The First Few Hours: Thief

I played just over one hour of Thief last night; I finished the prologue, and then made my way to the clocktower (via the jewel store?).

Look, I know literally nothing about game design or programming or really anything about the game development process, and yet the things that are wrong with Thief leap off the screen almost immediately:

1.  Horrendous voice acting / even more horrendous voice casting.  This shouldn’t necessarily be at the top of the list as far as deal-breakers go, but JESUS CHRIST.  If you want to convince me of the reality of the world you’ve created – and if the world you’ve created is not a melting pot like modern New York City, but rather some medieval European town – try to make at least 50% of your townspeople sound like they’re from the same place.  And if, for some unknown reason, such a feat is not possible, try to not cast people who sound like they’re former cast members of Jersey Shore.

2.  Using the PS4 controller’s touchpad as the inventory screen.  The touchpad can be used for many things, I suppose – it is quite responsive – but the way they’ve designed the inventory management is so mind-boggling that it kinda makes me want to not use anything if I don’t absolutely have to.  My understanding is that the Xbox One version uses a radial menu system that makes some degree of intuitive sense; without seeing it in action, I can’t comment on it, but it must be better than what’s happening on the PS4.

3.  Unintentionally ugly character models.  Especially Garrett.  Thank goodness you don’t see his face all that much.  It’s not uncanny valley-bad; it’s just bad.

4.  If you must open your story with a well-worn trope of the brash young apprentice vs. the master, at least try to make at least one of the characters sympathetic.  Garrett is a whiny asshole, and the girl – I’ve forgotten her name already – is an even whinier asshole, and I was not in the last bit sorry when she died at the beginning of the prologue (if that is in fact what happened to her – considering how predictable the story is already, I’m sure there’s a good chance she’s not dead at all).

5.  Speaking of which, what the fuck happened between the prologue and the first chapter?   I’m willing to suspend my disbelief when necessary, but I literally have no idea what happened.  I’m hoping this gets explained soon.

As far as the rest of it… well, it’s not really all that terrible, which is what’s frustrating.  The comparisons to Dishonored are apt, though honestly I’d rather be playing Dishonored.  Since I’m here, though, the sneaking and thieving and hiding and such are all pretty good and satisfying to pull off.  I am determined to play as sneakily as possible, which includes not knocking anybody out if I can avoid it, and so cleaning out a jewelry store while a guard was patrolling the same room did feel pretty awesome.  Of course, the guard’s AI pattern was pretty easy to decipher, and so it wasn’t necessarily as tense as it could’ve been, but still – the act of thieving (in that particular scenario) was well executed.  So, there’s that.

Like I said the other day, I’m coming to this game with very low expectations; I never played the original games, and I was let down by the 2004 Xbox game.  I’m playing this mostly because I want to keep the dust off my PS4, and so I’m doing everything I can to keep myself interested and motivated.  It’s just… man.  It’s hard not to be disappointed when you can see the potential for greatness being overwhelmed by all the junk being poured on top of it.

On Walkthroughs

It’s been a weird week.  That’s a vague statement, and I’m not really in a position to elaborate, so just trust me when I say it’s been a weird week, and we’ll leave it at that.  And on that note:

Let’s talk about walkthroughs.

I am weird when it comes to walkthroughs.  I mean, I’m weird about a lot of things game-related, as I’m discovering, but I’ve got very weird and specific and deep shame issues when it comes to using them – even if I’m looking at it simply to see how far along I am.

And yet I’m also not shy about using them compulsively, depending on the game.  Like, for example, L.A. Noire.  While I had no problem with the crime scenes or the combat, every interrogation scene was played with a walkthrough.  I was fanatically obsessive about acing every single question; and because the game’s interrogation system was kinda broken, I kinda felt justified in cheating.  Perhaps it ruined the spirit of the game, but I didn’t care.

[TANGENT:  Funny that L.A. Noire comes up, as I’ve been wanting to go back and play it again lately, for some reason, and maybe writing about it.  If I do, I promise to do it without a walkthrough.  (Well, I’ll try, at any rate.  It’s been long enough at this point that I can’t necessarily remember all the right answers.)]

Similarly, I’ve not been shy about using walkthroughs for the Professor Layton games, and I’m very much aware that using a walkthrough for a puzzle game specifically defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place.  Honestly, though?  Some of the puzzles aren’t clear in their design or their purpose (or, alternately, the graphical fidelity of the DS/3DS screen obscures the illustrations).

Point is, I use them.  I don’t like it when I do (because I’d rather solve the damned thing on my own) but I do (because I’d rather finish the game, if I’m enjoying it).  I’m too old and socially withdrawn at this point to care what the outside world thinks of me, but it doesn’t matter – I beat myself up about it plenty.

(And since I’ve already gone on record about my feelings regarding god mode, this shouldn’t necessarily come as much of a surprise.)

Anyway, I’m bringing this up because over the last 2 days I’ve been very happily grinding along in Bravely Default.

(And can I just say, again, how much I appreciate the game’s willingness to let me “break” it if I want to power-level for an hour or two?  For example: yesterday I decided to go on a sidequest tear.  So I unlocked every available job, and then I went to the highest-level dungeon I could find, set the random encounter rate to 100%, set battle speed to 4x, hit “Auto”, and just went nuts bringing every job up to level 8 or 9 or so.  I’ve got tons of gold, my party is near level 60, and I felt like I actually accomplished something.)

(But on that same note, it also raises one of the game’s weird gameplay peculiarities; the regular battles are over in two turns at the absolute worst, but the boss battles are often 10-15 minute slog fests that require completely different kinds of strategy.  It’s almost like I’m playing two different games.) 

ANYWAY.  I happened to look at a walkthrough for Bravely Default a little while ago – really just to see how far along I was – and then, because I saw how much more was left (I’m apparently at the end of Chapter 3), I was curious, and so I took a peek at what happens next, and I suddenly got really, really bummed out.

****SPOILER ALERT*****

It appears that once you awaken the fourth crystal, which is what I’m about to do, [something] happens, and then you have to re-awaken all 4 crystals again.  And then, after you do that, you have to do it a third time.

*****END SPOILER ALERT****

I’ve spent almost 25 hours playing this game, and I’ve had a good time with it so far, but that. fucking. sucks.  That is lazy game design.  That’s bullshit, and in a weird way I’m kinda glad I know already so that I don’t have to experience being disappointed when it finally happens.

[I have more to say on this topic, but I must cut this post short.]

weekend recap: bones

1.  The newly-announced Titanfall / Xbox One bundle sounds intriguing, it really does.  Except… I still kinda don’t give a shit about Titanfall.  Which is, of course, not Titanfall’s fault; my friends who were in the beta say it’s pretty awesome, and I’d expect nothing less.  It’s just that:  (a) I’m still not all that into multiplayer shooters, and (b) with each new major multi-platform release, comparisons between the PS4 and the XBO make it that much clearer that the PS4 is the better-performing console.  I’d get the XBO if there were a true killer app for it that specifically appeals to my tastes – and, indeed, that day may yet come – but for now, I’d rather keep that $500 in my savings account if I can.

2.  I was curious to try the Final Fantasy 14 beta over the weekend, but the installer kept crashing.  After spending 20 minutes signing up and creating passwords and squinting like mad to read the fine print (is there really no way to expand the internet within an app?), everything seemed like it was OK, but then the installer would conk out once it hit 20%.  It’s just as well, I suppose – I can’t really afford to get sunk into an MMO right now anyway.

3.  I continue to make progress in Bravely Default; my party is level 35 or so, my town is pretty much fully rebuilt, and the difficulty level is now starting to weave all over the place; dungeon mobs are still mostly one-turn kills, but bosses and “asterisk fights” are ludicrously hard.  It is not quite getting tedious, but I think that’s because I’m still only playing in short bursts.

4.  Reviews for the new Thief are all over the place; mostly negative, but some reviewers are willing to cut it some more slack than others.  Here’s the part where I tell you that I’m aware of, but never played, the original, highly regarded trilogy, and so my interest in this game is purely out of wanting something to play on the PS4.  I did play one Thief game a while ago – was it the the one on the original Xbox? – and it suffered from a lot of the same problems that Deus Ex II did, which makes sense since I think they were using the same engine.  And I wasn’t particularly good at it, though I think that’s because my experience with stealth games was largely influenced by Splinter Cell, and you really can’t play Thief like you’re Sam Fisher.  So I’m hoping that I can be a bit more patient with this one, if only so that I can not send it back after 10 minutes.

5.  Speaking of having (or not having) patience, here’s a funny story.  I rented Far Cry 2 when it first came out in 2008; played for 5 minutes, died in the very first shootout, and said “fuck it”; sent it back to Gamefly.  In the intervening years, Far Cry 2 has taken on this mythical “greatest game ever” status among certain critics and people I greatly admire, and there was always a little part of me that wondered if I gave up on it too quickly.  Fast forward to this past weekend, where Ubisoft had a massive Steam sale.  I looked up at one point and saw that Far Cry 2 was being sold for something like $2.49.  Picked it up immediately.  Loaded it up.  Died in the exact same first shootout, screen faded to black.

BUT THEN THE SCREEN FADED BACK UP AGAIN.  And a man was talking to me and the game was teaching me how to heal myself.

All this time, I’d thought I just sucked at Far Cry 2.  I never knew that you’re supposed to get knocked out in that first shootout.  I am an idiot.

*     *     *

Today’s subject title is from the excellent self-titled album by The Forms.

The First Few Hours: Bravely Default

EDITOR’S NOTE:  I’ve said repeatedly I wouldn’t apologize on this blog for extended absences, but I do feel compelled to at least offer an explanation of why I’ve been quiet for the last few days; in short, over the long weekend my wife was sick, and then the baby was feverish, and then, finally, I became afflicted with a horrendous stomach virus that I’m only now finally recovering from.  

And then, of course, yesterday I finally felt OK enough to start putting some words together, and I got about 900 words into this post, but then the office internet collapsed and died.  Which is just as well; I think I needed to rethink what this post was about anyway.

CONTEXT:  I am currently a little over 12 hours into Bravely Default.  My party is all around level 30, with job levels between 7-9.  (And if you’ve already played it, I just finished the ill-fated visit with the Water Vestal.)

*     *     *

I am weird when it comes to JRPGs.

Let me back up.  I’ll be the first to admit that there are some glaring holes in my gamer resume.  I missed out on the early NES systems and the PS1 and PS2, and so there’s quite a lot of classic games that I just never had the opportunity to play.  And as today’s topic concerns the JRPG, I should admit right up front that my very first one was 2000’s Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast – which is still one of my favorite games of all time – and then I played nothing until, probably, Blue Dragon on the Xbox 360 (which is most assuredly not one of my favorite games of all time).

I am fascinated by JRPGs, even if they do a lot of things that annoy me.  If a JRPG is announced for a platform that I own, I’ll feel compelled to seek it out; and once I get my hands on one, I’ll do my best to spend 30-60 hours with it; but I won’t necessarily feel compelled to finish it.  Of all the JRPGs I’ve played (and you can maybe count them on your fingers and toes), I think I’ve only ever finished 2 of them: Skies of Arcadia and Lost Odyssey.  [EDIT:  I just remembered that I also finished the first Final Fantasy XIII, though I only got about halfway through the second one, and didn’t bother with this most recent installment.]

At their best, they are incredibly absorbing, even if their narratives generally follow along the same lines – a rag-tag group of children, one of them possibly an amnesiac, all on a world-saving quest that usually involves finding or activating 3 or 4 magic things.  Whatever, it doesn’t matter; the production values are usually top-notch, and after 10 hours or so the turn-based combat system becomes less about survival or urgency and instead becomes a sort of zen puzzle to solve, and then there’s loot and equipment and magic and all sorts of customization rabbit holes to fall into.

But at their worst, they are tedious beyond belief.  Because if the combat system isn’t engaging, then each and every random encounter feels like a slow death; and if the story isn’t at least picking up the slack, then one begins to wonder just what the hell they’re doing with their life.  Hell, even the great JRPGs can get tedious after a while.  I loved the hell out of Lost Odyssey, but by the 70th hour I’d more or less had enough.

In any event, the common element among all JRPGs is that, above all else, they are long.  Say what you will about the value propositions of short games like Gone Home or Brothers:  A Tale of Two Sons – if the “hours played:dollars spent” ratio is meaningful to you, JRPGs give you your money’s worth and then some.  These days, though, this is a bit problematic for me.  The last console JRPG I played was Ni No Kuni on the PS3, but I never had a chance to finish it, even after sinking 20+ hours into it; the game was quite good, it’s just that my son had just been born, and I couldn’t find any time to sit down and play it.

And I suppose, then, that this is partly why I’m enjoying Bravely Default as much as I am. In this modern era, JRPGs feel tailor-made for portable gaming; if I have 20 minutes to kill, I can plow through a dungeon, or mess with some equipment loadouts, or just mindlessly grind away and level up.  And Bravely Default goes out of its way to actively encourage this sort of behavior – I mean, the game rewards you for putting it in sleep mode.

Indeed, even though most JRPGs still have this archaic, old-school quality about them, Bravely Default features a ton of modern conventions and features.  More to the point, the level of customization that the game lets you have over it is quite staggering, and very much appreciated.  You can change the rate of random encounters, you can change the difficulty on the fly, you can change the animation speed during combat (except for special moves and summons…es?), you can change jobs/skills whenever you want – you can even write your own dialogue for your character’s special moves.  

(And I’m also happy that my former addictions to time-based stuff like Farmville are paying off in the “repair your village” meta-game, as most of my shops in the village are already at level 10.  I’ve got dudes toiling in there at all times, and because I have a good idea as to when my next playing opportunity will be, I’m almost always getting rewards right when I open the game back up.)

As far as JRPGs go, it does a lot of things quite well.  While there’s a lot of hubbub about this Brave/Default twist to the combat, it’s actually quite standard as far as turn-based combat goes; the Brave/Default thing basically means you have the additional option of being either really aggressive, or really defensive, depending on the situation.  As my party is generally pretty overpowered, I mostly just have Tiz and Edea go Brave 4X and set the two Mages to Default, and I’d say 90% of the battles I’ve had are over in one turn by being so hyper-aggressive.

I’m wondering why I’m so involved with it, is the thing.  Because as far as narratives go, so far this seems pretty standard.  4 children from wildly different backgrounds – one of whom is an amnesiac! – come together to save the world in a quest that involves repairing 4 crystals, etc.  And my initial concerns about the incredibly over-written, quasi-pretentious dialog have not really changed all that much; I tend to skim through the cutscenes as fast as the button presses will allow, because the writing continues to be absurdly flowery and overwrought, and the voice acting does it no favors.  (Though, to be fair, there are a few moments that have been surprisingly funny, most of which involve Ringabel’s lecherous and lewd behavior.)

I suppose I’m engaged with it because it’s the first game I’ve played on the 3DS in a long time that’s really, genuinely fun to play (all apologies to Link to the Past, which is simply not resonating with me).  And the graphics are quite stunning, which makes exploring the world and every nook and cranny of the dungeons a real pleasure.

Also?  I know this is going to sound weird, but the character Tiz kinda reminds me of my son, a little bit, if my son were older.

Tiz_v_Henry

One of the cooler aspects of the game is that you can import special moves from friends and people you meet via StreetPass.  And it occurs to me that even though I’ve had my 3DS for, what, almost a year now, I don’t have any 3DS friends!  So here’s my Friend Code:

0146-9096-2825

Game Journalism in Two Nutshells

1.  From the excellent and cathartic Dear Trolls tumblr:

Before you hit the ‘post comment’ button, you should wait ten seconds and just…think.
Think about the nature of the sentiment you’re about to put out into a public forum.
Think about what that comment says about you.
Think about whether or not that comment adds anything of worth to the discussion at hand.
I’d like to think that, if you did wait that ten seconds, you’d maybe decide against posting your little comment.
Maybe you’d realize that pointless, hateful snark is not, in fact, the absolute height of human communication.

DavidWurzel on “Game Developers Choice Awards honor Anita Sarkeesian”

 

The 3rd Annual New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards

As far as I’m personally concerned, last night’s award show ended up a resounding success.  I probably could’ve stood a little closer to the microphone during my award presentation, but hey – I didn’t fall down, I didn’t panic, I didn’t run screaming into the hallway.

Here’s a link to my segment (with some low audio, sorry!):

http://www.twitch.tv/m/407464

There was also an exclusive behind-the-scenes preview trailer shown for Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 2; it was rather spoiler-heavy, so I’ll link to this Eurogamer trailer breakdown, in case you don’t want to get, you know, spoiled.

I was also tremendously grateful to be able to apologize in person to Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse for my disastrous Left 4 Dead performance from a million years ago.

Here are the winners from last night’s show.  Looking over it now, I’m starting to wonder why I was so down on 2013 for most of the year; it turned out to be a rather stellar year.  And I’m really starting to want to revisit The Last of Us again…

  • Best Handheld Console Game:  The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
  • Best Kids Game:  Super Mario 3D World
  • Best Writing in a Game:  The Last of Us
  • Best Mobile/iOS Game:  Ridiculous Fishing
  • Best Indie Game:  Gone Home
  • Best Music in a Game:  Bioshock Infinite
  • Best World:  Grand Theft Auto V
  • Best Overall Acting:  Steven Ogg (Trevor), Grand Theft Auto V
  • Best Game:  The Last of Us

weekend recap: mistakes were made

This was not a gaming-focused weekend, as we had two sets of grandparents drop by to spend time with the lil’ man.  I suppose my biggest accomplishment was digging the car out of 2 weeks’ worth of ice and snow, and then finding parking spaces at both Costco and Whole Foods on a weekend afternoon.  (The odds of finding parking at the local Costco on a weekend are comically, astronomically, impossibly high, and yet we somehow managed to grab a spot almost immediately – with no threats of violence or angry honking of horns, either.)  And when the TV was on, we generally watched the Olympics, because why not.

That being said, I did somehow manage to finish Jazzpunk, get hopelessly addicted to Threes, and get about 20 minutes into Bravely Default.

I’m going to be reviewing Jazzpunk for the NYVCC later this week, so I’ll keep this short:  it’s an experience well worth having.  And while they have almost nothing else in common, it’s also a game in nearly the exact same way that Gone Home is a game, and that’s a game design concept that I’m hoping to explore further in the review.  One last thing, I guess – I didn’t necessarily find it as hilarious as most other reviewers have, but it is very funny, and its humor is effective precisely because it’s not doled out in carefully crafted punchlines, but rather in a non-stop barrage of surreal absurdity.   I expect it will remain funny upon further playthroughs – which is good, because even though I thought I’d been rather complete in my first run, I only got about one third of the achievements, so there’s quite a lot that I apparently missed.

Threes is already my front-runner for Most Addicting Game of 2014, and I’m kinda glad I got into it when I did – if only so that I was able to completely miss out on the Flappy Bird saga.  My high score is 3312, though I generally fare much, much worse.  More to the point, I’ve been playing it almost constantly since its release and yet I don’t feel like I’m improving, although I’m now able to immediately recognize when my game’s crossed that point of no return and is about to fall apart in just a few more moves.  (Which makes the lack of an “undo” button all the more frustrating, even if it wouldn’t necessarily help.)

I have not yet played nearly enough of Bravely Default to offer any definitive opinion, though there are two things that are immediately apparent:  (1) it is absolutely gorgeous, both visually and aurally (and it’s definitely worth playing with good headphones), and (2) the game’s dialog is preposterously over-written, and the voice actors can only do so much with it, which is regretful.  The combat system seems pretty interesting, both conceptually and in actual practice, and I definitely appreciate how much control the game lets you have in terms of, well, pretty much everything – from the rate of random encounters to the actual speed of combat.

If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t wait for my rental copy to arrive and instead opted to download it directly from the 3DS storefront – it’s a HUGE file, and even after deleting some stuff it’s filled up most of my 3DS’s storage.  (Not only that, but having a digital download deprives me of some of the AR stuff that the hard-copy manual offers – not that that’s a deal-breaker, but it’s something I would’ve liked to check out.)

*     *     *

Tomorrow night is the NYVCC awards ceremony, and I’m already starting to get a little jittery – I’m co-presenting the Best Mobile Game award, which (among other things) means it’ll be the first public speaking I’ve done in over 15 years.  I’m a little surprised at how many butterflies I’ve got already – I was an actor in college, and I’ve been a performing musician up until a few years ago, and while I’d get nervous it wouldn’t necessarily be that big a deal.  But, then again, I didn’t necessarily have the anxiety problems back then that I do now.  Still – I’m very much looking forward to the event, and being able to meet so many of the people that I’m already reading.  Here’s hoping the weather cooperates!

A Series of Transitions

This is not an apology for not writing this week, but rather an explanation of sorts:  the day job has been extremely busy and hectic and stressful, and I’ve been going to bed on the early side of things when I get home.  Not much time for writing or gaming.

Though, that said, I did manage to finish Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (PS4) this week.  It is still a fun and worthwhile experience, and the graphics are noticeably improved from the already-impressive previous version.  The narrative is still a bit whackadoo, and I’m still weird about seeing Lara thwack a dude to death with her pickaxe (which somehow counts as a stealth kill), and I’m not entirely sure that this is worth $60.  But I’m glad to have played it, and to have let the developers know that I’m still on board for this sort of thing, thank you very much.

Also downloaded Outlast (which is this month’s free Playstation Plus game, even though I already have it on the PC).  I played right up to the first real jump scare (which is about where I got to on the PC), and turned it off.  It doesn’t look to be enhanced in any way for the PS4, but – more to the point – it looks like the PC version with all the settings turned way up, and so that bodes quite well as far as I’m concerned about the PS4 getting quality indie games.

Speaking of quality indie games, I will be writing a review of Jazzpunk for the NYVCC, which should go up later next week.  I have not yet touched it – I’ll be buying a retail copy like a regular shmoe – but everything I’ve seen indicates that it will be a wacky good time.

And speaking of the NYVCC, the 3rd Annual Critics Awards are happening next Tuesday, and I’m going to be one of the award presenters!  Which is very exciting indeed.  My category is Best Mobile Game…

…and speaking of best mobile games, I cannot recommend enough the new game Threes, which came out last night.  (This Polygon piece about the game’s development is a must-read, by the way.)  It’s made by the guys behind Puzzlejuice, and it is absurdly addictive, and I can’t stop playing it.  Also worth picking up is Spell Quest, which is a free word-search RPG (similar-ish to Bookworm Adventures).

I am also working on a slightly more ambitious piece for this here blog about games and memory, although I suppose I’ve already jinxed it by mentioning it here while I’m currently stalled out on it.  That will go up whenever it’s ready, which who knows when that will be.