weekend recap: bits and bobs and odds and sods

So I had big, grand plans for blogging here last week, and, clearly, those plans all went to shit.

I’d written a rather gigantic review of Beyond: Two Souls for the NYVCC (which probably won’t be going up until early November), and in the process of putting it together I started getting a little philosophical about the concept of “fun”.  Not even necessarily about what constitutes fun (as an example, the fun I had in exploring the house in Gone Home is much, much different than, say, the fun of online Call of Duty matches, should you enjoy that sort of thing), but more along the lines of:  is “being fun” the thing that separates/elevates a game from an interactive experience?  Can a game with stellar graphics, a gripping story and fully-realized characters still be considered “great” if it isn’t “fun” to play?  And likewise, can a game with stellar gameplay mechanics (i.e., the “core gameplay loop”, or the “30 seconds of fun” design principle that went into creating Halo) still be considered “great” if the story and the characters and everything else is shitty?

I’d wanted to sink some serious time and thought into this piece, but, again, the week fell apart and I couldn’t put it together – not even after I tweeted that I was working on something ambitious, and that I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t quit on it.   The tweet was more concerned with the post becoming too ridiculous for me to wrangle into shape; it didn’t take into account the many external factors that conspired against me even having the time to put it together (i.e., day job, sick baby, musical side projects).

Such is the blogger’s dilemma; as I am not in an environment where I can concentrate on writing 24/7 (or even 9 to 5), I seem to only churn out these sorts of lightweight posts – weekend recaps, uninformed gut reactions to industry news, whining about jerks on social media.  The heavy-duty stuff is problematic – I get intimidated because I want the piece to be great, and when I get intimidated I either allow myself to get distracted, or I get too critical and censorious and the whole thing falls apart.

I don’t necessarily want to abandon this idea, though, even if I just gave it away.  Because one thing that I am going to start doing over the next few months is a thorough examination of this console generation, and I’m very curious to see how my personal definition of “fun” has evolved over that time.

Case in point:  I ended up spending quite a lot of time in GTA V this weekend, trying to finish a few Strangers and Freaks missions, and also trying to trigger new ones – there’s quite a few missing in my Social Club profile, and I have no idea where to find them or how to start them.  Two of them started quite by accident; I decided to buy up some businesses, and one of them (the pier in the WNW area of the map) triggered two different quests that essentially sent me underwater, circumnavigating the entire island (one quest in a submarine, the other involving deep-sea diving).  These were strange, laborious and frequently tedious missions, and yet they were also, at times, deeply engrossing – if for no other reason than to simply appreciate the staggering amount of work that went into creating the underwater environment.   And since these missions were also untimed and free of enemies, I could explore at my leisure, and I personally really enjoy that sort of exploration – even if the speed of the sub and/or swimming was painfully, agonizingly slow.

Indeed, most of my time now in GTA V is spent driving around the northern expanse of the map, wishing there were Skyrim-esque dungeons to explore.  (Or, barring that, Red Dead Redemption-style gang hideouts to raid.)   (Also, mostly wishing that someone would mod GTA IV to incorporate GTA V‘s gameplay improvements – combat, penalties for mission failure, quick-saving, etc.)

Also this weekend:  I was generously gifted a copy of Deux Ex: Human Revolution (Director’s Cut) on Steam, and so that was a lot of fun to go back to.  I didn’t notice much in the way of the advertised graphical or AI improvements, and I haven’t gone far enough to see the re-tooled boss fights, but the commentary is a really nice touch, and it was neat to re-approach the first few levels without the clunkiness of my first playthrough.

Also spent a little time with Eldritch, a Lovecraftian roguelike that looks like a Minecraft mod.  I’m not really all that into roguelikes, nor am I particularly into Minecraft, but I do love me some Lovecraft spookiness, and so I finished the first dungeon and am contemplating a return visit.

Finally, I spent a few hours with the new PC port of Enslaved, which is a game that I remember being really impressed with on the 360 – I recalled it being a colorful adventure in the vein of Uncharted, which is a game that I could stand to see more clones of, and in my “Best of 2010 feature” I specifically called out Heavy Rain and said:

See, Heavy Rain, this is how facial animation should be done.  Hell, this is how storytelling should be done.  There’s more said in a character’s face here than in 20 overwritten lines of dialog.  The relationship between the two lead characters was thoroughly believable and authentic.

The PC version for the most part looks incredible, although the camera has considerable moments of severe jank.  And for whatever reason, this second time around, the story seems to be moving a lot faster than I remember – especially in regards to the relationship between Monkey and Trip.  The game is still fun, though – and it’s also pretty neat to see how the combat in Ninja Theory’s reboot of DmC evolved from what they did here in Enslaved.  If you didn’t play it on the console, this PC version is definitely worth picking up for $20.

I seem to doom myself every time I promise a blogging schedule for the upcoming week, so I’m not going to do that now.  But as I said above, my larger project over the next few months is to reexamine this console generation.  As I’m probably going to hold off on getting a next-gen console (most likely the PS4, first) until next year, I anticipate having plenty of time to get caught up on some backlog titles, and to revisit the console games I felt compelled to hold onto (which is to say, the games I liked too much to want to trade back for credit).   When I consider my Top 10 of this generation, it’s mostly just off the top of my head – with the exception of Red Dead, which I recently played to get warmed up for GTA V, I haven’t played any of the other games in my Top 10 in at least a year or two.   And it turns out that I really want to play Portal 1 and 2 again.

Deus Ex HR: the end

***SPOILERS AHEAD.  This post concerns, among other things, the ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and while I’m mostly focused on the form of the ending as opposed to the content, you should probably stay away until you’ve finished the game.  Ordinarily I’d wait a few more weeks before posting, but I’m not sure I’ll remember what I have to say by then, so…***

I finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution over the weekend.  In my last post I’d mentioned that I was stuck in a boss battle towards the end of the game and that, because of an action I’d inadvertently made 6 hours previous, I was more or less screwed.  As it turned out, I wasn’t as screwed as I’d thought; my Typhoon weapon was still active even though my HUD was messed up, and three quick Typhoon shots put a quick end to a tough bastard.

From there, it was really just a few more hours worth of hacking, sneaking, and ultimately giving up on the non-lethal path and just flat-out murdering dudes until I came to the ending(s), which I won’t spoil, except to say that from an objective standpoint there’s really not all that much to spoil.

There are 4 endings in all, and the game makes it more or less clear that you should probably save at a certain point if you want to see them all, and, well, that almost tells you everything you need to know.  It doesn’t matter how you’ve played the game for the previous 20-30 hours; after the final boss battle, you are presented with 4 buttons to press, and once you press one of them a short, vague montage is shown with some ponderous, monotone Adam Jensen monologue-ing, and then the credits roll, and then you can reload your save and try pressing a different button.  That’s it.

And you’re only given the proper context for what these button presses actually represent about 30-60 minutes before you get to the button-pressin’ room – although that context is only given if you’re actually looking for it.  (Before you reach the final boss area, 2 messages are played over the intercom – 2 major characters have barricaded themselves in rooms and require your assistance.  The locations of those characters are only mentioned once; they don’t appear on your map or in your mission log, and I very nearly missed both of those encounters.)

I was a bit underwhelmed.  My memory of the first Deus Ex is hazy at best, but I do seem to remember that in order to see one of the original game’s 3 endings, you had to commit to a course of action that was far more involved that merely pressing a button.  Sure, you could save your game right before the decision, but you still had some more work to do.

I’ll be honest – the only reason why I watched all 4 of DXHR’s endings is because I got 50 Achievement Points out of it, and those may have been the easiest 50 points I’d ever gotten (well, besides the Avatar achievements).  The movies themselves were simultaneously clumsy and pretentious, and didn’t really reflect on any of the 30 hours of work I’d put in.  Ultimately, I couldn’t really tell you what happened even if I wanted to; none of them made any discernible impact on me.  To be fair, I was at the end of a marathon gaming session and so maybe I wasn’t as awake and alert as I should’ve been, but still – I need more from an ending than a 3-minute student video from an “Intro to Montage” class, especially from a franchise that made its name on player choice.

At the end of the day, I suppose I’m a little down on the game.  I’ll admit that maybe the reason why I’d enjoyed it as much as I did was because it was far better than I expected, and also because it was the first genuinely good game that had been released in months.  When it comes time to compare it to the rest of the year’s best in December, though, I’m not sure it’ll fare all that well.  It’s a welcome return to a much-loved franchise, and certainly I’d like to see more Deus Ex games in the near future; I just hope that these future titles aren’t afraid to carry a bit more weight.

Labor Dabor: hitting the wall

Does this ever happen to you?  Where you’re playing a couple different games at the same time, and you find yourself stuck in a difficult section in each one?  This is how I’m currently living.  I’m stuck in a boss battle towards the end of Deus Ex Human Revolution, and I’m also stuck in a difficult “boss” battle in Rock of Ages, and the CPU refuses to let me sink anything, even 5-foot gimme putts, in Tiger Woods 12.

I’m doing my best to enjoy DXHR, in spite of this boss battle bullshit.  I’m still trying to stay non-lethal – I’m not sure of the exact amount but I’ve spent at least 20 hours in the game and I still  haven’t fired an actual gun at any non-boss enemy yet – but I’ve got no problem whatsoever in hacking turrets to slay my pursuers while hiding safely nearby, because that’s awesome.

I’m also feeling a bit cynical and wondering if my enjoyment of DXHR is due to it being the first non-shitty game to be released in what feels like months.  Because let’s be honest here – it’s got some problems.  The boss battles are horrendous, both in conception and execution; if you’re playing non-lethally, like me, you’re pretty much screwed because you’ve spent your Praxis points on stuff like hacking and cloaking instead of damage resistance and recoil dampening.  Even though the game does more or less put you next to an ammo dump right before a boss battle, I still never feel prepared.  I only beat the 1st boss because a walkthrough told me that there were weapons scattered about the room – before I read that, I was just ducking in cover and popping off shots that weren’t doing anything and getting killed if I ran away.  And I ultimately ended up beating the 2nd boss only because of an animation glitch that left that boss stuck in place.  I’m doubly screwed in this 3rd boss; I inadvertently did something about 6 hours prior to the boss fight that renders my HUD totally useless in this fight, which means I’ve got no radar and no access to the Typhoon weapon.  That sucks.

And I suppose I could gripe about the shitty guard AI, although let’s face it – every guard in every game has shitty AI.  They all do the same thing in every game – if they spot you, they’ll run to the last place they saw you, look for you, and then, if they can’t find you, they’ll make some sort of comment like “Oh well” and then return to their regular patrol route.  I have to assume that there are legitimate game design reasons and limitations on why this is a common AI practice; otherwise, the player would feel like they were being excessively punished for making a mistake that they didn’t even know they’d made (i.e., getting spotted by a guard outside of the player’s field of vision).

I was listening to this week’s excellent Gamers With Jobs podcast, and they made a lot of really interesting points about other DX issues – how the locations don’t really feel all that distinctive (especially when compared to the first game), how clumsily some of the side quests are implemented, the strange realization that nobody in this world has finished moving in to their same, sterile apartment, etc.  I’d also disagree with them on the quality of the voice acting – I happen to think that DXHR’s voice acting is, by and large, pretty bad.

But ultimately, in spite of its faults, I suppose I think it’s a remarkably well-made game.  I don’t know that it necessarily feels like a “Deus Ex” game – let’s face it, game design has changed radically in the 10 years since the first game, and gamers have grown accustomed to certain modern conventions that simply didn’t exist back then, and frankly my memory of the first game is hazy at best – but it feels like a good game, and it’s a welcome return to the series.  The things that it does well, it does really well, and I could certainly see myself playing a few more of these.

TANGENT

The above-referenced SWJ podcast also had a mini-discussion about how DXHR disproves the “myth of the simple gamer” – the myth that today’s modern gamer doesn’t care for slower-paced, thought-provoking, nuanced gameplay.  I’m not entirely sure that I agree with that statement, but part of the problem is that they don’t really provide any examples of the “simple games” that today’s “simple gamer” enjoys.  If they’re referring to the empty narratives of big blockbuster shooters like Call of Duty and Halo, well, you can’t judge those games on their single-player campaigns – those games have staying power and enjoy massive popularity because of their multiplayer, which is a completely different animal altogether.   I’d argue that making thoughtful, slower-paced gaming experiences are HUGE commercial risks for developers – I mean, sales numbers don’t lie, and I’ll guarantee right now that Modern Warfare 3 outsells Bioshock Infinite by at least 3:1 – and I’d further argue that making thoughtful, slower-paced gaming experiences is generally more difficult, which is why not many developers take that challenge on in the first place, especially given that those titles won’t necessarily sell well.   Look at the big, AAA titles coming out this fall:

  • Rage
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • Uncharted 3
  • Skyrim
  • Gears of War 3
  • Battlefield 3
  • Modern Warfare 3
  • Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

With the notable exception of Rage, all of those games are sequels to existing franchises.  What does that tell you?  And look – I’m guilty of personally looking forward to playing most of those games on that list, and I’m sure that at least 3 of those games will wind up in my Top 10 GOTY list.  I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that of those titles, Rage will probably move the least amount of units, even though it’s being made by one of the biggest names in the industry (and presumably with a lot of marketing power behind it).  The vast majority of gamers want something familiar.   (Hell, just look at how many Counter Strike players are still playing 1.6 after all these years.)

END TANGENT

Anyway, my original point at the beginning of this thing was that I’d hit a wall in all the games I’m currently playing.  And being that this is a long weekend AND that my wife is out of town for the next 5 days, this couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Have a great weekend, everybody.  I’m hoping to be back next week with some Subway Gamer columns on two new iPhone games that have been kicking my ass lately.

DXHR: the first few hours

Here’s how low I sunk during this summer’s release drought; I started playing World of Warcraft again.  Thankfully, I didn’t get terribly far into it – it’s free-to-play up until level 20, and I think I burned out at around level 16 or so.  This is good, because I used to have a serious WoW problem, to the point where I was taking sick days from work just to stay home and grind.  And I wasn’t even that good at it, to be honest – I took my first character up to level 46 or so, got sick of him, then re-rolled a hunter and got him up to the 20s, so it’s not like I ever came close to seeing all the end-game stuff.  Playing it now, it feels archaic and weird and repetitive and boring, frankly, and most of all it’s lonely.  NOBODY is in the low-level areas, which means you have to solo like crazy to get anywhere, and there’s only so many “kill 7 beasts” quests I can do before I’m shaking my head and asking myself why I got so hooked on this in the first place.

Also, I re-rented Tiger 12, and somehow I leveled up my dude to the point where he wasn’t totally terrible.  Putting still feels unfair (like it did when I first started out), but I suppose that’s what makes it “realistic.”  I still feel that Tiger 12 is a half-baked game compared to earlier iterations – by and large, the career mode is simply 18 holes at a time, which is a substantial time commitment.  Yes, for each “event” there are 2 smaller, less time-intensive events, but I don’t give a shit about Bingo-Bango-Bongo or Skins and the XP rewards aren’t all that substantial either.  I was pretty much just playing it to fill in the hours and pick up Achievements, which is sad.

The point being, I have not been enjoying my summer gaming time all that much, which is why this week’s release of Deus Ex: Human Resources – er, Human Revolution is so welcome.  Especially since it’s actually quite good!  I didn’t have that great a feeling about it leading up to the release; I kinda just figured it was a late summer toss-off, and thus destined to be disappointing.  Not so!  It’s the real deal.

It’s been so long since I played either of the first 2 games that comparisons between this new title and the originals are more or less irrelevant.  My memories of the first game (which I liked) are limited to a few scenarios, some ugly graphics and endings so convoluted that I needed a walkthrough just to make sense of what the hell I was doing; my memories of the second game (which I didn’t like) are limited to ridiculous load times and a bad quicksave on my part towards the end of the game that made progress more or less impossible.  My gut feeling is that DXHR is being respectful of the first game’s innovations, while still feeling modern and approachable.

I’m not that far into the game just yet – I’ve played for about 5 hours or so, and my current save is right before the first real boss.  The problem I’m having at this particular moment is that I’ve elected to go non-lethal, and as such I have no real weaponry to attack this boss character – he’s impervious to my tranq darts, and I can’t get close enough with my stun gun without being killed.  Furthermore, it would seem that I’ve invested my XP into all the wrong things for this particular encounter – I’ve got no armor, no invisibility, and all my hacking prowess is useless.

I was going non-lethal specifically to chase an achievement, but I’m reading that this non-lethal achievement also extends to the tutorial mission, which is unfortunate, since I did kill dudes with guns.  The lethal/non-lethal thing makes almost no difference in terms of gameplay, as it turns out – you’re still making dudes horizontal, but if you’re doing it non-lethally you run out of ammo much quicker.  Here’s how Rock Paper Shotgun puts it:

It seems reasonable to argue that the finest achievement of the Deus Ex games is to offer some choice about how you handle combat situations. They are combat games, really, but since they are based around infiltration, rather than direct confrontation, there’s considerable scope for activities other than shooting men to death. Getting them to lie down and have a nap, via a range of persuasive implements, also becomes an option. The role-playing ramifications of that are pretty profound, especially when set against the backdrop of most of the games we play. You get to be the guy who doesn’t murder hapless goons (thus neatly sidestepping the “think of the Goon’s family” guilt-joke from Austin Powers) and instead drags their unconscious forms into airducts, traumatising them forever.

I enjoy being stealthy in this game; it works, for the most part.  The cover system works, and the switch from first-person to third-person is never jarring.  Sometimes I’ve been spotted by dudes who can’t possibly see me, which seems unfair, but that’s been something that’s been in games for years and years and isn’t really a new problem.   Sneaking into vents and hacking people’s computers is thrilling, though – indeed, the hacking system here is riveting and genuinely stressful, which it should be.  And there are enough nooks and crannies throughout the world to make exploration genuinely rewarding.

That’s the news from SFTC HQ.  Look for a site redesign shortly; I’m getting bored of what we’ve got going on right now.

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