denial, unravel, xcom 2

I’m not going to talk about the album today.  I’m not going to talk about how out of shape my singing voice is, or how my lyrics suck, or how I can’t seem to get any new ideas on tape that don’t suck.  Not going to do it.  I’m gonna talk about games instead, because that’s easy.


 

I am, for some reason, a member of EA Early Access on the Xbox One.  I don’t know why I did this, but it paid off last night because, after an hour or two’s worth of songwriting frustration, I was able to play the first level of the forthcoming Unravel, which is charming as heck.

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It’s a puzzle-y platformer (not unlike Little Big Planet, at least in terms of feel) wherein you manipulate lil’ Yarny through obstacles, avoiding traps and swinging your yarn about – but there’s also a wistful nostalgic melancholia that permeates each level, and I suspect that Yarny will ultimately serve as some sort of metaphor made real, about the impermanence of memory.  Or something.  The opening cutscene is of a grandmotherly figure, looking at old pictures, and so one might infer that Yarny’s subsequent adventures will help her retrace her steps through the past.  It’s incredibly sweet and Yarny is cute as a button.

The platforming is also, perhaps surprisingly, a little tricky!  You can make jumping bridges with your yarn at various spots of interest; you can also lasso yourself to high, out-of-reach places, and then climb up.  The button presses that enable these sorts of movements are somewhat complicated, and even in the first tutorial-ish level I found myself on the very fine line between elegant dexterous control and straight-up button mashing.

As far as I know, I only have access to the first two levels until the game’s finally out – and EA Access only gives you 10 hours to play with, anyway.  I’m inclined to wait it out until the game is finally released.  But it’s certainly charming and evocative and delightful, and I’m anxious to get my hands on the final game.


Speaking of feeling anxious about new games, XCOM 2 is out today, and I’m torn as to whether or not I want to get it.  As much as I liked the idea of the first game, I wasn’t particularly good at it – even on the easiest setting – and so I’m not really all that sure that I’d want to spend $60 or whatever on more of the same.  Then there’s also the matter of my gaming PC, which is in sorry shape; the latest trouble I’m having is that the USB ports occasionally turn themselves off, which means that my mouse/keyboard will stop working.  So that’s a problem.  I also remain convinced that there will be a console version of XCOM 2 at some point – hell, I have the first game on PC, 360, PS3, and my goddamned iPhone – so it stands to reason that there’ll be a console version before too long.  So I think I’m gonna wait.

 

E3 2013: super-quick EA impressions

  • Hooray:  Peggle 2, Mirror’s Edge 2
  • Fingers crossed:  Dragon Age 3
  • Curious:  Need for Speed
  • Whatever:  everything else
  • To fix for next year:  give the off-screen guy a lozenge and maybe turn his mic off, stop with the on-stage gameplay banter, the celebrities/athletes are out of place, Dana White scares the shit out of me.

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I will probably miss the Ubi presser as I think it’s during my evening commute, and my ability to react to the Sony presser is wholly dependent on my kid going to sleep at a reasonable hour and my wife being willing to wait another day for DVR catch-up (i.e., Mad Men / Game of Thrones).   Still, I’ll do my best.

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.

the first few hours: SSX

When I was a teenager, I became somewhat obsessed with the Elektra record label.   At some point, I guess I’d noticed that a lot of my favorite bands were on Elektra, and then I noticed that a bunch of albums that I’d been listening to had consecutive catalog numbers, which (I presume) meant that they all came out one right after the other.  Which was kind of cool, in a nerdy sort of way.  In my dreams of future rock stardom, I wanted to sign with them – they obviously signed the bands that I liked, and I wanted them to like me.

(The music industry being what it is, I must admit that I was surprised that there was still an official Elektra website to link to when I typed the previous paragraph. )

In my 20s, my allegiance to Elektra switched, rather dramatically, to Thrill Jockey.  Two of my favorite bands (The Sea and Cake, Tortoise) were TJ mainstays, and my hero, John McEntire, seemingly had his hands on almost the entirety of their catalog.   TJ was the epitome of cool, and I must admit that there was a time when I thought about moving to Chicago just to be near it.

Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I could care less about record labels.  I’m not in a band anymore, and the little music that I’ve managed to make these days has been made with the intention of eventual sale.  I don’t need a label to get my music heard; I can stick it on the internet and be done with it.

This would be a good time as any to talk about Double Fine’s outrageously successful Kickstarter campaign, but that isn’t where I was going with this.  Frankly, this whole music label prelude has nothing to do with anything, other than that by this point next week, I will be fully involved with 3 EA-published games – KoA: Reckoning, SSX, and Mass Effect 3.  I can’t really remember the last time something like that happened, and especially with EA, a company that I’d taken great pains to actively loathe for a long, long time.  But here we are, and I suspect I’m not the only one in this position, either.

Sooooo, anyway, yes.  SSX.  My first must-play title of 2012.  I was madly in love with both Tricky and SSX3 on the original Xbox, and the wait for a good sequel has been interminable.  Indeed, the wait for a good snowboarding game in general has been interminable – I don’t think I’ve played one since Amped 3, and that game was more memorable for its cutscenes than its actual gameplay…

I’m torn, is the thing.  On the one hand, it’s really nice to have SSX back in my life.  The game looks and sounds great, and it’s got a number of awesome features – the online functionality is super-slick (as is the entire EA Autolog initiative), and there’s tons to do, and it’s fun as hell.

On the other hand, I suck at it.  I don’t remember being this bad at previous SSX games.  I am constantly fucking up, left and right, restarting runs over and over and over again, to the point where frustration leads to resignation and logging off.  I’m progressing through the career mode slowly but surely, but I feel like it’s because the game is overly generous in its post-race awards.  And I’m not really sure what it is I’m doing wrong, except that I haven’t unlocked the good equipment yet, or something.  I am consistently 2nd or lower in races, and in trick events, there are times when I’ll look up to see my AI opponents with 1,000,000 point leads before I’ve even started my first jump.

So it’s a little frustrating, especially since I really really want to love it to pieces, being that I dearly love the franchise and I really want to enjoy the tons of content on the disc.  Practice makes perfect, I suppose, but maybe I’m just too old.

>oh, fercrissakes.

>Eurogamer reports that EA is “testing the waters” with paid-for demos.

Are you kidding me? Wait, let me rephrase that. Are you fucking kidding me?

1. So, EA either (a) has no faith in their internal playtesting department to make sure a game is fun, or (b) has no playtesting department.

2. EA is asking you to pay actual money to essentially play a beta of a game that might never be released.

Let me rephrase my first question one more time. Are you fucking me?

>The Wrong Lesson

>There was a time when EA seemed to churn out nothing but Madden, craptastical movie license games and sequels. They were all about parlaying brand recognition into sales, with innovation and quality taking a back seat. But under CEO John Riccitiello, EA has been embracing new IP such as Dead Space, and has published innovative, ground-breaking titles such as Mirror’s Edge.

The result? They’ve lost their shorts. Sales are down. So earnings are down. (You’d almost think the entire world was short on cash.) EA’s shareholders are pissed. “Not to fear!” says EA. “We’re gonna focus our future investments on titles with the greatest ‘hit potential’!”

If you’re like me, you’re worried that focusing on “hit potential” means returning to their old sequel-factory ways. And it may be that leaning back in that direction will result in a healthier balance sheet. But I worry that EA will be too quick to blame innovation and new IP for bad sales rather than another major factor: timing of releases.

I should have bought and played Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, but I didn’t. But it wasn’t because the words “Star Wars” didn’t appear in their titles. It’s because they came out in the midst of a flood of high profile, AAA titles. Take note EA! I would definitely have bought both Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge had I not already been buried in Fable 2, Fallout 3, LBP and Rock Band 2. Even us gamers with full-time jobs can’t buy everything (‘cept Jervo).

Look at Bioshock. A new IP which certainly tried some things that hadn’t been done in a shooter before. And it was released in August, when it had the whole hype machine all to itself. The result? Mofo sold by the bucketful!

Before EA tosses innovation and new IP over its shoulder, I really hope they’ll at least try releasing a few of its more “experimental” titles in the spring or summer, when gamers actually have dollars in their pockets that aren’t pledged to Gears of War 4.

>Back To The Apocalypse

>I find it hard to believe that it’s really December 19. The year was already moving pretty fast, and now I look up and see that Christmas is next fucking week. What the hell happened?

In any event, the release calendar madness has finally slowed down, and now I find myself with a bunch of titles that I finally have some time to enjoy.

First and foremost, I’m getting back into Fallout 3. I had put it down a few weeks ago for some reason, and when I heard about the forthcoming packages of DLC – one of which would raise the level cap and make the endgame a bit more productive – I felt like my time with the game would be better spent with all that stuff intact, instead of playing it now, finishing it, and then coming back later. (I had originally meant to talk about this very thing in relation to this particular article from MTV Multiplayer.) And I guess there’s a part of me that still does feel that way; I’d like to be able to seamlessly incorporate this new DLC into my Fallout experience. That said, last night I found myself with an empty apartment and a lot of options, and I found myself missing the Fallout experience.

Goddamn, that game is awesome. I believe I said in my 2008 wrap-up that I thought I might be a little intimidated by it; it’s such a huge world and there’s so much to do and I still haven’t totally figured out how good or evil I want to be, even though I’m level 10 and have put in a considerable amount of hours into it already. I put it in last night and it only took me about 30 seconds to remember how it worked and I was immediately hooked, again. I’m trying to stay away from the main quest, and as a result I’ve found a ton of other things to see and explore. I used to do this thing in Oblivion – if I was walking towards my targeted location, and another random, undiscovered location started to appear in my map, I’d always feel compelled to stray away just far enough to see what it was that I’d found, and I find myself doing the same thing here in Fallout. And it’s really incredible to see what Bethesda has crammed in there. I’m currently on a side mission that’s taken me to some pretty awesome locations, and the level of detail in every room is just staggering, and it boggles my mind to think that if I had only made a left turn in Rivet City instead of a right, I would never have seen any of it. And the thing of it is, I’m already well aware that there’s a ton of stuff that I’ve already missed because I went one way and not the other. Absolutely incredible.

Rock Band 2 continues to be a nightly source of amusement at my house; my wife has finally graduated to “Medium” difficulty on guitar, and we’re getting back into Tour mode again. I made a brief mention of this in the 2008 Year In Music post on my other blog; there’s 2 songs in particular that I found in the store that I’ve totally fallen in love with, and I ended up purchasing those songs in iTunes – Maximo Park’s “Girls Who Play Guitars” and Silversun Pickups’ “Lazy Eye.” They’re both fun as hell to play on drums, but they also just kick a lot of ass in general.

I made a special category in my 2008 Year in Games post so as to congratulate myself for not being a total whore and buying the Strongbad Games, even though I’m a big fan of the cartoon and an even bigger fan of point-and-click adventure games. Then, of course, it was announced just the other day that they were releasing all 5 adventures on Steam, and so OF COURSE I went and downloaded them immediately. Steam was acting a little weird last night, though, and I couldn’t actually open Episode 1. But I did check out the tutorial in Episode 5, just to make sure I knew what I was getting into, and of course I’m totally fucking hooked.

I finally beat the single-player campaign in Little Big Planet, and then I started dabbling in user-created levels, most of which are kinda shitty. (It does sound strange to use the phrase “single-player campaign” for a game like LBP, but to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, you use the nomenclature you have.) I’m not sure I’m ready to begin designing my own levels just yet; I may end up going back into the single-player to try and find all the stickers and objects that I didn’t get the first time. I gotta say – even though the controls are awfully floaty and the back-middle-front aspect of it can get terribly screwed up, that game’s charm is absolutely impossible to deny. I am fully on board the Sackboy bandwagon.

Finally, my DS is finally starting to come to life again. I’ve been getting into Chrono Trigger a little more, and I’ve also been enjoying the newest Castlevania game. I find it incredible that Konami has basically been making the same Castlevania game for a million years and yet it still ends up being pretty awesome every single time.

And so what are you playing this weekend?

>Brutal Legend Update!

>EA is publishing Brutal Legend; will be released Fall 2009.

I’ve given EA a lot of shit over the years, but they turned it around in 2008; they worked with a lot of great developers and put out a ton of new, interesting and unique IP. (Of course, they’re getting killed financially as a result, because consumers are stupid.) And EA is well aware that they’re taking a bit of a risk here; Tim Schafer’s games, as we all know, have been critically lauded and have incredibly devoted fans, but almost none of them have ever been breakout hits.

Still – this is great news for Schafer fans, and now I can start setting up the template for the 2009 GOTYs.