The 3-Day Weekend Hangover

It’s nearly 5:00 pm and I’m only now getting over last night’s NyQuil haze.  This doesn’t bode well for future winter-related headcolds, and I barely managed to put this thing together as it is:

1.  I’d hoped to unveil a new feature today – the SFTC KILL COUNTER, which would be a running tally of how many people I’ve killed across all the games I play this year.  Unfortunately, the PS4 version of Far Cry 4 doesn’t seem to have this sort of stat handy, and I wasn’t about to start keeping manual tabs on it as I played.  So, then:  know that if it did, I’d start up a widget post-haste.  (Maybe it’s OK to wait on this, given that FC4 is, technically, a 2013 game.)

2.  In lighter, non-virtual murder news, I’m finding myself surprisingly excited by the prospect of a new, current-gen Rock Band, and I’ll be even more excited if a new Rock Band works with my old, 360-era plastic instruments (and DLC, of course).

3.  As much as I liked the idea of Borderlands, and as much as I liked the actual Borderlands 2 game (even as the Vita version was kinda shitty), I am not necessarily all that enthused about the forthcoming Borderlands HD remasters.  I don’t need to play those games again.  I’d rather wait for a completely new title.

4.  I will not playing the Resident Evil REmake.  I only barely touched the original game, and so there’s no nostalgic value for me to tap into.

5.  I will be playing a little bit of the new Saints Row thing (on Xbox One).  I don’t expect to get particularly far into it, given that I already finished SR4 on my PC; I skipped the PC version’s DLC (which, apparently, is just as well), and so I’m really just curious to see what it’s like on a console.  I’m also curious to see if my current distaste for virtual murder can be alleviated by SR4’s completely batshit insanity.

On that note – and also to call back to #1 above – I’m still plugging away at Far Cry 4, doing some more sidequests, trying to finish my upgrades, etc.  My opinions about that game have not changed, and the fact that I’m still going back to it is only indicative of the fact that there’s not much else holding my interest at the moment.  The story is garbage, and the only saving grace to that game is that there’s so much else to do in spite of it.  Is that a good thing?

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…

on writing for other people

1.  My living nightmare has come to an apparent end; my new PS Vita Slim arrived yesterday, and it actually appears to work.  I haven’t had a chance to do much of anything with it yet, though, as its download speeds are still as dreadfully slow as they were before – Borderlands 2 is maybe 30% downloaded and I’ve had the thing continually running since last night at 8pm – but I’ve held it in my hands and configured settings and such, and it feels… better, somehow.  My memories of my original Vita are dim, as you might imagine, being that in my 4 weeks of ownership I only actually had it working for 48 hours.  In any event, the new Slim feels nice in the hand; it’s a little light, but that’s probably OK over the long haul.  I look forward to the day when I can actually talk about playing games on it.

(Oh – I did manage to import my PS4 save of Fez over to the Vita, and that’s just a super-cool thing to be able to do.  I also tried using the Vita as the PS4’s second screen, and that kinda looked a little janky – it looked like a very poorly compressed YouTube video.  So I’m not sure how much mileage I’m going to get out of that feature.  But, still, hey.  Maybe I can use it as a BluRay remote for the time being.)

2.  I have a column due on Monday for Gamemoir; it’s a rebuttal to an opinion piece about “The Shame of Playing on Easy Mode” and it ought to be a slam dunk, and yet for some reason I’m having a much more difficult time than I anticipated in making it work.  The most important thing for me is that I don’t want to be mean; I mean, I’m writing a column, I don’t want it to read like it belongs in a comment thread.  But I have very strong feelings on that topic and I’m afraid that I’m going to screw it up somehow by either throwing too much into the post, or else not throwing in enough, or else dwelling on minutia and rushing through the points I actually want to make.

It’s strange, what writing for other sites is doing to my brain.  I mean, I’ve only written 2 pieces for Gamemoir so far (and in the meantime I’ve gone 0-for-2 for pitches to other, bigger sites), but those pieces have reached far bigger audiences than almost anything I’ve written here, and as such I’ve had to craft those pieces a bit differently than how I normally write.  I also get a week to write those pieces, so I have a bit more time to think about them and figure out how to say what I want to say.

The stuff I write here is generally pretty quick; I’ve gotten quite good at not self-censoring myself the way I used to (even on my personal LiveJournal account), but I’m also very informal here, and I have a tendency to fully indulge all the weird linguistic tics and tricks I’ve developed over the years as a writer without a formal editing process.  Like:  this piece is already over 500 words and it’s taken me only about 15 minutes to write.  But it’s also more than likely that this post will be forgotten by everyone (and me, too) about 15 minutes after they’re done with it.  I’m not necessarily crafting anything here; I’m just putting my thoughts up as quickly and as coherently as I can.

If I want to get better as a writer – indeed, if I ever hope to get some freelance work – I need to get better at the craft.  So it’s probably a good thing, then, that I’m struggling with this piece; it means I’m learning something.

3.  There’s not going to be much gaming this weekend; the wife and kid and dogs and I are going out of town for the weekend, to hang out with both of Henry’s grandmothers.  I keep thinking about maybe bringing the Vita along, but I also know that any free time I manage to wrangle will most likely have to be spent in front of my laptop, writing that post.

pre-Thanksgiving status report

Just a quick status report:

1.  There will be little to no posting over the holiday weekend, as I’ll be away from my consoles and PC and there’s only so much I can say about Chip Chain, other than that I’d love it if they patched in an “Undo” button.

2.  Has that mega-patch for Assassin’s Creed 3 landed yet?  I thought it hit yesterday, but I didn’t get an update prompt when I fired it up last night.  That game is really starting to try my patience.  If there was only a way where I could turn off the meta-challenges, that might make it easier to deal with in the moment-to-moment gameplay.  But every single major historical event that I’ve run into has been downright farcical in its execution; this does not bode particularly well for the rest of the game.

3.  Downloaded the new Borderlands 2 DLC last night, also, but couldn’t seem to find how to start it.

4.  Downloaded the new Marvel Civil War table for Pinball FX2 this morning; my wife is a huge Marvel fan and an even bigger Civil War fan, and so this was a no-brainer.  It’s kind of a bland table, at least when compared to the Avengers table, but still:  it’s incredible how well they’ve supported that title.  When all is said and done, that might be my most-played game of this console generation.

5.  I sent Halo 4 and CODBLOPS2 back to Gamefly today.  I suppose I feel bad for not giving them more of a shot, but I just don’t think I’d ever see myself really digging in and getting into them; I just don’t have that kind of time anymore.  But I also feel obligated to at least try Hitman Absolution and Lego LOTR, too, as those are next in my queue.

6.  Speaking of not giving things a fair shot, I don’t see myself getting a WiiU any time soon, if ever.  If I were to suddenly get a job as a games critic (anyone?), I suppose I’d get a system and check it out, if only to fulfill my professional obligations.  But I’m not a games critic, and I have a baby on the way, and the WiiU seems like a waste of money right now.  (I’m not the most objective person when it comes to Nintendo, though.)

7.  Since the year is more or less over as far as compelling new releases go (Far Cry 3 notwithstanding), today I started doing the preliminary work on my GOTY post.  I used to have a bunch of zany categories in previous GOTY posts, but the first thing I noticed as I looked over everything I’ve played is that this was a pretty un-zany year.  No real risks, apart from some pretty amazing arcade stuff that surfaced on PSN in the 2nd half of the year, some of which I’ve yet to play (i.e., Tokyo Jungle and Unfinished Swan).  I’m not sure this was a bad year, but it certainly wasn’t great.

Here’s hoping you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

 

weekend recap: honorable intentions

[I had grand visions for this post, but then (of course) work got in the way, and so I have no idea if what follows is coherent or interesting or what.  Many apologies.]

Lots to talk about, and some of it has nothing to do with gaming.  In fact, I might as well dive in and get this shameless plug out of the way right now:  I’ve finally, FINALLY built a website for all my music-doings.  Please feel free to visit vosslandiamusic.com and check it out; there will be more content coming soon, but for now it’s, well, what it is.

Back to the subject at hand, now.  This was another in a series of inadvertent three-day weekends; I’d been somewhat successfully battling a cold last week but I woke up on Friday having lost the cold war, as it were, and so I stayed home and sneezed and coughed and decided to get caught up on gaming stuff, since the living room was all mine.

Last week I wrote about my Dishonored glitch:

…I completed Slackjaw’s quest, and was on my way to head back to his distillery to turn it in, when the game suddenly told me I’d failed the quest, and even though none of his men were trying to kill me, he certainly was.  I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.  Tried re-loading several times, tried entering stealthily as opposed to waltzing right in – but no matter how I entered the zone, as soon as I’d crossed some invisible barrier, the game decided I’d failed.  This was very, very frustrating (as you might imagine), and since I didn’t see any solution (beyond waiting for a patch), I decided to take it out of the 360′s tray and leave it alone for a little while.  Some quick googling revealed that a lot of people are having the same problem – not everyone, but enough for me to feel like it’s not just my own peculiar problem.  That being said, since I don’t know when the patch is coming (if indeed it’s coming at all), I might just take the opportunity to start over from scratch, now that I actually know what I’m doing.

As it turned out, there was a patch ready for me to download Friday morning, but when I loaded my last save, the quest was still glitched out.  So I did end up restarting from the beginning, which also made it much easier, since I already knew what I was doing (and had a much better idea of how to do it better).  Took no time at all to get caught up to where I’d been glitched, and everything seemed to be working fine at that point.  Made much progress, then; I happened to glance at a walkthrough online just to see how far into it I was, and it would appear that if the game has three Acts, my next mission would be the end of Act 2/beginning of Act 3.

Here’s the thing; I kinda don’t know if I care enough about the game to bother finishing it.

And yet the game matters enough to me that I would really like to know why I’m feeling so apathetic about it.

This particular problem is made thornier in that after I took my leave from Dishonored on Friday, I also spent a great deal of time with the first bit of DLC for Borderlands 2, which is absolutely fantastic; and also that my weekend eventually got pretty busy with things wholly unrelated to gaming (see first paragraph above).  Also: my rental copy of Forza Horizon should be arriving later this week, which I’m very anxious to get my hands on; and next week comes Criterion’s Need For Speed Most Wanted, which is looking every bit like the spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise that I’ve been craving for years.  (And meanwhile my XCOM campaign lurks on in the background.)  Basically, I’m very much aware that I’ve got a very limited amount of time in which to give the rest of Dishonored the attention it probably deserves, so there’s a weird sort of pressure there.  I fully acknowledge that this isn’t Dishonored’s fault.

HOWEVA.  There are some things that are Dishonored’s fault.

Before I get around to killing it, though, let me first sing the praises of the art direction, which are absolutely wonderful.  Let me also say that my favorite parts of the game are, basically, everything I do before I have to dispose of my target.  I love Blink-ing around* – it’s fun and useful and arguably even more satisfying to pull off than Batman’s quick-evade.**  I love exploring every nook and cranny of the environment, which is very much designed to reward such exploration – every open apartment window on a non-ground-level floor holds at least one goodie (and, also, tells some wordless, sad story in its tableau).  I love doing reconnaissance, basically, and the game’s tools for performing such recon work are exquisitely designed and endlessly rewarding.

But, yeah, then I have to actually go about my business.   And that’s where I run into problems.

The game tells you that it’s better to not kill.  But it also gives you lots of ways to kill.  And sometimes you run into a situation where there’s nothing you can do but kill, unless you decide to reload your last save, and that can be tedious.  Furthermore, as far as I can tell, the game only tells you of the benefits of acting non-lethally during loading screens – nobody in the game actually tells you to not kill anyone.  Indeed, your handlers at the Hounds Pit are asking you to kill people in order to advance their cause.  Your sidequests generally offer you a way to achieve the same result without killing, and after each mission I’ve gotten a rather handsome reward waiting for me in my room, but I’ve also had to kill a number of guards in order to get where I need to go, too, and nobody gives me much grief about that.  It’s not like I’ve gone on a murder spree or anything – my overall chaos meter still reads “Low” at the end of each mission – but I’m certainly not getting the Achievements for mercy, and in any event, that kind of meta-challenge ends up changing the reason why I’m playing in the first place.

**SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS AHEAD, ALTHOUGH THE KEY WORD IS SLIGHT** The story isn’t terribly interesting, either; it’s not bad, but neither is it the sort of tale where I’m wondering what happens next.  The supernatural business seems a little hokey.  Hell, the assassins who appear in the beginning of the game are very much Blink-ing their way around, which leads me to believe that the Outsider isn’t necessarily laying all his cards on the table, and that’s not terribly surprising.  And in looking at that walkthrough I mentioned, I couldn’t help but notice that I’m about to be betrayed, but let’s be honest – that sort of “twist” is something you can see a mile away.  **END SPOILERS**

I suppose it was the end of the mission I’d just finished that really soured my attitude.  The mission required me to attend a masked ball being hosted by 3 sisters, one of whom I needed to kill/abduct.  The recon work in determining which sister to nab was enormously fun, and the mansion itself was a wonder to explore and examine.  But then I actually had to do the deed, and it must be noted that the manner in which I knocked out the sister and carried her to her waiting boatman/captor resulted in one of the most unintentionally hilarious chase sequences I’ve ever had the misfortune of participating in.  Here’s the point, ultimately: while the poor execution in the woman’s abduction was undoubtedly my fault, it was the game’s reaction to what I did that made me wonder why I’d bothered being so careful and stealthy in the first place.   It’s actually a bit difficult to describe just what happened, except to say that in a game that at that point had been remarkably graceful and poised, the game suddenly became very artless and charmless and basically just turned into very obvious AI routines that ultimately were defeated with comically swift decapitations of startled guards.  I’m doing a terrible job describing what happened, I know.  The result, though, is the important thing – all the grace and skill I performed in my stealthy preparation were rendered moot; once everything went to shit I bulldozed my way to the ending and achieved the exact same result, since my mark was never killed.  So why even bother being stealthy?  Why bother performing well?  Suddenly the rich, detailed world of Dunwall instantly transformed into a clunky collection of polygons and AI scripts.

Now, granted, the game’s artifice had already been made glaringly obvious by the aforementioned glitch.  Still, as a regular player of games, you take that stuff as part of the deal; code breaks all the time, the world’s an imperfect place.   It’s only when I’d surrendered to the game’s fiction and then had it clumsily torn from my hands that I started wondering just what the hell I was doing with my time.

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* Indeed, I was weirdly disappointed when I jumped over to Borderlands 2 and found that I had to walk everywhere, like a chump.

** I’m blanking on the name of this technique – it’s how you traverse long distances in Arkham City, swinging around, vaguely Spiderman-ish.

weekend recap – a much better ending

The big news is that I finished the Borderlands 2 campaign.  Ended at  level 33; put in approximately 40 hours.  Did a lot of the sidequests, but not all of them; it’s a little exhausting, frankly.   And yet, it must be said that it’s a tremendous game, vastly improved over the first – and especially as far as the ending is concerned.  I am torn between starting over in True Vault Hunter mode (which makes the game harder, but where you get much better loot), or starting over with a new character (I’m intrigued by the Siren and the Gunzerker).  I may very well decide to take a break from it, however – it’s a lot of fun in short bursts, but over the course of a long marathon it becomes a little tedious and I end up running to my next objective instead of shooting my way through.

I’ve been struggling to determine the game’s pleasure loop – the thing that keeps me so engaged and eager to press on.  Yes, there’s tons of loot, and there isn’t a single empty crate in the game, and I’d easily say that the ratio of usable loot to trash was far better than the year’s other loot-heavy game, Diablo 3, where I’d spend literally dozens of hours before finding something worth swapping out (although it should be noted that the Auction House played a large factor in that particular instance – I found far better stuff in the AH than I ever did in the game).  But loot is, ultimately, junk – there’s so much of it that it ceases to mean anything after a while, and money eventually becomes no object.  (Which is handy, since I died repeatedly during the final gauntlet – the one right before the final boss, the one that ends with a gigantic Constructor bot – so much so that I ended up losing over $20,000 in resurrection fees.)  The actual shooting itself is fun, although reloading is still a bitch.  The story isn’t terribly engrossing, though it should be noted that the characters are really well written and acted.   I suppose I’m drawn to the exploration of the world – and what a huge and varied world it is – although the game threw so many enemies at me that I never felt that I had the time to truly savor every nook and cranny.

(Honestly?  I’m kinda wanting to go back and re-explore Skyrim on my PC, now that it’s been almost a year since I last played it and don’t really remember everything about it.)

*      *      *      *      *

I also dabbled a little more in Torchlight 2.  It’s… OK.  It’s very hard to not constantly compare it to Diablo 3.  And while I had my problems with D3 – especially in terms of how choppy and laggy that game could be – it can’t be denied that D3 looked fantastic, and (when it ran smoothly) it felt fantastic.  T2 is a far smoother experience than D3, which is very much to its credit, but… well… left/right clicking doesn’t seem to pack the same sort of punch.  It also – and I hate saying this – looks cheap.  Like a top-down World of Warcraft, except somehow with less clarity.  (My PC isn’t a screaming graphics machine, but it’s not shabby, either, and I’m running it with everything turned way, way up.)  I’m not doubting the game’s credentials, or diminishing the work that went into it – Lord knows I loved the hell out of the first game and was eagerly awaiting the sequel – but it feels like a budget title (which, lo and behold, is how it’s priced).  I need (and want) to spend more time with it, of course, both offline and on, before making up my mind; it just makes an underwhelming first impression, I guess, which is a little disappointing.

*      *      *      *      *

Also finally tried the XCOM Enemy Unknown demo; oh man.  OH MAN.   Did the very first mission – the ultra-tutorial – and didn’t even do the base stuff before logging off and keeping the rest unspoiled.  I am READY.  (I played it with a 360 controller instead of mouse/keyboard; still felt like a true, solid experience, and it looked great on my PC.)

*      *      *      *      *

Finally, I must pass along this pre-alpha footage, released over the weekend, of the forthcoming HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee.  I don’t know that I’ve written all that much about the Oddworld games recently, but the short version is that while I’d always been into videogames, I more or less stopped playing altogether between 1993 and, say, 1998 or so – the college years.  I grew up with an Atari 2600, and then played a lot of my younger brother’s Sega Genesis, and that was pretty much it for me until a work colleague bought a PS1 and the Oddworld games (alongside Crash Bandicoot and a Cool Boarders game, I think).  The Oddworld games immediately brought me back into the fold – they were intelligent, they were funny, they were absolutely gorgeous, and they were fun to play with a friend – tossing the controller back and forth after each death, trying to figure out each new dastardly puzzle.  And so looking at this remake – the developers would call it a reimagining, anyway – is making me all sorts of giddy.  Those first two Oddworld games hold a very special place in my heart, and seeing them get this sort of loving treatment for a new audience makes me very happy indeed.  I’m especially intrigued at the change of getting rid of the screen-by-screen design in lieu of a fluid, continual level – back in the old days, one of the ways of fixing a tricky puzzle was simply to step back into the last screen, thereby resetting the next one.  What they’ve done here is changed the enemy AI so that if they’re alarmed, they’ll go on a short alert, then go back to their predefined state, rather than simply resetting (since that’s now impossible).   Anyway, check out the footage – it looks fantastic.

weekend recap: many dead things

I probably added around 12-15 hours to my Borderlands 2 campaign after Saturday’s post.  I have a lot more to say about it.  But before I do, there’s a couple other things to talk about:

– Firstly, one can’t talk about cel-shaded graphics without talking about Jet Set Radio, and when I needed a break from Borderlands 2 this weekend I remembered that I’d downloaded the XBL demo of Jet Set Radio HD.  I’m thrilled that a lot of beloved old games are getting HD remasters, but I’m also noticing a recurring problem – the games always played better in my memories than in my hands.   (The Tony Hawk HD thing from earlier this summer also comes to mind.)  JSR looks absolutely fantastic – after all these years, that art style is still brilliant – but it also feels incredibly stiff in my hands, and I found myself making the exact same mistakes in maneuvering that I did 10 years ago (or however long ago it was).  That being said, I still love the HD remastering treatment, and I can’t say it enough – I would LOVE to see a Skies of Arcadia remaster.  FACT:  JRPGs don’t have the same control problems that 3D action games do.  Let’s make this happen!

– Speaking of demos, I also played a tiny taste of the demo for Resident Evil 6.  There are three different chapters in the demo, and I played around 10 minutes of the first one on the list.  (I’m not a big enough fan of the franchise to really care about it one way or the other; I’m well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that thinks that RE5 is a much better game than RE4.)  So, the biggest thing, obviously, is that you can move while aiming!  Welcome to 2012!  And yet, it’s still incredibly awkward-looking!  I sometimes feel that the developers of these Japanese mega-franchises – RE, MGS, FF, etc. – live in a hermetically-sealed bubble, unaware of the advancements in animation, storytelling, and general gameplay conventions that have transpired over the last 20 years.  I appreciate their slavish devotion to keeping each game true to its roots, but, I mean, Jesus Christ.  Have they never seen people walking around and carrying guns in other games or films or TV shows?   Besides that, it should also be noted that the graphics look a little rough – RE6 is nowhere near as nice and clean and crisp as RE5, though this may be because the demo is an early build.  In any event, I didn’t really have RE6 very high on my priority list, and this demo didn’t really do anything to change that.  It’s still on the GameFly queue, for whatever that’s worth.

– At some point this weekend I received an email that included a code for the first DLC for Darksiders 2 – Argul’s Tomb.  As much as I love that game, I’ve gotta say that this little self-contained mini-adventure was a little… meh, actually.  I hate using that word unless I have to, but that’s pretty much the best way of putting it.  It’s around 2 hours long, there’s no achievements, it’s very combat heavy, and none of the loot I picked up was particularly good.  It’s free, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

– I am an idiot.  I wanted to try out Steam’s Big Picture Mode on my HDTV this weekend, but it wasn’t until I’d moved everything around that I realized that my PC didn’t have an HDMI out, and that I didn’t have an adapter.  Oh well.

– It’s just as well, anyway, because had I gotten it to work, I would’ve ended up playing Torchlight 2, but with a keyboard and mouse on my couch, which would be weird.  I did spend 5 minutes with T2, actually, but the honest truth is that I think I’m still recovering from my Diablo 3 overdose, and left- and right-clicking for hours and hours just doesn’t seem all that enticing.  I will get to it eventually, though.

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OK.  Let’s get back to Borderlands 2.  I’m now around 24 hours in, and my commando is probably level 23 or 24.  (I really ought to write that stuff down before I begin a post.)

For the first dozen hours or so, I only had around 3-4 quests in my to-do list at a time – a main story quest, and then some optional side stuff.  Then a major story event happened (you’ll know it when you see it), and when I shook the dust off and got back to the main city, I’d found that the game suddenly opened wide up, and 20 new side-quests appeared in my quest log.  And so, now, I’m tackling all the side stuff, because the side stuff is, quite frequently, absolutely brilliant.

I have come to appreciate that the game does not take itself seriously.  At first, a lot of the dialogue came off as silly and adolescent (there literally is a “Bonerfart” joke – or is it “Fartboner”?) but as I’ve delved deeper into the side quests and gotten to know the characters a bit more thoroughly, I’ve seen that the game’s got some serious depth in its writing – even if, as I said on Saturday, the overall narrative lacks any real weight.  There are 2 moments that stand out in particular, and I’ll try to keep them spoiler-free (while at least alerting you as to where they are):

1.  Mission:  The Overlooked: “This Is Only A Test.”   The end of this mission was the first time that I’ve literally laughed out loud during a game since Portal 2, probably.  It’s a totally unexpected, expertly delivered, and deeply satisfying punchline, all of which comes after a very tough firefight and (at least for me) a reluctance to even do the thing I was asked to do, being that I didn’t think it was going to work.  (Fuckin’ Dave.)

2.  I can’t remember the mission name, but it was a side mission I was doing in the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve, which ultimately resulted in discovering the true nature of the relationship between Tiny Tina and Flesh-Stick (two characters that I’d met under completely different circumstances, 10 hours previously).  I normally hate how games use tape recordings to tell stories – it feels lazy and contrived and has become almost as ubiquitous as crates – but in this particular case the final reveal was shocking and very, very dark, and when I think about it now I’m not sure there’s a better way to tell that particular story.  Especially since there was no real reason to even include it, and especially since I very nearly walked right over it without even knowing it was there.  This made its discovery hit surprisingly hard, and caused me to think about my last interaction with those two characters in a much different light.   (It called to mind a similar hidden, optional thing I discovered in Psychonauts – during Milla’s psychedelic training level, there’s a hidden room where you discover a rather horrible truth about Milla’s past.  It’s a moment that rings true, though – it’s not manipulative or hollow – and so it carries a great weight.)

*    *    *

I find that even as I’ve improved a great many of my skills (including dramatic (and very necessary) reductions in my reloading time), I still get fatigued with the game’s core action.  This is not the game’s fault, of course – I’ve had a long-standing fatigue problem with the entire shooter genre, and it’s a tribute to everything else that Borderlands 2 does so well that I’m still as heavily invested in the game as I am.  I have no problem fighting my way to an objective, but once I’m done, I run like hell all the way back – I’ll throw down a turret if I have to, to thin out the crowd, but my overriding attitude is “fuck it, I’m done shooting.”  I’ve killed so many goddamned things already, and I’m not even sure that I’m halfway through the game, which makes me shudder at the thought of how many more goddamned things I have to kill.   (Especially if there are Threshers.  Oh, how I hate threshers.  Relentless bullet-sponging bastards, all of them.)

It would be nice if there were other things to do besides shooting, I guess.  (Well, there is a quasi-murder mystery in Sanctuary, but it plays out quite a bit differently than the one in Skyrim.)  I’m not saying this game needs box-pushing puzzles or crafting or anything, and I know I’ve not even come close to seeing everything there is to see and so it’s entirely possible that I’ll run into something that doesn’t involve heavy pressings of the trigger buttons over extended periods of time.   But.  The game’s relentless action can be a bit exhausting, is all I’m saying.

the first few hours: Borderlands 2

I really need to keep a notebook next to my bed.

I woke up this morning after a long Borderlands 2 session last night, and knew right off the bat that I was going to write a huge thing today.  I had this whole epic premise mapped out in my head – partly about what Borderlands 2 represents in terms of overall achievement in game design and what it is about open world RPGs that are so compelling and addictive, but also that there were three specific elements that a shooter needed to shine in order to be considered “successful.”  I know that one of these elements was graphics; I specifically remember that one of them wasn’t narrative (and I had a pretty convincing reason as to why such an important element in most games was not entirely the most important thing in a shooter); and I think that I made a distinction between the quality and variety of the weapons and the actual pleasurability of firing them.  I remember lying in bed, saying to myself, “I should really write this down so that I can put it in the blog later”, and then not doing that, and now, of course, I can’t remember what the 3 things were, and it’s entirely possible that this brilliant post of mine is now forever lost.

Anyway.  My earlier post this week about feeling like I hadn’t played enough of Borderlands 2 in order to write about it?  I’ve now played enough to talk about it.  I’m around 10 hours in with my Commando, and I think I just hit level 13 before I turned it off in order to come to the coffeeshop where I’m currently sitting and trying to remember what the hell I wanted to talk about.

Regardless of whether or not I can reclaim that brilliant premise I had in my half-awake state this morning, I can certainly say that I am of two minds about the game.

On the one hand, it does so many things really, really well.  The meta-challenges and the “Badass Rank” in particular are brilliant – the game tracks pretty much every single thing you do and how you do it, and so during every other firefight you’ll get a bonus for, say, setting 100 enemies on fire, and every time you achieve a new Badass Rank you get an opportunity to increase a certain stat – weapon damage, shield recharge, etc. – and so it’s constantly encouraging you to be incredibly thorough in how you explore the world, which is handy because (a) that’s how I like to play these sorts of games anyway, and (b) there’s SO MUCH GODDAMNED LOOT.   The designers have smartly done away with certain conventions such as fall damage and limited sprinting – you can fall off any mountain and run as far as the day is long and that’s just fine with me, thank you very much.

In a way, this game makes a very convincing argument that from this point forward, all shooters should be like this – open world, RPG progression, endless customization.  You’d never mistake Borderlands for Skyrim, obviously, but you can certainly see the resemblance between the two.

On the other hand, the game has a bunch of weird quirks.  One of the game’s selling points is that it has eleventybillion guns, and even within the first hour you’ll find more guns than you can carry.   This is a problem, though, because your inventory is SEVERELY limited in the beginning (and is somewhat expensive to upgrade), and so you will almost always be struggling with what to keep and what to throw away.  The game smartly includes a system where you can tag stuff in your inventory so that you’ll automatically sell it when you get to a vending machine – but vending machines are few and far between.

And one of the more annoying problems with these guns is that reloading takes FOREVER.   The game addresses this by making reload time an upgradeable ability – and certainly I’ve begun to notice a difference as I’ve been sinking more and more points into improving that specific stat – but it makes the shooting of guns a pain in the ass, which is a somewhat significant problem in that shooting guns is all you do.

My brilliant reasoning for omitting narrative as one of the three most important qualities in a shooter is a bit murky now that I’ve forgotten how I’d phrased it, but in any event I think the point I was trying to make was that in almost every shooter (at least in terms of the single-player campaign), you are never driven forward by WHY.  Indeed, you are driven forward because of SPECTACLE and CRAZY SHIT BLOWING UP and because clearing out a room lets you enter the next room, which will be visually and spatially different than the room you’re currently in, and it’s fun to see new things.

In more specific terms, I have no idea why I’m doing any of the things I’m doing in Borderlands 2, even though I am compelled to do all of them, especially the optional stuff, because when I finish a mission I get XP and maybe a new shield or grenade mod or something.  Indeed, there are a few recurring characters from the first game, including this weird ghostly AI that has a direct line of communication with you, and I remember that there was a reason for that in the first game but it wasn’t particularly memorable, and I am similarly at a loss as to what she’s doing here.

And the thing is, it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into crafting the dialogue in this game, and the voice acting is pretty strong (if a little goofy), and there’s lots of funny bits all over the place.  But there’s a difference between snappy dialogue and a compelling narrative, and if there is a compelling narrative in this game I am yet to see it.  Let me say again that I’ve been playing for 10 hours already and when I’m done writing this post I’m going to head back to my apartment and play for another 10-20 before this weekend is through, and I’m looking forward to it, even though I have no idea where the story is going, and even though nobody (including me) seems to care.

too soon, too much

I’d love nothing more than to write a “First Few Hours” post about Borderlands 2, but, ironically enough, I feel like I haven’t played enough of it yet.

I mean, the whole point of a First Few Hours post is to specifically relay first impressions, gut instincts, surface-level observations about how the game looks, moves and feels, without getting into larger-scale topics like narrative and overall value.   And since Tuesday, I’ve played around 2 hours of Borderlands 2; my soldier is now level 7, I’ve killed a whole bunch of monsters and people, I’ve collected dozens of guns (and left dozens more where they lay, as my backpack is too small to carry them all), I’ve completed some challenges and cashed in some Badass Tokens (yielding results similar to Fallout’s “perks”).  I’ve also died a whole bunch, and I’ve run out of ammunition more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

About the only real thing I can definitively say at this point is that the game feels absolutely massive.  And I’ve only seen a tiny, tiny slice of it.

I think that once I get to Sanctuary, the first real town/hub, I’ll have a bit more to chew on.

In the meantime, iOS has been killing it this week.  Rayman Jungle Run is, sadly, not a port of Rayman Origins, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from seeing the game in motion – it looks absolutely gorgeous.  Instead, it’s a one-button auto-runner, where your objective is simply to catch all 100 lums in a level.  It’s got a steep difficulty curve, but each level is so short that you hardly notice how many times you’ve died.  That sentence sounds like a slam, but it’s really not – it highlights the quick reloading and the addictive quality of the action.

Also out this week is The Room for iPad, which – thank GOD – is not based on the Tommy Wiseau “masterpiece” but is instead an absolutely gorgeous puzzle game.  It’s been compared to those “escape the room” flash puzzles that were all the rage a few years ago, but to me it reminds me a bit more of the adventure game Syberia, in that the puzzles you solve are less about making non-intuitive inventory combinations and rather about figuring out how to open locked doors using intricate mechanisms.  I finished Chapter 3 last night (each chapter is its own locked box), and I’m not quite sure how much is left, but I’m really enjoying what I’ve seen thus far.

And, also, the long-awaited Lili is out, though I haven’t yet played it.  And Horn, from the people who made The Meadow, received a hefty price drop this week, so I picked that up too.

Tonight, I may give Torchlight 2 a try – if I can pull myself away from either Borderlands 2 or my iPad.