weekend recap: principles, portals, and other p-words

Some scattered thoughts while I have a few seconds:

1. I picked up The Talos Principle for PS4 a few days ago, as it’s currently on sale for $20.  (Yes, I own it on PC, but my PC is falling apart, and as it happens the PS4 version runs incredibly well.)  That game is pretty good!  Tricky puzzles that give that pleasant euphoric rush once you finally piece it together, all tied together with a very subtle sci-fi / metaphysical narrative.  I think my only real issue with it is one of jarring textural elements – I know there’s a better way to phrase to it, but the words aren’t coming to me at the moment.  Essentially, each puzzle involves you trying to unlock a gate to pick up a puzzle piece; unlocking the gates requires manipulating certain things in the environment.  The disconnect is that the worlds each take place in very specific environments – the first hub world could be Ancient Greece (but with red brick), the second could be Ancient Egypt – but the puzzle elements are strikingly modern (laser-sighted machine gun turrets, light-beams guided by prisms mounted on industrial-grade tripods, etc.  Maybe there’s a narrative reason for this?  I’m about as far into the PS4 version as I was on the PC – maybe a little further along, actually, since I’m using a walkthrough when I get truly stuck (which is happening a bit more than I’d like).

2. So among the Xbox 360 games recently announced by Microsoft as now being backwards-compatible is Portal: Still Alive, a stand-alone digital-download version that came out maybe a year or so after The Orange Box was released.  Of course I bought it, even though I’d already beaten Portal a dozen times on both 360 and PC, and of course I immediately downloaded it for my Xbox One, because come on.  Portal is one of the best games ever made.  I mention this only because this past Saturday night my living room TV happened to be free, and my PS3 is hooked up to it as our blu-ray player, and I decided to give Portal 2 a whirl, as I hadn’t played it in a long time.  You know what?  Portal 2 is a perfect game.  I appreciate the argument that the first Portal might be a better game if only because it was so completely unexpected and that the narrative twist was (as my friend Greg put it) that it had a narrative in the first place.  Portal 2, though, is bigger and funnier, and the puzzles are just as inventive, and Cave motherfucking Johnson, and Glados is a potato, and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is, bar none, my favorite voice performance in any game I’ve ever played.  My save game put me in place to finish the final third, and now that I’ve experienced the ending again I can certainly see why a Portal 3 might be difficult to pull off (from a narrative standpoint, at any rate), but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more Portal in my life.

3. Harmonix has announced a U2 DLC bundle for Rock Band 4, which means I have to now buy Rock Band 4.  It’s only 8 songs, and not the 40-song bundle that I’d hoped for many years ago, but it’ll do.

4. Still haven’t started my Games of the Year post; still not sure when I’m going to get to it, or if I’ll even be able to fill out a top 10.

5.  I’m actually more interested in working on a Music of the Year post, even though I haven’t written one in years, and even though I don’t really listen on an album-by-album basis.  My music consumption process has changed so radically in the last few years that it’s barely recognizable to me; the me that posted ridiculous lists on LiveJournal would be hard-pressed to wonder what the hell has happened to me.  It’s something I’m very much wanting to explore, at any rate, so… look forward to that, eventually.

>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…

>Impressions: Rock Band 3, Fable 3

>OK, so.  I had more or less written off the rest of 2010 in terms of “games to get excited about.”  And now, suddenly, I’m up to my ears in quality stuff.

Rock Band 3 is easily the best iteration of the franchise, and I say this even though I’ve only played one 14-song setlist with my wife, and without even owning the keyboard or trying out any of the “pro mode” stuff.  I’m talking strictly nuts-and-bolts here; the game feels “smart.”  Being able to save a setlist is a fantastic idea, especially if you want to set something up ahead of time; having the game actually pause between songs is also something much appreciated, to give everyone a second to catch their breath, stretch their fingers, take a quick bathroom break.  The stat-tracking is really interesting; it’s keeping tabs on all sorts of cool stuff, which definitely scratches that “let me play one more tune so I can get the next achievement” itch.  I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of what the game has to offer – I plan on messing with it A LOT over the weekend.  And I still need to get familiar with the on-disc setlist; I’ve already merged my RB1, RB2 and DLC libraries, so I need to see what’s actually new.

I can’t quite tell if Fable 3 is the best iteration in its franchise; I’m maybe 30-40 minutes into it, and it basically feels like Fable 2 (which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, as I very much enjoyed my time with F2).  It does have some strange design choices, though, and I can already tell that some of them are going to get annoying. 

For example:  one of the bullet points of this franchise is that you can interact with anyone, and there’s lots of ways to do that; so that’s nice.  Except here, if you want to interact with someone, you have to stand close enough to them that a button prompt appears; if you press the button, then the game momentarily stops, and then restarts with a new contextual button prompt; if you then press that button (shake hand, belch, etc.), then you’re kicked back out into the first button prompt, and then you have to press another button to get back to the actual game.  This is strange and needlessly cumbersome. 

Also – the X button is both your melee attack and your block, which can be tricky, and the block really ought to have been mapped to one of the triggers, which are not used at all

It’s not really fair of me to criticize it just yet; again, I’m not even an hour into it, and there’s so much more left to do.  But every game’s first impression goes a long way toward coloring your eventual verdict.

The Best Games of 2009

If I’m being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point – Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here’s my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:

  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.

I “finished” 19 of those games. That doesn’t mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game’s main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:

  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush

And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it’s based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I’m about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It’s true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook’s own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don’t even like real farming, or even going outside. There’s no enemies in Farmville; there’s no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there’s nothing to do until everything’s finished growing. And yet I’ve logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I’ve even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there’s no new seeds for me to unlock. I have “beaten” Farmville, and yet I’m only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I’m not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 – I’d hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand… I don’t even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn’t even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I’d accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I’d made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it’s a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS’s best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While I can’t remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment – it really felt like GTA, even with the DS’s hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I’d expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I’ve ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN’T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I’ve ever seen, and I’m terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can’t hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it’s more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4’s artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn’t win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I’m such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I’ve been seeing this pop up on a few “Worst Games of 2009” lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can’t compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means “a lot.” The game’s mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game’s levels are truly wonders to behold – I’m thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it’s more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game’s multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The “No Russian” level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game’s constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I’ve played exactly twice. There’s no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it’s hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can’t really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I’m going to give it to whichever Achievement it was – presumably in Assassin’s Creed 2 – that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I’m including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn’t really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4’s 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3‘s DLC and Borderlands, and it’s clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don’t know, small; it didn’t take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it’s definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2‘s single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. But that’s the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 “10 MINUTES OR LESS” ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:

  • Halo 3:ODST. I’m officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don’t care anymore. I’ll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn’t really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn’t necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place – I’m a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn’t, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.

THE “I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES” LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.

  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon’s Souls. Maybe this shouldn’t be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I’d have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that’s only because I was impatient and didn’t really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn’t get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn’t necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn’t good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven’t had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King’s Story. I’m not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first “world”/”area”/”section”, drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one – I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I’m not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I’ve been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.

THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN’T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON’T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I’ve given Silent Hill about an hour or so – the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I’d want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I’m hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn’t qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I’ve ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3’s motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 – mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it’s really well done it’s positively narcotizing. I haven’t yet finished Torchlight, but it’s not like there’s a story – I’ve left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also – I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn’t mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It’s definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I’m of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information – all of it presented with tender loving care. I’m not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it – indeed, it’s the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I’m on my 2nd playthrough – I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I’m going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would’ve been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn’t, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2’s immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it’s at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn’t mean it’s any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It’s a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you’re Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It’s a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year’s sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I’d never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I’d never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game’s got charm. It’s got charisma, and it’s got personality. And it’s also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he’s completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that’s not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

U2 Rock Band Setlist Guesses

Cheap traffic-generating stunt, or legitimate blog post? You decide. In any event, it looks like Bono reads SFTC because I fucking called this 2 weeks ago. Via Kotaku:

With the music business falling apart, musicians are hoping to get their cut of the music game pie — even The Beatles have their own Rock Band title! Now, it looks like Irish rockers U2 want in, too.U2 hasn’t lent their likeness to games, and from what bassist Adam Clayton tells USA Today, it sounds like the group has turned down offers. Here’s Clayton on the odds of U2 in a music game:

We definitely would like to be in there, but we felt some of the compromises weren’t what we wanted. That could change. I love the idea that that’s where people are getting music, and we’d love to be in that world. We’ll figure something out. What The Beatles have done, where the animation is much more representative of them, is what we’re interested in, rather than the one-size-fits-all animation. We didn’t want to be caricatured.

So, then. A U2 Rock Band game, inspired by the Beatles mold. DELICIOUS. This is totally doable. Over a dozen solid albums, numerous hit singles, distinct sonic eras, legendary visual designs, 4 distinct personalities, and challenging instrument tracks. The only thing missing is an intimidating mythology, but even the Beatles Rock Band game didn’t really delve into all the squabbling, so there’s no real story that needs to be told aside from the political/social eras that U2 inserted themselves into. (Rattle and Hum wasn’t necessarily a narrative masterpiece, either.)

And if we’re going to follow the Beatles mold, then it stands to reason that 40 songs is a nice round number to work with, giving each album its moment in the sun and getting a bit deeper into the catalog beyond the singles. I’m going to err on the side of caution and assume that the game would concentrate on album tracks and not obscure B-sides; one notable exception could be the live version of “Bad” from the Wide Awake In America EP, which is one of my personal favorites; the version of “Sweetest Thing” that appeared on the Best Of compilation might also be up for consideration.

So, then, here’s my best guess for a setlist for a game that does not yet actually exist. And let it be known that I’m intentionally omitting some of my favorites – “All I Want Is You,” “Ultraviolet,” “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World,” “Acrobat,” “Daddy’s Going to Pay For Your Crashed Car”, etc. – because, well, you can’t throw ’em all in. Along those lines, I’m throwing in a few songs from Pop because, well, every album’s gotta be represented. (Can I also admit that I haven’t listened to the new album, even though I’ve owned it for months?)

Boy

  1. I Will Follow
  2. Out of Control
  3. Electric Co.

October

  1. Gloria
  2. I Fall Down

War

  1. Sunday Bloody Sunday
  2. Seconds
  3. New Year’s Day
  4. Two Hearts Beat As One
  5. 40

Under A Blood Red Sky

  1. Party Girl
  2. 11 O’Clock Tick Tock

Unforgettable Fire

  1. A Sort of Homecoming
  2. Pride (In the Name of Love)
  3. Bad

Joshua Tree

  1. Where the Streets Have No Name
  2. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
  3. With Or Without You
  4. In God’s Country

Rattle And Hum

  1. Desire
  2. Angel of Harlem
  3. Bullet the Blue Sky (live)

Achtung Baby

  1. One
  2. Until The End of the World
  3. The Fly
  4. Mysterious Ways

Zooropa

  1. Zooropa
  2. Numb
  3. Lemon

Pop

  1. Discothèque
  2. Staring At The Sun

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

  1. Beautiful Day
  2. Elevation
  3. Walk On

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

  1. Vertigo
  2. City of Blinding Lights
  3. All Because of You

No Line on the Horizon

  1. No Line on the Horizon
  2. I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
  3. Get On Your Boots

>Disappointing Sequels, and a Rock Band Wishlist

>I’ve done just about everything I can do in Beatles: Rock Band without losing my friggin’ mind, which is good, because there’s other stuff out there that needs to be played.

The good:

DiRT 2

The first DiRT is still one of my favorite driving games, ever. As a confessed graphics whore, it was (and still is) jaw-dropping; it’s the game I was playing both before and after I bought my 40″ HDTV, and for a long time was the game I put in when I wanted to show off the TV. But that aside, the game was a complete package, oozing with polish; the career mode was well designed, the driving model was fun and accessible, the course design was varied and plentiful… even the menus were interactive and fun to play around with. And the replays… wow.

DiRT 2 has some mighty big shoes to fill, then, as far as I’m concerned. And so even though I’ve played quite a bit of it over the last few days and I’ve enjoyed my time with it a great deal, I’m not entirely sure that it fills them. It’s not a bad game, by any means; it’s still incredibly polished, the graphics are even better, the driving model is still fun…. but the package itself feels a bit… small. I haven’t done a count, but it certainly feels like there’s a significantly fewer amount of tracks to race on than in the first game, which is a bit of a bummer. With a graphics engine that gorgeous, I want to see more than the same tracks over and over again. The addition of an in-game rewind – in order to correct mistakes that would otherwise cost you the race – is really the biggest change to the game, and it does come in handy although most of the time I still end up just restarting the whole race if something catastrophic happens. The game has an achievement tracker and also keeps track of other statistics that can reward you with extra XP, and that’s certainly much appreciated. I’m just… I don’t know. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too unreasonable.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2

Speaking of sequels with high expectations, I played M:UA2 last night for about 20 minutes and got thoroughly depressed with how shitty it was. I suppose I could’ve soldiered on, but my gaming time is at a premium these days and I’d rather have a good time instead of slogging through something that ought to be much better. The camera is frequently pulled out way too far, making it hard to see what I’m doing (or even what character I’m playing), and there are certain glitches in the special powers that drove me crazy – there’s an Iron Man/Wolverine combo move that I tried using, and each time Wolverine automatically faced the wrong way, resulting in a waste of accumulated power. Right now this is in the running – along with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix – as my biggest disappointment of 2009. Sometimes you only need a few minutes with something before you realize that you’re wasting your time.

—————————

Was on a forum the other day and the topic du jour was guessing the next band to receive the full deluxe Rock Band treatment. It seemed pretty obvious to everybody that the answer to that question is Led Zeppelin. Having seen now how both Rock Band and Guitar Hero treat their special packages, one would hope that the surviving members of Zep would steer towards Rock Band, but I’m sure it’ll ultimately come down to the franchise that pays them more up front. But it got me thinking about what other packages I’d pay money for:

  • U2.
    U2 is the reason why I decided to teach myself how to play guitar in the first place. But leaving my personal preference aside, U2 is still one of the biggest bands in the world, they have a recognizable mythos, they have a vivid and memorable visual style, and they have an incredibly solid catalog of work; I’d easily be able to find 45 U2 songs worth playing.
  • Pink Floyd.
    Another mythic band with beloved albums and distinct visual flair. That said, there’s a few things standing in the way – for one thing, I’m not sure that David Gilmour and Roger Waters will ever agree on anything ever again, and for another, a lot of their music is on the mellow side; it might be hard to stand up and play Pink Floyd songs for a few hours, even if you’re on the right drugs.
  • The Smiths / The Cure.
    Johnny Marr is one of the most criminally overlooked guitarists of the 20th century, and I would kill to be able to pretend to play his guitar parts, mostly because they’re so difficult to play on a real guitar. Morrissey sings out of tune all the time, though, so I’m guessing it might be difficult to score. But whatever – they’re the Smiths, they fucking rule. And as long as the 30+ crowd is looking to get nostalgic and depressed via plastic instruments, they might as well go all the way and throw in a bunch of Cure songs as well, to keep both sides of the Atlantic satisfied. I suppose I could be satisfied with a gigantic 20-song DLC package with all the great late 80’s / early 90’s “college” music, though, so let’s just leave it at that.

>Beatles: RB Impressions

>There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t enjoy every minute I spent with The Beatles: Rock Band; aside from being a big fan of the RB platform, I have been a huge Beatles fan for most of my waking life and I’ve spent almost every minute since my packages arrived on 9/9 either playing the game or listening to the remastered albums. I plowed through the game’s story mode in a few short hours and kept on going, playing each of the game’s 45 songs on at least 2 different instruments. (The only thing I haven’t done yet is sing, which is usually my last option in regular Rock Band anyway.)

Any concern of mine that this was just an easy cash-in was immediately wiped away; a tremendous amount of love and care went into the crafting of this experience, and it shows. The bass lines are all tremendous, but the guitar experience is just as interesting, especially since there’s quite a few songs where there are no discernable guitar parts, so the guitar line is transferred to horns or strings or piano. Even just the sound of clicking on stuff in the menus while holding a guitar put a smile on my face – it’s all little samples from “Getting Better.” Hearing in-studio chatter while the next song loads might not seem like a big deal to the casual fan but to a die-hard it’s so incredibly cool.

But I must admit that I wasn’t sure if my wife would care. She’s ambivalent towards the Beatles; she doesn’t like the super-early stuff but overall she doesn’t mind them, even though she doesn’t listen to them. She likes Rock Band, though, and she knew that I was going apeshit for the Beatles version, and I suppose my enthusiasm was infectious. Before we started, though, she was a little apprehensive; she didn’t think she knew any songs besides the really obvious ones. But she picked up her guitar and began to play, anyway.

You know where this is going, of course. I had the game pick out a random setlist of 7 songs and I’ll be damned if she wasn’t singing along to all of them. Even she didn’t know she knew all those songs. So we picked another random 7 (I’m not sure why 7 was the magic number) and, again, she sang along to all of them, even as she clicked away at the guitar parts.

I’m 33 years old, and I suspect that most people my age have the Beatles hardwired into their DNA whether they know it or not. I don’t know that my parents would ever enjoy playing the game, as they’d probably be fighting the controls the whole time, but certainly they might enjoy watching us play it; the game looks fantastic and the music sounds as good as it ever has. I suspect, though, that the game’s real coup is how it will introduce little kids to the Beatles. What better way to appreciate the music than to feel like you’re playing it?

I was listening to the AV Club’s Beatles podcast and they hit on something very true in the show’s closing moments – the Beatles might just be the last musical group that 20th and 21st century Americans can all agree upon as being truly great. The game does as much to ensure that the band’s legacy will continue to live on, and that’s no easy task; look at Activision’s gross mishandling of Kurt Cobain’s likeness in Guitar Hero 5 as proof that it’s very much possible to totally screw it up.

The Beatles: Rock Band is very easy to recommend. Yes, you can bitch that you can’t import the Beatles songs into RB2 and vice versa, but that’s really just you being lazy and not wanting to get up off the couch and change the disk. It’s not an issue for me; I couldn’t just play one Beatles song, anyway, without wanting to play the rest.

>The Beatles: Rock Band – set list guess, reconsidered

>Here’s my original guess at the Beatles: Rock Band set list, from February.

  1. She Loves You
  2. I Wanna Hold Your Hand
  3. Love Me Do
  4. Help!
  5. I Saw Her Standing There
  6. Please Please Me
  7. A Hard Day’s Night
  8. Can’t Buy Me Love
  9. Eight Days a Week
  10. Ticket To Ride
  11. Yesterday
  12. I Feel Fine
  13. Paperback Writer
  14. Rain
  15. We Can Work It Out
  16. Revolution
  17. Get Back
  18. Drive My Car
  19. The Word
  20. In My Life
  21. Taxman
  22. She Said, She Said
  23. And Your Bird Can Sing
  24. Doctor Robert
  25. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  26. Getting Better
  27. Good Morning Good Morning
  28. A Day In the Life
  29. Hello Goodbye
  30. Strawberry Fields Forever
  31. All You Need Is Love
  32. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  33. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  34. Birthday
  35. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey
  36. Helter Skelter
  37. Come Together
  38. Something
  39. Octopus’s Garden
  40. Here Comes The Sun
  41. Mean Mr. Mustard -> Polythene Pam -> She Came In Through The Bathroom Window -> Golden Slumbers -> Carry That Weight -> The End
  42. Get Back
  43. Dig a Pony
  44. I’ve Got A Feeling
  45. The Ballad of John and Yoko

It was noted in the comments to that post that I’d included “Get Back” twice, so that was dumb. And I knew, at the time, that “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” was never going to get in – I don’t even necessarily like that song. But I had my iPod with me when I was making this list, and I was scrolling through my Beatles albums, and it occurred to me that the instrumental tracks for that song would be pretty fun to play – each instrument is doing something interesting.

Anyway, I bring this up because 25 of the game’s 45 songs have been confirmed by EA. As Kotaku reported this morning, those songs (with appropriate “nailed it” / “missed it” commentary) are:

  1. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” [yes]
  2. “Can’t Buy Me Love” [yes]
  3. “Day Tripper” [how did I miss this?]
  4. “Eight Days a Week” [yes]
  5. “Get Back” [yes, twice]
  6. “Here Comes the Sun” yes
  7. “I Am the Walrus” [I left this out on purpose, b/c I had no idea how they’d do it. this is one of my favorite Beatles songs!]
  8. “I Feel Fine” [yes]
  9. “I Saw Her Standing There” [yes]
  10. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” [yes]
  11. “Octopus’s Garden” [yes]
  12. “Paperback Writer” [yes]
  13. “Revolution” [yes]
  14. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” [yes]
  15. “Taxman” [yes]
  16. “Twist and Shout” [didn’t guess this, for some reason – but I’m not crazy about their early, pre-Rubber Soul stuff]
  17. “Within You Without You” [didn’t think this would make it since it’s so unconventional, but they are using the drumbeat from Tomorrow Never Knows, which is awesome
  18. “Yellow Submarine” i’d guessed there’d only be one Ringo song]
  19. “With A Little Help From My Friends” [so i definitely didn’t think there’d be 3 Ringo songs]
  20. “Birthday” [yes]
  21. “I Got a Feeling” [yes]
  22. “Dig a Pony” [yes]
  23. “Do You Want To Know A Secret” [not even sure I’ve heard this song before]
  24. “I Wanna Be Your Man” [see #23]
  25. “And Your Bird Can Sing” [yes]

I’m already off by 6, but I’ll take it. If they can include “I Am The Walrus”, they can do anything. In any event, this is moot – at E3, Harmonix revealed that the entire catalog would eventually be available to download, starting with all of “Abbey Road.”

Can’t. Fucking. Wait.

>The Beatles Rock Band Set List: a considered guess

>Joystiq published a story today confirming (from Paul McCartney, no less) that there will be 45 songs in the upcoming Beatles Rock Band game out later this year, spanning “early days, Liverpool, then psychedelic, and on from there.” As a huge fan of both Rock Band and the Beatles, I have a pretty vested interest in how this game turns out.

I should point out, though, that my intense love of the Beatles is really only focused on their post-Rubber Soul material. Paul, however, says that the setlist will run the gamut. I’m gonna say 15 of the 45 songs will be pre-Rubber Soul:

  1. She Loves You
  2. I Wanna Hold Your Hand
  3. Love Me Do
  4. Help!
  5. I Saw Her Standing There
  6. Please Please Me
  7. A Hard Day’s Night
  8. Can’t Buy Me Love
  9. Eight Days a Week
  10. Ticket To Ride
  11. Yesterday
  12. I Feel Fine
  13. Paperback Writer
  14. Rain
  15. We Can Work It Out

Those last few songs aren’t exactly pre-Rubber Soul, but I was having trouble being generous with the early stuff. In any event, that selection seems reasonable, and as far as I can tell there’s no need for keyboards. Which makes the remaining 30 songs a bit trickier to parse out; once they stopped touring and stayed in the studio, they started writing and recording songs that probably could not be performed by only the four of them – “Eleanor Rigby”, for example, is done entirely with strings, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” was recorded in outer space, in the future. And unless this game introduces a keyboard peripheral, there’s going to be quite a few classic songs that are going to be very difficult to play without one. (“Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” spring to mind.) But they can’t outright ignore those songs, either; they have as much to do with the Beatles’ enduring influence and legacy on popular music as their earlier, more conventional stuff. So they’re gonna have to split the difference somehow.

Here’s my best guesses as to the remaining 30 songs, which I’m picking based on a combination of historical importance, instrumental arrangement (with an emphasis on keyboard-less tracks and songs with riffs as opposed to chord strumming), Paul’s being alive and John’s being dead, and personal taste. I’m leaving out a lot of favorites (how can I possibly leave off “I Am The Walrus”?), but here goes:

  1. Revolution
  2. Get Back
  3. Drive My Car
  4. The Word
  5. In My Life
  6. Taxman
  7. She Said, She Said
  8. And Your Bird Can Sing
  9. Doctor Robert
  10. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  11. Getting Better
  12. Good Morning Good Morning
  13. A Day In the Life (I have no idea how, but it has to be in there)
  14. Hello Goodbye
  15. Strawberry Fields Forever
  16. All You Need Is Love (guitar plays the string parts?)
  17. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  18. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  19. Birthday
  20. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey (not an obvious choice, but every instrument is doing something interesting, and there’s gotta be at least one unexpected song)
  21. Helter Skelter
  22. Come Together
  23. Something
  24. Octopus’s Garden
  25. Here Comes The Sun
  26. Mean Mr. Mustard -> Polythene Pam -> She Came In Through The Bathroom Window -> Golden Slumbers -> Carry That Weight -> The End
  27. Get Back
  28. Dig a Pony
  29. I’ve Got A Feeling
  30. The Ballad of John and Yoko

Obviously there are some major omissions; I opted to cut out anything piano-based, and I generally chose upbeat songs as opposed to softer acoustic songs, which leaves out quite a lot (including quite a few of my favorite Beatles songs). And my entry at #26 is assuming that Harmonix will be lumping the famous medley that closes out Abbey Road as one track; none of those songs really stand out on their own (except maybe “Bathroom Window”) but they would make for an epic “final boss”, with a long drum solo and those 3 rotating guitar solos.

That’s my guess. What’s yours?

>The Best Achievement, 2009 Edition

>Until yesterday, my 2 favorite Achievements were getting all 500 Agility Orbs in Crackdown and getting the Wax Off Achievement in Geometry Wars 2. But it will be difficult for anything to top my first Achievement for 2009; I have never exerted so much mental and physical energy to get 20 Points as when my wife and I played Rock Band 2 for literally 10 hours in a row yesterday, doing The Endless Setlist. I was playing drums on Hard, but my wife was playing guitar on Medium and so that’s all we got credit for; that said, she saved my ass repeatedly during the last 3 or 4 songs and so I wouldn’t have been able to finish it without her.

(We got five stars on pretty much everything right up until those last 4 songs, and then we just got killed left and right. I think it kinda sucks that you spend so much time playing all sorts of cool songs only to finish with a bunch of speed-metal sludge; I understand why it’s there but I’d much rather finish with something a little more musical.)

My arms and legs are totally sore now, and I think I’m going to take an extended break from playing drums. But it was totally worth it; my wife and I climbed a mountain together, and that’s a pretty awesome way to start a new year.