GTA V wishlist

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

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

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

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

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

further thoughts on Max and Diablo

Gotta say – it’s really nice to be playing real games again.

I ended up finishing Max Payne 3 in one 12-hour sitting on Thursday, and then dabbled in enough of the multiplayer to unlock a few new modes, although I haven’t messed with those yet.

Patrick Klepek, on the most recent Giant Bombcast, said something that’s stuck with me for the last few days, the general idea of which is that he liked the game a lot but wasn’t sure if it was special, the way that GTA or Red Dead was.  I’ve been wondering the same thing myself.  I kinda wish I hadn’t finished it in only one sitting, that instead of powering through it in one day that I finished the campaign over the course of a dew days or a week.  The thing is, the game is exquisitely paced and it’s very hard to put down, and when you’re stuck at home feeling shitty, and there’s nothing else you’d rather do (especially since the Diablo 3 servers are still crap), why wouldn’t you keep playing?

You know what it reminded me of, even though the two franchises couldn’t have less in common?  Uncharted 2/3.  Bear with me here.   The thing that struck me the most in those two Uncharted games was the art direction’s astonishing attention to detail – every single nook and cranny of every single area looked different and unique and lived in, with very few obvious shortcuts.  Lots of games repeat themselves – walls will have repeating textures, buildings on opposite ends of the city/country/galaxy will have similar floorplans, and every enemy you kill might as well be a clone of the one before.   Not so in Uncharted, and not so in Max Payne 3.  Every chapter had its own unique look and feel and rhythm, and while Max might not look as jaw-droppingly beautiful as Uncharted, it’s still pretty damned close.*

Another thing that Max and Uncharted have in common is that there are thousands of enemies, and a lot of those enemies require a LOT of bullets in order to die.  At least in Max’s case, though, having him kill that many people doesn’t cause as much of a weird disconnect, the way it does with Nathan Drake.  Nathan is a charming, adventurous, personable guy who happens to kill hundreds of people during the course of his journey.  Max, on the other hand, is a man who has been through more terrible shit than pretty much any man alive, a man who can only function in this fucked-up world though the total and constant obliteration of his senses through whisky and pills.   According to my Social Club stats, I’ve killed over 1600 enemies during my campaign (and a few runs through one level of Arcade Mode), and Max is a character who feels the weight of every single kill, even if they all deserved what they got.

I only finished the game on Easy Mode.  Which is kind of bullshit – I still died a lot.  As far as I could tell, the only real difference between Easy and Normal is the aiming (i.e., Hard Lock or Soft Lock) – and there wasn’t much of a difference there.  I may end up playing through the campaign at least one more time, all the way on Normal, just to find all the hidden secrets and collectibles (of which there are many, and which scratches a favorite itch).  And I do plan on playing the multiplayer a bit more, too – it’s a lot of fun.  I’d really like to see some co-op modes eventually – if there are any announced, that might just be enough for me to buy the Season Pass.  (If I remember correctly, Red Dead got some co-op modes a few months into its DLC schedule; maybe there’ll be something similar here.)

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I’ve continued to plow ahead in Diablo 3 – my lady monk is now level 15, I think – and the game is enjoyable when the lag isn’t killing the experience.  I’ve only been booted off the server once, but I’d say 80% of my playtime has been under some sort of lag duress, and it’s annoying as hell.  (I did end up installing it on my MacBook Pro, and the experience is roughly the same – my MacBook isn’t quite as powerful as my PC, so it runs a little bit slower anyway, but the lag was still an issue.)

It’s weird; I never played the original games, but I played a bunch of their descendants – Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance, Titan Quest, and Torchlight, to name a few.  I’m a fan of the genre, if not of the genuine article.  There’s something weirdly intimidating about Diablo 3 for me; maybe it’s just that the dungeons have long paths and I never know if I’m going in the right direction.  (Which is sort of the point, right?)

I guess I’m still mostly annoyed at the lag.  As much as I suppose I understand Blizzard’s reasoning behind having an always-online structure, I still find it baffling that I’m experiencing so much lag in a single-player-only experience.  It’s ridiculous.  And while it does seem to be improving with each passing day, it’s still not as good as it should be.

I seem to be running out of steam; that’s it for today, then.

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* When I think about Rockstar games – which I do, quite a lot – I don’t necessarily think of them as a graphics powerhouse, the way I do with a studio like Naughty Dog or Epic, but I must admit that both Red Dead and Max Payne 3 are near the top of my list of this generation’s best-looking games.

3 is a magic number

It’s been very quiet here since the last podcast; honestly, there’s not been a hell of a lot to talk about.  If I were a professional games writer, I’d find stuff to post, but I’m pretty sure that those of you who find your way to this corner of the internet aren’t looking for hot scoops.

I’ve been in a rut, basically.  The initial wave of iPad euphoria has subsided, and I’m no longer buying every game that comes out.  (Well, I did buy Lost Winds 2 yesterday, but haven’t played more than the first 20 seconds of it.)   There are plenty of good-looking distractions to be found in the App Store, to be sure, but I am craving a meal, not a snack.  Or maybe I’m just waiting for the iOS ports of Walking Dead and Botanicula to show up.

In the meantime, I’d been kinda tooling around with my backlog.  Finally finished Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which was a bit dumb.  I mean, it had been dumb for quite some time – I think I ultimately spent over 30 hours in there – but towards the end I just wanted to finish the final boss and be done with it.  I still have at least 20 side quests to finish but I do.  not.  give a shit.  The narrative – to the extent there is one – was boring and uninspired and in any event I couldn’t skip past it quickly enough.   I kinda feel bad for 38 Studios, who are going through some pretty serious money problems; wait a minute, what am I saying?  I hate Curt Schilling.  I feel bad for the non-Curt Schilling people of that company, let’s put it that way.

And I also decided to give up on Tiger Woods 13.  There used to be a time when the Tiger games could easily fill the slow months of the release calendar, but not so much these days.  I appreciate that they’re still making adjustments to the controls, but I can’t help getting annoyed when my perfectly lined-up putt curves away because of some arbitrary stat math.

And yeah, I guess I was also one of the million people who ended up buying Minecraft on XBLA, even though I’d never played the PC version – indeed, I never wanted to play the PC version.  That much freedom is intimidating to me; I have no idea what to do.  (This is is also why the Hitman games tended to scare the hell out of me, too.)  I spent an hour or two with it last weekend; I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible it was, but I’m still not sure I’m going to do very much with it.

This is all to say that yesterday’s releases of Max Payne 3 and Diablo 3 were big fucking deals for me, and I’d guess that if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably either at work, or just taking a break from playing those games.

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I fired up Max Payne 3 first.  I don’t recall how long I played for; I know I finished the first two chapters.

Gut reactions:

  • It’s probably the best-looking game Rockstar’s ever made, especially with regards to the lighting engine – everything is super-crisp and colorful.  This is also probably the best use of that Euphoria physics/rag doll system first seen in GTA4 and later used to marvelous effect in Red Dead Redemption  when you kill people, man, you fuck them up.
  • It’s really remarkable how well they’ve managed to both keep the game feeling fresh while, at the same time, staying true to the iconic features of the original games – the pills-as-powerups, the bullet-time, the noir.  A lot of this has to do with Rockstar’s incredible confidence in its cut-scenes.  Ever since GTA4, those mid-mission story beats started becoming real treats to watch – the dialogue’s always been great (if a little heavy-handed at times), but the scenes themselves became very cinematic – the camera was always in an interesting place, the motion-capture work was expressive and clear, and the characters themselves were engaging and entertaining.  I never found myself impatient and wanting to skip past a scene, the way I do with almost every other game out there.  Anyway, my point is that when the cutscene is over and Max is back in my hands, it still feels like the original games did – even though it’s got a lot of new technology behind the scenes.
  • If there’s one thing that’s a little off to me, it’s that I’m playing this game on the Xbox360.  I played the first two games on the PC, and the mouse and keyboard always felt intuitive and easy to use.  I also played the ports of those games on the Xbox, and the shift to the controller never felt quite right.  That not-quite-right feeling shows up here as well, which is somewhat of a bummer.  Bullet-time – the defining feature of this franchise – is activated by pushing in the right thumbstick, which is not at all intuitive and, if anything, makes it more of a pain in the ass to use.  On the PC, bullet-time was both super fun to watch and useful from a strategic perspective, but here I find myself using it just because I want to see it, not because I need it.
  • Haven’t yet touched the multiplayer, although it looks interesting.  Will try to give that a good look over the next few days, in between breaks from the campaign.

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As for Diablo 3… well, honestly?  I’m a little bummed.  I played for around 5 minutes last night – long enough to see that the weird latency/lag issues that I had in the beta a few weeks ago were still present in the retail release.  This is especially weird since my PC uses a wired connection to my router.  I haven’t yet tried tweaking the graphics settings – I wasn’t sure if this was a CPU issue or a lag issue – but I know that other people are experiencing similar problems.

I’m debating whether or not to install it on my MacBook Pro; the Mac is mainly for music and writing, and I’m a little afraid of
installing such a distraction onto that machine.  But, then again, if it runs better there…

No matter.  My plan is to focus on Max Payne 3 for the time being, and then, hopefully by this time next week, Blizzard will have solved some of these issues and the experience will be smoother.