Weekend Recap: Wishes Upon Wishes

BOOKS:  Finished Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist very late last night, which made for some strange dreams.  It’s very nearly impossible to discuss without spoiling what makes it so intriguing and puzzling, and it’s got the sort of ending that you’ll need to re-read at least twice, and then also flip back to the very first chapter, and then step back and realize what the fuck just happened.  That being said, it’s an excellent book, a “literary murder mystery/adventure” story set in a rather unique period in history (and one that certainly piqued my interest, being that I – as I’m sure many other people my age – had a rather rabid interest in ancient Egypt as a kid); and so even if I can’t remember why I bought it, I’m very glad I did.

Next up: at long last, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 1.  I sincerely hope I haven’t set myself to be majorly disappointed, given how badly I’ve wanted to read this for so long.


GAMES:  There was more free gaming time this weekend than I expected to get – chalk it up to the wife’s recent promotion, which means she also has to bring work home with her on occasion.  Still, I’m in that awkward situation where, while I do have a backlog to deal with, I’m remembering why that stuff got put on the backlog in the first place, and so I’m kinda just flipping back and forth between a few different things, not really getting into the rhythm of anything in particular.

Specifically, my attention was split between four games this weekend:

GTA V, which made me wish I was playing Saints Row.  Honestly, I never thought I’d ever say that, but it’s true; playing GTA V for the second time makes the experience a hell of a lot more tedious and annoying – not just the horrific dialogue and misogyny and everything else, but the actual missions you do.  Like Trevor loading cargo containers onto a truck, or Franklin towing cars all over town.  Dockwork went out of style with Shenmue, for fuck’s sake.  While it’s true that the Saints Row franchise has never had a city that is as engrossing to be in as GTA, it’s also true that Saints Row stopped caring about “realism” right from the get-go, and has taken the concept of the “open world sandbox” to ludicrous extremes.  Actually, now that I’ve remembered that it’s coming out, I think I’m going to at least rent the Saints Row IV HD remaster thing that comes out later this month; I think that’ll be a lot of fun.

Destiny, which makes me wish I was playing Mass Effect.  I really only fired it up to pick up whatever legendary presents I’d been given, and then I did a Daily Story Mission or whatever it’s called, just to see if I still cared about it.  Yeah, the shooting’s still good, but there’s so little else there worth caring about.  I’m also a little pissed off; I thought I’d bought the Digital Guardian edition, and I’d bought that thinking that it was a season-pass thing for DLC.  But when I fired it up, I saw that The Dark Below expansion still cost $20.  If $20 is actually a reduced price for an expansion, then I might as well just delete the damned thing from my hard drive and be done with it.

Far Cry 4, which makes me wish I was re-playing Far Cry 3, or really anything else.  It’s also very disorienting after playing Destiny and also GTA V in first person, too, which shouldn’t be the case, since FC4 is actually supposed to be played in the first person.  I’m really just kinda nibbling at FC4; I’m unlocking towers and hideouts, and doing a mission here and there, but I’m mostly hunting if only so that I can craft everything I need to craft and then never worry about it again.  I will say that it’s a little comical to watch an eagle lift a goat straight up off the ground, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be intentionally comical or not.

Infamous First Light DLC, which I only really dabbled in for a brief period – it’s a free download this month for PS+ member, which is honestly the only reason why I picked it up.  Surprisingly, it was kinda neat to be back in that game again – I did like the original game even if it was somewhat empty and forgettable, and I forgot how good it looked.  I’ll probably keep this in the rotation for a little while, though it’s been so long since I beat the original game that it might take me a bit to get my bearings.

Infamous 2, DNF, and other ramblings

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since the last post, so for that I apologize.  The good news is that I’ve got a LOT to talk about today.

The short version:

  • finished Infamous 2
  • played a bunch (perhaps too much) of Duke Nukem Forever (PC)
  • played a tiny bit more of The Witcher 2, escaping prison and getting to the first real town
  • played a bit of Child of Eden and wished I still did drugs
  • got thoroughly obsessed with Plants v. Zombies
  • did a bunch of Achievement-hunting in L.A. Noire
  • speaking of which, hit the 70,000 mark in Achievements

The long version:

I was home sick for 2 days last week, and that fact directly correlates to the first two bulleted items above.  I had gotten a few hours into Infamous 2 over the previous weekend, and ended up powering through the rest of it last Monday.  I’m a little bummed out about Infamous 2, to be honest with you.  It’s a better package than the first game – it looks better, for one thing, and the first game looked pretty good already.  The game lets you start with all your powers, too, so you’re kicking ass right from the get-go, and the new powers are, for the most part, pretty neat.  The voice acting is surprisingly good, even if the script is kinda hokey.  The city itself is visually interesting.  The “good” ending is satisfying, and shockingly devoid of cliffhangers – I have absolutely no idea how Infamous 3 would start, is all I’ll say.  (I didn’t see the “evil” ending, and maybe that’s where a sequel would pick up.)

So, then, if I was such a big fan of the first game – a game scratched my Crackdown itch in a big way – and the second game is, by and large, a better iteration of the first, why am I bummed out?  I guess it’s because the game is, ultimately, forgettable.  The story isn’t particularly interesting or unique, and the moral choices lack any ambiguity whatsoever – good and evil are very clearly defined and color-coded and you’ll never spend more than a second or two making up your mind.  The city, for all its visual flourish (and let me reiterate that point, as the city really does look fantastic and the sky is especially jaw-dropping)  is curiously devoid of audio – cars don’t make noise, nor do most of the pedestrians, and sometimes the player’s footsteps don’t even register.  I don’t know if it’s just a bug, or if the audio was simply unfinished, but it creates a very strange disconnect – it makes the city feel lifeless.*

I’m glad I played it, I suppose – it certainly filled the idle hours of an unplanned sick day – but I’m also glad I rented it.

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So that was Monday.  Tuesday was a second sick day, and since I’d already finished Infamous 2 and sealed it up in its Gamefly envelope, I was a bit at odds as to how to occupy the hours.  And then I remembered that Duke Nukem Forever was finally out.  And even though I’d read tons of horrible reviews by then, I succumbed to 14 years of temptation, and clearly went against my better judgment and downloaded it on Steam.  (To be fair, the PC version is, supposedly, the least horrible of the 3, at least in terms of visual fidelity.)

Here’s the thing – after playing the first few hours, I’d actually planned to write something of a defense of DNF in this space last week.   Yes, it’s grotesquely misogynistic and sexist and incredibly stupid, even in terms of adolescent humor (which is odd, since it’s rated M and young teenagers aren’t supposed to be able to play it).   It isn’t funny, it isn’t erotic, its cultural references are incredibly dated and probably wouldn’t have been all that funny if it had been released when all those references were still relevant.  First-person platforming is almost always a bad idea, and there’s way too much of it in the first few hours.  Still, though, there was something about it that brought me back to those heady days of 1996, when I was playing Duke Nukem 3D on my brother’s computer on my weekends home from college.  I was trying to put myself back in the mindset that I might have been in if the game had come out in the late 90s – early 00s, and there are brief glimpses in the early hours that brought me back.

Of course, the game is, ultimately, a piece of shit.  I got hung up on a boss a little more than halfway through the campaign and ended up putting the game away for a few days; I eventually beat that boss (no idea how) and then got stuck about an hour later, and that’s where I currently am.  I don’t really want to go back to it.  I suspect that I will eventually finish it, but only because I’m avoiding doing something else.   It’s just that, well, the game makes me sad.  I was one of the many that had been looking forward to this game’s release, and while it wasn’t necessarily in the front of my mind for the last 14 years, I’d never forgotten about it.  When the first few advance reviews came out and killed it, there was a part of me that figured that those scores were somewhat reactionary – they were so aggressively negative that they were almost hard to take seriously.  As it turns out, they were right.  There is absolutely nothing in the game, from what I’ve seen, that would explain what the hell took so long.  The gameplay is dated in all the worst ways, and for a game that goes out of its way to break the fourth wall, it has a surprising lack of self-awareness.

The biggest problem with DNF, I think, is that there’s too much Duke.  Back when I was playing DN3D, I wasn’t really paying attention to Duke at all – I was paying attention to the crazy environments, to all the hidden secrets, and to all the cool shit I could do.  Duke would spout out some one-liner from a movie every so often, and that was fine – it’s just that for all intents and purposes, his bad-assery kinda spoke for itself.  In DNF, Duke won’t fucking shut up, and nobody in the world tells him to shut up.  The world of DNF is a monument to Duke, for some reason, and that gets old incredibly quickly – especially since he’s such a fucking douchebag.

It is true that DNF could never hope to compete with expectations.  But it is also true that the game looks like it wasn’t even tryingSerious Sam rewrote the rules when it came to over-the-top gunplay, exploration and crazy enemies, and this year’s Bulletstorm further refined those rules and created something genuinely unique and fun to play.  DNF was created in a vacuum by people who apparently hadn’t played anything else since 1997, and was written by sociopathic 13-year-olds who love boobs and kicking monsters in the balls.  I still think that there’s a future for Duke – I don’t think Gearbox would’ve spent the time and money acquiring the IP if they weren’t going to do something with it – but I worry that the travesty that is DNF will sully that game’s potential.

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I don’t have all that much to say about The Witcher 2.  I enjoy my time with it, but it’s also somewhat intimidating and I don’t really know what the hell is going on.  I play for 30 minutes at a time and then put it aside.

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I don’t have all that much to say about Child of Eden, either.  It’s trippy as hell, and I suppose I’d have spent a bit more time with it if I were still doing drugs.  I’m sober, though, and as such there was only so much craziness I could stand.  It plays like a psychedelic Panzer Dragoon, I guess.  It’s certainly aspiring to be… something, which is more than I can say about DNF.  I read some review of it that bemoaned its attempts to revive the “Games as Art” debate; but that’s exactly what this is.  You would expect to play something like this in a children’s museum, or something.  It’s certainly interesting, but there wasn’t really all that much to it that kept me involved.

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I can’t explain my sudden obsession with Plants v. Zombies.  It’s been out for a few years now and as a long-time Popcap fan I’ve certainly been aware of it; I think it was one of the first apps I downloaded for iOS, but I never played it.  I guess at some point last week there was an iOS update for it that included a bunch of intriguing features, and that got me interested enough to fire it up, and now I’m a man obsessed.  Which is weird, because my general experience playing that game is one of intense stress and anxiety.  There’s so many plants to keep track of, and so many zombies to plan ahead for, and when a level is really humming along the board is absolutely chaotic.  I’m already dealing with anxiety issues as it is, and so I can’t explain why I would torture myself with non-stop PvZ sessions.  But such is life.  I finally beat the adventure mode on my iPhone, and now I’m thoroughly entranced with the Zen Garden and all the meta-stuff there is to do.  And I suspect that I’ll get around to playing my XBLA and PC/Mac versions as well.

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I ended up doing a lot of Achievement hunting in L.A. Noire this past weekend – I finally 5-starred all the cases, found all the film reels and landmarks, drove 194.7 miles, completed all the street crimes, etc.  According to the Social Club I’m exactly 94% complete.  I don’t know that I will ever find every single vehicle, nor am I sure I want to.  Honestly, it was just nice to finally get to actually explore the world; I never bothered with it when I was actually playing the game, as I just wanted to focus on the cases.  There’s a surprising amount of city to be found, as it turns out; the game itself uses hardly any of it, which seems a bit wasteful.   I do kinda wish that I had the PS3 version; I didn’t really mind the disc swapping when I was playing the story, but in a weekend like this where I’m doing a bunch of completion-ist stuff, it’s somewhat of a pain in the ass.

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I can’t quite remember which Achievement it was that put me over the 70K mark, but, well, it happened.  I’d like to hit 75K by the end of the year, although that might be a little bit out of reach.

 

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*  This is a big deal, actually.  In my experience, open world games live or die based on the worlds themselves.  This is why Crackdown 2 was such an incredible disappointment; this is also why Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece.  Infamous 2 takes place in New Marais, a fictional city inspired by New Orleans; you would think this would be a slam-dunk in terms of atmosphere, but instead it feels, well, dead.

>InFamous / Prototype

>Plowed through the end of InFamous last week; that game is a blast. A little simplistic, though, to be sure, and more than a bit repetitive – for all the initial comparisons I’d made to Crackdown, it really feels more like Assassin’s Creed than anything else – but very well made; the story was more than a bit convoluted but it was told well enough, and while the big twist didn’t exactly drop my jaw the way that, say, KOTOR did, it certainly makes the inevitable sequel seem a lot more wide open in terms of what Sucker Punch can do. I’ll happily give it an A-.

And speaking of games featuring regular dudes who suddenly gain superpowers and can run all over the place in big open cities, I played the first 15 minutes of Prototype last night and that was more than enough. I didn’t necessarily have high hopes for it, but I certainly went into it with an open mind; the opening cutscenes are certainly really well done. But once the game started, it all fell apart. The controls are unintuitive, the camera floats around all over the place, and the game actually starts with you in the middle of a fight without (a) telling you what you’re fighting and (b) telling you what you can actually do. It does gradually give you hints as to how to do things, but then – in classic, ridiculous fashion – the opening battle suddenly stops, and then you’re taken to a point 18 days in the past, when all the powers you just learned don’t actually exist yet. So stupid.

At some point I’m going to try out the 2nd Boom Blox game, which is sitting in an unopened Gamefly enevelope next to my TV.

>Wolverine / InFamous

>I would love to go and cover E3 one day, but the truth is that I’m not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be, and I’m feeling a bit too old (33 isn’t that old, but still) to suddenly switch gears and go back to school and then try to get work as a games journalist, especially in this economy. Case in point – I was re-reading my keynote column from the other day, and it felt a little familiar, and some quick checking revealed that I basically rewrote the introduction to last year’s E308 keynote column. This was not willful plagiarism; this was just me being a bad writer. So I apologize, and I embrace my sad destiny, which means that instead of being in Los Angeles for a crazy week of over-stimulation and sweatiness, I get to stay home and play games.

I did not finish Wolverine; my 3rd attempt at beating the final boss ended in frustration, cursing and sending the damned thing back to Gamefly. But Wolverine isn’t necessarily a bad game; I’d say it’s better than the movie, although that’s not saying much. Wolverine’s main problem is that in terms of storytelling, it simply assumes that you’ve seen the movie and the Xmen trilogy, and so you shuttle off from place to place without really knowing why, and there were more than a few times when I had absolutely no idea who I was talking to. Exhibit A – if you hadn’t seen the movie, you would have no idea who Deadpool actually was, because Deadpool’s original identity isn’t even mentioned until you’re in the middle of the first fight. But whatever. You don’t play a movie tie-in for the story, and the game spends most of its time throwing you into insane amounts of incredibly bloody combat (which is a feature missing from the movie). To its credit, the combat is satisfying, but also incredibly repetitive – waves and waves of baddies continually flood in, almost to the point where you could argue the game is padding its length – and the only times you get a break are either when you’re suddenly thrown into an arbitrary block-pushing puzzle, or when you’re watching a cutscene that feels totally taken out of context.

Even with all this, I was still kinda enjoying my time with it – at least there weren’t any moral choices to make – but then I got to the final boss. Wolverine’s boss fights suffer from this incredibly annoying and lazy problem where, when you’ve knocked a boss’s health bar all the way down to zero, they aren’t actually dead – they suddenly come back to full health and become even harder to beat. This is a stupid, stupid cliche and I’ve always hated it, and the final fight against Deadpool is especially egregious. You actually fight Deadpool at least 3 times – maybe there’s another round, but I gave up. As I said before, I kept dying during the 3rd go-round, because Deadpool basically cheats. The fight takes place atop a nuclear reactor, and I’d been able to get up close and throw Deadpool off the side at least a dozen times, but he’d just glitch back to the top – it’s true that Deadpool can teleport, but when he does he’s enveloped in a pink-ish cloud, which (tellingly) was not the case when he’d magically come back to the top of the reactor. Whatever. The game is good with Achievements, which is why I was playing it in the first place.

InFamous, on the other hand, is a quality game from top to bottom. Comparisons to Crackdown are valid – open-world superhero parkour games aren’t necessarily a dime a dozen – but it has its own unique spin and is incredibly engaging. Last night I finished all the missions on the first album and started messing around on the second. The missions, both side and story, are nicely varied, and while they do start to repeat themselves they don’t necessarily feel repetitive. The game does beat you over the head a little bit with the now-obligatory moral choices, but I’ve been being the good guy and it’s not hard to stay on that path. I’m certainly curious to see what the bad-guy powers are like, however, and I suspect that I’ll be giving InFamous another spin during the next slow release period.