS the $399 price point?  BOOM.  Game, set, match.

Shit, they very nearly sold me on the Vita.  If they come out with a price cut or a bundle with the PS4, I’m in, no questions asked.

Let’s run down what they did cover, though – these are my hastily written notes (enhanced with my Twitter commentary):

Opening montage:

  • The Last of Us
  • Puppeteer (?)
  • Rain
  • Beyond
  • Gran Turismo 6

All known quantities, for the most part, except Puppeteer, which looked colorful and also a little forgettable.  Beyond remains enigmatic and weird; I want to like it, but I have no idea what the hell it is anymore.

Featured trailer

  • Batman Arkham Origins – a little nervous.  I mean, I’m happy to play more Batman, but that’s all this seems to be.

PS4 reveal:

  • it looks like an Xbox Rhombus.  This might be the most underwhelming part of the evening; the box looks a lot like the Xbox One, except tilted.
  • Sony Entertainment integration.  Why are they only getting around to this now?  Seems like a no-brainer.
  • new IP:  The Order (which is less “steampunk” and more “wildly and randomly anachronistic” – no gameplay)
  • Killzone: Crysis – er, ShadowFall
  • Drive Club – don’t quite know what this is, but as a PSPlus member, I get it for free!
  • Infamous Second Son – this looks great.  Big fan of the first game, underwhelmed by the second.  This looks like they took their time with it.
  • Knack – got a weird Kameo vibe from it.
  • Quantic Dream tech demo – “The Dark Sorcerer”
  • Supergiant’s Transistor, which continues to look great.

Indie montage – and this was so great to see:

  • Klei – Don’t Starve
  • Tribute Games – Mercenary Kings.
  • Young Horses – OctoDad
  • Secret Ponchos
  • Ray’s The Dead
  • Oddworld!  Lorne Lanning!
  • Galak-Z (some sort of side-scrolling open-world space shooter!  looks amazing)

Featured items:

  • Diablo 3 – PS3/PS4 – with exclusive items.  Meh.  I played the shit out of it on PC and don’t need to go there again.
  • Final Fantasy Versus XIII is now Final Fantasy XV and that trailer looked completely fucking insane.
  • new Kingdom Hearts.  Which is good for people who like Kingdom Hearts.  My deep-seated loathing of Disney makes it impossible for me, but whatever.
  • Assassin’s Creed 4 gameplay.  As I missed the Ubisoft presser, this was all new to me.  Still very wary of this franchise after the debacle of the last 2 games.
  • Watch_Dogs gameplay.  Looked great, as always.  (For some reason, when I was trying to recall the footage just now, I got it confused a little bit with that new Tom Clancy’s game, The Division, which also looks incredible.)
  • 2KSports NBA2K – hard to do a facial tech demo after that Quantic Dream “Dark Sorcerer” bit.

(Here’s where it started getting very, very interesting, and when Twitter started to explode.)

  • Elder Scrolls Online?!!  PS4 exclusive beta?
  • Mad Max (by the Just Cause devs)
  • Oh shit.  Used Games are OK.  Doesn’t need to be online.  SHOTS FIRED, DIRECT HIT.
  • World gameplay premiere of Bungie’s Destiny.  Halo + Borderlands = awesome.
  • $399?!!!

I need to sleep on this and process it.  Because if I don’t, I will pre-order a PS4 right now with money that I don’t actually have.

Well played, Sony.  Well played.  You just won the shit out of E3.

 

E3 2013: super-quick EA impressions

  • Hooray:  Peggle 2, Mirror’s Edge 2
  • Fingers crossed:  Dragon Age 3
  • Curious:  Need for Speed
  • Whatever:  everything else
  • To fix for next year:  give the off-screen guy a lozenge and maybe turn his mic off, stop with the on-stage gameplay banter, the celebrities/athletes are out of place, Dana White scares the shit out of me.

_____________________

I will probably miss the Ubi presser as I think it’s during my evening commute, and my ability to react to the Sony presser is wholly dependent on my kid going to sleep at a reasonable hour and my wife being willing to wait another day for DVR catch-up (i.e., Mad Men / Game of Thrones).   Still, I’ll do my best.