Adventures in Excessive Hyperbole: Forza Horizon 2

Actually, before we get to Forza Horizon 2, there’s three things on my mind that I should get out of the way first:

1.  I’m currently at just under 7400 words for NaNoWriMo.  As I’d mentioned last week, the topic that I eventually wound my way towards is somewhat emotionally charged, and at this point I really don’t care about hitting 50,000 words; I’m mostly just heavily invested in figuring the thing out.  And it’s hard to carve out time to sit and write about stuff that keeps hitting me harder than I expect it to; it’s tough to come home from work and do that when I’m already exhausted, and it’s even more difficult to find time during the day to do it, when I’m expected to be professional and not, say, an emotional wreck (as was the case last Friday).

2.  I tried giving it the benefit of the doubt, but after wading through 2 1/2 missions of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, I realized I’d had enough.  Because I don’t care about, and totally suck at, the multiplayer side of things, I was only ever going to play their campaigns.  And the campaigns have always been a bit silly and convoluted and contrived (and I’m not even talking about “Press X to Pay Your Respects”, although that’s a perfect example of something silly and convoluted and contrived).  As far as CoD:AW goes, I appreciate that it’s going for this sci-fi not-quite-near-future vibe, giving me quasi-superpowers and such… but at the end of the day it still feels like it’s always felt, which is a very tightly scripted shoot-em-up gauntlet running through blandly pretty corridors.   I don’t play enough Call of Duty to have an already-intuitive grasp of the controls, which makes the campaign trickier than it should be; I try to melee someone and end up throwing a grenade.  There is clearly an audience for Call of Duty, and I might as well come to grips with the fact that I am clearly not it, and haven’t been it for quite a long time now.  (For the record: my 2014 shooter of the year is still Wolfenstein, and that means Far Cry 4 has a very high bar to meet.)

3.  I finished Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Slow Regard of Silent Things“, a slim side-story to the Kingkiller Chronicles.  As Rothfuss himself says, it’s not the book you should start with if you’re new to his work.  I enjoyed it; it’s a bit of an experiment for him, which he fully acknowledges in his afterword, and I think he succeeded rather well.  The book features no dialogue, and only one character, and it does not explain itself – and yet, at the book’s end, you know this character incredibly well, and you’re given a very interesting, very specific slice of the world of the larger two books that you’d never see otherwise, and it gives him an opportunity to be more playful with language than he usually gets.  I’d recommend it – but, again, only if you’ve read the first two books, and only if you’re aware that you’re not reading a “traditional” story.  To say any more would ruin the book’s magical, ethereal quality; that’s something you should experience as nakedly as possible.

Long-time readers of this site (the number of which can probably be counted on one hand) will know that I am prone to excessive use of hyperbole.  I make no apologies for this tic; it is what it is.  When I feel inclined to write about something, it’s most likely because I’m already fired up about it.

So take this with a grain of salt, if you must, but I think I’m ready to say something ridiculous:  I’m starting to think that Forza Horizon 2 very well might be my favorite driving game of all time.*  The only real thing it’s missing is some sort of crash/stunt mode, which is a feature so closely associated with Burnout that it would be damn near impossible to implement without being charged with plagiarism.

Actually, here’s three more minor knocks that keep it from being a perfect game:  (1) the game looks absolutely gorgeous, but it also suffers from pop-in from time to time and it can be somewhat distracting at times, especially when trees are popping up along the suggested driving line.  (2) I don’t give a shit about car culture, and while I appreciate that the “Horizon Festival” is as good a justification as any for why you’re doing what you’re doing, I don’t really need a narrative justification for driving anywhere, especially if it involves something as contrived as the Horizon Festival – though at least the main guy isn’t that annoying.  (3) But if you are going to go through the trouble of having a narrative justification for doing all this stuff, then why not let me create my own character?  True, you’re behind the wheel of a car for 99% of the game, but I’m there in that other 1%, and while I might be a white guy with brown hair, not everybody who plays this game is also a white guy with brown hair.

Those three knocks aside, I’m loving the hell out of it.  It’s everything I loved about the first game, but better and larger and more beautiful, and I genuinely feel bad that my gaming schedule is about to get crowded, because I’d be happy to keep playing this and only this for the next few months.

More to the point:  it’s a fantastic showcase for the Xbox One, and the more time I spend with the Xbox One, the more I really, really like it.  I took a few minutes during the weekend to load up Ubisoft’s The Crew beta on the PS4, and the PS4’s interface is so bland and dumb.  (Also, The Crew is bland and dumb, and I’m glad I saw the beta if only so that I know to take it off of my GameFly queue.)


* I’ve been thinking about what my Top 10 list of driving games might look like, and the list is tricky because while there’s no shortage of driving games out there, there’s only a few franchises that really moved me in any specific way:

  • I’m certainly a big fan of the Forza series in general – and I like it more than I ever liked any of the Gran Turismo games I played – but to be honest, Forza 1-4 all kinda bleed together for me; there’s not one particular title that stands out in my memory.  (As I only just bought my Xbox One last week, I have not yet played Forza 5, though considering the scuttlebutt that surrounded it, I’m not sure I ever will.)
  • Certainly I’d put both Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise near the very top of the list.
  • I’m a big fan of both DiRT and DiRT 2 – the latter is the better looking of the two, but the former had the best replay system (which was inexplicably changed) and had some of the best UI in any driving game, ever.
  • I loved the first two Rallisport Challenge games on the original Xbox.
  • It’s a bit of a lost gem, but does anybody else remember Midtown Madness 3 on the original Xbox?  That game was awesome.  That was the first real experience I had with online free-roam driving, and to this day I still remember all sorts of silly stuff we used to do – like trying to jump as many trucks as we could fit onto the roofs of various buildings.
  • I was also especially fond of both Project Gotham Racing 2 and 3 (4 was the one where they introduced motorcycles, I think, and that’s also where it fell off the rails for me).
  • Split/Second was terrific and criminally overlooked…
  • I will always have a soft spot for OutRun
  • My loathing of The Offspring is the main reason why I try not to think about Crazy Taxi, even if the game itself is pretty great.
  • I always enjoyed the Midnight Club games, though I never stuck with them that long.
  • I’m conflicted about the Need for Speed franchise, because (a) the driving is fine, but the cutscenes and the “car culture” is just flat-out ridiculous, and (b) while I really enjoyed Criterion’s two Need for Speed titles, it also meant that we weren’t getting any more Burnout games, which is a supreme bummer.
  • Speaking of “flat-out”, I also have a weird soft spot for that first Flat-Out game, especially on PC, because the physics were completely insane.
  • Could I include Night Driver from the Atari 2600?
  • Or Pole Position?
  • Could I get away with not including any Mario Kart games, because I don’t give a shit about Mario Kart?  or Ridge Racer, for that matter?  or Wipeout, or F-Zero?  or F1 on the PC?

Am I missing any?  Feel free to call me an idiot in the comments.

some ramblings about Portal 2

(I’m kinda working on a Portal 2 review, but in the meantime I’m just rambling.  There will be spoilers at the bottom, mostly consisting of guesses about Portal 3.  You’ll be warned.)

Portal 2 is a big deal.  That it has become a big deal is kind of awesome, when you think about it; Portal began as a student project (Narbacular Drop), and now it is the first full-length, single-player first-person game Valve has released since Half Life 2.  It also features no blood, (almost) no violence, and no other living characters.  You don’t have an inventory – indeed, you don’t even have a voice.  You have a gun, but you don’t kill anything with it – at least not directly, and the things you indirectly kill are robotic turrets.  Indeed, for the most part you aren’t killing anything – you’re solving puzzles.

Even more fascinating – at least to me – is that while it’s true that you can only really “solve” the puzzles once (and thus only generate that genuine, exhilarating “a-ha!” moment once as well), the game never stops being entertaining upon multiple playthroughs.  I’ve played the original Portal maybe a dozen times, and I’ve already beaten Portal 2 twice after only owning the game for 3 days.  Some of the puzzle solutions are just awesome.  They are fulfilling to solve, absolutely, but they’re also incredibly fulfilling just in the pure act of execution, and as you get better at the game you find more efficient ways of solving each puzzle, which is also fulfilling.

For example, there’s a puzzle in Portal 2 (I believe it’s the first puzzle in Chapter 3, the one that begins with repeated aerial faith plate malfunctions) that I solved without much difficultly on my first run, although I’d found it somewhat tedious to keep walking back and forth between portal openings.  On my second playthrough, I suddenly realized that I could simply jump into one of the portals I’d just created, thus making everything move a lot quicker.  So it’s not just the thrill of the initial solution to a problem; it’s the subsequent discovery of more efficient solutions that’s just as thrilling.

I think for me, though, the main reasons why I keep coming back to Portal and Portal 2 are:

      • The world.  Every game that’s out these days is either set in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or some variation on the standard platformer themes – forest, desert, lava, ice.  The original Portal had a very simple and very distinctive look to it, and it was all the more thrilling when the curtain was pulled back in the final act.  Portal 2’s environments are even more varied and diverse, as well as still being incredibly unique, and the fact that so much of it takes place “behind the scenes” makes it all the more special.  Portal already has somewhat of a “meta” vibe in the first place but this notion of being off the beaten path is thrilling, especially when the settings are so epic in scope.
    • The attention to detail.  It’s easy to fly past a lot of the little things in Portal 2, and for the most part it’s not at all necessary to stop and inspect every single piece of litter you come across.  And yet there’s actual writing on each coffee can and fuse box; it goes an incredibly long way towards making the world believable, even while you’re doing unbelievable things.  Everything is in its right place, even when it’s out of place.  The best games generally get this – Bioshock, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption certainly get it.
    • The quality of the storytelling.   They’re paced incredibly well, and Portal 2’s pace is among the best of all time.  Puzzle concepts are introduced gradually, and eventually you’ll be doing some completely insane things in order to solve them, and as a reward there’ll be an exhilarating chase sequence or an extended, slow exploration sequence when you get to a new area.  And it’s not just the Portal games are hilarious – it’s also that they’re smart enough to both tell you what’s happening, and also let you infer what’s happening indirectly.  (And there’s quite a lot happening, and we’ll get to that in a bit. )
  • The love.  I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say.  But you can tell when a development team genuinely cares about the game they make, and it’s very, very clear that Valve cares.  The original Portal is a game that people adore, and as such the expectations for a sequel were astronomically high – even though it would be impossible to guess just what, if anything, the sequel would look like.  There’s not a single bum note in either of the two games, and that’s not because of luck – that’s because an enormous amount of time went into polishing everything, from the graphics to the dialogue to the puzzles themselves.  In a recent interview with Gamespot, writer Erik Wolpaw (one of my personal heroes) said that it doesn’t matter to him whether games can exist as art – games need to be entertaining, first and foremost, or else what’s the point?


Portal 3 speculation:

    • We now know about Aperture’s origins, and somewhat about how GlaDOS came to be.  But what of Chell?  Where did she come from?  Was she someone’s daughter in “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day?  [EDIT:  Yes, she is.] Was she Cave Johnson’s illegitimate daughter with Caroline?  (Would that even make sense, time-line wise?  Is it ever specified when the first game take place?  Considering that Aperture was already messing around with pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s, the original Portal could conceivably take place in the 60s, right?  They do have some old computers and rotary phones in the original Portal.)  (Also – I never looked at the “Lab Rat” comic, and it’s possible this was explained there.  I should probably look at it first before speculating any more.)
    • OK, I’ve read the Lab Rat comic.  Notes:  Page 8 – Chell’s last name is redacted.  Page 9 – Chell refuses to answer if “anyone would file a police report if [she] went missing.”  Beyond that… the comic is somewhat vague.
    • At the end of the game, when Chell is standing in the field – does she have the Portal gun with her?  I don’t think so – you see both of her hands grabbing on to Wheatley after your final portal hits home.  By the same token, Chell didn’t have the Portal gun at the end  of the first one, either.  In any event – the Lab Rat comic’s final panel says that Chell has remarkable tenacity and stubbornness.  We don’t know why, though.  The point is:  at the end of P2, she is free.  The question remains:  would she go back?  And if so, why?
    • Wheatley has to return, doesn’t he?  You can’t make a character that wonderful and have it be lost forever, right?

>A Word of Warning

>Remember just a few days ago, when I ranted here about the excessive use of hyperbole in game reviews? Yeah, well. I’m at Chapter 22 out of 26 in Uncharted 2, and all I can say is that I’m going to break the world hyperbole record when I write whatever it is I’m going to write about it.

>On Hyperbole

>This is the first paragraph from Adam Sessler’s review of Uncharted 2.

I’m not 100% certain when it happened. I think it’s when I had Nathan Drake atop a building in a war-torn Nepalese city, cornered and being fired upon by a helicopter, engaged in a fist fight with the screen slowly draining of color, snapping my enemy’s neck and quickly rolling into cover to reload my grenade launcher only to turn and fire upon the chopper one last time as I watched it crash and explode. I think this is when I realized that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was the best single-player game I have ever played. [emphasis added]

Uncharted 2 has been getting great / fantastic / multi-orgasmic reviews pretty much across the board, and I don’t doubt that the reviews are genuine and sincere in their appreciation for a job well done. I personally have been foaming at the mouth for it ever since the E3 reveal trailer, and when I get my grubby little paws on it next week I’m never going to let it go. But as someone who uses hyperbole on a regular basis to describe even the most mundane events of his day, I’m a little suspicious when someone as high-profile as G4’s Adam Sessler says something like “this was the best single-player game I have ever played,” especially since it comes during the same paragraph that implies that he was still in the middle of playing it for the first time. (He himself defended his statement in this little follow-up video, which more or less lets him say the exact same thing.)

Again, I’m not necessarily doubting the sincerity of his statement. He may full well truly believe that Uncharted 2 is the best single-player game he’s ever played, and it may well in fact be true. But I think that saying something as completely audacious as that, without providing any sort of context (i.e., what other games has he played to compare it to) or self-reflection (i.e., will he still feel this way in a week/month/year) is maybe a little disingenuous.

It reminded me a bit of the post-release discussions of Metal Gear Solid 4; I recall one podcast/roundtable thing where people talked about the story and the gameplay and everything and one guy in particular said that everything about MGS4, straight up and down, was perfect. As soon as he said that, I immediately treated everything else he said as a lie, because willful ignorance in the face of stone cold facts just means you’re an idiot who loves something because you have to. I no longer trust your objectivity, which means your subjective opinions are irrelevant. And let me be clear – I ended up really liking MGS4, and nobody was more surprised about that than me. Hell, I even said it was one of the best games I’d ever played.

The difference, of course, is that I didn’t say it was the best. I was still in the middle of the post-conclusion adrenaline rush, and I had not yet regained equilibrium. At the end of the year, I said it was the best PS3 game I’d played in 2008, but consider what else came out:

  • Braid
  • Little Big Planet
  • Fallout 3
  • Rock Band 2
  • Left 4 Dead

Oh, and Grant Theft Auto 4, which was my 2008 GOTY by a landslide. I loved the hell out of GTA4. I tried playing it the other day, in fact, to get ready for the new DLC that’s coming out. I’d gotten stuck in a mission in the previous bit of DLC, and I wanted to try and get past it. And suddenly, my memories of how amazing it is came into direct conflict with my experience of playing it again with fresh eyes. For all of GTA4’s incredible strengths, it could sometimes get a little stupid or silly or needlessly difficult, and so it got frustrating, and I took it back out of the 360’s tray.

It’s easy for me to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best single-player experience I’ve had this year. I knew that when I was playing it, and as of today it still holds true. This is because 2009 has been a pretty shitty year for games, and aside from Resident Evil 5 or The Beatles: Rock Band there hasn’t been much else that would make it into that discussion. That’s context.

When I think about the greatest games I’ve ever played, even now, I have a hard time picking one that stands out from all the rest. My criteria has changed; my TV has changed; my available time has changed. In fact, when I think about my favorite things, across all mediums, there’s really only one time that I was ever able to say “this is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever [——]”, and I wasn’t even able to say that until I’d finished it, and that’s because when I was reading Infinite Jest, during my junior year of college, when my own life was in a bit of upheaval in all sorts of directions, partly because of close friendships gone astray, partly because of girls that I cared deeply about and kept making mistakes with, partly because of non-stop pot smoking, and partly because I was contemplating giving up the acting life (and thus negating my 6-figure tuition that my parents had scraped together) in order to try and become a rock star, which I seriously entertained as a legitimate possibility – and but so in the midst of all this I started reading the book and ended up staying in my dorm room and not moving or talking and just lived with that book for an entire week, cover to cover, from the opening sentence to the very last 6pt-font-ed footnote; the sum total of all of that was a life-altering experience, and I could feel it happening as I was reading it. I had changed after reading that book.

Which is to say – when you care about something, when you spend money you don’t have in order to experience it in all its forms, and you obsess about it and you maybe start a blog in order to better organize your thoughts about it, and you end up getting a job in a field where you get paid to talk about the stuff you care so deeply about, and the job is high-profile enough that people you don’t know and will never know hear the things you say and read the things you write and take you at your word because you are now an authority, and then you experience something as part of the daily course of your job and then immediately call it the best experience you’ve ever had, without any sort of visible period of gestation and self-reflection, without providing any sort of context, and especially in this post-Gerstmann-gate era where you never quite know if there’s under-the-table payola being bandied about, you’d better fucking mean it.

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