the first few hours: Batman Arkham Origins

When Bioshock Infinite was released earlier this year, the first wave of reviews were positively glowing with praise; it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the game’s more glaring flaws started to show.  A similar thing happened with Grand Theft Auto V – that first wave was all 10/10, 9/10, near-unanimous accolades, and then, as the rest of us sunk our 60+ hours in over a more reasonable amount of time, the game’s problems became a lot more apparent.  I can’t help but wonder if the insane timecrunch that most big-league reviewers have to undergo in order to get their pieces out by release day means that they can’t see the larger picture.

I’m not saying those reviews are wrong, necessarily; I’m just saying that there are two different ways of spending 50 hours with a game, and that the one in which those 50 hours are spent non-consecutively are obviously going to have a certain degree of perspective that the time-crunched player simply can’t have.  This is the nature of the beast that is video game journalism.

This is partly why I tend to avoid official “reviews” here on this site, and why I prefer to write these pseudo-real-time documentaries instead.  While it’s dumb to describe the life of a non-profit videogame blogger as “luxurious”, the truth is that I, as a non-big-league writer, have the luxury of not having any deadlines.

In any event, I’m around 90 minutes into the lukewarm-reviewed Batman Arkham Origins, and – at least so far – it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it might be.  Perhaps it starts off strong and then peters out?  Perhaps it’s simply that it’s keeping to the well-worn formula of the previous two games and doesn’t add or improve anything of any significance?  No matter; it’s doing what the Batman games do and it’s doing them well enough for the time being.

If I have one particular nit to pick, it’s that if you happen to get into a random combat encounter, enemies will seemingly spawn in from thin air; you might have a strategy to deal with the 4 or 5 dudes that you can actually see, but then 10 more will fly in from nowhere, and it’s the sort of thing that makes these fights become longer and more tedious than they need to be.

I suppose another nitpick isn’t actually this game’s fault, but rather my own; I just spent 50 hours playing Assassin’s Creed 4, and while a lot of the controls between the two games are similar (especially when it comes to melee combat), there are a few that are very much not; a key example is that in AC4 the run button is mapped to the right trigger, whereas in BAO the right trigger makes you sneak.  I suppose this is actually something that could come in handy, as it’s usually not a good idea to run around as Batman, but it’s still the sort of thing that makes my brain hurt every once in a while as I struggle to get acclimated to a new control scheme.

All that aside, I’m enjoying it.  Maybe it’s not as inspired as the previous two games, but it’s still doing what those games did and doing it well enough, and for the time being that’s quite enough for me.

Saints Row IV – the verdict

I was in daddy-day-care mode earlier this week, and so I ended up finishing Saints Row 4 on Tuesday afternoon, during the kid’s nap.  It took me a little over 20 hours to get to the end; after the credits rolled I jumped back in so as to finish finding all the collectibles which ended up only taking around 5 minutes, give or take; one of the perks you can unlock is that all the collectibles show up on your map, so it’s just a question of finding what you’re looking for, setting a waypoint, and then blasting over there.  I’ve also found probably 80% of the orbs – er, Data Clusters – around Steelport, and if I go back at all that’s probably what I’ll focus on doing, if for no other reason than because they’re there.  As for the activities – well, I’d done all the side missions during the playthrough, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to get gold medals in everything.

The point that I’m late in arriving to is that I wanted to write about the game right after I’d finished it, but life (as it does) got in the way, and so here we are on Friday morning – just 3 days later – and I find that I have no idea what to talk about.  I have not thought about the game at all since the last time I played it.  While I still have the residue of Gone Home and Brother lingering in my brain – games that are much shorter and that I’d finished long before I’d started SR4, I’m having trouble remembering anything that’s worth talking about.

This is probably important; this is probably a bad thing.  

Here are some comments I’d made last weekend, when I’d originally intended writing an impressions post:

  • 10 hours in (as of 8/24, 11:00 am).  feels like i’ve eaten 20 pounds of candy, and i still have 80 more pounds to go
  • i appreciate how completely committed to being batshit insane the game is; but on the other hand, being insane the entire time becomes exhausting.  each mission you do is really just a series of activities that can get very repetitive; the game is aware of this and even comments on it; but just because it’s self-aware doesn’t make it any less repetitive.
  • the city of steelport is just as faceless and devoid of personality as it was in the last game, except you’re zooming by at ridiculous speeds, so it actually feels a lot smaller.

This month’s question for Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” is about story in games.  Do games need stories?  Do games have the capacity to tell stories more effectively than other media?  Is ludonarrative dissonance a real problem, or is it just pretentious navel-gazing?*

* I’m kind of kidding with that last bit, though it certainly plays a role in all this.

This post doesn’t necessarily aim to answer that question, but it’s certainly a lens with which to view SR4.  The game more or less makes that leap for you, in fact, doing everything it can to remind you that all these activities you’re doing are pointless and repetitive and without any sort of narrative purpose.  Case in point:  there’s one mission late in the game called “Talkie Talkie” where you have to talk to a character on the ship.  The mission description on the pause screen literally says:  “We’re stretching out gameplay.  Come see me!”

sr4-talkieDoes self-awareness of a flaw excuse that flaw?  Because the game does this all the fucking time.  Every loyalty mission you do is the same general idea of 5 actions you need to perform; clear out an area of bad guys; do an activity; hack a store; steal a car and drive it to some random location; clear out another area of bad guys.  If you’ve already done one of those activities in the simple course of screwing around, then those actions are greyed out and struck through.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Over and over and over again.

The actual story missions do change things up a bit, and by that I mean that they will, on occasion, arbitrarily strip you of the superpowers you’ve laboriously worked to build up.  The justification for doing so is, to put it kindly, weak; and the game admits as much.  These missions are also, on occasion, straight-up parody of other games; there’s a stealth mission that’s straight out of Metal Gear Solid (with a great line asking “why should I use two bullets to shoot out two lights when I can just use one bullet to kill that guy?”); there’s a text adventure; my favorite of all is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up.

sr4-sor

The game is fun; there’s no denying that.  The game only wants to entertain; there’s nothing wrong with that.  But the game also feels empty and hollow, and the characters are mere caricatures, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about the experience as a whole.  I saved the planet and had a few laughs and killed thousands of monsters; I’ve done this before, though, and the only thing different in this game was that there’s a lot of casual profanity and nudity and occasionally the game turns itself inside out and goes even more fucking insane.

The difference between satire and parody is quite large, actually, at least in terms of videogames.  In my last post, I talked about how it’s sort of impossible to talk about Saints Row without talking about Grand Theft Auto, and how SR4 literally makes this comparison for you in the second line of dialogue in the game’s opening cutscene.   The two franchises have clearly moved in wildly different directions, and I sincerely applaud Saints Row for emerging under GTA’s shadow and becoming its own thing.   It has become a franchise worth looking forward to; not only has it made significant innovations to the open-world genre, but it’s done it in style.

But it’s also now a victim of its own success, I think.  SR3 really upped the ante and surprised everyone by being a genuinely great game that gleefully went off the rails; SR4 somehow managed to outdo SR3, which seems impossible.  But now this franchise seems to be purely about outdoing itself, and I fear that eventually – quite soon, actually – they’ll hit a wall, and have nowhere to go.

And if they decide to simply go down the path where the next game is pure parody, filled only with ironic self-awareness about, say, stupid mission design while doing nothing to change the stupid mission design, then I’m not really sure that’s something to look forward to.

Behind The Music: review commentary

So one of the reasons why I was so quiet last week was because I was working on a review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon for the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which can be found here.

This was my first experience writing a review the way the professionals do it:  with a free download code given out a week before the game’s release.   So not only was I flying somewhat blind (in terms of not knowing how the other gaming outlets were going to score it), but I was also flying without a walkthrough.   This turned out to be not that big a deal, because the places where I was getting stuck were less about not knowing how to solve a puzzle and more about not being able to adjust to the rather sudden difficulty spike in the later levels.   That being said, I would’ve hated to have not been able to finish the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do next!

Still, though, I wrote the review (and the epilogue) without having finished the game.   Still haven’t finished the game.  Haven’t even thought about the game since I turned in the epilogue on Thursday.  Don’t want to think about the game.  I’m so close to the end, but there’s no way that the actual end will be worth all the bullshit it takes to get there.  If I am going to think about the game, I’d rather remember the parts that I liked.  I still may go back and try to find all the stuff I didn’t find in the earlier levels, although I’m still pretty obsessed with Etrian Odyssey IV, and also my copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening just arrived, and that seems pretty awesome, too.

This was also the first time that I’ve written something that ultimately got looked over and edited by a much better writer than myself – and very much for the better, I might add, even if we had to cut out the footnotes.  In any event, I did get to use (and keep) the phrase “core gameplay loop”, which is one of my favorite bits of industry jargon.

It was a pretty neat experience, all things considered.  I hope I get to do it again.

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As for the rest of the weekend, I didn’t really get to play all that much.  I ended up spraining my ankle on Saturday (as part of a story that I’ll feel better telling in a few weeks), and so I was mostly just laid up.  As mentioned above, I’m still pushing along in EO4, and I played the first few levels of Fire Emblem.  Fire Emblem seems pretty great, although I was terrible at the previous game on the DS, and I’m not necessarily all that into turn-based tactical RPGs.  It’s a nice companion to EO4, though; when I get tired of one, the other seems to fill the void quite nicely.

Also, my rental copy of MLB 13: The Show arrived, and I started a Road To The Show career – my pitcher, Jervo McNervo, is 2-1 on the SF Giants Double A team, with 2 complete game shutouts and 34 Ks.  As much as I respect this game franchise – it’s clearly the best in the business – I’ve always been terrible at the hitting part of the game, so being a pitcher makes sense – especially since I’m pretty good at the pitching part.  Normally I tend to rage quit when I do terribly in sports games – if I’m not pitching perfect games and going 6-for-6 with 4 grand slams, then I start over – but I’m trying to keep myself honest this time around.  So, yeah – my first two outings were complete game shutouts, but in my third outing I don’t think I made it out of the fifth inning.  Sometimes your pitches don’t go where you want them to go; such is life.  That being said, the fielding controls for the pitcher are backwards – I fielded a few infield choppers and inadvertently threw to third base each time, not realizing that the pitcher’s controls are inverted.  (That would’ve been nice to tell me, Sony.)

In any event, this will all be moot soon enough; Bioshock Infinite is already preloaded on my PC, and as soon as it goes live, that’s where I’ll be for the rest of the week… unless the baby arrives, of course.