The Year (So Far) In Games

A bunch of sites have been putting up “Best Games of the Half-Year” posts this week, and I was tempted to follow suit, but after looking at my Games Played spreadsheet I found myself wondering how I could spin Wolfenstein: The New Order and South Park: The Stick of Truth into 800 words; it’s just not happening.  Those are two surprisingly terrific games, and they’ll most likely end up in my year-end list, and you should play them if you haven’t already.  Beyond that, it’s a bit of a reach.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call the first half of 2014 a disappointment; I expected this transition period between last-gen and current-gen to be a little weird and underwhelming.  That being said, a lot of the year’s biggest-hyped games fell relatively flat for me.  I was certainly impressed with the tech in Infamous: Second Son, but I hardly gave it a second thought after easily getting to 100% completion.  Similarly, there are certainly quite a few things to like about Watch Dogs, but if I think about that game for more than 5 seconds I get irrationally angry.  And Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is what it is, I guess, though I haven’t felt compelled to pick it back up since I finished it the first time.

I could continue on in this vein – there’s plenty of bummers on my Games Played spreadsheet (*cough* Thief *cough* Mario Golf World Tour *cough*) – but I’d prefer to keep the rest of this somewhat positive.

Jazzpunk!  That’s a spicy meatball if there ever was one.

I enjoyed playing Tomb Raider again on the PS4 and my HDTV, although I suppose its retail success is partially to blame for the HD double-dips that are in our immediate future as we wait for the real next-gen stuff to appear, i.e.The Last of UsGTA VDiablo III, to name a few off the top of my head.  And I’m planning on at least renting all of those games, too, so I suppose I’m partially to blame as well.

Speaking of Diablo III, I suppose I should heap a little bit of praise on its Reaper of Souls DLC and the additional patching that game’s received in the year since I last turned it on; the DLC managed to suck another dozen hours of my life after I’d sworn I was finished with it forever, and the daily missions and objectives are an intriguing carrot that I still consider chasing after.

I really enjoyed Bravely Default right up until I realized that I was going to have to play the entire game a second time; and then I read some walkthroughs that revealed that I’d actually have to play the whole thing 3-4 times before getting to the final ending.  This will not do.

What else, what else… I’ve not yet had that much time to actually play anything in depth on my PS Vita, and yet I keep downloading free games on it.  I’m very happy to finally own it, though.  The port of Fez is great – I just love having it in portable form – and Luftrausers is excellent and I need to get back to it, and Olli Olli hurts my brain but is also really good.

I was also going to include my favorite bits of gaming journalism and criticism, but it’s a gigantic list so far, and it’s also full of rather depressing stories of how toxic this industry is.  Still, if you’d like to check it out, I’ve made it publicly available as a Google Doc.

This weekend I’ll be away with the family, so I’m not sure what gaming there’ll be.  I’m currently playing A Story About My Uncle, which is both exhilarating and frustrating, sometimes simultaneously; I’d like to try and finish it tonight, since I’m not taking my PC with me.  I picked up Civ Rev 2 for my iPhone this morning; it’s not quite as graphically interesting as the 360 version from a few years back, but it’s leaps and bounds better-looking than the previous iOS version, and the touch controls are a lot more intuitive.  I’m still way over my head most of the time, but such is life.  And I guess I’ll bring the Vita along, too, and maybe keep plugging away at Tearaway and also perhaps one of the 6 Final Fantasy games I’ve got on there.  (The voting was inconclusive.  I might go with 8 or 9, since I’ve never touched those before.)

Have a happy and safe 4th, everyone.

weekend recap: slings and arrows and farts

It’s not an iron-clad rule, but I generally prefer to avoid prefacing my entries here with personal asides.  It’s just that as far as Monday mornings go, this one has been particularly stressful and exhausting and miserable, and as I write this it’s not even lunchtime.  Can’t really say much more than that, unfortunately; I’m writing this mostly as a way of finding some zen within the chaos.

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Today’s must-read:  Russ Pitts on engaging with trolls.   This is, coincidentally enough, related to the link I posted a week or two ago which mocked that same troll.

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I finished South Park: The Stick of Truth late Friday night.  It’s a hell of a game, regardless of the level of your South Park fandom.  As I said the other day, I’d hardly call myself a huge fan – it’s been years since I watched the show on a regular basis – but I’m a fan in my heart, and I consider the movie one of the funniest movies ever made.  I say this so that you understand that even if I didn’t catch every single reference, I didn’t have to in order to enjoy the experience.  This is about as perfect a South Park game as one could reasonably hope for; the game is wickedly funny, and yet also a tremendous amount of fun to play and engage with.  

I finished the game in a little over 12 hours; I did nearly every side quest I could find, I hit the level cap quite easily, and I never stopped enjoying myself.  

That being said, it’s the sort of game that I can’t really see myself playing ever again.  Unlike, say, Skyrim – which SPSoT takes certain inspirations from – this game is fairly linear, and while there’s a lot to explore there aren’t necessarily any rabbit holes to fall into that you can’t quickly back out of.  I suppose playing as a different class might yield some slightly different jokes, but the overall experience would still be more or less identical.  It’s rare that I’d call a great game a “rental”, but there it is.

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Every once in a while I cross-post something here over at Kotaku’s TAY forum.  On a whim, I decided to cross-post the thing I wrote about political agendas and bad stomachs over there, and it got a pretty nice response and generated some healthy dialogue in the comments.

One of the comment threads – from someone who disagreed with my premise and said, in no uncertain terms, that they did NOT want to play any game with a political agenda, even if it was something they agreed with – caused me to eventually copy/paste from this excellent Believer interview with Harold Ramis, which I’d previously linked to on my tumblr.  I’m pasting the whole thing below, because it’s worth repeating.  (bolded text added for emphasis)

From The Believer:  http://www.believermag.com/issues/200603/?read=interview_ramis

BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.

HR: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons.What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”

BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?

HR: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head? Or people’ll say that they don’t want to see any negative emotions. They don’t want to see unpleasantness. I did a comedy with Al Franken about his character Stuart Smalley, which was really about alcoholism and addiction and codependency. It had some painful stuff in it. When we showed it to focus groups, some of them actually said, “If I want to see a dysfunctional family, I’ll stay home.”

BLVR: Wow. I guess audiences just want more movies about stoned teenagers trying to find their cars.

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I came this close to sending Dark Souls II back in the mail this morning.  I played for about 30 minutes on Saturday night; I died 3 times, and each of those deaths felt cheap.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of ultra-difficult games, but I’m willing to engage with them if there’s enough people who convince me to at least try them out, and the thing that nearly everybody says is that while these games are hard, they’re almost never unfair.  Well, my three deaths were absolutely unfair, and they pissed me off, and instead of feeling challenged I felt taken advantage of.  

BUT.  

Because my rental copy of Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes won’t arrive until Thursday at the earliest (and which I’m pretty “meh” about anyway), and because my digitally pre-ordered copy of Infamous Second Sons won’t be unlocked until Friday, I’m feeling like maybe I should try giving Dark Souls II one more shot, from scratch, and see if maybe I can dig a little deeper and try to get past what was pissing me off so much.  My hopes aren’t high, mind you; it’s just that I’ve got nothing else going on, game-wise, and so I might as well see if I can approach it from a slightly different angle.

 

On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

[Note:  This post may get a bit rambly.  I’m on some new medications and they make me a little drowsy/loopy.]

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

An example of obliviousness: on a recent piece I wrote for work in which I praised a game for the monumental act of simply portraying a relationship between women who aren’t presented as sex objects and who matter as individuals, in and of themselves and because of what they mean to each other and not just in relation to a male figure, one commenter said that games should be something we do to escape from such political agendas.

The subtle irony here is that the act of being willfully ignorant and keeping one’s mind closed is also an agenda, whether that person wants to admit it or not.  I haven’t actually played the Last of Us DLC that Caro is referencing, but my understanding of it is simply what Caro says it is – the player isn’t beaten over the head with this relationship, it simply is, and it’s entirely possible that the commenter might not even have noticed it until it was pointed out to them.  Or, alternately, now that it has been pointed out, the   commenter will refuse to play it on some bizarre “principle”, and thus a new cycle of willful ignorance will begin.

Moreover, the idea that games shouldn’t be about anything beyond shooting things is profoundly sad to me.  Frankly, one of the reasons why I’ve been sour on games lately is precisely because of the amount of virtual murder I have to commit in order to have the story play out.  I like to rag on Uncharted, another of Naughty Dog’s franchises, specifically because of all the murder I have to commit; and yet in Bravely Default, I’ve probably killed at least twice as many monsters as I did in Uncharted 3 and I’m only a third of the way through it.

TANGENT:  Speaking of which, I’ve more or less given up on Bravely Default.  I can’t remember if I mentioned that or not, but whatever.  My worst fear did in fact come to light; after clearing the map and awakening all 4 crystals, an unexplained event “reset” the game world and now I have to do the whole goddamned thing again, and I really don’t care to anymore.  I had fun enough the first time around, but I’ve got better things to do than retrace my footsteps.

TANGENT:  And speaking of giving up on things, I sent back Thief this morning, after finishing the insane asylum mission last night.  Insane asylums are as obvious a trope as anything in videogames, but it’s doubly bizarre here because for the first 90% of the mission, you’re the only person in the building.  The game actually does create a palpable atmosphere of dread, except there’s nothing chasing you, and nobody’s looking for you, and so the tension eventually fades.  But then, at the end, the game pulls a series of left turns that render the narrative – which was already pretty obscure at this point – completely incoherent and dumb.  And then, also, I picked up a series of thirteen (13!) side jobs, literally all at the same time, which says about as much as one can say about the game’s sense of pacing.

Getting back to the topic of agendas:  as a straight white male, most games are written with me as their targeted audience (or someone like me, but much younger).  Except:  I have certain anxieties and physical setbacks that are hardly ever shown in games, or movies, or books.  Remember at the top of this post, where I said I was on some new medications?  Right, well:  I don’t talk about this much, for reasons that will soon become obvious, but I’ve been suffering from IBS for the last 14 years or so.  In recent years I’ve taken great strides at getting better – I’ve made radical changes to my diet, I’m on a custom-designed (and very expensive) vitamin supplement regimen, I’ve started going to therapy, I’ve started taking anti-anxiety medication (and that took a lot of convincing, too).  And now I’m taking new medication specifically for my GI tract, and I’m hoping that’ll help further straighten things out.

The point of all this is that while I’ve certainly gotten better over the last few years, I’m still not yet out of the woods, and this specific ailment has been a source of personal embarrassment for years.  (As well you might imagine; I have not actually had any accidents, but I’ve felt like one is imminent nearly every morning commute for the last dozen years.)  I’ve missed any number of social obligations because of this, and I’ve been reluctant to travel long distances because of this, and I’m mostly just grateful that my wife hasn’t left me because of this.

What does this have to do with videogames and agendas?  Well, how many videogame characters can you think of that have anxiety disorders?  Or bad stomachs?  I can think of only one, and even then I can’t remember in which game – possibly MGS4, possibly Bayonetta – some small side character whose intense gastric distress is used as a point of bizarre comic relief.  It might’ve been funny for most 13-year-old boys (or people who think public diarrhea is hilarious), but for me it felt like a kick in the balls.

Now, I understand perfectly well why videogames and films don’t often feature characters like this – people with this sort of condition have a hard time leaving the house (and, in my case, can further complicate social anxiety issues and eventually lead to mild agoraphobia), and so it is hard to make a game starring someone who can’t go out and save the world.  And on the rare occasion when characters like this do show up in films and games, they are, more often than not, punchlines (or, worse, punching bags).  And this sort of thing does not really help to improve my outlook.  It might inspire me to get healthier, but it’s inspiration borne from shame.

This is a long way of saying that when, in South Park: The Stick of Truth, an enemy casts a spell on you in battle that causes you to shit your pants, well, my heart breaks a little bit.

TANGENT:  I am around 6 and a half hours into South Park (probably about mid-way through Day Two), and I like it quite a lot.  Even though I’m not the world’s most rabid South Park fan, I still appreciate the game’s sense of humor, but I’m just as appreciative of the actual game design.  I love how approachable the systems are; I love how deep the modification systems can go (and that you can re-modify new weapons without losing the old ones).  Hell, I kinda just love wandering around the town and seeing what there is to see, picking up random side quests for no reason other than they’re there, and that there’s usually a decent comedic payoff at the end.  I love that you can use the environment to end a random battle before it even starts.  I love the game’s commentary on the ridiculousness and overuse of audio logs and Nazi zombies.  I especially love that tacos are the game’s version of revive potions.

In other news, it’s true that the big game this week is Titanfall, but as you’ve probably guessed this is not the place for discussion about that game; I don’t own an Xbox One and I don’t care about multiplayer shooters, no matter how good they might be.

TANGENT:  I am kinda surprised at how many of my 360 friends own an Xbox One; I am also a little surprised that they stayed Xbox-centric and didn’t migrate to the PS4.  I’m still not sure what it’s going to take to get me to buy one, to be honest; and I might as well admit that at this point, if I had to buy more game hardware, I’m most likely to get a Vita.

But the other big game this week is Dark Souls II, which is arriving later this week, and which I feel compelled to at least try, if only so that even if I can’t necessarily participate in the larger conversation, I can at least understand the gist of it.  I’ve had brief, 30-minute tastes of the previous 2 games – enough to get the general idea, and enough to know that I’d probably not get very far given my current time constraints – and while I still am intimidated by it (and while I’m still under similar time constraints), I’m also still intensely curious about it, and at least want to give it the ol’ college try.  My understanding is that the game has been made a bit more approachable for people like me, while still being brutally difficult and opaque, and so I’m willing to try to meet it halfway.

The Week That Was: South Park, Next-Gen Games, Sony, Health Insurance

I’ve been trying to work on some more thoughtful and reflective pieces for the site, but this week’s been bananas, and who in their right mind wants to read my navel-gazing when there’s some serious game business to discuss?

This week saw:

  1. the release of a South Park videogame that doesn’t suck;
  2. the announcement of Rocksteady’s long-awaited, next-gen only Batman game (with a Batmobile you can drive!);
  3. the release date (and some explanations for the delay) for Watch_Dogs (and do we really have to write it with that underscore thing?);
  4. the sudden departure of Sony’s Jack “Mic Drop” Tretton; and
  5. the heartbreaking news (and fundraising page) of Brendan Boyer, a champion of the indie scene.

1.  My rental copy of South Park showed up last night, and I played for around 45 minutes or so.  The biggest news is that this was the first time I’d turned on my 360 in maybe 3-4 months, and I suppose more than anything else I was pleased to see it’s still working.  As for the game itself – I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of it to write a “First Few Hours” post just yet; I’m also not sure I’m the game’s intended audience.  I mean, I like South Park but I haven’t watched an episode in years, so there’s a strong possibility that a lot of the more referential material is going to sail right over my head.  That being said, it’s still really funny, and the RPG systems are surprisingly enjoyable, and I’m going to try to push through as much as I can.

1a.  Speaking of which, I may have reached the point in Thief where I stop giving a shit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but it is starting to get dull and tedious.  I’m doing some side missions where the objectives are on the complete opposite side of the City, and the map continues to be horrendous and irrelevant, and these side missions only seem to be doable if you go ahead and knock everybody out first.  I was trying to play as non-lethally as possible, but now I kinda just want to get it over with.  I’m not quite ready to give up on it, but I’m having a harder time staying engaged with it than I’d like.

2.  So, yeah – that Batman game looks terrific.  And I’m pleased to see it’s next-gen only, frankly.  If the rumored release date is correct (which I think is mid-October?), both consoles will have a rather healthy install base by then, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a new console owner who isn’t going to pick this up – this is already near the top of my own “most anticipated” list.  Keeping the game on the new platforms prevents the game’s vision from being diluted, and should ensure that it makes the most of the more powerful hardware.

3.  I’m trying to not read too much about Watch_Dogs, though sometimes I can’t help myself.  I’m mostly just glad to see they’ve entered the home stretch, and that they seem to be happy with it.  Of course, most AAA games at this stage of development are spoken in exceedingly positive PR-approved tones, so it’s unwise to take that stuff too seriously; and yet, well, look – this was the game that made everybody’s jaws drop when it was first announced, and it’s just exciting to know that we’ll all get our hands on it soon enough.

4.  I can’t possibly fathom a guess as to what Jack Tretton’s sudden resignation means; under his leadership (or, at least, his E3 keynote speeches) the PlayStation brand has come roaring all the way back from oblivion and they now appear to be sitting very comfortably in the driver’s seat, and I suppose one could argue that if you’re going to go, go out on top.  It’s just that the rest of Sony’s businesses seem to be flailing wildly to stay afloat, and one can only hope that the games division has a backup plan to keep riding this wave of momentum.

5.  The US healthcare situation is a goddamned travesty, and that’s all there is to it.  What’s happened to Brandon is a fucking disaster.  If you can support him, please do.