weekend recap: holiday 2011

Here’s hoping you all had a wonderful, loot-filled holiday season.  I certainly did.

Lots to cover today, so let’s get to it:

1.  I finished the main story in Skyrim – almost by accident, similar to what happened at the end of Fallout 3 –  and I think I need a little time away from it.  Certainly I need to wait until a new patch comes out, because a whole slew of my side quests are bugged, and the problems they’re causing are rather serious.  For example:

  • There’s a civil war-related quest where one of the Jarls gave me an axe to give to another Jarl.  Problem is, there’s no dialogue option when I talk to that other Jarl to give him the axe; furthermore, the axe is heavy, and because it’s a quest item I can’t drop it.
  • There’s another quest where I need to retrieve a Forsworn heart in order to concoct some sort of recipe, and I need to kill a specific Forsworn dude in order to get it.  I killed the dude.  I looted him.  I didn’t get the heart.  His corpse is now listed as “empty.”  There’s a gaping hole in his chest, implying that I’ve already taken it.

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time with the game, there’s a reason why I couldn’t put it at #1 in my GOTY post.  Bugged quests are a pretty serious offense – especially since they’re still there, after 2 significant patches have already come out.

2.  I’ve hardly touched The Old Republic since I bought it, but that’s not the game’s fault – it’s my wife’s, as she is a full-blown addict.  She’s gotten her Jedi to (at least) level 10 – she crafted a light saber, acquired a companion and made it off the first planet, if that means anything.  It’s gotten to the point where it’s useless for her to ask me any questions, because at this point she knows more about how the game works than I do.  I’m thinking about running an interview with her, actually, since she’s a prime example of the audience that Bioware was hoping to reach – that of the hard-core Star Wars nerd who doesn’t play games.  This is my wife’s first real game-playing experience, actually – I mean, she’s played DS puzzle games on airplanes and she’s played Rock Band and You Don’t Know Jack, but she’s never actually said “I’m going to play my game now – see you in a few hours” and then strapped in and just straight-up disappeared for an entire afternoon/evening.  She’s never binged, I guess you could say.  But she played 2 or 3 marathon sessions this weekend, and last night she had some Star Wars dreams, which means the addiction is in full effect.  It’s a shame that her laptop doesn’t have a graphics card, too; there’s only one computer in the house that can run it, and it’s mine, and so we can’t play together.

3.  My wife got me a really nice pair of wireless, 7.1 surround headphones for Christmas.  This is great for everyone involved – it means I’m not keeping the house up late at night, and it also means that I get to truly experience the audio side of games for the first time.  As such, I kinda raided my library, wanting to hear the ambient soundscapes in Red Dead Redemption, the ferocious engine roars of Forza 4, and Cave Johnson’s cantankerous baritone in Portal 2.  But ultimately, I spent the most amount of time playing Rayman Origins (which my dad got me for Christmas).  I’d rented it previously and loved it, but I was so focused on Skyrim that I never really gave it proper attention.  And honestly, that game’s got one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and the headphones truly give it justice.  (This Kotaku feature is an excellent primer – correctly noting the brilliance of the Sea of Serendipity music, and “Lum’s Dream” in particular – and it should be noted I found and downloaded the official soundtrack this morning – for free, no less.  Do a google search and you’ll turn something up.)

4.  I should remember to start my 2012 GOTY post with a category called “The Best Reason to Wait Until January Before Starting a GOTY Post.”  For one thing, I’d be able to talk about The Old Republic at least a little bit, and I’d also be able to correct a glaring hole – that of Battlefield 3.  One of my oldest and best friends bought an Xbox360 last week, and he’d asked me what to get – he thought about picking up Modern Warfare 3, and I said “no no no, if you want to play that sort of game online, you should get BF3.”  And then I felt like a hypocrite, since I hadn’t yet bought it (and hadn’t yet planned on playing it, actually).  Anyway, I bought it, but none of my BF3-playing buddies were online, so I didn’t end up playing very much.  I gave the single-player a whirl, mostly just to learn the control scheme, but I don’t plan on sinking too much time into it – the general consensus is that the single-player campaign is pretty bad, whereas the multiplayer is the best thing going right now.  As I’m not really an online-shooter kind of guy, I’m not expecting to have that great a time, but certainly playing co-op with friends is always fun for a little while, at least.

5.  Finally, I decided to clean up some side missions in Saints Row the Third.  That game’s post-story world isn’t really all that compelling, but it’s still fun in limited doses, and some of the side stuff is fun in and of itself.  I’m not sure I’m ever going to 100% it, as I hate the Snatch missions (and some of the Mayhem missions are fucking impossible), but I’m certainly down for leveling up my dude and making him impervious to everything.

more rambling about Skyrim

I’ve been wanting to write about Skyrim for a while now, but I’m having a hard time figuring out just what to say.

I suppose I should start by mentioning that I’m playing it twice.  I’ve invested around 30 hours into my level 23 character on the 360 – a male Imperial, two-handed weapon specialist with some destruction magic to back it up – but I’ve also working on a female High Elf on my PC*, who is strictly all magic, all the time, and who is less inclined to be polite if the option is available.  This essentially means that I’m still visiting a lot of the same places, but that I’m having totally different experiences.

*   Playing it twice wasn’t my original intention, but I was feeling guilty about hogging the TV in the living room.  This is an ongoing issue in my house.  My wife has always been totally understanding and supportive of my gaming habits, and I do my best to accommodate her when she wants to watch her shows, but I still feel guilty if I’m monopolizing the main room in the apartment.  In a few weeks we’ll be getting multi-room DVR, and that will hopefully alleviate some of this guilt.

This is key, I think.  Every night when I fire up my 360, more than half of my friends are playing Skyrim, but we’re all having vastly different experiences.  This isn’t a bad thing, by the way; it’s just that the very fact that everyone’s experience is unique means that my story won’t be as interesting as yours.  Talking about one’s Skyrim adventure is basically the same thing as talking about one’s dreams; unless you were there as an active participant, you don’t really care.  Even the crazy shit that’s on youtube (Exhibit A) simply serves to remind you that there’s a lot of stuff in the game that you aren’t doing.

And, of course, the game’s got problems.  Tom Bissell wrote an interesting piece over on Grantland basically calling Bethesda out for making the act of getting through the narrative a chore.  The whole piece is worth reading, but I’m copying the meat and potatoes, since Tom’s a much better writer than I am and his points echo my own:

 The real problem with theElder Scrolls games — the real artistic problem, I mean — is that when you’re not out there chopping and shopping, or dropping a Helmet of Alteration to make room for an Axe of Freezing, you’re stuck in some town, being buttonholed by a loquacious elf inexplicably determined to tell you all about a magic tree. The series’ designers have always mercifully allowed the player the option of spamming through the tedious pre-quest dialogue at the speed of thumb, but the problem with the Elder Scrolls games has now grown more significant than its narrative content’s optionality. The problem, it now seems clear, is that the way in which the Elder Scrolls games present their narrative content — the way, in other words, they try to communicate “drama” — has never worked and will never work.

The dialogue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is without question the best written and most capably performed of any Elder Scrolls game. Another way of saying this: It remains terrible. Please know that, two hours into Skyrim, my astoundometer remained soaringly high. Whether you’re watching some lonely club-carrying giants herd woolly mammoths across the steppe or journeying up a snowy mountain to a hidden monastery or hiding in a watchtower from a poison-breathing dragon or doing something as desultory as catching butterflies, for god’s sake, the game is as visually compelling as it is experientially gratifying. Every time one of Skyrim‘s characters opened his or her mouth, however, I felt my irritation begin to nibble away at Skyrim‘s edges. Irritation in response to a game’s dialogue is especially problematical when said game contains hours upon hours of dialogue. How can it be that the part of the game that exerts so much effort to accomplish something succeeds in accomplishing nothing?

*   *   *

I can hear you: Who cares? None of this has to do with what makes Skyrim so great. I agree. The question becomes why the thing that doesn’t make Skyrim so great is such a prominent part of Skyrim. Why, in fact, is it in Skyrim at all? I ask these questions as an admirer of Skyrim. Everything else in the game — from the beautiful simplicity of the user-interface system (at least when compared to previous Elder Scrolls games) to the crunchiness of the combat to the graphical fidelity of the environments — has improved upon previous Elder Scrolls games, so why hasn’t this? Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?

*   *   *

It surely says something that even my most fervent Skyrim-loving friends cop to skipping through the expository narrative sequences. They laugh when they admit this, and it’s a nervous, uncomfortable laugh — a laugh that suggests they’re wondering why they do this. I’ll tell them: Because the stuff they’re skipping is so bad that it makes the rest of the game seem like a waste of time, which it’s not. When many of a game’s biggest fans are unable to endure large parts of that game, it may be time to reexamine the vitality of certain aspects of the experience…. Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience. When I’m listening to and watching Skyrim‘s interminable characters, I’m skipping through the same dumb cartoon everyone else is.

I don’t know if the narrative sequences are really that bad, but I do skip through them.  I skip through a lot of narrative sequences, actually, although that’s mostly because I play with subtitles on (the audio on my TV is kinda shitty) and I read a lot faster than people talk.  But I would certainly agree that my interactions with NPCs in Skyrim can be kindly described as “stiff” and “awkward.”  That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the overall experience, but it certainly does cause me to spend as much of my time wandering around on my own as possible.


Meanwhile, I finished Saints Row the Third in a mad rush last Wednesday, when I was home sick from work.  It wasn’t the kind of sick that causes fever dreams, which meant that the stuff that I did and saw in the game actually happened.  And while Saints Row 3 is just as much of a sandbox as Skyrim, it’s also a much more focused experience, which means that anyone who plays it is liable to see the same crazy shit that I saw, which means we can talk about it.

Holy shit.

I won’t spoil it.  Frankly, not enough people on my friends lists are playing it, which is a bummer – I imagine that most people will be playing Skyrim for the foreseeable future in lieu of other games (myself included, which is why I’m not talking about Assassin’s Creed Revelations).  I implore you, though – do not miss it.  And not just because the game is completely insane – it’s also that it’s a really well-made game, with lots of worthwhile additions (the new map system is a thing of genius) and rock-solid fundamentals (it’s still got better combat than GTA) and a new city that might be a little bland and forgettable but still has a ton of stuff to see and do.  Of course, the stuff that makes it insane is why it’s worth picking up – you get a ridiculous amount of firepower in a very short amount of time, and you have plenty of opportunity to use all of it.  You are constantly being rewarded just for messing around – the game keeps track of everything, and so if, for example, you spend all your time driving on the wrong side of the road, you’ll eventually level up and add a perk to your character – you’ll take less damage from bullets, or you’ll carry more ammo, etc.  It’s a really smart system hidden inside a lunatic asylum, and it’s well worth seeking out.

further adventures in multitasking

Firstly – apologies for the weird takedown of the site the other day; WordPress apparently let some feral hamsters inside their servers and shut both of my blogs down for some alleged (and non-existent) violation of their Terms of Service.  They fixed it, apologized, and so here we are, no harm, no foul.  #OccupyWordpress

There’s a lot to talk about, and little time to do it, so here goes.

1.  Gamespot is reporting that Microsoft is going to release its new Xbox next year, during the holiday season.  This is maybe a little on the early side – I wasn’t expecting anything until an announcement in 2013 of a console release in 2014 – but in a way it makes sense.  Judging from the amount of sequels we got this year, I’m thinking that developers are a bit reluctant to launch any new IP so close to the end of the Xbox360’s life cycle.  I’ll have more to say about the next round of consoles in a later post – I’m already starting to ramble (in my head) and I haven’t even gotten started yet.

2.  I’ve started working on my favorite annual post to write – the 2011 Game of the Year.  Problem is, I feel like I can’t really get into the nitty-gritty until I finish Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and Assassin’s Creed Revelations, and meanwhile I’m still plugging away in Modern Warfare 3 and I haven’t even touched Rayman Origins yet.  I don’t think there’s any chance that I’ll be done with Skyrim until next spring, frankly, but I do want to at least put in a good dent – and yet I’m trying to stay away from it until Bethesda releases the patch that will let me install it on my HDD – my 360 (the newest model) tends to get very hot when it spins a disc, and this would be the absolute worst possible time to have a meltdown.

3.  Regarding Modern Warfare 3… I didn’t think I’d get around to playing it, but here I am.  I’m a few missions into Act 3; I have no idea how much farther I have to go before I’m done.  I have no idea what the hell is going on, either; I show up in a strange place and I kill hundreds of enemy soldiers and I press “X” a lot and then a lot of shit blows up.  It occurred to me last night that the Call of Duty games are kind of amazing in that they really don’t allow for any player creativity whatsoever.  You’re almost never alone, for one thing; you’re always part of a group, and you’re being led from place to place by someone else, and if you fail to follow their instructions (i.e., if you move out of stealth or shoot too early), you invariably die and the mission ends.  There aren’t any puzzles; every obstacle is handled by the X button, whether it’s setting a C4 charge, or opening a door, or helping a dying soldier by pressing on a wound.    It’s impossible to get lost; even if you run around looking for “hidden intel”, there’s only so many places you can look – the path is incredibly narrow.  Everything is scripted to within an inch of its life.  If I were the cynical sort – and I am – I’d say that one of the reasons why so much crazy shit happens in Call of Duty campaigns is because it helps distract the player from realizing that they’re not really contributing anything to the experience.   And yet… I’m kinda having fun.  I hate admitting it, and I don’t know why I hate admitting it.

4.  I’ve read in reviews that Assassin’s Creed: Revelations gets off to a slow start, and BOY THEY AREN’T KIDDING AROUND.  It’s funny; I kept being worried about the annualization of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and yet they’d kept making each successive game better than the last one.  So I had no reason to doubt that this year’s edition would be just as good.  Problem is, it’s coming out at the worst possible time – and not just because so many other great games are fighting for my attention.  It’s that the free-running and building climbing is much better in Uncharted 3, and that the hand to hand combat is much better in Batman Arkham City.  Those two games are still very fresh in my mind, and while I can’t necessarily hold AssRev accountable for other people’s work, nevertheless, I am nonplussed.  The other thing is that the controls are ridiculous.  I’ve played every game in the franchise for many many hours and yet the controls here are still finicky and overly sensitive and contextualized to death, which means that I end up jumping off a cliff instead of climbing a wall, or that I attempt to embrace an enemy instead of killing him with a sword that the game won’t let me pick up.  Being that I’m inundated with other games, I’ve decided that I’ll get to it when I get to it, which at this rate might be July.

5.  I’ve put in an hour or two into Saints Row the Third.  It is, in a word, bananas.  I can’t really offer anything more substantial at this point, since I’ve done maybe 1% of the crazy shit that the game apparently allows me to do.  That said, it looks great, and the combat works and feels responsive and fun, and the driving is a little stiff but I’ll get used to it.  Good times all around.

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