Back in the saddle, more or less

(blows dust off blog)

OK, so: I was on vacation last week, but given certain recent events both personal and professional, I apparently needed to unplug from the internet for quite a bit longer.

i am still here, in my mind.

It’s hard to write about games when you’re not playing anything; it’s hard to write about music when you’d rather have people actually hear what you’re doing instead of poorly describing the process of creating it.  Also it’s hard to write, in general, when certain professional obligations make it impossible to do so.

But:  I’m back from vacation now, with my batteries somewhat recharged (it’s hard to fully relax when you have a two-year-old who’s favorite words are “No!” and “Stop!”), and I’ve returned to a day job that is considerably less stressful now than it was before I left.  These are good things!  Hopefully this means I’ll be writing here a bit more frequently than in recent weeks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about loops lately.  I’ve been watching my two-year-old son get into these “fun loops” at the local playground; he’ll climb up a ladder, run over a bridge, climb some steps, go down a slide, and then run back to the ladder and do the whole thing over and over and over again; he will not be deterred; if a kid gets in his way he either waits for them to pass (if they’re bigger) or steps around them (if they’re smaller) and then continues along his path; he’ll accept a brief respite for me to wipe his nose but that’s the only interruption that’s allowed, and he screams bloody murder if it’s time to go.

Maybe he gets it from me.  I’ve had a thing about loops ever since I can remember.  Not just in terms of games or playing, either.  I remember when I was first getting into music – like, really getting into music, during endless adolescent afternoons, when I would just tune out the entire world and get thoroughly absorbed in a cassette tape – I’d get to a favorite part in a song, and as soon as it was over I’d have to rewind and hear it again, and I’d do this over and over again until I memorized exactly how long I needed to rewind before getting to the beginning of the section.  (I still do this, of course, but instead of memorizing rewind time, I’m now memorizing timestamps.)

The point being:  that famous Halo quote about “30 seconds of fun” would appear to be something that’s hard-wired into our brains from an early age.  Speaking of which, that link above gives that quote a bit more context, in that the guy who said it didn’t mean to imply that in Halo you’re doing the exact same thing over and over again, but instead they’re switching the context on you so that the 30-second rush is constantly new and fresh.  This applies to the music analogy, though, too – if I get caught up in a favorite music section, I’ll listen to something once and then focus on a specific part, and then rewind and focus on a different part, each successive time my brain holding on to something new and different.

I did play some games on vacation – and on my Vita, too, which is nice.  I’d bought a few things before we left – Shovel Knight and Titan Souls, while also still staying heavily engaged with Stealth Inc. 2 – but as it turns out I ended up getting sucked back into SteamWorld Dig, for some reason.  That game is pretty neat, I think.  I’m still very early on, but it seems to be doing this very neat open-world Dig-Dug thing, which I find very pleasing and enjoyable.

I beat the first boss in Shovel Knight, and that game is fun, but – as I’ve said elsewhere – I don’t have that much nostalgic fondness for the 16-bit era that it’s clearly emulating, and so I’m finding that while I appreciate its slavish devotion, I’m not necessarily hungry for it the way everybody else is.  (Same thing goes for Axiom Verge, too – and where’s the Vita version of that, I wonder?)

I’m not sure Titan Souls is for me, though I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand so quickly, given that I’ve only actually beaten the very first boss.

Last night I felt a bit restless (for reasons I’ll explain at a later date, if all goes well) and downloaded Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China for the PS4.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous 2.5-D stealth platformer that makes me really wish I was playing Mark of the Ninja 2; it’s still very Assassin’s Creed-ish, which means the controls don’t always work the way I expect them to, and the UI is still very crowded (which is annoying, given the aforementioned graphical beauty).  But it’s at least not the same old thing, as far as the AC franchise is concerned, and so I’ll try to stick with it for the time being.

Over the vacation I finished the Valis trilogy by Philip K. Dick.  That’s the first PKD I’ve ever read, by the way, and I’d probably guess that it’s not the best way to start off with him, especially since I’m not what you’d call a religious person by any means.  It’s certainly very interesting and thought-provoking, of course, and after reading VALIS I’m certainly interested in at least thumbing through PKD’s Exegesis, though I know that’s probably a bit too much for me to chew right now.

I did end up breaking my “no new books until I finish the backlog” rule.  (Look – when I go on vacation, I tend to splurge – and given the sort of emotional stress I was going through before we left, I maybe went a bit overboard.)  I bought a bunch of stuff, all of which I really want to get to, but I ended up going with Arthur Phillips’ “The Song is You”, which is exactly what i’d hoped it would be (I really liked his “Egyptologist“, and when I’d read the description of this book I knew I had to read it as soon as humanly possible), and it’s also feeding me lots and lots of lyric ideas, which is useful, given that I really need to get back to work on the album.

OK, so, that’s it – I’m alive, I’m well, I’m getting back to work.  (And if you can, please cross your fingers for me; I’ll explain later.  It’s good news, if the finger-crossing works out, is all I’ll say.)

The Rest Of The Year

I seem to have picked up a number of new followers over the last few weeks, ever since I decided to expand the scope of this blog’s subject matter.  For those of you new to the blog, hello!  I’m glad to have you here.  That being said, today’s post is probably going to be of very little interest to you; for today is, more or less, the beginning of the fall videogame release deluge, and you might as well know what you’re going to be in for, if you’re coming here on a regular basis.

I’ve said this before, and I’m saying it again because, well, why not:  I am not a professional game journalist, and the readership of this blog is relatively small, and yet despite all this I still feel compelled to play as many of the big game releases as I can, if only so that I can talk about everything in short bursts that are not nearly as insightful and helpful as if I actually sat down and focused on one thing at a time; this comes out of a desire to be part of the larger conversation about games, even if I am but a tiny voice in the throng of much more well-informed speakers.

As it happens, I’d originally started writing this post yesterday afternoon, listing (in order of priority) the games I planned on playing for the rest of 2014. This list, of course, contains no critical insight; I’m putting it here so that (a) I can remember what’s coming up, and (b) you might have an idea of what I’m going to be writing about over the coming weeks.

But after this morning’s astonishingly good reviews for Dragon Age Inquisition and this afternoon’s equally astonishingly disappointing reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity, the list has gone all sideways on me.

So, then:  here’s what’s coming up.

  1. Assassin’s Creed Unity (PS4) – Thank God I was able to successfully cancel my pre-order – of the super-deluxe edition, no less.  That being said, the rental copy is still on its way, and so I’m probably going to at least try it out for a few hours, time permitting.  I am wary of this franchise; it was a slow and steady climb that peaked for me with Brotherhood, fell apart completely between Revelations and AC3, and somehow was built back up with last year’s Black Flag.  I’m glad to hear that the last-gen Rogue is getting better reviews, though my 360 is dead and my PS3 is in a similarly unplayable state.
  2. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PS4) – Meanwhile, holy shit, have you seen the reviews this has been getting?  I was a bit on the fence about this one – the first game didn’t really appeal to me, and the second one played a bit better but had some very significant and unfortunate flaws – but WOW.  When I need a long, deep RPG to sink my teeth into this winter, I’ll be very grateful to have this one around.
  3. Grand Theft Auto V (PS4) – I felt conflicted buying the HD conversion, because I find the story abhorrent and – well, look, I’ve already written about it.  But at the end of the day, I still have a greater affection for the world than I do for the narrative, and so being able to explore it again on my own terms is a far more appealing prospect.  Maybe I’ll even muck around with the online side of things a bit more, who knows.  And some of the forthcoming single-player content sounds intriguing – like that murder mystery bit, which is a nice knowing nod to L.A. Noire.
  4. Far Cry 4 (PS4) – Given Ubisoft’s worrying track record when it comes to next-gen AAA titles this year, I’m not necessarily holding my breath.  But I already pre-ordered it, so, I guess I’m stuck with it.  I’m not necessarily feeling as conflicted about it as I was with Far Cry 3 (which coupled my already-heavy shooter fatigue with the heavy, sorrowful feelings I had regarding the Newtown massacre), but I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention to the preview coverage, either.   
  5. Little Big Planet 3 (PS4) – I’m renting this one, and this might very well mark the first time I let my 19-month-old son put his hands on a game controller.  I have a fondness for the franchise because how can you not, it’s the cutest goddamned thing you’ve ever seen, but let’s be honest – the platforming can be a bit fussy and floaty, and I’ve never really given the creation tools much of a go.
  6. continue playing Forza Horizon 2 (XBO) – I don’t know that I’ll ever 100% it, but I plan on keeping this in the rotation for as long as it continues to be entertaining, and given that I’ve been putting 2-3 hours into it every day without getting tired of it, it’s going to stay in the rotation.
  7. continue Sunset Overdrive (XBO) – This has taken a back seat to Forza, obviously.  I haven’t forgotten about it, but I don’t know that it’ll be high on my to-do list, either.  (Ironic, too, given that the Sunset Overdrive bundle is the Xbox One bundle I’d had my eye on in the first place.)
  8. try to finish Shadow of Mordor (PS4) – I expect this game to rank pretty high on the various GOTY lists that will start going up at the end of the year, but it never quite did anything for me.  I don’t want to give up on it, necessarily, but I had a hard time staying with it and it’s been so long since I picked it up that I may just have to start over from scratch.
  9. try to finish Mind: Path of Thalamus (PC)
  10. try to finish The Talos Principle (PC) – These two are very enjoyable (though somewhat obtuse) puzzle games, but I’ve gotten to the point in both of them where I’m just not quite smart enough to advance.
  11. maybe try the Halo collection (XBO) – You can’t beat the price, but:  I was never the biggest fan of the campaigns, and I’d wager that the main reason this is coming out at all is so that hard-core Halo fans can continue to play their favorite maps on their new console.  I suck at competitive Halo, so the pull isn’t quite there.

The First Few Hours: Destiny

Current Status: approximately 6-8 hours in, rolling a level 8 female Titan.  I’ve ventured beyond the content from the beta, and am currently stuck in the 2nd story mission on the Moon.

I know, I know – just a few days ago I said I probably wouldn’t end up writing one of these posts for Destiny.  But I was out sick yesterday, and ended up spending a bit more time with it than I’d anticipated.

Before I get started, I suppose it’s only fair to get my biases out of the way:  I have played and finished Halo 1-3 and Reach, but did not finish ODST.  (I didn’t finish Halo 4, either, but that’s a 343 Studios title.)  I have always found the Halo games – specifically the single-player campaigns – to be competent console shooters; fun in parts, frustrating in others, saddled with narratives that take themselves far too seriously.  Yes, Halo is important for making shooters viable and playable on consoles; but while the action is certainly capable, I’ve always found the stuff that surrounds it to be lacking.

I’ve dabbled in the multiplayer here and there, but I’m simply not good enough to compete in any meaningful way (at least with strangers), and so I don’t pay that much attention to it.

I didn’t play the Destiny alpha, but I did play the beta, and I thought the beta was pretty remarkable; it was gorgeous, the moment-to-moment action felt quite good, even if the missions weren’t terribly innovative; the narrative was a bit opaque, but I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to it, as that wasn’t what the beta was about.  Ultimately, while I’d already pre-ordered the game, the beta made me feel like I’d spent my money wisely.

“You can hear every penny that went into making this thing so oppressively shiny, but you can’t hear any of the force of passion that supposedly caused those songs to come into being in the first place.”

The above quote is taken from Stereogum’s Premature Evaluation of U2’s “Songs of Innocence”, the album that Apple gave away for free to every iTunes member just a few days ago.   It also happens to sum up my feelings about Destiny pretty accurately; Destiny is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and it’s clear that a tremendous amount of hard work went into making this thing a true AAA blockbuster, but it’s also utterly devoid of soul.

You will traverse through meticulously detailed environments which, for all their minute graphical touches, feel uncannily empty.  You will engage in missions that ultimately boil down to “kill this many enemies” or “kill enough enemies to pick up this many collectibles” or “kill enemies until a certain amount of time has passed” or “kill all the enemies, and then the boss.”

It’s a good thing that the shooting feels as good as it does, because it goes a very long way towards making this stuff feel less tedious than it ordinarily would.

Part of the tedium is due to the writing, which is bad and/or bland and/or lazy.  I reiterate my earlier comments about Peter Dinklage – yes, his performance is startlingly bad, but his dialogue is dreadful, and there’s only so much you can do with what ultimately boils down to badly written exposition.  Why would you hire an actor of Dinklage’s considerable talents to speak such boring drivel?  Why would you constrain him to such a limited range?   I noted this bad writing during the beta, but it also didn’t necessarily bother me all that much because I wasn’t really paying attention to it.  Here, though, in its final retail form, I have to pay attention to it because it gives me the context to do whatever it is I’m doing, and I simply don’t care.

The Darkness is the enemy.  But there’s also the Hive, and the Fallen, which may or may not be the same thing?  It’s not really explained.  I don’t know why I’m shooting these things other than that they generally shoot at me first.

Then again, who am I?  In Halo, I was Master Chief, a not-nearly-as-enigmatic-as-they-intended soldier with an iconic uniform and a purpose.  In Destiny, I am… a long-dead (but fully customizable) person who is resurrected at the beginning of the game (without any context) and who is tasked with being a Guardian to attempt to ward off the Darkness’ inevitable victory.  Yes – in the beginning of the game, you are told that the Darkness will win.  I will bet you one shiny nickel that at the end of the campaign, the Darkness will not have achieved victory.

Narrative incoherence aside, the game is just kinda weird.  It’s ostensibly a sci-fi shooter with RPG elements.  You’re not doing any role-playing, though – indeed, you hardly speak, even in cutscenes; and as far as loot goes, well, take it from a dude who just finished Diablo III for the second time – the loot is barely there.  You’ll pick up slightly better weapons and armor as you play, but you won’t necessarily notice any real difference.  (And yet there are all sorts of cosmetic changes you can make to your armor, even though this is a first-person shooter and you can’t actually see any of it.)

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve – and this is something that was highly relevant yesterday, when I was home, feeling dreadfully ill and frequently needing to get off the couch – is that you can’t pause gameplay.  If you need to stop playing for any reason, your only options are to either hide in a corner and hope that no enemies respawn near you, or to summon a menu that removes you from the playing field and puts you “in orbit”, which is essentially a pre-mission lobby.  If you’re in a story mission, you have to restart it from the beginning.  This is all because the game really wants you to play online, but unless you’re doing multiplayer stuff, why can’t you pause and enter some sort of safe, invisible place?  In single-player/coop, you can’t grief anybody (as far as I can tell), nor is there any friendly fire.   It doesn’t make any sense, and it can be incredibly inconvenient.

Ultimately, what we have here is a highly polished shooter without a heart or soul.  There is nothing controversial about it; it takes no risks.  You’re on a desperate mission to save Earth; but we’ve done this before, and the game’s fiction is barely explained.  Sure, you can create your own character, but “you” have no personality, you make no choices, you have no literal voice except for the grunting you do when you jump.  Your enemies are bland and generic in appearance, calling to mind enemy design in both Halo and Mass Effect (in the latter, I refer specifically to the Thrall, who are basically fast-moving Husks).  Your own weaponry is largely familiar (even in the future, you’re still firing bullets) – and the enemy arsenal is also familiar (especially as some of the enemies are essentially using Halo’s Needler).

What’s worrisome about Destiny is what it represents; this is the sort of mindless AAA blockbuster that #GamerGate purports to want, a game ostensibly free from gender and race politics, a game that you play instead of talk about.  As it happens, there’s very little about Destiny that warrants any discussion.

The First Few Hours: Destiny beta

Status:  2 hours in, logged off after finishing the Level 4 story mission (which also got me to Level 5).

It turns out that all my bluster and panic about not receiving a Destiny beta activation code, even though I’d pre-ordered the game back in May, was all for naught.  After freaking out for hours, I finally went to the online version of the PSN Store and quickly discovered that the Beta was in my to-download queue, and so I simply hit the button and it downloaded to my sleeping PS4 while I was at work.  When I finally got home, it was ready and waiting.

So.  Let me say right up front that I didn’t play the alpha.  I figured the alpha was really more of a polished public demo meant to capitalize on the momentum following E3; but even if I had gotten access, I don’t think I would’ve had any time to really sit down and put it through its paces.  I’d watched enough YouTube clips to feel that Peter “Moon Wizard” Dinklage’s performance, while kinda shitty, wasn’t totally his fault, but that’s about the extent of what I knew.

First thing’s first, then:  the game makes a pretty astounding first impression from a technological standpoint.  Graphics are truly impressive in every facet, from the animation to the lighting engine to the art direction to the choice of color palette to the friggin’ fonts in the UI.  More importantly, the shooting feels great – I might even go so far as to say it feels better here than it ever did in Halo, which is saying something.

The best way to sum up my experience is that I sat down to play at around 7:45, and the next thing I knew it was 10:00, and all I wanted to do today was call in sick and keep playing.

As for the RPG elements and the loot… well, as far as the loot is concerned, this is definitely not Borderlands.  After 2 hours and 5 levels, I only found 2 guns – neither of which were a marked improvement over what I’d already equipped – and a similar number of useless armor pieces.  (After the first 2 hours of Borderlands, I’d probably have more guns than I had inventory space for.)  I received better weaponry and armor when I’d return to the Tower after each mission, so that was something, but even after finding a bunch of hidden chests, I never picked up anything particularly useful.  I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it does make exploring an area after clearing it out of baddies feel a bit useless.

Also:  Peter Dinklage’s character actually uses the word “loot” to describe a chest.  This is akin to someone saying the word “zombie” in a zombie movie; it’s just not done.

Yeah, I suppose I should probably address the Dinklage VO at this point.  I still think the writing is kinda bad – and I’ll say more about that in a second – but even with the new robo-filter on his voice, he still sounds like he’s phoning it in.  (Actually, the filter now makes it sound like he’s literally phoning in a phoned-in performance.)  He sounds like he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, and nobody bothered to explain to him what it meant, and because the dialogue is so silly and refers to things and people that we simply don’t know, he’s kinda just half-assing it in the vocal booth.  Maybe it’s just that Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley in Portal 2 is the gold standard for floating orb robot helpers; whatever the case, Dinklage clearly doesn’t care.  So I apologize to Ben Kuchera – regardless of the quality of the script, he’s absolutely right.

But let’s get to the narrative, because that’s really my biggest concern.  It’s unclear if the beta’s beginning is the actual beginning of the final game, but let’s leave that aside; the beta’s beginning sure feels like the beginning of the final game.  In this introduction, you hear voiceover explaining the current situation; then you see Dinklage’s floating robot searching for something… then you see some enemies in the distance, closing in… then, suddenly, you’ve been resurrected from the dead?  And the first thing the robot wants you to do, after getting you under cover, is get you a gun?

I get it, that the beta wants to get you shooting bad guys as quickly as possible, but I can’t help but feel like something’s missing… like, namely, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.  It’s not actually explained who you are until after the first series of missions, and even then I didn’t quite get it; it’s glossed over in light of the more pressing concern, which is that the ultimate forces of darkness are closing in.  Still, if I were suddenly resurrected from the dead, I’d at least like a glass of water and maybe a newspaper before being asked to kill things.

Maybe I’m nitpicking.

I still had a total blast with it, and I’m going to play as much of it as possible.  I’m currently rolling a female Titan (who looks a lot like my FemShep, actually); the Titan seems like the best class for people who want to solo.  I’d like to eventually try the other two classes, but those seem better fits for team-play; the Titan does everything well enough to not really need outside assistance.  So that’s something.

If you’re online, my PSN ID is JervoNYC; look me up!

on collectibles

Collecting stuff always comes across as filler at best, psychological manipulation at worst. Most games do a poor job of justifying collecting other than giving you a reason to pick stuff up. I’m OK with the collecting being about further exploring the world, but even most games don’t seem to pull that off. I know that someone people really like that base level of completion, though, and it’s just not my thing.

(from Patrick Klepek’s tumblr, answering a question regarding the selling of Steam cards, which is something that has now netted me $5.68 since yesterday’s post)

[Note: I’m not trying to turn this blog into a Patrick Klepek appreciation/stalking site; it’s just that a lot of the stuff he says/writes resonates with me.]

Let me throw out two questions to you.  I’ll answer them (because that’s what I do), but I’m curious to get your feedback as well.

  1. Do collectibles matter to you?  Have they changed the way you play?  Do you prefer games with hidden collectibles, or do you avoid them?
  2. Are there any games that have successfully made their collectibles relevant and worth pursuing beyond simply getting a trophy or an achievement?

1.  I used to be obsessed with finding the hidden areas in games like Quake 2 and Duke Nukem 3D.  I’d turn on God Mode and just wander around, looking for hidden nooks and crannies.  The loot was usually nice, but that wasn’t even necessarily the pull; it was simply the idea that in these intricately designed worlds, there was always a reason to venture off the beaten path.

When Achievements became a thing, I couldn’t help but notice that games started putting hidden stuff back into their games with greater frequency.  It became a sort of status symbol of how hard-core you were in a given game; yes, I found all 500 Orbs in Crackdown; yes, I killed every pigeon in GTA IV, and here’s the proof.

Maybe that’s a bad example; I never found every pigeon in GTA IV, or even came anywhere close.  Some games were better at hiding their collectibles than others, and Rockstar’s worlds in particular were so huge, and so dense, that hunting down those specific things would’ve taken hundreds of hours that I simply didn’t have (unless I used some sort of map, which would – to me – defeat the purpose of the hunt).

Other games are less about obscure hiding places and more about simply overwhelming you with sheer numbers.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise comes to mind, as do the two most recent Batman Arkham games; both of these games feature so many goddamned things to find that the hunt stops being enjoyable and simply feels like busywork; a lazy way of implementing “added value”.  When you finish the game and see that you’ve only completed 70% of what the game has to offer – and this is after you’ve already sunk 20-40 hours – it can feel downright discouraging.

I don’t feel the pull towards these things the way I used to, though it also depends on the game.  I couldn’t be bothered to look through every viewfinder in Bioshock Infinite, but I was kinda pissed off that I missed a few of the voice recordings – especially since I apparently missed some pretty major plot points as a result.  And I’d thought I’d been pretty thorough, too!  

2.  When I started this post, I figured that by the time I got around to answering this second question I’d already have a list of games that offered worthwhile collectibles, but it turns out that I’m coming up somewhat empty.

I seem to recall that while some of the hidden objects in Psychonauts got a bit ridiculous in number, the “mental vaults” were quite important – one in particular (in the disco level) added a level of backstory to the disco teacher lady that was absolutely jaw-dropping; I made it a point to find every single one after seeing that.

The hidden skulls in the Halo games offered a great deal in the way of replay value… although I was never the world’s biggest Halo fan, and I only ever found those (when I was inclined to hunt for them) by looking at YouTube videos.

I’m reminded of Valve’s games, suddenly, even if their games were never particularly prone to hidden collectibles.  But scouring the environments always yielded interesting rewards in terms of story (i.e. the hidden rooms in the first Portal, the hand-written messages in the Left 4 Dead games).

If you can come up with better ones, by all means, let’s hear ’em!


>The title of this blog is “Shouts from the Couch,” but I’ve not been particularly angry lately.  In fact, if anything, the title now feels like it comes from a lazy couch potato who requires immediate assistance in reaching the bowl of onion dip that lies just out of arm’s reach.

Speaking of reach, I finished the Halo Reach campaign on Friday, and have now officially dipped my toes into the sordid world of multiplayer.  And as much as it hurts me to admit, I must say:  I am enjoying the mulitplayer immensely.  I’ve even won a few matches!  (Only a few.)  I’m never going to be very good at Halo; indeed, most of the time I’m just barely competent.  But they’ve got so much to do in there that it borders on the absurd.  Most importantly, their matchmaking search criteria is fantastic this time around; I’ve only played 12 matches thus far, but I’ve yet to run into any racist assholes, and for the most part I’ve never felt like I was playing with people a million times better than me – which is to say that I’ve got noone to blame for my failure besides myself.  Which is just the way I like it.  And the new Points system is a fantastic incentive to keep playing, which is odd, considering that the only thing you can do with your accumulated points is to buy purely cosmetic changes to your armor, which you can’t even see.

I think my problem with the Halo franchise is that because I’ve never been interested in the multiplayer, I’ve really only been able to base my opinion on each product on the strength of its campaign, and let’s face it – their campaigns are all pretty stupid.  Reach is certainly paced well enough, and the enemy A.I. is quite devious at times and there are lots of memorable set pieces, but by and large the story is forgettable, the characters are interchangeable and hard to root for, and I frequently lost track of why I was going from point A to point B.  There’s almost no backtracking in Reach, at least, so chalk that one up as a small victory. 

And it definitely looks good.  Great, even.  Definitely the best-looking Halo game yet.  But it’s definitely not the best-looking game on the 360, not by a long shot.  It’s not necessarily a knock – it doesn’t look bad – but there’s a reason why everyone licenses the Unreal engine, and why nobody licenses the Halo engine.

It’s almost a shame that Civ V comes out tomorrow; I’d really like to keep playing Halo.  And that’s something I’d never think I’d ever say.

>pardon the cobwebs

>I would say that there’s no excuse for the absence of posting here over the last month, but that’s not entirely true – there are several valid excuses I could come up with, and I’m sure I could make up a bunch as well. 

But here’s the deal:  the last entry here talks about my failure at Starcraft 2.  Since then, here’s what I’ve played:

  • Madden 11.  I’ve always been one of those long-embittered 2KSports football fans who hated Madden and EA and everything it stood for.  But Madden won, of course, and if you have a serious jones for videogame football, it’s Madden or bust.  And, as it happened, I started getting inexplicably excited for football season to start, and this year’s Madden got good reviews, and I had some credit on Amazon that was burning a hole in my virtual wallet, and so there it is.  I’ve played about 10 or 11 games in my Franchise, which is set on Rookie difficulty, mostly so that I could get all the Achievements I cared to get as quickly as possible.  FUN FACT:  It is almost impossible to get the “Return 2 kicks for TDs with the same guy” Achievement on Rookie difficulty, because the opposing team is so terrible that they almost always go 4 and out, and you’re lucky if you get to return just one kick – the one that leads off a half.
  • Lara Croft & the Guardian of Light.  It’s pretty good for what it is, and I imagine it would be a ton of fun if the online co-op ever got turned on.  Unfortunately, I think I’ve played all I’m ever going to play of this one, because now that Halo Reach is out I’m not sure that anyone will care enough to go back to this. 
  • Mafia 2.  I actually did prepare a blog post for this; I had taken a sick day right after it arrived from Gamefly and accidentally/inadvertently finished the whole game in about 10 hours.  Here’s what I can salvage:

Sometimes you can tell, just from the first 5 minutes of play, if a game was cared about in development.  After all, in today’s ADD world, where developers have the balls to charge you to participate in a “beta”, 5 minutes might just be all you get, and so it’s probably a good idea to put your best foot forward (while still keeping the big guns for later in the experience).  Sometimes it’s painfully obvious – the frame rate might be shitty, or the controls might be clunky and unresponsive.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that certain areas of the game received more attention than others – sure, things explode pretty good, but the dialog and the voice acting both feel like first drafts; or, the driving model is responsive, but the combat sucks.

Mafia 2 was cared about.

But that doesn’t make it a great game.

I was out sick yesterday, and I convalesced by playing the entirety of Mafia 2 (and, also, something else that I am not at liberty to discuss, wink wink nudge nudge).  And when I was going to sleep, I started thinking about how I would write about it, and I had this really well-written opening paragraph all set out, which was going to reference both this Joystiq article about how venerable games industry analyst Michael Pachter thought that Mafia 2 would probably be unprofitable, and this very well-written Rock Paper Shotgun review, which (among other things) made the salient observation that comparing Mafia 2 to GTA4 totally misses the point, and how Mafia 2 really needs to be compared to Mafia 1.

  •  Anyway, yeah, there wasn’t much to talk about after I finished Mafia 2.  It is a bland experience in an otherwise beautiful world.
  • Professor Layton & the Unwound Future.  This just arrived in the mail on Monday, and… it really bums me out that I don’t like these games anymore.  And the reason why I don’t like these games anymore is because the puzzles, i.e. the reason why this game exists in the first place, have a tendency to be poorly written.  They can be unfairly difficult.  Or, most egregiously, they can only be solved with a walkthrough, and even then, the explanation for a puzzle’s solution is obtuse or unclear.  The story is interesting, though, at least.
  • Mass Effect 2: Shadow Broker DLC.  This is kind of a big deal, if you’re a Mass Effect nerd.  The nuts and bolts of the DLC are pretty much just more combat, with a cool little vehicular chase scene (with the requisite shitty controls); so in that regard it’s nothing special.  But from a story perspective… wow.  The ending of the DLC seems to be a pretty big deal, in terms of the ME universe, and yet the fact that a lot of ME2 fans might not see it would indicate that it won’t really have that big an impact on ME3, which is kind of a bummer.  Anyway – if you’re an ME2 fan, it’s highly recommended.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I got excited for the sequel and decided to give this another playthrough.  And it’s still as good as it was the first time.

And that brings us to yesterday, when my copy of Halo Reach arrived.

I’ll have more to say on Halo as I get further into it, but basically:  it’s Halo.  And, also:  I don’t know if I like first-person shooters anymore.  Or, rather, that the third-person action genre has gotten so good that first-person shooters kinda feel a little antiquated.  As in:  how come I can’t use cover?

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