the payoff

[EDIT:  I realize that, as I’d guessed in the first paragraph, I’d forgotten to talk about a bunch of things; those work-related interruptions did indeed screw up my train of thought.  Additional thoughts will be added below.]

I’m having one of those days where I’m not particularly busy, but I can guarantee that as soon as I start getting on a roll here, I’ll be given some work to do.  I’ve been wanting to write here all week, frankly, and the whole week has been in this same sort of vein; I’m terribly idle right up until the moment I decide to be personally productive, and then I’ll get handed a large project within the next 1-5 minutes of that decision.  If I’m stalling here in this introductory paragraph, it’s because I’m reluctant to suddenly lose my actual blog-worthy trains of thought.

As it happens from time to time, I’m starting to have trouble articulating this blog’s primary purpose.  I like having a blog, and I don’t plan on deleting this one; it’s just that I simply don’t have the time/inclination to do any serious criticism here.  I’ve noticed lately that to the extent I write anything even remotely critical at all, it’s mostly just “I like this, I don’t like that.”  Superficial, not particularly hard-hitting, shallow.  Again, it’s difficult for me to find time to write the way I’d like to, and I’m currently in this phase where I’m having trouble really getting into things the way I used to, which has a tendency to result in apathy.  I’m not sure if this is a side effect of my new head meds or not; one positive side effect of these head meds is that my ability to simply let things be what they are is a lot stronger.

  • Westworld:  I’ve started to notice (on Twitter, at least) that there are regular watchers of this show who are becoming angry and impatient at the show’s very slow doling out of information.  There are too many mysteries and not enough answers, they say, even though we’re only halfway through the first season.  There is now a struggle between the pleasure of anticipation and the need for instant gratification, and I can’t help but wonder if Netflix and the culture of binge-watching has ruined the ability for a television show’s cliffhanger to be effective.  Westworld reminds me a lot of Lost, in this way, but Lost suffered from a different problem; Lost’s mysteries overwhelmed the show itself to the point where there were no answers that could ever possibly be adequate.  I remain very optimistic that Westworld will not suffer this fate; each episode has been meticulous in its construction and I remain confident that the showrunners know exactly what they’re doing.  (The show’s only made one real blunder, as far as I’m concerned – the dopey and crude lab techs from this last week’s episode are gross and annoying, and their scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as everyone else’s.)  In any event, I’m just grateful to watch Anthony Hopkins kill it on a weekly basis.
  • Cubs:  I am no longer the die-hard sports fanatic that I used to be; among other things, I found my intense superstitious behaviors to be an impediment to the simple enjoyment of watching a game (i.e., if my team needed to score a run / goal / touchdown, I’d have to leave the room and pee; I could only listen to the Yankees on the radio, even when the radio broadcasting became abhorrent to listen to, etc.).  Also my wife and I cut the cable cord a few years ago and live sports, for the most part, became something I simply couldn’t watch, which made this transition into the non-sports-caring person I am today that much easier.  In any event, I’m still terribly superstitious, as it turns out, and so even though I was rooting for the Cubs, I was terribly afraid of saying or doing anything that might jinx them.  The most I could allow myself to do was to “Like” the various Cubs-related Facebook posts that my family and friends posted, and that was it.  I know it’s ridiculous, and this is why I’ve forcibly stopped myself from caring so much.  [EDIT:  So, anyway, GO CUBS!  Very happy for all my Cub friends and family.  I, of course, didn’t watch.  You’re welcome.]
  • Games:  It’s big-budget first-person-shooter season, and as such I’ve decided to give in and rent the big three.  I’m still in the first mission of Battlefield 1, and while it’s technically very impressive I’m not, like, craving it.  My rental copy of the new Call of Duty is en route, as is Titanfall 2; I ordinarily would be happy to ignore both of these games except that their single-player campaigns have been getting surprisingly great reviews, and that’s the only bit of those games that I tend to get involved with.  So be it.  [EDIT:  I also ended up giving up on XCOM 2I can tell it’s a good game, but I also know I’m far too intimidated by it to give it its proper due.  I may pick it up again during a release lull, but I wouldn’t expect myself to get much farther than I already did.]
  • Books:  Man, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about books here.  The last thing I mentioned was The Nix, which I adored.  Since then, I’ve read:
    KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money J.M.R. Higgs A-
    The Tresspasser Tana French A
    Death’s End Liu Cixin B+
    Pym Mat Johnson B-
    His Bloody Project Graeme MaCrae Burnet B

    I am now currently reading I.Q. by Joe Ide, and even though I’m in the early going I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

Weekend Recap: Killing Nazis on the Moon

(Before I forget, I wrote up a thing over at Gamemoir taking a guess at what Rockstar’s new title is going to be.  It went up yesterday, when most of the USA was away from the internet, so if you’d like to check it out, here it is.)

Here’s something I never expected to say:  I’m far more interested in finishing Wolfenstein than I am in firing up Watch Dogs, which just arrived and which is sitting in my messenger bag at this very moment.  As much of a sucker as I am for open world games, and as much as I succumbed to the insane amount of hype that Watch Dogs had gunning for it, I am thoroughly enjoying Wolfenstein and very well might go back to play it again once I finish it – or, at least, go back chapter by chapter to find all the hidden stuff I missed.

Whenever I talk about “shooter fatigue”, I’m talking about a combination of things:  (1) a lot of the big budget shooters (and there are quite a few of them) basically feel and look the same; (2) those shooters have very flimsy narratives and it’s often a struggle to understand why you’re going where you’re going or why you have to kill so many people beyond those people being “the enemy”; and (3) I’ve grown weary of having the murdering of virtual people as the primary game mechanic.

Wolfy solves a lot of these problems for me, actually, and one of them comes as a complete surprise.  In 2008 I’d complained of how tired I was about shooting Nazis, actually:

Nazis have been the de facto bad guys in popular culture for the last 50 years. They are a perfect enemy; nobody gets offended when you have to kill them. Castle Wolfenstein illustrated this in interactive 3D, and the videogame boom as we know it was born.

I think, however, that we’ve reached a point in our society where the evilness of Nazis has lost a bit of its power. The videogaming generation did not grow up in WW2, and neither did its parents. When you kill Nazis in videogames, you’re not avenging the horrors of the Holocaust anymore, or freeing Europe from the tyrannical grips of a monster; you are killing bad guys in order to make it to the next checkpoint, and Nazis have always been an easy target for game designers because (a) you don’t have to worry about cultural sensitivity issues, and (b) who doesn’t enjoy killing Nazis? It’s just that most WW2 games these days don’t really focus on the why; they focus on the experience of the soldier in the middle of the battle, rather than the reason why the soldier is over there in the first place, and as a result, the enemy Nazi soldier is no longer as capital-E Evil because they all look the same and there’s so damn many of them.

As it happens, that same column was about how zombies were the new Nazis, and how I thought that was kind of great, because we needed a new type of baddie to kill.  Now, of course, zombies are everywhere, and it’s gotten to the point where I actively avoid playing games with zombies – even The Walking Dead Season 2 – because I’m so, so tired of them.

So you can imagine the irony in which I’m now singing the praises of a game that eschews zombies altogether and goes back to killin’ Nazis, and how much goddamned fun it is to be killing all of them.  I feel, at times, like I’m a part of the Inglorious Basterds, and it can feel downright cathartic to mow down wave after wave of them.

And I also can’t say it enough, how impressed I am at how good the game feels.  The shooting is excellent; your arsenal is potent and varied, and I’m always pleased at how I can improvise and change tactics with a different weapon if my preferred gun is low on ammo.  (Also:  dual-wielding automatic shotguns is insane.)  The game is also fantastically paced, especially for my personal tastes; there is plenty of action, to be sure, but there are also welcome lulls (and also dedicated sections in the resistance safehouse) where I can root around and look for hidden items and secrets (of which there are so many, which is delightful).  I’m probably 8 or 9 hours in at this point and there have only been maybe 3 or 4 times where I’ve come across a frustratingly high spike in difficulty (one section in particular drove me bananas, though I did eventually manage to outlast it), and those spikes were often solved simply by remembering that I don’t always have to charge in head-first.

I remain surprised at how much I’m enjoying myself, and part of that may simply be that I never expected a Wolfenstein game to be this good.  The Wolfenstein brand has always been more important than the games themselves, I think; the original game is what started this whole 3D first-person shooter thing in the first place, and while we may have fond memories of playing it way back when, I don’t know anyone who prefers that game to Doom.  I played bits of the last few Wolfenstein sequels on consoles, and they always felt somewhat out of date; or, rather, that each subsequent sequel felt like a desperate attempt to keep the IP relevant.  This game, on the other hand, feels remarkably fresh and alive, and yet it also knows how silly it is.  After wiping out most of a U-Boat’s crew, the captain exasperatedly exclaims – “What’s wrong with you?  He’s just one man!”  B.J. Blazkowicz himself, after infiltrating the Nazi lunar base and radioing back to his resistance HQ, says, “Well, I’m on the fucking moon.”

Re: that silliness – I understand what the critics are talking about w/r/t the game’s wildly divergent tone.  There are opportunities for character development that never quite get maximized, and one can get the impression that the corporate overlords at Bethesda/ZeniMax took the developers aside and said “Hey, enough with the talky-talky, we need more shooty-shooty.”  Still, what’s there can be rich and deep and dark, and I guess I’m just grateful that it’s there at all.  B.J.’s comrades have very different motivations for joining a resistance that they all acknowledge has nearly no chance of succeeding, and even if they’re not given all that much to do, they feel real enough to make you feel like part of something important.

It’s a hell of thing, really, to make a Wolfenstein game in 2014 feel important.  To that end, I tip my cap to Machine Games, who’ve made something quite special indeed.

before the first few hours: Bioshock Infinite

I’d been suffering from shooter fatigue for quite a long time before I found that I was enjoying Far Cry 3 almost in spite of myself.   The endless slaughter of virtual enemies was still somewhat tiresome, but FC3 had enough distractions and side projects to take on that I felt like I could still enjoy what the game had to offer.

And then the Newtown shooting happened, and suddenly I felt sick again.

From that link, which I wrote back in December:

The narrative [in FC3] is where the game’s more or less fallen apart for me, is the thing.  While I appreciate that the game is actually attempting to say something (in that you start out as a whimpering trust-fund douchebag and gradually turn into a sociopathic killing-machine douchebag whose friends (the same friends who you’ve been trying to rescue) are super-creeped out by you and your murder-lust (they actually look into the camera (i.e., your eyes) as if they don’t recognize you)) – in other words, the game is saying that killing hundreds of people doesn’t necessarily make you a hero – the game also requires you to kill hundreds of people in order to advance the narrative; you don’t have a choice in the matter.

And then, a few paragraphs down, I wrote this:

I was originally going to start this post with a hypothetical challenge; would it be possible for me to play any games in 2013 that didn’t involve the firing of a gun?  Then I remembered that Bioshock InfiniteTomb Raider and GTA5 were coming, and that pretty much ended that – I won’t be missing any of those games unless my wife or my newborn son is on fire.  BUT.  I think I’m going to try and get through as much of 2013 as possible without playing any shooters.

Well, here we are.  I’ve finished Tomb Raider – and enjoyed it, for the most part.  And I have not played Gears of War: Judgment, or Crysis 3, or Metal Gear Revengeance, or Dead Space 3.

And when I get home tonight, I’m going to be firing up Bioshock Infinite.  It’s one of the only big AAA games that’s coming out this year that I promised I wouldn’t miss.  The original Bioshock is one of the watershed moments of this generation, after all – and even if the gameplay doesn’t quite hold up these days, the atmosphere and the storytelling still do.

But as much as I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’d be lying if I weren’t apprehensive about all the murdering I’m going to have to do.  What does it say about games as a medium when the game that’s being touted and hyped as the most important story-driven game of the generation still makes you kill lots of things as you get from Point A to Point B – and how one of the game’s selling points is that you can kill these things in lots of interesting and unique ways?

*   *   *

I’ve been trying with all my might to avoid any and all preview coverage of Bioshock Infinite.   This even extends to reviews; I’m aware that it’s been getting very high scores, but I’ve not read any actual reviews or analysis.  This has been very hard of late, as the game’s presence has blanketed pretty much every website I visit with ubiquitous advertising.

But I’m also contractually obliged to link to anything that Tom Bissell writes, and his Grantland interview with Ken Levine is, as usual, very interesting and informative without even really getting into the game itself.  They talk about the game mostly from a writer’s point of view; how game writing differs from novels and screenplays, and they even get into this shooting business a little bit:

[TB:]  Here’s the weird thing, to me, about BioShock. It draws in first-person-shooter nuts who love to electrocute people and set them on fire. It also draws in the disaffected philosophy PhD candidate and gives him something to think about while running amok. A belief of mine is that shooters are made for naughty children, and we all like to become naughty children sometimes. When a shooter can take that mischievous core impulse and enrich it with something that feels genuinely thoughtful, well, that’s lightning in a bottle, isn’t it?

[KL:] Look, I can’t say I’m a man of high taste. I’m a man of low taste. I like action movies and comic books — not that all comic books are of low taste. Not that all action movies are of low taste. I like things exploding. I like candy and cookies. I’m not a sophisticate in any way, shape, or form. My wife and I live the lives of 14-year-old kids; we just happen to be married and have enough disposable income that we don’t necessarily have a bedtime. If I could sit around and eat pizza and ice cream — and not fancy pizza — and watch Lord of the Rings and play video games, I’m a pretty happy guy.

Ken doesn’t quite answer the question, and even Tom’s question addresses the perception that I find somewhat troubling, which is that we should at least be grateful that Infinite is offering something more than just an opportunity to kill hundreds of things, even if killing hundreds of things is a vital, integral part of the experience.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find something else to do to fill in the time between story beats besides shooting a gun?

ch-ch-ch-changes; the first few hours of Far Cry 3

[Before I get into today’s post, I must link to this newly leaked footage of Ruffian’s cancelled Streets of Rage reboot.  Streets of Rage was one of my JAMS back in the Sega Genesis days; my brother and I played all 3 games for hours and hours and hours.  I’ve been wanting an HD remake for years, and Ruffian seemed like just the right developer to pull it off (even if Crackdown 2 was a shitshow), and so this is very much the epitome of a happy/sad thing.]

_____________________________

I’d be hard-pressed to explain just what’s happened to me over the last few weeks; it could be that the anxiety medications are finally kicking in, or it could be my shift from trepidation to acceptance and now genuine excitement about being a new father, or it could be the simple act of driving a car into New York City and thereby kicking a deeply-held fear square in the teeth.  I suppose it’s some combination of all of those things, but whatever it is, I’ve been feeling like a new, changed man.  And it feels good.

(It feels good even though I turn 37 on Saturday, which is a weird, crooked number that is much closer to 40 than I feel comfortable with.)

In terms of gaming, this feeling of change has manifested itself already, without me even realizing it.  For one thing, as my friend Gred correctly pointed out, I feel a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders now that I’ve given up on Assassin’s Creed 3.  Ever since I started this blog as my half-hearted attempt at breaking into professional game criticism,  I’ve felt compelled to play (and try to finish) as much as I can get my hands on, even if only so that I can be part of the conversation – even if that conversation is really just me listening to podcasts and reading smart people on Twitter.  The reality, of course, is that I am not a professional game critic, and I just don’t have the time to spend playing stuff I don’t enjoy just for the sake of being an observer of other people’s conversations.  And now that I can accept that, I kinda like it.

Continuing in that vein, I will not be playing Hitman: Absolution.  I’ve never been able to get into that franchise in previous entries, and their horrendously ill-conceived Facebook ad campaign (covered here with the usual great aplomb by Leigh Alexander) turned me off completely.  I don’t want anything to do with that game or that franchise ever again.

Switching back to the “changed-man” vein, I am playing Far Cry 3.  This is notable (for me, anyway) for three specific reasons:

  • I had absolutely no intention of ever playing this game until the reviews starting coming in;
  • I’m playing it on my PC, instead of the 360; and
  • I’m willingly playing a first-person shooter, even though I’ve been bitching endlessly about shooter fatigue.

And since I’m into bullet points today, I’ve chosen to play FC3 on my PC because, among other things:

  • my 360 has been making terrible sounds lately and I’d really like it to last until GTA5 (unless there’s a PC port; this also goes for Bioshock Infinite);
  • because I don’t want to kick my pregnant wife off the living room couch if she’s comfortable;
  • because the game probably looks better on my medium-grade PC than it would on my 360; and because… drumroll…. 
  • I kinda don’t give a shit about Achievements anymore.

As for the game itself… I’ve heard it described as “Skyrim in the jungle with guns”, and even though I’ve only played for an hour or so, I certainly can see how that description makes sense.  This is one of the most dynamic open worlds I’ve ever seen; things are happening around you constantly, and not just necessarily to you but to your enemies as well.  As an example, I was wandering around hunting for boar when a group of pirates happened to drive up and began attacking me; but then a pack of rabid dogs started attacking them, whereupon I just hung back, patched myself up, and made sure I was ready for whoever survived.  This was not a scripted sequence – this is just something that happened.

And even though I only played for a short time, my shooter fatigue never kicked in.  This is partially because the game is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s really easy to get lost in the scenery.  It’s also partially because there is SO MUCH TO DO.  It’s not just shooting enemies; it’s hunting animals and gathering plants, and about using the materials you get in those hunts and gatherings to craft materials that you absolutely need in order to survive.  There are radio towers you must ascend and disable – which, as in Assassin’s Creed, opens up an area of the world map.  There are pirate outposts you must reclaim for the natives, which turn into fast-travel points.  There are these Trials, which are essentially shooting gallery mini-games, which reward you with points and XP.  Yes, there’s XP – this is just as much an RPG as it is a shooter, with skill trees and abilities and such.

I can only give the game two knocks thus far.  The first is that the main bad guy’s name is alarmingly close to my own last name – they’re not spelled the same, but they’re pronounced almost identically, and he’s a scary motherfucker, and more than a little intimidating.  (The opening sequence of FC3 is absolutely outstanding, and the bad guy’s performance is a particular stand-out.)  The second, more problematic issue is that the game’s display never shuts up.  The game is constantly reminding you of your primary objective, even if you’re deliberately doing a side objective; it is also constantly telling you every time it updates its in-game encyclopedia/codex/whatever, which is unnecessary and annoying and requires too many button presses to get rid of.  This can be frustrating, in that the developers have crafted this amazing, immaculate world for you to explore, which you are constantly being interrupted from exploring.  They won’t just let you be.  Granted, there are wild animals and forest fires and pirates pretty much everywhere, so it’s not like you’d ever truly be at peace in the world – but at least you can be immersed in that experience without constantly being reminded that there’s other stuff you need to be doing.

 

weekend recap: many dead things

I probably added around 12-15 hours to my Borderlands 2 campaign after Saturday’s post.  I have a lot more to say about it.  But before I do, there’s a couple other things to talk about:

– Firstly, one can’t talk about cel-shaded graphics without talking about Jet Set Radio, and when I needed a break from Borderlands 2 this weekend I remembered that I’d downloaded the XBL demo of Jet Set Radio HD.  I’m thrilled that a lot of beloved old games are getting HD remasters, but I’m also noticing a recurring problem – the games always played better in my memories than in my hands.   (The Tony Hawk HD thing from earlier this summer also comes to mind.)  JSR looks absolutely fantastic – after all these years, that art style is still brilliant – but it also feels incredibly stiff in my hands, and I found myself making the exact same mistakes in maneuvering that I did 10 years ago (or however long ago it was).  That being said, I still love the HD remastering treatment, and I can’t say it enough – I would LOVE to see a Skies of Arcadia remaster.  FACT:  JRPGs don’t have the same control problems that 3D action games do.  Let’s make this happen!

– Speaking of demos, I also played a tiny taste of the demo for Resident Evil 6.  There are three different chapters in the demo, and I played around 10 minutes of the first one on the list.  (I’m not a big enough fan of the franchise to really care about it one way or the other; I’m well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that thinks that RE5 is a much better game than RE4.)  So, the biggest thing, obviously, is that you can move while aiming!  Welcome to 2012!  And yet, it’s still incredibly awkward-looking!  I sometimes feel that the developers of these Japanese mega-franchises – RE, MGS, FF, etc. – live in a hermetically-sealed bubble, unaware of the advancements in animation, storytelling, and general gameplay conventions that have transpired over the last 20 years.  I appreciate their slavish devotion to keeping each game true to its roots, but, I mean, Jesus Christ.  Have they never seen people walking around and carrying guns in other games or films or TV shows?   Besides that, it should also be noted that the graphics look a little rough – RE6 is nowhere near as nice and clean and crisp as RE5, though this may be because the demo is an early build.  In any event, I didn’t really have RE6 very high on my priority list, and this demo didn’t really do anything to change that.  It’s still on the GameFly queue, for whatever that’s worth.

– At some point this weekend I received an email that included a code for the first DLC for Darksiders 2 – Argul’s Tomb.  As much as I love that game, I’ve gotta say that this little self-contained mini-adventure was a little… meh, actually.  I hate using that word unless I have to, but that’s pretty much the best way of putting it.  It’s around 2 hours long, there’s no achievements, it’s very combat heavy, and none of the loot I picked up was particularly good.  It’s free, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

– I am an idiot.  I wanted to try out Steam’s Big Picture Mode on my HDTV this weekend, but it wasn’t until I’d moved everything around that I realized that my PC didn’t have an HDMI out, and that I didn’t have an adapter.  Oh well.

– It’s just as well, anyway, because had I gotten it to work, I would’ve ended up playing Torchlight 2, but with a keyboard and mouse on my couch, which would be weird.  I did spend 5 minutes with T2, actually, but the honest truth is that I think I’m still recovering from my Diablo 3 overdose, and left- and right-clicking for hours and hours just doesn’t seem all that enticing.  I will get to it eventually, though.

_________________________

OK.  Let’s get back to Borderlands 2.  I’m now around 24 hours in, and my commando is probably level 23 or 24.  (I really ought to write that stuff down before I begin a post.)

For the first dozen hours or so, I only had around 3-4 quests in my to-do list at a time – a main story quest, and then some optional side stuff.  Then a major story event happened (you’ll know it when you see it), and when I shook the dust off and got back to the main city, I’d found that the game suddenly opened wide up, and 20 new side-quests appeared in my quest log.  And so, now, I’m tackling all the side stuff, because the side stuff is, quite frequently, absolutely brilliant.

I have come to appreciate that the game does not take itself seriously.  At first, a lot of the dialogue came off as silly and adolescent (there literally is a “Bonerfart” joke – or is it “Fartboner”?) but as I’ve delved deeper into the side quests and gotten to know the characters a bit more thoroughly, I’ve seen that the game’s got some serious depth in its writing – even if, as I said on Saturday, the overall narrative lacks any real weight.  There are 2 moments that stand out in particular, and I’ll try to keep them spoiler-free (while at least alerting you as to where they are):

1.  Mission:  The Overlooked: “This Is Only A Test.”   The end of this mission was the first time that I’ve literally laughed out loud during a game since Portal 2, probably.  It’s a totally unexpected, expertly delivered, and deeply satisfying punchline, all of which comes after a very tough firefight and (at least for me) a reluctance to even do the thing I was asked to do, being that I didn’t think it was going to work.  (Fuckin’ Dave.)

2.  I can’t remember the mission name, but it was a side mission I was doing in the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve, which ultimately resulted in discovering the true nature of the relationship between Tiny Tina and Flesh-Stick (two characters that I’d met under completely different circumstances, 10 hours previously).  I normally hate how games use tape recordings to tell stories – it feels lazy and contrived and has become almost as ubiquitous as crates – but in this particular case the final reveal was shocking and very, very dark, and when I think about it now I’m not sure there’s a better way to tell that particular story.  Especially since there was no real reason to even include it, and especially since I very nearly walked right over it without even knowing it was there.  This made its discovery hit surprisingly hard, and caused me to think about my last interaction with those two characters in a much different light.   (It called to mind a similar hidden, optional thing I discovered in Psychonauts – during Milla’s psychedelic training level, there’s a hidden room where you discover a rather horrible truth about Milla’s past.  It’s a moment that rings true, though – it’s not manipulative or hollow – and so it carries a great weight.)

*    *    *

I find that even as I’ve improved a great many of my skills (including dramatic (and very necessary) reductions in my reloading time), I still get fatigued with the game’s core action.  This is not the game’s fault, of course – I’ve had a long-standing fatigue problem with the entire shooter genre, and it’s a tribute to everything else that Borderlands 2 does so well that I’m still as heavily invested in the game as I am.  I have no problem fighting my way to an objective, but once I’m done, I run like hell all the way back – I’ll throw down a turret if I have to, to thin out the crowd, but my overriding attitude is “fuck it, I’m done shooting.”  I’ve killed so many goddamned things already, and I’m not even sure that I’m halfway through the game, which makes me shudder at the thought of how many more goddamned things I have to kill.   (Especially if there are Threshers.  Oh, how I hate threshers.  Relentless bullet-sponging bastards, all of them.)

It would be nice if there were other things to do besides shooting, I guess.  (Well, there is a quasi-murder mystery in Sanctuary, but it plays out quite a bit differently than the one in Skyrim.)  I’m not saying this game needs box-pushing puzzles or crafting or anything, and I know I’ve not even come close to seeing everything there is to see and so it’s entirely possible that I’ll run into something that doesn’t involve heavy pressings of the trigger buttons over extended periods of time.   But.  The game’s relentless action can be a bit exhausting, is all I’m saying.

further adventures in Amalur

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and my hand-eye coordination isn’t what it used to be, or if it’s that I just don’t have the enduring patience that I used to have, but I’m finding that I’m no longer compelled to finish games that I’m not enjoying.  I used to be obsessive about this, spending hours and hours playing games that had stopped being fun shortly after the opening cut-scene, just so that I could get Achievements, or just to have said that I’d finished it, or (worst of all) because there wasn’t anything else I felt like doing.

Whatever the reason, I’m most likely done with both Final Fantasy XIII-2 and The Darkness 2.  I’d already put some quality time into FFXIII-2, and even sorta enjoyed myself in spite of its ridiculousness, and so I don’t feel badly about giving up on it.  (I’d put it down a week or two ago; my current quest involved me going to previous areas and looking for hidden objects, which didn’t sound terribly compelling, especially since I couldn’t explain why.)  As for the Darkness 2, well, I think it’s just straight-up shooter fatigue.  The art style is really remarkable, the story was moving in an interesting direction, and it puts enough of a spin on traditional shooter mechanics to make it compelling, but at the end of the day I’m still just shooting monsters in dark corridors, and I’ve done that before.

And so it happened that I was home sick yesterday, which was as good a time as any to devote some serious time into Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is yet another game that I’d been having a tough time sticking with.  As noted a few entries ago, I’d dabbled in it for a few hours, but there wasn’t really anything terribly compelling about it, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed in it, considering the named creative talent on the box.

I’m now around 15 hours in, and my dude is somewhere around level 18 or 19 or something.  (I can’t remember; it doesn’t matter.)

I will concede that the game does have some addictive qualities – this is certainly one of the best combat systems in an action RPG that I’ve ever played – and there’s lots and lots of loot, and the crafting systems (of which there are many) yield some pretty kick-ass rewards (i.e., almost everything I’m currently wearing/wielding is something I made, salvaged from stuff I picked up along the way).

Addictive though it may be, it’s still serving something that feels, for the most part, inconsequential and derivative.  The game’s outdoor environments are nicely varied (and are pleasantly reminiscent of Fable)*, but the indoor environments are just as reused and revisited as those in Dragon Age 2, which is saying something indeed.   The voice acting is fine, but the script is dull and charmless, and I am constantly skipping over conversations because they never, ever matter.  The quests themselves are pretty much all of the fetch variety, anyway.  I’m not playing the game for the story, in other words – I’m playing because the combat is fun and I get lots of treats.

In any event, this is probably all moot, as 2012’s first must-play just arrived at my desk.  I don’t know how much SSX I’ll get into tonight (as my wife and I are going to try and finish the last few episodes of Mad Men), but that’ll be occupying the majority of my playtime for the foreseeable future – at least until Mass Effect 3 shows up.

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*  Before I turned the game off last night I entered a totally different environment, one which had a lot more in common with Road Runner cartoons and the Mexico of Red Dead Redemption than the foresty areas of Fable.  So that’s something to look forward to, I suppose.

The Year In Games – 2011

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole on occasion, but I really did think that 2011 would go down as one of the best years of all time.  Last December, I did my usual Lust List and my predicted top 5 looked like a Murderer’s Row of kick-ass:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Portal 2
  • Skyrim
  • Batman
  • Mass Effect 3

Now, as it happens, that Top 5 isn’t totally off the mark.  While it’s true that Mass Effect 3 ended up moving to 2012, those other 4 wound up in my Top 10.  That being said, when I look over the year now, I think it’s clear that this was not the mega-fantastic year that I thought it’d be.  Truth is, we’re near the end of this console cycle, and so developers are reluctant to do anything terribly risky.  (Exhibit A – 8 of my Top 10 games are sequels.)  Graphics have improved, certainly, but there’s only so much more that developers can do in that regard.   Frankly, I spent far more time whining this year about how nothing was coming out than I did praising all the good stuff that I was enjoying.  And I developed shooter fatigue in a big, big way.  Still, all things being equal, this was a pretty solid year.  The big blockbusters delivered, more or less, and pretty much everything I played this year had something worth experiencing.

As for the nitty gritty:

I used to start these year-end recaps with a count of all the games I played.   Last year that count went a bit askew, because I’d included iPhone games in the total.  Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that despite my OCD tendencies when it comes to keeping track of this stuff, I kinda went a little bananas with iPhone games this year.  And I should also say that Steam killed me this year; I bought way too many games for my PC because of rampant Steam sales, and I hardly played any of them.  (Furthermore, a lot of those Steam games were games I’d already played on consoles.  I am a whore.)

So I think it’s more accurate to look at the games that I actually sat down and played, like, for real.  This isn’t to discount the iPhone as a platform, though.  In fact, fuck it – let’s just get to the iPhone section.

The biggest thing I came away with, when reviewing 2011, is that I clearly do not have any need for a 3DS or a Vita.  I am done with Mario and Zelda, for one thing, and there’s no indication that Nintendo is interested in moving beyond their core IP, ever.  And anyone who bought a 3DS in its current form is a sucker, regardless of the insane price cut Nintendo was forced to apply; everyone knows that v.2 is coming next year with a 2nd analog stick.  (Is there any compelling software yet, though?  That doesn’t have Zelda or Mario in the title, I mean?  No?  OK.)  The Vita is a bit more intriguing, certainly, but since it isn’t a phone or a tablet, it’s 100% dependent on killer software, and I just don’t know if the killer software will ever show up – it certainly didn’t for the PSP.

Meanwhile, the iPhone continues to be the coolest gadget I’ve ever owned, and I am totally OK with it being my handheld gaming device.  I’ve grown accustomed to being able to listen to music or podcasts while I mess around with a game.  And I’ve gotten really accustomed to paying $1-3 for an engrossing experience, and splurging for Infinity Blade 2 at, like, $7 is worth it.  The fact that I’ve currently got a nice-looking, playable port of GTA3 in my pocket is awesome.

So, yeah, OK, let’s do my iPhone GAME OF THE YEAR:  I am still obsessed with Tiny Tower, as it is a remarkable outlet for my aforementioned OCD tendencies, but the game that I enjoyed the most is probably Jetpack Joyride, the best iteration of the popular “non-stop runner genre” on the iOS platform.   (Surely there’s a better name for it than that?)  The objective is still, generally, to keep moving while avoiding obstacles, but there are also numerous sub-objectives that constantly shift how you play – whether it’s high-fiving scientists, or rubbing your head on the ceiling, or reaching a certain distance without picking up any coins.  It’s got a great sense of humor and whimsy, and Halfbrick has been great about providing a steady stream of updates to keep the game fresh.

Honorable Mention:

  • Sword & Sworcery
  • Quarrel
  • Slam Dunk King
  • Tiny Tower
  • Infinity Blade 2

OK, as for the consoles.  I played around 55 games or so, spread around the Xbox360, PS3 and PC.   (As noted above, I bought a lot of games through Steam’s numerous sales, but I’d either (a) already played them on consoles, or (b) didn’t really spend more than 30 seconds with them, and so I’m not really counting those.)

I “finished” 22 games this year, although this list is in no particular order:

  1. ICO
  2. Portal 2
  3. L.A. Noire
  4. Batman Arkham City
  5. Deus Ex: HR
  6. Mortal Kombat
  7. Stacking
  8. Bastion
  9. Dead Space 2
  10. Bulletstorm
  11. Dragon Age 2
  12. Gears of War 3
  13. Uncharted 3
  14. Modern Warfare 3
  15. Little Big Planet 2
  16. LEGO Pirates of the Carribbean
  17. Resistance 3
  18. Rage
  19. Killzone 3
  20. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
  21. Infamous 2
  22. LOTR: War in the North

GAMERSCORE:  I started 2011 at 64607.  I will most likely finish it at around 77200, depending on how Achievement-hungry I get in Skyrim.   Speaking of Achievements:

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT:  This is silly, but I have to give this to Rock Band 3, “Well Connected.”  All I did was link my virtual band to the Harmonix website, which netted me 6 points; more importantly, it got my total Achievement score back to 0s and 5s.  This had been driving me crazy for years, people.  I’ve stopped being so insane about chasing Achievements, but it’s very, very nice to have round numbers in my life again.  And speaking of numbers:

BEST GAME WITH A 3 IN THE TITLE:  (Apologies to Tim Rogers and this Kotaku feature.)  Certainly didn’t think this is the way it would go down at the beginning of the year, but I have to give it to Saints Row the Third, and it’s not even all that close, surprisingly enough.  I’ll have more to say about Saints Row a little later on, but for now it’s fair to say that this franchise should be Exhibit A when it comes to the right way to develop sequels.  Each game has been markedly better than the last, while still keeping the series’ roots intact.  And considering what the “roots” of this series are – i.e., being as completely insane as possible – it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

Honorable Mention:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Dirt 3
  • Gears of War 3
  • Modern Warfare 3
  • Killzone 3
  • Resistance 3
  • Serious Sam 3

RANDOM OBSESSION:  I got fiercely addicted to Plants v. Zombies over the summer, and I played it on pretty much every platform it’s available for.  No idea why, actually – that game is (1) old, and (2) stresses me out.

DID NOT FINISH, WOULD LIKE TO FINISH SOMEDAY:  There’s no excuse for me not having finished Trenched / Iron Brigade.  I was having a blast with that when it came out – some of the most fun co-op I’ve ever had.

Honorable Mention:

  • Driver: SF
  • Yakuza 4
  • Serious Sam 3

DID NOT FINISH, COULDN’T GET INTO (BUT STILL RESPECT):   Quite a few of these, actually, but the winner is The Witcher 2.  Enough people gushed about this to make me feel guilty for giving up on it.  I tried it both pre- and post-patch, and while I appreciated the patch’s new tutorial, I still had a hard time getting sucked in.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and I can see why people love it, though.)   I also really feel bad about not getting into Dark Souls, and every time Amazon’s had it on sale lately (which is a lot), I keep thinking about splurging for it.

Honorable Mention:

  • Dead Island
  • Dark Souls
  • Shadows of the Damned

DID NOT FINISH, DO NOT WANT TO FINISH:  The winner of this category immediately follows the runners-up.

  • Crysis 2
  • Alice: Madness Returns
  • Burnout: Crash

WORST GAME / MOST DISAPPOINTING GAME:   I feel bad just admitting that I bought it, frankly.  But I was home, sick, and Duke Nukem Forever had finally launched on Steam, and in my delirious state I went against my better judgment (and all the advance reviews).   I had been a huge Duke 3D fan back in the day, and ultimately that won out.  What a huge piece of shit this turned out to be.  Let’s move on.

THE 5-MINUTES-OR-LESS ALL-STARS:  You know how you can just tell that a game isn’t for you, right from the beginning?  Yeah, there were a few of those.

  • Shift 2 Unleashed
  • Dungeon Siege 3
  • Metal Gear Solid HD.  I’m just not sure I’m ever going to get what’s so great about this franchise.

DID NOT PLAY:

  • NBA2K12
  • Need for Speed: The Run
  • Battlefield 3
  • Zelda
  • Minecraft
  • Catherine
  • Halo Anniversary
  • Once Upon a Monster
  • Nintendo 3DS

OK, let’s move on to the good stuff.

BEST NEW IP:  There really wasn’t much to choose from, actually, which is sad.  That being said, while it had its fair share of problems, I really enjoyed L.A. Noire.  That facial tech is pretty extraordinary, and Team Bondi did a pretty spectacular job at recreating post-war Los Angeles.  (It’s a shame that there wasn’t all that much to do in it, but it was really nice to explore just the same.)  I think Rockstar could clean it up a bit and put out one hell of a sequel, the way they did with Red Dead Redemption.

Honorable Mention:

  • Bastion
  • Bulletstorm
  • Rage
  • Dead Island

BEST SOUNDTRACK:  I don’t know if it’s because I’m a composer and am therefore inherently snobby, but I generally don’t really pay that much attention to soundtracks – be it game or movie or what-have-you.  There’s only been two times where I’ve seen a movie and needed the soundtrack as soon as I walked out of the theater (Rushmore and Ocean’s 11), and it’s never happened for a game.  That is, until this year.  Surprisingly enough, the game in question is an iPhone game.  I never did end up finishing Sword & Sworcery, but I fell in love with the soundtrack immediately, and bought it on iTunes (where it actually costs more than the game, I think – and it’s worth every penny).

Honorable Mention:

  • Rayman Origins
  • L.A. Noire

BEST TREND:  This isn’t necessarily a 2012 thing, but we saw lots of HD remakes of classic games, and I’m all for it.

BEST HD REMAKE:  Alternately, this is the Most Anticipated HD Remake:  Ico/Shadow of the Colossus.  And I haven’t even finished Shadow yet!  That said, it was really nice to finally experience some of the most talked-about games ever made.  Definitely on board for The Last Guardian now.

Honorable Mention:

  • Beyond Good & Evil HD
  • Metal Gear Solid HD

GAMES I’D LIKE TO SEE GET THE HD REMAKE TREATMENT:  I know this isn’t strictly a 2011 category, but while we’re on the topic, a boy can dream:

  • Skies of Arcadia
  • Grim Fandango
  • Rayman 2
  • Crash Bandicoot 1-3 / Crash Team Racing

GAMES THAT ARE GETTING THE HD REMAKE TREATMENT IN 2012 (that I’m aware of, and that I’m totally psyched about):

  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater (sort of)
  • Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee / Exoddus  (judging from the Stranger’s Wrath screenshots, these games should look fantastic)
  • Rayman 3
  • Final Fantasy X

MOST-PLAYED 2010 GAME:  Pinball FX2, whose steady stream of quality DLC kept it in my rotation for pretty much the whole year.

MOST FORGETTABLE:  This was a pretty dismal year in terms of quality driving games, and so I give this out to both  Motorstorm Apocalypse and Test Drive Unlimited 2, both of which were also quite terrible.

MOST OVERLOOKED:  I’d never played the first two Resistance games, but I ended up trying Resistance 3, and it was really, really good.  Certainly one of the best weapon arsenals I’ve ever messed around with, and the leveling up system was smart and well-implemented – it encouraged you to play with everything.  (Unlike Gears of War 3, where I used the Lancer from start to finish.)

MOST OVERRATED:  I’m not sure there’s a game that came out this year that was truly “overrated”, as I tended to agree with the general critical reception of any particular game.  If I had to award this to anything, I’d probably give it to Crysis 2, which got so incredibly stupid towards the end that I started getting angry.  It featured some of the worst  dialogue I’ve ever heard, and in service of a nonsensical story.  It looked great, sure, but there’s only so much stupid I can take.  I know that creating an engaging narrative is not necessarily priority #1 in today’s games, but this was just ridiculous.

THE “SACRED 2” AWARD FOR MOST TIME SPENT PLAYING A GAME THAT I ACTIVELY DISLIKED:  I didn’t hate it the way I hated Sacred 2, but I only played Lord of the Rings: War In the North to completion because I was home sick for two days with nothing to do.  And boy, that’s a lot of time that I’m never going to get back.

THE BEST ARGUMENT BOTH FOR / AGAINST USING HEAVY DRUGS DURING THE CREATIVE PROCESS:  The Japanese are weird.  And Shadows of the Damned is fucking weird.  And I don’t do drugs anymore, and so I’m not sure I’m ever going to understand what all the fuss was about.  Still, it’s hard to deny that there was a pretty fierce vision behind this one.

BEST IMPLEMENTATION OF A “SEASON PASS”:  The Season Pass is a somewhat controversial topic these days, but when it’s done right, it’s a thing of beauty.  The Season Pass attached to L.A. Noire was worth every penny; it kept me engaged in that game for months after its release.  Sure, it felt like the cases were “deleted scenes” from the game proper, but it was still fun to play.

BEST SYNERGY BETWEEN WRITER, PERFORMER AND ANIMATOR:  This is a complicated way of saying that while Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley in Portal 2 was perhaps the greatest voice performance I’ve ever heard in a game, credit must also go to the incredible dialogue and the remarkably humanizing animation, considering that Wheatley is a talking sphere.  Apologies to the cast and crew of Uncharted 3, but holy shit.

BEST GRAPHICS:  If I’m being honest, there was a lot more to Rage than a killer graphics engine; it did fall apart in the end, but for the most part it was a really enjoyable experience.  But WOWEE ZOWEE, I didn’t know my Xbox could look that good.   (As noted above, I didn’t play Battlefield 3, so, you know.)

Honorable Mention:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Skyrim (kinda)
  • Rayman Origins

I WISH I DIDN’T SUCK AT FIGHTING GAMES:  I did eventually finish Mortal Kombat, but only on the lowest difficulty setting.  Clearly, that’s one of the most complete packages ever released, and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you probably already know that.

DEVELOPER OF THE YEAR:  You know how happy it makes me to give this award to DoubleFine?  So happy.  It looks like they’ve finally found their niche, with these delightful downloadable titles.  2010’s Costume Quest, Stacking and Trenched – er, Iron Brigade – were all wildly different from each other, and all had a ton of charm and were fun as hell to play.  All were memorable, distinctive, and unique.  And I would’ve played the Sesame Street game if I had a kid.  (Still might, eventually.)

OK, let’s do this.

GAME OF THE YEAR, Honorable Mentions.

  • You Don’t Know Jack
  • Dragon Age 2
  • Resistance 3
  • Killzone 3
  • Little Big Planet 2
  • Dead Space 2

10.  Bulletstorm.  I said before that I experienced some serious shooter fatigue this year.  That certainly wasn’t Bulletstorm’s fault, which did every goddamned thing it could do to stay interesting and distinctive.  And colorful!  Who knew that it was still possible to have colors other than brown and gray in a shooter!

9.  Gears of War 3.  It’s the best Gears game yet, despite that ridiculous football fantasy sequence.  I didn’t spend enough time with the online stuff as I suppose I should’ve, but the end of the year sorta got away with me.

8.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I had such low expectations for this, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to see that this wasn’t a total piece of shit.  Indeed, it totally wiped away the sour taste that was still lingering after all this time from Deus Ex 2.  Even though the bosses were kinda shitty, and even though the ending was only rivaled by Rage in terms of least amount of effort applied, this was a great game, and I do plan on playing it again eventually.

7.  Uncharted 3.  OK, the combat grew tedious and tiresome.  OK, the “story” was just something they patched up after they came up with their setpieces.  OK, the spiders didn’t make any sense.   Still, the things that this game does right, it does better than anyone else.  I still prefer Uncharted 2, but this was not too shabby.

6.  Bastion.  Seems like every year there’s an XBLA darling that makes an appearance on my list, and Bastion is a worthy entrant.  Remarkable music, gorgeous art direction, simple and intuitive gameplay, and a compelling story.

5.  L.A. Noire.  Everything I said earlier applies here.  But I was also pleased to see that they implemented Red Dead’s combat system (to the extent they could), which means that it’ll most likely appear in GTA5, which is good news for everybody.

4. Batman: Arkham City.  What was nice about the first game was that it left me wanting more.  Arkham City gave me so much more that I felt a little overstuffed, frankly.  But that’s hardly enough reason to complain.  It’s still the best melee combat system in the business.  The side missions were a great diversion.  And I was totally hooked by the story – and that ending!

3.  Saints Row The Third.  You can’t talk about Saints Row without talking about GTA, but it’s really nice to see that Saints Row has truly embraced its own thing.  The game is completely insane, and it’s also really well made.  I wouldn’t mind seeing GTA borrow some of its innovations – like the new GPS system, which keeps my eyes focused ahead instead of in the corner, trying to make sense of a tiny map.  It’s not an open world – it’s a sandbox, through and through, and they give you so many toys to play with that they’re almost daring you to get bored.

2.  Skyrim.  According to my profile at raptr.com, I’m 55 hours in.  Some of that is from extended pauses, but still – that’s definitely the most I’ve spent with any game this year.  And I only hit level 30 last night.  There is SO MUCH MORE TO DO.  I could see this game taking me straight through to February.

1.  Portal 2.  This is my friend (and sometime SFTC contributor) Gred, who says it better than I ever could:

When I think about the “best” games of the generation, the thing about Portal (and Portal 2) that I keep coming back to is that I cannot honestly think of a way the games could be better, that they could execute better on what they are trying to do.  Furthermore, they are doing plenty of new and ambitious stuff.  So it’s not simply a matter of executing a genre game perfectly, it’s a matter of inventing a genre, and then executing it perfectly.

Skyrim is excellent.  But ultimately I feel like its existence was inevitable.  It is the living D&D video game you pictured as a kid in the far-off future.  It is a bigger and better Oblivion.  It is still unique, because no one has dared to try this on anything approaching the scale Bethesda has tackled here.  But Bethesda or not, there would have been a Skyrimish game eventually.  Maybe not this generation, maybe not this good, but its newness derives mostly from its insane scope (including its wonderfully deep ecosystem and all its component moving parts).  True, that lends itself to insanely varied and complex gameplay experiences, while Portal will play much the same for everyone.  But the existence of Portal, to me, is a gift in a way that the existence of Skyrim, while very, very welcome, was a matter of time.

Thanks for reading, everybody.