On Screenshots and Console Exclusivity

1.  There’s never going to be a SFTC YouTube channel, for whatever it’s worth; I simply can’t consume video the way the rest of the gaming community does, and so I’m incredibly ill-equipped to provide it.  For one thing, I just prefer reading as opposed to watching; for another, my day job is not conducive to watching videos (partly because it’s abundantly clear that I’m not working, partly because my office’s internet is kinda terrible), and when I’m home I’d rather be playing.  That being said, I can’t stop taking screenshots.  Yesterday I posted some shots I took from The Last of Us Remastered, and today I’m posting some shots from Mind: Path to Thalamus, a first-person exploration/puzzle game on the PC that is absolutely stunning to behold.  Everything I want to say about it was already said in this Rock Paper Shotgun review; the short version is that it’s staggeringly beautiful, and the puzzles seem to be smart and challenging without being unfair, but the narrative is, sadly, utterly dreadful and is not helped at all by possibly one of the worst voice-over performances I’ve ever heard in my life.  It’s absolutely worth playing, despite the VO, but just be aware that it’s dreadful and that everything else is terrific.  [EDIT:  I just re-read the RPS review and realized that their page features 2 nearly identical screenshots to ones I took and had originally included below.  I removed mine just so there’d be no confusion, but it was kinda neat to see that we were both taken aback by some of the exact same vistas.]

2.  I was away from the internet yesterday, and so I was only dimly aware of Gamescom.  When I started catching up, I found myself warming up to Microsoft’s news, getting excited about their upcoming indie releases, getting intrigued by the Sunset Overdrive bundle… and then the news about Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s exclusivity hit, and I found myself getting irrationally angry.

Look, I get it; I get that Microsoft is feeling desperate, and that it’s a bitter pill to swallow to find yourself in 2nd place after clearly dominating during the last console generation.  Indeed, Sony was in this exact same position with the PS3, as a matter of fact; they were flying high and mighty after the PS2 and totally misread the marketplace.  The difference, though, is that Sony owned up to their problems, displayed genuine humility, and their solution to win over the hearts and minds of the gaming community was to create spectacular first-party software that simply couldn’t be replicated on their competitor’s console.

So I’m sure Microsoft felt that they had to do something big, something that would make the Xbox One appealing to Sony fans and ex-360 fanboys who were reluctant to upgrade (like me), and so snagging exclusive rights to a highly-anticipated title like Tomb Raider was an absolutely necessary thing to get more people invested in the Xbox One.

But it’s clearly a move made of desperation, not out of humility and genuine concern for gamers.  (Not that I’ve ever thought that Microsoft and Sony’s #1 priority is to genuinely care about gamers, but Sony’s been doing a much better job over the last few years of selling that idea as believable.)  Microsoft isn’t investing in their own development studios and making their first-party portfolio more appealing; they’re simply buying exclusivity from a company that shouldn’t be making this deal in the first place.  Square’s already been on record as saying that the first TR didn’t meet their sales projections, and so putting the new TR on the 2nd place console literally makes no sense unless Microsoft made them an offer that they absolutely couldn’t refuse.

That Microsoft was once again unable to see how this decision would anger the gaming community is, sadly, par for the course.  And the fact that it took less than 24 hours for Phil Spencer to admit that the exclusivity period “has a duration” makes the whole thing just sad.  Microsoft wanted to win me back, but instead they’ve just pushed me farther away.

Hello Goodbye

1.  The short version is that I have decided to stop writing for Gamemoir, for the foreseeable future.  It’s not them, though; it’s me.

The tl;dr version is that I’ve been stressing out about each column for months, frantically trying to find time to concentrate and write something that isn’t terrible, all the while knowing that with one or two exceptions, most of my posts pretty much died on the vine.  I was home sick yesterday, and I hadn’t yet pitched a column for this coming Monday, and I couldn’t think of anything, and I realized that I was going to be super-busy this weekend, and so unless I was able to pull it together under less than ideal circumstances in the few free hours I had, I wasn’t going to get anything handed in.  And I ultimately came to the realization that while I do tend to like the pressure of deadlines, there’s only so much pressure I can take before I feel defeated by simply looking at an empty page.

It’s easier for me to post here, because I can just sit down and stay in my own voice and not be so preoccupied with traffic-grabbing headlines and topics and stuff.  And I think that I’ll probably be able to post a little bit more here, actually, since I won’t feel like I need to “save” anything.  (Indeed, this post ended up at almost 900 words and it only took about 45 minutes to write.)

It’s also a kick in the ass, though.  If I’m ever going to get regular freelance work – and I still feel like I’m a ways off in terms of having the sort of chops that can compete in an over-saturated freelance pool – I need to be able to concentrate, and be able to carve out writing time without losing too much family time (and/or getting in trouble at my day job), and so even just learning what I have to do just to get an 800-1000 word column up every week is an eye-opening experience, to say the very least.

I still plan on trying to pitch to other sites, but only when I feel that I have something good to pitch.

I’m eternally grateful for the patience, the support, and the invaluable experience that the Gamemoir crew gave me in my too-short stay there.

2.  Much to my surprise, I’ve been getting sucked back into The Last of Us Remastered, even though I felt pretty resolute in my decision to bail.  Part of this is almost certainly due to the fact that I’m playing it on Easy, right from the get-go.  It’s still challenging, but it’s not nearly as frustrating as it is on Normal, and so I’m able to explore and move the story forward without getting bogged down in repetitive combat scenarios that lose their effectiveness with every restart.

I’m also surprised as to how much of the game I remember.  True, I’d just played it last year, but I was also playing it under newborn-baby sleep-deprived circumstances.

It’s hard for me to tell if there’s really that much of a graphical difference between the PS3 and PS4 versions.  With other 2014 HD remasters of 2013 games (Tomb Raider immediately comes to mind), the difference between last- and current-gen was actually quite pronounced.  That being said, the PS3 version of TLOU was the best-looking game on that system (and possibly of the entire console generation), and so the PS4 version basically feels slightly more rich, if that makes sense.  Beyond that, I think the only way I’d be able to tell the difference is that the PS4 controller makes the game a lot easier to deal with.

3.  I am really, really, really enjoying The Swapper on Vita.  I liked it on the PC but didn’t get all that far into it and eventually lost interest, but it feels absolutely perfect in my hands (even if I’m currently stuck on 2 different puzzle rooms). I’m especially loving the cross-save support, in that I was able to pick up some orbs on the PS4 (because I wanted to see what it looked like on my TV), and then move that save to the Vita so that I didn’t lose anything.  Cross-save support is the best.  As far as I’m concerned, Sony’s cross-save system might just be the biggest ace up its sleeve in the console war with the Xbox One; having indie games that I can play at home or on the go without losing progress is too good an offer to walk away from.

4.  Speaking of cross-save, I must admit to being a little bummed that I can’t get my PC save of Diablo III over to my PS4.  Blizzard’s doing a hell of a job letting you import console saves from different generations AND different manufacturers, and that’s certainly commendable, but I’m not about to lose over 100 hours of PC playtime just so that I can start over from scratch in my living room.

5.  I am an idiot.  I took a screenshot from The Last Of Us Remastered yesterday and a Twitter pal asked if it would make for a new SFTC mascot, and OF COURSE it would, and now I’m wondering why I haven’t been taking screenshots of couches in every game I’ve played for the last 4 years.

The Next Few Hours: Thief

It is much easier to describe what’s wrong with an OK game (or film, or book, or album) than what’s right.  Problems/mistakes are often very specific and universally recognizable, whereas positive traits can sometimes only be felt, and then only after a few hours of play.

To that end, let me at least start off this post by saying that I don’t actively hate Thief anymore.  My original list of problems still holds true, and I’ve been able to identify a bunch of new ones (which I will list below), but I’ve managed to become intrigued by what I’ve seen, and I must admit that I am enjoying the actual moment-to-moment gameplay quite a bit.  I’m still playing as non-lethally as I can – even avoiding takedowns whenever possible – and pulling off a mission without being spotted is quite a thrill.

Basically, if you can ignore the incoherent narrative, the bizarre design choices, the choppy voice acting, the strangeness of the City’s lack of any definable characteristics, and the juvenile, puerile titillation of the first half of the brothel mission (which is the mission I just finished), and you just concentrate on straight-up thievery and stealth, there’s some genuine fun to be had.

But it can be very, very hard to ignore all that other stuff.

[It occurs to me that some of the stuff I complain about below could be design choices that were in the original games, and that the developers felt obligated to keep for that reason.  I hope that’s the case, actually, instead of the alternative; but in any event, the fact remains that those original games came out a long, long time ago, and game design has evolved considerably since then, and some of these issues simply should not be there anymore.]

1.  Polygon’s Ben Kuchera recently wrote a great piece about checkpoints, and how difficult they are to properly design and implement.  Thief’s checkpoint system isn’t necessarily terrible, but it can be incredibly frustrating and/or annoying.  More to the point:  unlike, say, Tomb Raider (another Square Enix joint), which automatically saved every time you found a collectible item, Thief only saves under three conditions:  (1) you manually save, (2) you enter a new area, or (3) you hide in a closet without being in a combat state.  So if you’ve been cleaning up the town for a bit [see 1a below for more on this] and then accidentally get into a scuffle – and if you didn’t engage in one of those 3 conditions above – you will lose all of your progress since your last save if you end up dying.  As I said before, I’m trying to play non-lethally, and as such I’m deliberately not equipped to go toe-to-toe with anyone; if I get discovered, I more or less just give up and reload and try to figure out another approach.  But if I haven’t manually saved in the last 2o minutes, after scooping up a few hundred dollars worth of loot?  I’ve gotta do it all again.  Which sucks.  

1a.  Again, this isn’t necessarily that big a deal, BUT:  loot can be found anywhere, especially in places where it has absolutely no reason to be (i.e., coin purses in bird nests; golden ashtrays on raised wooden planks where no smoker would dare to loiter).   While this serves as a useful enticement for fully exploring the environment, it’s also without any logical sense whatsoever, and so it feels incredibly artificial and breaks any suspension of disbelief.  Another way to say it is that it doesn’t feel like I’m stealing so much as I am simply picking up litter.

2.  The map is useless.  If you find a hidden passageway the game will alert you that the map has been updated, but it literally doesn’t matter, because the map makes no sense.  It serves no useful function; it shows neither direction nor location, but rather a bunch of interconnected rectangles.  The game has an objective marker in your field of view anyway, and so all you need to do is head in that direction in any way you choose.  But if you find a hidden area and want to remember where it is?  Or if you want to go to a shop to resupply before going on a mission but can’t remember where the shop is located?  Too bad, there’s no ability to set a custom waypoint.

3.  Further to that last point, the game does not explicitly give you an opportunity to resupply yourself before a mission, which is insane.  I’d managed to scoop up a bunch of loot after the first mission, and I knew there were tools that I could now afford (specifically, the wirecutter) that I wanted to play with, and I sort of assumed that I’d find a vendor before heading to the brothel mission.  But aside from randomly stumbling across a vendor in a very out-of-the-way corner (who was only selling different kinds of arrows and basic supplies), I was not given a chance to buy the things I needed, and I didn’t know that the only place I could buy that stuff was in the complete opposite direction.  And once I figured it out, I still had to remember where the shop actually was, and the map – again – was utterly useless in that regard.

4.  This is less of a complaint and more of a bug, I think; I often stumble upon throwable objects (which come in handy if I need a pesky guard to go somewhere else), but the game will tell me that my inventory is full and that I can’t pick it up.  Except my inventory is not full, and whenever I need to throw something, the game tells me I have nothing to throw.  Does this mean that I can only carry a certain overall total of tools, and so if I’m carrying too many water arrows I can’t carry throwable bottles?  Or does this mean that the game is simply fucked up?  I can certainly carry infinite amounts of loot (which don’t weigh me down or make any noise, either)…

5.  I’m still very early, and I’ve not seen all there is to see.  But the brothel mission is so weird.  For starters, the brothel itself feels larger than the City that encloses it, and this is to say nothing of the second half of the mission (which feels substantially larger than the brothel that encloses it).  Then there’s the brothel itself, which features a lot of boobs and simulated screwing and a lot of dialogue that sounds as if it were written by overly horny 14-year-olds (who should absolutely NOT be playing this game, if only for this mission alone).  The mission also involves this weird hidden rune thing and a cipher that you use to crack it, except I don’t remember picking up the cipher in the first place, and in any event the controls you use to interact with it are backwards.  (Plus, there seems to be another bug; the game only starts identifying these runes as significant once you find a certain one.  I’d been staring at a different one first, for 5 full minutes, trying to figure out what it meant, before moving on and finding the one that “triggered” the cipher.)

You see what I mean?  This post is over 1200 words long and I spent at least 1000 of them describing the game’s problems, and only 200 or so saying I was having enough fun to stick with it.  Criticism is a tough business.

The First Few Hours: the new Lara, the new-ish XCOM

cw

So on Tuesday, I spent $60 to digitally download Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition for my PS4.  As I’ve already played and beaten this game (to 100% completion) twice already on the PC, I was a bit apprehensive about why I had to buy it; if I’d only been willing to wait a few more days, I’d have received a rental copy early next week.

There are three reasons why I succumbed, as it turns out.  The first reason, as always, is that I am a consumer whore, and I cannot resist the temptation of instant gratification.  (Even if “instant gratification” in this particular case means waiting over an hour for the download to finish, and then (because the game is still familiar) playing through the beginning so quickly that I caught up with the download progress and had to turn it off for the night.)

The second reason is that, like most PS4 owners, I really, really want to play games on it.  Even if it’s a game that I’ve already played before where the only real difference is a number of substantial graphical improvements.  (Exhibit A:  Assassin’s Creed 4.)

The third and final reason is, perhaps, guilt?  Square-Enix came right out and called the original release a “failure”, even as it sold 3.5 million copies in its first month.  As I was already a Tomb Raider fan, and as I was also a big big fan of this reboot, I felt compelled to at least offer my support – again – in getting a sequel made.  I don’t know what else I can do, Square-Enix.

In any event:  I bought it, and I’ve played through a few hours of it, and for the most part I can say that I’m happy I bought it, even as the graphical enhancements are not as eye-popping as I’d hoped.

This is not to say it looks bad, of course.  I never played the original version on console, but on my PC it looked quite nice, and this enhanced version on the PS4 generally looks phenomenally better.  Most everything looks sharp and crisp and finely detailed; forests actually feel dense and, well, forest-y, with swaying foliage and trees and mists; Lara’s face is far more expressive and realistic.

Still, there’s some weirdness here and there.  In that opening gameplay sequence, where Lara is suspended upside down, the much-vaunted TressFX has her ponytail hanging upside down, but her bangs remain right-side up; when Lara crouches in crawlspaces with her torch, the fire against the roof is still a 2D sprite; when Lara moves through water, the water still ripples oddly and unconvincingly; the deer that you hunt still look… weird.  These are very small nitpicks, to be sure, but the whole point of this “Definitive Edition” was that the graphics were redone, and as I’ve already played the hell out of this game I can’t help but look at the small stuff this time around.

The game is still great, I’m happy to say, and I’m also still impressed by the PS4 controller.  I know I keep bringing it up, but you gotta understand – I hated the Dualshock 3 almost as much as I loved the Xbox360 controller.  My only gripe is that I keep forgetting how the face buttons are configured, which means I usually fail the game’s quicktime events the first time around.  That aside, the game works just fine, especially where combat is concerned, and so now I am really getting excited for Uncharted 4.

*     *     *

As far as Operation Backlog is concerned, I have spent the last week or so slowly playing through XCOM Enemy Within, which feels a bit like a “remix” rather than a full expansion.

I am playing it on Easy, because I’m a grown-ass man and I can do whatever I want; but also because I’m still terribly intimidated by the game.  I try as hard as I can to not make any mistakes, because the game absolutely beats the shit out of you if you do, and so every mission is very stressful and tense and I’m kinda just creeping along, desperate to stay in cover, trying to remember which of my squad are holding the medkits just in case.

I have not gotten far enough into the game to get into the “Meld” business – I’ve only done the first 5 or 6 missions, and I’ve got quite a stockpile of the stuff, but I don’t think I’ve yet built the requisite facilities to work with it.  It may take some time, really, as my play sessions only tend to last for one mission (and then the requisite post-mission housekeeping).  I can only take so much stress, people.

SFTC 400: a bit of a downer

WordPress says this is my 400th post, although that number includes the old posts at the now-defunct blogspot URL and some drafts-in-progress.  Still, though, 400 posts!  Let’s celebrate this historic milestone by talking about anxiety, depression, and my poor impulse control as it relates to Steam Summer Sales.

You see, every time there’s a Steam sale, I get all excited and tingly – which is ridiculous, because according to the Steam Calculator, I already own everything and I’ve only played less than half of it:
  • Games owned: 338
  • Games not played: 166  (49%)
…and so not only do I get excited and tingly for no good reason, but I also, then, find myself getting a little disappointed that there’s nothing new on sale that I haven’t already bought.
Of course, that doesn’t actually stop me.  As of Monday afternoon, here’s my current haul (10 games, approximately $40):
  • Dirt 3
  • Super Puzzle Platformer Puzzle
  • The Last Remnant
  • Home
  • Rogue Legacy
  • Sword & Sworcery EP
  • Thomas Was Alone
  • Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
  • Bully: Scholarship Edition
  • Toki Tori 2

There’s more stupid irony to come, as you might expect.  3 of the games on that list are games I’ve already played and simply wanted better-looking versions of (Dirt 3, Sword & Sworcery, Bully).  I’d heard good things about Home and Thomas Was Alone, and since I keep saying I’m tired of shooters I figured I’d get on board with some quality indie non-shooters.  I can’t necessarily explain The Last Remnant, other than that every once in a while I get a JRPG itch, and this was $6 or something.  Toki Tori 2… well, for some reason Steam had given me a 10% discount coupon, which on top of the sale discount made it a no-brainer.  Blood Dragon was stupid cheap, and I still sorta-like Far Cry 3.  But the ultimate point that I’m driving at is that of the 10 games on that list above, Rogue Legacy is the only one that I had a genuine hunger for, and while it was modestly discounted it wasn’t even part of the actual sale.

And yet, here’s the dumbest part of this whole enterprise:

Even though I’ve added 10 new games to my already absurd collection, you know what I ended up playing the most this weekend?  Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider, which are games that I’d already beaten quite thoroughly earlier this year.

I don’t know why.  I suppose I was curious to see what this Steam Badge thing is all about; I’m still not 100% sure what they are or why I need them, and I’m not about to start annoying my friends list in hopes of completing a set, but after playing for half an hour or so and coming back up for air, I’d see that I’d unlocked a new badge, and so that’s an easy enough carrot to chase.

But I think there’s more to it (i.e., the replaying of finished games) than mere curiosity over Badges.  I think that I just wanted to travel over familiar ground.

This happens sometimes, especially when I’m feeling anxious and/or depressed.  I suppose I’ve been feeling a bit of both, lately. Truth is, I’m in a bit of a life-rut.  I mean, I love my kid, and I love my wife, and those are the most important things and that’s all well and good.  But I’ve been super-stressed out about money, my day job, my music career, my flailing attempts at creativity, my kid’s future and my ability to provide for him, and etc.  And so there’s been times lately when I sit down in front of my computer and I look at my “Installed Games” folder and I’m overcome with a sort of paralysis – I have too many choices, and none of them are scratching the right itch, and so rather than try something new that might be confusing or “arty” or difficult or non-intuitive, which are normally things that I’m intrigued by, I end up going towards the thing that I already know and am familiar with.

Along those lines, I’ve also been punishing myself by replaying a little bit of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  Playstation Network was offering free copies for PSN users, and so I felt compelled to download it and see how it felt on my TV, and I played for a few minutes… but the PC version just looks and feels better, and there’s also something about playing it in my tiny, cramped office that adds to the tension, so I went back to the PC version.   I’d lost my old game save when my hard drive crashed, so I’ve been starting anew, and it’s been an interesting experience getting back into it – I’m not playing nearly as stupidly as I did the first time around, for one thing, though it’s still very tense and I can only play it for 30 minutes or so before the tension overwhelms the fun.

Regarding the rest of the Steam Sale:  I’m trying to hold off, though there’s really not much else that I’d be picking up at this point that I don’t already have.  I suppose I’d like to see Gunpoint come back – it was up for a community vote and lost, but considering that Dishonored came back after losing a vote, perhaps this one will come back as a featured item.  I’d tried the demo and liked it, but I also knew that at a certain point I’d probably get flustered and frustrated with it… so I’d rather pay less if I’m going to get it.

What about you guys?

weekend recap: all tombs raided

Finished Tomb Raider.  Currently at around 93% completion, and I’m not sure I give a shit about finding the last few things there are to find.  Lara is fully leveled up, as are her weapons (not that there are that many people to fight), and the stuff that’s left (mostly GPS caches) doesn’t have much of a payoff.  Usually when I finish one of these kinds of action/adventure games, I feel compelled to go back and replay one of my favorite levels, if only to really take in the scenery and find all the hidden stuff without the pressure of combat.  But you can’t really do that in this edition of Tomb Raider, as there aren’t really any levels to speak of.  There are certainly different geographic locations on the island, but it’s not quite the same thing.

I think, overall, that it’s a very good game; that the developer’s intentions were clear, and that they were largely successful in achieving what they set out to achieve.  But it’s not perfect; there’s still too much killing (and, let me tell you – for a girl who starts out hesitant and apologetic to kill a deer in order to survive, she ends up kneecapping dudes with pickaxes and spearing dudes in the throat with arrows), and the whole 2nd act is basically one long chase sequence where everything is on fire.

There’s also something else that troubles me a little bit, though it’s a bit more subtle; they go through great lengths to make Lara Croft a real, relatable human being this time around, someone grounded in reality (even if she has an incredibly high tolerance for pain).  But without getting too spoilery, the mystery of the island is, in fact, something supernatural.  I was actually hoping for some scientific, grounded-in-reality explanation to what was going on, being that everything else was meant to evoke a real-world feeling.  The ending isn’t necessarily disappointing, but it did feel a bit… hokey.

I’d also add that some of the systems they introduce in the beginning feel unnecessary and undeveloped – like the whole survivalist thing, about needing to hunt game in order to stay alive.  Actually, once you kill that first deer mentioned above, you don’t need to kill any animals (besides the wolves that attack you) ever again; and if you do, the XP you gain is modest, at best.  I’m not saying I wanted them to introduce a hunger system, but it’s just weird that in the beginning of the game it’s presented as something important, and within 30 minutes it’s an afterthought.

Still, problems aside, I had a really good time with it; I’d give it a solid B+.  I’m just not sure if I’ll ever find myself going back to play it again, the way I have with other, similar titles.

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My 3DS experience continues to be hit-or-miss.  I’ve got 2 games on rental right now – Etrian Odyssey 4 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, which, if nothing else, wins the “Most Ridiculous Title of 2013” award.  I gave Castlevania about 30 minutes before sending it back; the screens are too dark to really see what’s going on, and the 3D gives me a splitting headache – even with it turned off.  And the first real boss was a bit of a dick.  I generally like Castlevania games – not necessarily for the fiction, but for the action and the map-filling and such.  But this one kinda felt like it was going nowhere, fast.

Etrian Odyssey, on the other hand, is a bit more interesting, and I’m tempted to stick with it – even if a lot of the mechanics seem needlessly convoluted.  It’s a fairly standard dungeon-crawling turn-based RPG, but there’s also this map-making feature that’s kinda fascinating, where you actually chart your progress through each dungeon’s maze.  Some of your quests actually depend on your cartography skills – you need to be able to point to something on the map in order to show your quest-giver where a given object might be.   The party management system is not very intuitive, and so I’m never sure if I’ve arranged my party correctly or if they’re as well-equipped as they need to be.  It’s tempting to think that a lot of this stuff would be familiar to people who’ve played the earlier 3 games, but I haven’t, and I don’t plan to, and so I’m stuck with a level of obtuseness that is a little intimidating.  But the actual exploring and fighting is fun enough, and the map-making aspect is certainly novel and engaging, and so I’m probably going to hang on to it for a little while longer.

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I was going to write a thing here about being conflicted about what to do about Bioshock Infinite, but it’s a very silly problem to have and I’m not sure it’s all that interesting, either.  But I’ll write it anyway.

The gist of it is that I was always planning on playing it on my 360, but there’s a few snags in that plan.  Firstly,  the release date (March 25) is right at the edge of the baby arrival window, and so if I were to pre-order a copy and the baby arrived before the 25th, then my game would be stuck at my office for 2 weeks (as I can’t really get packages delivered to my apartment).  Not that I’d be playing a game instead of taking care of my newborn child, but you understand what I mean, right?  The baby’s gotta sleep at some point, and when I’m in that weird exhausted half-sleep daze that will be as close as I can get to experiencing actual drug use, I’m going to want to unwind with some Bioshock.    Secondly, when the baby is sleeping, I’m sure my wife will want to unwind as well, and if I’m playing Bioshock on the big TV in the living room, she’s relegated to the bedroom with the smaller TV, and I always feel bad about that.

The reason why this is stupid is that the logical answer is for me to simply download the game on Steam, which is how I’ve been playing most of my games lately anyway  including Tomb Raider, actually.  I have kick-ass PC headphones which will prevent the baby from hearing all the strange noises, and the PC is in the office, which means my wife can relax in the living room.  My only concern, really, is that while my PC can run Bioshock, it can’t necessarily run it as well as it could, and so it may not look as fantastic as I’d hope.  Still, Tomb Raider looked more than OK on my PC, and so I’m sure Bioshock’s performance will suffice.

the first few hours: Tomb Raider

[For some reason I feel it necessary to tell you that there’s a bunch of other posts I’m working on, including a special Subway Gamer 3DS post and a revival of the Everything Old is New Again feature (as I play the 3DS version of Ocarina of Time).  In the meantime, I need to talk about Tomb Raider, so here we go.]

I started writing this post yesterday, but I lost interest in it after a while; I couldn’t quite figure out what I was trying to say, and it soon became clear that I just hadn’t played enough of the game to know how I felt about it.  Of course, the whole point of these “first few hours” posts is to provide gut reactions and first impressions, but still – I wanted to at least get past the early tutorial stuff and experience a bit more of what the game had to offer, as that first hour is pretty linear.

So now I’m around 4 hours in; I just made base camp outside the helicopter in the shanty town, if that means anything to those of you who might’ve finished it already.  And I can sum up my experience thusly:  I am enjoying it very much, even if it is not quite the game I’d like it to be.

I never played the original Tomb Raider gamesand from what I understand I’m not necessarily missing all that much.  I did enjoy the 360 games, though – LegendAnniversary, and even Underworld, to a lesser extent.  And the XBLA top-down co-op game that came out a few years ago was quite fun, too.  Those games did well enough for me in the  exploration-to-combat gameplay ratio to make them entertaining; the combat felt obligatory, but at least it was over pretty quickly.  The stories were utterly ridiculous, but I didn’t really care – I liked exploring the tombs and solving the puzzles, and that was enough for me.   As for Lara Croft herself, well, she seemed to be a comic book character with superhuman parkour abilities and some overly generous (some might say borderline-gratuitous) physical endowments.  If I were a 13-year-old boy, it would be one thing.  But as a mid-30s man, it started to get a little embarrassing – sadly, this is pretty much par for the course as far as female videogame characters go.

character design

(source)

This reboot is clearly less about globetrotting and raiding tombs and more about trying to redefine who Lara is – she is young, inexperienced, and is frequently in a great deal of pain.   She is, refreshingly, not gratuitously sexualized; if anything, one could argue that she is perhaps overly victimized.  Terrible things happen to her with a frequency that would be almost comical if she weren’t constantly gasping in agony.

The key part of that last paragraph, though, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that there are hardly any literal tombs to raid – there are certainly some optional tombs to explore, but the three that I’ve found so far consist of basically one puzzle each and took me around 3 minutes to figure out and solve.   That being said, there are certainly a lot of environmental traversal puzzles, and tons of hidden objects to find, and I do enjoy those parts immensely.

In many respects, Tomb Raider reminds me less of, say, Uncharted, and a bit more of Far Cry 3 – especially as there’s one section in Tomb Raider where Lara has to climb a radio tower.  It’s a lot more linear than FC3, but that’s actually OK; the game gives me clearly explained reasons for pushing forward, and so while there’s no countdown urging me to the next objective, I find myself eager to see what happens next.

*       *       *

It’s been interesting (and a little confusing) to hear other people’s reactions to this new Tomb Raider reboot.   I’m only around 4 hours into it, after all, and I can’t necessarily speak to the things these professional critics are responding to – even when they talk in a non-spoilery way.  Rock Paper Shotgun’s review details an experience almost completely different from what I’ve been going through – their guy talks about this feeling of the game constantly interrupting you and your control over the action, but I haven’t really felt that way at all.  And this week’s Giant Bombcast discusses, among other things, the disconnect between Lara’s intense discomfort and revulsion at the things she has to do (like killing people), and the unlocks and perks you can unlock that let Lara perform incredibly gruesome kill maneuvers.

The Bombers also talk about what they wish this game actually was, though, and in that I can absolutely agree.  While I appreciate that the combat in the game is actually pretty good, it’s still the part that I like the least.  What I (and they) love is the exploration and puzzle solving.  I felt this way in Far Cry 3, and Uncharted (both 2 and especially 3), and even Skyrim to a certain extent (not that there’s many puzzles to solve in Skyrim, of course).  I would love a game that forgoes combat altogether and simply gives you a world to explore and solve.  That sort of game is probably too risky to spend AAA development money on, but it’s clear to me from listening to critics and talking with friends that there’s definitely an audience for that sort of experience; hell, look at the success that Dark Souls found in catering to a niche audience.

>pardon the cobwebs

>I would say that there’s no excuse for the absence of posting here over the last month, but that’s not entirely true – there are several valid excuses I could come up with, and I’m sure I could make up a bunch as well. 

But here’s the deal:  the last entry here talks about my failure at Starcraft 2.  Since then, here’s what I’ve played:

  • Madden 11.  I’ve always been one of those long-embittered 2KSports football fans who hated Madden and EA and everything it stood for.  But Madden won, of course, and if you have a serious jones for videogame football, it’s Madden or bust.  And, as it happened, I started getting inexplicably excited for football season to start, and this year’s Madden got good reviews, and I had some credit on Amazon that was burning a hole in my virtual wallet, and so there it is.  I’ve played about 10 or 11 games in my Franchise, which is set on Rookie difficulty, mostly so that I could get all the Achievements I cared to get as quickly as possible.  FUN FACT:  It is almost impossible to get the “Return 2 kicks for TDs with the same guy” Achievement on Rookie difficulty, because the opposing team is so terrible that they almost always go 4 and out, and you’re lucky if you get to return just one kick – the one that leads off a half.
     
  • Lara Croft & the Guardian of Light.  It’s pretty good for what it is, and I imagine it would be a ton of fun if the online co-op ever got turned on.  Unfortunately, I think I’ve played all I’m ever going to play of this one, because now that Halo Reach is out I’m not sure that anyone will care enough to go back to this. 
  • Mafia 2.  I actually did prepare a blog post for this; I had taken a sick day right after it arrived from Gamefly and accidentally/inadvertently finished the whole game in about 10 hours.  Here’s what I can salvage:

Sometimes you can tell, just from the first 5 minutes of play, if a game was cared about in development.  After all, in today’s ADD world, where developers have the balls to charge you to participate in a “beta”, 5 minutes might just be all you get, and so it’s probably a good idea to put your best foot forward (while still keeping the big guns for later in the experience).  Sometimes it’s painfully obvious – the frame rate might be shitty, or the controls might be clunky and unresponsive.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that certain areas of the game received more attention than others – sure, things explode pretty good, but the dialog and the voice acting both feel like first drafts; or, the driving model is responsive, but the combat sucks.

Mafia 2 was cared about.

But that doesn’t make it a great game.

I was out sick yesterday, and I convalesced by playing the entirety of Mafia 2 (and, also, something else that I am not at liberty to discuss, wink wink nudge nudge).  And when I was going to sleep, I started thinking about how I would write about it, and I had this really well-written opening paragraph all set out, which was going to reference both this Joystiq article about how venerable games industry analyst Michael Pachter thought that Mafia 2 would probably be unprofitable, and this very well-written Rock Paper Shotgun review, which (among other things) made the salient observation that comparing Mafia 2 to GTA4 totally misses the point, and how Mafia 2 really needs to be compared to Mafia 1.

  •  Anyway, yeah, there wasn’t much to talk about after I finished Mafia 2.  It is a bland experience in an otherwise beautiful world.
  • Professor Layton & the Unwound Future.  This just arrived in the mail on Monday, and… it really bums me out that I don’t like these games anymore.  And the reason why I don’t like these games anymore is because the puzzles, i.e. the reason why this game exists in the first place, have a tendency to be poorly written.  They can be unfairly difficult.  Or, most egregiously, they can only be solved with a walkthrough, and even then, the explanation for a puzzle’s solution is obtuse or unclear.  The story is interesting, though, at least.
     
  • Mass Effect 2: Shadow Broker DLC.  This is kind of a big deal, if you’re a Mass Effect nerd.  The nuts and bolts of the DLC are pretty much just more combat, with a cool little vehicular chase scene (with the requisite shitty controls); so in that regard it’s nothing special.  But from a story perspective… wow.  The ending of the DLC seems to be a pretty big deal, in terms of the ME universe, and yet the fact that a lot of ME2 fans might not see it would indicate that it won’t really have that big an impact on ME3, which is kind of a bummer.  Anyway – if you’re an ME2 fan, it’s highly recommended.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I got excited for the sequel and decided to give this another playthrough.  And it’s still as good as it was the first time.

And that brings us to yesterday, when my copy of Halo Reach arrived.

I’ll have more to say on Halo as I get further into it, but basically:  it’s Halo.  And, also:  I don’t know if I like first-person shooters anymore.  Or, rather, that the third-person action genre has gotten so good that first-person shooters kinda feel a little antiquated.  As in:  how come I can’t use cover?

>Remembrance of Things that Almost Were

>I feel like I have about a million things I want to talk about today; I’m not sure how many are actually post-worthy, and I’m definitely not sure how much time I have to write, so we’ll see how it goes.

But first things first – I’m now only 15 measly Points away from my goal of amassing 10,000 Points in a year. It’s probably too difficult to try to get to 40,000 before the end of the year unless I go on a Points-whoring binge, and to be honest I’d much rather actually enjoy the games I’m playing right now; then again, I’m only 1227 Points away…

And here are some quick recaps before we get to the meat:

  • I think I’m almost done with Tomb Raider: Underworld, in every sense of the word. I’m pretty sure I’m in the last level, and unless I feel the need to chase after some (minor) Points, I’m probably not going to play it again. I think they dropped the ball with this title, big time; Legend and Anniversary had generated a lot of goodwill towards a franchise that had been plummeting into oblivion, and Underworld was a fantastic opportunity to really blow us all away, and instead the game feels a bit under-developed. Even something little like cutting out the Croft Manor minigame is a bummer.
  • I played another 30 minutes of Left 4 Dead with some friends last night – for some reason I got booted off of Xbox Live after we all wiped in the middle of a stage and I couldn’t log back in. That game is friggin’ awesome. The computer AI is absolutely fantastic – you almost can’t tell the difference if one of your friends is handing the reins over to the computer – and the overall pacing is absolutely incredible.

This is where I was going to talk about the recent discussion of the reviews of Mirror’s Edge that have been circulating around the ‘tubes, as well as answering a question from the MTV blog about waiting for DLC, and I was also hoping to put up the synopsis of a conversation I’m having with a friend of mine who is somewhat anti-gaming. But as the fates would have it, I’ve gotten super-busy at work and so those things will have to wait. Have a great holiday, everyone.