Weekend Recap: Operation Backlog begins

1.  Operation Backlog has begun in earnest – even though I did sorta end up buying Need For Speed Rivals as a PC Download from Amazon because it was on sale and I had an extra $5 discount AND I already had a gift card balance, and, so, yeah.  I’m a little disappointed in it, though, which I’ll get to in a bit, and so with that said I do feel very much like I can fully engage with the backlog.  And there was this nice little bit of encouragement from Polygon, today:

Buying games on sale can feel like sending a message in a bottle to possible future versions of yourself, but finding and opening those bottles, and having them enrich your life, is like nothing else. It’s an investment in our own future, and it helps support the industry today.

There’s nothing wrong with your backlog, as long as you’re not going into debt to buy games you may not play in the near future. You shouldn’t be ashamed of the stack of games that seem interesting but remain unplayed. They won’t spoil. They will be there when you need them. And the people who made the games? They’re more than happy to have your money and interest.

Your backlog isn’t a source of shame, but a matter of pride; it’s a well-stocked library from which you can take comfort, a pile of blankets waiting for a cold night.

Indeed.

There’s a neat feature in Steam that lets you organize the stuff in your library by categories of your own designation.  I didn’t even know it was there, to be honest, and I only discovered it by a combination of wishful thinking and the sheer, dumb luck of an accidental right-click.  It’s a very small feature, and not one that’s necessarily all that noteworthy, except that it is exactly what I need in order to keep myself from getting distracted by other things.  Moreover, the fact that I can’t really do this with my XBLA library or my PSN games makes it a feature that I appreciate all the more, which is why I’m bringing it up in the first place.

2014 BacklogThe point is, this is what I now see at the top left part of the screen when I open up my Library page in Steam.  It’s a to-do list, easily managed and maintained, and cleansed of the other distractions in my library.

This Operation Backlog project is a little intimidating, is the thing.

Because even after organizing all this stuff (and then procrastinating by creating 2 more categories, one of which is for stuff like AC4 and BAO, where I’ve beaten the main game but still have tons of collectibles and side stuff to finish), I kinda just sat at my desk, staring at this list, not knowing where to start.  I suppose that the reasons why these games are in the backlog at all is because there was something a bit…. off… about them at the time of purchase; maybe I was already fully engaged by other games, or perhaps I tried them for a few minutes and for whatever reason couldn’t get sucked in quickly enough.

I did end up starting Outlast last night, for some stupid reason.  When it comes to horror – be it movies, games, even books – I get startled and frightened very easily, and being that I’m already in a heightened state of anxiety because my wife and I are binge-watching Breaking Bad, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a particularly long play-session.  Sure enough, it wasn’t; the first real jump-scare happens around 10 minutes in (the Library, for those of you who’ve played it), and I audibly shrieked in my chair, and as soon as I got out of that room I turned the game off and went back into the living room to watch football.

It’s hard to pick one game out of that list to get started with, I think.  Rayman Legends is excellent but I find that I really only want to play it in quick, short bursts – same thing goes for BitTrip Runner 2, as a matter of fact.  I’m probably free of my anti-Diablo bias at this point, so I suppose I could get back into Torchlight 2, but I don’t necessarily want to start this project with a 20-40 hour clickfest slog.  I’m still scared of XCOM, and after that spectacular Polygon piece about the Spelunky eggplant run I’m seriously wondering what the hell I was thinking even picking that game up in the first place.

I’m starting to think I should give Kentucky Route Zero another go.  I think that’s my speed right now.  And maybe on the side I’ll get back into Shadowrun Returns, which I recall enjoying.

2.  So, yeah:  Need for Speed Rivals.  I’m an idiot for buying it on the PC, where absolutely nobody is playing it, and also because if I were to suddenly splurge on a PS4 right now, that’s the one game I would’ve picked up (unless I wanted to play AC4 again at full price).  My initial impression with it is that it’s basically a souped-up version of Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, except it’s always online – which means booting the game up and finding a server can take a long, long time.  Also:  you can’t actually pause the game, which is completely insane – if you’re in a single-player race and you miss a turn (because some arrows are easier to miss than others), you can’t restart (or, at least, I don’t think you can; I tried to find the option, and while I searched for it my car drove into a tree).  What I really should do is get back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which I actually was enjoying.  At least I didn’t actually spend real money on it…

3.  Finally:  I normally don’t do any behind-the-scenes stuff here, but what happened on Friday was pretty incredible.  I’d written that piece about in-game collectibles, and in the promo tweet for it I included Patrick Klepek’s twitter handle, just simply in the hopes that he might see it.  Thought nothing of it.  An hour or two later, I hopped onto this blog’s dashboard to check something, and saw that my hit total was abnormally high.  I quickly discovered that Patrick had retweeted my link with some positive feedback, and by the end of the day this site had seen more visitors – over 1200 in all – than in all of 2011 combined.  (See (1) below.) What’s more, the spillover into the following day was also the 2nd biggest day this site’s ever had (see (2) below).  I’ve removed the actual numbers, but the spike is pretty obvious:

site stats1It should be noted, here, that I don’t do this blog for the sake of getting “numbers”, or anything like that; if I was doing this for the sole purpose of generating traffic, you’d be seeing a lot more stuff like a list of 23 things Microsoft needs to do to improve the Xbox One’s chances accompanied by animated cat gifs.  That’s easy, and dumb, and it’s the sort of tactic that I think is going to flame out pretty spectacularly in a year or two, when people have even less active attention spans than they already do.  (Personally, I believe there is an audience for thoughtful discussion and analysis, and that’s the sort of audience I’d like to attract.)

I do this blog because I want to get better as a writer, and because I would like to do this professionally some day, and the only way to do that is to write and write and write, and apply, and pitch, and apply, and pitch, and write and write and write, and hope that somebody notices.  I’m glad that people come here, of course, because I do want people to read what I write; it’s just that I don’t want to be a dick about getting people here.

All that being said, that spike above was pretty goddamned awesome.  (And I did end up reaching out and thanking him, and he was very cool about it.)

 

moving on

“Hey everybody it’s Tuesday…”

Still trying to process yesterday’s tragic news.  The internet’s collective outpouring of love, support and grief went a long way  And of course now I’m wondering if there will be a Bombcast today, and, if so, whether I’ll be able to handle it.

As for things bumming me out that actually directly affect my life, today is doubly tough because it was my son’s first day of day care.  I had to drop him off before I left for work, and he was already unhappy before I finished getting him out of the stroller.   I peeked through the window right before I left, and he was sitting on one of the older women’s laps, crying, not wanting the offered pacifier.   Broke my heart to leave him, but I was already running late for work.

In any event, it seems a bit harder than usual to talk about videogames, so I’m going to cut-and-paste and re-write a draft from last week that I never got around to finishing, and maybe that will help me get back on track.

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Finished Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [July 1st].  That’s a fun little game, I have to say.  I may have made this comparison before; it’s Bastion plus Bulletstorm in the Old West, which is a better-sounding combo than you’d think.  It took me about 5 hours to get through the story, and while it really wasn’t towards the end of the game that I started to feel like I was getting good at it, I still had a pretty good time overall.   Certainly worth picking up in a Summer Sale, if such an offering is available, but even at $20 it’s money well spent.

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I also managed to finish The Last of Us over the long weekend.  I finished it on “Easy”, and I understand from reading other TLOU articles that doing so prevented me from really feeling the game, but I don’t buy that; the game was plenty difficult even on Easy, because Clickers will always one-hit kill you, and sometimes the PS3 controller doesn’t do what I ask of it.  I’m guessing the biggest advantage in Easy was that I had more ammo, but I still generally tried to stealth my way around whenever possible.

It’s a remarkable experience (that opening sequence is one of the best of all time), and it’s certainly a landmark technical achievement (certainly in the top 5 best-looking/sounding games of this generation), and yet it’s also a game that I don’t think I want to play again.  It’s too dark, too soul-crushing, too depressing; I’m glad I experienced it the first time, but I don’t see what I would gain through a second playthrough beyond finding all the hidden collectibles – and one does not play The Last of Us to find hidden collectibles.

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I mentioned this at the bottom of one of last week’s posts; I’ve gotten back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which is surprising given how disappointed I was when I tried playing it on the 360 last year.  The PC experience is a completely different beast, however; it is absolutely gorgeous, for one thing, and the game experience feels a lot more polished and smooth than the 360 version.  And so now that it’s working the way it’s supposed to, I’m finally able to appreciate what Criterion was trying to do.

I think I was always going to be disappointed after it first launched, because even without the technical problems I was having on the 360, my primary issue was always that I really wanted NFSMW to be Burnout Paradise 2, and because it wasn’t, I couldn’t really judge it fairly and objectively.  The Need for Speed brand meant nothing to me, and my intense love of all things Criterion couldn’t save me from eventually walking away from the (still-excellent) Hot Pursuit.

But now that I’ve had a few months to forget about my first run and can finally see it with clearer eyes, I’m actually pretty impressed.  If anything, it’s a lot more like Burnout Paradise than I was willing to give it credit for – and I might even argue that it’s got a better (or at least more intuitive) career progression than BoP.

Sometimes I get intimidated by non-linear games – I mean, I appreciate that I have all this freedom, but unless I’m doing something constructive I feel lost and/or overwhelmed.  (This is why Skyrim‘s quests will always be more appealing to me than Minecraft‘s sandbox.)  What I do appreciate, though, is that even if you’re not racing, there’s still lots of side things to do – security gates to crash, hidden cars to unlock, billboards to jump through.  And in the meantime, if you actually want to advance in the game, there’s lots of ways to do that – each car you find has its own series of races to complete (with noticeable performance-improving incentives for finishing 1st), and once you accumulate enough of whatever the XP equivalent is, you can engage in the game’s version of Boss Battles.

I’m spending too long talking about a game that came out last year that nobody else is playing, but still – if it shows up on sale (and I happened to pick it up for $15 during an Amazon Digital Download sale), it’s a damn fun time – especially (as I noted above) if you’re playing on PC, which is miles ahead of the 360 version.

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Finally, I can’t not talk about the GTA V gameplay trailer that came out this morning.  Obviously, if you’re reading this post you’ve already watched it, but just in case you want to watch it again:

I don’t really know what else to say about it, other than I love how Rockstar’s been doing these “informercial”-ish trailers for the last few years.  (I seem to recall Red Dead Redemption getting this sort of treatment, and certainly Max Payne 3 had some as well.)

And I suppose I could point out that it appears as if they’re adapting certain elements of RDR’s combat system, which is very good news indeed.  (One of the reasons why RDR remains one of my favorite games of all time is because the gunplay was immensely fun and satisfying in all the ways that GTA IV‘s was not.)

And while I don’t necessarily see this game getting as far-out crazy as San Andreas did (i.e., I’d be very surprised to see a jetpack), it certainly does look as though they’re incorporating a lot more of the side stuff that made San Andreas as compulsively playable as it was (i.e., tennis, parasailing, long-distance cycling, etc.).  As long as there’s no David Cross-narrated model plane combat side mission, we’re good to go.

the first few hours: The Last of Us

Before I start talking about The Last of Us in earnest, I want to mention two interesting things that won’t necessarily fit in the context of the discussion, but are still related to my personal experience with the game:

1.  Slight spoilers – a few hours into the game, you’ll meet two characters named Henry and Sam.  As it happens, Henry is the name of my son, and Sam was the name of my grandfather.   My grandfather died when I was in high school, so Henry never got to meet him.  But there they were, dodging zombies and armed maniacs along with our heroes, Joel and Ellie.

2.  One of the game’s many strengths is how well it conveys atmosphere, especially when you’re in dark basements.  In addition to the sheer visuals, there’s lots of ambient noises and sonic textures that make you feel really claustrophobic and creeped out.  This is doubly effective when there’s an actual mouse in your actual apartment, scratching and squeaking behind the walls, and you’re alone in your living room with a sleeping baby behind a thin wooden door just a few feet away and the lights turned down low.

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While I’ve more or less conceded that my desire to be a full-time game journalist is hopelessly impractical at this point in my life, I still occasionally think about getting into the freelance game-review business.  Especially now, given my earlier post about being short on cash.  I mean, I know that reviews don’t necessarily bring in a ton of money, and I wouldn’t always be playing stuff that’s good, but surely there are less pleasant ways to supplement one’s income.

And yet I can’t help but feel that I’d be terrible at it.

For example:  sometimes I feel like it can be a cop-out or a crutch (or, more likely, a habit of laziness) to compare someone’s new work to their old work.   Like:  if you can’t assess a thing for what it actually is without comparing to something that it never tried to be, then you’re probably a shitty critic.

Which is to say, I know that comparing The Last of Us to the Uncharted franchise isn’t fair, because they’re completely different experiences and want to evoke radically different reactions from the player, even if they appear to share a lot of common factors:  the same jaw-droppingly amazing graphics engine, some of the best digital acting in the business (to go along with a very well-written script), a meticulous attention to detail (both in art design and character work), and a relatively even gameplay balance of exploration and combat.

As to that last point, I feel obliged to point out that The Last of Us and Uncharted also share another, more disconcerting feature, and one which is relevant to my attempt at criticism:  when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, I hate the combat.  I am willing to concede that I might hate it because I suck at it; but it should also be noted that – at least in my opinion – there is always too much of it, and it gets in the way of all of the non-combat stuff which is infinitely more enjoyable.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve never liked the PS3’s controller, especially when it comes to action games, but I always feel ham-fisted and clumsy in combat situations, and even on Easy I die a lot.

I ended up finishing Uncharted 3 on Easy because I wanted to see the end of the game, and shooting bulletproof soldiers had stopped being fun after the 300th kill.  While The Last of Us has a much different combat feel – indeed, the game implies that you can (and should) sneak your way around combat rather than rushing headlong into it – I also am playing it on Easy (after an earlier combat scenario took me 30 deaths and around an hour of frustration to complete), because while I try to sneak around, I always get found, and because I don’t find the combat all that fun (possibly because, as I said, I’m terrible at it), I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible so as to keep the story moving forward.

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Tangent #1:  My complaints about the combat in Naughty Dog’s games (and The Last of Us specifically) remind me of my complaints of another of 2013’s major releases – Bioshock Infinite – in that both games feature incredible worlds that you can’t help but want to explore, except for all the crazy people who want to murder you.  I am far more interested in exploring and scavenging and crafting than I am in the combat.  But if there were ever two companies that could actually make the game that I truly want to play in this coming generation – games with fantastic visuals, well-crafted stories and interesting characters  and worlds that beg for exploration and interesting puzzles instead of  combat as the “filler” to get you from point A to point B – I just know that Naughty Dog and/or Irrational could pull it off.

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Tangent #2:  I would love it if this new generation of consoles made it possible to invent a new kind of gameplay “filler”.  I suggested “puzzles” in the paragraph above because it was the first thing that came to mind (and because Portal 2 proved that you can make an amazing, full retail product without having to fire a single bullet) but surely there must be something else that can be done.  As I am not a gameplay designer, I have no idea what that might be.  But I would be VERY EXCITED to find out.

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Wow.  This was supposed to be a post about my overall impressions of The Last of Us, and I’ve already spent 900 words horsing around, so let’s get to it.

I am around 10.5 hours into TLOU, Naughty Dog’s swansong on the PS3, and judging from the chapter listings in various walkthroughs (not that I’m using walkthroughs – I honestly just wanted to see how much was left), I’m just over the halfway mark.   (I keep feeling like I should defend my using a walkthrough with the express purpose of determining length, even though nobody cares; it’s just that unlike books, music and film, it’s impossible to judge a game’s length while you’re playing it – and this doesn’t even take into account personal play style.  If I weren’t so interested in exploring every single nook and cranny in TLOU, I suspect I’d have arrived at this halfway point after only 5-6 hours, as opposed to 10.)

Leaving aside my personal displeasure at Naughty Dog’s combat system, and my weariness with zombies and the end of the world as a storytelling trope, it is immediately apparent that TLOU is a staggering technical achievement, and deserves all the respect you can give it.  But it is also – at least for me – a difficult game to enjoy.  TLOU is relentlessly dark and grim, with horrific, gruesome violence at almost every turn, and where terrible things happen to good people pretty much non-stop.  (My wife watched me play a little bit yesterday, and she said it felt like a combination of The Walking Dead and I Am Legend – which is pretty much spot-on.)  It is a game that probably shouldn’t be played in long marathon sessions, which is what I usually do with games like this; instead, I’ve been getting little hour-sized chunks here and there for the past week or so and that’s pretty much all I can take before I need to switch over to something a little less gloomy.

I’m not quite sure where the story is going, but I have a pretty good feeling about certain upcoming plot points.  I’m normally not all that quick in terms of picking up that sort of stuff, but I knew what was going to happen to a number of characters long before their fates were inevitably decided.  Of course, this is what happens when you set your story in a gloomy post-apocalypse and you establish early on that anybody, no matter how “innocent”, can die at any moment; you stop being surprised when the plot twists, and instead you find yourself simply wondering how the plot will twist, which (to me) isn’t nearly as interesting a question.

That being said, now that I think about it, I’m starting to think that this is deliberate; the game is trying to evoke a sense of dread, and since the inevitability of death hangs over every scene and character and action, you can’t help but feel a little terrible.  You know that bad things are going to happen; the best you can do is to make sure you have as much ammo and supplies as you can find and hope that you can press on long enough to get to the next cutscene.  This is very much like real life.

Like I said above, I’m playing the game on Easy after struggling for a bit on Normal because the story and the characters are far more interesting to me than the combat, and as such I’m having about as good a time as I can stomach.  I’m still dying, a lot, but I’m still able to press ahead.  I’m finding the core relationship between Joel and Ellie to be authentic, even if it’s maddeningly obvious why Joel acts the way he does and it’s incredibly frustrating that he won’t admit it to himself.   (This Guardian article, which has been linked to a lot on Twitter and which I haven’t yet read all the way through, has a different take on their relationship.)  Still, the digital performances are quite powerful and moving and real, and even if the Guardian is right and the game’s central relationship of an older man taking care of a helpless girl in the face of the apocalypse is yet one more entry on the ever-growing pile of stories featuring male dominance over subservient, weak females – or even if the core problem is simply that the game is being told from the man’s point of view, LIKE IT ALWAYS IS, I still find that, at the very least, TLOU has its heart in the place.

I find myself compelled to press on, even if I don’t really want to.

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Amazon is having a gigantic Digital Games Summer Sale, and at the prodding of a friend I ended up buying Need For Speed Most Wanted for $15.  I’d previously been rather sour on the game (1, 2), but the PC version seems to be a completely different beast.  It looks far better than the 360 version, and it also seems to be playing a bit more fairly, too – the AI still rubberbands from time to time but it’s not freakish and unfair, and what constitutes a crash seems to be a lot more consistent.  If you have it and need some Autolog friends, my username (as it is everywhere else) is JervoNYC.

weekend recap – AC3, Halo 4, and an iOS GOTY contender

1.  I’ve found a possible contender for iOS game of the year, and it is called CHIP CHAIN (itunes, free).  It’s a fiendishly addictive combination of Triple Town and Drop 7; if either of those games mean anything to you, you will get sucked into Chip Chain immediately.   For the rest of you, here’s the developer’s description:

Place and match 3 or more identical poker chips to earn a more valuable chip, then chain together matches for huge bonuses! Play power-up cards to make combos, extend chains, and maximize your score. The dealer tosses chips to get in your way, but if you play smart and think ahead, you can turn the tables and use them to your advantage. Earn gems to spend on better chips, more powerful cards, bigger hands, gem multipliers, and more!

It’s free, and while there are in-app purchases, they’re certainly not necessary – you earn in-game currency at a pretty steady pace anyway.  The only negative criticism I can offer is that it tends to suck battery life rather quickly; my morning-commute iPhone gaming usually drains from fully charged to around 80%; this morning’s commute drained me all the way down to the low 70s.  Hopefully that will be addressed in a patch.  That aside, I give this my highest recommendation.

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2.  I have given up on Need For Speed Most Wanted.  I tried playing a bit more on Friday night, and found myself cursing and ranting and saying things that I really ought to not say out loud, even if I’m in an empty room, yelling at the television.   Understand that it breaks my heart to do this.  Understand that underneath all the frustration and the bullshit and the cheap shots and the magnetized traffic and everything else that makes me seethe with white-hot fury, this is still a Criterion driving game, and as such there are still moments of breath-taking exhilaration to be found.   But there’s SO MUCH BULLSHIT you must endure before you get to those fleeting moments of glory, and I don’t have the time any more to put up with a game that makes me angry.

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3.  I don’t know if I’m giving up on Halo 4.  I did the first 2 missions and then put it down, and I haven’t really thought about it much since.   It looks gorgeous, and it still feels like Halo, which is what it’s supposed to do, I guess.  But the truth of the matter is that it only took about 5 minutes before my ongoing issues with shooter fatigue kicked in.   I’m really, really tired of shooting things, especially the Covenant.  I’d still like to try the co-op stuff, I suppose, but even that isn’t all that appealing.  I will say this, though – I tried the SmartGlass app on my iPad, and Halo 4 takes advantage of it in some pretty neat ways.   I suppose if I were really into multiplayer, I’d really get into all its stat-tracking and everything.   It’s certainly not essential, but it’s a nice feature to have if you’re into that sort of thing.

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4.   I did finally receive my Gamefly copy of Assassin’s Creed 3, which, as it turns out,  is very much the kind of game I’d rather be playing than shooters and frustrating driving games.  It’s a shame, then, that so much of it is broken.

My relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise is, for lack of a better word, weird.  I’m a devoted fan almost in spite of myself, because there’s just too damned much of it.

I really liked AC1, even if it was ultimately repetitive and shallow.  I genuinely loved AC2, which fleshed out the main story with a number of fun (and relevant) side missions.  And I still adore AC2: Brotherhood, which may very well end up in my top 5 games of this console generation.  The thing is, I never needed these games to come out every year.  Frankly, I suppose one of the reasons why I like Brotherhood so much is that I was legitimately afraid that it was going to suck – I worried that they were adding too much, too quickly, without giving the game enough time to properly cook (and without giving its audience enough time to achieve the proper level of excitement).

This is probably why I gave up on AC2: Revelations so quickly; my fear of diminishing returns finally came true.  AssRev was overly complicated, throwing far too many new ideas at the player – many of which were half-baked to begin with, and none of which felt particularly necessary.  I’d sunk over 100 hours into the first 3 games without ever once feeling like I needed to use smoke grenades, let alone a complex grenade crafting system.  I’d barely learned how to properly use the grappling hook in AssRev before I was being thrust into a ridiculous, nonsensical tower defense minigame.  And to top it all off, the controls were utterly fucked up; it felt like I needed to hold 4 buttons down just to run up a wall – something I’d already done at least a thousand times in the earlier games – and yet more often than not, I’d end up jumping into a ravine instead of climbing onto a platform.

And so, prior to AC3’s release, I must admit that I was a little worried.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for yet another Assassin’s Creed game, especially coming on the heels of the incredible disappointment of AssRev.  And I wasn’t sure how Ubisoft was going to fix all the things that needed fixing, while adding all the things they would inevitably add, in such a short span of time.

Indeed, I’m now 10 or so hours into AC3, and I’m still a little worried about it.  I am happy to say that I’m enjoying it a hell of a lot more than AssRev, but I’m also a little bummed out about how rough around the edges it seems to be.

The game is flat-out broken in a number of alarming ways.  And I don’t just mean that the player can get stuck in level geometry on a consistent basis, although that’s happened far too many times for an AAA title.  There’s one example I can point early on in the game where literally nothing makes sense.  

**SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS AHEAD**  

There’s a mission where Samuel Adams is ostensibly going to to show young Connor how to use the Fast Travel System.  The two characters walk towards the indicated waypoint, but the road is barred by soldiers.  Connor says, “How about I just take the rooftops and meet you there?”  Sam then says, “No, not that way.  You need to learn how to do this.  Follow me.”  Except he doesn’t move; he expects me to take him.    I don’t know where I’m supposed to go!

Here’s the catch:  I actually do, since I’d already explored this area during a previous visit and unlocked a few Fast Travel locations (before I actually knew what they were).  The problem is, when I try to take Sam to one of the other Fast Travel locations I’ve already discovered, the game tells me I’m about to fail the mission for leaving the mission area.

?!

I had to look at a walkthrough, which revealed that I actually did have to go to the place that was guarded by soldiers, and that the only way in was to climb over the rooftops and sneak in behind, which, as you’ll recall above, was specifically what Sam asked me not to do.

**END SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS**

At least I was able to complete this mission; the mission I had to do 2 missions before this one caused me to, for no reason at all, suddenly become attacked by dozens of soldiers.  Restart checkpoint – same thing happens.  There was no way to fix this other than to kill everyone.  And then Connor and Sam had a leisurely conversation, as if nothing had just happened.

Another thing that tends to get under the skin is the wildly uneven pacing.  I don’t mean in terms of the story – while a lot of critics have opined that the game starts far too slowly, I actually appreciate that the game has taken its time to set up where it’s going.  Instead, I’m talking more specifically about the errors of pacing where it’s clear that there wasn’t enough time to properly polish and edit each scene.  There are times when the game makes you walk 10 feet before a new cutscene starts; there are other times right next to them where you have to walk 500 yards to get to the next cutscene; there are times when you’ll start a mission and instantly jump to where you need to be; there are other times where you’ll start a mission and, as before, have to walk for 10 minutes before the mission starts.  I can’t say I know anything about game development, but I’d guess that if the game had even just a few more months of polish, these sorts of inconsistencies would be smoothed over and the overall experience would be much improved.  Instead, Ubisoft rushed it out the door in order to meet its quarterly earnings projections, and we ended up with something that isn’t nearly as good as it should be.

I can’t speak for all AC fans, but I can’t imagine anybody wants one of these games every year; I think they’d prefer to have these games to come out when they’re good and ready.  Because when these games work the way they’re supposed to, they are incredibly fun and engaging and immersive.  There’s really nothing like them, and that’s why they’re so special.

Nor would I contend that the thing that keeps people attracted to this franchise is all the crazy, random shit that has nothing to do with the business of assassinating.  Brotherhood remains the best game in the franchise for me because all the random stuff it added made sense, and added to the overall experience of being the head of an Assassin Guild, and most importantly – it was fun.

AC3, on the other hand, has a bizarre, overly complicated hunting system – which is fine, I suppose, except it doesn’t work all that well and it doesn’t do anything to enhance the experience, even though it’s incessantly shoving itself into your way.  (By way of contrast, look at Red Dead Redemption‘s hunting system – it was simple, easy to understand, yielded tangible rewards, and didn’t constantly remind you of its existence; it was there if you wanted to engage with it, and remained quietly in the background if you wanted to do something else.)

Similarly, I completed my first naval battle last night.  Let’s leave aside the highly questionable narrative decision wherein a seasoned British naval officer allows a Native American teenager to captain a fucking ship and engage in warfare on the open seas, and ask ourselves if this is something that ever needed to exist in this franchise.  Because even though the minigame itself was surprisingly well executed and even impressive, cinematically, it’s still totally unnecessary.

I’m not ready to give up on it, though; despite its brokenness and its near-desperate need to impress you with SOMETHING NEW at every turn, it’s a lot more fundamentally sound than AssRev.  I like these new characters; I like the shift in location and era; I like that the overall narrative seems to have gained some of the forward momentum it seemed to be lacking.  And, frankly, I miss this franchise.  Like I said above – when it’s good, there’s nothing quite like it.  And being that we’re in the middle of shooter season, this is a very refreshing change of pace.

the first few hours: NFS MW

In order to distract myself from worrying about tonight’s election results, here’s my one-word review for Need For Speed Most Wanted, a game that at one point was one of my most heavily anticipated games for 2012:

*sigh*

Before I went to bed last night, I opened up a post here and wrote down my gut reactions:

  • frustration
  • kinda ugly
  • wildly inconsistent – too easy to crash (SOMETIMES)
  • mini map is in an inconvenient location
  • cops are annoying, and it can sometimes be unclear why they’re after you
  • and yet i played it for 2 hours without stopping.

I said this yesterday, and it bears repeating – I’m not sure how objective I can be about this game.

On the one hand, the Burnout franchise is my one true love in the racing genre, and I’ve probably put more time into both Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise than all other racing games combined. So I’m willing to cut Criterion a whole bunch of slack, even if what I really want is Burnout Paradise 2 and couldn’t give less of a shit about the Need For Speed brand.

On the other hand, Forza Horizon came out of nowhere to become one of my GOTY contenders; as far as open-world racing games go, it has set the bar remarkably high, and it’s pretty much all I’ve been playing for the last 2 weeks.

NFS:MW feels a bit off, is the thing.

It has police chases, because it’s a Need For Speed game and that’s what a NFS game is, but the chases aren’t exciting as they were in Criterion’s previous NFS game, the excellent Hot Pursuit. Indeed, they become a nuisance after a while – there’s nothing quite as annoying as finishing a race only to then have to spend up to 10 minutes trying to shake the cops (who aren’t chasing anybody else, I might add).

It offers Burnout-esque rewards for taking down your opponents, but until you’ve improved your car (which you can only do by winning races), taking opponents out actually slows you down, allowing the super-rubberband-y AI to speed past you. This happened to me on numerous occasions last night, and it was unbelievably frustrating.

Indeed, there are many reasons why “frustration” was the first thing I wrote in my gut reaction list above. It’s frustrating that the game is inconsistent with what actually makes you crash – sometimes you can sideswipe an oncoming car and nothing happens, but sometimes you can just lightly nick some random piece of geometry and then everything grinds to a halt. It’s frustrating that sometimes the game will offer up some very visible green arrows to tell you there’s a turn coming up, because more often than not there are no green arrows at all and you’ll miss the turn entirely. It’s frustrating that the mini-map is located in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen, which is very difficult to look at while trying to avoid police cars at 150 miles an hour. It’s frustrating that the crashes – which are usually Criterion’s strength – feel endlessly long and drawn out and more or less ruin your race, especially when they happen 100 yards from the finish line, which is something that happened at least 4 or 5 times to me last night – again, because the game was unclear as to what would actually cause a crash or not. It’s frustrating that there’s perhaps too much NPC traffic on the roads, if only because the NPC traffic only seems to negatively affect your progress; there were a number of times last night where the AI cars in front of me just bounced off of oncoming traffic, which is something that almost never happened when I tried it.

The game is also uncharacteristically ugly, at least by Criterion standards (and certainly when compared to Forza Horizon, which generally looks quite stunning).  The car models are pretty sharp, but the buildings and environments seem a little fuzzy and grainy, and the textures can pop in and out sometimes.  And even though I installed the game to my hard drive, there was a surprising amount of slowdown and dropped frames – even in the menus, which is just weird.

I’m also not really all that crazy about the music selection, though I’d probably place the blame on EA for that.  There is no DJ Atomica; and while normally that would be a good thing, here the soundtrack feels like it was curated strictly by EA’s licensing partners; it’s all very drab and forgettable modern rock.

And yet – I did play the game rather compulsively for around 2 hours last night, despite how frustrated I was.  The world is pretty big, and I found myself enjoying the free-roam exploration side of the game – crashing into locked gates, crashing through billboards, competing with the 2 or 3 people on my friends list who’ve also played the game in speed cameras and jump distances.  The Autolog stuff is still the best in class – not that Forza Horizon is shabby in that regard, but everything here is presented very cleanly and clearly, and so it’s very easy to see how I stack up against my friends among a comparatively wide statistical array.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that EA is hamstringing Criterion a bit here by asking Criterion to make a game that they don’t necessarily want to make.  Everybody wants more Burnout; I’m not sure anybody was asking for yet another Need for Speed game.  Cramming Need For Speed on top of what ought to be Burnout Paradise 2 ends up making a bit of a mess.  I suppose I can appreciate Criterion maybe wanting to hold off on the real Burnout Paradise 2 until the next generation of consoles arrive – that’s certainly something worth waiting for.   This game, however, really just feels like EA’s desperate need to make its own IP still relevant, at the expense of quality IP that gamers actually want.*

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* This feeling is strangely and ironically reinforced by all the billboards in the city covered with the names of the various EA studios – EA Sports, Bioware, Visceral Games, etc.

>Weekend Recap: the holiday that wasn’t

>If all had gone according to plan, this post wouldn’t exist.  The plan was to leave Thursday morning to go up to my dad’s house for Thanksgiving, and to eventually return to the apartment on Saturday night, and Sunday would be a day of holiday decorating and football.  Instead, my wife had the flu and I had a nagging head cold, and we stayed home.  And so I played a lot of video games. 

In list form, in descending order of time played:

  • finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
  • got a few hours into Gran Turismo 5
  • kept dabbling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
  • went and bought Burnout Paradise on the PC thanks to yet another ridiculous Steam sale and got back into it very, very quickly
  • Train Conductor 1/2 on the iPhone is insanely addictive
  • played 2 games of NBA JAM HD with my brother, for old time’s sake
  • and some Pinball FX2 with the wife.

I will give AssBro a more thorough examination later, once I’ve had a bit more coffee.  But I can say, now, that I think it’s the best game in the franchise, and it will most likely wind up at #3 in my Top 10 of 2010. 

As for GT5; I’ll be the first person to admit that what I know about cars could be inscribed on the rim of a shot glass with a dull Sharpie.  But I really love driving games, strangely enough, and while I tend to prefer crazy, insanely fast stuff like Burnout, I have been known to get sucked into a Forza game for hours and hours.  (I do have an aversion to NASCAR, though, which is probably similar to my aversion to country music and the tea party movement.)  I needed to see what GT5 was all about for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t played a game on my PS3 since I finished FF13;
  2. The last time I played a GT game was on my friend’s PS1;
  3. I am a graphics whore (which reminds me, at some point I need to talk about this fascinating article, which I got from the lovely and talented Caro), and if there’s one thing that the GT franchise is famous for, it’s graphics; 
  4. I loved the hell out of Forza 3, and felt obligated to see if GT5 was better; and
  5. After 5 years of development and endless delays, the curiosity was killing me.

After 2 hours of playtime, here’s what I can say about GT5.

  1. It’s prettier than Forza 3, generally.  I’ve read lots of people who have been complaining about how horrible some of the cars look; to my eyes, it looks great.  It’s worth finishing a race in last place just so that you can watch the pretty, pretty replays, which are utterly convincing and gorgeous.  Some people complain that it’s bland; I’ve only been on a few tracks, and driven a handful of cars, so I can’t quite speak to that.  One could maybe argue that it’s a little sterile, or perhaps a little too pristine.  
  2. Is it as fun as Forza 3, though?  Not sure.  It’s certainly more accessible than I was expecting it to be, but that’s relative – when you’re buying a new (or used) car, the game doesn’t tell you what the car’s Top Speed is.  When you’re like me and know nothing of horsepower and weight and acceleration, not giving out a car’s Top Speed is basically a slap in the dick, and I ended up losing a ton of races because I had unwittingly bought the wrong car.
  3. Further to that last point, the game doesn’t really dole out new cars and rewards the way Forza does.  I’m still only in the beginner tier of races in the career and at least half of the events I’m looking at require vehicles that I don’t have, and I’ll have to retry events I’ve already won just to earn enough coin to afford an applicable vehicle – a vehicle that I’ll probably only drive once or twice until I get something better.  Seems odd.
  4. I haven’t raced online, but the fact that the game’s single-player campaign was so horribly fucked up because too many people were crushing the game’s servers is absolutely unforgivable, especially for a game of this magnitude.  And if the game’s developer is telling you to pull your PS3 offline so that you can play single-player without running into problems, that’s just absurd.  PlayStation fanboys love talking shit about Xbox Live and how you have to pay for it when PSN is free, but file this under “You Get What You Pay For” as Exhibit 375. 

I remain intrigued, though, and there’s so much content that it’s sure to get me through the winter.  Although I may pull out Forza 3 again, just to compare/contrast.  My gut reaction right now, though, is that Forza feels more generous and accessible; GT5 feels more authoritative and legitimate. 

I was really looking forward to NBA JAM HD, and when my brother came over we finally got to try it out.  My brother had a Sega Genesis as a kid and we played NBA JAM endlessly.  The new game basically feels like the old game, which is great.  The problem is that it’s really meant to be played with someone sitting next to you on the couch, and my brother lives in DC (and doesn’t own an Xbox).  So, while it’s tremendous fun in the right conditions, it seems pointless on its own.  I felt a little sad sending it back to Gamefly, but it is what it is.

AssBro final thoughts will go up either later today or tomorrow.

>Weekend Recap: Assassin Down the Avenue

>”I am an American aquarium drinker /
I assassin down the avenue.”
 – Wilco, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

According to Raptr, I’ve spent 15 hours with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and another 5 hours in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  Both games are excellent and well worth your time.

Ah, but you want details!  You want experiences!   You want in-depth impressions!  (Do you?  I don’t know who reads this thing anymore besides Russian search engines that keep bringing up my best guess at the Beatles set list in Rock Band.)  (That sentence right there, the one you just read, will have already generated 20 more hits before I even finish writing this post, so let’s move on.)  (*Sigh*  Remember Rock Band?  I still really like RB3 but haven’t touched it in weeks.)

Let’s start with Need For Speed, then, since I got pulled out of AC:B and into a lot of NFS multiplayer this weekend with a lot of the same crew that used to play Burnout 3 every night for hours. 

Yes, it feels a lot like a Burnout game.  (Which is great.)  But you know what?  It also feels a lot like the old Sega classic Outrun, in that there’s a shit-ton of drifting that you do, and all the cars seem to be superglued to the road, and they all have fat asses that always feel like you’re about to spin out of control in a drift, but you never do.

The star of the show is clearly cops v. racers, and pretty much everyone that I’ve played with acknowledges that while both sides are fun as hell, it’s playing as the cops that’s really fun as hell.  That’s as close as you get to the classic Burnout style of craziness, but now with spike strips, roadblocks and EMPs.  There’s not a tremendous amount of depth to the gameplay, but that’s OK – every race is different, and each track has a lot of side routes (as not all of the shortcuts are actually shortcuts) and, well, shit gets real crazy quick.   (Or, alternately, shit gets crazy real quick.  This game moves too fast for comma placement.)

The Autolog is also a pretty neat feature – it’s essentially a real-time Facebook wall with all your friends’ activity, so if someone beats your time in a race, you can very easily try to retake your position on the leaderboard.  It’s very easy to get sucked down that particular rabbit hole.  At all times, you are aware of what your friends are doing (and have done) in relation to what you’re doing, and before long another hour has gone by while you try to beat your friend’s time.  I haven’t played a game with this much “just one more go” in a while.

Although, now that I think about it, there’s a lot of that “just one more x” in Assassin’s Creed, which is partly why I racked up 15 hours without even really meaning to play that much.  And I’m not even a third of the way through the actual story. (!)  If the first Assassin’s Creed was (fairly) criticized for not having enough to actually do, AC:B is possibly guilty of having too much.  My last 2 hours of gameplay yesterday was basically me trying to level up the 4 members of my brotherhood, which scratched my Farmville itch like crazy.  Is this a spoiler?  I don’t think this is a spoiler – it’s a feature, that’s partly spelled out in the game’s title.  A few memories into the game, you start recruiting fellow Assassins.  And you level them up by sending them out on all these little missions – you don’t actually see them do this, and it doesn’t affect you in any way, other than that your assassins will be unavailable for the 5-10 minutes it takes them to do their missions.  And so, while they’ve been doing that, I’ve been finding hidden flags and hidden feathers and doing all sorts of sidequests, and once they are sufficiently leveled up – or, more accurately, once I’m bored of flag finding – I’m probably going to start burning down all the remaining Borgia Towers that I currently have access to.  And then, maybe, I’ll get back to the actual story.

The AC:B graphics engine isn’t as bad as, say, the Gametrailers video review made it out to be.  I mean, my Best Games of 2010 – Best Horses award will still be going to Red Dead Redemption, but there’s a lot about AC:B that’s simply staggering.  The city of Rome is absolutely gigantic, and while it maybe lacks the variety that was a high point of AC2, it also feels a lot more cohesive.  (That being said, the engine is a bit old – and the more I think about it, the more I’m curious to see what an AC game would look like in the Red Dead engine.  Both games feature huge open worlds with wide open spaces – Red Dead doesn’t have lots of buildings, of course, but its terrain is a lot more varied and textured.)

Anyway.  You get the idea.

My rental copies of Donkey Kong Country Returns and Gran Turismo 5 will most likely arrive while I’m away for Thanksgiving; I don’t know that I have any time in my life for either of these games, let alone Disney Epic Mickey next week.  I’d very much like to be able to finish AC:B by the end of the year, and considering how massive the game is and how much there is to do, I wonder if that’s possible, considering how busy I’m about to be…