1. Hey, so, we bought a new car over the weekend.  I feel like I’m finally an Adult.  Yes, we have a child; yes, we bought a house.  But now we bought a new car, from a dealership, by ourselves.  I’m so terrified it’s going to break!  It’s not going to break.  BUT WHAT IF …

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the first few hours: NFS MW

November 6, 2012

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:


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.*

* 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.

a postcard from Brooklyn, post-Sandy

November 1, 2012

So, first thing’s first – everyone’s OK here at SFTC HQ.  As far as the hurricane goes, I came out pretty great – never lost power, heat, water or internet.  I’m a little stir crazy, I guess, since me and the wife have been more or less stuck inside since Monday, but that’s fine.  There are hundreds of thousands of fellow New Yorkers who did not get off so easy, and my heart breaks for them.

Our neighborhood is one of the few that survived pretty much unscathed, but we’re certainly not in the clear.  Because all the ports are closed, and because mass transportation is still screwed up and the roads in and out of the city are filled with traffic, supplies aren’t getting in.  The local grocery stores and bodegas are running low on pretty much everything; the gas station a few blocks away from my apartment is out of gas, surrounded by perhaps a dozen vacant cars.  And I would make the argument that when supplies finally arrive, they really ought to go to the neighborhoods that really need it first, of which there are far more than mine.

It’s a little messed up, to be honest.  I’ve been living in New York City since 1997, and I’ve never seen anything like this.  As horrible as 9/11 was – and I don’t mean to diminish how traumatic it was – the city never felt quite as isolated and cut-off as it does right now.  And I mean that in the literal sense – it is damned near impossible to get anywhere in the city, as tunnels and bridges have been closed and traffic has been nightmarish.  It’s true that mass transit has sort of returned today, but going from Brooklyn to Manhattan via subways and buses is still an exercise in futility – see this Gawker post, for example, and know that the picture in that link represents but one-sixth of the actual situation.

Still, the city is picking itself up, slowly but surely.  Indeed, the mail came today for the first time since last Saturday.  (Alas, my Gamefly copy of Assassin’s Creed 3 was not part of the delivery.)

Anyway, even though I’ve been stuck at home for the last few days, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of gaming, to be honest.  When the TV has been on, the wife and I have more or less been glued to NY1 to stay updated, and we’ve only taken breaks to watch James Bond movies.  I’ve managed to squeeze in a little bit of Forza Horizon here and there, and last night I spent a little time with XCOM.

XCOM, as it turns out, is a perfect “horror” game.  I can only play it in 30-minute chunks, actually, because (a) the battlefield gameplay is absurdly tension-filled, and (b) I am a huge pussy. And even though I’m playing it on Easy, it’s still monstrously difficult at times; when shit starts going wrong, it goes wrong really fast and before you know it your entire squad is either dead or zombie-fied.  I thought I’d been making good progress, actually – I’d cleared a few alien abduction missions without losing anyone, and the world council was very pleased with my overall performance, and I’d finally been able to create the Skeleton Key that granted me access to the alien base.  My squad was filled with experienced soldiers who wielded top-of-the-line equipment – those laser sniper rifles are insane – and I carelessly assumed that even with my overly cautious and methodical play style, I wouldn’t have too much trouble.

How wrong I was.  I cleared the first room easily enough, but then I entered the second room and encountered the Chyrssalids for the first time, and within 5 minutes my entire squad was overrun.

The turn-based nature of the game is actually a large part of the horror.  I suppose “dread” might be a better choice of word, because that’s ultimately what the feeling is; you know that no matter how long you stall in trying to figure out what to do, one of your soldiers is totally fucked.  You might have to walk away, go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, all the while thinking of a solution – but when you get back to the computer, your soldier (who has the only medkit, because you weren’t paying attention) is still about to get destroyed, and your other squadmates are either out of position or, even worse, are out of ammo and need to waste a turn to reload.

It’s a marvelous game, and I hate it.  I hate that I love it so much, and I hate that I keep having to walk away from it because I can’t take the tension.  Considering how much tension there is in NYC these days anyway, there’s only so much more I can take.

There’s not much more to report.  My copy of Need For Speed Most Wanted is apparently at my office, but I’m not going into Manhattan until the subways are running again (which probably won’t be until Monday at the earliest).  And as I said above, my copy of AC3 is in USPS limbo, though hopefully it’ll arrive tomorrow.  But really, the most important news is that everything here is OK; we are safe and warm and our dogs are keeping us company.  

the first few/last few hours: Forza Horizon, Dishonored

October 25, 2012

Before I get started, I want to sing the praises of the WordPress spam filter, which does a great job day in and day out of filtering out all the nonsense.  Like, literal nonsense.  Whoever’s coming up with the text for these spam comments is out of their minds.   Sometimes, though, the spam robots get lucky – and like the 1,000,000th monkey who typed out a Shakespearean sonnet on his typewriter, today’s comment is a thing of beauty.  Just know that my apprehension at inviting sort of spam recursion loop by pasting it here is outweighed by my desire to spread joy and love and poetry wherever I go.

You know what I’m talking about.I quit!A barking dog doesn’t bite!Most people eat, write, and work with their fight hands.You’re welcome.A bad workman quarrels with his tools.Do you realize that all of these shirts are half off?It appears to be a true story.We are divided in our opinions.It feels like spring I’ve been here before

There’s so much to love here.  And not just because “fight hands” yields a marvelous synchronicity with my new favorite iOS game (which just came out last night), Punch Questalthough that is a wonderful touch.

Anyway.  I needed to share that.

As for GAMEZ, I said goodbye to Dishonored last night, and said hello to Forza Horizon.

I had a bad feeling about Dishonored going into last night’s session, to be honest.  I was already in a weird place about it, and there was a part of me that knew that putting it down for 3-4 days wouldn’t soften its edges.  So, yeah; I played for about 20-30 minutes or so and quickly realized that I just wasn’t ever going to get back into it.  The magic was gone.  It no longer felt like an organic, natural environment; I was simply recognizing patterns and exploiting their weaknesses.  The story wasn’t ever compelling enough to keep me moving forward, either – especially since every review more or less panned the ending – and so I decided that I didn’t want to spend my time feeling bad about not liking a game anymore.

I remain in awe of the many things the game does right.  And I salute the developers for taking a chance with a new, bold IP at this stage of the hardware cycle.  I do feel guilty for not finishing it, for whatever that’s worth.

*     *     *     *     *

It took a little while for Forza Horizon‘s charms to become apparent to me.  As much as I love driving games, I don’t really care about cars or car culture, and would never willingly find myself in the middle of the desert at some car/music festival, which is the game’s central premise.  In fact, there’s an awful lot of cut scenes in the beginning of the game – perhaps too many – that go out of their way to sell you on the concept that you’re in this amazing place, doing this amazing thing, meeting all these amazing people, etc.  Say what you will about the problems with silent protagonists; I could not identify with my dude, nor did I ever have any intention of doing so.  I wanted to drive.

And about 30 minutes later, I found myself in driving game heaven.

Once the game removes the tutorial training wheels, you will find yourself on a stretch of open road, free to do whatever you want.  And the game keeps track of everything you do, so even if you’re mindlessly driving (and admiring the gorgeous scenery), you’re also earning points and money simply through the act of drifting, driving on the opposite side of the road, crashing into special signs (that unlock discounts at the garage), narrowly avoiding traffic, etc.  There are also Horizon Waypoints (or something like that – I can’t remember what they’re called) which enable fast-travelling, should you not want to drive to the other side of the map for an event.  Each waypoint features 3 mini-events, the completion of which reduces the cost of fast-travelling.  But that’s besides the point.  The point is that the simple, pure act of driving – not racing, not doing tricks – yields tangible rewards.

love this sort of thing.  This is very much why Burnout Paradise was such a revelation – you were given a huge world to explore, and you were encouraged to explore it.  It wasn’t just window dressing; there were valuables hidden away in every nook and cranny.  I’m not sure how deep Forza Horizon travels down this particular rabbit hole, but the time I spent with it last night was very encouraging.

This is just the kick in the ass the franchise needed, I think.  The regular games are still fine, best-in-class, sure, but they’re also very repetitive – you race the same tracks in the same cars year after year, with marginal graphical improvements and subtle tweaks to performance.  There is an audience for that kind of game, certainly; I’m somewhat of a member, having bought each edition.  But Forza Horizon feels fresh and new and invigorating, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing more of it in the future.

I just want to see this written down in one place. October 4:  Rage.  (Dark Souls.) October 11:  Forza 4. October 18:  Batman: Arkham City. October 25: Battlefield 3. November 1:  Uncharted 3. November 8-11:  Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3.  (MGS HD collection.) November 15:  Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Saints Row the Third.  (Need for Speed: The …

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