Red Dead Rumination

So I guess we need to talk about this.

cu-lrstw8aaszbg

Here’s my prediction:  tomorrow they officially reveal Red Dead Revolution, for a Spring 2017 release.  While I’d love to see a protagonist that isn’t an older white man – a POC, a Native American, a woman – I don’t think it’ll happen.  I would be surprised to see it as a pure sequel to Redemption; most Rockstar franchises exist independently of each other (with the notable exception of Max Payne, and even then that was Remedy).

The fact that there are seven characters in this image implies that there’ll be some sort of online posse element to the game; Redemption‘s online features were pretty great, all things considered, and considering how well GTAV online is going, I would imagine that this new game will incorporate a lot of those ideas.

But beyond that, I’m not going to speculate, since I’m almost always completely wrong about everything Rockstar does.  I will say this, though:  The Witcher 3 is now my gold standard for the open-world adventure, and when I played Witcher 3 it reminded me of Redemption in all the best ways.  So while I’m obviously incredibly excited for whatever this game turns out to be, I’m also setting some very, very high expectations.


I have not yet bought PSVR, but I’m seriously starting to think about it.  It’s the only VR system I can sort of afford, and it seems to be getting pretty positive reviews, and I know it’s only a matter of time before I succumb to peer pressure and buy it anyway.

It might be the thing that keeps me interested in gaming, actually.  I’m finding myself having a harder time staying engaged with what I’m playing these days – I’m not sure if it’s because of the new head meds I’m on, or if I’m just not playing anything all that great, or what, but I’m not feeling particularly gung-ho about anything right now.

To wit:

I gave up on Mafia 3 after about 30 minutes with it.  The very first mission glitched out on me, and everything about it felt janky.  I very much appreciate and respect what the narrative is trying to do, believe me; but my limited time and my dwindling reserves of patience make it difficult for me to give anything the benefit of the doubt.

I am holding on to my rental copy of XCOM 2 for a little while longer, even if I’m still terribly intimidated by it.  I’d like to at least get a few more missions into it before deciding whether or not I should bail.

I had promised a buddy that I’d play Gears 4 in co-op with him, but he was away last week and so I ended up playing the prologue and a tiny bit of the post-opening credits sequence.  I don’t really know what to say about it; it’s Gears, looking as spiffy as ever, and there’s lots of shooting and hiding in cover and such.  At this point I feel like co-op is probably the better way to play it, since at the very least I can tune out the narrative.

I played the new Croft Manor DLC for Rise of the Tomb Raider; whoever described it as Lara Croft’s Gone Home is pretty much right on the money.  I’m missing 2 artifacts, and while I’m eager to break the 100K Achievements mark, I don’t know if I care about it enough to go back and hunt them down.

I also finished Virginia, which had been getting some rather intriguing press of late.  I found it interesting, but I’m not 100% sure I understand what I saw; the use of jump-cuts is rather unique in game storytelling but it’s also the sort of thing that calls attention to itself, and if it’s not serving an apparent purpose it really just becomes distracting.  I found it pleasantly enigmatic but it’s not sticking in my head the way it is for others; so it goes.

 

Lest you think I’m just shitting on everything I touch, I do need to salute Picross 3D: Round 2.  I’ve gotten a Rainbow medal on every puzzle; the only thing I could conceivably do is go through each puzzle where I made one mistake and try to ace it instead.   It’s the most enjoyable puzzle game I’ve played in ages, and I must admit that it was nice having my 3DS back in my rotation for a little while.

cuxvarsxeaa2rbx

I am most likely sitting Battlefield 1 out, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to rent Titanfall 2 or the new Call of Duty either, which means the next thing on my must-play list appears to be… Dishonored 2.

the inevitable Rockstar wishlist

In this interview with Take Two Interactive’s Strauss Zelnick, it is tantalizingly revealed that something is happening at this year’s E3:

With a number of new games, plus its eSports plans, 2016 is shaping up to be a far busier year for the teams at Take-Two. But could there be more? What about Red Dead Redemption 2? Or Ken Levine’s new project? Zelnick is tight lipped, but points towards E3 as an event to look forward to.

“We will be there in a big way,” he concludes.

This can only mean one thing, and that is:  Table Tennis VR.

Well, but also, surely this means we’re going to hear something definitive about Red Dead Redemption 2.  Right?  There is no other existing Take Two-published property that is in greater demand.  A remastered Bioshock Trilogy for current-gen consoles is inevitable.  A new Borderlands is probable.  And yeah, I’m sure we’ll hear something about Ken Levine’s new thing, though if it’s a small indie game made by a small team, I can’t imagine it’ll dominate their news cycle.  XCOM 2 for PS4/XB1 makes sense.  Civ Rev 2 for Vita is a thing that is supposedly still happening.

Listen, people:  I want my Red Dead 2, and I want it now.  Please and thank you.


Very pleased to see that Superhot is getting terrific reviews.  Assuming the boy goes to bed at his usual time (and nothing is certain on that front anymore), I will be checking it out this very evening (presumably while my rental copy of Far Cry Primal installs on my PS4).

Asleep at the Wheel: E3 2015 prognosticaions and other ramblings

1.  Now that Fallout 4 has been officially revealed – and a new Gears of War game has been very strongly implied by the formation/re-naming of its development studio – it was put to Twitter to determine what unannounced game could possibly upstage those two.

I have two answers:  Red Dead Redemption 2, and/or Portal 3: Cake or Death (co-starring Eddie Izzard, obviously).

I’d of course love to see release dates (and gameplay footage) for Mirror’s Edge 2 and the new Crackdown, and certainly I’d like to know what Criterion is up to (as well as what Three Fields is doing (the new studio formed by Criterion’s founders)).  No Man’s Sky should be getting a more thorough rundown, and I’d love to get more information about The Witness.  I’d be incredibly surprised and pleased to hear more definitive information about the new Mass Effect game (and less surprised but certainly intrigued by a seemingly inevitable ME original trilogy HD remaster, and I’d buy that in a heartbeat if I could somehow import my save data from my 360 playthroughs).

On that note, now that the Uncharted HD trilogy has been more or less announced, one wonders what other last-gen games will be announced at E3 for a current-gen treatment.  I still maintain that a Bioshock HD trilogy is a no-brainer, though perhaps it would make sense to release closer to whatever’s next for that franchise; I also maintain that a Rockstar remastered box set of Red Dead 1, GTA4, Max Payne 3, and/or L.A. Noire is an impossible (but near-orgasmic) dream.

As I write this, I see that the first official Steam Machines will be coming out this fall.  If the specs are good, I might end up getting one of these – my current PC is starting to show its age, and it’d be nice to keep my gigantic Steam library as part of my rotation.  (I will hopefully be moved in to the new house by then, too, and so having a Steam Machine will make my gaming man-cave more or less complete.)

Beyond that, I’m kinda just curious to see how it goes.  I have no real expectations.  I am hopeful that I can live-blog my impressions of each press conference, though that may be impossible for various real-world reasons.

2.  A whole bunch of boffo iOS games have come out lately.  Last night saw the release of You Must Build a Boat, the sequel to the much-beloved 10000000, as well as Hitman: Sniper, which is very much like that PC demo from a few years back.  I’ve also been playing the shit out of Lara Croft Relic Run, which might be the most ambitious endless runner ever made; and I’m also helplessly addicted to Ball King, which is a free basketball shooter with lo-fi graphics but really good physics, which makes hitting tough shots ridiculously satisfying.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Twenty, which is a maddeningly addictive hybrid of Drop 7 and Threes.

3.  I’ve taken a 2-day break from The Witcher 3.  I’ve been meaning to write about it all week but haven’t been able to put my thoughts in order.  (I’m about to hit level 15, and I’m kinda just messing around with side-quests in Novigrad.)

My original thesis was that I loved it to death, and that I loved it specifically because I didn’t feel alienated by how it goes about its business (the way I felt about, say, GTA V or Far Cry 4 or any other AAA game of recent years).  Witcher 3 scratches a lot of the same itches that Red Dead Redemption does (which is great), and it also solves some of Red Dead’s narrative problems by making Geralt exactly the sort of person who would do random things for people – that’s his job.  And I also love that when he’s given stupid stuff to do, he’s really funny about it – for example, there’s an early story sub-quest wherein you have to find a goat for the local witch doctor.  Geralt rolls his eyes but knows he has to do it, and when he finds the goat (by ringing a little bell), he says something very much like “Hurry up and follow me, you stupid piece of shit”, which is something that had me literally laughing out loud right up until we both got jumped by a bear.  I love that each person you meet has their own quest line, which makes you feel more invested in what they have to say and how they’re helping you along in your own quest.  I said this before but it bears repeating – I love that the conversation system isn’t always obviously good/bad, which makes role-playing that much more immersive; more often than not, Geralt will have an option to say the thing that I personally would say, and I appreciate the level of nuance that the writers have carefully crafted into each situation.

That being said, I can’t help but notice that everybody is white, and that all the ladies with speaking roles have their boobs hanging out all the time.  I suppose I can appreciate the argument that, while more diversity in games is necessary, it isn’t always appropriate, but I can’t not notice that of the hundreds and hundreds of digital people and dwarves and elves and monsters and fiends and such that I’ve come across in Witcher 3, not a single one of them is a person of color.  Again – I appreciate that this is a Polish-made game that reflects Slavic mythological fantasy, but I also note that nearly every speaking voice is that of a Brit, and that this game was built to be sold to a Western audience.

On the lighter side, I do hope they patch in a photo mode.

4.  I finished Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves earlier this week; I’m not about to write a full review of it here, but the short version is that it’s my favorite thing he’s written in quite a long time.  It has more than a few spots where it’s a little dry, and the subject matter of the final third is a bit…. hmm… troubling?  Is that a good way to describe eugenics, even if it’s done out of necessity and not out of some sort of Hitler-inspired craziness?  In any event, it’s stuck with me ever since I put it down, and I may end up needing to read it again soon.

Hypothetical: The Inevitable HD Remake List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GTA V: the conclusion, and what comes next

On Monday, I said that I wouldn’t write any more about GTA V until I finished it.

On Monday night, I finished it.   I pushed through the last 5 or 6 missions in one go, including the setting-up and execution of the last heist, and then finished the final tying up of loose ends.  The Social Club says I’m around 70% complete; I know I’ve still got Franklin’s assassination missions to do (and I’m glad I waited; it’ll be much more lucrative to mess with the stock market when I’ve got $20M in my account as opposed to $50K) and there’s a few strangers and freaks missions left – Trevor got a new one upon the game’s conclusion that, well… I’m curious to see where it goes, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, my original intention was to write about it yesterday – and I did get about 500 words into it –  but a situation arose; it would not be prudent to say much more in a public forum, as I’m still not 100% sure who reads this, but the short version is that I was not in the mood to write.  

I had to leave work early yesterday, as it happens, and I got to spend some much-needed time with my kid.  I was still in a highly agitated state when I left work, and I’d taken some prescription medication in an effort to calm down, but my kid managed to calm me down better than any pill ever has before.

That being said, even after this quality father/son time, I found myself still feeling a bit anxious and edgy, and so when I put him down to sleep I fired up GTA V again, purely because I needed to blow off some steam.  And so, finally freed from the constraint of narrative, I switched over to Trevor and did some of his Rampage missions.  Picked a fight with some soldiers outside an army base, grabbed a grenade launcher out of the back of their truck, and then just proceeded to blow the shit out of the ensuing jeeps, cargo trucks, and tanks.  I didn’t care if I died; I didn’t care about strategy; I didn’t even necessarily care about passing the mission.  I just needed to blow some shit up.

Of course, I needed to spend a few minutes driving there; and then, once I’d finally passed the mission, I needed to drive somewhere else, being that there wasn’t anything in the immediate vicinity to do.   I found myself missing Saints Row 4 just a little bit; what I wouldn’t have given to be able to zoom along at top speed and then jump a thousand feet into the air, gliding down from the desert back into the city.  

Speaking of which, I was listening to Monday’s alternate Bombcast (the one with Klepek and Navarro) and Patrick offered the insight (and I’m paraphrasing here – the moment comes at around 6:30 or so) that GTA V is at odds with itself; that the story and the main missions are so laser-focused that the game fails to take full advantage of, hands down, the greatest open world ever created.  And it occurred to me that this is the exact opposite problem that I had with Saints Row 4 – that SR4 takes incredible, mind-bending liberties with the sandbox but fails to make the sandbox itself all that interesting.

QUICK TANGENT

It’s funny – I’ve probably written close to 5000 words now about my experiences with GTA V and not once did I bring up Saints Row until just now, at the end, and I suppose it’s a little bit unfair, being that I couldn’t get through 2 sentences about anything Saints Row without comparing it to GTA.  To be fair, Saints Row 4 goes out of its way to compare itself to GTA before deciding to fly off the rails, whereas GTA has been willfully stubborn in acknowledging that other video games even exist (which is ironic, given that if you’re going to skewer and satirize American pop culture, you sorta have to acknowledge video games; and this is doubly ironic because GTA itself is seen as being largely responsible for all of the terribleness of today’s youth, if you ask Jack Thompson or Senator Leland Yee.)   Now, GTA V does include a few scenes of Michael’s asshole son playing video games; I seem to recall them being first-person-shooters, and indeed Jimmy does attempt to teabag a downed enemy in one of the last missions, so it’s not like Rockstar is totally in a bubble.  But it still is a bit weird.

END QUICK TANGENT, BEGIN NEW TANGENT

As long as we’re making comparisons, my perceived competitive relationship between GTA and Saints Row reminds me very much of my perceived competitive relationship between Gran Turismo (the gold standard) and Forza (the young up-and-comer).  Both Gran Turismo and GTA took several years between installments, and in that downtime both Saints Row and Forza went from hopeful clones to fully-qualified AAA titles in and of themselves.  I have no other insight into this comparison, other than to say that it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while, for no apparent reason.

END SECOND TANGENT

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about GTA V.  I’ve played it almost every night since it came out, but I haven’t really thought about it all that much aside from the time I’ve spent writing these posts.  The world is, again, absolutely incredible; but the game itself can be tedious – when it’s not being in love with itself.  (The late-game heist mission that sees Michael mopping the floor was particularly egregious in this regard; on the one hand, I admire the balls they have for having you do something that ridiculous at that stage of the game.  But on the other hand, give me a fucking break.)

Honestly?  I think I prefer IV.  Ideally, I’d like to see the gameplay improvements in V placed back into IV – the combat, the regenerating health, the any-time quick-save option, the lessened penalties for mission failure/death.  IV’s narrative was dark, yes, but I also found it quite resonant and powerful, and I found Niko Bellic to be one of the most engaging player characters I’d ever seen.  V’s narrative is all over the place, and the characters are repugnant and repellant, and I found almost nothing to like about any of the people I was playing as or interacting with; there was no humanity to be found anywhere.  Perhaps they evaded “ludonarrative dissonance” by making these characters more likely to engage in the sorts of things they did, but that didn’t make them any more fun to be around.

And I also must admit to finding a lot of the game a bit tedious.  The first time you have a long drive to a mission, it’s legitimately interesting, because you’re experiencing the city and you’re engaged in the conversation along the way.  But towards the end of the game, it just dragged; if I started a mission and saw my GPS read anything over 3 or 4 miles, my heart sank a little bit.

That said, for the most part the missions themselves were pretty fun.  Driving to and from the missions could be annoying, but once I got to where I was going the action was satisfying and some of the grander set pieces were pretty spectacular.  I think they could’ve done a bit more with the heists – though I have a sneaking suspicion that more heists will arrive as paid DLC.

I haven’t mentioned the online portion of the game; to be honest, I haven’t played much of it.  I suppose I can admit now that I was part of the beta test, which was only up for around a week before the online part officially launched; if you thought the official launch was a technical disaster, well, the beta was even worse.  Connection problems, severe graphical glitches, all sorts of scripting problems; I was shocked to see that they were still going forward with the announced launch date, because I didn’t see how they’d be able to fix what was wrong in such a short amount of time.  

When I have gotten online, I’ve found the experience lacking.  Griefing is rampant and annoying; I got killed twice just trying to enter “passive” mode.  I haven’t played it with friends yet; I would hope that would be a lot more pleasant.  Doing co-op missions in Red Dead was some of the most fun I had online this generation; I think there are co-op missions in V, but I haven’t been motivated to look for them.

But I also kinda feel like I’ve had my fill, which is not something I ever thought I’d say this soon after any GTA’s release.  I may continue to poke and prod in the single-player game, trying to tidy up the side quests and maybe find a few more hidden collectibles, but I don’t feel myself drawn to it the way I have with past GTA games.  Maybe that’ll change now that the story’s over and I don’t need to hear these guys talk any more, and I can be free to see the world without all that nonsense.    

*     *     *

What comes next?  

That used to be my favorite game to play, trying to figure out how Rockstar would top the last title.  Being that we’ve all seen the enormous, unprecedented success of GTA V, it’s very safe to assume that there’ll be a GTA VI appearing on the new consoles, probably in at least 4-5 years; it’s also probably not a stretch to imagine that Rockstar will have already cut its teeth on the PS4 and the XBONE with the long-rumored sequel to Red Dead Redemption, given that the two franchises share a great deal of tech and DNA.  

But as for GTA VI itself?  I really have no idea.  I’ve been wrong every time I’ve tried to guess the city and the era.  (Though I still long to see them do mid-late 90s London, which – if nothing else – would have the best soundtrack of all time.)  They reinterpreted GTA3’s Liberty City in GTA IV, and they reinterpreted San Andreas in GTA V.  But I don’t think they’d revisit Vice City, because they seem to have moved away from period pieces; both IV and V are very much set in the present, and I’d be very surprised to seem them repeat themselves so obviously by going back to the 80s.  

Regardless, I find that guessing the city and era isn’t nearly as interesting to me anymore as it used to be.  Don’t get me wrong – I have no doubt that the world they’ll create will be astounding to behold, and that the graphical horsepower of the new consoles will allow them to do some truly remarkable things.  I am sure that the world of VI will make V seem as small and seemingly uninteresting as V has now made IV, and I do look forward to seeing it.

But my experience playing V has left me wanting.  The juvenile humor, the excessive vulgarity and profanity, the rampant misogyny and racism, the “satire” – I’m not prudish by any means, but these do not shock or titillate me anymore, nor do I find the satire all that amusing.  Indeed, the Daily Show packs more satirical insight about American culture in a single 30 minute show than in the entire 40+ hours I’ve already spent with V.  If we presume that VI would come out 5 years from now… well, I’ll be 43 by then.  I’m already feeling like I’m maybe a little bit too old for this franchise; I shudder to think how ancient I’ll feel if they’re still telling the same stupid dick jokes in 5 years.

The First Few Hours: GTA V

[Editor’s note: I am very much wanting to write about my first few hours with GTA V right now, but I’m also in the middle of a work-related anxiety attack.  I apologize in advance if whatever follows is gibberish.]

My weirdness about GTA V continues.  This weekend I was having GTA dreams; then, on Sunday night – the night before the game got reviewed – I got no sleep, and instead was having some sort of weird anxiety attack, part of which might very well have been triggered by review anticipation.   A wide assortment of badness happened on Monday morning and so I ended up staying home from work, and so I juggled taking care of the baby while also power-reading through the reviews from all the major sites (while being very careful to avoid the comment sections).

The reviews were more or less what I expected them to be – perfect or near-perfect scores, though not without some caveats, cautions and concerns.  And while I did manage to avoid the comment sections, it was the gaming press themselves on Twitter who reposted the commentariat’s vitriolic, frothing rage over point deductions.  Only on the internet does a 9/10 score get almost 20,000 comments simply because the reviewer dared to point out that the game engages in some misogynistic and racist behavior – behavior which is not unusual for the series but which, in this case, is especially troubling because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be as satirically designed as the rest of the game’s social commentaries.

Anyway, my copy of the game arrived on Tuesday, and I played it for 3-4 hours or so.  And now I’m all sorts of fucked up about it.

On the plus side: it’s technologically impressive as all hell, and by far the best looking game Rockstar’s ever made.   This is the first disc-based AAA game I’ve played on my 360 in months, I think, and I’m kinda blown away as to how good it looks.  I played Red Dead over the weekend and that game still looks terrific, but GTA V really takes it to the next level.   The city is colorful and crisp, the art direction is impeccable, and the animation is among the most convincing I’ve ever seen – especially the ragdoll physics, which are borderline creepy.

And as for the stuff on my wishlist, they pretty much nailed everything I wanted:

  • Failing a mission is much less punishing, and merely results in a mid-mission checkpoint restart.  YES.
  • Ambient events – I haven’t seen these for myself yet, but I watched some gameplay video yesterday and so I know they’re in there.  YES.
  • Miscellaneous challenges – GTA is a different sort of beast than RDR; I don’t know if there’s a treasure hunt yet.  Surely there are hidden collectibles, as there are in all GTA games, but I’ve never been good at finding them.  That said, the tennis mini-game isn’t terrible (though the camera is a bit low), and the golf isn’t terrible (though it’s not great, either) – I’m not sure I’ll play them again, but it was nice to see that there was at least some effort into putting those things together.  Still, I’ve only played for a few hours; there’s a million things I haven’t done or seen yet, and so the  JURY IS STILL OUT.
  • The combat system is very much improved.  Takes everything that worked from RDR and MP3 and further refines it.  Cover system works the way it’s supposed to; targeting works the way it’s supposed to; the radial menu works just fine. YES.
  • I threw in that bit about navigation almost as an afterthought, and yet that was addressed as well.  The new GPS system has a subtle 3D tilt to it, which makes navigation a lot easier (even if I find myself looking in the lower corner more than I’d like).  Still, I wasn’t expecting that, and they addressed it anyway.  YES.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is now a much-needed quick-save option.  This was the very first thing I tried once I had the opportunity.  YES YES YES.

On the negative side:  the short version is that I’m very, very glad that I was wearing headphones.  In the first few hours alone, the script uses more “n-words” than Quentin Tarantino writing a Sam Jackson monologue on 6 cups of coffee.  And I’m using Tarantino as an example because the Houser brothers, as far as I know, are just as white as Quentin is, and so it’s a little weird.  All the dialogue in the game has a stilted quality to it – I suppose it’s meant to sound very naturalistic, but it’s also a little over-eloquent and in love with itself.

And the characters themselves are not what you’d call “nice guys”.  It would be hard to expect them to be, and I’m not necessarily sure I’d want them to be – it’s weird enough playing Uncharted and pretending I’m the charming rogue Nathan Drake while killing 700+ people.  But these characters are ugly, and from what I hear they don’t necessarily get any more endearing, and if this game is as large as it appears to be, well, that’s a lot of hours I’m going to be spending while feeling rather uncomfortable.

I think my larger issue is that the GTA franchise – arguably the most important and influential gaming franchise around, and certainly my personal favorite – has the unique opportunity to do bold and interesting things.  (In fact, Rockstar does do bold and interesting things – in their non-GTA games, like Red Dead and Bully and even The Warriors (and, lest we forget, Table Tennis)).  The rest of the gaming world gets the hell out of the way whenever a GTA game comes out – it’s a special event, it’s something that everyone pays attention to.  These are important games.   And so I guess what I’m saying is that it would be nice if the narrative could rise to the occasion, and not just the technology.

E3 2013: a wishlist of impossible things

I’m hopped up on allergy medication and Ativan and a large coffee, so I’m all sorts of weird right now.  This is as good a time as any, then, to get excited about things that I’d like to see at E3, none of which will probably turn out to be true, which will make it that much easier for me to be disappointed like everybody else when it’s all over.

A caveat:  since I obviously can’t predict new IP to get excited about, this is mostly a list of stuff based on existing IP.  Which is perhaps not as inherently exciting as new IP, but – again – I’m in a brain fog.

1.  Red Dead Redemption 2 for PS4/XBO.   Surely this is in the works, right?  I mean, come on.  (Rockstar typically doesn’t attend E3, and Take Two is only holding private meetings.)

2.  Steam Box with specs comparable to PS4/XBO for under $500.  And which I could hook up to my PC monitor, if need be.  Sometimes I forget that I can use Big Picture Mode; man, what a great UI.   (Valve will not be exhibiting at E3 this year, either.)

3.  Speaking of Valve (and ignoring, again, that Valve won’t be at E3), I’ve given up hoping for Half Life 3 news, but I’d love to see something Portal related.  I don’t even know what I’d want it to be, just that it’s continuing to exist.

4.  Criterion Games backtracking and saying, nah, just kidding, we’re totally making a new, next-gen Burnout.

5.  Grim Fandango HD.  And while we’re at it, how about all of those classic LucasArts adventure games getting HD remakes for iOS?  Get on it, Disney.   I’d even take a LucasArts kart racer at this point.

6.  Someone (maybe Bioware’s post-Mass Effect team?) to turn Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, or even just the universe, into a game.  Special Circumstances is basically SCREAMING for some sort of third-person action adaptation.  I’d do it myself if I knew anything about anything.

7.  I’d like to hear a lot more concrete info about those Oddworld HD remakes.

8.  Fallout 4 with iD Tech 5 graphics.  (That’s what Rage was sorta going for, but it can be done so much better.)

9.  Rock Band: U2.  (I know, I know.  I’d just like one more reason to use my plastic instruments before the kid makes us run out of storage space.)

10.  Finally, I would lose my goddamned mind if Skies of Arcadia came back for a next-gen sequel.  The original SoA was my very first JRPG experience, and it set the bar ridiculously high in doing so.

further thoughts on Max and Diablo

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

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

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

3 is a magic number

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

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

Gut reactions:

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

__________________________

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

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

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