belt tightening

Last night, the wife and I had a tough conversation about money.

Our 3-month old son (that’s him in the site’s header image, by the way) had his first “transition” daycare visit this morning, and he starts going in earnest in 2 weeks.  And for us to be able to afford daycare – and keep ourselves in baby supplies, and pay the rent and the rest of our bills, and also eat – well, we’re already cutting it pretty close, and there’s not a hell of a lot of wiggle room.  I’ve also got some rather sizable debt to pay off, too, and while I’ve made considerable progress on that front I’ve still got a ways to go, which makes this all the more anxiety-inducing.

Something’s got to give, basically.

And after some online banking and some soul-searching (and a little bit of drinking), I came to the realization that the only thing I really spend any extra money on these days is games.

This kinda sucks, as you might imagine – I am a self-professed consumer whore – but the more I think about it, this is not the worst time to be a broke gamer.   If I’m truly honest with myself, there’s really only one game coming out this year that I need in any sort of non-negotiable way.  Steam will have having its Summer Sale any minute now, too, and I could probably see myself picking up one or two things on my wishlist if they’re discounted enough – but let’s be honest here, after all the previous Steam Sales, there’s really not all that much that’s left for me to buy.  And I can certainly pare down my Gamefly account to one game at a time, as opposed to three, to be able to handle the rest of the to-do list.

Hell, let’s look at that to-do list (aka my GameQ) while we’re here, and I’ll take this opportunity to debut a new feature I’m calling Keep or Cut:

  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – I don’t even know what this is, to be honest – I’d just heard some positive word of mouth, and I wanted any excuse to keep my 3DS busy.  Will most likely CUT.
  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team (3DS) – if I can finish The Last of Us quickly enough, I should be able to rent this close to its release date.  Since Mario Golf: World Tour got pushed to 2014, this is the only must-have 3DS game I can see for the rest of 2013.  KEEP.
  • Saints Row 4 – I’m a big Saints Row fan, but I’ve had my doubts about this ever since they first announced it.  I do not expect high review scores, though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.  KEEP, but with reservations.
  • Splinter Cell: Blacklist – this was always only going to be a rental.  Chaos Theory was the high watermark for the series, and everything since then has been pretty disappointing.  Haven’t seen any indication that I should revise my expectations.  CUT.
  • Rayman Legends – Assuming this is as delightful as Origins was, this is an automatic KEEP.  Though I really ought to go back and finish Origins first.
  • GTA V – I’m not sure why this is still on my rental queue, as I’m probably going to pre-order it as soon as I finish this post.  (Still hoping for a PC release, though.)  KEEP.
  • Beyond: Two SoulsIs this the PS3’s final swan song?  More to the point – do I care?  While I remain in awe of David Cage’s wild ambition, I never finished Heavy Rain and didn’t really enjoy what I’d played, either.  Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, so this gets a KEEP.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins – as far as I can tell, this is the last “big” release of 2013 for current-gen consoles that I have any real interest in, since I don’t care about Call of Duty and I’ve lost all my faith in Assassin’s Creed.   But we all know this isn’t a Rocksteady joint, and this game is starting to smell like a cash-in.  CUT.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s no next-gen titles on this list.  That’s because I probably can’t afford a next-gen console this year; but even if I could, I still haven’t yet decided between the PS4 and the Xbox One.  I’m obviously leaning towards the PS4, but if Microsoft continues its backtracking ways and decides to play ball with indie developers by putting a less-restrictive self-publishing policy in place, well, that might keep the pendulum swinging the other way.  In any event, the only real “next-gen” game that speaks to me in any meaningful way is Watch Dogs, and that’s also coming to PC – which is a platform that already speaks to my current gaming habits anyway.

And speaking of the PC, the other clear upside to being on an austerity budget for the foreseeable future is that there’s really no excuse anymore for me to not finally tackle the GIGANTIC backlog of unfinished games I have in my Steam library.  Hell, even if I only stuck to seeing all the stuff in Skyrim that I never saw on the 360, that would be plenty.  (Now I just need to get over my seething Skyrim rage, which I’ve never quite managed to quell.)

I kinda don’t feel so terrible about this anymore.  I’ll call that a win.

>Splinter Cell / FF13

>Two things to talk about today:

1. I finished Splinter Cell Conviction, and
2. I finally got excited about Final Fantasy 13.

The most recent Joystiq podcast touches on both of these games, which made this morning’s commute more fun as I was already well versed in both. And as an added bonus, for the incredibly small subset of people who listened to that podcast and also read this blog, what I’m about to say will hopefully not sound redundant.

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It’s funny. I was somewhat indifferent about the first Assassin’s Creed, and so I wasn’t really looking forward to Assassin’s Creed 2, and in spite of the marketing crush I’d almost managed to forget about it, and it ended up being one of my favorite games of last year. Whereas, back in the day I used to be a huge Splinter Cell fan/apologist, and actively hated Metal Gear Solid and other stealth games, and now that I’ve played Conviction, I’m kinda hoping they kill the franchise (or else reboot it from scratch).

Conviction suffers from a wide variety of flaws, but the one that seems the most jarring to me is the same one that afflicts the rest of the Tom Clancy’s games – the storytelling is just dreadful. Conviction takes great strides towards giving you a real motivation for doing the things you end up doing, but the characters are so broad and bland and the villains are so generic and dull and the conspiracy hardly makes sense, and I found myself in location after location unsure of where I was, why I was there, and what I was supposed to be doing beyond following the objective marker and clearing out room after room. I’d almost rather play the game as a series of training missions; at least they could just drop the pretense and concentrate on interesting level design.

The game is better at combat, which means that there’s a lot more of it. Which is unfortunate. I still prefer to sneak around and silently dispatch guards, or avoid contact entirely, and there were a number of areas where that simply wasn’t an option; you have to kill everyone in front of you – or, alternately, you find a path and run through it until you get to the next checkpoint, which is what I ended up doing more than a few times when I simply couldn’t handle the odds.

Ultimately, though, I’m just done with these characters and the fiction; they were never particularly interesting to begin with, and I’d rather they just scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.

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As for FF13.

I feel like I’ve talked about Chapter 11 at great length, which is appropriate given that I’ve probably spent as much time in Chapter 11 as I have for the first 10. But the game has finally clicked into place for me. As I’m probably at least 50 hours into it by now, that shouldn’t be just happening, but it is; I saved my game last night and turned it off and couldn’t wait to get back in and start again, which is maybe the first time I’ve felt that way since I first unwrapped it.

Let me explain why that’s so weird.

As I think I mentioned before, I had originally started Chapter 11 without really understanding what I was supposed to do – to be more specific, I didn’t understand the map. Chapter 11 is where the game stops being so ridiculously linear; you stop going in a straight line and you start picking up side quests in this absolutely gigantic landscape. When I first started it, I had picked up a side quest and assumed that the map in the upper right hand corner was leading me to the side quest’s location; I didn’t realize that the map was still leading me towards the main story’s objective. And so it led me into these caverns where I was just getting my ass kicked repeatedly, and I was getting incredibly frustrated and annoyed, and then I realized that I must’ve missed something, or perhaps I just needed to grind a bit more, and so I restarted Chapter 11 and figured out what I’d done wrong.

And so I’d spent the next 20 hours doing all the side missions I could find, and grinding like crazy in between each side mission, and (surprise!) that was beginning to get tedious as well. I wanted to get back to the story; I wanted to see if I could finally handle those caverns that had dispatched me so effortlessly. I’d finished mission 16, couldn’t find where mission 17 was, and decided that was probably a sign that I should just get on with it.

And wouldn’t you know – I kicked ass in those caverns. And – lo and behold – mission 17 was in those caverns. And when I got to Vanille’s big summon battle, which had utterly destroyed me originally – well, it still destroyed me, but I eventually managed to beat it. And now the game is leading me along a somewhat more linear path again, which is a refreshing change of pace, and when I decided to call it a night last night I’d saved right after picking up mission 18, which meant that I was in the right place after all. It’s as if the game read my mind.

I’m still a bit shocked that I’ve devoted this much time and effort into a game that I’ve been so apathetic about, but I guess this is the payoff; I’m now fully on board and can’t wait to get back.

>sneakin’ around

>Maybe I haven’t been the most vocal supporter of the Splinter Cell franchise, but I’ve certainly been a fan throughout the entire run; the series peak, Chaos Theory, is one of my favorite games on the original Xbox. I never had cause to bitch about the trial-and-error gameplay; that’s what most games are, anyway, and it left my graphics whore needs more than satisfied. But I’ll admit that in the time it’s taken for this new game to come out, I’d pretty much moved on; I wasn’t really all that excited about the first game on the 360, and the tales of development hell that abounded on this new title didn’t exactly whet my appetite.

So, well, yeah. I’m a few missions in on Splinter Cell: Conviction and I kinda don’t really give a shit. They’ve taken great pains to make the game more accessible – indeed, it’s taken the right design choices from Batman:AA – but it’s also made the game frightfully ridiculous. 2 missions in, you’re breaking out of a private airfield and you’re getting swarmed by, like 10 (incredibly chatty) dudes, with almost no shadows to duck into; I kept dying, repeatedly, and eventually found success simply by running straight through and making it to the next save point. Which is, as I said, ridiculous.

I will endeavor to finish it over the weekend, but it’s not, like, burning a hole in my to-do list. Which is a little sad, I guess. I never thought I’d be so apathetic towards Sam Fisher and his fabulous lighting engine.