Backlogs and futurelogs

1.  I finished Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris last night.  I’m not sure that “underwhelmed” is the right word to describe my experience with it, though I’m having trouble finding something more apt.  The original game felt really fresh and new, and this feels very much like a safe treading over the same ground; there’s no flash or spark of inspired design.  The single-player campaign was surprisingly short, too, and even though I’ve still got some side stuff to do, it’s not all that much.  I’d still like to kick the tires on online co-op; I’ve heard that some of the puzzles change when there’s more than one person involved, and so maybe that would keep things from getting stale.  Nevertheless, I’m not feeling pulled back to beat my high scores the way I was the last time around.

2.  After finishing LC, I wanted to give Far Cry 4 another go, but for some reason I was having trouble logging in.  I’m not sure that the PS4 was having the same problems that Xbox One owners were, but the Ubisoft servers were taking a really, really, abnormally long time to get going, so I put it aside and went back to Dragon Age Inquisition to take a look at some sidequests.  Man, that game is hard to go back to once the campaign is over; suddenly all these quests seem frivolous and padded out.  I was able to overlook that when I was playing the campaign – if only because I was mostly just grinding, and the grinding was relatively fun to do – but now that there’s nothing big to work towards, I’m having a really hard time staying invested.

3.  I’m also kinda dabbling again in the PS4 version of GTA V; I’m far enough now where I’ve finished the first heist and I’ve unlocked Trevor.  Get ready for some hyperbole:  Michael is one of the worst “protagonists” in the history of the medium.  He’s such an obnoxious asshole; every word out of his mouth makes me cringe.  This is partly because the dialogue is so rotten and riddled with misogyny and condescension, but it’s also because the voice actor thinks he’s in Goodfellas or the Sopranos.  Even playing as the psychotic Trevor seems like a breath of fresh air.  I had a hard time with the game the first time around; it’s really excruciating to get through this second time, and I’m not sure I’m going to play much more of the campaign.  I don’t really know what the current state of the online side of things is; if you’re there, is it worth checking out?  I’d gotten my character to level 10 on the 360 before getting distracted with other things, and I’ve synced it up on the PS4, but… I’m not really interested in getting shot at while walking down the street.

4.  Switching gears:  I’m a little more than halfway through Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is something of a frustrating read.  On the one hand, it’s a fantastic premise for a realistic science fiction story, in that it’s about an astronaut stranded on the surface of Mars and his attempts at surviving and getting back to Earth, and all of his methods seem rooted in real-world tactics – as if the author interviewed a bunch of NASA people and asked them what someone could actually do.  On the other hand, a lot of that stuff ends up being a bit dry.  Furthermore, while the stranded astronaut is rather chipper and funny and is doing his damnedest to keep a smile on his face, there’s really no arc to him; he doesn’t have any feelings or emotions beyond finishing his next task.  The book seems to be much more about making his ordeal (and his attempts to rectify it) as realistic as possible, and I suppose the only way he could survive is if he didn’t stop to take stock about how fucked he is – and even though he does actually, literally say “I’m fucked” an awful lot, he generally manages to get un-fucked within a paragraph or two.  So there’s no real terror or dread to his predicament; he seems resigned to his fate, whether or not he’s successful at fixing it.  That’s an awfully good way to handle his predicament, of course, but it doesn’t make the book particularly moving.

5.  I’ve been trying to stop apologizing for not posting on a regular basis; I do my best to post at least 3 times a week, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way – for any number of reasons, none of which I can get into here.  But I suppose I should say that if it does get a little dark here in the next few weeks, it’s only because I’m working on some other projects which I am hoping to share with everyone soon enough.  I’ll keep you all posted on that stuff as it progresses, but in the meantime I’m trying to actually work, as opposed to talking about working (which is what I usually end up doing).

Stuffed

Capture

You may or may not have noticed that I keep a widget of what I’m currently playing.  I do my best to keep it accurate and timely, though sometimes I miss a few things here and there.  In any event, I’m marking this specific moment in time here because, if for some strange reason you’re reading this particular post in future weeks/months, it won’t look like that.  The current rotation widget may not look like that ever again.  Such a thing is simply unsustainable, because (i) unless I’m suddenly unemployed and (ii) I am also no longer required to be a parent, there can be no time to play all these games, and (iii) if everything in (i) and (ii) is (god forbid) true, then there’s certainly no money to purchase them.

More than that:  having this sort of to-do list is incredibly intimidating, and we’re not even taking into account my Steam backlog.   I’ve spoken before of the weird need to be part of the conversation, or to at least to have an understanding of what the current conversation is about, and this pathological need to be “up” on as many possible games as my brain can allow is basically a recipe for disappointment.  In my mad rush to dip my toes into all of these games, I’m resistant to letting myself get sucked into any particular one, and so I’m not having nearly as much fun with the fall blockbuster releases as I’d like.

I used to be this way with music.  I’d go to the record store and buy 5-10 CDs all at once (I realize that there might be some of you who are totally unfamiliar with this experience, and for that I pity you – to be fair, I also did this same sort of binging on iTunes and Amazon MP3) and listen to them all, only eventually sticking with the one that I liked the most.   It took two things to get me to stop acting this way:  the first was the realization that taste-making sites like Pitchfork, which I’d been relying upon since a few months after it launched, were no longer in sync with my own personal tastes (this 6.6 for the self-titled Forms album, for example – one of my favorite albums of all time – was the final straw), and the second was Spotify, which I was more than happy to spend $10/month on, considering how much listening I was doing (and continue to do).  (And yes, I do wish Spotify would modify their method of distributing revenue to artists – this Medium article has a much fairer and better approach.)  I still devour new albums and catch up on older ones I’ve missed, but I’m no longer putting self-applied pressure to absorb them into my bloodstream as quickly as possible.

I do still binge on books, but I can only read one thing at a time.  I have a good friend who’s constantly reading 2-3 books at once (while also writing her own novel and poetry), and I have no idea how her brain doesn’t explode.  As far as books go, though, the idea of a book backlog is comforting as opposed to intimidating; I generally read rather quickly, so I know I can get to stuff, but I also like knowing that I have a new book for nearly any mood that might strike.

Games, though… there’s this pressure to play them all, as soon as possible, and the pressure comes from all different angles.  If you’re into multiplayer, you more or less have to start from Day One – I just bought an Xbox One but I can’t possibly imagine jumping into Titanfall right now, since none of my friends are still playing it and I’d have to guess that only the hardest of hard-core fans are still around, which also implies that there’s absolutely no possibility for survival for a noob.  On the flip side, if you’re into single-player, you have to start early, too, so that you’re not accidentally spoiler’d.

There’s also the long-term pressure of simply staying current with the hardware you’re using.  If I’d never gotten around to playing, say, Red Dead Redemption, I’d be totally screwed now – my PS3 is in our bedroom, and my 360 is basically dead.  Sure, the PC is a bit better in terms of legacy titles, but by the same token – why would I want to start Baldur’s Gate 2 right now when I could instead start Divinity: Original Sin, which is itself already a few months old by this point?  And why would I play either of those when I have Dragon Age Inquisition on my PS4 right this very minute?

At some point I know I’ll get over this pressure to be on top of everything, especially since I’m currently under no professional obligations to actually be on top of everything.  But in the meantime, it’s driving me insane.  I think I said this yesterday – wanting to play all these games at the same time means I can’t actually allow myself to get sucked in to any of them.  I was telling a friend this morning – playing the new GTA V right now is an exercise in absurdity, because I’m too used to the first-person controls of Far Cry 4 to be able to deal with the changes in GTA’s 1st person scheme (even if you can change them), and similarly I’ve got Assassin’s Creed Unity in my fingers, which makes moving in GTA’s 3rd person scheme tricky, too (I keep hitting R2 to run, and I end up punching people in the face).  And having all three of those games in my hands means that the aforementioned Dragon Age Inquisition – the one game I genuinely want to play more than any of these others – is basically impossible.


In that list above you’ll also notice I’m currently playing Rollers of the Realm.  It’s a pinball/RPG hybrid, and it’s on the Vita, and it’s everything you could ever want a pinball/RPG hybrid to be.  (Here, let Kotaku’s Leo Wichtowski tell you about it.)  I played it during this morning’s commute and was charmed immensely; the dialogue is unexpectedly sharp and well-written thus far, but the pinball itself is solid and fun, and will be my go-to commute game for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know if this is true for all Vita owners or if it’s just my own particular experience, but my Vita’s download speeds are so ridiculously slow that it defies logic and reason.  Rollers of the Realm is 350 MB.  I started downloading it at 8:00 pm last night.  It didn’t finish until 7:00 this morning.  That’s 11 hours to download 350 MB.  The only reason why a 350 MB download should take 11 hours is because the current year is 1997.

Tom Bissell on GTA V

Not a GTA V post from me; instead, it’s Tom Bissell writing about GTAV for Grantland.  I’ve not even yet finished it, but this particular bit was worth reposting:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. …I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

The First Few Hours: GTA V

[Editor’s note: I am very much wanting to write about my first few hours with GTA V right now, but I’m also in the middle of a work-related anxiety attack.  I apologize in advance if whatever follows is gibberish.]

My weirdness about GTA V continues.  This weekend I was having GTA dreams; then, on Sunday night – the night before the game got reviewed – I got no sleep, and instead was having some sort of weird anxiety attack, part of which might very well have been triggered by review anticipation.   A wide assortment of badness happened on Monday morning and so I ended up staying home from work, and so I juggled taking care of the baby while also power-reading through the reviews from all the major sites (while being very careful to avoid the comment sections).

The reviews were more or less what I expected them to be – perfect or near-perfect scores, though not without some caveats, cautions and concerns.  And while I did manage to avoid the comment sections, it was the gaming press themselves on Twitter who reposted the commentariat’s vitriolic, frothing rage over point deductions.  Only on the internet does a 9/10 score get almost 20,000 comments simply because the reviewer dared to point out that the game engages in some misogynistic and racist behavior – behavior which is not unusual for the series but which, in this case, is especially troubling because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be as satirically designed as the rest of the game’s social commentaries.

Anyway, my copy of the game arrived on Tuesday, and I played it for 3-4 hours or so.  And now I’m all sorts of fucked up about it.

On the plus side: it’s technologically impressive as all hell, and by far the best looking game Rockstar’s ever made.   This is the first disc-based AAA game I’ve played on my 360 in months, I think, and I’m kinda blown away as to how good it looks.  I played Red Dead over the weekend and that game still looks terrific, but GTA V really takes it to the next level.   The city is colorful and crisp, the art direction is impeccable, and the animation is among the most convincing I’ve ever seen – especially the ragdoll physics, which are borderline creepy.

And as for the stuff on my wishlist, they pretty much nailed everything I wanted:

  • Failing a mission is much less punishing, and merely results in a mid-mission checkpoint restart.  YES.
  • Ambient events – I haven’t seen these for myself yet, but I watched some gameplay video yesterday and so I know they’re in there.  YES.
  • Miscellaneous challenges – GTA is a different sort of beast than RDR; I don’t know if there’s a treasure hunt yet.  Surely there are hidden collectibles, as there are in all GTA games, but I’ve never been good at finding them.  That said, the tennis mini-game isn’t terrible (though the camera is a bit low), and the golf isn’t terrible (though it’s not great, either) – I’m not sure I’ll play them again, but it was nice to see that there was at least some effort into putting those things together.  Still, I’ve only played for a few hours; there’s a million things I haven’t done or seen yet, and so the  JURY IS STILL OUT.
  • The combat system is very much improved.  Takes everything that worked from RDR and MP3 and further refines it.  Cover system works the way it’s supposed to; targeting works the way it’s supposed to; the radial menu works just fine. YES.
  • I threw in that bit about navigation almost as an afterthought, and yet that was addressed as well.  The new GPS system has a subtle 3D tilt to it, which makes navigation a lot easier (even if I find myself looking in the lower corner more than I’d like).  Still, I wasn’t expecting that, and they addressed it anyway.  YES.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is now a much-needed quick-save option.  This was the very first thing I tried once I had the opportunity.  YES YES YES.

On the negative side:  the short version is that I’m very, very glad that I was wearing headphones.  In the first few hours alone, the script uses more “n-words” than Quentin Tarantino writing a Sam Jackson monologue on 6 cups of coffee.  And I’m using Tarantino as an example because the Houser brothers, as far as I know, are just as white as Quentin is, and so it’s a little weird.  All the dialogue in the game has a stilted quality to it – I suppose it’s meant to sound very naturalistic, but it’s also a little over-eloquent and in love with itself.

And the characters themselves are not what you’d call “nice guys”.  It would be hard to expect them to be, and I’m not necessarily sure I’d want them to be – it’s weird enough playing Uncharted and pretending I’m the charming rogue Nathan Drake while killing 700+ people.  But these characters are ugly, and from what I hear they don’t necessarily get any more endearing, and if this game is as large as it appears to be, well, that’s a lot of hours I’m going to be spending while feeling rather uncomfortable.

I think my larger issue is that the GTA franchise – arguably the most important and influential gaming franchise around, and certainly my personal favorite – has the unique opportunity to do bold and interesting things.  (In fact, Rockstar does do bold and interesting things – in their non-GTA games, like Red Dead and Bully and even The Warriors (and, lest we forget, Table Tennis)).  The rest of the gaming world gets the hell out of the way whenever a GTA game comes out – it’s a special event, it’s something that everyone pays attention to.  These are important games.   And so I guess what I’m saying is that it would be nice if the narrative could rise to the occasion, and not just the technology.

GTA V wishlist

I’ve been getting a little weird about GTA V over the last few days; I’m in that super-hyped-up pre-release phase where it’s pretty much all I can think about.  Hell, I played an hour of Red Dead last night and ended up having non-stop dreams about GTA.

I say this all the time, that comparing new work to previous work can be awfully reductive in terms of analysis, but here’s the thing – most Rockstar games end up sharing a lot of DNA, and pretty much every game that they’ve put out since GTA IV has made remarkable strides in terms of the overall gameplay experience, and so there’s things in those games that I would like to see integrated into GTA V.  As I said above, I’ve spent a few hours this weekend playing Red Dead Redemption specifically so as to get re-acclimated to that game engine and the marvelous little touches that are sprinkled throughout, as well as a tiny little bit of Max Payne 3, which really refined the combat systems perfectly.

Anyway, since the reviews are coming tomorrow morning, I’m feeling compelled to get out in front of them and speak my mind as to what I hope to see.  I know nobody will read this between now and then, but for whatever reason I feel like I need to be on record about the stuff I want.

  • The penalties for failing a mission in previous GTAs were unbelievably harsh; if something went wrong, you were kicked out and had to manually trigger the mission again, minus whatever ammo you lost; if you died, you woke up at a hospital without a car and out a not-insubstantial percentage of cash.  Whereas in RDR, you just restarted at a mid-mission checkpoint.  Saints Row has been doing this for the last few iterations, too; it just makes sense.
  • RDR’s ambient events did so much to make that world feel alive; I know that an urban environment makes that a bit tougher to pull off, especially when the 3 characters are not exactly the sorts of good samaritans that would be inclined to help out strangers, but it’d be nice to see something along those lines.
  • Similarly, not that GTA games have ever needed help getting the player off the linear path, but the challenges in RDR opened up the world and the gameplay and encouraged exploration; for me, the treasure hunting and survivalist challenges are still absorbing and compelling, even all these years later.  If GTA V has something along those lines, I’ll be very, very happy.
  •   Max Payne 3’s combat took the cover system and controls of RDR and made it super-tight and focused; I always felt in total control over every bullet I fired.  Now, granted, MP3 is specifically focused on combat, and the bullet-time tactic is an integral part of the experience; I don’t expect GTA V to have that kind of thing.  But the tightness of MP3’s controls are tough to beat, and it would be really nice to see a GTA game with decent combat for once.
  • An improved navigation system; while RDR’s corner map with highlighted route worked just fine, I’ve grown very accustomed to Saints Row’s on-road arrow system.  I would never expect GTA to go that far in terms of change; they’d never alter the physical environment just to make it easier for you to see where you were going.  Still, though, I’d like to see something to make it a little easier to find my way around.
  • Would LOVE to be able to save anywhere I wanted.  I grew very tired of having to find a safehouse every time I need to save.  Now, I seem to recall there being sort of automatic save system after every completed mission in The Ballad of Gay Tony – but I’d still prefer the option to make a hard save whenever the urge strikes me.  (As a parent of a 5-month old baby, needing to save at a moment’s notice is very, very important.)

I think that should cover everything.  I’ll be posting impressions at every possible opportunity this week, though I fully expect nobody to be reading.  See you guys online in a few weeks!

on nostalgia, prog rock, and games

Nostalgia is the enemy of all great art, rock and roll most of all, since at its best it is a celebration of the now.
– Jim DeRogatis, “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why today is a tough day to write about games, even if today is a day where I’d prefer to be distracted by writing about things that keep me distracted.

But it’s also tough to write about games because, well, this is the week before GTAV, the game I’ve probably been looking forward to more than any other game of this generation.*  And as such, I’m having trouble staying focused on the games that are already in front of me.  I played around 30 minutes of Rayman Legends on Monday, and around 20 minutes of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs last night, and while they’re both really impressive (even if for wildly different reasons), I found my mind wandering.  (And yet I continue to play the shit out of Giant Boulder of Death on my iPhone, even as it eats up my battery like crazy.)

Anyway, I feel like I need to write something, so indulge me as I ramble for a bit.  (It will turn back around to games, I promise.)

*      *      *

Yesterday I started reading “Yes Is The Answer: (And Other Prog-Rock Tales)“,** a collection of essays about the big prog bands of the 70s.  It actually ends up reading mostly like long sort-of-but-not-really-apologies about liking the big prog bands of the 70s, because admitting that you like prog rock is, I guess, a mark of shame.  I had the good fortune of discovering prog rock during the late 80s/early 90s at summer camp, long after punk had kicked prog to the curb (but just before grunge came back to finish the job), and so I don’t necessarily feel guilty about my unabashed love for Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.

Anyway, I was reading this book and I happened to have Spotify open on my computer while I was reading – this way, I could listen to the bands that were being talked about that I didn’t know all that well.  (i.e., Caravan, the Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Nice, Incredible String Band, etc.)  It was an illuminating afternoon, even if, as it turns out, there are certain bands that I will never, ever, ever be able to get into.

For example, Emerson Lake & Palmer – I just can’t do it.  And I should be able to appreciate them, as I’ve been a keyboard player since I was 3 years old and Keith Emerson ought to have been my keyboard hero, because my keyboard heroes when I was younger were Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel – but I’m 37 now, and I like what I like, and when I go back and listen to that stuff it’s impenetrable.  It’s the same thing with King Crimson (even though I adore Red).  And while I do love Yes, it’s really only certain albums that I can still enjoy listening to – the ones I know the best.  Of all those prog bands, Genesis was the only one where I forced myself in recent years to become familiar with the albums that I hadn’t been familiar with when I was younger – and I suppose that’s only because they were my favorite prog band and I was predisposed to get past the stuff that turned off other people.  (And also because the remastered box sets from a few years ago sound fucking incredible.)

Likewise, not prog, but still:  David Bowie – can’t do it.  And I respect the shit out of him, and I appreciate that he’s well-loved by pretty much everyone.  I forced myself to get into Ziggy Stardust, and by and large I do like that album a great deal, but I just can’t get into anything else.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get into The Berlin Trilogy, but there’s something about the production aesthetic that bugs the hell out of me – it totally obscures the songwriting and the vocals, and I’ve never been able to get past it.

Anyway, I thought about this a lot yesterday, and I started to wonder if this knee-jerk reaction to certain genres of music applies to other media.   It’s hard to say, I suppose, because rock music – much more so than film or books – is very much defined by its era and its immediate context, and so an older band can be a bit more difficult to get into if you already don’t have an innate sense of where it was coming from.***

For example, I don’t find capital-F Film to be that difficult to get into, of any era; maybe there are certain filmmakers that i can’t see eye-to-eye with, but by and large I’m willing to give most any film a chance (even if I don’t often find myself longing for old-timey, black-and-white films).  TV is a bit trickier, as old shows can feel incredibly dated now,**** but to be fair I’ve never been a big TV guy to begin with.

Games are a different story altogether.  (See?  I told you it would come back around to games!)  Because it’s more than just cultural context at play – it’s just straight-up technology that gets in the way.  Even games that are only 5 years old can be technically horrific to look at, compared to what we’re used to today.  Gameplay systems and conventions have evolved radically, exponentially; GTA3 is damn-near impossible for me to enjoy these days, especially now that Rockstar Games has so clearly reinvented the combat wheel with Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption – indeed, even GTA4 feels downright archaic.  How can I go back to Oblivion (where I’ve spent over 100 hours) now that I’ve clomped around Skyrim? Could I even enjoy KOTOR now?  I think I have it on my iPad and I kinda don’t care, and we’re talking about one of my favorite games of all time.  I tried playing System Shock 2 when it came out on Steam a few months ago – one of the “greatest games of all time” – and couldn’t get much farther than the tutorial; it felt alien and strange and unintuitive and not fun.  If I’d played it when it originally came out, I suppose I might have been more forgiving towards it – but as a new player, it was impossible to get into.

And, of course, there are plenty of older games that are literally impossible to play now, because there are no logistical ways to play them.  Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite JRPGs*****, but unless they make an HD remake I’ll never play it again – I’m not even sure my Dreamcast can hook up to my HDTV without needing some arcane adapters.  And my love for all things Tim Schafer can only begin with Grim Fandango, as I never played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle and I don’t have the technological savvy to make that happen without accidentally setting my PC on fire.

*      *      *

If you made it this far, thank you.  I’m sorry I don’t have a central point to all this rambling; ultimately this was about me trying not to have panic attacks about what happened 12 years ago.  It feels like a lifetime ago, even if a lot of it is still simmering in my brain and my blood, as fresh as if it happened this morning.  It changed me; it scarred me.  It bothers me a little when people say “Never Forget”, because if you were there, you can’t forget it.  I was only a few months removed from temping down there, actually; indeed, if I hadn’t had the world’s worst boss at the time, I might’ve still been there.

Hug your loved ones; keep them close.

__________________________________
* I wrote this without really thinking about it; but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it’s true.  The only other game that might come close in terms of me going bananas with anticipation is Portal 2.  (What’s notable about Portal 2, though, is that it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, which is something that almost never happens.)  I’m trying to think of other games that I was absurdly excited about; I know I waited in a midnight line at Gamestop for GTA4, and I might’ve waited on a midnight line for Skyrim, but those were unique situations in that I knew I wouldn’t have to be at work the following day and that there was a Gamestop within walking distance from my apartment.  I did get pretty nerded-out for Beatles: Rock Band, of all things.

** The book is good though uneven – and of course you will only bother to pick it up if you’re already a fan of the music – but the absolute knockout of the bunch is Tom Junod’s piece about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, which can and should be read by anyone.  I’m cutting and pasting from the L.A. Times’ review, since it says all that needs to be said:

“The indisputable star in this band of essayists is Tom Junod, whose “Out, Angels Out” might be worth the book’s $24 price by itself. Junod revisits a perilous passage in his late teens when he was falling into alienation and despondency. Genesis singer Peter Gabriel became the lifeline that pulled him through — although Junod’s closest sidekick in prog didn’t make it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about rock music or, for that matter, about how adolescence can suddenly turn into a rope bridge over a chasm in a howling wind.”

*** My parents were both classical musicians and didn’t listen to rock music in the house at all, and even listening to the Top 40 countdown on the weekends was a minor act of rebellion on my part (even if I did it on my tiny boom box at very low volumes).   So it makes sense to me why certain, classically-influenced prog music would resonate so deeply with me as a teenager away at summer camp, surrounded by all the older brothers I never actually had.  (It was a performing arts camp, too, so my fellow campers were already predisposed to liking geeky things; it was a save haven for all of us to rejoice in our nerdiness without getting punched by jocks.)

**** Case in point – the wife and I ended up watching a lot of TJ Hooker during Labor Day weekend, and it’s just ridiculous that anyone could’ve been a genuine fan of such unintentional silliness.

***** Skies of Arcadia is also the first JRPG I ever played, so that might have something to do with it.  I have absolutely no idea if it holds up today; I’m not even sure I want an HD remake, because I don’t want my memories to be squashed.  (If someone out there who is in charge of such things is reading this, I want you to know I’d still buy it – just turn down the number of random encounters a smidge and we’d be all set.)

a light glimmers in the dark

Not to be too melodramatic here, but I’ve been feeling bummed out about games lately, and I came pretty close to shutting this blog down.

To be more specific:  I felt disconnected from a hobby that I’ve been passionate about for almost 30 years.  I felt like I wasn’t able to connect with games anymore, and I wasn’t sure if it was because I’d gotten older and harder to reach, or that the games themselves simply didn’t care about trying to reach me.  I felt increasingly at odds with the community at large, what with hostile comment threads and Twitter bullying, horrendous attitudes on sexism, sexuality, race and equality.   I’d begun to feel alienated from one of the only things that really made me feel like I belonged anywhere.

And then, all of a sudden:  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes out and hits me square in the solar plexus.

And now, earlier this week: sterling reviews for the latest DLC for Dishonored (which prompted me to go finish The Knife of Dunwall), Saints Row IV, and possibly one of the most anticipated indie games of the year:  Gone Home, which I’m in the process of purchasing right this very minute.  Not to mention Plants v Zombies 2, which I’ve been doodling around with on my iPhone.  And also Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, which I’ve played about an hour or so and which so far is a very good-looking Mario & Luigi RPG, which suits me just fine.

Oh, and then this GTAV trailer, which is fucking insane:

Maybe it was just the summer doldrums bringing me down.  But I’m back, baby!

EDIT:  I can’t believe I forgot to mention Papers, Please and the inexplicably well-reviewed new Splinter Cell.  Sweet mercy, it’s been a pretty amazing month.

moving on

“Hey everybody it’s Tuesday…”

Still trying to process yesterday’s tragic news.  The internet’s collective outpouring of love, support and grief went a long way  And of course now I’m wondering if there will be a Bombcast today, and, if so, whether I’ll be able to handle it.

As for things bumming me out that actually directly affect my life, today is doubly tough because it was my son’s first day of day care.  I had to drop him off before I left for work, and he was already unhappy before I finished getting him out of the stroller.   I peeked through the window right before I left, and he was sitting on one of the older women’s laps, crying, not wanting the offered pacifier.   Broke my heart to leave him, but I was already running late for work.

In any event, it seems a bit harder than usual to talk about videogames, so I’m going to cut-and-paste and re-write a draft from last week that I never got around to finishing, and maybe that will help me get back on track.

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Finished Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [July 1st].  That’s a fun little game, I have to say.  I may have made this comparison before; it’s Bastion plus Bulletstorm in the Old West, which is a better-sounding combo than you’d think.  It took me about 5 hours to get through the story, and while it really wasn’t towards the end of the game that I started to feel like I was getting good at it, I still had a pretty good time overall.   Certainly worth picking up in a Summer Sale, if such an offering is available, but even at $20 it’s money well spent.

*     *     *

I also managed to finish The Last of Us over the long weekend.  I finished it on “Easy”, and I understand from reading other TLOU articles that doing so prevented me from really feeling the game, but I don’t buy that; the game was plenty difficult even on Easy, because Clickers will always one-hit kill you, and sometimes the PS3 controller doesn’t do what I ask of it.  I’m guessing the biggest advantage in Easy was that I had more ammo, but I still generally tried to stealth my way around whenever possible.

It’s a remarkable experience (that opening sequence is one of the best of all time), and it’s certainly a landmark technical achievement (certainly in the top 5 best-looking/sounding games of this generation), and yet it’s also a game that I don’t think I want to play again.  It’s too dark, too soul-crushing, too depressing; I’m glad I experienced it the first time, but I don’t see what I would gain through a second playthrough beyond finding all the hidden collectibles – and one does not play The Last of Us to find hidden collectibles.

*     *     *

I mentioned this at the bottom of one of last week’s posts; I’ve gotten back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which is surprising given how disappointed I was when I tried playing it on the 360 last year.  The PC experience is a completely different beast, however; it is absolutely gorgeous, for one thing, and the game experience feels a lot more polished and smooth than the 360 version.  And so now that it’s working the way it’s supposed to, I’m finally able to appreciate what Criterion was trying to do.

I think I was always going to be disappointed after it first launched, because even without the technical problems I was having on the 360, my primary issue was always that I really wanted NFSMW to be Burnout Paradise 2, and because it wasn’t, I couldn’t really judge it fairly and objectively.  The Need for Speed brand meant nothing to me, and my intense love of all things Criterion couldn’t save me from eventually walking away from the (still-excellent) Hot Pursuit.

But now that I’ve had a few months to forget about my first run and can finally see it with clearer eyes, I’m actually pretty impressed.  If anything, it’s a lot more like Burnout Paradise than I was willing to give it credit for – and I might even argue that it’s got a better (or at least more intuitive) career progression than BoP.

Sometimes I get intimidated by non-linear games – I mean, I appreciate that I have all this freedom, but unless I’m doing something constructive I feel lost and/or overwhelmed.  (This is why Skyrim‘s quests will always be more appealing to me than Minecraft‘s sandbox.)  What I do appreciate, though, is that even if you’re not racing, there’s still lots of side things to do – security gates to crash, hidden cars to unlock, billboards to jump through.  And in the meantime, if you actually want to advance in the game, there’s lots of ways to do that – each car you find has its own series of races to complete (with noticeable performance-improving incentives for finishing 1st), and once you accumulate enough of whatever the XP equivalent is, you can engage in the game’s version of Boss Battles.

I’m spending too long talking about a game that came out last year that nobody else is playing, but still – if it shows up on sale (and I happened to pick it up for $15 during an Amazon Digital Download sale), it’s a damn fun time – especially (as I noted above) if you’re playing on PC, which is miles ahead of the 360 version.

*     *     *

Finally, I can’t not talk about the GTA V gameplay trailer that came out this morning.  Obviously, if you’re reading this post you’ve already watched it, but just in case you want to watch it again:

I don’t really know what else to say about it, other than I love how Rockstar’s been doing these “informercial”-ish trailers for the last few years.  (I seem to recall Red Dead Redemption getting this sort of treatment, and certainly Max Payne 3 had some as well.)

And I suppose I could point out that it appears as if they’re adapting certain elements of RDR’s combat system, which is very good news indeed.  (One of the reasons why RDR remains one of my favorite games of all time is because the gunplay was immensely fun and satisfying in all the ways that GTA IV‘s was not.)

And while I don’t necessarily see this game getting as far-out crazy as San Andreas did (i.e., I’d be very surprised to see a jetpack), it certainly does look as though they’re incorporating a lot more of the side stuff that made San Andreas as compulsively playable as it was (i.e., tennis, parasailing, long-distance cycling, etc.).  As long as there’s no David Cross-narrated model plane combat side mission, we’re good to go.

GTAV news

Rockstar just put out a fan-submitted Q&A regarding GTAV, which can be found here.

There’s some questions about customizable weaponry, maps, multiplayer, etc.  But the two key points of information that I was most curious about are:

(1)…In order to provide the best possible experience for such a massive and detailed world, the game will have installation requirements on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation®3 systems. For Xbox 360, Grand Theft Auto V will ship on two discs; Disc 1 will be used for a one-time mandatory install and Disc 2 will be used to play the game. After the install, players will be able to enjoy both Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online without any need to switch discs.

This initial install will require an Xbox 360 Hard Drive or an external 16GB USB flash drive with at least 8 GB of free space. If using a USB flash drive it must be at least USB 2.0 with a minimum 15mb/s read speed and formatted for Xbox 360 use. A new USB flash drive is recommended to ensure optimum performance.  For PlayStation®3, the game ships on one disc and will install content as soon as you insert the game. The install is roughly 8GB, and players will be able to play as soon as the install is complete.
*   *   *
(2) The only versions of the game that we have announced are for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation®3 which are set for a September 17th worldwide release. We don’t have anything to share about the possibility of a next-gen or a PC platform release at this time and we are completely focused on delivering the best possible experience for the consoles people have right now.
In response to a question as to the differences between the PS3 and 360 versions of the game, Rockstar replies:
“Players can expect the same great gameplay experience on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms as they have both been developed in tandem.  Like all of our games, trust that we’re committed to making sure Grand Theft Auto V looks and runs as great as possible regardless of whether you pick it up for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, and we are excited for fans on both platforms to experience Grand Theft Auto V this September. We expect any visual differences to be completely negligible.”
I had always planned on playing GTAV on my 360 (since I imagine that’s where most of my gamer buddies would play it, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the multiplayer), but for some reason I’m a little hesitant now.  I’m sure the 2-disc thing isn’t a big deal, and I pretty much always install my games to the 360 hard drive anyway, since the disc drive and the internal fan tend to make a lot of noise when a disc is spinning.   If you’re reading this and you’ve only played the PS3 versions of Rockstar’s games this generation, how are they?  If you’ve had a chance to compare/contrast between PS3 and 360, which did you prefer?
Their answer regarding PC and net-gen platforms sounds to me like a big fat “yes”, but probably not until mid-2014 at the earliest.  Which is fine.  It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve bought the same game on multiple platforms.
Still, I must ask, since this is the one game I can’t miss this year:

belt tightening

Last night, the wife and I had a tough conversation about money.

Our 3-month old son (that’s him in the site’s header image, by the way) had his first “transition” daycare visit this morning, and he starts going in earnest in 2 weeks.  And for us to be able to afford daycare – and keep ourselves in baby supplies, and pay the rent and the rest of our bills, and also eat – well, we’re already cutting it pretty close, and there’s not a hell of a lot of wiggle room.  I’ve also got some rather sizable debt to pay off, too, and while I’ve made considerable progress on that front I’ve still got a ways to go, which makes this all the more anxiety-inducing.

Something’s got to give, basically.

And after some online banking and some soul-searching (and a little bit of drinking), I came to the realization that the only thing I really spend any extra money on these days is games.

This kinda sucks, as you might imagine – I am a self-professed consumer whore – but the more I think about it, this is not the worst time to be a broke gamer.   If I’m truly honest with myself, there’s really only one game coming out this year that I need in any sort of non-negotiable way.  Steam will have having its Summer Sale any minute now, too, and I could probably see myself picking up one or two things on my wishlist if they’re discounted enough – but let’s be honest here, after all the previous Steam Sales, there’s really not all that much that’s left for me to buy.  And I can certainly pare down my Gamefly account to one game at a time, as opposed to three, to be able to handle the rest of the to-do list.

Hell, let’s look at that to-do list (aka my GameQ) while we’re here, and I’ll take this opportunity to debut a new feature I’m calling Keep or Cut:

  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – I don’t even know what this is, to be honest – I’d just heard some positive word of mouth, and I wanted any excuse to keep my 3DS busy.  Will most likely CUT.
  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team (3DS) – if I can finish The Last of Us quickly enough, I should be able to rent this close to its release date.  Since Mario Golf: World Tour got pushed to 2014, this is the only must-have 3DS game I can see for the rest of 2013.  KEEP.
  • Saints Row 4 – I’m a big Saints Row fan, but I’ve had my doubts about this ever since they first announced it.  I do not expect high review scores, though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.  KEEP, but with reservations.
  • Splinter Cell: Blacklist – this was always only going to be a rental.  Chaos Theory was the high watermark for the series, and everything since then has been pretty disappointing.  Haven’t seen any indication that I should revise my expectations.  CUT.
  • Rayman Legends – Assuming this is as delightful as Origins was, this is an automatic KEEP.  Though I really ought to go back and finish Origins first.
  • GTA V – I’m not sure why this is still on my rental queue, as I’m probably going to pre-order it as soon as I finish this post.  (Still hoping for a PC release, though.)  KEEP.
  • Beyond: Two SoulsIs this the PS3’s final swan song?  More to the point – do I care?  While I remain in awe of David Cage’s wild ambition, I never finished Heavy Rain and didn’t really enjoy what I’d played, either.  Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, so this gets a KEEP.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins – as far as I can tell, this is the last “big” release of 2013 for current-gen consoles that I have any real interest in, since I don’t care about Call of Duty and I’ve lost all my faith in Assassin’s Creed.   But we all know this isn’t a Rocksteady joint, and this game is starting to smell like a cash-in.  CUT.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s no next-gen titles on this list.  That’s because I probably can’t afford a next-gen console this year; but even if I could, I still haven’t yet decided between the PS4 and the Xbox One.  I’m obviously leaning towards the PS4, but if Microsoft continues its backtracking ways and decides to play ball with indie developers by putting a less-restrictive self-publishing policy in place, well, that might keep the pendulum swinging the other way.  In any event, the only real “next-gen” game that speaks to me in any meaningful way is Watch Dogs, and that’s also coming to PC – which is a platform that already speaks to my current gaming habits anyway.

And speaking of the PC, the other clear upside to being on an austerity budget for the foreseeable future is that there’s really no excuse anymore for me to not finally tackle the GIGANTIC backlog of unfinished games I have in my Steam library.  Hell, even if I only stuck to seeing all the stuff in Skyrim that I never saw on the 360, that would be plenty.  (Now I just need to get over my seething Skyrim rage, which I’ve never quite managed to quell.)

I kinda don’t feel so terrible about this anymore.  I’ll call that a win.