Tag: assassin’s creed 4

Weekend Recap: Nintendo, Broken Age, a lack of fantastic newness

1.  The big news story on Friday was Nintendo’s horrible, no-good, very bad earnings report, and the subsequent discussion, hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth on the big sites and Twitter was more or less focused on how Nintendo can turn things around.  I sometimes feel like I’m the wrong person to comment about anything Nintendo related, being that I never had a Nintendo system as a kid and so I don’t feel any particular pull towards the company; and yet, now that I think about it, I think I might very well be the perfect person to comment about what Nintendo needs to do.

*  This sounds insane, I know, but the first Nintendo-built hardware I ever owned was not an NES, SNES, Gameboy, Super Gameboy, N64 or Gamecube – it was, in fact, a DS.  And I mainly bought it for Nintendogs, thinking that my wife might get a kick out of it – we were dog-less at the time, and I thought it might help scratch that itch.  The DS was a great system by the time I got my hands on it – it had a really diverse lineup of games, and those games seemed to take full advantage of the DS’s strange setup (which, ironically, made the system feel less strange the more you played with it; in fact, the DS probably helped pave the way for the acceptance of the “second screen”).

I bought (and then regretted buying) a Wii; I bought (and enjoy, sorta) a 3DS; I have absolutely no desire to buy a WiiU.  I have no desire to buy a WiiU because: (1) there hasn’t been any significant new first-party IP in years, which means that if you buy a new Nintendo console you know exactly what you’re going to get, which is a bunch of Mario-themed games, a Zelda, maybe a Metroid, a Super Smash Brothers, and that’s more or less it, and so if you don’t really care about those franchises, there’s nothing to look forward to; and (2) there is no third-party support at all, which makes the prospect of owning just a Nintendo console incredibly limiting.

New IP is a risky business, of course, and considering that there are still rabid fans for their existing franchises, it seems like the best thing for Nintendo to do is stay the course, continue iterating and reiterating on what the fans already know and love, and hope that one of them does really well.

The lack of third-party support, though… that’s the killer.  (That’s what ultimately led to the death of the Dreamcast – once EA stopped putting out Madden and the rest of its sports titles, that pretty much ended other third-party prospects.)  Because if you (like me) don’t particularly care about Mario or Zelda, there’s literally no reason to own a Nintendo console – nobody’s porting their games over, and the ones that do don’t really know how to take advantage of the WiiU’s peculiar hardware.  (With the notable exception of ZombiiU, of course, which is a game I haven’t played.)

I won’t pretend to know anything about game development, but even I can see that Nintendo seems to be operating in some sort of tech bubble, wholly unaware of the innovations made by its competitors.  One only needs to look at Nintendo’s online services to figure out just how behind the times they are.  This Eurogamer feature written by an anonymous third-party developer goes into some pretty jaw-dropping detail about how difficult it is to develop a WiiU title, from a wide variety of angles – there’s one quote in particular, though, that’s been attracting a great deal of attention:

The discussion started off well enough and covered off our experiences with the hardware and (slow) toolchain and then we steered them towards discussing when the online features might be available. We were told that the features, and the OS updates to support them, would be available before the hardware launch, but only just. There were apparently issues with setting up a large networking infrastructure to rival Sony and Microsoft that they hadn’t envisaged.

This was surprising to hear, as we would have thought that they had plenty of time to work on these features as it had been announced months before, so we probed a little deeper and asked how certain scenarios might work with the Mii friends and networking, all the time referencing how Xbox Live and PSN achieve the same thing. At some point in this conversation we were informed that it was no good referencing Live and PSN as nobody in their development teams used those systems (!) so could we provide more detailed explanations for them?

That’s bad enough.  The developer’s conclusions about the WiiU’s failure, though, seem to mirror my own:

[…]I’d like to highlight some interesting points that have been on my mind recently. Firstly, third-party support. Do you remember all the hype surrounding the Wii U launch? All those third parties showing videos of existing games that they were going to bring to the Wii U? Whatever happened to a lot of those games?

After the initial flurry of game titles a lot of the studios quietly backed away from their initial statements and announced, with minimal press, that they were in fact not going to make a Wii U version. The reasons behind a particular title not appearing on the Wii U are all pure speculation, but I personally think that a combination of:

  • Previous development experience using the toolchain and hardware put off development teams from making another title on Wii U.
  • The technical and feature support from Nintendo were lacking for third-party studios. There was a feeling internally that if you weren’t a first-party development studio, you were largely ignored by Nintendo, as we were superficial to their profits. Internally developed titles would save Nintendo and we were just there to add depth to the games catalogue.
  • The sales figures for the Wii U console were not looking that good soon after launch. There was a lot of confusion in the general population around the launch as most people thought that the Wii U was some kind of add-on to the Wii, they didn’t know that it was a new console. This lack of awareness probably contributed to the console not getting off to the start that Nintendo would have hoped and put off studio from developing on the hardware.
  • Nintendo also fell victim to bad timing. A few months after the console launched the next-gen hype train stepped up a gear as Sony announced the PlayStation 4, with Microsoft joining the fray a few months later. Don’t forget that many of the larger studios would have known about the hardware months before it was announced, well before the Wii U hardware actually launched.

So, these larger studios had a choice. Would they develop a port of an existing game to a console with limited capabilities and limited market penetration? Or put their teams to work on developing new features and concepts for the “real” next-gen consoles that were going to be launched that year? When you look at it this way, the choice isn’t that hard.

[…]

Doubtless, the first-party developers at Nintendo will make the hardware sing – they always do – but the situation looks grim for those of us in third-party development, with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware. So where does that leave the Wii U?

I didn’t mean to quote so much!  The whole article is worth a good read and does a great job of articulating the myriad of problems the WiiU faces, if reading about such things is something you’re interested in.

2.  As for me:  not a lot of gaming for a 3-day weekend.  I basically inched along in Broken Age and sped through a bunch more AC4 on the PS4.

I am… having trouble staying engaged in Broken Age, sorry to say.  It’s beautiful and charming and witty and very sweet, of course, and so that’s all wonderful, but… I don’t know if it’s the game, or if it’s me, or what, but I’m just not feeling all that inclined towards staying with it.  I’ve reached a point in both stories where the path for each story has become somewhat non-linear, and I suppose not knowing what to do next is a little intimidating.  (I felt the same way at various points in Grim Fandango, for what it’s worth, and I love the hell out of that game.)

I’ve only supported 3 things on Kickstarter; a friend’s film project, a second sequel to one of my favorite films of all time (Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool), and Broken Age.  There’s been lots written about Kickstarter and the psychology of donations and the service’s various up- and down-sides (this Kotaku feature is but the latest), and that’s all well and good; I supported the things I supported because I’m fans of the creators and wanted to see their work succeed.  I don’t necessarily feel “ownership” over these projects; in the specific case of Broken Age, I didn’t want to watch the making-of stuff, or see anything about the game’s development, because I wanted the experience to be unspoiled.  All I did was to give them the money I’d have given them anyway, except that in this case I was helping the game actually get made.

So I don’t necessarily come to the game with unusual expectations, is what I’m trying to say.  That being said, I have high expectations for anything that has Tim Schafer’s name on it, because I’m a huge fan of his and most of everything he’s ever made has been something I’ve enjoyed greatly; funding the game on Kickstarter wouldn’t have changed that.  Getting a chance to play a new game in Tim’s old creative wheelhouse should be something special and celebrated.

Perhaps it’s simply that I don’t enjoy old school point-and-click adventure games the way I used to, no matter how lovingly crafted they appear to be.  Even with Telltale’s recent resurgence in games like The Walking Dead and the Fables game, I’m not drawn to them the way I might’ve been a few years ago; I can’t explain why, other than that I start to get fidgety and anxious after a while.  I suppose I should explore this in depth at some point.

In any event, yeah – I’m a little over an hour into Broken Age.  The girl is in the cloud town; the boy has escaped his room and is making further plans with the wolf guy.  Normally I’d feel OK in writing a “First Few Hours” post at this point in a game, but where Broken Age is concerned I feel like I should play through this first half before making any formal declarations.  And like I said above, right now I’m having trouble staying involved in the game, and I don’t know if that’s my fault or the game’s.

As for AC4… well, I’m playing it primarily because I want to feel like I didn’t waste my money buying a PS4.  I kept almost downloading Battlefield 4 and Need For Speed Rivals and then chickening out at the last minute, mostly because I don’t want to spend $120 on games that I’m playing simply to have something to play.  Fortunately, AC4 looks and feels so much better on the PS4 than it did on my PC that the experience is largely positive; and if it feels repetitive, well, I am finding that I’m going through it a lot faster (because I know what I’m doing).

My rental copy of Battlefield 4 shipped today; that should arrive by Thursday, and so I’ve saved $60.  I’m not sure if I’m going to wait for Need for Speed, or keep my rental queue clear for Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.  I’m maybe inclined towards waiting for Tomb Raider, because (as with AC4), it’s a game I like a lot, but more prettier.

Delayed Reactions: the PS4

My PS4 arrived yesterday afternoon, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t as giddy as a small child on Christmas morning when it finally showed up.

And after getting it all set up (which took almost no time at all, surprisingly enough), and then downloading Resogun and playing around an hour’s worth of Assassin’s Creed 4 (again), I come away feeling two very specific emotions:  (a) relief that I’ve finally entered the new console generation, and (b) some disappointment that there’s not quite anything new and dazzling to play just yet.  Indeed, the next big title that I’m looking forward to is… the super-deluxe-pretty Tomb Raider release, which is a game that I do in fact like quite a bit but have already beaten twice.

It’s OK, though.  I can wait.  At least the console’s in place, set up and ready to go.

Getting back to that setting up – man, Sony’s really picked up the pace with the PS4’s download speeds!  The Day One patch (which I think was up to version 1.52 when I got to it last night) was somewhere around 300-400MB, and it downloaded and installed everything within 5 minutes.  (Whereas on the PS3, it might still be downloading.)  Netflix and Amazon both downloaded and installed seamlessly, too – and without the need for a verification/validation code, which I believe I needed for both the PS3 and the 360 apps.   I’m not telling you anything that you might already know – I’m just saying, it was shocking to see how fast everything was happening.

And along those same lines, playing/installing Assassin’s Creed 4 off the disc took almost no time at all, either.

I don’t really know what to say about AC4 at this point; I’m not really sure how much of it I plan on playing, being that I just finished spending 60+ hours with it.  It’s basically a time-filler until Tomb Raider and/or Battlefield 4 arrive from Gamefly.  That being said, it’s immediately clear to me that this is the ideal way of experiencing it; the frame rate is perfectly smooth, the graphics are simply astonishing (colors are vibrant (that water!), draw distance is vastly improved, textures are sharp and detailed, and don’t get me started on the foliage), and the difference between the PS4 version and my shitty PC version is night and day.  Playing through that first Abstergo sequence sealed the deal; those sequences nearly broke my PC in half, for whatever reason, and playing them filled me with dread; yet on the PS4, they were smooth as silk, rock-solid frame rate, everything working the way it’s supposed to.

Moreover, the PS4 controller really is quite good.  I’m still very accustomed to the 360 controller, of course, but the PS4 controller fixes pretty much every problem I had with the PS3 controller; it feels really good to hold, all the buttons are in the right place, the d-pad is absolutely perfect (at least as far as entering text is concerned; I suspect it may be trickier when it comes to, say, fighting games).  More to the point, a game like AC4 requires near-constant controller manipulation (i.e., the simple act of running requires two simultaneous button presses), and not once did my hands cramp up.  (This was a constant problem for me with the PS3.)

So, yeah; I’m a happy camper.  Now I just need new games.

(I haven’t forgotten about Broken Age, by the way; I just need more time with it.  I played the first 20 minutes of Shay’s story on Tuesday night, and obviously last night was devoted to the PS4.  I hear it’s around 4 hours or so; I’ll be aiming to finish it over the weekend, and I’ll write something up on Tuesday.  Not sure if I’m going to address the whole “embargo” kerfuffle, especially as DoubleFine themselves ended up backtracking on it.  I’ll do my best to keep my write-up spoiler-free, at any rate.)

Weekend recap: oh no you didn’t

Operation Backlog went a bit sideways this weekend.  I was hoping that my attempts at frugality and my desire to actually finish something I started would last longer than 2 weeks, but, well, here we are.

Let’s start with the Backlog itself:  I finally finished, at long last, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, which I’m not sure I ever want to play again.  It started out quite well, as I recall, but towards the end it became endlessly frustrating – controls being flat-out unresponsive, boss battles with game-stopping bugs and/or glitches so bad I had to quit to desktop, cheesy dialogue that often doesn’t make any literal sense, puzzles with absolutely no context, or hints, or even an acknowledgement that the thing you need to do to enter the next room is to solve a puzzle; plus, after 12 hours of play, I’m only 20% complete.  I’m not enough of a Marvel geek to appreciate how deep the roster is and to soak in all the fan service; nor am I interested in slogging through each of those levels at least twice in order to find all the hidden bullshit.  I may very well be done with the Lego games, I think – at least until the kid is old enough to start playing them, and when that day comes they’d damn well better start shipping these things in a shape that actually works.

Still; it’s off the list.

The first bit of news that would put the Backlog project on hold was that DoubleFine’s Broken Age was entering Early Access on Steam this coming Tuesday.  I’d backed the Kickstarter (like everybody else in the Western Hemisphere above a certain age) but deliberately stayed away from the forums and the videos and such; I didn’t want anything spoiled.  Assuming I get the code, I will start downloading that IMMEDIATELY…

…except that the second bit of news that might even put Broken Age on hold is that…. um… I was finally able to buy a Playstation 4.  After a month or so of tracking its in-stock status on Now In Stock and getting shut out each and every time, I was actually able to get a PS4 into my Amazon cart without it disappearing on me… and so I finally pulled the trigger.  It’s scheduled for arrival on Wednesday.

Coincidentally, I was able to play a PS4 for the first time over the weekend, too; we were at the lovely home of my wife’s childhood friend, and at one point the husband took me upstairs to his game room, put his PS4 controller in my hand, and fired up Assassin’s Creed 4.  The difference between the PS4 and my old-ish PC is pretty staggering – as I expected it might be, but still.  Wow.  Right from that first island, the level of detail on the PS4 is jaw-dropping – the foliage, the depth of the water, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the textures of tree bark.  It’s still the same game, of course, but I’m kinda tempted to rent it and play a little bit more – I’d love to see the modern-day stuff moving at more than 5 frames per second, and I’d also love to see some of the towns, cities, and ports; hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing what the ship battles look like, especially during thunderstorms.

I also played just enough of Resogun to make sure I remind myself to download it as soon as I finish plugging the PS4 in.  Also, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, I played enough of Battlefield 4 to actually consider renting it and maybe even play it online with people.

Speaking of which – if you’re reading this and we’re not already PSN friends, feel free to send me a friend request: I’m JervoNYC.

THE GAMES OF 2013

I.

2013 was a year of great change and transition, and as you might expect it was both very good and incredibly surreal.  On a personal level, I became a father; I released a solo album; I moved into a new apartment; I got over my fear of brain pills and started taking anti-anxiety medications (and they appear to be working); and I became a contributing member to the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is a pretty nice break for a nobody like me.  These are all significant and happy milestones.

As a gamer, well:

Let me say this right up front:  this right here is a videogame blog, so when I say things like “Being a new father means that I don’t have as much time to play games”, I am very much NOT wanting to sound like a callous, privileged asshole whose newborn child is an inconvenience.  Please understand that the non-gamer part of me literally cringes when I say stuff like that, and also understand that I hate that I’m not a good enough writer to find a better way of putting it.  I love my kid, and I love the time I spend with him more than anything else in the world.  He’s changed my life for the better in more ways that I’m probably even aware of.

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THAT BEING SAID, yes, of course, having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits.  How could it not?  I used to have all-day marathon gaming sessions, but I obviously can no longer binge the way I used to; more to the point, I don’t game at all when the kid is awake, and I’m very self-conscious about loud TV noises when he’s asleep in the next room.  (Which is why I still remain absolutely shocked that I was somehow able to find 50 hours in which to finish GTA V earlier this year.)   Because of all this, I ended up moving my gaming setup from the living room to the office, and so nearly everything I played of any significance was played on the PC, in my comfy office chair and my kick-ass headphones.

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole here, but it cannot be overstated enough: moving to the PC changed everything for me.   It’s why I’m not necessarily foaming at the mouth for a PS4 or an XBO, and why I’m instead contemplating a new graphics card or (more likely) a Steam Machine.  It’s why I’m no longer shackled to the crippling addiction of Achievement hunting.  It’s why I’m now a lot more excited about the indie game scene than the next AAA blockbuster.

[It’s also why I feel a little bit lonelier, I suppose.  I have a few good friends on Steam, but nothing compared to the dozens of people I’d see on Xbox Live every day.  Of course, I’ve never been all that big on multiplayer (and neither are most of those XBL friends, come to think of it), so it’s not like I was missing out on epic online battles (at least, not that I’m aware of).  Still, there’s just a large segment of friends that I’m now kinda cut off from, and it’s weird.]

The other big thing about having a kid and the resulting loss of free time is that, as you’ll soon see, my ratio of games finished to games played is so completely out of whack that I clearly have no business buying a next-gen console any time soon.

II.

Here’s the question that ended last year’s introduction:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”

It wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question; at the time that I was working on that piece, I was still half-heartedly dicking around in Far Cry 3 (a game that tried (and failed) to be subversive about violence in videogames) while still reeling from the Newtown school shooting (which was actual violence, and which was actually horrifying).  I was in a sort of weird crisis, to be honest; I was starting to feel sickened from all the virtual killing I’d been doing, and it was making me feel disconnected from something I’d loved since my childhood.  I was genuinely interested in knowing if there was more to this medium than guns; if it was possible to achieve a win state without having to wallow in bloodlust; if one could go from point A to point B without having to kill anything.  I wanted to know if games could make me feel something beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enough things to get to the next checkpoint; hell, I just wanted to feel something.  I was seriously contemplating going through 2013 without playing any game that involved the pulling of a trigger, even if it meant missing out on games that I’d genuinely been looking forward to.

In the end, I bailed on that challenge.  But because I had to switch up my living room couch for my computer chair, I ended up playing a far wider variety of games this year than I ever expected, and I also ended up feeling some pretty powerful feels, when all is said and done.

III.

Speaking of feels, normally I avoid talking about game industry news in these year-end posts, but 2013 featured two game-related stories that I feel should be brought up, being that they affected me and people I know personally.

(1)  I couldn’t continue with this post without mentioning the passing of the late, great Ryan Davis.  It’s weird to talk about being a fan of a gaming journalist, but I was a Ryan Davis fan, ever since his early Gamespot days.  Even though we’d never met or corresponded in any way, I still felt like we would’ve hit it off if we’d somehow been introduced; his gregariousness would certainly have made me feel welcome.  It is still weird to not hear his voice introducing the Bombcast; indeed, the Bombcast has not been the same without him.

(2)  I also couldn’t talk about 2013 without mentioning the internet; specifically, how awful it is, and how, despite my desire to become a professional gaming journalist, I kinda sorta want nothing to do with it.  This craziness has been around for a long while, of course, but this was the first time that I started to take it personally, even if none of it was ever directed my way.  This was the year in which noted game developer and notorious troll-feeder Phil Fish not only ragequit Twitter entirely, but took Fez 2 with him.  This was the year in which a Call of Duty engineer made a small mathematical adjustment to the damage of a gun and received death threats in return.  This was the year in which a Gamespot review that gave GTA V a 9 out of 10 resulted in over 20,000 vile, hateful, evil comments.  (That the review was written by a good friend of mine only made it feel worse.)  This was the year in which there were so many instances of rape and death threats directed at female journalists and game developers for no reason other than their gender that it eventually somehow became a non-story, which is unbelievably distressing.  I don’t have an answer for this, and I don’t know how the victims of this incessant abuse are able to deal with it.  It makes me unbearably sad.  It reflects poorly on us all.

*sigh*

And that’s why I don’t talk about news in these posts!  Let’s get on with the show.

THE YEAR IN ACHIEVEMENTS:  As of 1/1/2013, my score was 86295, when I finished the Leviathan DLC for ME3.  As of 12/23/13, it’s 87915, and it’s highly unlikely that number will change any time soon, considering that I’m barely playing my 360 these days and that I’m all but certain I’m getting a PS4 first.  In any event, this is by far the lowest yearly increase since I bought the 360 in the first place, and this is probably the last year that I pay attention to it or include it in these posts.

BEST MECHANIC:  There’s no runaway winner in this category like there was last year with Dishonored and “Blink”.  But I suppose it should be noted that the control scheme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the only control scheme I’ve ever played that, because of narrative events, caused me to cry (in a good way).

GAMES FINISHED:  I said in the introduction that this year’s ratio of games finished to games played was absurd.  According to my Google spreadsheet, I played 71 games this year, but only finished 15.  This is embarrassing, but there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, the baby’s arrival meant that my game time was limited, and so I wasn’t going to waste my time with stuff that wasn’t grabbing me right off the bat – there were lots of Gamefly titles that came and went often on the same day.  Secondly, quite a few of the games on my spreadsheet are 3DS games, but I’m starting to realize that I never have a good time to play them; I don’t like bringing the 3DS out on the subway, and playing it at work is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and if I play it at bedtime my hands cramp up and my eyes start freaking out, and so I’m not sure I ended up making any significant progress on any of the 3DS games in my library this year.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’m going to assign most of the blame on Steam Sales, which make games on my wishlist appear far more appetizing than they should, and which is an affliction that obviously affects us all.  I’m already prone to poor impulse control anyway; Steam Sales mean that I’m continually biting off far more than I can be expected to chew.

  • The Cave (one playthrough, at least – you need to play 3 times to see everything, and even though the game is pretty short, I didn’t like it enough to play it that much)

  • Devil May Cry

  • Tomb Raider (twice)

  • Bioshock Infinite

  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

  • The Last of Us

  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

  • Gone Home

  • Saints Row 4

  • GTA V

  • Rain

  • Beyond: Two Souls

  • Assassin’s Creed 4

  • The Stanley Parable (I think I finished it, at least)

Did Not Finish, Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Antichamber (came pretty close, I think, but my hard drive crashed and I lost that save forever)

  • BIT TRIP Runner 2 (which I’d like to go back to, definitely – it’s certainly my favorite soundtrack of 2013)

  • Etrian Odyssey 4 (currently stuck in a weird spot and I don’t know how to advance; it’s been months since I picked it up, though, and I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I started again)

  • Ni No Kuni (which I recall enjoying, but then the baby came and I got a bit distracted)

  • The Swapper (to be finished in 2014)

  • Shadowrun Returns (to be finished in 2014)

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening

  • Dishonored DLC

  • Shadow Warrior (to be finished in 2014)

  • Rayman Legends (to be finished in 2014)

  • LEGO Marvel (to be finished in 2014)

  • Zelda: Link Between Worlds (to be finished in 2014?)

  • Papers Please (to be finished in 2014)

  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team

Barely Started:

  • Amnesia: Home for Pigs

  • Civ V: Brave New World DLC

  • Kentucky Route Zero

  • XCOM: Enemy Within

  • Fire Emblem Awakening

  • Gunpoint

  • Eldritch

  • The Wolf Among Us

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Remember Me

  • Animal Crossing: A New Leaf

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish:

  • Splinter Cell Blacklist (pretty sure this franchise is dead to me now, too)

  • Castlevania 3DS (I’d spend more time typing out the full title than I did playing the game)

  • Metro Last Light (meh, personified)

  • Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate (the 3DS game is tedious, confusing, and kinda ugly)

Notable Games I Did Not Play:

  • Dead Space 3

  • Metal Gear Revengeance

  • SimCity

  • God of War: Ascension

  • Starcraft 2: HoS

  • Gears of War: Judgment

  • Crysis 3

  • Grid 2

  • Spelunky (PC)

  • Pokemon X/Y

  • The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

  • Battlefield 4

  • Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

  • Tearaway (though it makes me think about getting a Vita)

  • any of the PS4/XONE exclusives

Best voice performance

  • Gone Home – Sarah Grayson as “Sam”.  There is no game here without Sam’s story, and Ms. Grayson’s performance is true and genuine and heartbreaking.  She’s given a great script, to be sure, but without an effective actor the game would never hit the same emotional peaks.  (As I said in my review for the NYVCC, “Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.”)

Best soundtrack:

  • BitTrip Runner 2, and I say this even though I haven’t finished the game – the soundtrack is on Spotify and it’s excellent.  It’d clearly make for a great exercise soundtrack, I think, and if I ever get around to exercising on a regular basis I might have to try that out.  And as far as runner-ups are concerned, there was a Disasterpeace remix album of Fez songs that was quite nice, although it’s not exactly a 2013 game.

Most Disappointing:

  • I didn’t play it, but it sounds like Dead Space 3 was pretty terrible; it also seems to have killed the franchise, which is a real shame.

  • As for games I did play, The Cave was charming and quirky, but not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped, and the idea that I’d have to play it three times to see everything was very quickly tossed out before I’d finished it once.  On the flip side, Bioshock Infinite and GTA V were both incredible experiences and staggering technological achievements, and I finished them both and don’t regret the time I spent with them, but they also had some very significant and glaring flaws, and I haven’t felt compelled to revisit them the way I thought I would.  (Side note:  I quite liked the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite, even if it was similarly flawed.)

A Once-Favorite Franchise I’m More or Less Ready to Give Up On:

  • It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that the last Splinter Cell game that I genuinely enjoyed was Chaos Theory, on the original Xbox.  I did my best to give this year’s edition a fair shake, but I was completely disengaged with it halfway through the 2nd mission.

Best Gaming Podcast:

  • Bombin’ the AM with Scoops and The Wolf.  Two smart, funny dudes (and the occasional terrific guest) who actually talk about shit I care about, twice a week, in a reasonable amount of time.  (If I can get real here for a second, I’m finding the regular Giant Bombcast to be damn-near impossible to listen to these days.  It’s rare that I have 3 hours in a given week to listen to it, and I don’t find myself ever needing to hear Jeff and Vinny riff for 45 minutes about sandwiches or plumbing supplies or go-bags or wrestling or early 90s hip-hop.  Indeed, the cult of personality that has lately enveloped Giant Bomb has made it a site that I’m just not spending that much time with anymore, with the notable exception of PK’s “Worth Reading” columns.)

Favorite Articles:

What I’m Hoping to See Announced in 2014 (even if it doesn’t come out in 2014) (and even though this list can only be based on existing IP because I can’t get excited for brand-new IP that I don’t yet know about):

  • Fallout 4, built with the Rage engine (the game’s been confirmed, even if the engine hasn’t)

  • Uncharted 4  (confirmed by a teaser trailer)

  • new Batman game built by Rocksteady (rumored)

  • or something else built by Rocksteady, I’ll buy it anyway

  • a new, next-gen Criterion-built Burnout game

  • Portal 3

  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • a new Crash Bandicoot game (and maybe there’s hope for this yet:  http://www.polygon.com/2013/11/25/5142830/activision-wants-to-resurrect-crash-bandicoot-series)

  • Mark of the Ninja 2

  • Shadow Complex 2

  • Tomb Raider 2 (in this new rebooted series)

  • new Deus Ex

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I really ought to just make a separate category for PikPok and Adult Swim, as pretty much everything they put out is terrific; there were a ton of great games for iOS this year, and here are the best of the best:

  • XCOM

  • The Room Two

  • Flick Kick Football Legends

  • Giant Boulder of Death

  • Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Infinity Blade III

  • Angry Birds Star Wars 2

  • Puzzle and Dragon

  • Spirit Stones

  • Device 6

  • Year Walk

  • Ridiculous Fishing

  • Rayman Fiesta Run

  • Colassatron

TOP 10 (with profound apologies everything in my “Did Not Finish But Would Like To Someday” list, and especially to The Last of Us, which is certainly a good game but not an experience I can claim that I enjoyed, and also The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which everyone else acknowledges is amazing and which I’ve already acknowledged I can’t quite get into):

10.  Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.  The Call of Juarez name does not inspire much confidence, and I certainly didn’t expect very much (even if I’d heard some good things).  An absurdly low Steam Sale price got me to pick this up, though, and I’m really glad I did; it’s a fun little Western with great shooting mechanics and which has a lot of fun with narrative structure and the idea of the “tall tale.”  And the boss duels were pretty terrific, too.  My pick for most underrated / overlooked game of the year.

9.  Saints Row IV.  Considering what happened to THQ, and considering that this was originally supposed to be a DLC mission pack for Saints Row 3, it’s amazing that this turned out as well as it did.  If nothing else, it somehow managed to out-crazy the already crazy SR3, and frankly I have literally no idea how they’ll top it in the next one.

8.  The Stanley Parable.  Speaking of games having fun with narrative structure, this is also the funniest game since Portal 2, and also one that has moments of startling beauty and emotional resonance.  Perhaps this is more “art game” than “game”, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

7.  Bioshock Infinite.  Perhaps it’s my own fault; perhaps my expectations were too high, and so this game was never going to be good enough.  Or perhaps its just that the great and insightful critical responses to the first game made me hyper-aware of this game’s logical flaws and fallacies.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of shooters, and there was so much shooting in this game.  Whatever the case, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to.  But I can’t deny that there’s a tremendous amount to love and appreciate in this game, too – the graphics, the sound design, the art direction, the world, the music, the characters, the ending…

6.  GTA V.  I’ve written far too many words about this game already.  The short version is that even though the game’s story is silly (to put it kindly), and the three main characters are morally and ethically reprehensible, and the game’s treatment of women is profoundly sad – despite all of that, the world that Rockstar has created here is truly remarkable, and it’s about goddamned time that the gameplay has finally caught up with the rest of the industry.   While I wonder if I’m getting too old for this series – which is a thought that feels thoroughly depressing – I still hold out hope that Rockstar will get the narrative stuff straightened out for GTA VI.

5.  Devil May Cry.  I’m not a fan of the earlier games in the franchise, but I am a fan of Ninja Theory, and what they’ve done with this reboot is pretty incredible.  This was a visually stunning game, and it felt great to play – this might be my 2nd favorite melee combat system behind Batman, frankly.  Can’t wait to see what they do next.

4.  Tomb Raider.  Apparently I wasn’t so keen on this the first time I played it, but for some reason I felt compelled to replay it later on and then I fell in love with it.  Sure, the grotesque death sequences are a little much (as are the constant grunts and howls of pain), and maybe the ending was a little hokey, but I thought this was a fantastic reboot of an important franchise; it made Lara a real person instead of a hyper-sexualized automaton, and it made the violence matter.  Killing a person (or even an animal) shouldn’t be easy, and you can feel how it chews her up as the game progresses, even as she learns to harden herself from it.  Speaking of which, the gameplay was quite good – this might’ve been the first Lara Croft game with genuinely fun combat, frankly.  I hope that for the next one, they put back some of the tombs and the puzzles – that’s what I really play these games for, and I’m hoping that now that they’ve better established who Lara is, they can now put her in some interesting situations.

3.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.  I’ve written too much about this (and too recently) to recap it effectively here, so I’ll keep it short – I was all but ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed, but then this came out and now I’m fully engaged again.  Hell, I still want to go back and finish all the stuff I hadn’t yet gotten to.  A very welcome return to a much beleaguered franchise.

2.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  This sorta came out of nowhere; I don’t recall hearing that much about it before I picked it up, although I must’ve heard something that compelled me to check it out.  In any event, I’m forever grateful that I did; I had an absolutely delightful time with it.  And then, of course, there’s that ending… Like I said earlier, I’m not sure that a control scheme has ever moved me to tears, but there you have it.

1.  Gone Home.  Here’s that question again, the one I asked at the beginning of last year’s GOTY post, and the one that I brought up again earlier in this one:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”  There are so many things to say about this game, and there are a lot of people who’ve said it a lot better than me – go back and read those links I posted earlier.  It’s rare to see a game affect people so deeply and profoundly; indeed, it’s rare that gamers let themselves be moved.  We generally play games knowing that, for the most part, we’re not playing it for the story – and games are, for better or worse, generally built with that philosophy in mind.  All I knew about this game going into it was that it was kind of spooky, and that it was a game of pure exploration – no combat, no enemies, no ticking clock.  And for the first third of it, I thought I was playing in a haunted house – there’s one particular jump scare that still spooks me when I think about it.  Of course, the game turned into a deep and moving love story, and my tears at the ending were genuine tears of joy.  A truly special experience and a game that I’ll always remember.

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.

holiday weekend recap: the game of life (and also AC4)

There was not a lot of gaming this holiday weekend; it was my first Thanksgiving with the baby, though, which made it very special.

When you’re preparing to have a kid, the #1 thing everybody warns you about is that you’re never going to get any more sleep for the rest of your life.  This has turned out to be not entirely true in my case; our kid has slept through the night in his own crib pretty much every night since the day we took him home from the hospital.  It is true that we haven’t slept in in 8 months (with the notable exception of this past Saturday, when the wife and I headed up to her 20 Year High School Reunion without the baby, and we slept in the following morning until 9:00, and oh my gawd it was glorious), and it’s also true that I don’t sleep particularly well these days anyway, but that’s not the baby’s fault.

The thing they don’t tell you about having a baby, though, is how much you’re going to be sick.  Colds left and right, up and down, mucus and phlegm everywhere.  The three of us have been trading the same cold since the little guy’s first day of day care, which was 5 months ago.

So:  yes, I was home sick yesterday – as was the wife – but the kid was healthy and happy, and so we had to send him off to day care so that we could rest and not sneeze on him.  It was the first time the two of us had been alone in the house without the boy since before he was born, which was profoundly weird.  (Not nearly as weird as when I picked the boy up at the end of the day, though, because that marked the first time I’ve ever said the words “Hi, I’m Henry’s dad” to someone.)

Here is the point that I am slow in arriving towards:  being home sick all day without a baby to take care of means that I binged hard on Assassin’s Creed 4, which is now making a serious run at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Before I get to AC4, though, let me cover everything else very quickly:  (1) I’m inching along in the 3DS Zelda game, and it’s good.  (2) I have not bought anything during this new Steam Sale, and I’m very proud of myself for doing so.  (I suppose I was holding out for a big, big discount on the new Batman game – something bigger than 25%.  Apparently Amazon had the digital download available for 50% on Black Friday, but I was away from a computer and couldn’t seal the deal.)

OK, back to AC4.  I’m around 45% complete, somewhere in Sequence 8 – the game says I need to upgrade my ship before starting the next mission, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that I go explore the rest of the world, engage in some of those naval battles I’d been avoiding, unlock more waypoints and do more side missions.  Which I’m very happy to do, as a matter of fact.

Let me get my demerits out of the way first:

(1)  I know I’ve mentioned that I’ve got an older graphics card and that I’ve had to turn the settings down low in order to get a decent frame rate, but even then there are still certain moments (specifically, scenes at night and the scenes at Abstergo) where even turning the resolution down to its lowest setting can’t quite stop the game from sputtering to a standstill.  There was one particular mission (at night) where I had to tail a gunboat on foot, and the game kept hitching up about every other second; the missions was virtually unplayable.  And as cheesy as the modern-day stuff can be, I still like it, but my PC can barely run it without dying – and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason why.  I ran the new Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite on high settings and the game ran smooth as silk and looked absolutely jaw-dropping; AC4’s Abstergo sequences are just you in a modern office building, and so there’s no obvious culprit as to what’s causing the problem.  I’m too far into the game at this point to consider stopping and replaying it on a PS4, but I might just have to suck it up and get a better graphics card.

(2) The hand-to-hand combat is chaotic and it can be hard to tell where Kenway is on screen.  When it’s one-on-one, it’s OK, but when he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies it’s a mess.  (Of course, if he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies then it’s safe to say I’ve done something wrong, but still – they give you the option of fighting your way out, but it’s hard to see what’s happening.)  The larger issue, and this is hardly AC’s fault, is that the melee system is not quite as great as the Batman: Arkham system, even as AC is clearly now modelling itself after it (which is ironic, given that AC was around first).  The emphasis remains heavy on countering attacks, but the controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be – if I had to guess, I think that’s because there’s such a high priority on Kenway finishing his current animation, and all of his fighting animations tend to be long and fluid.

That’s it, as far as obvious flaws go, and both of those could be improved without the game needing to do anything – in the first case, I just need to upgrade my playing system and that graphical problem should go away (though it would be nice if they’d patch in some better optimization fixes), and in the second case, I need to stop being impatient and get myself into trouble.  It is always easier to sneak around and pick off dudes one by one – and those animations are very quick and precise, now that I think about it.

Well, there is one more thing I could nitpick:  some of those sea shanties are horrendously ear-wormy (specifically the one with the “and we say so, and we know so” refrain) and I can’t tell whether the solution is to find all the pages so that they don’t keep singing the same ones, or if I simply turn it off altogether.  A pirate ship without sea shanties is a weird, silent place, but maybe it’s better than wanting to punch that one singer in the throat.

The rest of the game is pretty goddamned magnificent, though.  Like: I love how deep the side missions go.  As an example, the “Kill the Templar” side missions (of which I’ve done 3) aren’t simply about tailing a dude and killing him (like in previous AC games); they’re often 4 or 5 scenes deep, with the story twisting and turning after each one, and the activities are varied enough that you stay on your toes.

But even the non-story stuff, like breaking into a cargo warehouse, takes some careful strategy and planning.  I do love running from cover to cover, saying visible just long enough to get one soldier to follow me so that I can pick him off silently, then hitting a sniper with a berzerk dart and watching him pick off his comrades before falling to his own death.  Getting to the door without being detected or setting off alarms is awesome, and I just wish the warehouses would fill up a bit faster so that I could do it more often (although the warehouses are also quite bountiful, as far as ship-stuff is concerned).

I’ll talk about this more in my 360/PS3 post, but one of my favorite new things this past generation gave us is the idea of your own customizable home base.  Saints Row did this pretty well with your “crib”, Mass Effect gave you the Normandy (which isn’t necessarily fully customizable, though you can make certain cosmetic changes), and AC4 gives you an island, a private manor, and (last but not least) the Jackdaw.  The path to upgrading is pretty expensive, to be sure, but it also means that each upgrade that you do make feels all the more satisfying.

Those naval battles that I’d been putting off?  Those are fun, too, although they’re not really the thing I look forward to the most when I fire the game up.  That being said, it is nice that the game lets you keep what you’ve salvaged even if you get sunk before you get a chance to sell.  Some might feel put off by how forgiving and easy this is, but for me, it makes the battles a bit less stressful (though still quite enjoyable); I don’t feel horribly punished if I get overrun.  And since ships are by far the best source of metal, I suppose I’m going to have to keep at it for a bit longer, and maybe I’ll start actually looking forward to it before long.

The story is serviceable, if a bit convoluted – but what would a AC game be if not convoluted?.  Kenway himself is not all that great a hero – he’s certainly not as charismatic as Ezio, although I must admit I got tired of Ezio by the time Revelations came around – but he gets the job done.  There is a “revelation” about Kenway’s compatriot James Kidd that could not have been more obvious even before Kidd’s first spoken words, but maybe for younger players they wouldn’t see it coming?  No matter.  The game has fun telling its story, which is more than I can say for the last two games, and it constantly feels like it’s moving forward instead of spinning its wheels.

The most impressive thing, though, is the true open world that the game has to offer.  Each island feels meticulously designed and detailed, no matter how small, and this makes for quite an incentive in terms of opening up the map and visiting every place you can find.  This is how AC was meant to be experienced – with a gigantic world filled with lots of different, enjoyable things to do.  It doesn’t necessarily feel “next-gen”, and yet it does feel absolutely massive, where there might be something interesting around every corner.

 

of piracy and patience

1. I’d hoped to get the 360/PS3 post up before Thanksgiving, but you know what?  It can wait.  There’s no rush.  I’m dealing with a thousand other distractions, to be sure, but the fact remains that this generation is still not over.  And in any event, I’d rather put the post up when people are back in front of their computer monitors, freed from tryptophan-induced eye-glazing (and family-induced eye-rolling).

2. I continue to be tremendously impressed with Assassin’s Creed 4, even if I’m starting to realize that the reasons why I’m enjoying it so much are because of all the things that are cribbed from other games.  The platforming is still very much classic AC, though the controls feel much tighter (most likely influenced by Uncharted and Tomb Raider), but the hunting and crafting is straight out of Far Cry 3, a lot of the treasure map stuff and related ambient events feels lifted wholesale out of Red Dead Redemption, and the customization of the Jackdaw reminds me very much of Mass Effect‘s Normandy.  All games steal from everybody else, and it just so happens that these are good things to steal from, and I’m very glad to have them in this particular context.

Moreover, I love that the game is letting me play at my own pace.  If there’s an undiscovered island between my ship and my next mission objective, you can be damned sure I’m going over there and clearing out as much of it as I can – opening chests, chasing down sea shanty pages, clambering towards Abstergo artifacts.   And along those lines, I’m happy that the incentives for finding all of that side stuff are, for the most part, worthwhile.  (The sea shanties alone are worth it.)  The Mayan statues are a far cry from the weird future glyph puzzles in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but they’re a fun enough diversion.

And even though I’m not particularly interested in the naval combat (partially because I’m not particularly good at it), I don’t necessarily have to engage with it if I don’t want to.  I suppose I’ll have to get better at it at some point, as I’m sure the game will require me to engage in some heavy-duty naval battles in order to get through the narrative, but for the time being I’m happy to ignore it, and I’m pleased to not be punished for doing so.

I’m also really intrigued by AC4’s “modern” storyline, though I’m reluctant to say more on that until I get around to a full-on spoiler post.

I guess the thing that’s impressed me the most is how relatively un-glitchy it is, especially compared to AC3.  I’m probably 12-15 hours in at this point, and I’ve only ever gotten stuck in a tree once.   That being said, the glitch in the video below is maybe the best glitch I’ve ever seen:

3.  While I’m glad that I’m still resolute in my decision to hold off on buying one of the new consoles (even if it’s been less than a week since the Xbox One launched and I’m already getting super-fidgety), I’m finding that the decision itself is becoming harder and harder to make as more impressions come in.  I suppose this is a good thing.  Ever since E3, I had always been hell-bent on acquiring a PS4 as soon as possible, but the more and more I hear about the XBO, the more intrigued I get.  The short version of this argument is that the PS4 is, essentially, a super-deluxe version of the consoles we currently have, but that the XBO is a machine from the future.  Of course, the Kinect is still a bit buggy, and the idea of constantly talking to my television is strange (especially during the hours when the baby is sleeping in the next room), but that’s stuff that can be fixed with software patches, and I expect that when that stuff is working the way it’s supposed to, it’s going to be very cool indeed.  If any of you have either or both of the new consoles, I’m very curious to hear your thoughts and impressions.