on Westworld, Batman and Bioshock, and Bethesda

1. I’ve been out of commission for longer than usual; we were out of town for a family wedding, and then the bulk of my evening free time was spent getting caught up on Westworld, which I adore.  I’ve said here before that I don’t often watch that much TV, and most of what I do watch is stuff that’s binge-ready (either because it’s a Netflix series like Stranger Things or the Marvel stuff) or that I completely missed during their regular run and which is now, in its current form, binge-ready (stuff like, say, Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad or what-have-you).

So I’m in an unusual place, then, with respect to Westworld; I’m watching it “live” (well, to be literal about it, I’m watching it on Monday evening after the kid goes to bed) and so I’m stuck on the same cliffhanger as everyone else.  I don’t have popular critical opinions cluttering my own perspective, as I’ve made it a point to avoid reading anything about it until after I get caught up.  And so what I can say about it is that, for the most part, I think it’s stunning.  The acting is fantastic (even if Jeffrey Wright doesn’t know how to wear glasses)…

…the cinematography is stupendous, and the writing is terrific.  The show is smart and confident and, thus far, knows exactly how much information they want to reveal with each episode, and I’m totally hooked.  I’ve read some stuff where people are frustrated with the pacing, or that they don’t like the mystery because it’s obvious where things are headed; I disagree.  Certainly I can see a number of different places where it can go, but there are too many things that remain enigmatic, and I’m happy for them to remain that way for the time being.

2. As far as games go, I’m still in this weird thing where I’m feeling disconnected from the game-playing process.  I’m in this weird lull in Forza Horizon 3 where I’m kinda just roaming around; I’m not feeling pulled towards Gears 4, even just to cheat and play ahead of my co-op campaign.

I rented the Bioshock remasters, mostly because I was curious about how they looked.  As far as the Xbox One versions, I was underwhelmed by the first game’s port; but then again, I’ve played that introduction sequence so many times that it’s no longer very interesting.  I skipped looking at B2 entirely and went straight to Infinite, and… yeah, that game’s world and presentation are still absolutely stunning, but the minute I started having to kill things, I could almost literally hear my brain checking out.

On the other hand, I also got the Batman Arkham Remasters, and those games still hold up.  With the occasional weird graphical glitch (on Xbox One), they are still gorgeous and fun and totally absorbing.  I’m breezing through Asylum at the moment and it’s just as terrific as it’s ever been, and I’ll happily play through City when I finish Asylum.

3.  I should probably offer an opinion with respect to Bethesda’s recent decision to no longer offer pre-release review copies to major outlets.  I can’t comment as a member of the press, because I’m not a member of the press; I’ve paid for (or paid for the rental of) nearly every single game I’ve ever played and discussed.  (Indeed, I think I’ve only ever received 2 codes for the purposes of writing reviews, and I didn’t get paid for either of those pieces.)

Anyway.  Do I think it’s bullshit?  Yes, of course.  Do I think it’s intensely hypocritical for publishers to deny critics a chance to review a game while also using those same critical voices to write preview pieces?  Yes, without question.  Do I think it’s ridiculous that Bethesda isn’t allowing professional critics to review their games before release, but that they are giving copies to prominent YouTubers and other “influencers”?  Oh boy oh boy, yes I do.

Will other prominent publishers follow suit?  And do I think this could start an alarming precedent wherein traditional games journalism and criticism becomes irrelevant?

Mmmmmaybe?

I think there will always be a place for long-form written criticism – this is what I want, and this is what I’d have liked to have done professionally – though I suspect that the audience for that particular style will, sadly, diminish in time.  Game journalism is moving into all sorts of weird directions, and a lot of it is heading towards video streaming (which might actually generate some revenue) and podcasting (which almost always doesn’t).  I, personally, have neither the time nor the inclination towards consuming my criticism in those forms, but that’s neither here nor there.

The fact of the matter is that Bethesda is doing this so that slightly-less-than-great review scores don’t affect pre-order numbers.  And yet pre-ordering, in this age of digital downloads, seems largely irrelevant, doesn’t it?  I mean, in the past, I pre-ordered physical copies at a Gamestop because, if I didn’t, then I was shit out of luck for weeks until a new shipment came in.  Amazon made this a little easier, though in my personal experience “release-date delivery” usually still meant “a day or two later”.  Right now, the only advantage to pre-ordering a digital download is the pre-loading of a 50-60 GB file; you’re basically spending $60 for the privilege of instant gratification.

There are people out there with takes much more knowledgeable than mine, obviously, and so I have no idea how much this is going to mess things up for the press.  But if nothing else, the practice of taking games out of the hands of critics in order to maximize day-one profits should finally and definitively answer the question as to whether Games are Art.

weekend recap – hello goodbye

1.  I gave up on Assassin’s Creed 3 over the weekend; I went about as far as I could go before accepting that I just.  didn’t.  care.  And it’s a shame, too, I suppose, because even though the overall narrative was ridiculous, I was getting to a point in the story where there was some actual, insightful perspective on what the American Revolution was really about.  And certain relationships between characters – specifically, that of a father and son, newly reacquainted – had the potential to get quite interesting.  But the game itself is broken, undercooked, with a thousand extraneous things to do and none of them particularly interesting or designed.  The Homestead mechanic – a variant on the mechanic in AC2 / Brotherhood where Ezio built up his mansion and ancestral city / his band of assassins, and in which I spent a lot of time working on and developing in those games – is barely taught, its benefits utterly unexplained.  The hunting mechanic felt tedious and without any sort of tangible reward – yes, you can sell what you scavenge, but I never found myself hurting for money mostly because I never bought anything, because there was nothing of interest to buy.  You do precious little assassinating for an Assassin in a game called Assassin’s Creed, too, but you do find yourself getting chased by the British for no particular reason at all, in chase sequences that last anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, and which GOD JUST MAKE IT STOP.  Ubisoft:  I implore you.  TAKE A YEAR OFF.  We know you won’t, as you like to be all over console launches, but WE DO NOT NEED A NEW ASSASSIN’S CREED GAME NEXT YEAR.

2.  Besides giving up on AC3, I didn’t really do all that much gaming this weekend, as I was busy with some music stuff I’m working on.  But when I did get my game on, I found myself getting pulled back into Batman: Arkham City, which I bought during the Thanksgiving Steam Sale.  The similarities between Batman and Assassin’s Creed are many, as it turns out, but Batman does everything so much better.  Even though I’ve already beaten it, I’m still enjoying it just as much this second time around.

Do you guys do this, too?  Do you ever find yourself replaying old games?  I do this every once in a while, especially if an old game kinda keeps popping up in my memory – for me, it’s almost the same feeling as re-reading a favorite book; I get to live in that world again, and often times it’s just as good (if not better) the second time around, because you get to pay attention to details that you missed the first time, and you can skim over the parts you don’t like.  

I think I mentioned the other day that I’ve already started work on my “BEST GAMES OF THIS CONSOLE GENERATION” post, and as such I’ve had a jones to play a bunch of old favorites again – Uncharted 2 (and maybe even 3), BioshockRed Dead Redemption.  (For whatever it’s worth, Portal 1/2 will be on my list, but I’ve played both of those games too many times for me to feel nostalgic about them right now.)  This even though I still need to finish XCOM, and even though I’m now suddenly looking forward to Far Cry 3, what with all the amazing reviews it’s been getting…

3.  I turn 37 on Saturday, and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting myself a 3DS (or the XL version) as a birthday present.  I don’t really know why, though – it’s not like the game library has suddenly, dramatically improved.  And while I’ve heard amazing things about Pushmo, and while I’d certainly like to check out OoT and the new Professor Layton, that’s not really enough to sink $250 on, especially with a baby on the way in April.   And especially since my iPhone 4’s home button is becoming very unreliable, and I’m eligible to upgrade to the 5 in a few weeks anyway.  Still, it’s something I’m thinking about.

That’s it, and that’s all.

Batman and Uncharted and GTA5, oh my

1.  I just finished watching the GTA5 trailer.

So it’s Los Angeles.  And it looks like it’s keeping the gravitas of GTA4.  The most impressive thing to me is how colorful the trailer is – not that GTA4 was bland, but everything here is crisp and bright and beautiful.  Didn’t catch a release date, but I’d guess it comes out next spring/summer.

——————–

2.  So I’m a little over 2 hours into Uncharted 3; I finished the “burning chateau” section and that seemed like a logical place to stop for the night.

The good:  it looks absolutely phenomenal.  It is, hands down, the prettiest game of this generation – which includes Uncharted 2.  The dialogue and voice acting are terrific; I like these characters and care about them and I enjoy watching them interact.  The platforming is still engaging, and the few puzzles I’ve encountered so far are interesting and have been immensely satisfying to solve.

The bad:  the melee combat is really awkward and unsatisfying, and this sticks out specifically because I’ve spent the last 20 hours of my game-playing life beating the shit out of every living thing in Batman: Arkham City, which does 3rd-person melee combat better than anyone else.  The gunplay is still awkward, too – the early enemies aren’t bullet sponges, which is much appreciated, but it’s still a bit touchy, and it’s also a bit off-putting to consider how many people Nathan Drake murders over the course of an adventure.   (As noted above, I’m only 2 hours or so in and I’ve already killed dozens of bad guys.)   The walking/running animations are, for the most part, really beautiful and fluid – except when they’re not, like when you suddenly change direction.  And there are quite a few chase sequences when you’re running towards the camera, and the controls in those sequences are pretty rough, and you’ll die a lot, and in doing so you lessen the impact of the chase itself – it becomes less about HOLY SHIT LOOK AT WHAT I’M RUNNING FROM and more about rote memorization and hoping that the controls move the way you intend.

I’m still enjoying the hell out of it, but I’m not as enthusiastic about it as I’d hoped.  Its strengths are still top-notch, but its weaknesses are becoming glaring.

——————–

3.  I’m more or less done with Batman: Arkham City.  As noted above, I’ve put at least 20 hours into it; I’ve found almost 300 Riddler trophies, and that’s probably enough for the time being.  I may put it in every once in a while during a release lull to try and get all 400, but it’s not a priority.

My first impressions were not overly kind, to be honest; in my excitement for the new game during the summer I’d replayed Arkkam Asylum on the PC and so the first hour of AC was pretty much the exact same experience.  But I grew to really enjoy it.  The story is ludicrous if you look at it for more than 5 seconds, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief it’s an enjoyable ride, and the ending is easily one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, in any medium.  (Again, keeping my disbelief suspended.)  And I was certainly excited to know that after I finished the story I’d still have more to do – and for the most part, that was true.  But I’m a little fatigued with it now.  Knowing that I have over 100 Riddler trophies to go is not enticing – it’s exhausting.