>Weekend Recap: Superbowl edition

>I apologize for the lack of posts lately; the post-holiday doldrums have settled in, apparently, and I haven’t found that much blog-worthy news of late.

I’ve polished off the Anchorage DLC in Fallout 3, and I’ve decided that I’m not going to play any more Fallout until the level cap patch hits; I hit level 20 even before I started the DLC and the way I figure, I might as well get rewarded for killing things. It’s odd – for the entire course of the game, I was always struggling with money, but now I’m suddenly rolling in cash.

Finished The Maw; it’s a cute, fun, better-than-expected XBLA title, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to touch it again. I think I mentioned this the other day – I like my XBLA titles to be the sorts of things that I can continually play over and over again, be it something arcade-y like Geometry Wars or something puzzle-y like Puzzle Quest or Bejeweled 2.

Speaking of which, there’s a Bejeweled mini-app on Facebook that I’d been getting obsessed with during my less-busy hours at work, and so I fired up my XBLA version over the weekend. Is there any other game in the 360’s library with tougher Achievements? My God.

Finally, I had a friend over yesterday before the Superbowl who’d never played Left 4 Dead before, so we sat down and did the airport level from top to bottom. I think I’m still buzzing from the experience; it was absolutely thrilling and we could not stop high-fiving each other for the rest of the day. I keep forgetting how absolutely incredible that game is; I need to be playing it more often, especially in this dry release period. Maybe we’ll put a SFTC L4D night together or something.

>Weekend Recap: Fallout 3, The Maw, RE5 demo

>So I accidentally finished Fallout 3 over the weekend. That’s a problem, of course, because when you finish the last quest, the game is over; the credits roll, and that’s it, and I still had a bunch of stuff I never finished doing, as well as a bunch of other stuff I never saw. I (fortunately) had a save point right before the last mission, and so I’ve taken advantage of this rip in the space-time continuum in order to keep playing and exploring. This also means that I can start messing around with the DLC and still be super-powered.

Fallout 3 is a very impressive game, on many levels, but it’s also problematic. After all the hours I’ve put into it, the combat still hasn’t ever really felt totally satisfying – come to think of it, I had the same problem with Mass Effect. My favorite thing in the game, ultimately, is simply exploring and finding new points on the map, and yet this is also a little bit of a bummer because everything kinda looks the same. Still – the amount of content and the level of detail is absolutely staggering, and Bethesda did a really great job revitalizing this franchise. I’m going to be keeping this game in my rotation for quite some time to come; I’ve got a few more Achievements to score, of course, but really there’s just so much more in the world that I’ve yet to see.

Played a bit of The Maw, which is one of the better XBLA titles to hit in some time. It’s pretty simple but very enjoyable, although I’m not sure there’s a lot of replay value. (I tend to prefer my XBLA games – as well as my handhelds – to be either puzzles or just straight-up arcade titles, as they don’t get too repetitive.)

Speaking of which, I actually fired up my PSP this weekend and tried to play the latest Star Ocean title. Unfortunately, I stopped giving a shit about 10 minutes in; endless, unskippable cutscenes plagued the pacing and I’m a little tired of cookie-cutter JRPGs. I would regret buying a PSP more if I remembered I still had it. I came very close to trading it (and all my games for it) towards Wii Fit this weekend, except (of course) Wii Fit was sold out everywhere.

Finally, I fired up the Resident Evil 5 demo this morning before I left for work. Not ideal circumstances for trying highly anticipated titles, but whatever. I saw what I needed to see, and what I saw is that it’s basically a hi-def RE4 with slightly less clumsy controls. I’m hoping to try it tonight via online co-op; maybe that’ll make the experience less disappointing.

>Goodbye 2008

>Some random ramblings as I fill in the idle hours at work on the last day of the year:

Was listening to the Giant Bomb “Game of the Year” podcast on the way into work this morning, and it suddenly hit me – I played (and liked) every game they talked about. In years past, there would always be a few titles that would be totally alien to me, and I felt like I missing out; missing Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 would be a good example of that. But not this year – this year I was on top of everything.

I think I may have completed my Best Games of 2008 entry a bit prematurely – I’ve been playing the hell out of Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts over the last week or so, and I’m pretty sure I love it. It could be argued that 2008 was really the break-out year for user-generated content, what with Little Big Planet and Spore (oh, yeah, I downloaded Spore because Steam had that stupid holiday sale), but BK:N&B really does it right, in that it gives you some sort of focus and a specific task. Spore’s creature creator is certainly a fun toy to play with, but ultimately the design of your creature doesn’t necessarily have any practical, tangible result (at least not in my somewhat limited experience with it); and on the other hand, Little Big Planet lets you do so much that it’s a bit overwhelming – I’ve barely even touched the tutorials, because I have no idea what I’d want to create. Nuts & Bolts, on the other hand, does a fantastic job of giving you a specific goal, and giving you the tools to achieve it. Whether you build something totally from scratch or if you simply opt to tweak stuff you already have (which is my preferred method right now), it is immensely satisfying to complete a challenge entirely because of your own ingenuity.

Regarding Spore – yeah, I am a whore. Steam’s holiday sale was as good a reason as any to dip my toe into the Spore experience. I’ve only gotten a little bit into the 2nd evolutionary stage – the one where you emerge from the slime and start walking around – so there’s not a tremendous amount for me to discuss. My computer is getting a bit old, too, so I start to get some serious frame rate hitches every once in a while, which is a drag. It’s an interesting enough diversion, at any rate; I’ve yet to see if it really holds together as a game.

I played an awful lot of Fallout 3 over the break, as well; that game continues to astound and amaze. The stories in that game are top-notch, probably second only to GTA4 this year. My only real problem with that game is the engine; talking to NPCs is still just a little bit weird enough to pull me out of the experience, and it was the same thing in Oblivion. I’m about halfway to level 15 right now, though, and I think I might hold off for a bit until some of the DLC arrives and they lift the level cap.

Speaking of RPGs, I’ve also been playing Chrono Trigger before I go to bed lately. It’s a pretty solid game, and I can see why people love it. (I’m a little lost at the moment, though; I kinda rushed through the dialogue at the end of this one section and so now I’m not entirely sure where I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to be doing, and there’s no real way (short of a walkthrough) of solving that problem.) But I’m starting to have a problem with calling these sorts of games “role-playing games.” Fallout is a role-playing game; you inhabit your character and you can make choices and design your skillset and really play the way you want to play and have the experience you want to experience. However, in Chrono Trigger – and, indeed, in every JRPG I’ve ever played – all you do is level up and give your dude new and better gear. There’s no real choice involved; the story is linear and your little dude will play the same way at the end of the game as he will in the beginning. We need some new sort of nomenclature.

My wife and I hosted 2 parties this December – my birthday, and Christmas – and Rock Band 2 was featured prominently at both. Goddamn that game is fun. I love watching people figure out how to play the drums almost as much as I love actually playing them; at first they’re overwhelmed with all the information that’s hurtling towards them at breakneck speeds, but then they figure out how to translate all that arcane symbology into recongizable rhythm, and then the whole concept opens up for them like a flower. It’s really quite something to see.

Finally, I did the math, and barring some gaming tonight before the ball drops, I will have accumulated 12,060 Points in 2008. I will make no predictions about my point-whoring desires for 2009, other than I’d like to cross 50,000 in a cool way. I crossed 30K by playing Call of Duty 4 on a hard difficulty level, and I crossed 40K by playing the guitar on expert difficulty in Rock Band 2. Maybe I’ll cross 50K by doing something awesome in Brutal Legend?

>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?

>Weekend Recap: pre-Thanksgiving 2008 edition

>Last Tuesday I noted that, among other things, I was hoping to increase my Gamerscore by 10,000 points over my total at the end of 2007:

I started the year at 28788; I am currently at 37403. There’s still 6 weeks left in the year, so I still have time to make it to an even 10,000 point swing.

I certainly made up a lot of ground over the last few days; by my calculation, I’ve gained 1075 Points in less than a week, which means I’ve only got 310 more to go.

At least 600 points came from Scene It: BOS, which doles out the points like they’re going out of style. (My wife likes playing the Scene It games, which means I buy them as soon as they come out.) I like this new game a lot; it uses Avatars, which make them seem a little less pointless, everything’s gotten a nice graphical make-over, and they seem to have a healthy obsession with Simon Pegg, which is OK with me. The only real problem with the game are the announcers, who are even more horrible than they were in the last game; I mean, they’re FUCKING HORRIBLE. Thank God there’s an option to mute them.

A few more achievements came from Fallout 3, but that game should not be played for points AT ALL. I was all set to name GTA4 as my Game of the Year, but I have to say that every hour I spend with Fallout 3 makes that decision a little less concrete. I’m about halfway to level 10, and I’m probably going to stay away from the main quest for a little while longer and work on some side stuff. There is so much to see in this game, and the level of detail is simply staggering. Perfect example: I was doing one of the very first sidequests in the game, which required me to go to this bombed out town and pick up some mines; while I was there, I decided to break into some houses and see what there was to loot. And each house that I broke into featured this little unspoken short story of each family’s last moments – one house in particular had a pair of skeletons lying in bed holding each other, and it actually made me stop for a second and think about what I was actually seeing. What I love about Fallout 3 is this deeper notion of history; everything you’re looting is stuff that belonged to a different time and place – and, well, it belonged to a human being who died. Not many games are able to convey that sense of a lived-in world very well – even Bioshock struggled with it at times.

What else, what else… oh, well, yeah. I caved and bought Tomb Raider: Underworld, mostly because Gamefly kept pushing it back and when I checked Sunday morning, it was slated to ship this coming Tuesday, which is bullshit. My initial reaction is pretty much par for the course: it’s Legend with a gorgeous new coat of paint and a really shitty camera. I’m in the Mexico level (which is, I think, the third level if you don’t count the prologue), and it’s got a wierd non-linear progression which is actually a little annoying, to be honest – Tomb Raider games shouldn’t be sandbox-y. I’m also missing the Croft Manor exploration level that’s been a favorite feature of mine in the last 2 games, although considering that the very first thing you see in the game is the Manor exploding, it probably makes sense that it’s missing. (Maybe it’s unlocked after you finish the game?)

Played a tiny little bit of Left 4 Dead; that game is awesome and I need to give it another go.

Oh yeah, also played a bit of A Kingdom For Keflings, which I think I really only downloaded to be eligible for some stupid contest. It’s basically a super-lite strategy game, with Avatar support; it’s actually a decent time-suck, although I’m not sure how much time I’m going to spend with it. I’ll probably finish one game and then go back to Civ Rev for my strategy needs.

>Quick Shots

>1. In seemingly direct opposition to The Thing I Cannot Talk About, the New Xbox Experience knows exactly what it is and offers some exciting features that I have already been able to take full advantage of.

2. One of those features is the ability to play games off of the HDD. I spent a considerable amount of time earlier this afternoon installing the games in my current rotation, and all of them loaded faster and even seemed to play a little smoother. Fable 2 benefited incredibly well from preloading; menus were readily accessible and the sluggishness that I’d mentioned before was pretty much completely gone. The initial load-up for GTA4 is noticably shorter. It’s been noted elsewhere and I must agree: everything on The Orange Box loads very, very quickly. Saints Row 2 feels a lot smoother (and the 360 itself is much, much quieter). And Fallout 3 is quick and responsive and rock solid.

3. Fallout 3 deserves its own section. I hadn’t gotten very far – maybe 1-2 hours out of the Vault, maybe level 4 – and I realized that the character I’d created was totally out of balance with the way I’d decided I wanted to play, and I wasn’t having any fun; it didn’t help that Gears and Fable and other titles then appeared and so it was easy for me to put it on the shelf and forget about it. I think what happened was that I took the “Oblivion with guns” comparison literally, and maxed all my stats in strength and melee, which is absolutely useless in Fallout.

Having finished Gears last night, though, I decided to re-roll, concentrating on weapons, stealth, medicine and hacking – either I or the game conveniently put a save point right before I left the Vault, which allowed me to change everything – and now I’m having a ball. Stealing items lowers my Karma score, which is fine since I’ve already decided to blow up Megaton. It’s still hard for me to be a real asshole in conversations – mostly because I don’t want to lose any potential side quests in doing so – but at the very least it’s nice to steal items with impunity.

4. Back to the NXE. I don’t really care about Avatars, at least not in their current form; there’s nothing to do with them. I do care about the Netflix thing, though, and I was able to sync up my account with absolutely no hassle. The problem, though, is that the number of streamable movies on Netflix is pretty low, and the selection is pretty weak; if I have 200 movie title in my queue, only 20 of them are streamable, and I can’t say I’m terribly excited to watch any of those 20. BUT. The option is there, and hopefully Netflix will get its act together and get more movies available online.

5. Oh, and as for Gears… it seems odd that I should be writing so little about such a big title. It is what it is, basically; it’s Gears of War 1, but better. The story is still ridiculous but it doesn’t really matter, because the gameplay is so astoundingly solid. It looks great, it feels great, the campaign is well paced and presents a nice challenge. It probably won’t be in my top 3 candidates for Game of the Year, but there’s not a lot to complain about.

>Fallout 3 / Fable 2 / Saints Row 2

>I don’t know if I qualify as a full-fledged agoraphobe, or if I’m simply someone who really enjoys staying at home, but the end result is that I don’t get out very much, and I almost never go out late. Which is why I was surprised as anyone that I found myself leaving my apartment at 11:15pm on Monday to go wait in line for the midnight release of Fallout 3. As it happens, I knew I was going to be taking a mental health day yesterday, and the line (such as it was) was pretty small, and I was home by 12:30.

As for the game itself; well, that’s a tough one. I’ve played for maybe 2 hours; I got out of the Vault, made my way to Megaton, talked to some people, made some choices, ran out of obvious things to do in Megaton and decided to find my way towards another city for a sidequest I’d picked up, and got jacked by some raiders, and then my game froze up as I lay dying. And I thought about it for a minute, and decided that maybe I should just roll a new character and start from scratch, since I wasn’t terribly excited about the choices I’d made.

Normally, whenever I play any game that features a morality system, I pretty much always choose to play a good guy on my first time through, and that’s generally pretty satisfying; certainly it makes being a bad guy that much more satisfying, when you already know what you’re going to deprive other people of. But Fallout 3 is different than these other games; the game itself takes place in a pretty ugly world, and I think I’d rather try to out-ugly the ugliness, so that if I were to play it again as a good guy, I could better appreciate my efforts.

In any event, as I said before, the game froze up, and since I was staying home all day (and let me tell you, it was an absolutely perfect day to stay inside all day playing videogames), I figured that was as good a point as any to take a break and get back into Fable 2 (and then, later, Saints Row 2).

As I said the other day, and as I’ve said in emails to friends who’ve also played it, Fable 2 has some pretty glaring technical issues and shortcomings that are hard to ignore; and yet the more I play of it, the more I enjoy it. Sure, the story is pretty much boilerplate, but I’ve grown to appreciate how the world changes based on my actions; the combat is simplistic but effective and quite fun; the sidequests and jobs are kinda meh but you can never complain that there isn’t anything to do. In fact, I’ve been kinda neglecting the main quest so that I can better explore the world and see all there is to see. My biggest problem right now is that my dog is so good at finding treasure that I find myself constantly stopping and going in a different direction to dig up whatever its found.

(Re: the dog. I understand what Peter Molyneux was saying about how he wanted people to fall in love with their dog; you want to care for it, you want to keep it happy, you feel genuine pangs of concern when you finish a big fight and you see it whimpering and limping. It’s just that I actually have 2 tiny dogs, who I really do genuinely love, and who are so tiny that they can both sit on my lap and not get in the way of my controller, and my Fable dog is just never going to be able to compete with that. She is genuinely charming and fun, though, and I do like to praise her whenever I dig up something awesome.)

The other thing about Fable is that it’s actually pretty easy. I’m probably a little more than halfway through the game but my dude is pretty goddamned powerful; the first house I bought has a Health Regeneration perk which is pretty friggin’ handy, and I’ve got a very robust supply of potions and healthy foods of which to partake in. I’ve only been knocked out once, and that was during the 2nd boss battle, and the equipment I had been given during that sequence was much worse than what I’d already been working with in before that. With the right augments, I’ve been able to generate extra XP with every kill, and I’m pretty close to being fully maxed out in almost everything. I’m pretty sure I’ve already gotten the most powerful weapons in the game, too, which is maybe a little disappointing but not that much of a big deal; killing dudes is killing dudes, and I’ve got no problem killing dudes quickly. I’ve got a nice little thing going right now; I’ll launch a level 5 Shock which renders everybody totally frozen and fucked up and then I’ll quickly finish them off with my Master Cleaver. Again: simple, but effective, and scooping up XP orbs is always satisfying.

And after getting to a logical stopping point, I put in my neglected copy of Saints Row 2. (BTW – I am utterly unable to type Saints Row correctly; it always comes out as Saints Roy, which makes no sense.) Man, that game is FUN. It’s the anti-GTA4; GTA4 was serious and moody and dark and awesome, and SR2 is totally fucking insane. (It’s also VERY stingy with Achievements, but it’s a credit to how much fun that game is that I’m still playing it and not really caring that much; I’ve been playing for almost 8 hours and I’ve only got 5 points to show for it.) And I maintain that for all its faults, it still does certain things better than GTA does, the most important being not having a death penalty. If you die during a mission, you can immediately restart it – sometimes with a checkpoint – and you don’t lose any money or ammo. WHICH IS HUGE, because you’ll die a lot. I was hoping to finish up the Ronin storyline last night, and near the end of the story arc, there’s a firefight that is absolutely insane; hundreds of Ronin are flying in from all over the place, and I’m totally outgunned, and for a while I was getting killed before I even knew what was happening. But being able to immediately retry it again was 1000 times more satisfying than waking up near a hospital, losing money and guns, and having to get back to the mission starting point.

It has its problems, though, and the biggest one is that there are almost no parked cars anywhere, which SUCKS. When you finish a mission, you re-enter the game world where the mission stopped and you are almost always without a vehicle, and the game usually takes about 10-20 seconds before it starts generating jackable vehicles; moreover, your default running speed is SLOW and your turbo running speed only lasts for about 10 seconds, so getting around on foot is a PAIN in the ASS.

But if you can get past that, and the fact that it doesn’t really look that great, it’s one hell of a fun time.