it gets better

1.  This weekend was insanely busy for me, and so I’ve advanced no further in Resident Evil 6 since Friday night’s session.   Here’s the weird part:  despite everything that annoys me about it, I must admit that I kinda want to keep playing it, even if I can’t really explain why.  I suppose it’s partially because I want to check out the 4th campaign, which only unlocks after you finish the first 3.  Finishing the first 3 campaigns, though, looks to be a rather sizable time investment, which may be a problem, because…

2.  …have you seen what’s coming out this week?  Between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Dishonored, both of which are getting superlative reviews, my plate is full.  Not to mention that Episode Four of The Walking Dead lands later this week, too.  I think my earlier pronouncement of 2012 being a huge disappointment is about to get kicked in the ass.  I’d kept an eye on Dishonored but only ever considered it a rental, something to check out in an idle hour.  From everything I’ve read, though, it looks like it might be my GOTY.  (So much for keeping my expectations in check.)

3.  I did play around an hour’s worth of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, thinking it might be fun to play with the wife.  I shall not be making that mistake again.  The solution to the tutorial mission’s crime – which is to say, the very first thing you play – is so convoluted and insane that I found the game impossible to take seriously.  The voice acting is stilted beyond belief – and it’s certainly not aided by some of the poorest lip-syncing in recent memory (seriously – if you can’t get it right, don’t even bother trying).  I’m sending it back ASAP.  I love a good adventure game, but this one’s flaws outshine whatever strengths it may have.

4.  On the mobile gaming front, I’ve been addicted to Super Monsters Ate My Condo, an updated release of  PikPok / Adult Swim’s strange yet endearing puzzle game.  It’s a vastly improved package over the original, with meta-missions and challenges and power-ups and boosts and the rest of it.  The only bummer is that you can’t listen to your own music while playing; otherwise I’d never put my phone/iPad down.

5.  I feel terrible for saying this, but I think I’m going to give up on Torchlight 2.  I squeezed in another hour or so over the weekend and I just don’t care about what I’m doing.  I may still be burned out from Diablo 3, or maybe I’m just turned off by how “cheap” T2 continues to feel.  Oh well.

It is entirely possible that a new Couchcast will arrive this week, depending on schedules.  I’m also hoping to line up some new guests for future episodes, too, just to keep the thing moving.  (I’m well aware that tiny podcasts for tiny blogs are not necessarily the most compelling content to seek out, but I’d like to get better at the format.)

weekend recap – a much better ending

The big news is that I finished the Borderlands 2 campaign.  Ended at  level 33; put in approximately 40 hours.  Did a lot of the sidequests, but not all of them; it’s a little exhausting, frankly.   And yet, it must be said that it’s a tremendous game, vastly improved over the first – and especially as far as the ending is concerned.  I am torn between starting over in True Vault Hunter mode (which makes the game harder, but where you get much better loot), or starting over with a new character (I’m intrigued by the Siren and the Gunzerker).  I may very well decide to take a break from it, however – it’s a lot of fun in short bursts, but over the course of a long marathon it becomes a little tedious and I end up running to my next objective instead of shooting my way through.

I’ve been struggling to determine the game’s pleasure loop – the thing that keeps me so engaged and eager to press on.  Yes, there’s tons of loot, and there isn’t a single empty crate in the game, and I’d easily say that the ratio of usable loot to trash was far better than the year’s other loot-heavy game, Diablo 3, where I’d spend literally dozens of hours before finding something worth swapping out (although it should be noted that the Auction House played a large factor in that particular instance – I found far better stuff in the AH than I ever did in the game).  But loot is, ultimately, junk – there’s so much of it that it ceases to mean anything after a while, and money eventually becomes no object.  (Which is handy, since I died repeatedly during the final gauntlet – the one right before the final boss, the one that ends with a gigantic Constructor bot – so much so that I ended up losing over $20,000 in resurrection fees.)  The actual shooting itself is fun, although reloading is still a bitch.  The story isn’t terribly engrossing, though it should be noted that the characters are really well written and acted.   I suppose I’m drawn to the exploration of the world – and what a huge and varied world it is – although the game threw so many enemies at me that I never felt that I had the time to truly savor every nook and cranny.

(Honestly?  I’m kinda wanting to go back and re-explore Skyrim on my PC, now that it’s been almost a year since I last played it and don’t really remember everything about it.)

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I also dabbled a little more in Torchlight 2.  It’s… OK.  It’s very hard to not constantly compare it to Diablo 3.  And while I had my problems with D3 – especially in terms of how choppy and laggy that game could be – it can’t be denied that D3 looked fantastic, and (when it ran smoothly) it felt fantastic.  T2 is a far smoother experience than D3, which is very much to its credit, but… well… left/right clicking doesn’t seem to pack the same sort of punch.  It also – and I hate saying this – looks cheap.  Like a top-down World of Warcraft, except somehow with less clarity.  (My PC isn’t a screaming graphics machine, but it’s not shabby, either, and I’m running it with everything turned way, way up.)  I’m not doubting the game’s credentials, or diminishing the work that went into it – Lord knows I loved the hell out of the first game and was eagerly awaiting the sequel – but it feels like a budget title (which, lo and behold, is how it’s priced).  I need (and want) to spend more time with it, of course, both offline and on, before making up my mind; it just makes an underwhelming first impression, I guess, which is a little disappointing.

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Also finally tried the XCOM Enemy Unknown demo; oh man.  OH MAN.   Did the very first mission – the ultra-tutorial – and didn’t even do the base stuff before logging off and keeping the rest unspoiled.  I am READY.  (I played it with a 360 controller instead of mouse/keyboard; still felt like a true, solid experience, and it looked great on my PC.)

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Finally, I must pass along this pre-alpha footage, released over the weekend, of the forthcoming HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee.  I don’t know that I’ve written all that much about the Oddworld games recently, but the short version is that while I’d always been into videogames, I more or less stopped playing altogether between 1993 and, say, 1998 or so – the college years.  I grew up with an Atari 2600, and then played a lot of my younger brother’s Sega Genesis, and that was pretty much it for me until a work colleague bought a PS1 and the Oddworld games (alongside Crash Bandicoot and a Cool Boarders game, I think).  The Oddworld games immediately brought me back into the fold – they were intelligent, they were funny, they were absolutely gorgeous, and they were fun to play with a friend – tossing the controller back and forth after each death, trying to figure out each new dastardly puzzle.  And so looking at this remake – the developers would call it a reimagining, anyway – is making me all sorts of giddy.  Those first two Oddworld games hold a very special place in my heart, and seeing them get this sort of loving treatment for a new audience makes me very happy indeed.  I’m especially intrigued at the change of getting rid of the screen-by-screen design in lieu of a fluid, continual level – back in the old days, one of the ways of fixing a tricky puzzle was simply to step back into the last screen, thereby resetting the next one.  What they’ve done here is changed the enemy AI so that if they’re alarmed, they’ll go on a short alert, then go back to their predefined state, rather than simply resetting (since that’s now impossible).   Anyway, check out the footage – it looks fantastic.

weekend recap: many dead things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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