What’s Next for Assassin’s Creed?

(Sorry for the brief hiatus; I was inadvertently and unintentionally off the grid last week.)

1. I finished AssCat last week.  I don’t know how many hours I put into it, but I finished with an 84% completion rate; there are a few side missions (Dickens, Darwin, Doyle) yet to do, and I suppose I could go out and hunt down every last collectible though there’s really no point now – I’m level 10 and more or less completely maxed out, and so a slight uptick in weaponry effectiveness as a reward for finding every single chest isn’t going to make that much of a difference at this stage, and I certainly don’t lack for money or crafting materials – nor do I have anything left to craft).  As a whole, I can comfortably say that it would fit somewhere in my top 3 AC games, alongside AssBro and BlackAss; whatever faults it has – and there are plenty – are more than mitigated by Evie Frye, my favorite of all the AC protagonists.  The larger question, though, is this:  even if AssCat is one of the best games in the franchise, what does that even mean anymore?

Let me back up, though, because while I certainly enjoyed my time with the game, I have a rather lengthy list of problems that I have to address.  And at the very top of this list is Evie’s brother Jacob.  As awesome as Evie is – and she’s awesome, and I could easily spend 1000+ words talking about it – Jacob is, unquestionably, the worst protagonist in the franchise, and one of the only playable characters in my entire history of gaming that I’ve ever wanted to repeatedly punch in the face.  I find his entire character arc bewilderingly stupid, and find it impossible to accept that his current form was the result of focus testing and deliberate design choices.  He is a stupid, brutish asshole, and he does stupid, brutish things, and he makes incredibly stupid and brutish mistakes, and I dreaded having to play his missions because I didn’t want to spend any more time with him than I had to.  Sequence 8 in particular is more or less entirely a Jacob sequence, where he does one stupid thing after another and then has the temerity to be outraged that the villain he was knowingly helping ends up turning on him – which is doubly stupid because it’s not like Jacob cares about the sanctity of human life either, given that he is, you know, a fucking Assassin – and the whole sequence was, on a narrative level, so incredibly stupid that I couldn’t even appreciate the mechanics of the sequence’s final assassination (which, in retrospect, is actually kind of neat). Every time I fucked up and Jacob died, or every time the controls didn’t respond to me and Jacob died, a part of me smiled inside, because that stupid asshole had it coming.

Speaking of which – yeah, the controls.  Oy.  Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton says it better than I could; I only wish I’d beaten him to it with the rant that the controls deserve.  I seem to recall that when the very first game was announced, the thing that the developers wanted us to focus on – more than the climbing or the combat – was the quality of the animation.  And there’s no question that the animation is still, for the most part, astonishingly good and believable (even as our heroes do impossible things).  But it’s 2015 now, and this is the, what, eighth iteration of these games?  The simple act of moving forward shouldn’t require the pressing of more than two buttons.  And if the on-screen prompt tells me that pressing certain buttons means I’m going to drop down, then that’s exactly and only what I want to do.  Even though AssCat is mostly good about this, especially when compared to other AC games, “mostly good” shouldn’t be the standard we’re aiming for.

I could go on, but it’s actually been a few days since I last fired up the game, and I’m having a hard time remembering some of the more specific nits I could pick.  I suppose part of the problem is that, unlike other open-world adventure games I could name, I have literally no desire to go back and get 100% in this one.  I’d maxed out Jacob and Evie’s stats and gadgetry long before I’d finished the main story, and at this point doing stupid errands for famous people feels like a waste of time.

So, then, let’s get back to my original question:  even if AssCat ranks as one of the three best games in the franchise, and completely wipes away the bad taste that AssUnit left behind, what does that mean anymore?  There’s going to be a new one of these games next year, and I already don’t care about it.  The gameplay of AssCat is still more or less the same as it was in the original game; there’s only been iteration upon iteration, rather than any sense of evolution.  (Black Flag certainly feels like an aberration at this point, doesn’t it?)  The AC game we’re going to get next November will take place in another unique place and time, but it will also most likely be the exact same thing we’ve already done 8 or 9 times already, and it’s hard to care about it anymore – especially as those things we keep doing are still retaining the original game’s jankiness.  I beg you, Ubisoft – take a year or two off.  Let people miss these games again.  Take however much time you need to fix the controls, and get your narrative shit together.

2.  I’ve been dabbling in Halo 5, for some reason.  I have zero interest in the multiplayer, which means I’m playing the campaign, and holy shit the campaign is so dumb.  I’ve decided that I’m only playing the campaign in online co-op with my buddy Greg, because that’s the only way I can get through it without beating my head against the coffee table.  The mission designs are so antiquated and unoriginal that it’s actually a little hard to believe that this game was intended to come out this year; the end of Mission 2 has you defending your position while your escape ship prepares itself for lift-off, which is only a thing I’ve done several thousand times before.  I pity the poor voice actor who plays Governor Sloan in Mission 3; he has some of the dumbest lines of dialogue this side of a Metal Gear Solid game, and he delivers them with all the gravitas of an over-baked ham sandwich.  Luckily, I’m about to be heavily distracted by this week’s new releases.

3.  And speaking of those new releases… well, look.  I’ve got a lot of things going on all of a sudden; I’m very much re-engaged with this music project that I’d put on the back-burner for the last few months, and free time is at a premium.  To that end, I’m going to be playing Rise of the Tomb Raider first, because that’s definitely more my speed at the moment, and by the time I finish that, hopefully Fallout 4 will have received some of the necessary patches that it apparently needs.  (Also, it should be noted that I’m not even sure where my Pip-Boy edition even is; I haven’t heard anything from Bethesda since October 22.)

3a.  (I also ordered a Steam Link and a Steam Controller a while ago, and those are similarly lost in the FedEx ether.

4.  I was gonna whine a little bit about the Xbox One backwards compatibility list and how none of the games I was hoping to see made it on this initial reveal – no Portal 1/2, no Red Dead (or really anything by Rockstar for that matter), etc.  But it’s OK, really; even if I can play Fallout 3 again, there’s no way I’m actually going to.

5.  I’ve been remiss in talking about books lately.  I’ve been working my way very slowly through “City on Fire“, which I’m not enjoying as much as I’d hoped I would.  It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not really hitting any of my buttons.  In fairness, I didn’t pick it up at all last week, and so whatever momentum I might’ve had has been lost.  But it also should be noted that I’m not particularly filled with any nostalgic yearning for the dirty, grimy NYC of the 70s.  Yes, it would’ve been cool to have seen Television or the Talking Heads at CBGBs, but I was not a punk, and I would’ve been beaten to death had I set foot anywhere east of Broadway.  (Hell, when I was at NYU in the early 90s, anything east of 2nd Avenue was considered dangerous and sketchy; when I lived on East Houston Street after I graduated, Ludlow Street was still somewhat dirty.  Now there’s a fucking Whole Foods two blocks away from my old apartment.)

The Summer Doldrums 2K14

Every night after we put our son to bed, my wife and I will ask each other if either one wants the living room TV.  I use it to play games; she’s currently hooked on Orange Is The New Black.  Last night, she asked me if I wanted the TV, and I suddenly realized that I’m not going to need the TV for months.

We have officially entered the summer doldrums, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.  The next game on my to-do list, according to Game Informer’s Release Calendar, is Oddworld: New & Tasty which is released for PS4 on July 22.  After that, it’s mostly odds and sods until Destiny comes out in September.  I haven’t made up my mind if I’m going to purchase the remastered The Last Of Us or not (July 29), and while I’d like to play Diablo III (August 19) with my PS4 friends, I’m only doing it if I can carry over my PC characters – and there’s no direct confirmation that I can do that.

I’ve still got quite a lot of backlog to get caught up on – plus a ton of Vita stuff to try – and there are new rumors that Steam’s Summer Sale is starting this Thursday.  Thankfully, my Steam wishlist is very eclectic right now; it’s mostly weird indie stuff that I don’t necessarily need right this very minute.

(the top 5 titles on my wishlist)

  1. Goat Simulator
  2. NaissanceE
  3. A Story About My Uncle
  4. Vertiginous Golf
  5. Escape Goat 2

Lots of goats on my wishlist, as it turns out – the original Escape Goat is further down the list, too.  2014 is the Year of the Goat, I guess.  So it goes.

Looking at that release calendar, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.  There are certainly a few highlights to look forward to, and I remain hopeful that there’s enough stuff between DestinyAlien: Isolation, Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Evil WithinEvolve, Middle Earth Shadow of MordorAssassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 to fill out the year’s presumptive top 10, but I’m definitely missing some of the notable titles that were delayed until 2015 (especially that new Batman game).

There’s also the notable absence of Civilization: Beyond Earth on that list, which I was pretty sure was still coming out this year, and which I’m very excited for even if I remain incredibly intimidated by the Civ franchise as a whole.

So, then:  what are you going to do?  Tackle the backlog, or go nuts on Steam?  Or both?  Or neither, and spend time with your family and read books and enjoy the summer weather?  Or maybe go back to writing music on a regular basis, which you’ve pretty much stopped completely ever since your son was born?

Uninformed Opinion: the Steam Machine

It was rumored that Valve would reveal their plans for the Steam Machine at this year’s CES, and, lo and behold, those rumors were correct.  Polygon has a full run-down of the third party manufacturers, and their respective Machines, right here.

As I look over that rundown, I find it increasingly difficult to know what to think about all this, because the difference between what I thought a Steam Machine would be, and what it apparently is, is so vast that I fear that I might have had the wrong idea from the very beginning.

What I thought we were getting was something meant to compete – not necessarily in ideology, but at least for literal, physical entertainment-center space – with the PS4 and the XB1; a console-sized box for the living room, competitively priced, that would allow me to hold on to my vast Steam library and play new titles with good, shiny tech.

You know what – while I was writing this out, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera basically took the words right out of my mouth.  I’m glad I’m not the only one having this problem:

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

What we have instead are 13 vastly different machines, ranging in price from $400 to $6000, with tech specs that are pretty much all over the place.  Furthermore, it’s now very unclear to me what the advantage of this machine is.   Again, as Ben says:

SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It’s not a rhetorical question.[…] Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won’t run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won’t happen until the market is bigger. Which won’t happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Jessica Conditt, in her Joystiq editorial, further addresses the sudden overcrowding of the Steam Machine market, without a clear “ideal” with which to base anything on:

“The consumer’s going to look at this landscape and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ and, ‘Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'” Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It’s exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

“They just totally disagreed with that,” Nguyen said. “They very much disagreed.”

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that’s a beautiful idea. Or it’s a junk pile. I’m sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn’t thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.  (emphasis added)

That last bit is key, for me.  The fact that Valve itself is holding back – at least for the time being – sends an incredibly vague message, and it certainly doesn’t do the concept of the Steam Machine any favors.

At this point, the Steam Machine makes no compelling argument for me to wait.  Indeed, if anything it’s given me more of an incentive to get a better graphics card and leave it at that, and get a PS4 when they finally come back in stock.

 

Weekend Recap: Operation Backlog begins

1.  Operation Backlog has begun in earnest – even though I did sorta end up buying Need For Speed Rivals as a PC Download from Amazon because it was on sale and I had an extra $5 discount AND I already had a gift card balance, and, so, yeah.  I’m a little disappointed in it, though, which I’ll get to in a bit, and so with that said I do feel very much like I can fully engage with the backlog.  And there was this nice little bit of encouragement from Polygon, today:

Buying games on sale can feel like sending a message in a bottle to possible future versions of yourself, but finding and opening those bottles, and having them enrich your life, is like nothing else. It’s an investment in our own future, and it helps support the industry today.

There’s nothing wrong with your backlog, as long as you’re not going into debt to buy games you may not play in the near future. You shouldn’t be ashamed of the stack of games that seem interesting but remain unplayed. They won’t spoil. They will be there when you need them. And the people who made the games? They’re more than happy to have your money and interest.

Your backlog isn’t a source of shame, but a matter of pride; it’s a well-stocked library from which you can take comfort, a pile of blankets waiting for a cold night.

Indeed.

There’s a neat feature in Steam that lets you organize the stuff in your library by categories of your own designation.  I didn’t even know it was there, to be honest, and I only discovered it by a combination of wishful thinking and the sheer, dumb luck of an accidental right-click.  It’s a very small feature, and not one that’s necessarily all that noteworthy, except that it is exactly what I need in order to keep myself from getting distracted by other things.  Moreover, the fact that I can’t really do this with my XBLA library or my PSN games makes it a feature that I appreciate all the more, which is why I’m bringing it up in the first place.

2014 BacklogThe point is, this is what I now see at the top left part of the screen when I open up my Library page in Steam.  It’s a to-do list, easily managed and maintained, and cleansed of the other distractions in my library.

This Operation Backlog project is a little intimidating, is the thing.

Because even after organizing all this stuff (and then procrastinating by creating 2 more categories, one of which is for stuff like AC4 and BAO, where I’ve beaten the main game but still have tons of collectibles and side stuff to finish), I kinda just sat at my desk, staring at this list, not knowing where to start.  I suppose that the reasons why these games are in the backlog at all is because there was something a bit…. off… about them at the time of purchase; maybe I was already fully engaged by other games, or perhaps I tried them for a few minutes and for whatever reason couldn’t get sucked in quickly enough.

I did end up starting Outlast last night, for some stupid reason.  When it comes to horror – be it movies, games, even books – I get startled and frightened very easily, and being that I’m already in a heightened state of anxiety because my wife and I are binge-watching Breaking Bad, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a particularly long play-session.  Sure enough, it wasn’t; the first real jump-scare happens around 10 minutes in (the Library, for those of you who’ve played it), and I audibly shrieked in my chair, and as soon as I got out of that room I turned the game off and went back into the living room to watch football.

It’s hard to pick one game out of that list to get started with, I think.  Rayman Legends is excellent but I find that I really only want to play it in quick, short bursts – same thing goes for BitTrip Runner 2, as a matter of fact.  I’m probably free of my anti-Diablo bias at this point, so I suppose I could get back into Torchlight 2, but I don’t necessarily want to start this project with a 20-40 hour clickfest slog.  I’m still scared of XCOM, and after that spectacular Polygon piece about the Spelunky eggplant run I’m seriously wondering what the hell I was thinking even picking that game up in the first place.

I’m starting to think I should give Kentucky Route Zero another go.  I think that’s my speed right now.  And maybe on the side I’ll get back into Shadowrun Returns, which I recall enjoying.

2.  So, yeah:  Need for Speed Rivals.  I’m an idiot for buying it on the PC, where absolutely nobody is playing it, and also because if I were to suddenly splurge on a PS4 right now, that’s the one game I would’ve picked up (unless I wanted to play AC4 again at full price).  My initial impression with it is that it’s basically a souped-up version of Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, except it’s always online – which means booting the game up and finding a server can take a long, long time.  Also:  you can’t actually pause the game, which is completely insane – if you’re in a single-player race and you miss a turn (because some arrows are easier to miss than others), you can’t restart (or, at least, I don’t think you can; I tried to find the option, and while I searched for it my car drove into a tree).  What I really should do is get back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which I actually was enjoying.  At least I didn’t actually spend real money on it…

3.  Finally:  I normally don’t do any behind-the-scenes stuff here, but what happened on Friday was pretty incredible.  I’d written that piece about in-game collectibles, and in the promo tweet for it I included Patrick Klepek’s twitter handle, just simply in the hopes that he might see it.  Thought nothing of it.  An hour or two later, I hopped onto this blog’s dashboard to check something, and saw that my hit total was abnormally high.  I quickly discovered that Patrick had retweeted my link with some positive feedback, and by the end of the day this site had seen more visitors – over 1200 in all – than in all of 2011 combined.  (See (1) below.) What’s more, the spillover into the following day was also the 2nd biggest day this site’s ever had (see (2) below).  I’ve removed the actual numbers, but the spike is pretty obvious:

site stats1It should be noted, here, that I don’t do this blog for the sake of getting “numbers”, or anything like that; if I was doing this for the sole purpose of generating traffic, you’d be seeing a lot more stuff like a list of 23 things Microsoft needs to do to improve the Xbox One’s chances accompanied by animated cat gifs.  That’s easy, and dumb, and it’s the sort of tactic that I think is going to flame out pretty spectacularly in a year or two, when people have even less active attention spans than they already do.  (Personally, I believe there is an audience for thoughtful discussion and analysis, and that’s the sort of audience I’d like to attract.)

I do this blog because I want to get better as a writer, and because I would like to do this professionally some day, and the only way to do that is to write and write and write, and apply, and pitch, and apply, and pitch, and write and write and write, and hope that somebody notices.  I’m glad that people come here, of course, because I do want people to read what I write; it’s just that I don’t want to be a dick about getting people here.

All that being said, that spike above was pretty goddamned awesome.  (And I did end up reaching out and thanking him, and he was very cool about it.)

 

2014: the year of the empty wallet

I spent the last day of 2013 at home with a horrendous stomach virus.  I’ve had stomach problems for most of my life, but this was something else entirely; this was the sort of thing where I was wondering if I needed to go to a hospital, while also wondering if I could even manage to leave the apartment for the 5 minutes it would take to get Gatorade and ginger ale at the shitty bodega across the street.  We’d made arrangements for my in-laws to be babysitting that day anyway, so at least the baby wasn’t completely neglected, but MAN.  Not the best way to spend the day.  I was in bed on New Year’s Eve at 8:30.

Like I said in my previous post, I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.  I have objectives, I have plans, but “resolutions” seem silly and doomed to failure.  I’d mentioned that one of my goals this year was to conquer my 2013 backlog, and I briefly mentioned the financial considerations of that goal – that is, it’s silly for me to spend money on new games when I’ve already spent money on older games that I haven’t finished, or even started.

There’s another benefit to that angle, too:  the longer I can hold off on a new game, the better chance there’ll be that I can pick it up in a Steam sale.  And frankly, it’s been a long time since a Steam sale came around that actually meant anything to me.  I bought almost nothing during this most recent sale, and the stuff I did pick up was bought with a $20 gift card, so I didn’t actually spend any “real” money; and I bought them mostly for the sake of buying them, and not out of any real need.  And meanwhile, all these amazing AAA games were being sold at ludicrous prices, and… well… I’d already bought them at full price.

If 2014 is to be a year of more mindful spending, then it would behoove me to stick to this backlog strategy; this way, I can eventually pick up the stuff I’m looking forward to without having to pay full price for it.  This is hard for me, of course, because I’m an idiot with incredibly poor impulse control (and, also, I like to keep this blog somewhat timely and relevant), but I also have a baby now, and if ever there was a time for me to get my shit together, this would be the time.

The other part of this strategy, though, is:  I’m going to sell every Steam trading card that comes my way the moment I get it.

Before writing this post, I made the decision to go through my Steam inventory and sell all the trading cards I had.  And before I’d even finished unloading everything, I’d already made $2.50.  (I’m up to $3.76 right now; I think that covers everything I put out there.)  If I can keep getting card drops from my backlog – ~ $0.10 – $0.20 a card, 4-5 cards per game, 27 games (give or take, considering that I sold some cards from games in that backlog) – I mean, it’s not much, but it’s free money.  I could conceivably buy Terraria right now with the money in my account and still have change left over.  It’s certainly as good an incentive as any to go through that backlog as thoroughly as possible, right?

Of course, the wife and I did just start watching Breaking Bad last night, so I guess this backlog quest will be put on hold for at least a little while longer.

 

2014: the battle between old and new

You know, I can be full of shit sometimes.

I just wrote this 800-word post about 2014, and how I feel strange because for the first time in a long time I feel like I have absolutely no handle on what’s happening this coming year, and how I’m feeling a little cut off since I don’t have either of the new consoles just yet, and how I’m still not even sure if I should get one or wait for the Steam Machine or just buy a new graphics card for my PC, and how all of this is ridiculous since I have an absurd backlog of games to get through…

… and then, to prove my point, I listed the 27 games in my Steam library that I would like to get through, games which I either never finished or barely started, and which I was posting so that, later in the year when I inevitably start whining about not having anything to play, one of you could call me out and say, well, what about that gigantic backlog, and I could say, OH YEAH, right, the backlog…

… and then, after taking a brief moment to clear my head and open a new browser tab, I decided to check out the latest offerings in the Steam sale, and for some bizarre reason I actually came this close to buying Metro: Last Light, which is a game that I’m not even sure I liked all that much when I rented it on the 360 earlier this year.

NOT EVEN 5 MINUTES HAD PASSED SINCE I’D FINISHED PUTTING THAT LIST TOGETHER, PEOPLE, before I almost spent $10 on a game that I was only interested in buying because it was on sale.

I am an idiot.

Here’s the original post, and the backlog list, and a formal request – please punch me in the face, either in person, on this blog or on twitter (@couchshouts), if I do any whining about not having enough to play next year.  THAT’S my new year’s resolution – to finally get punched in the face.

(Please do not literally punch me in the face.)

*     *     *

I don’t “do” resolutions, but two things I’d like to start doing in 2014 – or, rather, stop doing – are (1) apologizing for taking long-ish breaks at this blog (i.e., anything less than one post a week – it should be understood by now that my available blogging time is in short supply these days) and (2) apologizing in general, but specifically if I let real-life intrude into this space.  This is a game blog, and I try to keep this blog focused on that topic… but it’s also my only blog at the moment (since my tumblr page is simply a place where I re-blog other people’s stuff and/or repost stuff from this blog).

I’d like to do a “What I’m Looking Forward To in 2014” post, but the truth is that this is the first time in a really, really long time where I feel like I have absolutely no idea what’s happening in terms of upcoming software.  I don’t have either of the new consoles yet (though I sorta came close to buying an Xbox One this past weekend, even though I’d still rather get a PS4 first), and so I’m not quite yet invested in either of their forthcoming lineups beyond obvious stuff like Watch Dogs and Destiny (and indie stuff like The Witness and Transistor).  I’m also still kinda waiting to see what the Steam Machine is all about, and I’m also wondering if I should just forgo new consoles entirely and just invest in a new graphics card for my PC.

(From my outsiders perspective, I’m starting to feel like this year’s E3 will be the first E3 in a long time that will actually matter; the new consoles are already in people’s homes, and everybody wants to know what’s coming next.  And it’s not even just about continuing older franchises – this is the best possible time to show off new IP, now that we’re all hungry for something to really put these consoles through their paces.)  

And yet, and yet, and yet… the truth is, all of this prognosticating is silly, as far as I’m personally concerned; I simply can’t afford to play all this new stuff.  I can only realistically afford one (1) console next year, and unless I start getting my freelancing career in order and can get review copies of games without having to pay for them, I will have to start being a lot more selective in terms of what I end up playing, Gamefly notwithstanding.

Moreover, I’ve got an absolutely absurd backlog of games in my Steam library, and I can’t keep ignoring it or pretending it’s not there.  I’ve said this before, of course, but it bears repeating if only so that I can remind myself that it’s out there.

If I start to bitch and moan that I don’t have anything to play, I want one of you to remind me of the list that I’m about to post below.  This isn’t everything that’s unplayed in my Steam library, but this is the stuff that I intended to play but never got around to finishing.

  1. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (played the first 30 minutes or so)
  2. Antichamber (I’ve already played quite a lot of it, but I never finished it)
  3. Dishonored DLC (I got halfway through the first one, never started the second one)
  4. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (did the first 15 minutes and then got distracted.)
  5. Guacamelee!
  6. Gunpoint
  7. Hitman: Absolution (I’m maybe halfway through this one.  I found it somewhat distasteful, but I’m also compelled to stay with it, for some bizarre reason.)
  8. Kentucky Route Zero
  9. Lego Marvel Superheroes (which I was enjoying quite thoroughly until AC4 came along)
  10. Magrunner: Dark Pulse
  11. Outlast (which I just bought yesterday, for some reason, I don’t know why)
  12. Papo & Yo (which I played a bit of on the PS3, but never finished)
  13. Path of Exile (in case I need a free-to-play Diablo fix)
  14. Rayman Legends
  15. Resonance (which I have literally no memory of downloading, but I’m glad to see it’s in my library)
  16. Rochard
  17. Rogue Legacy
  18. Shadowrun Returns
  19. Shadow Warrior
  20. Spelunky (which I also just bought yesterday, and which I’m afraid of, if that amazing Polygon eggplant run story is to be believed)
  21. System Shock 2
  22. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
  23. The Last Remnant (these last 2 were picked up during a summer Steam sale)
  24. The Swapper (need to finish)
  25. The Witcher 2 (which I need to re-start and get back into)
  26. Torchlight 2
  27. XCOM: Enemy Within

That’s 27 games of generally excellent quality that I’ve not finished – and in some cases, have barely started.  This is ridiculous.  This is financially irresponsible.  This is why I have no business buying a new console any time soon, and why I should maybe not worry so much about trying to stay on top of all the new stuff.  Until I put myself in a position where I can play new stuff and get paid to offer written opinions about them, I have more than enough to keep myself occupied for the time being.

*     *     *

I also finished Batman Arkham Origins over the weekend, though “finished” is a relative term, of course – there’s so much side stuff left to do, and I’ve already done a great deal of it, but I don’t think I can do any more.

The game itself is… OK.  A little disappointing, and certainly very exhausting, but I sorta knew going into it that I should keep my expectations low, and so in that respect I feel like I got my money’s worth.  I guess it’s just that I love these Batman games, and even if I knew this was a B-team effort, I can’t help getting excited for them.  The combat just got to be too much after a while – there’s combat involved in nearly every single part of the game, and like I said in an earlier post it gets to be ridiculous.

There’s also some annoying technical problems, at least on the PC; while the game looks terrific for the most part, it did lock up and crash on multiple occasions, and there’s one boss fight near the end where the frame rate got very, very jittery (where you’re fighting Bane (and minions) with your shock-gloves turned on) – and in a game where combat is very much timing-based, my constant deaths in that sequence felt very, very cheap.

From a narrative perspective, it’s certainly conceptually interesting to see a prequel with these characters, but it feels like wasted potential.  The voice acting is woefully uneven – the new Batman and Joker voices are certainly good enough, but Jim Gordon couldn’t have sounded more bored and stiff if he tried.  Moreover, Joker’s character arc does not make any sense to me.  ***SPOILERS*** Joker and Batman have that post-Bane standoff at the hotel; Joker falls out of the building (can’t remember how) and Batman saves him; Joker, now incarcerated and being interviewed by the future Harlequin, appears to have some sort of epiphany about his relationship with Batman; but in the game’s final confrontation, nothing about his epiphany appears to have affected his plan AT ALL.  And I’m still confused about the bounty and Black Mask’s part in all this, and how if Joker was Black Mask all along, why was he trying to kill Batman in the beginning of the game?  Especially since Batman appears to be relatively new to the scene, and this game is where he originally learns about Joker in the first place?  ***END SPOILERS***

All that aside, there’s nothing quite like entering a room filled with bad guys and taking them all out without ever being spotted.  And even then, the difficulty on those particular challenge rooms is very, very uneven; I had a beast of a time in the early game because the room layouts made for very crowded enemy AI paths, but towards the end I was clearing them with ease because the room designs meant that enemies generally walked alone a lot more often.  I’m not complaining, necessarily, because it’s still a rush to clear those rooms regardless, but it’s odd.

I am now trying to figure out what to play next.  And before you remind me that I’m also playing Zelda on the 3DS, let me retort that I’m not having nearly as much fun with it as I’d hoped.  I may try some of the shorter games in that backlog above; Kentucky Route Zero has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wouldn’t mind getting deeper into both Lego Marvel and Rayman Legends.  And also Shadow Warrior.

Have a very happy new year, everybody!

THE GAMES OF 2013

I.

2013 was a year of great change and transition, and as you might expect it was both very good and incredibly surreal.  On a personal level, I became a father; I released a solo album; I moved into a new apartment; I got over my fear of brain pills and started taking anti-anxiety medications (and they appear to be working); and I became a contributing member to the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is a pretty nice break for a nobody like me.  These are all significant and happy milestones.

As a gamer, well:

Let me say this right up front:  this right here is a videogame blog, so when I say things like “Being a new father means that I don’t have as much time to play games”, I am very much NOT wanting to sound like a callous, privileged asshole whose newborn child is an inconvenience.  Please understand that the non-gamer part of me literally cringes when I say stuff like that, and also understand that I hate that I’m not a good enough writer to find a better way of putting it.  I love my kid, and I love the time I spend with him more than anything else in the world.  He’s changed my life for the better in more ways that I’m probably even aware of.

1002046_10152035801995865_1411893274_n

THAT BEING SAID, yes, of course, having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits.  How could it not?  I used to have all-day marathon gaming sessions, but I obviously can no longer binge the way I used to; more to the point, I don’t game at all when the kid is awake, and I’m very self-conscious about loud TV noises when he’s asleep in the next room.  (Which is why I still remain absolutely shocked that I was somehow able to find 50 hours in which to finish GTA V earlier this year.)   Because of all this, I ended up moving my gaming setup from the living room to the office, and so nearly everything I played of any significance was played on the PC, in my comfy office chair and my kick-ass headphones.

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole here, but it cannot be overstated enough: moving to the PC changed everything for me.   It’s why I’m not necessarily foaming at the mouth for a PS4 or an XBO, and why I’m instead contemplating a new graphics card or (more likely) a Steam Machine.  It’s why I’m no longer shackled to the crippling addiction of Achievement hunting.  It’s why I’m now a lot more excited about the indie game scene than the next AAA blockbuster.

[It’s also why I feel a little bit lonelier, I suppose.  I have a few good friends on Steam, but nothing compared to the dozens of people I’d see on Xbox Live every day.  Of course, I’ve never been all that big on multiplayer (and neither are most of those XBL friends, come to think of it), so it’s not like I was missing out on epic online battles (at least, not that I’m aware of).  Still, there’s just a large segment of friends that I’m now kinda cut off from, and it’s weird.]

The other big thing about having a kid and the resulting loss of free time is that, as you’ll soon see, my ratio of games finished to games played is so completely out of whack that I clearly have no business buying a next-gen console any time soon.

II.

Here’s the question that ended last year’s introduction:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”

It wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question; at the time that I was working on that piece, I was still half-heartedly dicking around in Far Cry 3 (a game that tried (and failed) to be subversive about violence in videogames) while still reeling from the Newtown school shooting (which was actual violence, and which was actually horrifying).  I was in a sort of weird crisis, to be honest; I was starting to feel sickened from all the virtual killing I’d been doing, and it was making me feel disconnected from something I’d loved since my childhood.  I was genuinely interested in knowing if there was more to this medium than guns; if it was possible to achieve a win state without having to wallow in bloodlust; if one could go from point A to point B without having to kill anything.  I wanted to know if games could make me feel something beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enough things to get to the next checkpoint; hell, I just wanted to feel something.  I was seriously contemplating going through 2013 without playing any game that involved the pulling of a trigger, even if it meant missing out on games that I’d genuinely been looking forward to.

In the end, I bailed on that challenge.  But because I had to switch up my living room couch for my computer chair, I ended up playing a far wider variety of games this year than I ever expected, and I also ended up feeling some pretty powerful feels, when all is said and done.

III.

Speaking of feels, normally I avoid talking about game industry news in these year-end posts, but 2013 featured two game-related stories that I feel should be brought up, being that they affected me and people I know personally.

(1)  I couldn’t continue with this post without mentioning the passing of the late, great Ryan Davis.  It’s weird to talk about being a fan of a gaming journalist, but I was a Ryan Davis fan, ever since his early Gamespot days.  Even though we’d never met or corresponded in any way, I still felt like we would’ve hit it off if we’d somehow been introduced; his gregariousness would certainly have made me feel welcome.  It is still weird to not hear his voice introducing the Bombcast; indeed, the Bombcast has not been the same without him.

(2)  I also couldn’t talk about 2013 without mentioning the internet; specifically, how awful it is, and how, despite my desire to become a professional gaming journalist, I kinda sorta want nothing to do with it.  This craziness has been around for a long while, of course, but this was the first time that I started to take it personally, even if none of it was ever directed my way.  This was the year in which noted game developer and notorious troll-feeder Phil Fish not only ragequit Twitter entirely, but took Fez 2 with him.  This was the year in which a Call of Duty engineer made a small mathematical adjustment to the damage of a gun and received death threats in return.  This was the year in which a Gamespot review that gave GTA V a 9 out of 10 resulted in over 20,000 vile, hateful, evil comments.  (That the review was written by a good friend of mine only made it feel worse.)  This was the year in which there were so many instances of rape and death threats directed at female journalists and game developers for no reason other than their gender that it eventually somehow became a non-story, which is unbelievably distressing.  I don’t have an answer for this, and I don’t know how the victims of this incessant abuse are able to deal with it.  It makes me unbearably sad.  It reflects poorly on us all.

*sigh*

And that’s why I don’t talk about news in these posts!  Let’s get on with the show.

THE YEAR IN ACHIEVEMENTS:  As of 1/1/2013, my score was 86295, when I finished the Leviathan DLC for ME3.  As of 12/23/13, it’s 87915, and it’s highly unlikely that number will change any time soon, considering that I’m barely playing my 360 these days and that I’m all but certain I’m getting a PS4 first.  In any event, this is by far the lowest yearly increase since I bought the 360 in the first place, and this is probably the last year that I pay attention to it or include it in these posts.

BEST MECHANIC:  There’s no runaway winner in this category like there was last year with Dishonored and “Blink”.  But I suppose it should be noted that the control scheme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the only control scheme I’ve ever played that, because of narrative events, caused me to cry (in a good way).

GAMES FINISHED:  I said in the introduction that this year’s ratio of games finished to games played was absurd.  According to my Google spreadsheet, I played 71 games this year, but only finished 15.  This is embarrassing, but there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, the baby’s arrival meant that my game time was limited, and so I wasn’t going to waste my time with stuff that wasn’t grabbing me right off the bat – there were lots of Gamefly titles that came and went often on the same day.  Secondly, quite a few of the games on my spreadsheet are 3DS games, but I’m starting to realize that I never have a good time to play them; I don’t like bringing the 3DS out on the subway, and playing it at work is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and if I play it at bedtime my hands cramp up and my eyes start freaking out, and so I’m not sure I ended up making any significant progress on any of the 3DS games in my library this year.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’m going to assign most of the blame on Steam Sales, which make games on my wishlist appear far more appetizing than they should, and which is an affliction that obviously affects us all.  I’m already prone to poor impulse control anyway; Steam Sales mean that I’m continually biting off far more than I can be expected to chew.

  • The Cave (one playthrough, at least – you need to play 3 times to see everything, and even though the game is pretty short, I didn’t like it enough to play it that much)

  • Devil May Cry

  • Tomb Raider (twice)

  • Bioshock Infinite

  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

  • The Last of Us

  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

  • Gone Home

  • Saints Row 4

  • GTA V

  • Rain

  • Beyond: Two Souls

  • Assassin’s Creed 4

  • The Stanley Parable (I think I finished it, at least)

Did Not Finish, Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Antichamber (came pretty close, I think, but my hard drive crashed and I lost that save forever)

  • BIT TRIP Runner 2 (which I’d like to go back to, definitely – it’s certainly my favorite soundtrack of 2013)

  • Etrian Odyssey 4 (currently stuck in a weird spot and I don’t know how to advance; it’s been months since I picked it up, though, and I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I started again)

  • Ni No Kuni (which I recall enjoying, but then the baby came and I got a bit distracted)

  • The Swapper (to be finished in 2014)

  • Shadowrun Returns (to be finished in 2014)

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening

  • Dishonored DLC

  • Shadow Warrior (to be finished in 2014)

  • Rayman Legends (to be finished in 2014)

  • LEGO Marvel (to be finished in 2014)

  • Zelda: Link Between Worlds (to be finished in 2014?)

  • Papers Please (to be finished in 2014)

  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team

Barely Started:

  • Amnesia: Home for Pigs

  • Civ V: Brave New World DLC

  • Kentucky Route Zero

  • XCOM: Enemy Within

  • Fire Emblem Awakening

  • Gunpoint

  • Eldritch

  • The Wolf Among Us

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Remember Me

  • Animal Crossing: A New Leaf

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish:

  • Splinter Cell Blacklist (pretty sure this franchise is dead to me now, too)

  • Castlevania 3DS (I’d spend more time typing out the full title than I did playing the game)

  • Metro Last Light (meh, personified)

  • Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate (the 3DS game is tedious, confusing, and kinda ugly)

Notable Games I Did Not Play:

  • Dead Space 3

  • Metal Gear Revengeance

  • SimCity

  • God of War: Ascension

  • Starcraft 2: HoS

  • Gears of War: Judgment

  • Crysis 3

  • Grid 2

  • Spelunky (PC)

  • Pokemon X/Y

  • The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

  • Battlefield 4

  • Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

  • Tearaway (though it makes me think about getting a Vita)

  • any of the PS4/XONE exclusives

Best voice performance

  • Gone Home – Sarah Grayson as “Sam”.  There is no game here without Sam’s story, and Ms. Grayson’s performance is true and genuine and heartbreaking.  She’s given a great script, to be sure, but without an effective actor the game would never hit the same emotional peaks.  (As I said in my review for the NYVCC, “Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.”)

Best soundtrack:

  • BitTrip Runner 2, and I say this even though I haven’t finished the game – the soundtrack is on Spotify and it’s excellent.  It’d clearly make for a great exercise soundtrack, I think, and if I ever get around to exercising on a regular basis I might have to try that out.  And as far as runner-ups are concerned, there was a Disasterpeace remix album of Fez songs that was quite nice, although it’s not exactly a 2013 game.

Most Disappointing:

  • I didn’t play it, but it sounds like Dead Space 3 was pretty terrible; it also seems to have killed the franchise, which is a real shame.

  • As for games I did play, The Cave was charming and quirky, but not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped, and the idea that I’d have to play it three times to see everything was very quickly tossed out before I’d finished it once.  On the flip side, Bioshock Infinite and GTA V were both incredible experiences and staggering technological achievements, and I finished them both and don’t regret the time I spent with them, but they also had some very significant and glaring flaws, and I haven’t felt compelled to revisit them the way I thought I would.  (Side note:  I quite liked the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite, even if it was similarly flawed.)

A Once-Favorite Franchise I’m More or Less Ready to Give Up On:

  • It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that the last Splinter Cell game that I genuinely enjoyed was Chaos Theory, on the original Xbox.  I did my best to give this year’s edition a fair shake, but I was completely disengaged with it halfway through the 2nd mission.

Best Gaming Podcast:

  • Bombin’ the AM with Scoops and The Wolf.  Two smart, funny dudes (and the occasional terrific guest) who actually talk about shit I care about, twice a week, in a reasonable amount of time.  (If I can get real here for a second, I’m finding the regular Giant Bombcast to be damn-near impossible to listen to these days.  It’s rare that I have 3 hours in a given week to listen to it, and I don’t find myself ever needing to hear Jeff and Vinny riff for 45 minutes about sandwiches or plumbing supplies or go-bags or wrestling or early 90s hip-hop.  Indeed, the cult of personality that has lately enveloped Giant Bomb has made it a site that I’m just not spending that much time with anymore, with the notable exception of PK’s “Worth Reading” columns.)

Favorite Articles:

What I’m Hoping to See Announced in 2014 (even if it doesn’t come out in 2014) (and even though this list can only be based on existing IP because I can’t get excited for brand-new IP that I don’t yet know about):

  • Fallout 4, built with the Rage engine (the game’s been confirmed, even if the engine hasn’t)

  • Uncharted 4  (confirmed by a teaser trailer)

  • new Batman game built by Rocksteady (rumored)

  • or something else built by Rocksteady, I’ll buy it anyway

  • a new, next-gen Criterion-built Burnout game

  • Portal 3

  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • a new Crash Bandicoot game (and maybe there’s hope for this yet:  http://www.polygon.com/2013/11/25/5142830/activision-wants-to-resurrect-crash-bandicoot-series)

  • Mark of the Ninja 2

  • Shadow Complex 2

  • Tomb Raider 2 (in this new rebooted series)

  • new Deus Ex

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I really ought to just make a separate category for PikPok and Adult Swim, as pretty much everything they put out is terrific; there were a ton of great games for iOS this year, and here are the best of the best:

  • XCOM

  • The Room Two

  • Flick Kick Football Legends

  • Giant Boulder of Death

  • Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Infinity Blade III

  • Angry Birds Star Wars 2

  • Puzzle and Dragon

  • Spirit Stones

  • Device 6

  • Year Walk

  • Ridiculous Fishing

  • Rayman Fiesta Run

  • Colassatron

TOP 10 (with profound apologies everything in my “Did Not Finish But Would Like To Someday” list, and especially to The Last of Us, which is certainly a good game but not an experience I can claim that I enjoyed, and also The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which everyone else acknowledges is amazing and which I’ve already acknowledged I can’t quite get into):

10.  Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.  The Call of Juarez name does not inspire much confidence, and I certainly didn’t expect very much (even if I’d heard some good things).  An absurdly low Steam Sale price got me to pick this up, though, and I’m really glad I did; it’s a fun little Western with great shooting mechanics and which has a lot of fun with narrative structure and the idea of the “tall tale.”  And the boss duels were pretty terrific, too.  My pick for most underrated / overlooked game of the year.

9.  Saints Row IV.  Considering what happened to THQ, and considering that this was originally supposed to be a DLC mission pack for Saints Row 3, it’s amazing that this turned out as well as it did.  If nothing else, it somehow managed to out-crazy the already crazy SR3, and frankly I have literally no idea how they’ll top it in the next one.

8.  The Stanley Parable.  Speaking of games having fun with narrative structure, this is also the funniest game since Portal 2, and also one that has moments of startling beauty and emotional resonance.  Perhaps this is more “art game” than “game”, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

7.  Bioshock Infinite.  Perhaps it’s my own fault; perhaps my expectations were too high, and so this game was never going to be good enough.  Or perhaps its just that the great and insightful critical responses to the first game made me hyper-aware of this game’s logical flaws and fallacies.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of shooters, and there was so much shooting in this game.  Whatever the case, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to.  But I can’t deny that there’s a tremendous amount to love and appreciate in this game, too – the graphics, the sound design, the art direction, the world, the music, the characters, the ending…

6.  GTA V.  I’ve written far too many words about this game already.  The short version is that even though the game’s story is silly (to put it kindly), and the three main characters are morally and ethically reprehensible, and the game’s treatment of women is profoundly sad – despite all of that, the world that Rockstar has created here is truly remarkable, and it’s about goddamned time that the gameplay has finally caught up with the rest of the industry.   While I wonder if I’m getting too old for this series – which is a thought that feels thoroughly depressing – I still hold out hope that Rockstar will get the narrative stuff straightened out for GTA VI.

5.  Devil May Cry.  I’m not a fan of the earlier games in the franchise, but I am a fan of Ninja Theory, and what they’ve done with this reboot is pretty incredible.  This was a visually stunning game, and it felt great to play – this might be my 2nd favorite melee combat system behind Batman, frankly.  Can’t wait to see what they do next.

4.  Tomb Raider.  Apparently I wasn’t so keen on this the first time I played it, but for some reason I felt compelled to replay it later on and then I fell in love with it.  Sure, the grotesque death sequences are a little much (as are the constant grunts and howls of pain), and maybe the ending was a little hokey, but I thought this was a fantastic reboot of an important franchise; it made Lara a real person instead of a hyper-sexualized automaton, and it made the violence matter.  Killing a person (or even an animal) shouldn’t be easy, and you can feel how it chews her up as the game progresses, even as she learns to harden herself from it.  Speaking of which, the gameplay was quite good – this might’ve been the first Lara Croft game with genuinely fun combat, frankly.  I hope that for the next one, they put back some of the tombs and the puzzles – that’s what I really play these games for, and I’m hoping that now that they’ve better established who Lara is, they can now put her in some interesting situations.

3.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.  I’ve written too much about this (and too recently) to recap it effectively here, so I’ll keep it short – I was all but ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed, but then this came out and now I’m fully engaged again.  Hell, I still want to go back and finish all the stuff I hadn’t yet gotten to.  A very welcome return to a much beleaguered franchise.

2.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  This sorta came out of nowhere; I don’t recall hearing that much about it before I picked it up, although I must’ve heard something that compelled me to check it out.  In any event, I’m forever grateful that I did; I had an absolutely delightful time with it.  And then, of course, there’s that ending… Like I said earlier, I’m not sure that a control scheme has ever moved me to tears, but there you have it.

1.  Gone Home.  Here’s that question again, the one I asked at the beginning of last year’s GOTY post, and the one that I brought up again earlier in this one:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”  There are so many things to say about this game, and there are a lot of people who’ve said it a lot better than me – go back and read those links I posted earlier.  It’s rare to see a game affect people so deeply and profoundly; indeed, it’s rare that gamers let themselves be moved.  We generally play games knowing that, for the most part, we’re not playing it for the story – and games are, for better or worse, generally built with that philosophy in mind.  All I knew about this game going into it was that it was kind of spooky, and that it was a game of pure exploration – no combat, no enemies, no ticking clock.  And for the first third of it, I thought I was playing in a haunted house – there’s one particular jump scare that still spooks me when I think about it.  Of course, the game turned into a deep and moving love story, and my tears at the ending were genuine tears of joy.  A truly special experience and a game that I’ll always remember.

a slight change of plans

Sorry for the recent radio silence here.  The day job has been absurdly busy and time-consuming this week, and my evenings have been busy with work, social events and non-gaming-related activities, and the small amount of remaining time I’ve had to carve out for games-relating writing has been strictly focused on the upcoming Year In Games 2013 post.

Speaking of which, I’m nearly 2200 words into that post, but now, suddenly, I have to put it on pause for a little bit.  I recently came into an Amazon gift card, and just this morning I happened to see that Amazon has the PC download (i.e., Steam-able) version of Batman Arkham Origins available for 40% off.  I’d been waiting for a Steam sale to pick it up, but it hasn’t been discounted there at all this year – and meanwhile I think this is the second time Amazon had it on sale.  In any event, the gift card meant that I didn’t have to pay for it anyway, so it’s now currently downloading on my home PC.

Of all the notable games of 2013 that I had not played, BAO was the one that I’d most hoped I’d get to.  (Is that the second most-awkward sentence I’ve written this year?  Not sure anything beats the first paragraph of this post.)  The two previous Batman games are among my favorites of the entire console generation, and even though I know that this newest entry is (a) not developed by Rocksteady, (b) apparently pretty buggy, especially on the PC, and (c) probably not going to bust into my Top 10 (if the general review-scape is any indication), I’m still kinda jonesing to play it.

So, then, that’s the plan for this weekend during baby nap-times: to finish as much as I can of BAO, maybe try to squeeze in a bit more of Zelda 3DS, and also get the apartment ready for hosting Christmas next week.  And so the GOTY post will have to wait just a bit longer.

Also: pretty much everything on iOS is on sale right now, and so if you have some room on your iOS device, you should get busy.  Angry Birds Star Wars II is currently free.  I picked up the Deus Ex game for iPad this morning for 99 cents, and I think I might get KOTOR when I get home ($5, down from $10).

Also also:  The Room Two is fan-fucking-tastic.

Also also also:  While the control scheme is a bit wonky, I still find it amazing that I have GTA: San Andreas on my fucking iPhone.

Also also also also:  Halfbrick (who made Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja, among others) have a new game out today, and it’s called Colassatron, and it’s pretty rad.

stepping away from the ledge

I came this close to buying a PS4 yesterday.  Amazon suddenly had them in stock yesterday afternoon, and I got as far as having one sitting in my cart and getting it scheduled for Saturday delivery, before ultimately bailing on it.  In fact, I did this twice.  But each time I sat there with my mouse hovering over the CONFIRM button, I found that I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Here’s the thing that I had to repeatedly remind myself of – there’s almost nothing in the launch lineup that I need to play.  There’s only 2 games for the PS4 that I’d even consider buying right now, and the thing is, I’d just spent 60 hours playing one of them (Assassin’s Creed 4) on my PC.  And while I’m intrigued by Need For Speed Rivals, it’s not the sort of intrigue that’s worth spending over $460 on.  The rest of the PS4 launch lineup doesn’t really interest me all that much – I suppose I’d like to see Battlefield 4, but I’d rather see it when it isn’t completely broken.  And I can pass on the sports titles.

Xbox Ones have been much easier to find – on Amazon, at least – and I suppose I’m kinda interested in Forza (microtransactions notwithstanding) and Dead Rising 3 (even if I’m not really a big fan of that franchise).  And I’ve heard enough decent things about Ryse to make it worth checking out.  But the rest of the XBO baggage (like the Kinect and the buggy dashboard) is what’s keeping me away, and in any event I’m still finding myself wanting to dive into GTA V Online every so often – or, at least, I want the option available – so I don’t necessarily want to disconnect my 360.

But I’m also in this weird, post-AC4 period where I’m wanting to play new stuff, even as I have a huge backlog of stuff I haven’t finished.  Indeed, I’ve been stuck all week in this paralytic state where I just stare at my Steam library and don’t actually play anything.  That backlog, incidentally, includes quality stuff like:

  • Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds
  • Shadow Warrior
  • Antichamber
  • Rayman Legends
  • Lego Marvel
  • The Swapper
  • Kentucky Route Zero
  • FC3: Blood Dragon
  • Dishonored DLC
  • Mass Effect 3 – The Citadel DLC

*sigh*

In the meantime, GTA San Andreas is currently loading on my iPad, and The Room 2 is already there, so I can maybe calm down with the next-gen consoles for the time being.

Also also, I’m hoping to have the Best of 2013 post up some time next week.  In addition, I think I’m going to be involved in the voting process for the NYVCC awards, which will mark the first time I’ve gotten to deliberate with peers (or, rather, people that I’d like to consider me as a peer one day), as opposed to the usual howling into the void that happens here.  In any event, keep your eyes peeled.

holiday weekend recap: the game of life (and also AC4)

There was not a lot of gaming this holiday weekend; it was my first Thanksgiving with the baby, though, which made it very special.

When you’re preparing to have a kid, the #1 thing everybody warns you about is that you’re never going to get any more sleep for the rest of your life.  This has turned out to be not entirely true in my case; our kid has slept through the night in his own crib pretty much every night since the day we took him home from the hospital.  It is true that we haven’t slept in in 8 months (with the notable exception of this past Saturday, when the wife and I headed up to her 20 Year High School Reunion without the baby, and we slept in the following morning until 9:00, and oh my gawd it was glorious), and it’s also true that I don’t sleep particularly well these days anyway, but that’s not the baby’s fault.

The thing they don’t tell you about having a baby, though, is how much you’re going to be sick.  Colds left and right, up and down, mucus and phlegm everywhere.  The three of us have been trading the same cold since the little guy’s first day of day care, which was 5 months ago.

So:  yes, I was home sick yesterday – as was the wife – but the kid was healthy and happy, and so we had to send him off to day care so that we could rest and not sneeze on him.  It was the first time the two of us had been alone in the house without the boy since before he was born, which was profoundly weird.  (Not nearly as weird as when I picked the boy up at the end of the day, though, because that marked the first time I’ve ever said the words “Hi, I’m Henry’s dad” to someone.)

Here is the point that I am slow in arriving towards:  being home sick all day without a baby to take care of means that I binged hard on Assassin’s Creed 4, which is now making a serious run at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Before I get to AC4, though, let me cover everything else very quickly:  (1) I’m inching along in the 3DS Zelda game, and it’s good.  (2) I have not bought anything during this new Steam Sale, and I’m very proud of myself for doing so.  (I suppose I was holding out for a big, big discount on the new Batman game – something bigger than 25%.  Apparently Amazon had the digital download available for 50% on Black Friday, but I was away from a computer and couldn’t seal the deal.)

OK, back to AC4.  I’m around 45% complete, somewhere in Sequence 8 – the game says I need to upgrade my ship before starting the next mission, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that I go explore the rest of the world, engage in some of those naval battles I’d been avoiding, unlock more waypoints and do more side missions.  Which I’m very happy to do, as a matter of fact.

Let me get my demerits out of the way first:

(1)  I know I’ve mentioned that I’ve got an older graphics card and that I’ve had to turn the settings down low in order to get a decent frame rate, but even then there are still certain moments (specifically, scenes at night and the scenes at Abstergo) where even turning the resolution down to its lowest setting can’t quite stop the game from sputtering to a standstill.  There was one particular mission (at night) where I had to tail a gunboat on foot, and the game kept hitching up about every other second; the missions was virtually unplayable.  And as cheesy as the modern-day stuff can be, I still like it, but my PC can barely run it without dying – and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason why.  I ran the new Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite on high settings and the game ran smooth as silk and looked absolutely jaw-dropping; AC4’s Abstergo sequences are just you in a modern office building, and so there’s no obvious culprit as to what’s causing the problem.  I’m too far into the game at this point to consider stopping and replaying it on a PS4, but I might just have to suck it up and get a better graphics card.

(2) The hand-to-hand combat is chaotic and it can be hard to tell where Kenway is on screen.  When it’s one-on-one, it’s OK, but when he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies it’s a mess.  (Of course, if he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies then it’s safe to say I’ve done something wrong, but still – they give you the option of fighting your way out, but it’s hard to see what’s happening.)  The larger issue, and this is hardly AC’s fault, is that the melee system is not quite as great as the Batman: Arkham system, even as AC is clearly now modelling itself after it (which is ironic, given that AC was around first).  The emphasis remains heavy on countering attacks, but the controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be – if I had to guess, I think that’s because there’s such a high priority on Kenway finishing his current animation, and all of his fighting animations tend to be long and fluid.

That’s it, as far as obvious flaws go, and both of those could be improved without the game needing to do anything – in the first case, I just need to upgrade my playing system and that graphical problem should go away (though it would be nice if they’d patch in some better optimization fixes), and in the second case, I need to stop being impatient and get myself into trouble.  It is always easier to sneak around and pick off dudes one by one – and those animations are very quick and precise, now that I think about it.

Well, there is one more thing I could nitpick:  some of those sea shanties are horrendously ear-wormy (specifically the one with the “and we say so, and we know so” refrain) and I can’t tell whether the solution is to find all the pages so that they don’t keep singing the same ones, or if I simply turn it off altogether.  A pirate ship without sea shanties is a weird, silent place, but maybe it’s better than wanting to punch that one singer in the throat.

The rest of the game is pretty goddamned magnificent, though.  Like: I love how deep the side missions go.  As an example, the “Kill the Templar” side missions (of which I’ve done 3) aren’t simply about tailing a dude and killing him (like in previous AC games); they’re often 4 or 5 scenes deep, with the story twisting and turning after each one, and the activities are varied enough that you stay on your toes.

But even the non-story stuff, like breaking into a cargo warehouse, takes some careful strategy and planning.  I do love running from cover to cover, saying visible just long enough to get one soldier to follow me so that I can pick him off silently, then hitting a sniper with a berzerk dart and watching him pick off his comrades before falling to his own death.  Getting to the door without being detected or setting off alarms is awesome, and I just wish the warehouses would fill up a bit faster so that I could do it more often (although the warehouses are also quite bountiful, as far as ship-stuff is concerned).

I’ll talk about this more in my 360/PS3 post, but one of my favorite new things this past generation gave us is the idea of your own customizable home base.  Saints Row did this pretty well with your “crib”, Mass Effect gave you the Normandy (which isn’t necessarily fully customizable, though you can make certain cosmetic changes), and AC4 gives you an island, a private manor, and (last but not least) the Jackdaw.  The path to upgrading is pretty expensive, to be sure, but it also means that each upgrade that you do make feels all the more satisfying.

Those naval battles that I’d been putting off?  Those are fun, too, although they’re not really the thing I look forward to the most when I fire the game up.  That being said, it is nice that the game lets you keep what you’ve salvaged even if you get sunk before you get a chance to sell.  Some might feel put off by how forgiving and easy this is, but for me, it makes the battles a bit less stressful (though still quite enjoyable); I don’t feel horribly punished if I get overrun.  And since ships are by far the best source of metal, I suppose I’m going to have to keep at it for a bit longer, and maybe I’ll start actually looking forward to it before long.

The story is serviceable, if a bit convoluted – but what would a AC game be if not convoluted?.  Kenway himself is not all that great a hero – he’s certainly not as charismatic as Ezio, although I must admit I got tired of Ezio by the time Revelations came around – but he gets the job done.  There is a “revelation” about Kenway’s compatriot James Kidd that could not have been more obvious even before Kidd’s first spoken words, but maybe for younger players they wouldn’t see it coming?  No matter.  The game has fun telling its story, which is more than I can say for the last two games, and it constantly feels like it’s moving forward instead of spinning its wheels.

The most impressive thing, though, is the true open world that the game has to offer.  Each island feels meticulously designed and detailed, no matter how small, and this makes for quite an incentive in terms of opening up the map and visiting every place you can find.  This is how AC was meant to be experienced – with a gigantic world filled with lots of different, enjoyable things to do.  It doesn’t necessarily feel “next-gen”, and yet it does feel absolutely massive, where there might be something interesting around every corner.