Random Ramblings, Thursday edition

Today’s song of the day:

It’s been a while, so let’s get caught up.

1. The more I think about it, the more underwhelmed I am by Sony’s reveal of the PS4 Pro.  Let’s leave aside the total lack of anything regarding PSVR – nothing I saw yesterday compelled me to upgrade my current PS4; if anything, I’d rather spend that money on upgrading my PS4’s hard drive.  I mean, if I want to get the most out of the PS4 Pro, I’d need a 4K TV (which I don’t have), and I’d also need to make sure that it supports HDR (which, apparently, not all 4K TVs do).  Fundamentally, the content simply isn’t there yet to necessitate the upgrade, and while HDR is certainly intriguing I’m not sure it’s essential – and in any event, my OG PS4 is getting the HDR upgrade next week anyway.  If I have to shell out money for a console upgrade at this point – and I’m nto sure I do – I’m leaning heavily towards next year’s Microsoft Scorpio.

2. I’ve successfully completed my Goodreads challenge, and am now currently at 37 books finished for the year.  I don’t have a secondary number to hit; I’d rather just take my time and enjoy what I read from here on out.  I’m also probably not going to participate next year; it’s an extra layer of stress that I definitely don’t need, and as far as record-keeping is concerned I’m already tracking what I read in a GoogleDoc, because I’m ridiculous.

2a. My end-of-year “Favorite Sentences of 2016” post might end up being on the short side of things; while I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve read, I haven’t found myself highlighting a lot of beautiful phrases.  To wit: I just finished reading Ted Chiangs’ “Stories Of Your Life and Others”, a rather remarkable collection of speculative science-fiction-ish stories (mostly because the title story is the source of the upcoming film “Arrival“, which I very much want to see); each story is incredibly fascinating and certainly very well written, but I never found myself lingering over a particularly affecting phrase.  This is not an indictment of the book at all, but rather just something I’ve noticed in terms of my own reading.  I think it’s fair to say that in order to meet my Goodreads Challenge number, I opted to read shorter books with heavy genre trappings, and while those kinds of books are highly enjoyable, they don’t necessarily feature poetic prose.

3. I’ve hit something of a wall with respect to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with it.  There’s a sudden difficulty spike at my current stage of the game – all of Prague is on lockdown, which makes getting around town incredibly difficult, at least in terms of my current character build – and I’m so far removed from the narrative’s motivations that I’m tempted to call it a day.  While I do enjoy some of the gameplay loops – i.e., enter an area, scout out hidden pathways, sneak around, hack stuff, get out without being seen – I’m struggling to stay invested in the story, which is just this side of Kojima-esque silliness.

4. On the flipside, I am thoroughly addicted to Picross 3D: Round 2, which is the first thing I’ve used my 3DS for in maybe 2 years.  It is a little strange that you’re not actually solving the puzzle on the 3D screen – that is, in fact, what I’d been hoping to do – but whatever; I love it anyway.  Solving a puzzle feels like sculpting a figure out of marble, in much the same way that playing Rock Band feels like playing music – it’s not 1:1, obviously, but it produces the same creative euphoria.  I worry that if I continue to bring my 3DS to work, I will get fired.

5. I’ve also been playing some indie games on XB1, as I continue in my quest to hit 100K.  I finished Valley, which I don’t really know how to talk about – there are parts of it that are wondrously exhilarating, and other parts that are a bit of a slog, and the ending – such as it is – felt a bit underwhelming.  I’m also about halfway through The Turing Test, a first-person puzzler not unlike Portal or The Talos Principle; the narrative is a bit clumsy in its execution but the puzzles themselves are satisfying to solve (at the moment, at least).


I’m continuing to feel somewhat withdrawn and hermit-like – this is something I’m working on, privately – so please bear with me if it gets even more quiet around here than usual.

Weekend Recap: Easy Mode

My new piece for Gamemoir just went up:  “There Is No Shame In Easy Mode.”  I feel pretty good about it, though it did go up a few hours before I thought it would, and I would’ve liked one last chance to proof it and make sure it was in tip-top shape.  In any event, it’s too late to take it back now!

Almost no gaming happened this weekend; we were at my mom’s new house for the Mother’s Day weekend, and between the baby and two sets of grandparents and everything else, I barely had the time to finish revising the Gamemoir piece, let alone play anything.

That said, I did finally get a chance to look at Borderlands 2 for my Vita, which took a literal three (3) days to download.  And after all that, it pains me to say that as much as I love Borderlands 2, I’m not sure this port was worth it.  I mean, hey, it’s great, portable Borderlands!  And it’s free, and came with all of the DLC!  But it also kinda looks a little shitty, and the Vita’s controls are just never going to compete with using a real controller.  And yet, because it took 3 days to download, there’s a part of me that would feel stupid to delete it from my memory stick.

I’m also nearly fully soured on Mario Golf World Tour.  I’ve had no desire to play it, or even think about it, and that’s sad; I like golf in videogame form, especially in a portable one.  It’s a rental, and my queue doesn’t get busy for a few more weeks, so I may hold on to it and give it one more real go, but it’s hard to stay excited for it.

No idea what’s happening this week.  I’ve yet to play my rental copy of MLB 14 The Show for PS4; that might be worth checking out, especially since my wife and I just cut the cable cord and no longer have easy access to live sports.  But I’ve always been kinda terrible at the hitting phase of the MLB games, which is (as you might imagine) a rather large part of the gameplay experience.  So I’m not necessarily holding my breath.

In the meantime, check out that Easy Mode column.  I’ve got to start figuring out next week’s pitch, too…

the rundown

1.  I am beginning to think that the universe does not want me to own a Vita.  After Amazon received my defective unit, I pre-ordered the new Borderlands 2 bundle.  It was supposed to arrive today.  But late last night I received an e-mail from Amazon telling me that it won’t ship until somewhere between mid-May and mid-June.  Honestly, at this point I’d just give up and forget about it… except that I spent nearly $100 on a 32gb memory stick, and it’s loaded with some quality content, and I’d at least like to see some of it one day.

2.  My rental copy of Mario Golf: World Tour for the 3DS arrived last night, and I’m sad to say it’s probably going back to Gamefly relatively soon.  I adored the Mario Golf game for the DS, and played it endlessly, and loved nearly every minute of it.  This… thing, on the other hand, feels so half-baked, utterly bland and devoid of content that one wonders why it kept getting delayed.

3.  A rental copy of MLB 14: The Show will arrive later this week for the PS4.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  the MLB games are unparalleled in terms of presentation, gameplay and the overall experience.  And I’m also terrible at them, at least as far as hitting is concerned.  I’m excited for next-gen baseball – especially as I recently cut the cable cord and no longer have access to live sports – but I also know that this is probably a “try one game, be impressed while madly flailing at pitches far out of the strike zone, send back” sort of situation.

4.  It would figure that the day after I sing Diablo 3‘s praises for an unprecedented run of incredible loot drops, I’d spend an hour or two and get nothing but crap.  Still having fun, though!  And having fun is all that matters.

5.  Late yesterday afternoon I pitched a feature article to a site I’d very much like to write for, but I haven’t yet heard back.  This is a little depressing, I guess, but in the meantime I’m going to start getting it into shape, and so if it doesn’t go up there, it’ll most likely end up either here or at Gamemoir.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, except I always feel compelled to have 5 things in these numbered posts.

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

a slight change of plans

Sorry for the recent radio silence here.  The day job has been absurdly busy and time-consuming this week, and my evenings have been busy with work, social events and non-gaming-related activities, and the small amount of remaining time I’ve had to carve out for games-relating writing has been strictly focused on the upcoming Year In Games 2013 post.

Speaking of which, I’m nearly 2200 words into that post, but now, suddenly, I have to put it on pause for a little bit.  I recently came into an Amazon gift card, and just this morning I happened to see that Amazon has the PC download (i.e., Steam-able) version of Batman Arkham Origins available for 40% off.  I’d been waiting for a Steam sale to pick it up, but it hasn’t been discounted there at all this year – and meanwhile I think this is the second time Amazon had it on sale.  In any event, the gift card meant that I didn’t have to pay for it anyway, so it’s now currently downloading on my home PC.

Of all the notable games of 2013 that I had not played, BAO was the one that I’d most hoped I’d get to.  (Is that the second most-awkward sentence I’ve written this year?  Not sure anything beats the first paragraph of this post.)  The two previous Batman games are among my favorites of the entire console generation, and even though I know that this newest entry is (a) not developed by Rocksteady, (b) apparently pretty buggy, especially on the PC, and (c) probably not going to bust into my Top 10 (if the general review-scape is any indication), I’m still kinda jonesing to play it.

So, then, that’s the plan for this weekend during baby nap-times: to finish as much as I can of BAO, maybe try to squeeze in a bit more of Zelda 3DS, and also get the apartment ready for hosting Christmas next week.  And so the GOTY post will have to wait just a bit longer.

Also: pretty much everything on iOS is on sale right now, and so if you have some room on your iOS device, you should get busy.  Angry Birds Star Wars II is currently free.  I picked up the Deus Ex game for iPad this morning for 99 cents, and I think I might get KOTOR when I get home ($5, down from $10).

Also also:  The Room Two is fan-fucking-tastic.

Also also also:  While the control scheme is a bit wonky, I still find it amazing that I have GTA: San Andreas on my fucking iPhone.

Also also also also:  Halfbrick (who made Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja, among others) have a new game out today, and it’s called Colassatron, and it’s pretty rad.

weekend recap: a year older

I turned 38 over the weekend.  There is a time for philosophizing and reflecting, for getting melancholy over what I might’ve done better and for getting hopeful for what I’ve yet to do; this is not that time, unfortunately.  I’ve got like maybe 10 minutes to cram in whatever I’m going to say, so here goes.

Biggest news is that I finished the single-player campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, even if the game tells me I’m only 71% complete.  This is, if I remember correctly, the same approximate completion percentage I had when I finished GTA V.  The difference is, it’s easy for me to figure out how to 100% AC4 – it’s mostly doing assassin missions, naval contracts, sunken treasure dives, one or two more fort battles, really souping up the Jackdaw, and then finding all the chests and stuff in those little islands at sea, whereas getting 100% in GTA V requires, among other things, scouring every goddamned inch of ground for hidden collectibles, which I’m never going to do.

AC4 is, for the most part, a very welcome return to glory for a franchise that had very much lost its way in its last two outings.  This is not to say that AC4 is not without some serious problems of its own, of course – the overall narrative remains confounding, the “present-day” stuff is both confusing and, ultimately, profoundly underwhelming (I found all 20 sticky notes and hacked all 33 computers and didn’t even get an achievement or any sort of acknowledgment), the PC version has some bugs and some technical shortcomings that make the game nearly unplayable at times, and the campaign’s ending felt rather anti-climactic; I never really felt that the “bad guys” were all that bad, and – more troublingly – I was never convinced that my character had suddenly become a “good guy”, motivated by right and good and not by money and personal gain, especially since, once the game ended, I could return to pillaging and plundering and boarding and sinking as I had for the previous 58 hours.

In the end, though, it gets a lot of stuff right that the last 2 games never did.  It never adds too many systems, and the systems it does have in place are, for the most part, fun and engaging (though they do get repetitive if you let them).  Hey, look – I spent nearly 60 hours of my life playing it and finishing the single-player campaign, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for ACRev and AC3.

I am inching along in Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; I found the master sword and am about to enter Hyrule Castle, which (according to a walkthrough) means I’m roughly 1/3 or 1/4 into the game?  I like it, I guess, but my 3DS time is very limited these days, and this isn’t necessarily grabbing me as much as I thought it might.  I suppose this is my fault, as I never played the original game, and so I don’t have the same nostalgic pull that everyone else in the entire world seems to have.  But I’m also not the world’s biggest Nintendo fan anyway, so feel free to accuse me of bias.

Finally, I did not watch the VGX awards show.  I thought about it – I specifically thought about running a hate-tweet commentary – but figured my time would be better spent doing almost anything else.  I get no pleasure out of hating something, especially something that’s supposed to be something I like, and since the wife and kid were out of the apartment I figured it was a better opportunity to blast through as much AC4 as possible without having to feel guilty about neglecting my family.  If internet opinion is to be believed, it appears I made the right decision.

weekend recap: fun in San Andreas, not so much in Blackgate

There was good and bad over the weekend as far as games are concerned, so let’s start with the good.

THE GOOD:

1.  This is something I never thought I’d say, but here goes: GTA V Online is starting to grow on me.

Right off the bat – it is 1000% more stable than it was at launch, which means it is now, more or less, working the way it’s supposed to. Load times are still a bit long, but the important part is that game sessions do finish loading instead of being endlessly hung up, and once you’re in a race or a mission people don’t seem to teleport or glitch out the way they were a few weeks ago.

More to the point, though, the online game is starting to make a bit more sense.  I should back up and say that I didn’t even really start playing online until I’d finished the main story, and so it seemed sort of insane how little there was to do at the outset of my online career, considering how much I’d done in the single-player campaign.  But I’m now up to Level 10, and the activities and customization options that have opened up with each level-up are enough of an incentive to keep me coming back.

For example:  I took a nice chunk of the money I got from being in the beta and bought a deluxe apartment with a 10-car garage.  The apartment itself isn’t necessarily useful except that it’s nice to be able to spawn into it, as opposed to spawning on a street corner and then immediately getting gunned down before I’ve even had a chance to set “passive mode” on.

Another thing (though this feels like an exploit or something) is that you don’t have to play Missions with other people if you don’t want to, and so this is a rather easy way to make money and XP without dealing with jerks and/or long stretches of boredom while you wait for your lobby to fill up.  Nobody seems to want to play the Missions, is the thing – whenever I get into a group with people, the pre-match voting results are almost always a 50/50 split between races and deathmatches – and so it seems silly to sit there doing nothing when the Missions are just as easily doable by yourself.

But, that aside, the more I time I spend with it, the more it feels like it’s the primitive first draft of what a true next-gen GTA should be – one where you design your own character and create your own narrative, and make your own way in the big city.  (Which Saints Row is already sort-of doing, and which the Elder Scrolls games have been doing for ever.)  And it also proves, conceptually at least, that GTA III‘s model of a silent protagonist isn’t necessarily bad.  (Which also works for The Elder Scrolls games, too.)  Like: I’ve decided that I don’t need a fully-voiced character reaction to every minor traffic infraction; if I’m playing as Michael, and I crash into someone while missing a corner at high speed, and then Michael screams “YOU ENTITLED PIECE OF SHIT” at the person I just hit (because he’s certainly not saying that to me, the player)…. well, if it wasn’t funny the first 100 times he said it, it certainly doesn’t get any better.  Truth is, whenever I drop back into the story mode for whatever reason, I find that I’m immediately irked by whoever I choose to play – Michael is just a terrible person, Trevor is, well, Trevor, and Franklin seems like he’d rather be doing something else.

I don’t think Rockstar will go that route, though; they’re too committed to this endlessly repetitive vision of American Satire, and they take their “storytelling” very, very seriously, and in any event they already did the silent-protagonist-climbing-up-the-ranks story in GTA III.  And considering how much money GTA V has just made, it’s easy to presume that the Houser Brothers would feel justified in staying the course.  It’s just that there’s no story quite as compelling as the one you make yourself, and when you’re given a world like the one in San Andreas, every action you take in exploring it becomes more meaningful because it’s you doing it, and because you want to do it.  I’m not saying they can’t have scripted missions – those are still fun, when they’re done right – but I think I’d be a lot more engaged with the next game if I had more control over who I ended up playing, and especially if I could like or at least empathize with the person I was playing.  (And as it turns out, this ability to create your own character and shape your own narrative is something that a lot of my favorite games of this generation  have in common.)

2.  I finished Enslaved.  I was surprised at how much of that game I still remembered – the game feels pretty epic in size, but I forgot how short it is.  It’s not without some problems; a lot of the story beats feel like they come too quickly, and there’s quite a few camera glitches that make the game downright unplayable.  But the action feels good, the platforming is quite fun (albeit completely devoid of challenge), and I still think that the relationship between Monkey and Trip is genuine and convincing.  (Especially the facial animation, which I’d put right up there with the best of this generation.)

3.  I managed to not spend any money in Steam’s Halloween sale, and I also managed to not buy Batman Arkham OriginsLego Marvel, or pre-buy Assassin’s Creed 4.  I will probably end up buying AC4 when it shows up on the PC in a few weeks, but at least I didn’t splurge on it now.

THE BAD:

1.  Part of why I was able to hold off buying Batman was that I’d heard that the game had some crippling, save-corrupting bugs that Warner Brothers actually came out and apologized for; the other part was that I was playing the 3DS version of Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate, which I was hoping would sate my Batman fix.  Alas, it did not, and if anything it further soured my hopes for the PC game.  I can’t speak for the Vita version, which is apparently the better of the two handheld games, but the 3DS version was tremendously annoying to play; and this is very disappointing, because when I heard that the game was trying to mashup the console Batman games with a side-scrolling Metroidvania experience, I expected something amazing.  Instead, it feels very obligatory and uninspired; the map is all but useless; the sidestuff (i.e., evidence for random detective cases) feel utterly meaningless and devoid of any real purpose; and the combat is not nearly as much fun as it should be, because the 3DS buttons are often unresponsive and I ended up taking far too many hits that I shouldn’t have.  I spent about 2 hours or so with it and eventually gave up; I just don’t have the time anymore to push through with games that aren’t doing anything for me, and I especially don’t have time for games that feel like they’re deliberately antagonizing me.

THE UNRELATED:

Saw this link this morning, in which The Verge plays with the Steam Machine, and now I’m really glad I’ve waited on buying a new console (or, alternately, a new video card for my PC):

http://www.theverge.com/2013/11/4/5063760/we-try-the-steam-machine-valves-video-game-console-of-the-future

“the texture of the search itself”

“It’s all right,” dialogue boxes assure her, “it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost.”
Before long, Maxine finds herself wandering around clicking on everything, faces, litter on the floor, labels on bottles behind the bar, after a while interested not so much in where she might get to than the texture of the search itself.
– Thomas Pynchon, “Bleeding Edge”

I’m 8 chapters into the new Pynchon book, and I am continually amazed at how such an famously reclusive author who is also, at this point, an old man, can still get it when it comes to popular culture.  The quote I pulled above describes a Second Life-esque game experience (the book takes place in 2001, 2 years before Second Life was officially released), but that phrase at the end – “the texture of the search itself” – is the thing that’s hitting me square in the solar plexus.  It’s precisely that feeling of pure exploration for exploration’s sake that makes games like Journey feel so utterly transcendent – or, likewise, of simply wandering around in Skyrim (or other Bethesda RPGs) and seeing what pops up along the way.

And it’s also very much why I’m still playing GTA V, despite my weariness of the game’s many faults; for as much as the game’s narrative can fly off the rails, and the characters are simply poorly motivated (when they’re not being actively repulsive), the world is so incredibly detailed that I tend to tune the other stuff out.  Kotaku’s been featuring some videos that highlight just how subtle some of these details really are (this one in particular is pretty amazing); my personal favorite thing that I’ve seen is how, after a head-on collision with an oncoming car, the driver of the other car will silently, but with great anger, flip you the bird.

Rockstar’s Social Club says that I’m 65% complete.  I’ve finished 59 of the game’s 69 missions, plus a few miscellaneous activities here and there.  I’m definitely in the home stretch, as it were; there’s “one last job” to pull off, though we haven’t started planning it yet.  The point I’m slow in getting to is that I’m probably not going to write any more about it until I’ve finished the main story, so that I can then try to put the whole thing together.

Other things that I’m hoping to write about this week include:

  • Beyond: Two Souls, which will probably arrive on Thursday or so from Gamefly;
  • Marvel Puzzle Quest, which came out on iOS last week and which I’m pretty disappointed with;
  • Cookie Clicker, which is currently running on my browser at home (I’m generating 4.5 billion cookies per second);
  • Picross titles that I just discovered are in the 3DS eshop (sadly, they are only 2D puzzles, which are not nearly as interesting or as fun to solve as Picross 3D (on the 2DS), but it’s still Picross, so…); and
  • Minerva’s Den, which I got for free when 2K upgraded everybody’s copy during the switch from GFWL to Steam.  I’d originally played Bioshock 2 on the 360 and was summarily disappointed by it, and so I’d sent it back before Minerva’s Den was released; I then picked up Bioshock 2 on the PC during a sale but couldn’t access Minerva’s Den, for some reason; now I have it, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to try, being that I’ve heard such amazing things about it.  I actually gave it a quick spin over the weekend and realized that I’d forgotten how to play the original Bioshock – and while the PC version offers controller support, they never re-wrote the in-game button prompts to tell you how to do things with the controller, so it might be a little while before I get the hang of it.

belt tightening

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

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

Something’s got to give, basically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E3 2013: Nintendo and the morning after

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

Speaking of which.

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

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

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

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

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

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