Adventures in Excessive Hyperbole: Forza Horizon 2

Actually, before we get to Forza Horizon 2, there’s three things on my mind that I should get out of the way first:

1.  I’m currently at just under 7400 words for NaNoWriMo.  As I’d mentioned last week, the topic that I eventually wound my way towards is somewhat emotionally charged, and at this point I really don’t care about hitting 50,000 words; I’m mostly just heavily invested in figuring the thing out.  And it’s hard to carve out time to sit and write about stuff that keeps hitting me harder than I expect it to; it’s tough to come home from work and do that when I’m already exhausted, and it’s even more difficult to find time during the day to do it, when I’m expected to be professional and not, say, an emotional wreck (as was the case last Friday).

2.  I tried giving it the benefit of the doubt, but after wading through 2 1/2 missions of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, I realized I’d had enough.  Because I don’t care about, and totally suck at, the multiplayer side of things, I was only ever going to play their campaigns.  And the campaigns have always been a bit silly and convoluted and contrived (and I’m not even talking about “Press X to Pay Your Respects”, although that’s a perfect example of something silly and convoluted and contrived).  As far as CoD:AW goes, I appreciate that it’s going for this sci-fi not-quite-near-future vibe, giving me quasi-superpowers and such… but at the end of the day it still feels like it’s always felt, which is a very tightly scripted shoot-em-up gauntlet running through blandly pretty corridors.   I don’t play enough Call of Duty to have an already-intuitive grasp of the controls, which makes the campaign trickier than it should be; I try to melee someone and end up throwing a grenade.  There is clearly an audience for Call of Duty, and I might as well come to grips with the fact that I am clearly not it, and haven’t been it for quite a long time now.  (For the record: my 2014 shooter of the year is still Wolfenstein, and that means Far Cry 4 has a very high bar to meet.)

3.  I finished Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Slow Regard of Silent Things“, a slim side-story to the Kingkiller Chronicles.  As Rothfuss himself says, it’s not the book you should start with if you’re new to his work.  I enjoyed it; it’s a bit of an experiment for him, which he fully acknowledges in his afterword, and I think he succeeded rather well.  The book features no dialogue, and only one character, and it does not explain itself – and yet, at the book’s end, you know this character incredibly well, and you’re given a very interesting, very specific slice of the world of the larger two books that you’d never see otherwise, and it gives him an opportunity to be more playful with language than he usually gets.  I’d recommend it – but, again, only if you’ve read the first two books, and only if you’re aware that you’re not reading a “traditional” story.  To say any more would ruin the book’s magical, ethereal quality; that’s something you should experience as nakedly as possible.


Long-time readers of this site (the number of which can probably be counted on one hand) will know that I am prone to excessive use of hyperbole.  I make no apologies for this tic; it is what it is.  When I feel inclined to write about something, it’s most likely because I’m already fired up about it.

So take this with a grain of salt, if you must, but I think I’m ready to say something ridiculous:  I’m starting to think that Forza Horizon 2 very well might be my favorite driving game of all time.*  The only real thing it’s missing is some sort of crash/stunt mode, which is a feature so closely associated with Burnout that it would be damn near impossible to implement without being charged with plagiarism.

Actually, here’s three more minor knocks that keep it from being a perfect game:  (1) the game looks absolutely gorgeous, but it also suffers from pop-in from time to time and it can be somewhat distracting at times, especially when trees are popping up along the suggested driving line.  (2) I don’t give a shit about car culture, and while I appreciate that the “Horizon Festival” is as good a justification as any for why you’re doing what you’re doing, I don’t really need a narrative justification for driving anywhere, especially if it involves something as contrived as the Horizon Festival – though at least the main guy isn’t that annoying.  (3) But if you are going to go through the trouble of having a narrative justification for doing all this stuff, then why not let me create my own character?  True, you’re behind the wheel of a car for 99% of the game, but I’m there in that other 1%, and while I might be a white guy with brown hair, not everybody who plays this game is also a white guy with brown hair.

Those three knocks aside, I’m loving the hell out of it.  It’s everything I loved about the first game, but better and larger and more beautiful, and I genuinely feel bad that my gaming schedule is about to get crowded, because I’d be happy to keep playing this and only this for the next few months.

More to the point:  it’s a fantastic showcase for the Xbox One, and the more time I spend with the Xbox One, the more I really, really like it.  I took a few minutes during the weekend to load up Ubisoft’s The Crew beta on the PS4, and the PS4’s interface is so bland and dumb.  (Also, The Crew is bland and dumb, and I’m glad I saw the beta if only so that I know to take it off of my GameFly queue.)


 

* I’ve been thinking about what my Top 10 list of driving games might look like, and the list is tricky because while there’s no shortage of driving games out there, there’s only a few franchises that really moved me in any specific way:

  • I’m certainly a big fan of the Forza series in general – and I like it more than I ever liked any of the Gran Turismo games I played – but to be honest, Forza 1-4 all kinda bleed together for me; there’s not one particular title that stands out in my memory.  (As I only just bought my Xbox One last week, I have not yet played Forza 5, though considering the scuttlebutt that surrounded it, I’m not sure I ever will.)
  • Certainly I’d put both Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise near the very top of the list.
  • I’m a big fan of both DiRT and DiRT 2 – the latter is the better looking of the two, but the former had the best replay system (which was inexplicably changed) and had some of the best UI in any driving game, ever.
  • I loved the first two Rallisport Challenge games on the original Xbox.
  • It’s a bit of a lost gem, but does anybody else remember Midtown Madness 3 on the original Xbox?  That game was awesome.  That was the first real experience I had with online free-roam driving, and to this day I still remember all sorts of silly stuff we used to do – like trying to jump as many trucks as we could fit onto the roofs of various buildings.
  • I was also especially fond of both Project Gotham Racing 2 and 3 (4 was the one where they introduced motorcycles, I think, and that’s also where it fell off the rails for me).
  • Split/Second was terrific and criminally overlooked…
  • I will always have a soft spot for OutRun
  • My loathing of The Offspring is the main reason why I try not to think about Crazy Taxi, even if the game itself is pretty great.
  • I always enjoyed the Midnight Club games, though I never stuck with them that long.
  • I’m conflicted about the Need for Speed franchise, because (a) the driving is fine, but the cutscenes and the “car culture” is just flat-out ridiculous, and (b) while I really enjoyed Criterion’s two Need for Speed titles, it also meant that we weren’t getting any more Burnout games, which is a supreme bummer.
  • Speaking of “flat-out”, I also have a weird soft spot for that first Flat-Out game, especially on PC, because the physics were completely insane.
  • Could I include Night Driver from the Atari 2600?
  • Or Pole Position?
  • Could I get away with not including any Mario Kart games, because I don’t give a shit about Mario Kart?  or Ridge Racer, for that matter?  or Wipeout, or F-Zero?  or F1 on the PC?

Am I missing any?  Feel free to call me an idiot in the comments.

the first few hours: NFS MW

In order to distract myself from worrying about tonight’s election results, here’s my one-word review for Need For Speed Most Wanted, a game that at one point was one of my most heavily anticipated games for 2012:

*sigh*

Before I went to bed last night, I opened up a post here and wrote down my gut reactions:

  • frustration
  • kinda ugly
  • wildly inconsistent – too easy to crash (SOMETIMES)
  • mini map is in an inconvenient location
  • cops are annoying, and it can sometimes be unclear why they’re after you
  • and yet i played it for 2 hours without stopping.

I said this yesterday, and it bears repeating – I’m not sure how objective I can be about this game.

On the one hand, the Burnout franchise is my one true love in the racing genre, and I’ve probably put more time into both Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise than all other racing games combined. So I’m willing to cut Criterion a whole bunch of slack, even if what I really want is Burnout Paradise 2 and couldn’t give less of a shit about the Need For Speed brand.

On the other hand, Forza Horizon came out of nowhere to become one of my GOTY contenders; as far as open-world racing games go, it has set the bar remarkably high, and it’s pretty much all I’ve been playing for the last 2 weeks.

NFS:MW feels a bit off, is the thing.

It has police chases, because it’s a Need For Speed game and that’s what a NFS game is, but the chases aren’t exciting as they were in Criterion’s previous NFS game, the excellent Hot Pursuit. Indeed, they become a nuisance after a while – there’s nothing quite as annoying as finishing a race only to then have to spend up to 10 minutes trying to shake the cops (who aren’t chasing anybody else, I might add).

It offers Burnout-esque rewards for taking down your opponents, but until you’ve improved your car (which you can only do by winning races), taking opponents out actually slows you down, allowing the super-rubberband-y AI to speed past you. This happened to me on numerous occasions last night, and it was unbelievably frustrating.

Indeed, there are many reasons why “frustration” was the first thing I wrote in my gut reaction list above. It’s frustrating that the game is inconsistent with what actually makes you crash – sometimes you can sideswipe an oncoming car and nothing happens, but sometimes you can just lightly nick some random piece of geometry and then everything grinds to a halt. It’s frustrating that sometimes the game will offer up some very visible green arrows to tell you there’s a turn coming up, because more often than not there are no green arrows at all and you’ll miss the turn entirely. It’s frustrating that the mini-map is located in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen, which is very difficult to look at while trying to avoid police cars at 150 miles an hour. It’s frustrating that the crashes – which are usually Criterion’s strength – feel endlessly long and drawn out and more or less ruin your race, especially when they happen 100 yards from the finish line, which is something that happened at least 4 or 5 times to me last night – again, because the game was unclear as to what would actually cause a crash or not. It’s frustrating that there’s perhaps too much NPC traffic on the roads, if only because the NPC traffic only seems to negatively affect your progress; there were a number of times last night where the AI cars in front of me just bounced off of oncoming traffic, which is something that almost never happened when I tried it.

The game is also uncharacteristically ugly, at least by Criterion standards (and certainly when compared to Forza Horizon, which generally looks quite stunning).  The car models are pretty sharp, but the buildings and environments seem a little fuzzy and grainy, and the textures can pop in and out sometimes.  And even though I installed the game to my hard drive, there was a surprising amount of slowdown and dropped frames – even in the menus, which is just weird.

I’m also not really all that crazy about the music selection, though I’d probably place the blame on EA for that.  There is no DJ Atomica; and while normally that would be a good thing, here the soundtrack feels like it was curated strictly by EA’s licensing partners; it’s all very drab and forgettable modern rock.

And yet – I did play the game rather compulsively for around 2 hours last night, despite how frustrated I was.  The world is pretty big, and I found myself enjoying the free-roam exploration side of the game – crashing into locked gates, crashing through billboards, competing with the 2 or 3 people on my friends list who’ve also played the game in speed cameras and jump distances.  The Autolog stuff is still the best in class – not that Forza Horizon is shabby in that regard, but everything here is presented very cleanly and clearly, and so it’s very easy to see how I stack up against my friends among a comparatively wide statistical array.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that EA is hamstringing Criterion a bit here by asking Criterion to make a game that they don’t necessarily want to make.  Everybody wants more Burnout; I’m not sure anybody was asking for yet another Need for Speed game.  Cramming Need For Speed on top of what ought to be Burnout Paradise 2 ends up making a bit of a mess.  I suppose I can appreciate Criterion maybe wanting to hold off on the real Burnout Paradise 2 until the next generation of consoles arrive – that’s certainly something worth waiting for.   This game, however, really just feels like EA’s desperate need to make its own IP still relevant, at the expense of quality IP that gamers actually want.*

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* This feeling is strangely and ironically reinforced by all the billboards in the city covered with the names of the various EA studios – EA Sports, Bioware, Visceral Games, etc.

>GT5: the other shoe drops

>I didn’t necessarily come right out and say it in yesterday’s post, but at the time I wrote it I was still feeling optimistic about Gran Turismo 5.  I had legitimate issues with how the game was letting me progress, and how inadequate I felt about picking an appropriate vehicle, but I also knew that I hadn’t really given the game a truly fair shake – I knew what I did not know, so to speak. 

And so last night I spent another hour with it.  I did some of the Special Events; I raced some go-karts, some NASCARs, and did some time trials on the Nurburgring with an old BMW.  I raised my level from 2 to 7, and raised my bank account from $6000 to over $100,000. 

And you know what?  For all of its positive qualities, GT5 is downright aggravating.  It’s obnoxious and arrogant.  It’s emasculating and frustrating.  I turned the game off because I didn’t want to break my controller in half, and because I didn’t want to go to bed angry.  A driving game should not make you angry

I am still in the beginning areas of the career mode, and I will apparently remain unable to participate in at least half the races available to me because I have no idea what kind of car I should be driving – and, indeed, there are a few events in this beginner tier that require cars that I don’t even have access to.  This makes no sense.  The information that the game gives out on each car might as well be copied and pasted from the sales brochure; it doesn’t actually tell me anything objectively.  The used car market does not offer any information as to what cars are available for a given event, and the process of backing out from the market to the event itself is laborious because it takes between 5-10 seconds to load each menu.  One could argue that I could alleviate this problem by going to the desired event and writing down the necessary requirements with a pen on a piece of paper, but I would counter-argue by saying that I’m playing a fucking driving game and writing shit down should not enter into the equation.  It’s one thing to write something down if I’m playing an adventure game and I need to solve a puzzle or remember where something is.  But when I put in GT5, it should be obvious that all I want to do is get in a car and drive

This could be a long winter.

>Weekend Recap: the holiday that wasn’t

>If all had gone according to plan, this post wouldn’t exist.  The plan was to leave Thursday morning to go up to my dad’s house for Thanksgiving, and to eventually return to the apartment on Saturday night, and Sunday would be a day of holiday decorating and football.  Instead, my wife had the flu and I had a nagging head cold, and we stayed home.  And so I played a lot of video games. 

In list form, in descending order of time played:

  • finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
  • got a few hours into Gran Turismo 5
  • kept dabbling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
  • went and bought Burnout Paradise on the PC thanks to yet another ridiculous Steam sale and got back into it very, very quickly
  • Train Conductor 1/2 on the iPhone is insanely addictive
  • played 2 games of NBA JAM HD with my brother, for old time’s sake
  • and some Pinball FX2 with the wife.

I will give AssBro a more thorough examination later, once I’ve had a bit more coffee.  But I can say, now, that I think it’s the best game in the franchise, and it will most likely wind up at #3 in my Top 10 of 2010. 

As for GT5; I’ll be the first person to admit that what I know about cars could be inscribed on the rim of a shot glass with a dull Sharpie.  But I really love driving games, strangely enough, and while I tend to prefer crazy, insanely fast stuff like Burnout, I have been known to get sucked into a Forza game for hours and hours.  (I do have an aversion to NASCAR, though, which is probably similar to my aversion to country music and the tea party movement.)  I needed to see what GT5 was all about for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t played a game on my PS3 since I finished FF13;
  2. The last time I played a GT game was on my friend’s PS1;
  3. I am a graphics whore (which reminds me, at some point I need to talk about this fascinating article, which I got from the lovely and talented Caro), and if there’s one thing that the GT franchise is famous for, it’s graphics; 
  4. I loved the hell out of Forza 3, and felt obligated to see if GT5 was better; and
  5. After 5 years of development and endless delays, the curiosity was killing me.

After 2 hours of playtime, here’s what I can say about GT5.

  1. It’s prettier than Forza 3, generally.  I’ve read lots of people who have been complaining about how horrible some of the cars look; to my eyes, it looks great.  It’s worth finishing a race in last place just so that you can watch the pretty, pretty replays, which are utterly convincing and gorgeous.  Some people complain that it’s bland; I’ve only been on a few tracks, and driven a handful of cars, so I can’t quite speak to that.  One could maybe argue that it’s a little sterile, or perhaps a little too pristine.  
  2. Is it as fun as Forza 3, though?  Not sure.  It’s certainly more accessible than I was expecting it to be, but that’s relative – when you’re buying a new (or used) car, the game doesn’t tell you what the car’s Top Speed is.  When you’re like me and know nothing of horsepower and weight and acceleration, not giving out a car’s Top Speed is basically a slap in the dick, and I ended up losing a ton of races because I had unwittingly bought the wrong car.
  3. Further to that last point, the game doesn’t really dole out new cars and rewards the way Forza does.  I’m still only in the beginner tier of races in the career and at least half of the events I’m looking at require vehicles that I don’t have, and I’ll have to retry events I’ve already won just to earn enough coin to afford an applicable vehicle – a vehicle that I’ll probably only drive once or twice until I get something better.  Seems odd.
  4. I haven’t raced online, but the fact that the game’s single-player campaign was so horribly fucked up because too many people were crushing the game’s servers is absolutely unforgivable, especially for a game of this magnitude.  And if the game’s developer is telling you to pull your PS3 offline so that you can play single-player without running into problems, that’s just absurd.  PlayStation fanboys love talking shit about Xbox Live and how you have to pay for it when PSN is free, but file this under “You Get What You Pay For” as Exhibit 375. 

I remain intrigued, though, and there’s so much content that it’s sure to get me through the winter.  Although I may pull out Forza 3 again, just to compare/contrast.  My gut reaction right now, though, is that Forza feels more generous and accessible; GT5 feels more authoritative and legitimate. 

I was really looking forward to NBA JAM HD, and when my brother came over we finally got to try it out.  My brother had a Sega Genesis as a kid and we played NBA JAM endlessly.  The new game basically feels like the old game, which is great.  The problem is that it’s really meant to be played with someone sitting next to you on the couch, and my brother lives in DC (and doesn’t own an Xbox).  So, while it’s tremendous fun in the right conditions, it seems pointless on its own.  I felt a little sad sending it back to Gamefly, but it is what it is.

AssBro final thoughts will go up either later today or tomorrow.

>Disappointing Sequels, and a Rock Band Wishlist

>I’ve done just about everything I can do in Beatles: Rock Band without losing my friggin’ mind, which is good, because there’s other stuff out there that needs to be played.

The good:

DiRT 2

The first DiRT is still one of my favorite driving games, ever. As a confessed graphics whore, it was (and still is) jaw-dropping; it’s the game I was playing both before and after I bought my 40″ HDTV, and for a long time was the game I put in when I wanted to show off the TV. But that aside, the game was a complete package, oozing with polish; the career mode was well designed, the driving model was fun and accessible, the course design was varied and plentiful… even the menus were interactive and fun to play around with. And the replays… wow.

DiRT 2 has some mighty big shoes to fill, then, as far as I’m concerned. And so even though I’ve played quite a bit of it over the last few days and I’ve enjoyed my time with it a great deal, I’m not entirely sure that it fills them. It’s not a bad game, by any means; it’s still incredibly polished, the graphics are even better, the driving model is still fun…. but the package itself feels a bit… small. I haven’t done a count, but it certainly feels like there’s a significantly fewer amount of tracks to race on than in the first game, which is a bit of a bummer. With a graphics engine that gorgeous, I want to see more than the same tracks over and over again. The addition of an in-game rewind – in order to correct mistakes that would otherwise cost you the race – is really the biggest change to the game, and it does come in handy although most of the time I still end up just restarting the whole race if something catastrophic happens. The game has an achievement tracker and also keeps track of other statistics that can reward you with extra XP, and that’s certainly much appreciated. I’m just… I don’t know. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too unreasonable.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2

Speaking of sequels with high expectations, I played M:UA2 last night for about 20 minutes and got thoroughly depressed with how shitty it was. I suppose I could’ve soldiered on, but my gaming time is at a premium these days and I’d rather have a good time instead of slogging through something that ought to be much better. The camera is frequently pulled out way too far, making it hard to see what I’m doing (or even what character I’m playing), and there are certain glitches in the special powers that drove me crazy – there’s an Iron Man/Wolverine combo move that I tried using, and each time Wolverine automatically faced the wrong way, resulting in a waste of accumulated power. Right now this is in the running – along with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix – as my biggest disappointment of 2009. Sometimes you only need a few minutes with something before you realize that you’re wasting your time.

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Was on a forum the other day and the topic du jour was guessing the next band to receive the full deluxe Rock Band treatment. It seemed pretty obvious to everybody that the answer to that question is Led Zeppelin. Having seen now how both Rock Band and Guitar Hero treat their special packages, one would hope that the surviving members of Zep would steer towards Rock Band, but I’m sure it’ll ultimately come down to the franchise that pays them more up front. But it got me thinking about what other packages I’d pay money for:

  • U2.
    U2 is the reason why I decided to teach myself how to play guitar in the first place. But leaving my personal preference aside, U2 is still one of the biggest bands in the world, they have a recognizable mythos, they have a vivid and memorable visual style, and they have an incredibly solid catalog of work; I’d easily be able to find 45 U2 songs worth playing.
  • Pink Floyd.
    Another mythic band with beloved albums and distinct visual flair. That said, there’s a few things standing in the way – for one thing, I’m not sure that David Gilmour and Roger Waters will ever agree on anything ever again, and for another, a lot of their music is on the mellow side; it might be hard to stand up and play Pink Floyd songs for a few hours, even if you’re on the right drugs.
  • The Smiths / The Cure.
    Johnny Marr is one of the most criminally overlooked guitarists of the 20th century, and I would kill to be able to pretend to play his guitar parts, mostly because they’re so difficult to play on a real guitar. Morrissey sings out of tune all the time, though, so I’m guessing it might be difficult to score. But whatever – they’re the Smiths, they fucking rule. And as long as the 30+ crowd is looking to get nostalgic and depressed via plastic instruments, they might as well go all the way and throw in a bunch of Cure songs as well, to keep both sides of the Atlantic satisfied. I suppose I could be satisfied with a gigantic 20-song DLC package with all the great late 80’s / early 90’s “college” music, though, so let’s just leave it at that.