I’ve been playing Alice: Madness Returns this week, on loan from Gamefly.  I never played the original; all I know about that first game is that it was made by something named American McGee, it featured doors that refused to conform to right angles, and that Old Man Murray was not all that impressed.  I’m a bit more tolerant of 3D platformers than most people, I suppose, and since we are more or less officially in the summer doldrums, I figured I’d give it a shot.  What the hell, right?

What the hell indeed.  I never thought I’d ever say this about any game ever again, but I think it’s fair to say that Alice is too long.  It is relentlessly dreary, with an omnipresent ambient soundtrack that’s supposed to be “creepy” but really just sucks all the energy out of the room (when it’s not getting under your skin).  The dialogue tries so incredibly hard to sound convincingly Lewis Carroll-ian, but there’s no wit – instead it sounds like a depressed high school junior’s attempts at Victorian poetry.  It’s not all that well acted, either, but you can’t really blame the actors – I’m not sure that anybody could make this work.

The problem is that there’s actually some good stuff here.  Some of the environments are absolutely gorgeous; the game’s first introduction to Wonderland is absolutely breathtaking, reminding you (and developers everywhere) that the Unreal Engine is capable of more colors than just grey and brown.  The characters look great, although they animate stiffly and don’t lip-sync with their dialogue all that well, if at all.  And the basic combat is certainly satisfactory and responsive (for the most part), and there’s lots to explore and many hidden treasures to find.

Frankly, there’s almost too many hidden things to find; it’s easy to get lost, and in some cases what you think is a secret door is actually where the level wants you to go, and then the level cuts you off so you can’t go back and explore.

Let’s stay on this topic of too much to do, because it’s important, and it’s the first point I brought up about the game and I never went back to it.  I feel weird about criticizing a game for being too long, especially since we live in a world where 99% of the time, a game is too short.  But in this case, there’s definitely too much; there are long stretches of platforming that don’t need to be there, especially since a lot of the time it’s unclear where and why Alice is going in the first place.  Chapter 1 took me 4-5 hours to finish, which seems ridiculous considering what my ultimate objectives were.  I’m sure that when it came time to edit, it was really hard for the designers to see sections go – I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of art all over the place, and I’m sure nobody wanted their carefully designed and detailed mini-labyrinth on the cutting room floor.  But I have to say that after a few hours of going from one similar-looking room to another, one gets the impression that they left everything in.  It’s exhausting.  It feels relentless.  I just want to get to the next checkpoint and STOP.

Speaking of checkpoints, the checkpoint system here is fucked up.  If you miss a jump and fall to your death (which will happen often), you often are reset no more than 5 seconds from where you fell.  But if you die in combat, you are often set back a good 5-10 minutes, which doesn’t make any sense – if there’s no real penalty for dying in a jump, why is there such a harsh penalty for getting sideswiped by 8 demons?  It makes the combat feel like a punishment.  And since there’s so much of it, you feel punished almost constantly.

I am going to push through with it through the weekend, because what the hell else am I gonna do.  Certainly the art and design is impressive enough to serve as a motivation to keep going.  But it’s exhausting.

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I am not yet ready to debut the new iPhone roundup feature – the week got away from me.  But I can say that I’ve picked up a LOT of stuff this week, some better than others.  Maybe I’ve picked up too much.  Anyway – look for that next week; I hope to make it a regular feature.

When the wife is out of town, there’s lots of gaming to be done – this is a given.  This only really becomes a problem when there’s nothing in the rotation that’s really grabbing me.  I spent a great deal of time on my MacBook, almost downloading Season 1 of Back To the Future just for the sake of having something new to play, conveniently ignoring that I also own – and have not played, or even installed – Seasons 2 and 3 of Sam & Max, Season 1 of Strong Bad, and Season 1 of Tales of Monkey Island (or is it “Tales From Monkey Island”?).  I did end up playing a few levels of Puzzle Agent, now that I think of it…

Anyway – the time I spent not being a Steam whore was spent playing lots and lots of DoubleFine’s new XBLA title Trenched, both singleplayer and co-op (in both 2-, 3- and 4-player sessions), and then, for some strange reason, lots and lots of XBLA’s Full House Poker, and then, when I was utterly grasping at straws, I filled in some backlog, most notably finally finishing Torchlight‘s main quest.  I also made a few half-hearted attempts at trying to get into Dungeon Siege 3, which didn’t go so well.

I am a bigger fan of DoubleFine and their creativity than I am of their games.  It’s entirely possible that my undying love for the characters, setting, art design, dialogue, and general concept of Psychonauts obscured some of that game’s problems; not that it had many, but the Meat Circus occupies a special place in my cold, dead heart devoted to rage-quitting and controller-throwing.  That being said, no amount of favorable pre-release bias could help me get into Brutal Legend – specifically, the RTS bits.  The world was incredible, the driving-around stuff was great fun, the melee combat was satisfying, the characters were memorable and well-acted – but those stage battles drove me fucking crazy, and I never ended up finishing it, to my great regret.  Costume Quest was adorable, but the RPG combat was bland; Stacking was conceptually incredible, but eventually grew tedious.  The sad truth is that for all the great qualities that every DoubleFine title has, the actual game parts are usually the weakest.

Not so with Trenched, and I say that as a gamer with a generally weak tolerance for the tower defense genre.  Trenched might actually be the most fun I’ve ever had with a DoubleFine game.  Now, it’s entirely possible that my recent addiction to Plants v. Zombies might have helped pave the way for me in terms of understanding the tower defense concept, but the game does a swell job of telling you what you need and how to get it done, and when push comes to shove, there’s an awful lot of shooting that you end up doing – you can’t just sit back and be passive.  (Well, I suppose you can, if you have enough of the right emplacements – and if you have teammates that do all the shooting for you.)  The game is great fun in singleplayer but it absolutely shines in co-op – I spent a lot of time in both 2, 3 and 4-player configurations and the madness that ensued was incredibly satisfying.

I can’t explain why I got sucked into Full House Poker, though.  My days of Texas Hold’em obsession were long-gone, or so I thought.  FHP does a fantastic job keeping you at the tables, though, with a perk system very reminiscent of the COD titles.  You earn XP on almost every hand, and your rewards for leveling are substantial enough that they’re not a total waste of time.  It’s also a great use of the 360’s Avatars – the game’s got a surprising amount of personality to it, and it’s fun to see my little guy doing chip tricks and such.  I could see myself sinking a lot of time in this one over the summer.

There’s not much to say about Torchlight, other than to say that if the sequel doesn’t have some sort of online co-op option, I’m probably not going to bother.  I love hack-and-slashes, don’t get me wrong, but I’d much rather play it with friends.  That being said, I finished the main story – that final boss was a BITCH.  I may do some of the infinite dungeon, but then again, probably not.

There’s not much to say about Dungeon Siege 3, either, which is a shame.  I didn’t even get any Achievements out of it.  At least Torchlight had some personality and verve; DS3 was bland, bland, bland.  My affection towards the franchise is really only for the first title, which (if I remember correctly) was notable for being gorgeous in its day.  Nothing about DS3 stood out for me, which is why it’s going right back to Gamefly.

In other, STFC-related news, I’m hoping to start up a regular column devoted to iPhone games – look for that soon.

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since the last post, so for that I apologize.  The good news is that I’ve got a LOT to talk about today.

The short version:

  • finished Infamous 2
  • played a bunch (perhaps too much) of Duke Nukem Forever (PC)
  • played a tiny bit more of The Witcher 2, escaping prison and getting to the first real town
  • played a bit of Child of Eden and wished I still did drugs
  • got thoroughly obsessed with Plants v. Zombies
  • did a bunch of Achievement-hunting in L.A. Noire
  • speaking of which, hit the 70,000 mark in Achievements

The long version:

I was home sick for 2 days last week, and that fact directly correlates to the first two bulleted items above.  I had gotten a few hours into Infamous 2 over the previous weekend, and ended up powering through the rest of it last Monday.  I’m a little bummed out about Infamous 2, to be honest with you.  It’s a better package than the first game – it looks better, for one thing, and the first game looked pretty good already.  The game lets you start with all your powers, too, so you’re kicking ass right from the get-go, and the new powers are, for the most part, pretty neat.  The voice acting is surprisingly good, even if the script is kinda hokey.  The city itself is visually interesting.  The “good” ending is satisfying, and shockingly devoid of cliffhangers – I have absolutely no idea how Infamous 3 would start, is all I’ll say.  (I didn’t see the “evil” ending, and maybe that’s where a sequel would pick up.)

So, then, if I was such a big fan of the first game – a game scratched my Crackdown itch in a big way – and the second game is, by and large, a better iteration of the first, why am I bummed out?  I guess it’s because the game is, ultimately, forgettable.  The story isn’t particularly interesting or unique, and the moral choices lack any ambiguity whatsoever – good and evil are very clearly defined and color-coded and you’ll never spend more than a second or two making up your mind.  The city, for all its visual flourish (and let me reiterate that point, as the city really does look fantastic and the sky is especially jaw-dropping)  is curiously devoid of audio – cars don’t make noise, nor do most of the pedestrians, and sometimes the player’s footsteps don’t even register.  I don’t know if it’s just a bug, or if the audio was simply unfinished, but it creates a very strange disconnect – it makes the city feel lifeless.*

I’m glad I played it, I suppose – it certainly filled the idle hours of an unplanned sick day – but I’m also glad I rented it.

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So that was Monday.  Tuesday was a second sick day, and since I’d already finished Infamous 2 and sealed it up in its Gamefly envelope, I was a bit at odds as to how to occupy the hours.  And then I remembered that Duke Nukem Forever was finally out.  And even though I’d read tons of horrible reviews by then, I succumbed to 14 years of temptation, and clearly went against my better judgment and downloaded it on Steam.  (To be fair, the PC version is, supposedly, the least horrible of the 3, at least in terms of visual fidelity.)

Here’s the thing – after playing the first few hours, I’d actually planned to write something of a defense of DNF in this space last week.   Yes, it’s grotesquely misogynistic and sexist and incredibly stupid, even in terms of adolescent humor (which is odd, since it’s rated M and young teenagers aren’t supposed to be able to play it).   It isn’t funny, it isn’t erotic, its cultural references are incredibly dated and probably wouldn’t have been all that funny if it had been released when all those references were still relevant.  First-person platforming is almost always a bad idea, and there’s way too much of it in the first few hours.  Still, though, there was something about it that brought me back to those heady days of 1996, when I was playing Duke Nukem 3D on my brother’s computer on my weekends home from college.  I was trying to put myself back in the mindset that I might have been in if the game had come out in the late 90s – early 00s, and there are brief glimpses in the early hours that brought me back.

Of course, the game is, ultimately, a piece of shit.  I got hung up on a boss a little more than halfway through the campaign and ended up putting the game away for a few days; I eventually beat that boss (no idea how) and then got stuck about an hour later, and that’s where I currently am.  I don’t really want to go back to it.  I suspect that I will eventually finish it, but only because I’m avoiding doing something else.   It’s just that, well, the game makes me sad.  I was one of the many that had been looking forward to this game’s release, and while it wasn’t necessarily in the front of my mind for the last 14 years, I’d never forgotten about it.  When the first few advance reviews came out and killed it, there was a part of me that figured that those scores were somewhat reactionary – they were so aggressively negative that they were almost hard to take seriously.  As it turns out, they were right.  There is absolutely nothing in the game, from what I’ve seen, that would explain what the hell took so long.  The gameplay is dated in all the worst ways, and for a game that goes out of its way to break the fourth wall, it has a surprising lack of self-awareness.

The biggest problem with DNF, I think, is that there’s too much Duke.  Back when I was playing DN3D, I wasn’t really paying attention to Duke at all – I was paying attention to the crazy environments, to all the hidden secrets, and to all the cool shit I could do.  Duke would spout out some one-liner from a movie every so often, and that was fine – it’s just that for all intents and purposes, his bad-assery kinda spoke for itself.  In DNF, Duke won’t fucking shut up, and nobody in the world tells him to shut up.  The world of DNF is a monument to Duke, for some reason, and that gets old incredibly quickly – especially since he’s such a fucking douchebag.

It is true that DNF could never hope to compete with expectations.  But it is also true that the game looks like it wasn’t even tryingSerious Sam rewrote the rules when it came to over-the-top gunplay, exploration and crazy enemies, and this year’s Bulletstorm further refined those rules and created something genuinely unique and fun to play.  DNF was created in a vacuum by people who apparently hadn’t played anything else since 1997, and was written by sociopathic 13-year-olds who love boobs and kicking monsters in the balls.  I still think that there’s a future for Duke – I don’t think Gearbox would’ve spent the time and money acquiring the IP if they weren’t going to do something with it – but I worry that the travesty that is DNF will sully that game’s potential.

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I don’t have all that much to say about The Witcher 2.  I enjoy my time with it, but it’s also somewhat intimidating and I don’t really know what the hell is going on.  I play for 30 minutes at a time and then put it aside.

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I don’t have all that much to say about Child of Eden, either.  It’s trippy as hell, and I suppose I’d have spent a bit more time with it if I were still doing drugs.  I’m sober, though, and as such there was only so much craziness I could stand.  It plays like a psychedelic Panzer Dragoon, I guess.  It’s certainly aspiring to be… something, which is more than I can say about DNF.  I read some review of it that bemoaned its attempts to revive the “Games as Art” debate; but that’s exactly what this is.  You would expect to play something like this in a children’s museum, or something.  It’s certainly interesting, but there wasn’t really all that much to it that kept me involved.

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I can’t explain my sudden obsession with Plants v. Zombies.  It’s been out for a few years now and as a long-time Popcap fan I’ve certainly been aware of it; I think it was one of the first apps I downloaded for iOS, but I never played it.  I guess at some point last week there was an iOS update for it that included a bunch of intriguing features, and that got me interested enough to fire it up, and now I’m a man obsessed.  Which is weird, because my general experience playing that game is one of intense stress and anxiety.  There’s so many plants to keep track of, and so many zombies to plan ahead for, and when a level is really humming along the board is absolutely chaotic.  I’m already dealing with anxiety issues as it is, and so I can’t explain why I would torture myself with non-stop PvZ sessions.  But such is life.  I finally beat the adventure mode on my iPhone, and now I’m thoroughly entranced with the Zen Garden and all the meta-stuff there is to do.  And I suspect that I’ll get around to playing my XBLA and PC/Mac versions as well.

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I ended up doing a lot of Achievement hunting in L.A. Noire this past weekend – I finally 5-starred all the cases, found all the film reels and landmarks, drove 194.7 miles, completed all the street crimes, etc.  According to the Social Club I’m exactly 94% complete.  I don’t know that I will ever find every single vehicle, nor am I sure I want to.  Honestly, it was just nice to finally get to actually explore the world; I never bothered with it when I was actually playing the game, as I just wanted to focus on the cases.  There’s a surprising amount of city to be found, as it turns out; the game itself uses hardly any of it, which seems a bit wasteful.   I do kinda wish that I had the PS3 version; I didn’t really mind the disc swapping when I was playing the story, but in a weekend like this where I’m doing a bunch of completion-ist stuff, it’s somewhat of a pain in the ass.

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I can’t quite remember which Achievement it was that put me over the 70K mark, but, well, it happened.  I’d like to hit 75K by the end of the year, although that might be a little bit out of reach.

 

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*  This is a big deal, actually.  In my experience, open world games live or die based on the worlds themselves.  This is why Crackdown 2 was such an incredible disappointment; this is also why Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece.  Infamous 2 takes place in New Marais, a fictional city inspired by New Orleans; you would think this would be a slam-dunk in terms of atmosphere, but instead it feels, well, dead.

As much as I’d love to offer some serious, considered commentary on this week’s E3, I can’t.  I’m not there, obviously, and so everything I’m hearing about it is 100% hearsay.   I watched streams of the Microsoft, EA and Ubi presentations, but missed both Sony and Nintendo – and those would seem to be the 2 most important ones of the show.  Still, I’m a man with opinions, and so here’s my take on the week so far:

1.  First thing’s first – Giant Bomb’s podcasts have been amazing.  The first night featured an extended, uncensored conversation between Jonathan “Braid” Blow and Microsoft’s E and Stepto which got heated, a little bit, although still being respectful – I’d like to think that it was viewed as “constructive” on both sides.  The second night featured a riveting discussion between the outspoken David Jaffe (God of War, Twisted Metal), a programmer from the Uncharted team, and 2 dudes from DoubleFine, focusing on any number of interesting, “inside-baseball” topics – the development process, the creative process, the marketing process, the trouble with today’s games journalism, etc.  No idea how they’re going to top it tonight, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

2.  Everyone else has moved on by this point, but it bears mentioning:  when all is said and done, Mr. Caffeine was perhaps the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen.  I sincerely hope that guy’s out of a job by the end of the week.

3.  I have absolutely no desire for a Wii U.  I think it’s a colossal misstep for Nintendo.  And it’s got the dumbest name I’ve ever heard.

4.  The Playstation Vita is a damned sexy device, and I have to admit that $250 for the wi-fi only model is a very appealing price.  But I still think that the iPhone has fundamentally changed the handheld space, in almost every way that matters, and I can’t help but feel that I wouldn’t really play it all that much.

5.  Hearing lots of positive things about Uncharted 3, Batman, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and Skyrim.  I am intrigued by Battlefield but maybe not enough to actually spring for it.  I am less intrigued by Modern Warfare 3.

Beyond that, there’s not much I can offer that you can’t see for yourself.  In the meantime, I can say that I’ve played the first 20 minutes of Infamous 2 – it’s pretty much the same game as last time, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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That was a pretty great press conference, actually – a lot better than I thought it would be.  I’m definitely glad to own a Kinect unit, that’s for sure; sure it’s been dry lately, but there’s a lot of really cool stuff coming.

OK, running down the list here…

Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3 – that was a pretty great looking trailer, certainly; I’m kinda lukewarm on the COD series in general, and especially in light of the Infinity Ward craziness, but I could see myself renting this and enjoying the single-player campaign.

Tomb Raider – whoa.  Looks fantastic.  Love that Lara isn’t sassy and full of quips – she looks scared and vulnerable and the animation really reflects this well.  Nice QTE stuff, very Heavy Rain-esque.

EA Sports – not a lot revealed here, though it’s about time that Tiger Woods got some Kinect support.  (Not sure it’ll improve the putting game, but still.)  I wonder what the 4th game will be (besides Madden, Tiger and Fifa).

Mass Effect 3 – OK, here’s where the Kinect integration got exciting.  Voice recognition for dialogue trees is really cool.  Not so sure about giving combat orders through voice, but still – the conversation stuff looks great.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier – that Gunsmith thing looks fucking insane.

The new dashboard looks pretty rad.  YouTube is a great addition, and if there’s Kinect voice search to go along with it my wife and I may never leave the couch.  The Bing! stuff is interesting, too.  I’ll be more interested in the Live TV stuff if they get Time Warner Cable involved.

I don’t give a shit about the UFC, so…

Gears 3 – that looks like Gears 3.  At this point, my live stream was starting to fall apart, so I had a really tough time seeing how good this actually looked.  I wonder who would win in an arm wrestling / machismo contest between Marcus and Duke Nukem.

Ryse – OK, that’s a hard-core Kinect game.  I might need to get in shape in order to play this one properly.

Halo CE Anniversary – This sounds great in theory, but unless they fix all that backtracking in the 2nd half I kinda don’t give a shit.

Forza 4 – there’ll be more of this at the show, right?  Hard to judge from a trailer.  Still, I’m a fan of the series and this looks promising, as always.

Fable Journey – first person on-rails spellcasting?  OK…

Minecraft/Kinect – Fuck and yes.

Disney – don’t care.  Super-happy children freak me out.  Nobody should be that cheerful.

Kinect Star Wars – my wife will love the shit out of this.  Controls still look laggy, though, and I wonder if Kinect will record video of us playing and have us be the new Star Wars Kids.

Once Upon A Monster – if my wife and I ever have a kid, we’ll be playing this.  Hell, even if we don’t, we’ll be playing this.  THIS is how you have kids on stage, also.

Kinect Fun Labs – so this is where we get to play with all the cool Kinect hacks that were on YouTube last year?  SIGN ME UP.

Kinect Sports 2 – again, my video connection shorted out here, but I saw the intro, and I can at least get behind some of the sports involved.  Still not sure I’ll care after a week or so.

Dance Central 2 – I only know about this from Twitter.

Halo 4 – Yeah, I guess that’s pretty big news.

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So I more or less did everything I said I was going to do on Friday.

  • Played the Duke Nukem Forever demo.  I sincerely hope it’s the same demo that was released at PAX, which would explain how… unfinished it looks.  That said, it is what it is.  And in a strange way, I kinda like how dated it is – it’s almost refreshing.
  • Played the Infamous 2 demo, which also is what it is.  In related news, I got my “Welcome Back to PSN” freebies, one of which was the original Infamous.  Infamous 2 certainly looks better than the first one, which is no mean feat; the original looked great.  The new game has been getting generally positive reviews, although nobody thinks it’s better than the original; I suppose I can live with that.
  • Almost finished The Witcher 2 prologue; I’m done with the flashbacks and am now trying to escape from prison.  I am wondering if I should bother staying with it, now that a 360 version has been officially announced; I know it won’t look any better than it currently does on my PC (and it looks phenomenal there, to be sure), but I’m hoping it’ll at least have a better tutorial system.
  • Finished L.A. Noire – did both DLC missions, cleaned up a bunch of side missions, and also went back and 5-starred “The Golden Butterfly”, a Homicide case that I kept screwing up.  Still not happy with how that mission works.  ****MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***** For one thing, I didn’t like either of the 2 suspects for the murder, but I had to choose one of them, and I’d kept choosing the husband (which kept resulting in a 2-star result).  Cole Phelps is too much of a golden boy to deliberately choose the pedophile, especially since the pedophile clearly didn’t do it.  There are way too many unanswered questions, also – certainly Cole should check out the pedophile’s workplace to see about the rope and the overalls?  And considering what happens at the conclusion of the Homicide story arc, the whole thing just feels pointless.
  • Inched my way forward in Dirt 3.  Did a little bit more of the Outbreak multiplayer mode; goddamn, that’s fun.

Microsoft’s press conference is in less than an hour from the time of this writing, and major news is breaking on Twitter – Halo 4 and an HD remake of Halo CE being the biggest.  I’m more or less done with the Halo franchise, but I suppose this is pretty big news all the same; I just hope it’s not the only big surprise.

Will post later today with impressions of the day’s keynotes.

I’m not entirely sure just how much gaming I’m going to be doing this weekend, but let’s get the obvious out of the way – as soon as I have the living room free, I’m firing up the Duke Nukem Forever demo.  I can’t tell you how weird it is to type that and not have it be part of some fever dream.  I do not expect it to be amazing – I expect it to feel somewhat dated and look a little rough around the edges, especially as this appears to be the same demo that was at PAX.  Be that as it may, I just want to play the damned thing.

Also hoping to get some time with the Infamous 2 demo.  I know the full game’s coming out next week, but still; I enjoyed the first one.  Glad I returned my copy of the first one, too, as it’s one of the Welcome Back freebies I plan on picking up just as soon as the bandwidth evens out.

Probably will get some Witcher 2 happening, as well as some Dirt 3.  I’m more or less done with L.A. Noire for the time being; I’ve downloaded all the DLC but I think I’m a little burned out on it.  I’m certainly burned out on the music that plays during the crime scene inspection sequences – that little horn swell has been stuck in my head for days.

As for E3 – I must admit, I’m getting a little excited.  I have no interest in Nintendo’s new console, but certainly I want to know what it is.  Likewise, I’m probably not going to get Sony’s new handheld, but I have to admit that it’s a pretty sexy piece of tech… it’s just that the iPhone covers all my handheld bases more than adequately.  Microsoft, having no new hardware to show off, would presumably be focusing on software – and that’s important, as their first-party lineup has been somewhat weak of late.

Beyond that, I’m really just looking forward to hearing about all the stuff I don’t know about yet.  Certainly I’m wanting to hear more details about Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Mass Effect 3, Tomb Raider, Uncharted 3, Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City, and I’d certainly like a fresh look at Bioware’s Star Wars MMO.  But, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not really aware of any major press conference leaks, which means that we might actually get some surprises next week.

What are you playing this weekend, then?

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