sleepless in suburbia

Before I begin, a word of warning:  I am tired.  This is a different tired from the usual exhaustion of a busy week at work and parental duties.  This is the tired that comes from our almost-3-year-old son, who now refuses to go to bed.  Since the day we brought him home from the hospital he’d always been a terrific sleeper, but for the last two nights he’s completely changed his ways.  We get him into his jimmy-jams, we brush his teeth, we read three books, we tuck him into bed, we turn on his night lights and his little sound machine, we turn off the light, we close the door… and then, 5 seconds later, he tear-asses out of bed, opens the door, and looks at us, giggling.  We lead him back to bed, tuck him in wordlessly, close the door.  He gets up.  Last night this went from 8:00 until around 9:30.  In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t terrible; we’ve had friends whose children refused to sleep, and to his credit our son does eventually conk out.  But it is exhausting, especially since my wife and I are both a little under the weather, and we both have stuff to do after he goes to sleep.

So, yeah; between Henry’s late night antics and the barrage of work-related stuff, there’s been (a) little opportunity to write, and (b) not much of an opportunity to gather topics to write about.  But I’m gonna do my best here.

1.  I started and finished Firewatch last weekend.  I’ve read a number of illuminating and insightful pieces about it (Brendan Keogh, Emily Short, Ed Smith, among others), which have helped me piece together my own opinion about it, though I’m still not 100% sure I know what I want to say about it.  It feels less like a “walking simulator” and rather very much like an interactive short story, with wonderful dialogue and terrific voice casting.  And of course, given that the player character’s name is Henry (as is my son’s), I felt even more connected to him than I otherwise would have.

All this being said, there’s a part of me that feels somewhat disconnected from it; that all the decision-making I did in the conversation trees didn’t necessarily matter.  While Henry and Delilah have their own crosses to bear and work through, the larger story of Firewatch is about something else, and so at the end of the game I felt a little hollow.  (Maybe now I understand why everybody was so up in arms about the original ending to Mass Effect 3; you can feel a bit like the rug got pulled out from under you when 180+ hours worth of choice-making feels like it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much.)

The ending – such as it is – is bittersweet, and I suppose it’s the right way to end this sort of story.  But it also makes it somewhat difficult to return to, I think.

2.  I played about an hour’s worth of The Division beta on Xbox One last night, and I’m hoping to play it again on the PS4 tonight (just to compare/contrast, in terms of graphics).  My original impression of The Division upon its E3 reveal was that (a) I’m growing tired of this type of apocalyptic scenario, (b) it was very pretty and there’s simply no way it’s going to end up looking like that at retail, and (c) I don’t know if I need to play this.  But then, just a few weeks ago, it was revealed to be an RPG, and now that I’ve gotten my hands on it, it’s now become something I’m very, very interested in.

Making a Tom Clancys’ game an RPG is a very interesting decision, as far as these things go.  While all the Clancys’ games have had some very “game-y” aspects to them, there’s an additional level of abstraction that happens when you’re playing an RPG; leveling up, adding perks, comparing weapon pickups, etc.  You don’t necessarily notice this in the moment-to-moment gunplay (which, actually, reminded me a great deal of Mass Effect, come to think of it), but you can’t help but confront it after each battle when you’re running around looting corpses and lockboxes.  Any attempt at gritty realism and immersion kinda sails out the window when bright green columns of loot start glowing on the ground.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; if anything, I’m all for it.

The problem, though, is that the writing – at least in the beta’s abbreviated levels – is kinda terrible.  I don’t know if it’s Destiny-level terrible, but it’s certainly not Bioware, or even Bethesda.  Maybe terrible is too strong a word; basically, I didn’t really care why I was doing what I was doing, and I was content to simply follow the arrow to my destination.  The game also, sadly, features the classic Ubisoft trademark of having over-complicated controls; after an hour, I still couldn’t reliably get my grenades equipped and ready.  This is a third-person cover-based shooter, Ubisoft; most of us know how these games are supposed to feel in our hands, and it’s simply bizarre that Ubi feels compelled to arbitrarily change the formula to make it twice as complicated as it needs to be.

Still, I’m intrigued, if only because I’ve got nothing else on my gaming plate at the moment.  Tonight I test the PS4 version, and then I’ll run some sort of poll to figure out which of my gaming friends are picking it up, and on which system.  That said, I played what I played solo, and it wasn’t necessarily that lonely an experience; I think it’ll be more fun in co-op, obviously, but what isn’t?

3. I’ve finished a few books since my last post.

  • The Lost Time Accidents” – I loved this book, even if some of the more scientific stuff flew over my head.  Marvelously written, fantastically drawn characters, a pure pleasure to read from cover to cover.
  • Childhood’s End” – Apparently they’re making a TV show out of this?  Interesting, though I’ve got no desire to watch it.  I’ve actually read very little Arthur C. Clarke – until this one, I think I’d only read “Rendezvous With Rama“, and even though I’ve watched “2001” a bazillion times it’s not quite the same thing.  In any event – I can certainly understand why this is considered an all-time classic sci-fi book, and it’s remarkable to see how close Clarke was to imagining current technology from the 1950s.
  • Sudden Death” – OK, I haven’t technically finished this one, but it’s very short, and I’ll probably finish it by Monday.  I don’t have any idea how to describe this one, but it’s certainly very readable.

Hey, I managed to poop out 1000+ words!  Even if none of them have any thought behind them.  Have a wonderful weekend, everybody, and may you all get some sleep.

 

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.

Hypothetical: The Inevitable HD Remake List

My digital copy of Destiny finished pre-loading over the weekend.  I have a thing tomorrow night, though, and I’m not sure if I’ll be awake enough when I get home to do much more than create a character and go through the first 1-2 levels before hitting the hay; therefore, being that anyone reading this will likely have already played through what I wouldn’t get to until Wednesday at the earliest, there probably won’t be a “First Few Hours” post.  And, ultimately, I expect the opening hours to be more or less what we played in the beta, albeit with some additional graphical spit-shining (and (hopefully) some new Dinklage VO).

In the meantime, I think I’ve burned myself out on Diablo III.  (Speaking of which:  if you haven’t yet read Carolyn Petit’s take on Diablo 3 and Dark Souls 2, you should fix that ASAP.)  I find that, these days, I can really only play it for about 30-45 minutes these days before feeling restless and bored; coincidentally, 30-45 minutes is actually just enough time to run some bounties and/or run a Nephalem Rift, get some new gear, and log out.   The bounties don’t seem to change, though; every time I log in it’s the same stuff.  Do I have to finish all 5 bounties in all 5 Acts before they refresh?  That seems… kinda dumb.

So, in order to keep the ol’ wheels turning here at SFTC, and because I’m in a somewhat cynical mood, I’ve spent the last few days guessing what the next inevitable HD remakes are going to be.

We already know about these AAA re-releases, which have either already come out or have been announced as forthcoming.

  • Tomb Raider
  • The Last of Us
  • Metro Redux
  • GTA V
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • Saints Row 4
  • Halo 1-4 box set

By the way, the AAA designation is specific and necessary to this discussion.  I’m well aware of stuff like Fez,  Minecraft, Abe’s Oddysee, Hotline Miami, Journey/Flow/Flower and other such indies getting ported to the new consoles; I’m also going to be the first person to buy the Grim Fandango restoration as soon as it’s released.  But I’m specifically talking about AAA titles from the 360/PS3 generation, as those games seem to generate the most press from the big sites – and porting those games also serves as valuable experience for the developers in terms of learning how their existing tech works on the new systems.  (I believe Naughty Dog talked about this specific idea when they ported The Last of Us to PS4 – it helped them learn how to best tweak their engine before getting Uncharted 4 off the ground.)

So, then, what other AAA franchises from the last console era might we expect to see in the future?

  • Beyond: Two Souls is almost certainly getting a PS4 port, according to a number of sources (1, 2, 3).
  • Mass Effect trilogy.  I’ve heard this rumored more than a few times, and it’s not necessarily a bad idea (though it’s asking quite a lot for people who sunk hundreds of hours already to do it again in a higher resolution).  That being said, the boring bits in ME1 would still be boring in 1080p, and the ending in ME3 would still be the ending.  I don’t think Bioware would spend the energy tweaking that stuff when they’d rather work on the new ME game.
  • Bioshock 1, 2, Infinite.  The more I think about it, this seems like a no-brainer.  Consider: the recent iOS port of Bioshock 1; Irrational Studios is all but shut down; TakeTwo surely considers Bioshock a formidable IP that they don’t want to lose.  Just imagine what Bioshock 1 would look like on new hardware.
  • Uncharted 1-3.  Probably a long shot, given that Naughty Dog is already working on Uncharted 4 (and that, as said above, that they learned what they needed to learn about their engine through porting The Last of Us), but it wouldn’t surprise me if Sony outsourced this to another dev house.  Sony’s stated reason for re-releasing last year’s TLOU was because a lot of people who bought a PS4 never owned a PS3; it stands to reason that those same people have never played what is arguably Sony’s biggest exclusive franchise.
  • Gears of War 1-3.  Probably less of a long shot, given that Microsoft needs anything they can get their hands on to get the Xbox One into more living rooms, and given that the Halo box set is a thing that’s already happening.  But this might depend more on Epic and Unreal Engine 4.
  • This most certainly won’t happen, but I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Rockstar come out with their own Orange Box, with Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire, and Red Dead Redemption in one HD package.  For me, personally, that would be my birthday and Christmas every day for the rest of my life.  Hell, I’d just be happy with Red Dead.  It will be a sad day when my 360 dies; RDR is the only reason why I haven’t yet pulled the plug myself.
  • Similarly, I would be very, very surprised to see Bethesda do ports of OblivionSkyrim or Fallout 3/New Vegas.  I’d be inclined to check those out, certainly, but the amount of work necessary to properly port those games seems far too excessive, and it’s all but certain that work on Elder Scrolls VI and Fallout 4 are well underway already.  (And, of course, the PC modding community is also doing a bang-up job as far as those games are concerned.)

What would you like to see?  Or are you done with HD remasters?

Mass Effect 3: the ending, and what comes next

[I’m doing my damnedest to keep MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS to a minimum, but you know how these things go.]

I finished Mass Effect 3 very late last night.  It wasn’t my intention, necessarily, but I’d finished every other side quest I could find and there wasn’t an easy place to stop.

I’d been trying to live in a spoiler-free world regarding the game for the last 6 months or so, but I also spend a lot of time on the internet, and so it was impossible to ignore the controversy brewing about the game’s endings.  I didn’t know why they were upset, or how many of them were out there, or if it was even something to take all that seriously, being that there’s a riot goin’ on over the internet at pretty much any given time.

And anyway, I wanted to see the ending for myself.  (My “galactic readiness” was somewhere in the low-to-mid 60%, but my strength was in the mid 4000s, high enough to get the best endings.)

As it happens, I saw my chosen ending at around 2:00 in the morning, after a 6 hour marathon, and as such I’m probably not in the best shape to discuss why it’s a terrible ending or why Bioware needs to change it.  I’m not entirely sure they do need to change it, anyway.  I made my choice after what felt like 30 minutes of hemming and hawing, and when I finish this post I’m probably going to head back to my apartment and fire up my last save just to see the option I almost picked instead.

It was a tough choice, there’s no doubt about it.  It was absolutely the toughest choice I’d made in the entire series, especially since none of the three options were terribly appealing, and also since I was exhausted and forgot what the choices actually were for a little bit there.  But it would’ve been silly to hope for a “happy” ending – in a series where millions and millions of people/creatures died over the course of a years-long galactic war, having an Ewok dance party would’ve been stupid.

In any event, it wasn’t a cop-out, which (to me) is what’s most impressive.  Even in spite of the fact that it’s a literal deus ex machina.  I did what I did and the war ended, and it hurt a little bit, as it should’ve.

_______________

I’ve read in a few places that even though the trilogy is over, Bioware isn’t done with the Mass Effect franchise, which is good.  I don’t want to leave this world they’ve created.  They’ve created one of the most compelling sci-fi universes in any medium, and there’s a lot more to be seen and done.  But there are some game things that need to be addressed.

For one thing, is there any game franchise that would benefit more from L.A. Noire‘s amazing facial tech than Mass Effect?  As it stands right now, all of the otherwise excellent dialogue sequences are hampered by robotic facial expressions and the occasional strange, unconnected wandering around by a speaking character.  (This happens a lot in The Old Republic, come to think of it.  In fact, some of the wandering-around animations might be identical.)  Better facial tech would go a long way towards making these characters feel even more real than the script allows them to be.

I might also add that a lot of the optional crew conversations in ME3 – the ones where you finish your mission and then wander around the Normandy – were almost exclusively of the pep-talk variety.  Everybody’s feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, sure, but I felt like I was having the same conversation with 12 different people.

The quest system was more than a little messed up – at least as far as the optional side stuff went.  For one thing, picking up side missions by overhearing conversations in the Citadel just felt lazy.  Secondly, the quest system never updated itself, so it was hard to know what you’d actually found and what was ready to turn in.  At one point, I’d kept a notebook on my coffee table so that I could keep track of what I was doing.  This seems insane, given that the game has a built-in quest log already.

One of the things I liked in ME2 was that not every side mission involved combat – sometimes it was just exploring an environment.  As far as I could tell, there was only one (1) mission like that in ME3, and it was a neat change of pace (even if it felt like a puzzle idea that only got half-baked), and I wished there was more.

__________________

My big dream for the next console generation is for a mega-hybrid RPG combining the sci-fi world and strong character development of Mass Effect, the wide-open expanse and the sense of discovery of Skyrim, and the true open-world freedom of GTA.  You put that together with a truly kick-ass graphics engine (idTech5? UnrealEngine 4?) and maybe a multiplayer component worth a damn and  you’ve got yourself a monumental work of art.  Make it so.

>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?

>FF13: The first 2 hours

>The subtitle of this post should be: “or, Why I Didn’t Finish Heavy Rain.”

I didn’t finish Heavy Rain, nor am I sure I ever will. To be fair, though, it’s not entirely HR’s fault; I moved to Brooklyn last week, and even though we’ve been settled in for the better part of a week, I still haven’t really had that much free time. That said, the free time I did have was time I didn’t really feel like spending playing HR. HR kinda needs to be played in a long, uninterrupted stretch, or else it loses its rhythm, which is what happened to me. Also, it falls into the uncanny valley way too often, it needs an actual English-speaking voice cast, and the script very much needed to be touched up by an English-speaking writer. That’s really what hit the uncanny valley for me – not the graphics, but the stiff, stilted dialogue delivered by people who don’t quite know how to pronounce certain words. Also, it felt almost a little too derivative of “Se7en.”

Anyway. Final Fantasy 13 arrived in the mail yesterday, and God of War 3 will arrive next week, and so I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to finishing HR anytime soon.

As for FF13. I should probably start by saying that I’m not really all that familiar with the Final Fantasy series. I tried (and failed) to document my playtime with FF7 last year (1, 2, 3); I also downloaded FF8 from the Playstation Network, although I don’t think I’ve even installed it. And I played about an hour or two of FF3 (?) on the DS, and a little bit of FF7-Crisis Core on the PSP. But that’s really the extent of it.

I understand, though, that FF13 is somewhat of a radical departure from its previous versions, at least in terms of its combat system and how relentlessly linear it is. So there’s that.

Here’s what I can say about FF13, now that I’m a few hours in and the combat system is starting to get a bit more expansive:

1. It’s gorgeous. I’m playing the PS3 version, for whatever that’s worth.

2. People weren’t kidding around when they said it’s linear. It’s not just that you move in a straight line – it’s that the straight line you move along is very, very narrow. I can appreciate that this very conscious design choice might make the game a little less intimidating for the FF noob; but just because I’ve never really played a FF game doesn’t mean I’ve never played any game.

3. The combat system sounds a lot more complex than it actually is. At least at this stage.

4. Almost any Japanese-developed game has this weird idiosyncratic thing where every character has to be constantly voicing something, even if it’s just grunting. And almost every female character’s grunts and moans sound alarmingly sexual in nature, even if they aren’t at all sexual in context.

5. It is basically the polar opposite of Mass Effect 2, which I am holding up as the gold standard for Western RPGs. (Whether that’s true or not is not really the point; it’s an amazing game, and it’s still fresh in my mind.)

Most reviews have indicated that FF13 starts slow and doesn’t really get going until 12-15 hours in. Which is a lot of hours that I might not necessarily have before GOW3 arrives. But I must admit that I’m kinda enjoying it so far. I have almost zero idea what’s going on (and if I weren’t playing the game with subtitles, I’d have absolutely no idea what a “fal’Cie” or “l’Cie” is; at least I know how they’re spelled). But I’m intrigued. I think the last truly engrossing JRPG I played was Lost Odyssey; I’m hoping this will be somewhere near that ballpark.

>Mass Effect 2: the first 5 hours

>Let me say, right up front: I will do my absolute hardest to avoid spoilers. But let me also say that I’m almost positive that anyone who’s reading this is either (a) a family member or (b) someone who’s already playing the game themselves. If you fall into neither category, consider yourself warned.

And in any event, what I want to write about isn’t really about the story, but rather the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. So let me get this out of the way: the opening 10 minutes of the game are as exciting, breathtaking and flat-out jaw-dropping as anything I’ve ever seen. And because the first game is now so fresh in my mind (having raced through it over the weekend), it was really easy for me to hit the ground running; the universe of the game isn’t as intimidating as it might have been, and I feel like I understand my player’s circumstances and the major players quite well. I’m not at all sure how someone who never played the first one would fare here.

But this is not what I want to talk about.

I also don’t necessarily want to talk about the graphics, and the combat, and the sound, and the voice acting, and the mini-games, and the differences between the first game and the sequel. I mean, I do want to talk about it, or at least acknowledge it. Suffice it to say, everything that was good about the first game is 100x better in the second game, and everything that sucked is gone. And if nothing else, it’s probably the best looking game on the 360 right now; I’m having trouble coming up with something that looks better. But again, that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

This is what I want to talk about: Mass Effect 2 is not an RPG. It is, rather, a role-playing game.

I had attempted, a long time ago, to articulate this distinction. I had just finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect 1, as a matter of fact, and was having trouble getting into Eternal Sonata.

I like Eternal Sonata, but I’m having a hard time really getting into it, and I think part of that is because Mass Effect was still running through my bloodstream. But more to the point – I don’t really understand where the RPG is in Eternal Sonata, and to extrapolate that even further, I’m not sure there’s a lot of RPG in most games that call themselves RPGs.

Unless I’m incredibly misguided, RPG stands for “role playing game”, and I deem that to mean that my player character is something I have an incredible amount of control over – not just in terms of managing stats and armaments, but what they actually do. The problem is that the vast majority of RPGs that I’ve played really just have you managing stats and armaments – you’re still doing what the game tells you to do, and your basic choice comes down to using magic or using swords.

And this is why Mass Effect 2 feels like such a revelation. There’s no loot in the game. In the first Mass Effect, the inventory management system was a total mess; in ME2, there is almost no inventory to manage at all. You have a few guns, and you upgrade them not by leveling up and getting an arbitrary number added to their stats but by mining for supplies on uncharted worlds. There’s no XP, either – at least, not in the traditional sense. You gain XP by completing missions, rather than by killing things. Which, when you think about it, makes the concept of “gaining experience” something literal.

This is important, I think. Look, I’m all for loot and inventory management and stat bonuses – that stuff is fun when it’s done right, and picking up cool stuff is a pleasing reward, and this is why Borderlands was so successful for me even though there was absolutely no narrative to speak of. But it’s also incredibly artificial, and it takes you out of the moment. The only time you need to look at a menu screen in Mass Effect 2 is if you want to save your game, or to look at your available missions in order to figure out what to do next. (You can still customize your character’s armor and weaponry, should you so choose, and you do that while you’re on your ship, in between missions. It’s all about context.)

Not to make this analogy again, but ME2 feels a lot like GTA in space. There is a central mission path, which takes you all over the place, but you are free to pursue whatever else strikes your fancy whenever you like. The difference is that your character in GTA has a pre-scripted personality; you can do whatever you want, but ultimately you’re really just guiding your dude from point A to point B. Your character in ME2, on the other hand, is very much whoever you want it to be, and the game goes out of its way to make that actually mean something. As in previous Bioware RPGs, you are an active participant in conversations, and ME2’s new “interrupt” feature makes this experience feel even more visceral. You feel more connected to the people you interact with.

It’s this sense of immersion that impresses me the most about ME2. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s story, but I’m already heavily invested in my adventure. I truly feel like the commander of a kick-ass, state of the art spaceship. And at this point, I could care less about inventory screens; I just want to go back to it and explore.

>Weekend Recap: preparing for ME2

>Not much to report this weekend, but here’s what’s what:

1. Finally finished my 3rd playthrough of Mass Effect 1, and picked up the Achievement for hitting Level 60. That’s all I wanted to accomplish – hit level 60, and make sure that I could import my character into ME2 with all the stuff I wanted to be in place. (Which is somewhat ridiculous – my first playthrough was all light-side, my second playthrough was deliberately dark-side, which meant that my bases should have been covered. But I guess I wanted whatever perk there may be in hitting Level 60 with a light-side run.) I’m very glad I did so; I feel very much caught up on the story, which is as excellent as I remembered, and now my anticipation level for ME2 is off the friggin’ charts; you don’t need to hear about it. Very tempted to take some sick days in the immediate future.

2. Dabbled a tiny bit in Dark Void, which is, for lack of a better word, janky as all hell. It doles out Achievements like crazy, though, perhaps as an incentive to continue slogging through it. That being said, I will probably just send it back to Gamefly tomorrow morning; ME2 will take up all my available time anyway, and I don’t feel like I need the Achievements that badly. (I hit 50K; that’s enough.)

And so what did you play this weekend?

>Darksiders / Bayonetta

>Finished Darksiders this weekend, and after that I played as much Bayonetta as I could, before it started driving me completely insane – this was right at the beginning of Chapter 5. And then I gave Brutal Legend one more chance, and crammed in a bit more Mass Effect (1).

But first things first. Darksiders is, for lack of a better word, solid. (Which is ironic, considering the constant screen tearing.) It’s got a simple but effective combat system, some interesting and challenging puzzles, a wide variety of environments to explore, and a story that was just engaging enough to keep me motivated through the end, with one of the best set-ups for a sequel I’ve ever seen.

That said, it’s so derivative that it borders on litigious – as you’ve no doubt heard by now if you’ve been paying any attention to its reviews, it’s basically the dark Zelda game that Nintendo will never make, with the Portal gun thrown in, for some reason. So it feels somewhat uninspired – it has a great story set-up, but it doesn’t really do anything special with it. I said before that there are a wide variety of environments, but they’re not really particularly interesting; there’s a lot of dead space to cover in between combat arenas and puzzles, which gets tedious. (You do eventually get a horse, but it can only be ridden in certain areas, and you don’t get it until you’re already at least halfway through the game.)

Still, it’s certainly worth a rental; if it’s derivative, at least it’s stealing from the right places.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is pure, distilled lunacy. Picture Devil May Cry as a perpetually horny, unintentionally racist teenage boy that’s taken 3 tabs of LSD followed by 20 cans of Red Bull and you begin to approach Bayonetta’s plane of existence. Unfortunately, I don’t do drugs anymore, and I’m not very good at games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, so after getting my ass handed to me repeatedly at the beginning of Chapter 5, I came to the realization that no amount of curiosity as to what could possibly happen next was going to outweigh the frustration of not being able to kill whatever the hell was trying to kill me. I’m not entirely sure how what I’d already seen could possibly be topped, even though I’ve been assured that each chapter gets even more insane. Oh well; my loss.

I had lent Brutal Legend to a friend of mine, but his 360 died shortly thereafter and so I got it back. I’d been meaning to give it another shot; I felt terrible that I couldn’t get into it, as if it were somehow my fault, and being that the game is so short I figured I might as well try to get through it. But you know what? It’s not my fault. I hate the Stage Battles. I hated them when I was first learning how to play them, and I hate them now, long after I’d forgotten what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Everything else about that game is fantastic – even the side missions, as repetitive as they are, are fun enough. But GODDAMN I hate the Stage Battles. They are totally unintuitive; the controls are absolute garbage; I get no feedback as to how I’m doing or why I won or lost. I’m so bummed.

And so, then, I’m trying to finish my third playthrough of Mass Effect before ME2 shows up next week. I don’t know that I’ll ever get up to Level 50, as I’m still 80,000 XP short, but that’s not really the point; I just want to make sure that I can start my first playthrough of ME2 with the right story elements in place.

>Progress

>The quest for 50K is going much better than I’d originally anticipated; I’ve got 6 weeks to get 327 points. I’m pretty sure I can get that relatively quickly from Assassin’s Creed 2, with an assist from Left 4 Dead 2. So, hooray for that.

This past weekend was a little weird, gaming wise, but when I think about it it actually worked out to my advantage. The weekend’s primary goal was working on music, but every once in a while I needed a break, and so I’d dive in to something on the 360; and since I’d finished Modern Warfare 2‘s campaign already, I didn’t feel pressured to pick one thing and finish it.

I keep grinding away in Forza 3; I kinda messed up and bought the wrong car for an upcoming race in the Season Play mode, and so now I’m just going through tournaments in an effort to make that money back. I can’t remember if I made the analogy here or in an email, but here goes anyway: Forza reminds me a lot of the Tiger Woods games, in that there’s an absolute ton of stuff to do, a lot of which I’ve already done in previous versions in the franchise. On the flip side, Forza 3 does not in any feel like it’s treading water, the way the Tiger games have for the last few years.

I’m also still running around in GTA4: BOGT, which is making me love the original GTA4 a little less. The game just feels dated; not in its story or setting, but in its actual gameplay mechanics. Combat feels incredibly clumsy, and the game is just brutally punishing if I fail a mission – I lose cash, armor (if I had it) and ammo (which doesn’t get replenished), plus time keeps moving forward so if I had something I wanted to do at a certain time, I probably don’t get to do it if I have to keep doing a mission over and over again. Saints Row will never be confused with GTA in terms of story and emotional resonance, but in terms of having fun and not being endlessly frustrating, it’s not even really all that close anymore. The Houser brothers are starting to make a little bit of noise about GTA5; I know there’s tons to think about in terms of making a great GTA game (story, setting, dialogue), but I would suggest that they also add some refinements, if not a complete overhaul, of the way the game is actually played. Let us recharge our health; let us have mid-mission checkpoints; let us not be punished so harshly for failure.

I’m starting to get really excited about 2010 Q1; specifically, Mass Effect 2. And it occurred to me that I never finished my 3rd playthrough of ME1, so I decided to give that a bit of a whirl. As it happens, I’d stopped playing near the end of the last DLC they released; said DLC was more or less a glorified combat tutorial, which is arguably the least successful aspect of the original game. But whatever – I turned down the difficulty and plowed through the last few missions and got 100 Achievements for my efforts, and then I saw where I actually was in the story, and then I decided to call it a day. (If you’re familiar with the first game, I’d just gotten off the Citadel and hadn’t yet started those first 3 long missions you get in order to advance the story; in other words, I’d have a looooooooong way to go.)

And then, in a bit of idle panic, I downloaded the Torchlight demo from Steam, just because I’d heard it was good and I was curious to see if my aging PC could run it. The short answer is yes, it can, and shortly thereafter I’d purchased the full version and now I’m totally hooked.

This week: Assassin’s Creed 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and the God of War Collection for PS3.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to Pandemic Studios, who very well might be getting shut down today. Mercenaries was one of my favorite games on the original Xbox, and Star Wars Battlefront was a lot of fun, and even Destroy All Humans! was worth a few chuckles. I’m hopeful that Saboteur will at least be a fine farewell from one of the more ambitious developers out there.