Further Adventures in Steam Sales and Self-Loathing

1.  I am an idiot.  I complain that I have too much on my plate, that there’s not enough time to play all the stuff I want to play, and then the Steam “Exploration Sale” starts and within one (1) hour I go out and buy 5 games on my wishlist.  Now, to be fair, those 5 games were all on sale, and the total came out to less than $43.  BUT.  That’s 5 more games that I have no idea when I’m going to get to.

For the record, those games are:

  • The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (and I’ve just learned, literally minutes after finally buying this, that the developer is apparently somewhat pro-GamerGate, which is annoying)
  • NaissancE
  • Lifeless Planet
  • Neverending Nightmares
  • Munin

2.  I’m now 8 hours into Dragon Age Inquisition and I love it to pieces.  My female warrior is now at level 7; I have moved beyond the Hinterlands; I have explored lost dungeons; I have acquired a horse (which I do not use); I have solved quite a few of those constellation puzzles, which are kinda neat; I have watched (from a safe distance) a dragon battle a giant; I have sort-of figured out the crafting system; I have decided to go for it with Cassandra.

3.  Considering that Ubisoft has now issued an official apology for the absurdly horrible launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity, I now wonder if I’m ever going to bother getting back to it.  With every day that passes with me not playing it, I think about it less and less – especially now that I’m fully engaged with DA:I.  For whatever it’s worth, the next game in my rental queue is Evolve, which comes out in February, so it’s not like I’m in any rush to send Unity back; I may yet try to finish it in a few weeks’ time, once more patches have come out.  In any event, I remain forever grateful that Sony let me cancel my digital pre-order (especially given that I’d ordered the deluxe edition).  And I’ve also now learned my lesson:  I’m never pre-ordering again.

4.  Over the last day or two, after finishing a lengthy DA:I session and needing to cleanse the palate, I’ve found myself playing more GTA V and less Far Cry 4, which directly contradicts what I said I was going to be doing.  I don’t know.  I’m finding myself annoyed with Far Cry, for reasons I can’t yet articulate fully.  On the other hand, while GTA V is still relatively fresh in my memory after spending 50+ hours with it just last summer, I’m finding myself drawn to it again.  And I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s worth repeating anyway – everyone’s talking about the first person camera, but for my money the best improvement is that you can raise the height of the driving camera, which makes all the goddamned difference in the world.  No longer do I have to constantly pull back on the right thumbstick as I steer, which makes driving 100% easier.

5.  Unless we get snowed in and driving up to my mom’s house becomes impossible, there will be little to no gaming over the next few days.  So, then, let me take the opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and safe holiday, and I’ll see you all next week.

De-Stuffed: finally digging deep into Far Cry and Dragon Age

In my last post, I wrote that I was feeling both (a) overwhelmed by all the games I felt that I had to play, and (b) I was having trouble enjoying any of them because I wasn’t giving myself enough time to get sucked in to them.

What I didn’t say was that even in the midst of this frustration and chaos, I still knew this would only be a temporary feeling; after a certain inevitable point I knew I’d end up weeding out the ones that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, and that I’d save some games for later, and then I’d be left with the stuff that I still felt some degree of urgency about, all the while knowing that 1 or 2 is far more manageable than 6 or 7.

So then:  we can cross the Halo Master Chief Collection off the list entirely.  I played about 10 minutes of Halo 2’s “Outskirts” level, just enough to see the improved graphics, A/B them with the original graphics, and then remember that I’ve never liked the Halo games as much as I felt like I should’ve.  I was curious about the remastering package, and wanted to at least make sure I saw it so that I could keep it in mind for my HD Remake section in my 2014 GOTY post; now I’ve seen it, and that’s that.  It’s hard to know who that package is for, really, beyond die-hard Halo fans who want access to every single multiplayer map.  And as of this writing, I’m still not sure if the multiplayer is working correctly.  It is a tremendous value proposition, but for me it does not feel necessary.

(Let me now reiterate my desire for a Rockstar Collection, including HD remasters of Red Dead, Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire and possibly GTA4.)

Assassin’s Creed Unity is on the cusp between getting saved for later and getting sent back to Gamefly.  On the one hand, I’ve already sunk far more hours into it than I expected to, and I’m past the halfway mark as far as the story goes.  On the other hand, I’ve not thought about it at all since last week, and I’m only reminded of it because the PS4’s menu screen automatically keeps it at the front of my stack, given that it’s on disc.

In the “Saved for Later” category, I’m putting Sunset OverdriveForza Horizon 2, and GTA V.  And in the specific case of GTA V, I’m putting that into a special “Saving for Much Later” category, because I’ve not necessarily blown away by the remaster.

So, then, what’s left?  As I suspected, it’s Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age Inquisition.  And also Rollers of the Realm for Vita.  Regarding Rollers, that’s still a fun portable game and it doesn’t really impact my attention span, so let’s also put that aside for the purposes of this discussion.  And speaking of fun portable games, stop what you’re doing and get your hands on Crossy Road for iOS; it’s an endless Frogger clone and it’s got a fantastic visual design and it’s wonderful and it’s free.

Far Cry 4 is a bit disappointing, I think.  The Far Cry franchise is notable for, among other things, completely throwing out the rule book and radically reinventing itself with each subsequent iteration.  Far Cry 4, on the other hand, is almost completely identical to Far Cry 3 in every respect that matters – as well as being conceptually identical to both Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs – and so I don’t feel all that compelled to go and explore, given that nothing feels particularly unique.  The only real change I’ve spotted thus far is that every once in a while you’ll have to choose between two competing leaders on the same team, but it’s hard to know what those choices mean just yet, given that I barely know the two people I’m ostensibly trying to help.

Moreover, the game feels a lot more difficult from the get go, which means that unlocking the map and crafting is far more important in the early going; my loot bag is constantly full, I’m not holding enough weapons, I don’t have enough ammo, and so I have to do this “optional” stuff in order to hold my own in the campaign.  But, again – I’ve already done this stuff to death in Far Cry 3, so it feels more compulsory than anything else.  I liked Far Cry 3 (up to a point), and I suspect I’d like Far Cry 4, but I don’t feel pulled to it.  It’s good for short bursts; if I only have 30 minutes or so, I’ll unlock a tower or an outpost, craft something, and then sign out.  (One more note about crafting – it’s annoying as hell that the crafting system doesn’t expand to let you see what you might need for later crafting levels.  Which is to say:  I’ve got a bunch of skins in my bag that I can’t do anything with just yet, but I don’t want to get rid of them if I’ll need them later.  Will I need demon fish scales at some point?  Can’t I just store that stuff in a hideout until I’m ready to use it?)

I’m now around 6+ hours into Dragon Age Inquisition, and I’m loving the hell out of it.  It took me a while to get the hang of it; the opening tutorial mission is a bit slow, and learning how to manage the inventory and how to craft weaponry and armor was a bit intimidating, but once I made it out to the Hinterlands and started questing?  Oh, baby.  Yes.  YES.  YAAAASSSSS.

It’s Skyrim but with BioWare-quality writing, and the writing and characters are great.  Even if I’m not as up on my DA lore as I’d like to be, I still feel like I understand the broader strokes of the current situation.  But more specifically, BioWare really emphasizes the role playing part of RPGs, and I always feel well-represented when a dialogue option comes up; I’m playing my female human warrior very much like myself, I guess, and so it pleases me greatly that I’m almost always given the option of asking the questions that I actually want to ask, and that I can answer questions in a way that almost always reflects my personal opinion – even if I’m being cagey by answering it strategically.

And it also should go without saying that BioWare’s attitudes towards gender and race are really quite extraordinary in this post-GamerGate era, specifically because gender and race aren’t that big a deal.  In my game, as in Susan Arendt’s in the link I just posted, 4 out of the 5 people at my war council are female, and it’s not commented upon or addressed; it simply is.  What GamerGate doesn’t seem to understand is that this is the whole point of wanting equal representation; it’s not about drawing attention to the fact that Dragon Age is full of women, but rather that it is full of women and it doesn’t change the experience at all.

I’m not necessarily pursuing a romance in DA just yet, though I do like it whenever I see a notification that “Cassandra slightly approves” whatever it is I just said.  Still, while I appreciate that BioWare goes to great lengths to let you romance whoever you want, that’s not why I play these games.  I like that it’s there; it’s just not important for me.  I’ve not yet been drawn to any particular character anyway, though – as I said – Cassandra is a tough nut to crack, and it’s nice to feel like she’s warming up to me.

I still feel a bit out of my depth in terms of the mechanics; I’m not crazy about the combat, though perhaps that’s because my warrior is wielding a very powerful but very slow two-handed weapon.  But there’s always the option of switching over to my party’s rogue or mage, and seeing how they work, and so that’s something I keep in mind if I’m ever feeling out of touch.

But this is all ancillary to the larger point, which is that I’m loving the hell out of it.  Now that I’ve sunk some quality time into it, and now that my to-do list is really, really long, I’m exploring and questing and doing all the things that BioWare games do so well, and it’s awesome, and all I want to do is go home and play some more.



You may or may not have noticed that I keep a widget of what I’m currently playing.  I do my best to keep it accurate and timely, though sometimes I miss a few things here and there.  In any event, I’m marking this specific moment in time here because, if for some strange reason you’re reading this particular post in future weeks/months, it won’t look like that.  The current rotation widget may not look like that ever again.  Such a thing is simply unsustainable, because (i) unless I’m suddenly unemployed and (ii) I am also no longer required to be a parent, there can be no time to play all these games, and (iii) if everything in (i) and (ii) is (god forbid) true, then there’s certainly no money to purchase them.

More than that:  having this sort of to-do list is incredibly intimidating, and we’re not even taking into account my Steam backlog.   I’ve spoken before of the weird need to be part of the conversation, or to at least to have an understanding of what the current conversation is about, and this pathological need to be “up” on as many possible games as my brain can allow is basically a recipe for disappointment.  In my mad rush to dip my toes into all of these games, I’m resistant to letting myself get sucked into any particular one, and so I’m not having nearly as much fun with the fall blockbuster releases as I’d like.

I used to be this way with music.  I’d go to the record store and buy 5-10 CDs all at once (I realize that there might be some of you who are totally unfamiliar with this experience, and for that I pity you – to be fair, I also did this same sort of binging on iTunes and Amazon MP3) and listen to them all, only eventually sticking with the one that I liked the most.   It took two things to get me to stop acting this way:  the first was the realization that taste-making sites like Pitchfork, which I’d been relying upon since a few months after it launched, were no longer in sync with my own personal tastes (this 6.6 for the self-titled Forms album, for example – one of my favorite albums of all time – was the final straw), and the second was Spotify, which I was more than happy to spend $10/month on, considering how much listening I was doing (and continue to do).  (And yes, I do wish Spotify would modify their method of distributing revenue to artists – this Medium article has a much fairer and better approach.)  I still devour new albums and catch up on older ones I’ve missed, but I’m no longer putting self-applied pressure to absorb them into my bloodstream as quickly as possible.

I do still binge on books, but I can only read one thing at a time.  I have a good friend who’s constantly reading 2-3 books at once (while also writing her own novel and poetry), and I have no idea how her brain doesn’t explode.  As far as books go, though, the idea of a book backlog is comforting as opposed to intimidating; I generally read rather quickly, so I know I can get to stuff, but I also like knowing that I have a new book for nearly any mood that might strike.

Games, though… there’s this pressure to play them all, as soon as possible, and the pressure comes from all different angles.  If you’re into multiplayer, you more or less have to start from Day One – I just bought an Xbox One but I can’t possibly imagine jumping into Titanfall right now, since none of my friends are still playing it and I’d have to guess that only the hardest of hard-core fans are still around, which also implies that there’s absolutely no possibility for survival for a noob.  On the flip side, if you’re into single-player, you have to start early, too, so that you’re not accidentally spoiler’d.

There’s also the long-term pressure of simply staying current with the hardware you’re using.  If I’d never gotten around to playing, say, Red Dead Redemption, I’d be totally screwed now – my PS3 is in our bedroom, and my 360 is basically dead.  Sure, the PC is a bit better in terms of legacy titles, but by the same token – why would I want to start Baldur’s Gate 2 right now when I could instead start Divinity: Original Sin, which is itself already a few months old by this point?  And why would I play either of those when I have Dragon Age Inquisition on my PS4 right this very minute?

At some point I know I’ll get over this pressure to be on top of everything, especially since I’m currently under no professional obligations to actually be on top of everything.  But in the meantime, it’s driving me insane.  I think I said this yesterday – wanting to play all these games at the same time means I can’t actually allow myself to get sucked in to any of them.  I was telling a friend this morning – playing the new GTA V right now is an exercise in absurdity, because I’m too used to the first-person controls of Far Cry 4 to be able to deal with the changes in GTA’s 1st person scheme (even if you can change them), and similarly I’ve got Assassin’s Creed Unity in my fingers, which makes moving in GTA’s 3rd person scheme tricky, too (I keep hitting R2 to run, and I end up punching people in the face).  And having all three of those games in my hands means that the aforementioned Dragon Age Inquisition – the one game I genuinely want to play more than any of these others – is basically impossible.

In that list above you’ll also notice I’m currently playing Rollers of the Realm.  It’s a pinball/RPG hybrid, and it’s on the Vita, and it’s everything you could ever want a pinball/RPG hybrid to be.  (Here, let Kotaku’s Leo Wichtowski tell you about it.)  I played it during this morning’s commute and was charmed immensely; the dialogue is unexpectedly sharp and well-written thus far, but the pinball itself is solid and fun, and will be my go-to commute game for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know if this is true for all Vita owners or if it’s just my own particular experience, but my Vita’s download speeds are so ridiculously slow that it defies logic and reason.  Rollers of the Realm is 350 MB.  I started downloading it at 8:00 pm last night.  It didn’t finish until 7:00 this morning.  That’s 11 hours to download 350 MB.  The only reason why a 350 MB download should take 11 hours is because the current year is 1997.

Analysis / Paralysis

I knew this would happen; I’d be unable to choose between Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age Inquisition while still keeping Assassin’s Creed Unity and Forza Horizon 2 in the rotation (side note – originally typed that as Forizon, and I might end up keeping that for shorthand purposes) with periodic messings-about in GTA V and Sunset Overdrive.  And so I kinda just move from one to the other, primarily spending an hour each with both Far Cry and Dragon Age, and those specific two games are so completely different that my brain ends up getting scrambled.

What can I offer in the way of impressions?  Hmm.  After 90 minutes with Far Cry 4, it is essentially Far Cry 3 in a new locale, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not necessarily a new thing.  FC3 felt new and refreshing and daring, and 4 is essentially a refinement of what worked in 3 with a better-looking engine, an absurdly charismatic villain, and a player character so bland and uninteresting that I’d forget his name if everyone in the game didn’t constantly gasp with amazement when I walked into a room.  It’s more of the same, but what made FC3 so good (relatively speaking) was how surprisingly vital it felt, how clearly it was designed with a purpose.  Sure, I’m still very early, and I’m already in an especially cynical mood, but thus far in my time with it FC4’s primary purpose for existing seems to be so that Ubisoft can say they had a robust and diverse holiday release calendar.  This is not to say that FC4 isn’t strikingly pretty, or even fun – it is both of those things – but it’s also relatively mindless, which is a disappointment.

Dragon Age, on the other hand, feels absolutely vital, lovingly crafted and cared for and built by a team that has something to prove, to make up for DA2’s inadequacies and the original’s limited reach.  So that’s wonderful!  BUT: it feels awfully weird in my hands.  This is not necessarily DA’s fault, of course – I’ve still got the Assassin’s Creed Unity controls scheme very much in my fingers, and so every third-person experience is going to take some getting used to (this is also true of my time with GTA V, a game that I’ve already spend 50+ hours with).  That said, BioWare RPGs are almost always magnificent experiences that have kinda clunky combat, and so there’s some precedent here.  Once I decide to remain focused on it, and only it, I suspect I’ll get over my clumsiness quickly.

In BOOKS:  I finished Steven Galloway’s “The Confabulist” yesterday, which is a book I’m not even sure I knew about until just a few days ago.  It presents itself as a magician’s odyssey, the intertwining tales of Harry Houdini and the man who killed him “twice”.  I expected it to feel much like Glen David Gold’s splendid “Carter Beats the Devil”, a similar story about magicians in the early 1900s.  Instead, it’s a book about memory, loss, loneliness and regret, and so while I might have been disappointed that I didn’t get the adventure/mystery I’d thought I was getting, I ended up relating a lot more strongly than I anticipated to the “killer”, Martin Strauss.   Galloway’s prose is unremarkable, and yet in its plainness there are some moving passages that resonated very strongly with me (particularly in light of my own recent bout of memory-induced panic/regret):

It’s inexplicable what causes a person to love someone. It is a feeling so irrational that it allows you to believe that the person you love has qualities they don’t actually possess. And when someone loves you back, it’s nearly impossible not to feel you must never let them see what you are really like, because you know deep inside that you are not worthy of their love.

We talked in a roundabout way about nothing in particular: school, people we knew, things we liked and didn’t like. It was the sort of conversation people who haven’t known each other long but understand they will have many more conversations have, uncomplicated and almost lazy but also anticipatory.

What do you do when the best you have is not very good? I had always been paralyzed by my own inadequacy.

Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion. You cannot be paralyzed by the fear that you are an illusion. If you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place. If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.

It’s not the sort of must-have book that I’d heartily and eagerly recommend, but it’s certainly an interesting way to spend a few days, and I found myself unexpectedly moved by a reveal that I even sorta saw coming at a certain point.

further thoughts on Assassin’s Creed

I get why people hate on Assassin’s Creed Unity, I do.  I listened to the last two Bombin’ the A.M. with Scoops and the Wolf episodes yesterday and both Messrs. Klepek and Navarro sounded fully exasperated with it, and given that I hold those two gentlemen’s opinions in rather high esteem, it even made me re-evaluate my own experience with it.

I mean, I spent a good 4 hours with Unity last night without even meaning to; I immediately found myself in a good rhythm and cranked through Sequence 7 while also fully upgrading the Cafe Theatre, solving a few murder mysteries (which are a neat idea, if a bit half-baked) and Nostradamus Enigmas (which I can only do with the help of a walkthrough, because I don’t give a shit), upgrading some armor and weaponry, finally figuring out how the different currencies are earned, etc.  The hours flew by, and I only turned it off because I looked at the clock and realized holy shit, I have to wake up in a few hours.

Even though I’m having a good time with it, I can (and will) acknowledge that Unity is deeply, deeply flawed.  Again – technical glitches aside (though that’s not to say they’re excused), it’s ultimately the same exact game we’ve all been playing for the last 7 years, with a ridiculous narrative thread that’s been at the breaking point for at least the last 4.

More to the point:  Ubisoft seems awfully insecure about its ability to keep you entertained.   It’s not just that the map is bursting with stuff to do, it’s that it continually interrupts what you’re doing with other stuff that has nothing to do with what you’re doing.  If you have one (1) unused skill point, you will be reminded every 5 minutes to spend it (even if there are no skills that can be earned with 1 point); if you are tailing someone, random crowd events (thieves, bullies, etc.) will still occur right next to you which are damn near impossible to avoid.  It steadfastly refuses to let you enjoy it on your own terms, which flies against the whole point of an “open world”.  (Indeed, you can apply this paragraph to Watch Dogs and Far Cry and the same issues will still apply.)

This all stems back from the insane amount of overcompensating Ubisoft felt obligated to perform in the wake of the original Assassin’s Creed, which had only 3 or 4 different things to do.  It’s true that those 3-4 tasks grew repetitive, but they also made contextual sense; you eavesdropped, you tailed, you observed, and thus you were properly set up for your ultimate task.  The world was technically a sandbox, but that’s not what the actual game was designed for; they could just as easily have constructed individual levels for each assassination and it would’ve worked just as well.  But because the game became a massive hit, and the larger audience was misled by what the sandbox structure was meant to convey, they built AC2 (and every ensuing title) with the express purpose of making sure that every goddamned square inch of virtual real estate had something for you to do.

And there are moments when this works.  Of all the AC games, Brotherhood remains my personal favorite because the side missions were legitimately interesting (especially those secret platforming puzzles and those weird digital glyph puzzles), the economy was legitimately fun to engage with, the villa’s upgrades were worthwhile (and it was fun to watch it get built up), the idea of building up your own gang of followers was interesting and really well executed, and so on and so forth.

But it’s also my favorite because it surpassed all my expectations for it.  I had absolutely no faith that a sequel to AC2 – especially one that was arriving one year later – would be worth playing, and it ended up improving all the things that were great about AC2.  Consequently, Ubi established an impossible precedent, that these massive and densely-packed adventures could somehow get better with every passing year, and that’s probably why Revelations fell apart for me; the tower defense stuff felt shoehorned in, an obligatory back-of-the-box bullet point, like they were merely capitalizing on the tower defense fad that was swarming everybody’s smartphones at the time, rather than making sure it was (a) contextually relevant and (b) fun to play.

And the less said about AC3, the better.

Last year’s Black Flag felt like a genuine breath of fresh air; it was most certainly not the same game we’d been playing, even as it immediately felt familiar.  Sure, some of the individual missions were tedious and tiresome, but the overall feel of the game was so radically different from what we’d seen before.  Finally, Ubisoft gave us an open world and let us do whatever the hell we wanted; we were free to explore on our own terms, at our own pace, and with our own goals to pursue.

This is why Unity feels like a step backward.  Sure, it looks good (when you’re not moving), but there’s nothing in the game that feels new.  Whatever lessons that Ubisoft may have learned from Black Flag were most certainly not implemented here (which seems especially ridiculous, given that after nearly every goddamned thing you did in Flag, you were asked to rate it out of 5 stars).  I suspect we’ll see those lessons in next year’s game, but even that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the next game will be technically competent.  It’s hard to be a fan of this franchise without being increasingly cynical, which is why it’s often safer to have no expectations at all.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  I spent 4 hours last night with it without even meaning to.  I managed to ignore the game’s incessant insecurities and pursued my own tasks at my own pace, and was able to rediscover those old familiar rhythms that I love so much.  It’s just a shame that it’s buried under so much nonsense.


Today is the biggest blockbuster day of the release calendar, and I still haven’t yet decided what game comes next.  I had a bit of insomnia last night so I tried out the first 10 minutes of the new-and-improved GTA V; not nearly enough to get a good sense of the game’s visual improvements, or even how the first-person stuff works.  I will mess around with it a bit more, but it’s not necessarily at the top of my to-do list; I’m thinking of it more as a palate cleanser.

I kinda want to play a little bit of Far Cry 4, because I liked FC3 on the PC and I’m curious to see it on the PS4.  I am intimidated by Dragon Age Inquisition, even though I suppose that’s the one I want to spend the most time with.  That’s really what it boils down to, I think; I can bounce between Far Cry and Unity (and also Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive) with relative ease, but once I start Dragon Age, that’s pretty much it as far as my attention span is concerned.

Yeah, I’ll probably be flipping a coin.

The Next Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

I can’t be the only one who’s having difficulty facing tomorrow’s very difficult decision of what to play first, right?

On the one hand, Dragon Age Inquisition sounds like it’s the Game of the Year; according to Rock Paper Shotgun you “could probably spend thirty hours on the first major region alone and it wouldn’t be time wasted”.  And when it comes to Bioware RPGs, I like to dive very deep.

On the other hand, I’m kind of in the mood for Far Cry 4 right now, given that I’m already playing Assassin’s Creed Unity and I’m already in the sort of accepting state of mind that requires dealing with Ubisoft’s open-world design strategy.

And on the other other hand, I really want to mess around with the GTA V first-person mode.  I don’t know that I need (or even want) to play the entire game again… but first-person mode looks amazing, and the game itself somehow looks even better than it did on the 360, and online heists are coming, and there’s enough new stuff for returning players (including that L.A. Noire-esque murder mystery mission) that makes me a lot more excited than I thought I’d be.

And yet… I’m also kinda sorta starting to have a good time in Assassin’s Creed Unity.  For real.  The game’s gotten at least 2 patches since I started playing, and despite some occasional frame-rate jankiness here and there and some ridiculously long loading times, I can’t honestly complain about the game’s performance.

I can still complain about the obtrusive UI, though.
I can still complain about the obtrusive UI, though.

The biggest problem I’m having with the game right now is that even though you technically don’t need to do all the side mission stuff that’s scattered literally everywhere you look, you more or less have to if you want to afford the gear and skills you need that make the game’s difficulty manageable.  That being said, the game does an incredibly poor job of articulating how you can earn the 4 different types of currency you need in order to buy all this stuff.  If you want to farm skill points… I don’t know the answer to that question, actually; I just know that every once in a while I’ll get a message in the middle of my screen telling me I have unused skill points that I should probably cash in.  If you want to farm hack points… again, I have no idea how or why, and I don’t know what the difference is between hacking an upgrade and purchasing an upgrade, except that I’m almost always short of both types of currency.

These side missions aren’t terribly interesting, nor are they much different from what the main story tasks me with doing, which is why I’ve been trying to avoid dealing with them.  And yet I’ll still run off the beaten path to unlock chests and find cockades and other such collectible doodads, because (again) they’re there, and they’re self-explanatory, and the rewards are generally worth the investment.

The main story is… eh?  I haven’t found it as bland and forgettable as other people have, though I’d be hard-pressed to remember anybody’s name.  It is weird to be surrounded by people speaking English in British accents in the middle of the French Revolution, but at least it’s more intelligible than French people trying to speak English.

Eh, I can nitpick here and there all day; even with the patches the game’s still got significant technical problems, the controls still have a tendency to do the opposite of what I’m trying to do, etc.  But I’m 6-7 hours into it now (I think I’m at the beginning of Sequence 7), and despite my better intentions (or perhaps because I was weakened by a pretty terrible headcold all weekend), I’ve become very much in sync with the game’s rhythms.  When Assassin’s Creed games are at their best, they are riveting and engrossing; and the simple truth is that Unity can, every once in a while, achieve that sort of state for me.  It looks gorgeous, the Cafe Theatre makes for a pretty terrific home base, and when I feel inclined to just head off in a particular direction and mess around, it’s remarkably easy to get pleasantly lost within the world.  And to be honest, there might be a part of me that’ll be reluctant to put it down tomorrow; I may very well end up hanging on to it.

The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

Yeah, so.  I made it to Paris, did one side mission (which tasked me with – for real – finding 3 severed heads for Madame Tussaud), opened up a few trunks, and called it a night.   I am going to stick with it until Tuesday, when GTA V HD and Dragon Age Inquisition come out, and at that point I’ll either decide to stick with it or send it back.

Let’s leave aside the horrendous frame rate, the glitches, and the ridiculous story for the moment – these are all known issues, widely discussed and documented, and I couldn’t possibly claim to have seen enough of the game to comment with any sort of authority (even if I have run into some really bad frame rate issues and some amusing but non-game-breaking glitches).

For me, personally, of all the frustrating things about the AC franchise and Unity in particular, perhaps the most annoying is the UI.  I really wanted to take some screenshots last night, because when the framerate is stable and there aren’t NPCs randomly floating through a room (God, how I wish I’d taken video of that), the game can look quite stunning.

Except that there’s all this stupid bullshit cluttering the screen – maps, waypoint icons, mission reminders, currency counters, inventory numbers, eagle vision timers… I mean, I get it; I understand the point of the meta-story, where Ubisoft (er, Abstergo) is constantly trying to reinforce the idea that you’re in some sort of memory Matrix and that none of “the game” is real; but didn’t I already agree to that conceit when I sat down on my living room couch with a PS4 controller in my hand?  It’s impossible to be fully immersed in the world when there’s so much extraneous shit on the screen.

Of all the stuff I’ve read about Assassin’s Creed Unity thus far, I think it’s this Rock Paper Shotgun review that most closely resembles both my initial impressions about AssUnit and also about the franchise as a whole.  When these games are good, they’re really good (AC:Brotherhood, AC4); when they’re bad, they’re among the most frustrating things I’ve ever played (AC:Revelations, AC3).  It’s obviously too soon for me to know where Unity will lie on that scale, and yet I already feel overwhelmed by the extreme over-abundance of side activities, the crowded UI, and the game constantly reminding me at every opportunity that it’s a game.

I am hopeful that a patch can come out (soon) that will iron out some of the more glaring technical issues, but the problems with AC at this point – and with Ubisoft’s open-world philosophy as a whole, really – are much deeper than unstable frame rates.  Ubi’s big 3 – Watch Dogs, AC, and Far Cry – all feel very much alike, even as they aim towards different ends; and the homogeneity of their experiences coupled with their ubiquity starts to get suffocating after a while.  It’s already exhausting to go through a new AC every year, and Far Cry 3 was a handful in and of itself; I can’t do this same thing every 6 months.

Anyway.  I’ll have more to say about it after the weekend, I suppose, but it could very well be more of what you’ve already heard.

In Which A Whole Bunch of Navel-Gazing Ensues

1.  My rental copy of Assassin’s Creed Unity has not yet arrived – it might come tonight, it might come tomorrow – and yet considering the spectacular number of glitches and game-crashing bugs that are dominating my Twitter feed, I’m not sure I want to start it until the first wave of patches arrive (and that those patches don’t further break the game).  And by that point, when enough patches have come out so that the game is in a playable state, I could very well be knee-deep in Dragon Age Inquisition and might not want to bother.  The larger problem is that the code isn’t the only thing that appears to be half-baked; Assassin’s Creed games have always been tough nuts to crack from a narrative point of view, and I keep hearing that Unity’s story is bland, boring and nonsensically enigmatic, the way it’s always been.  No amount of patching can fix a busted story.  Do I want to spend 40+ hours of my life wrestling with something this problematic?  I mean, I’ve played pretty much every AC game there is (except the Vita game and Rogue) but I haven’t been afraid to leave them unfinished (i.e., Revelations, AC3).

Furthermore, regarding Ubisoft’s actions with respect to Unity’s release – specifically, the bizarre 12-hour post-release review embargo – well, it smacks of bullshit and corporate shenanigans, a desperate flailing to reduce the number of cancelled pre-orders once the word got out that Unity was straight-up broken.  And considering how the pre-release hype failed to live up to the post-release reality of Watch Dogs, I can’t help but feel very nervous about Far Cry 4.

2.  And speaking of broken stuff, I must admit that I’ve stalled a bit on my NaNo project.  Honestly?  The subject matter started sending me into a very inward-facing, navel-gazing spiral of depression – which was exacerbated by re-reading my college diary – and so I’ve been mired in this weird melancholic funk of nostalgia and regret for the last week (which itself has been exacerbated by a nasty cold that my family has been passing around to each other for the last month or so, as well as some day-job-related stress that I can’t talk about here).  Indeed, this morning I listened to the first half of Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Allie Brosh (of Hyperbole and a Half fame) and what I heard hit me square in the face.  I go through these depressive cycles every once in a while, and they’re a real pain in the ass; I get apathetic, and then I get mad at myself for being apathetic, and then I get mad that I’d rather get mad at myself than stop being apathetic, and so on and so forth.  So, yeah – writing about one of my college friends and collaborators has turned into something a bit uglier.  That doesn’t mean I intend to give up on it, though; it means that I need to approach it in a different way.

3.  Switching back over to games: I beg your forgiveness for all the Xbox One bashing I’ve done this year.  I’ve been playing Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 just about every night since I bought the damned thing, and I’ve become rather enamored with it.  So much so that I haven’t decided which platform to play Dragon Age on; frankly, I’m waiting for the Digital Foundry people to get their hands on it (especially once the PS4 patch is in place that supposedly fixes a lot of what was broken during the review period).  Because unless the PS4 version is noticeably and markedly better-looking and performing, I might just stick with the XB1 – even though I have a $15 credit on the PSN store.

4.  And now switching back to books:  I’m trying to keep my good-book-reading streak alive, and so I’m still trying to figure out what to read next.  In addition to the list of 10 as-yet-unpurchased books I put up the other day (as well as the countless already-purchased-and-still-unread books on my Kindle), I’m now tremendously intrigued by Michel Faber, who I’d never heard of until yesterday, when I flipped through this week’s New Yorker and saw his newest book mentioned in their Briefly Noted section.  David Mitchell, writer of this year’s “Bone Clocks” (which is my personal Book of the Year and might end up in my all-time Top 10), calls Faber’s new book “his second masterpiece”, and so I had to find out what the first masterpiece was, which is “The Crimson Petal and the White”, which a few Facebook friends also raved about; and it turns out that he also wrote “Under the Skin”, which is also a movie I’ve been wanting to see all year.  So, then:  if you’ve got anything to say about him, please let me know.

The Rest Of The Year

I seem to have picked up a number of new followers over the last few weeks, ever since I decided to expand the scope of this blog’s subject matter.  For those of you new to the blog, hello!  I’m glad to have you here.  That being said, today’s post is probably going to be of very little interest to you; for today is, more or less, the beginning of the fall videogame release deluge, and you might as well know what you’re going to be in for, if you’re coming here on a regular basis.

I’ve said this before, and I’m saying it again because, well, why not:  I am not a professional game journalist, and the readership of this blog is relatively small, and yet despite all this I still feel compelled to play as many of the big game releases as I can, if only so that I can talk about everything in short bursts that are not nearly as insightful and helpful as if I actually sat down and focused on one thing at a time; this comes out of a desire to be part of the larger conversation about games, even if I am but a tiny voice in the throng of much more well-informed speakers.

As it happens, I’d originally started writing this post yesterday afternoon, listing (in order of priority) the games I planned on playing for the rest of 2014. This list, of course, contains no critical insight; I’m putting it here so that (a) I can remember what’s coming up, and (b) you might have an idea of what I’m going to be writing about over the coming weeks.

But after this morning’s astonishingly good reviews for Dragon Age Inquisition and this afternoon’s equally astonishingly disappointing reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity, the list has gone all sideways on me.

So, then:  here’s what’s coming up.

  1. Assassin’s Creed Unity (PS4) – Thank God I was able to successfully cancel my pre-order – of the super-deluxe edition, no less.  That being said, the rental copy is still on its way, and so I’m probably going to at least try it out for a few hours, time permitting.  I am wary of this franchise; it was a slow and steady climb that peaked for me with Brotherhood, fell apart completely between Revelations and AC3, and somehow was built back up with last year’s Black Flag.  I’m glad to hear that the last-gen Rogue is getting better reviews, though my 360 is dead and my PS3 is in a similarly unplayable state.
  2. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PS4) – Meanwhile, holy shit, have you seen the reviews this has been getting?  I was a bit on the fence about this one – the first game didn’t really appeal to me, and the second one played a bit better but had some very significant and unfortunate flaws – but WOW.  When I need a long, deep RPG to sink my teeth into this winter, I’ll be very grateful to have this one around.
  3. Grand Theft Auto V (PS4) – I felt conflicted buying the HD conversion, because I find the story abhorrent and – well, look, I’ve already written about it.  But at the end of the day, I still have a greater affection for the world than I do for the narrative, and so being able to explore it again on my own terms is a far more appealing prospect.  Maybe I’ll even muck around with the online side of things a bit more, who knows.  And some of the forthcoming single-player content sounds intriguing – like that murder mystery bit, which is a nice knowing nod to L.A. Noire.
  4. Far Cry 4 (PS4) – Given Ubisoft’s worrying track record when it comes to next-gen AAA titles this year, I’m not necessarily holding my breath.  But I already pre-ordered it, so, I guess I’m stuck with it.  I’m not necessarily feeling as conflicted about it as I was with Far Cry 3 (which coupled my already-heavy shooter fatigue with the heavy, sorrowful feelings I had regarding the Newtown massacre), but I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention to the preview coverage, either.   
  5. Little Big Planet 3 (PS4) – I’m renting this one, and this might very well mark the first time I let my 19-month-old son put his hands on a game controller.  I have a fondness for the franchise because how can you not, it’s the cutest goddamned thing you’ve ever seen, but let’s be honest – the platforming can be a bit fussy and floaty, and I’ve never really given the creation tools much of a go.
  6. continue playing Forza Horizon 2 (XBO) – I don’t know that I’ll ever 100% it, but I plan on keeping this in the rotation for as long as it continues to be entertaining, and given that I’ve been putting 2-3 hours into it every day without getting tired of it, it’s going to stay in the rotation.
  7. continue Sunset Overdrive (XBO) – This has taken a back seat to Forza, obviously.  I haven’t forgotten about it, but I don’t know that it’ll be high on my to-do list, either.  (Ironic, too, given that the Sunset Overdrive bundle is the Xbox One bundle I’d had my eye on in the first place.)
  8. try to finish Shadow of Mordor (PS4) – I expect this game to rank pretty high on the various GOTY lists that will start going up at the end of the year, but it never quite did anything for me.  I don’t want to give up on it, necessarily, but I had a hard time staying with it and it’s been so long since I picked it up that I may just have to start over from scratch.
  9. try to finish Mind: Path of Thalamus (PC)
  10. try to finish The Talos Principle (PC) – These two are very enjoyable (though somewhat obtuse) puzzle games, but I’ve gotten to the point in both of them where I’m just not quite smart enough to advance.
  11. maybe try the Halo collection (XBO) – You can’t beat the price, but:  I was never the biggest fan of the campaigns, and I’d wager that the main reason this is coming out at all is so that hard-core Halo fans can continue to play their favorite maps on their new console.  I suck at competitive Halo, so the pull isn’t quite there.

The To-Read Pile

Seeking opinions on the following books, all on my to-read-but-haven’t-yet-purchased file:

1. Orfeo, Richard Powers
2. Dhalgren, Samuel Delaney
3. Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Javier Marias (finally on Kindle!)
4. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
5. Mr. Gwyn, Alessandro Baricco
6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
7. The Last Policeman trilogy, Ben Winters
8. The Three, Sarah Lotz
9. anything by László Krasznahorka
10. The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway 

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