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.

Death takes a holiday

Finished Darksiders 2 over the weekend, and I’m finding myself in the weird position of urgently wanting to talk about it and yet having a hard time finding anything to say about it besides “yeah, man, that game is awesome.”

I think I read (or heard) someone describe DS2 as a game that was not ashamed of being a game.   Which is to say, it’s not trying to be something it isn’t – it’s not an interactive movie, it’s not a “work of art”.  It is telling a story – an interesting story, actually, with strong dialogue and excellent voice acting – but it’s also got furious combat and puzzle solving and pleasurable platforming, and lots of side stuff to do simply for the sake of doing them.

It’s true that the first game wore its influences very clearly on its sleeve, and I think it’s very safe to say that this second game is very much more its own thing.  Indeed, if I had to compare it to anything – and I really honestly don’t feel like I have to, but for the sake of argument I will – I’d probably compare it to Rocksteady’s Batman games.  They’re similarly paced, they take place in huge, detailed environments, they very rarely hit a wrong note.

DS2 rarely stumbles.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the combat can be a little tedious at times – the Soul Arbiter’s Maze, for example, was goddamned ridiculous.  And occasionally the bosses can feel cheap – quite a few bosses can teleport, which is rapidly becoming my #1 pet peeve.

I did most (but not all) of the side quests pretty much right before the very last quest, and it also should be noted that some of those quests are, also, ridiculous, in that you’re simply travelling from one “world” to another, relaying a conversation that you yourself aren’t even involved in.  This form of quest is not uncommon in these types of games, but they are unbearably tedious in a game like DS2, where travelling from world to world – and then travelling from portal entrance to quest objective – takes time.  Surely these creatures have email, or smartphones, or even a goddamned telegraph.

Those minor quibbles aside, it’s a magnificent game, and I’m sure I’ll engage in a New Game+ playthrough during the next lull in the release schedule.  Right now it’s somewhere in my top 3 for the year, and I imagine it’ll stay up there as the year winds down.

this is more like it

Topics covered today:

  • Darksiders 2
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • discovering new bands through game soundtracks

I’m actually going to start with the last thing first, because despite the mega-marathon sessions I had this weekend with both Darksiders 2 (hereinafter, “DS2”) and Sleeping Dogs (“SD”), it’s the third thing on this list that’s made the deepest impression on me.

To wit:  I am obsessed with the band White Denim.  I had never heard of them before, though it’s entirely possible that I may have noticed their albums reviewed with mid-level scores at Pitchfork and the AV Club and simply skipped past them.   In any event, at some point last week (i.e., before my rental copies of DS2 and SD arrived), I was playing Saints Row 3 on my PC with my headphones on, kinda just screwing around, looking for hidden packages, not really interested in any of the missions I had to do, when I suddenly noticed that whatever was on the radio was really, really good.  I stopped what I was doing, pulled out the radio song list (in order to make a custom mix – a great feature in SR3 only limited by how little of the music I actually like), and discovered that the song in question was White Denim’s “Paint Yourself.”

And from there, I quickly went to Spotify, found all of their albums, and now it’s all I’ve been listening to ever since.  They are some perfect hybrid of Broken Social Scene, Deerhoof, Blitzen Trapper and Phish – which shouldn’t make any sense, but it does, and then some.  I was annoyed with myself that I hadn’t noticed them sooner, when I was playing SR3 on my Xbox – but, then, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed it coming through the TV instead of my kick-ass studio monitor headphones.

This is not the first time I’ve learned about a band through a game – Rock Band turned me on to Maximo Park and Silversun Pickups (though, in those specific cases, I mostly just like the songs they picked and not the albums as a whole).    Frankly, the way certain games shove their soundtracks down my throat really just turns me off (I’m looking at you, EA.) GTA4 turned me on to a few things – somewhere out there, someone’s made a fantastic mp3 playlist of every GTA4 radio station – and, really every GTA game’s had a fantastic soundtrack.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten this obsessed with a band before simply by hearing them in a game, and I think that’s kind of awesome.  (And the weird thing is, the song they picked isn’t even necessarily a lead single-type track.)

(Should you be interested in more of their stuff, I’ve made a Spotify playlist with all their albums, which can be found in the widget below (except I don’t think the widget can contain everything – the native Spotify application should, though).)

Moving on, then.

If my Raptr profile is to be believed, I spent twice as much time in Darksiders 2 than in Sleeping Dogs last week, though that doesn’t necessarily feel right.  I kinda rotated between the two of them for a while, switching if I found myself frustrated or if I came to a natural break in the action.  Funny thing – while the two games couldn’t be more different – one is a GTA clone set in Hong Kong, the other has you playing as Death (one of the Four Horsemen), slaughtering demons, traversing platforms and solving puzzles in strange, fantastical realms – their melee combat is just similar enough to make the combat a bit difficult to adjust to right after a switch.  

I guess the Raptr timing is right, though – I have no idea how far I am in DS2 but I suspect I’m at least at the halfway point, being that I just picked up my 3rd special ability (out of 4).  I’m enjoying the hell out of it, just as I did the first.  Great art style, great story (and great voice acting to boot), and the game experience is pretty much exactly what I want to be playing right now.  My only frustration is that I’m just not as good at the combat as I’d like to be, leading to boss battles that take forever to get through; and, well, on rare occasions the camera makes the platforming a bit more difficult than it needs to be.  That aside, it’s really quite good.  Maybe it’s not a WORK OF ART, but it’s a really enjoyable experience all the same, which is the part that really matters the most.

The thing I said above about not being great at combat applies in equal measure to my experience with Sleeping Dogs, which is (again) a pleasant surprise.  (I’m not great at the driving, either, though I’m getting better – the cars are a bit floaty and the handbrake takes a lot of getting used to.  OH, and people in Hong Kong drive on the wrong side of the road, so there’s that.)  But the thing about the combat is that, by and large, it’s how missions get completed, and sucking at the combat means that the game can be quite frustrating at times.  And yet I still find myself enjoying the experience, at the end of the day.  Hong Kong is a fascinating location for an open-world game, and it feels pretty authentic (not that I’ve ever been there, of course, but it still feels like a real city).  The story is definitely interesting, with quite a few compelling characters, and I’m certainly invested in what’s happening.  There’s lots of little side things to do, there’s tons of hidden packages to locate (which is one of my favorite things to do in these games – this also applies to DS2, which has hidden packages galore), and in spite of its occasional jank, it’s a compelling experience.  There’s some neat social touches in it, too, which (unfortunately) I can’t really explore, since I’m apparently the only person on my friends list who’s playing it, but in any event the game keeps track of various things you do (like how long you can drive without hitting anything), and then it ranks you with your friends.  I’d like to see Rockstar’s Social Club incorporate more of this kind of thing in GTA5, frankly.

Anyway.  It’s nice to be playing new games, again, finally.   My hands will be full with these two for the foreseeable future – or at least until Borderlands 2 arrives in a few weeks.