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.

weekend recap: thrills and pills and headcolds

Not a lot of game-time this weekend; I caught a vicious headcold while in the middle of a double-feature at the movies on Saturday, and so I spent most of Sunday and Monday horizontal, with intermittent breaks for sneezing.

That being said, a few gaming-related items are worth mentioning:

1.  Before the movies on Saturday, I was more or less forced into buying an iPhone 5.  I tried as long as I could to wait until Apple announced the new model, but I couldn’t – not only were my apps struggling to work, but my 4 was missing calls and texts left and right.  (In fact, when my 5 was finally set up with my phone number, a flurry of voicemails appeared that I’d never seen before.)   The 5 has been around awhile, so this is probably old news  for most of you, but WOW – the difference between the 4 and the 5 is staggering.  Apps take almost no time at all to load, and the apps that are optimized for the 5 really show it.  On my 4, Temple Run 2 could barely hold a steady frame rate, but on the 5 it runs as smooth as silk and with lush textures and shadows and details that the 4 only hinted at.  (As I’m a fan of the endless runner genre, it’s very much appreciated to be able to play and know that any deaths are my own fault and not the fault of the phone.)

2.  Picked up The Swapper at some point over the weekend.  My cold kinda kept me from playing anything for more than 10 minutes at a time, but that worked out OK for the Swapper – I’d do a few puzzles and then switch it off.  It has a beautiful aesthetic – it actually reminds me a little bit of Little Big Planet – and the puzzle mechanics are novel and interesting.  Very eager to spend more time with it once my brain is up to the task.

3.  Played a few more missions of Call of Juarez Gunslinger.  As above, I could only really handle one mission at a time, but since most missions are around 10-20 minutes long, that was fine.  I’d stopped paying attention to the story and really just focused on getting through the levels, and that was fun enough.  Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek had called it a game for people who were sick of shooters, and I agree with that assessment – it mixes up the shooting formula enough to feel fresh and different.  I think he also mentioned that it reminded him of Bulletstorm, at least in terms of the scoring mechanic, and that’s absolutely spot-on.

4.  I succumbed to the Steam Sale and picked up Devil May Cry for 40% off.  I’d already beaten it on the 360 earlier this year, but I’d been finding myself thinking about it lately, and I was curious to see what it looked like on the PC.  It looks FANTASTIC on the PC, as it turns out, and it’s still as batshit crazy as I thought it was.  I made it to the beginning of the Upside-Down level, which I remember as being one of my favorites.

5.  I played about 10 minutes of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the 3DS, and hated it.  Controls were floaty and imprecise, the difficulty was surprisingly high, and the graphics were a bit jaggy and ugly.  As this was one of the 3DS games I was most looking forward to this year, I’m calling this one a big disappointment.

weekend recap: strangeness all around me

I’d started a post last week, but never got around to finishing it; things are still a little weird, and I’m finding very few pockets of idle time these days.  A brief summary of what’s going on in apartment-land can be found here.

As for games & stuff.

To be honest, these days I’ve mostly been playing Dungelot on the iPhone, which recently went free.  Also Pixel People, which is a strange but addictive hybrid of Tiny Tower‘s resource management and Doodle God‘s creation mechanic.

I’ve also been getting very deep into Antichamber;  I’m far enough into it now where I can only play it in short bursts before my brain starts hurting.  I feel like I’m not smart enough to talk about it.  Certainly it’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to living inside an MC Escher drawing.  It’s a very strange game for me to be playing right now, at any rate, because I only find myself with game time very late at night, when I’m exhausted from dealing with apartment stuff, and it’s not really a relaxing experience.

I took a sick day last week, and in doing so I plowed through the end of Devil May Cry (or is it DmC?) yesterday.  I liked it a lot, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for any of the previous games.   I’m not a DmC fanboy, and I think that this game was made for people like me, and to that end I think they succeeded admirably.  The action was continually satisfying and engaging – and even if I played on the “normal” difficulty setting, so what?  I had a lot of fun with it, which is, again, a lot more than I can say for the previous games.  And the graphics and overall visual design continued to be just as jaw-droppingly insane as they were in the beginning; I’m tempted to buy it on Steam the next time it goes on sale just to be able to see it on my kick-ass monitor at 60 fps.

I’ve been slowly moving further along in Ni No Kuni.  My wife was sitting next to me on the couch, reading, and every once in a while she’d look up and say “This reminds me of a Zelda game.”  I kinda wish this was a Zelda game, to be honest.   JRPGs live and die more or less on their battle systems, and while there’s an awful lot to love about Ni No Kuni, the battle system feels a bit tedious and unnecessarily complicated; I’d much rather just engage in a real-time combat system.  I do like the idea of improving people’s moods by taking/giving heart, but the game (at least in the early going) holds your hand a bit too much, which means you can’t actually solve the puzzle on your own; you have to have this mandatory conversation that’s just long enough to be annoying, since you already know what it is you have to do.  Still, though, I’m only 3-4 hours in, having saved my game after finishing the missions in Ding Dong Dell and moving along to the next city, whose name escapes me.  Somewhere in the desert, I think.

Beyond that, it’s just apartment madness and work busy-ness and impending baby stuff.  Good times all around.

weekend recap: well, that wasn’t so bad

Firstly, some necessary meta-news to report:  the aforementioned apartment drama might very well be resolved, which is, as you might imagine,  a HUGE weight off of my shoulders.  I’m reluctant to say anything further, as we haven’t actually signed any leases or anything, and I don’t want to jinx it.  But the point is that I’m pretty sure we’re OK, and that the logistics of the move itself would be the easiest and least costly move we could possibly undergo, short of actually not having to move at all.

And so, in the midst of continued purging of apartment stuff, and the various frantic callings and emailings and textings of assorted realtors and landlords and such, I found that I needed to blow off some steam.  And so I dabbled in a bunch of games.

First off:  I finished 1 playthrough of The Cave, Ron Gilbert’s long-awaited new adventure joint with DoubleFine.  (My playthrough was with the Knight, the Time Traveler, and the Adventurer.)  Considering the pedigree of those involved in its creation, I feel a little cheap reducing my opinion of it to a 7-word sentence, but what follows sums up the experience pretty accurately:  it is equal parts charming and tedious.  The writing is certainly humorous but very rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious; the puzzles are, for the most part, straightforward and free of old-school obtuseness, but they can be exceedingly tedious to execute, requiring you to move three characters independently, all of whom move just slowly enough for it to become annoying after a while, especially when a puzzle requires frequent backtracking.  I still found the experience worthwhile, and I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing the other characters’ individual stories, but it’s a hard package to heartily recommend.

On the console front, I played a few levels of Devil May Cry.  I don’t really know how to talk about it; I’ve never been much of a DmC fan, and I don’t really know anything about the franchise or the character or the legacy or how radically different this particular reboot is.  I’m not necessarily all that good at these kinds of games, either; I rented it purely based on the review scores, which have been, more or less, exceedingly positive.  But what I can say is that, if nothing else, it features some rather astonishing visual design – some of the levels seems straight out of a Terry Gilliam fever dream, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can bestow.   So while I don’t particularly give a shit about what’s going to happen next, I do very much want to see what happens next, if you know what I mean.

I also reconnected my PS3 to my living room TV* so that I could get some time in with Ni No Kuni and The Unfinished Swan, the latter of which is currently only $3 or $4 on PSN for Plus subscribers.

Ni No Kuni is very charming, very beautiful, and very much a JRPG, with all the good/bad that goes along with it – the bad, in this case, specifically referring to a certain pet peeve of mine.  Lots of Japanese games do this particular thing, by the way, not just JRPGs, but JRPGs do it the most – where every single movement of a character, no matter how arduous, is vocalized.  You can be climbing up a mountain, or simply running along a shady lane, but every step of the way is grunted and oomphed and aahed and it’s very distracting and weird.  That aside, the game is as lovely and charming as you might expect a Level 5 / Studio Ghibli collaboration to be.   I can’t yet tell if the battle system is overly complicated or not; there appear to be a lot of mechanics that you need to be paying attention to at any one time, but the game does a rather wonderful job of showing you how it works.  I’m only an hour or two into it, but I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with it, especially during this pre-baby, slow-release-calendar window we’re currently in.

As for The Unfinished Swan, I’m not sure what to make of it.   It’s an astonishingly well executed visual trick, and I certainly appreciate the attempt at an engaging narrative.   That being said, I’m currently in the blueprint level, and I’m a bit stuck; the controls are kind of terrible, all of a sudden.  I wonder if it’s because I’m not using a Move controller; I certainly hope not, because up until this point the game was controlling just fine.

I’m also sort-of still dabbling in Hitman Absolution; I’ve started to figure out how the game is supposed to work, even though I still find myself getting impatient.  I also find the game rather distasteful; all the characters are horrible (on purpose), and the world is really seedy and disgusting, and it’s a hard world to want to stay engaged in.  I can really only play for, like, 10 or 20 minutes at a time before I need to turn it off and cleanse my palate.  It makes me feel unclean.

 

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* Because my wife was a recent Fringe fan and needed to binge very quickly on the first 4 seasons to get caught up for the current (and last) season, we’d had to move the PS3 into the bedroom and our other Blu-Ray player over to the living room, as the other Blu-Ray player didn’t have a wi-fi connection.   Suffice it to say, I hadn’t really missed the PS3 in the interim until this week.