Weekend Recap: fireworks and saddle sores

Back in the early 00’s, the AV Club used to have a somewhat regular feature called “Justify Your Existence” where they asked musicians one simple question:  “Why should anybody buy your record?”  I’m assuming they retired it because the vast majority of responses went something like this – “Oh, jeez, um… I’ve never had anybody ask me that.  I have no idea.”

To that end, I’m officially taking back anything nice that I may have said in last week’s thing about Alice: The Madness Returns, the sequel that nobody asked for to a game that a lot of people didn’t like.  Somewhere towards the end of Chapter 3 (out of 6!!!) I ran out of steam and patience.  Endless combat sequences stacked within endless platforming sequences, no rhyme or reason to any of it, and anything that may have been fun in the first few hours quickly grew tiresome.  To borrow a quote from Hannibal Lecter:  “Tedious.  Very tedious.”   I forget what exactly it was that got me to give up; it was either one of the incredibly stupid music sequences (similar in every way to the lute playing in Fable 3, except with very poor timing controls), or yet another combat sequence featuring not one but two frustratingly difficult enemies.  If someone were to ask the developers why anybody should play the game, they’d probably say “we’ve got a lot of great art!”  That’s only somewhat true.  There is a lot of great art, yes, but there’s even more dumb art that surrounds it, and it’s all too much.

It’s not that the game is bad; it’s just that it was never edited down, and as a result it’s hard to separate what’s necessary from what’s filler, and ultimately it all blends together.  For every truly imaginative location – and there are a few – there are at least a dozen more that aren’t all that imaginative – or they’re simply repetitive.  The player is continually bludgeoned with awe at every turn until the senses are dulled.

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I got back into Red Dead Redemption, of all things.  Rockstar was having a 4x XP weekend, and I needed something to cleanse the palate after sealing up my copy of Alice.  I’m still terrible at competitive multiplayer, but I still love exploring that world, and it was very easy to level up 4 or 5 times simply running Pike’s Basin over and over again.  I did a little bit of the Undead Horde mode, or whatever it’s called – it’s RDR’s answer to Gears’ Horde mode, and it’s a lot of fun (provided you have enough people – it’s very difficult with just 2).   I’m still amazed that there’s no PC version – I would love to see it on my monster machine.  Oh well.  The summer release schedule is looking pretty slow right now, and I can see myself losing many hours to running the single-player campaign again.

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I’ve managed to avoid doing too much damage in this year’s Steam Summer Sale.  They run sales so often that I more or less already own everything I’d want to buy.  I played a few minutes of Back To the Future Episode 1; it feels a little clunky, at least in terms of the controls.  I like those movies but I don’t adore them, which may contribute to my general feeling of “meh”.

Some thoughts on Alice: The Madness Returns

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.