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?

The Best Games of 2009

If I’m being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point – Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here’s my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:

  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.

I “finished” 19 of those games. That doesn’t mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game’s main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:

  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush

And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it’s based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I’m about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It’s true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook’s own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don’t even like real farming, or even going outside. There’s no enemies in Farmville; there’s no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there’s nothing to do until everything’s finished growing. And yet I’ve logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I’ve even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there’s no new seeds for me to unlock. I have “beaten” Farmville, and yet I’m only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I’m not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 – I’d hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand… I don’t even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn’t even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I’d accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I’d made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it’s a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS’s best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While I can’t remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment – it really felt like GTA, even with the DS’s hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I’d expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I’ve ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN’T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I’ve ever seen, and I’m terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can’t hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it’s more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4’s artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn’t win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I’m such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I’ve been seeing this pop up on a few “Worst Games of 2009” lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can’t compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means “a lot.” The game’s mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game’s levels are truly wonders to behold – I’m thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it’s more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game’s multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The “No Russian” level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game’s constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I’ve played exactly twice. There’s no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it’s hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can’t really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I’m going to give it to whichever Achievement it was – presumably in Assassin’s Creed 2 – that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I’m including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn’t really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4’s 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3‘s DLC and Borderlands, and it’s clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don’t know, small; it didn’t take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it’s definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2‘s single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. But that’s the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 “10 MINUTES OR LESS” ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:

  • Halo 3:ODST. I’m officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don’t care anymore. I’ll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn’t really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn’t necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place – I’m a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn’t, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.

THE “I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES” LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.

  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon’s Souls. Maybe this shouldn’t be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I’d have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that’s only because I was impatient and didn’t really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn’t get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn’t necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn’t good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven’t had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King’s Story. I’m not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first “world”/”area”/”section”, drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one – I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I’m not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I’ve been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.

THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN’T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON’T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I’ve given Silent Hill about an hour or so – the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I’d want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I’m hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn’t qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I’ve ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3’s motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 – mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it’s really well done it’s positively narcotizing. I haven’t yet finished Torchlight, but it’s not like there’s a story – I’ve left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also – I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn’t mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It’s definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I’m of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information – all of it presented with tender loving care. I’m not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it – indeed, it’s the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I’m on my 2nd playthrough – I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I’m going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would’ve been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn’t, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2’s immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it’s at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn’t mean it’s any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It’s a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you’re Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It’s a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year’s sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I’d never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I’d never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game’s got charm. It’s got charisma, and it’s got personality. And it’s also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he’s completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that’s not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

>Modern Warfare 2

>*SPOILERS AHEAD*

For years now, there’s been a growing discussion about the importance of Story, specifically as it applies to videogames. The people having that discussion also may bring up the concept of Art, as in: “Are videogames art?” As the game industry grows larger and fights for legitimacy in the public eye, this question becomes important, even if it’s not necessarily relevant.

A lot of great game franchises have been ruined by Story. The Tony Hawk franchise is a perfect example; the first few games really just focused on capturing the experience of skateboarding, and to that end they succeeded mightily. Eventually, though, as the game kept churning out sequels with marginal technical improvements and the need to innovate became stronger, the game developed a story mode. And that’s really where the franchise fell apart, for me. I didn’t care about being a little skate punk, I didn’t need to stick it to the man, etc.; all I wanted to was skate, and do the things that I couldn’t do in real life. I suppose I could’ve hung in if the story was at least told well, but it was bland and unoriginal. What was I supposed to expect? The developers had been making a skateboarding game, but now they were supposed to tell me a story? How do those particular disciplines mesh?

Then there’s games like Brutal Legend, which is so focused on its story and the design of the world you play in that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. On the opposite side of that spectrum, a game like Borderlands has almost no story to speak of, but the gameplay is so well-designed and focused that it almost doesn’t even matter that there’s no story-driven motivation.

And then there are franchises like Metal Gear, where the story is so central to the experience that there’s almost no actual game to play; a 10 minute action sequence will be followed by a 40-minute cut scene, and then you’ll walk down a hallway and another 30-minute cut scene will ensue. I’m not going to get into MGS’s story quality, because that’s an entirely different 10,000-word blogpost, and in any event I’ve already written about it.

But story quality is important, and that’s my real bone to pick with Modern Warfare 2.

The Call of Duty franchise’s defining characteristic has been its scripted events. You’ll play as an American soldier, and then after a big “event” you’ll switch perspectives and then play as a British soldier, or a Russian soldier, etc. Call of Duty 4, which moved the franchise out of the trenches of WW2 and into modern day, kept this perspective-switching intact but also took it in intriguing and shocking new directions; the very beginning of the game features your character suddenly being executed, and the end of the game features your character dying in a nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of watching yourself die, totally powerless to save yourself, was unnerving and visceral and powerful.

The stakes for MW2, then, were set very high. How could the game’s developers manage to top the jaw-dropping moments of the first game? The answer to this question was, unfortunately, “if some is good, more is better.”

The “airport level”, as it’s been called, is genuinely controversial, and rightly so. You play an American soldier, undercover, who somehow has managed to be inserted into a Russian terrorist cell right next to “the most dangerous man in the world.” The scene begins in darkness; you hear the sound of guns being loaded. The lights fade up; you see that you are in an elevator. The most dangerous man in the world says a few words, and then the doors open, and you see that you’re in an airport, and you and your fellow terrorist are slowly walking through the airport, killing everyone you see. The creepiest thing about this sequence isn’t the killing of civilians, or the obvious parallel to 9/11 and the lingering paranoia about airport security; it’s the fact that you’re all walking so slowly, making sure you’re all taking the time to kill as many people as possible. You don’t even have to pull the trigger during this sequence; the rest of your gang members will do all the killing for you. The lingering sense of dread is almost overwhelming; it’s disturbing and uncomfortable.

So this is all shocking, and this occurs only about 1-2 hours into the game. But this isn’t where the level ends. After you get out of the airport, you’re back to shooting police and soldiers trying to stop you, and then the level ends with the Most Dangerous Man In The World suddenly revealing at the very last possible moment that he knows you were an American the whole time, and shooting you in the head.

Let’s set aside for the moment that your identity as an American sets off a chain reaction that plunges the U.S. and Russia into a global conflict that eventually sees you, among other things, staging an assault to reclaim the White House in the wake of an aborted nuclear missile attack on Washington D.C., and let us instead examine the other ways in which your player character is suddenly killed at the last possible moment in an unforeseen twist. Your character is also in a helicopter that gets shot down and when you wake up you are trapped in the wreckage, with no bullets; an enemy helicopter approaches, and the screen goes white.

Then, for no apparent reason, your perspective shifts and suddenly you’re an astronaut doing a space walk by the International Space Station, watching a nuclear missle’s arc cross the horizon. This is shocking enough – that’s probably why they put it in the commercial – but suddenly the missile is detonated and the electro-magnetic pulse generated by the missile’s explosion sends you flying out into space.

And then, the scene flashes back to you being trapped under the helicopter wreckage – it turns out that the EMP happened directly overhead, and so everything electronic in the area suddenly conks out, and the helicopter that was about to kill you crashes, and so you escape. Hooray! Except that it turns out later that, after you’ve raided the Most Dangerous Man in The World’s safehouse and retrieved valuable “intel”, you’re shot in the head by the main U.S. General in charge of the war effort, who then also sets you on fire.

And THEN, you’re in the desert, for some reason – I’m not even sure who the “you” is, at this point, since “you” have already died several times – and you’re chasing this same U.S. General, who manages to get into a helicopter from a moving speedboat, and then you manage to shoot the helicopter down, and it explodes, and then your speedboat falls over a cliff, and somehow you survive, and as it turns out the U.S. General also survived, and then he stabs you in the chest with a knife, and then eventually you regain the strength to pull the knife out of your chest and throw it (the knife) directly into the General’s eyeball. And then the credits roll, while people walk around in a museum, presumably showcasing certain famous scenes of the war, which are really quite violent for a kid-friendly museum.

This is all to say that the story is so over the top that it becomes melodramatic and nonsensical and just plain weird. And the thing that really makes it ridiculous is that, at least in my experience, you die a lot during the campaign. The game is hard; it only takes a few bullets to put you down, and there are a lot of enemies who fire a lot of bullets. The game has a relatively generous checkpoint system, as well as recharging health, but therein lies the breaking of the suspension of disbelief – I’ve already been shot a hundred thousand times in the course of this level; why shouldn’t I recover from being shot in the head at close range? Again?

The game part of the game is, of course, expertly well done. It’s graphically impressive, the weapons feel incredibly powerful, the atmosphere is charged and violent and unsettling. The rag-doll animation following a kill shot is especially unsettling; people just drop. And then of course there’s the multiplayer suite, which I dabbled in briefly last night and which better people than me can pontificate on. It’s all very well done, and it’s certainly worth a purchase, which is maybe a ridiculous thing to say given that anyone reading this probably already owns it.

But the story… wow. Here’s a suggestion for the sequel, which was inevitable even before it was set up by the game’s surprisingly clunky cliffhanger of an ending: maybe don’t kill the player character as much. It’s already been done far more than is necessary, and it ceases to mean anything since it’s not like your character even says anything, or is even clearly identifiable. There were a number of times during the campaign where someone would shout something to someone, and it took me a while to realize that they were shouting at me.

On an unrelated note, a hypothetical question: who kills more people, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, or your player character(s) in Modern Warfare 2? I could probably actually look this up and get real numbers, but off the top of my head it seems like the numbers would probably be pretty close.

>WIPTW: Confessions of a Crack Addict

>Me and my level 36 Soldier finished Borderlands early Sunday morning, and after selling off my excess loot and giving my skills a re-spec, I decided to screw around with the Playthrough 2 mode and see if it would really be worth playing through a second time, and about two hours later I forced myself to turn off the 360. That shit is dangerous; I was getting ridiculously awesome loot drops just outside the very first town.

I remain totally amazed at how much I enjoyed Borderlands, especially considering that I have absolutely no idea what the story was about, or who anybody was, or what I was ultimately supposed to be doing. I’m even more amazed that I never really cared about any of that stuff. My main focus was leveling up and getting better gear, and that remained constant even as I began my 2nd playthrough. The story is ultimately irrelevant. It would be nice if a sequel addressed this specific flaw, but the mechanics of the game itself are so well-designed that I’m not entirely sure I’d notice, one way or the other.

***SLIGHT SPOILERS***
The only time I was bummed out by the lack of story was at the game’s ending, which can’t even be called “ambiguous”, as that would imply that something actually happened. And it’s really only a bummer because it was the first time since I’d started the game where I wasn’t engaged in some sort of forward motion, towards something. The game’s promise of the Vault was just vague enough to keep me somewhat interested, even though I couldn’t really tell you what of the game’s missions were actually about, besides going to point A and killing a bunch of people, or going around the map to collect certain items. I never really questioned why I was doing any of that stuff, as long as it meant that I was getting XP and new guns. If the game had even touched upon that element, in a sort of meta/Portal/Bioshock way, that would’ve been nice. Instead, the game’s ending just felt obligatory, as in: the game is over now.

If Modern Warfare 2 weren’t arriving tomorrow, I could easily see myself spending another 10-12 hours playing through again, and even more than that if I somehow didn’t hit level 50.

Also spent a little time with the 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins, which is… a little disappointing, although to be fair I haven’t really sat down with it and allowed myself to get sucked in. I will say, though, that it feels awfully weird; I keep expecting it to have real-time combat, and it most certainly does not, and I suppose I’d be more into it if I were playing it on the PC.

>WIPTW: World Series edition

>I am incredibly superstitious when it comes to the Yankees in the postseason, and the incredibly annoying feature is that the superstitions are always changing from year to year. During the 2004 meltdown against the Red Sox, I feel like I let us down; the first three games I’d listened to on the radio, and because I was traveling on the 4th game I ended up watching it on TV, which is where everything fell apart. This year’s winning formula is apparently that I cannot watch any of the game on television, or even be in the same room if the game happens to be on. I’m serious. Within 5 seconds of me turning the game on, something bad happens to the Yankees; I turn the game off; they end up winning.

As a result, I’ve been able to get a bit more quality time on the 360. This weekend was all about Forza 3 and Borderlands, with a tiny bit of GTA4: BOGT on the side.

Forza 3 is definitely the best in the series. All the pre-release hype made special mention of Turn Ten’s desire to make the game as accessible as possible for all kinds of gamers, not just driving sim enthusiasts, and to that end they have succeeded. The single-player campaign is long, robust, endlessly customizable, and thoroughly rewarding; just about every single race ends up giving you something new. And since I know nothing about cars, I feel much freer to simply buy cars that I’m somewhat interested in, since I can always auto-tune them up before a race if they’re underperforming. The franchise is really only guilty of two things; recycling content and less-than-spectacular graphics. I suppose I can forgive the graphics; they’re certainly not bad, they’re just underwhelming compared to, say, DiRT 2. The recycling of tracks, though, does get a bit annoying; I feel like I’ve been driving the same tracks for years.

Ultimately, Forza reminds me a bit of the Tiger Woods franchise, in that they’re both great time-sucks and, simultaneously, great for just a quick dip. If only Tiger Woods could make the same sort of advances in terms of keeping the game fresh.

Borderlands continues to be the game that keeps on giving. My soldier is now up to level 28, I think, and I feel like I just can’t put the damned thing down. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the story, and I couldn’t care less; I pick up a bunch of missions in a particular area, I clear ’em all out, I score tons of loot, I cash them in, I level up, lather, rinse, repeat. That the game does a pretty terrible (i.e., nonexistent) job of letting you know which of your 10-15 missions is actually essential to moving the story along ends up freeing you to explore more of the world because, well, why not – there’s loot in them thar hills, and sticking to the main questline would render a lot of it unexplored.

One can’t help but be reminded of Fallout 3 when playing Borderlands, as post-apocalyptic first-person RPGs aren’t really a dime a dozen. And yet the two games could not feel more different. Leaving aside from the drastically different art styles – which I don’t really want to do, as Borderlands looks absolutely incredible and utterly unique – they move at completely different paces. Fallout 3 was slow, ponderous, and dark – and it absolutely worked in that particular context. Borderlands might as well be a first-person shooter, on the other hand, as it plays fast and furious. It’s dark as well, but it’s also zany. I think I enjoyed the overall experience a bit more in Fallout 3, and yet I’m probably having a bit more fun playing Borderlands.

Ultimately, Borderlands is clear-cut proof that a game – specifically an RPG – doesn’t need a great story in order to be fun. That kinda sucks to admit, because I wouldn’t at all mind being a bit more emotionally invested in what’s going on in Borderlands, and it flies in the face of what Tim Schafer and Valve and GTA represent. We’d all like to see better writing and storytelling in games. And yet even without a clear motivation to get from one side of the game to the other in terms of story, here I am, compulsively doing missions and killing dudes and exploring and wanting to turn the game off after just finishing up this last thing and then holy shit, another hour has gone by, and look at all the cool stuff I have now.

I almost feel bad that I barely gave The Ballad of Gay Tony any time this weekend; I did a few missions, got a feel for the story and the characters, remembered how to get in and out of cover, and more or less left it at that. It’s still good old GTA4, even though the game is starting to look a little rough around the edges.

Which reminds me – there’s a lot of driving in both GTA4 and Borderlands (and Forza), and the controls are totally different for each game, and it takes more than a few minutes to remember which is which. I do wish there was some sort of control scheme that all game developers could agree on when it comes to driving in 3rd-person action games.

Jeez, I almost forgot – I also tried out the first hour or so of the new Ratchet & Clank game. It’s good, fun, solid, and I just don’t have the time for it right now.

>What I Played This Weekend: ALCS edition

>It always seems like whenever there are a ton of great games coming out all at once, I’m usually really busy doing lots of other things, and yet I feel compelled to own them all anyway. In any event – the little gaming time I had this past weekend was divided up pretty evenly between trying my hardest to enjoy Brutal Legend, and being very pleasantly surprised by Borderlands, with a little bit of Uncharted 2 online co-op, and a tiny taste of Demon’s Souls for the hell of it.

I don’t quite know how to express how bummed out I am about Brutal Legend. The art direction is stupendous, and the world itself is just fantastic. I love driving around and exploring the world and seeing all the incredible stuff there is to see, and my compulsive need to seek out hidden collectibles is very well satisfied. The dialogue and cutscenes are fantastic, and even though the sidemissions are incredibly repetitive, they almost never last more than a few minutes, and the rewards generally result in neat stuff in Ozzy’s Garage.

But goddamn, the stage battles completely suck all my enthusiasm out of the game. It eventually got to the point where I had completed every side mission and found every hidden thing I could possibly find, just because I wanted to play the game as much as possible without having to go through the stage battles. And, of course, the story can’t progress unless you do those stage battles, and therein lay the tragedy.

I don’t necessarily hate real time strategy games, I’m just not very good at them, and Brutal Legend’s brief tutorials don’t really help me in terms of figuring out what the hell is going on, and the game does such a terrible job of providing adequate feedback, especially when I’m on the ground trying to kill people because my army refuses to move. Once you start getting wounded, and the screen starts turning red and the heartbeat starts pounding louder, you’re almost always dead, and I’ve yet to figure out why. Even when I try to fly away, I die. And even though I’ve eventually won every stage battle I’ve participated in, I really don’t understand why, and the whole thing just feels shoddy and poorly implemented.

I have all the respect in the world for Tim Schafer; I’ll play anything the man works on. But I’m starting to feel that there’s more to a game than art direction and funny dialogue; ultimately, a game either succeeds or fails based on how much fun it is to play, and Brutal Legend is not very much fun at all.

Meanwhile, Borderlands is fun as hell. It starts a little slow, but once you finish the first round of missions and get a vehicle, it really starts to open up. I dinged up to level 15 pretty quickly, and have been itching to get back to it ever since. Haven’t tried online co-op yet, though, since none of my real-life friends have been able to find a copy in stores.

Speaking of online co-op, I did a few levels with Gred in Uncharted 2, and while they’re pretty much taken wholesale from the game, they’re still a lot of fun. It really shows just how improved the combat is; the mechanics are rock-solid and it’s arguably even more fun when you’re shouting out positions and scrambling for cover and ammo and trying to heal each other.

Finally, more out of morbid curiousity than anything else, I tried Demon’s Souls for 20 minutes yesterday. I can see why the game gets good reviews; the game is hard but it’s fair, and I eventually died because I was being impatient, not because the game cheated. And then, of course, I saw where I respawned from, and saw how far I’d have to go to reclaim my lost souls, and I said “fuck this.” I don’t have the time or the masochistic tendencies to really put it through its paces.

Tonight: Forza 3.

And coming soon, we’re going to be doing a big GAMES OF THE DECADE feature, featuring a special guest or two. Stay tuned.