Remastered Memories – on Uncharted

I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on writing this post today, to be honest with you.  This morning was my son’s first day at a new pre-school, and… it didn’t go so well.  Now, this is a common thing among toddlers, and it’s a process that he’s already been through a few times, and I should’ve been better prepared for it.  But… man.  I can’t get his face out of my head.  I’ve seen him cry before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had my heart broken by it the way it broke this morning.  He held on to us as tightly as he ever had; he wasn’t full-out bawling, but rather clenching his jaw and trying to not full-out bawl; I have to stop describing it.  It took all we could to not run back in and take him home and give him hugs and never let him out of our sight for the rest of our lives.  I’m sure he’ll be OK.  Hell, last night he had a tantrum in the bathtub because of some stupid thing and yet within 30 seconds he was happily making towers out of Team UmiZoomi shapes; I know he’ll be OK when my wife picks him up later this afternoon.

But still.  It’s awfully hard to focus on anything when the last image of your child’s face is of a desperate pout, sniffling and sobbing, as you close the door behind you because you have to.

*  *  *

I suspect that one of the many reasons why I’ve never been able to land any games writing gigs is that 99% of my writing samples probably include some sort of personal preamble.  I know that I can write about games and music and books and stuff without adding those sorts of details, but I like it when the writer adds a bit of extraneous context.  It helps me better understand where the person’s coming from; it helps me understand what informs their opinions.  Almost nobody in a professional capacity does it this way, and I totally get that, but it’s become a stylistic tic for me that I can’t shake.  And in any event, I’ve long since resigned myself to the knowledge that I will never have a full-time job writing about games or music or books, so: fuck it.  I’m going to be talking about the Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection today, because I’ve played quite a lot of it over the last week, even if that wasn’t my original intention.

The original plan for the last week was to spend my free time working on new music (and fixing old music while I was at it).  Alas, I ran into some technical problems that, among other things, made doing any sort of music work impossible.*  So I resigned myself to play Uncharted instead.

Which isn’t a bad thing; I like those games a lot.  And the remasters are about as well-executed as one could hope for, which is saying quite a bit considering that both Uncharted 2 and 3 are among the best-looking games of the previous generation.  I’m not sure that you’d mistake them for current-gen games, especially during the cut-scenes – the faces look a bit plastic and not-quite-but-almost-uncanny-valley-ish – but by and large everything looks fantastic, and the PS4 controller makes the actual playing of these games 1000x less frustrating than they were with the Dualshock 3.

I’ve been bouncing around between all three games, with a primary emphasis on 1 and 3 (since I know 2 the best), and I’ll switch up either during a story break or when I run into a frustrating enemy gauntlet.

Speaking of which – one can’t help but notice how Naughty Dog’s approach changed between each game, even if I feel that they still ultimately paid too much attention to the wrong things – specifically, the combat.  I’m certainly not the first to make the observation (nor is this even my first time making it) that the disconnect between Nathan Drake’s scruffy charm and his murdering of hundreds of enemy soldiers becomes awfully distracting with each successive chapter break, and it’s only because Nolan North’s performance is so disarmingly charming that they can even begin to get away with it.  Still, it feels very much like Naughty Dog threw in as much combat as they could because they weren’t fully confident that the platforming and the exploration would be enough to sustain the kind of massive audience that Sony was hoping for.  Uncharted is primarily a combat game with some platforming thrown in every now and then, and even with some fun set pieces (like the cliff-side machine gun car chase) it gets tedious.

U2 changed this up considerably by putting much more emphasis on the characters and the narrative and integrating the platforming and puzzle-solving a bit more, and even if the game is still over-reliant on combat as the main meat of the experience, it at least makes the combat more spectacular, specifically through some still-extraordinary set pieces.  I mean, the train sequence remains as jaw-dropping as ever; I’m still not 100% sure how they managed to pull off that sequence’s pacing.  (Like: if you start that sequence and simply don’t move for 20 minutes, will you still end up facing off against the helicopter at the end?)

U3, if anything, suffers from a bit of over-confidence, making everything a spectacular set piece at the expense of a coherent narrative.  The character work is still charming, yet it feels obligatory rather than necessary – yes, it’s kinda neat to see how young Nathan Drake met his mentor, Sully, though the relic linking the past and the present is a bit of a stretch in terms of narrative justification.

*  *  *

I just re-read those paragraphs and they make it sound like I’m not enjoying myself; I am picking nits, I guess.  These are extraordinarily well-made games, and they do what they do exceedingly well, and if you haven’t played those games, this is the best way to play them.

Are they as good as I remember them being?  Well… what’s interesting is that they are still very much what I remember them being.  (Also, I keep dying in the same spots, which is either a sign that my blind spots haven’t changed, or that the games have difficulty spikes that can sometimes be overwhelming.)  Uncharted 1 is a promising debut that’s marred by an over-reliance on gunplay, Uncharted 3 is an astonishing technological experience without any real heart or soul, and Uncharted 2 is still one of my favorite games of the last generation.

But if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m going to enjoy the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider a bit more.  I like what that reboot is doing with this genre, specifically how it approaches combat and why combat is necessary.  The first of these reboots handled it quite well; Lara only killed because she had to kill, and it wasn’t something she ever enjoyed doing even as she got better at it.  But the literal very first thing you do in Uncharted 1 is kill a bunch of pirates that are attempting to board your illegally parked boat; you already have your gun, you’re kinda already expecting it, and killing dudes ain’t no thang.  Drake wisecracks his way through hundreds of headshots per game, and I suppose you’d sorta have to in order to not completely lose your humanity.  Even so, the body count becomes absurd, and there’s really no way around that fact.  It is what it is, I guess, and I can only hope that next year’s finale finds a better balance between all its elements.

*  *  *

Earlier this afternoon I managed to snag a Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4 for the PS4, which ended up answering two questions in one go – (1) which system I was going to get it for, and (2) that I wasn’t nearly as done with pre-ordering as I keep saying I am.  Considering that the XBone is still getting the short end of the technological stick as far as multi-console games go, I couldn’t help but err on the side of the PS4 being a better way to go.  And, I mean, look; the Pip-Boy is maybe the only tangible pre-order bonus I’ve cared about in at least a dozen years.  So, there you go.


* “Impossible” is not necessarily an overstatement, even if it really looks like one.  While it’s true that I’ve written lots of music without having a computer, it’s not really how I work any more, and a lot of the editing work I needed to do required being able to re-record parts, which I simply couldn’t do.  There’s a longer post I could write about my music-writing process – and someday I’ll write it, because frankly I’d like to figure it out – but this is not the time or place for that.

Weekend Recap: a head cold, MGS V with fresh eyes, Uncharted perspective, and Beginner’s Guide.

1. It’s funny; now that I’ve handed in my MGS V piece, I’m no longer feeling pressured to play it all the time.  And when I do play it, I’m much more relaxed and far less over-analytical.  So I try to steal a truck and suddenly stone-golem-soldiers appear out of nowhere and teleport out of the way of my bullets?  Hot damn, Kojima, well done.  I’m enjoying the side-op stuff a bit more if only because it’s more tactical and less ridiculous and the rewards are tangible.  (Not sure why some of them still appear lit up in the menu selection, even though they’re finished, but, well, Kojima!)

1a.  I’ve been using Quiet as my mission buddy, and she’s been more or less totally useless.  In fact, I finally realized that she’s the source of this bizarre humming sound that I hear whenever I prepare for an infiltration; I thought it was some sort of animal cry, or a sung prayer, but it was just her mumbling what appears to be the first few bars of “My Way”, or possibly “Danke Schoen“.  In any event it’s super creepy and distracting but at least now I know where the hell it’s coming from.

2.  I had to take a sick day yesterday – these autumn colds are the worst – and because I was feeling a bit loopy, I had an urge to compare the outpost infiltration of MGS V with the outpost infiltration of Far Cry 4.  They’re more similar than I realized, even if the controls are completely different; you scope out and mark enemies, figure out their patrol routes, look for things in the environment that might help you – oh, and pick up a few plants along the way.  The only real difference is that Far Cry doesn’t care whether you use lethal force or not – indeed, you’re supposed to kill everyone, it’s just better if you do it in such a way where nobody raises the alarm, wheras MGS V gives you added value of going non-lethal by getting added information via hostile interrogation, and being able to kidnap certain soldiers for your own purposes (which sounds way creepier written down like that than it actually is, I suppose).

2a.  Again, I was out sick yesterday and so I’m only peripherally aware of the new Far Cry Ice Age game or whatever it is.  Far Cry isn’t necessarily one of my favorite shooter franchises; it’s just that there’s been a bunch of them lately and they haven’t been bad.  My impression is that this is more of a Blood Dragon side story than a full-blown numbered-entry sequel; beyond that, I know nothing and will continue to know nothing until there’s something substantial to know, like a release date and price.

3.  I’ve violated my “no pre-ordering” rule a couple times this year; I can’t remember what the earlier ones were, but I’ve already pre-ordered a digital copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I also pre-ordered the digital version of the Uncharted remasters, which come out on Friday.  I played a bit of the demo that came with it, and while it looks good, I’d forgotten just how much I hate the combat stuff.  At least the PS4 controller is better-suited for it.  Anyway, yesterday I played a little bit of U2 and U3 on my PS3, just to remember what it was that I was getting into (and also so that I could do a little compare/contrast of my own once the PS4 version lands).  The PS3 games still look terrific, actually – and U2’s train sequence feels like a special bit of magic, and I’m looking forward to playing them all again.

3a.  I’ve not yet pre-ordered Fallout 4, if you can believe it.  Part of it is that I expect to spend a lot of time with it, and so I’d like to know which version performs better; console parity has gotten a lot better in recent months and so I don’t think there’ll be that much of a difference, but you never know.  I am a bit curious, though, to know if the PS4 version will be getting the same sort of mod support that the Xbox One will be getting; even if I’ve never really goofed around with mods all that much, I’d like the option if it’s available.

4.  My rental copy of Tony Hawk 5 arrived yesterday – a few days later than it was supposed to, though that hardly matters.  I must confess that even after all the horrendous YouTube glitch videos and impressions had surfaced, there was a small part of me that kinda wanted to play it anyway.  But then I remembered that there was a mandatory 7 GB patch I had to download before I could play, and that was enough for me to send it back ASAP.

5.  Oh yeah – I almost forgot.  I played Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide last week, and it’s one of those experiences that forces me to stumble upon the limits of my own writing ability; I’m not good enough of a writer to talk about it.  (Believe me, I tried writing about it last week and failed miserably.)  I found it moving and beautiful and wonderfully meta, and it does as good a job about describing the creative process and the emotional peaks and valleys that accompany that process about as well as anything else I’ve ever come across.  It’s hard not to compare it to his previous game, The Stanley Parable, in that in both games you walk through a series of rooms accompanied by specific narration, but that’s about all they have in common.  Beginner’s Guide feels much more personal and sincere and refreshingly avoids the emotional shield of detached irony that might ordinarily accompany this sort of experience.  To say more would spoil it – it’s a 90 minute experience, give or take, and it’s one you should ideally experience without any other prior knowledge.  Just know that the ending took my breath away.

Asleep at the Wheel: E3 2015 prognosticaions and other ramblings

1.  Now that Fallout 4 has been officially revealed – and a new Gears of War game has been very strongly implied by the formation/re-naming of its development studio – it was put to Twitter to determine what unannounced game could possibly upstage those two.

I have two answers:  Red Dead Redemption 2, and/or Portal 3: Cake or Death (co-starring Eddie Izzard, obviously).

I’d of course love to see release dates (and gameplay footage) for Mirror’s Edge 2 and the new Crackdown, and certainly I’d like to know what Criterion is up to (as well as what Three Fields is doing (the new studio formed by Criterion’s founders)).  No Man’s Sky should be getting a more thorough rundown, and I’d love to get more information about The Witness.  I’d be incredibly surprised and pleased to hear more definitive information about the new Mass Effect game (and less surprised but certainly intrigued by a seemingly inevitable ME original trilogy HD remaster, and I’d buy that in a heartbeat if I could somehow import my save data from my 360 playthroughs).

On that note, now that the Uncharted HD trilogy has been more or less announced, one wonders what other last-gen games will be announced at E3 for a current-gen treatment.  I still maintain that a Bioshock HD trilogy is a no-brainer, though perhaps it would make sense to release closer to whatever’s next for that franchise; I also maintain that a Rockstar remastered box set of Red Dead 1, GTA4, Max Payne 3, and/or L.A. Noire is an impossible (but near-orgasmic) dream.

As I write this, I see that the first official Steam Machines will be coming out this fall.  If the specs are good, I might end up getting one of these – my current PC is starting to show its age, and it’d be nice to keep my gigantic Steam library as part of my rotation.  (I will hopefully be moved in to the new house by then, too, and so having a Steam Machine will make my gaming man-cave more or less complete.)

Beyond that, I’m kinda just curious to see how it goes.  I have no real expectations.  I am hopeful that I can live-blog my impressions of each press conference, though that may be impossible for various real-world reasons.

2.  A whole bunch of boffo iOS games have come out lately.  Last night saw the release of You Must Build a Boat, the sequel to the much-beloved 10000000, as well as Hitman: Sniper, which is very much like that PC demo from a few years back.  I’ve also been playing the shit out of Lara Croft Relic Run, which might be the most ambitious endless runner ever made; and I’m also helplessly addicted to Ball King, which is a free basketball shooter with lo-fi graphics but really good physics, which makes hitting tough shots ridiculously satisfying.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Twenty, which is a maddeningly addictive hybrid of Drop 7 and Threes.

3.  I’ve taken a 2-day break from The Witcher 3.  I’ve been meaning to write about it all week but haven’t been able to put my thoughts in order.  (I’m about to hit level 15, and I’m kinda just messing around with side-quests in Novigrad.)

My original thesis was that I loved it to death, and that I loved it specifically because I didn’t feel alienated by how it goes about its business (the way I felt about, say, GTA V or Far Cry 4 or any other AAA game of recent years).  Witcher 3 scratches a lot of the same itches that Red Dead Redemption does (which is great), and it also solves some of Red Dead’s narrative problems by making Geralt exactly the sort of person who would do random things for people – that’s his job.  And I also love that when he’s given stupid stuff to do, he’s really funny about it – for example, there’s an early story sub-quest wherein you have to find a goat for the local witch doctor.  Geralt rolls his eyes but knows he has to do it, and when he finds the goat (by ringing a little bell), he says something very much like “Hurry up and follow me, you stupid piece of shit”, which is something that had me literally laughing out loud right up until we both got jumped by a bear.  I love that each person you meet has their own quest line, which makes you feel more invested in what they have to say and how they’re helping you along in your own quest.  I said this before but it bears repeating – I love that the conversation system isn’t always obviously good/bad, which makes role-playing that much more immersive; more often than not, Geralt will have an option to say the thing that I personally would say, and I appreciate the level of nuance that the writers have carefully crafted into each situation.

That being said, I can’t help but notice that everybody is white, and that all the ladies with speaking roles have their boobs hanging out all the time.  I suppose I can appreciate the argument that, while more diversity in games is necessary, it isn’t always appropriate, but I can’t not notice that of the hundreds and hundreds of digital people and dwarves and elves and monsters and fiends and such that I’ve come across in Witcher 3, not a single one of them is a person of color.  Again – I appreciate that this is a Polish-made game that reflects Slavic mythological fantasy, but I also note that nearly every speaking voice is that of a Brit, and that this game was built to be sold to a Western audience.

On the lighter side, I do hope they patch in a photo mode.

4.  I finished Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves earlier this week; I’m not about to write a full review of it here, but the short version is that it’s my favorite thing he’s written in quite a long time.  It has more than a few spots where it’s a little dry, and the subject matter of the final third is a bit…. hmm… troubling?  Is that a good way to describe eugenics, even if it’s done out of necessity and not out of some sort of Hitler-inspired craziness?  In any event, it’s stuck with me ever since I put it down, and I may end up needing to read it again soon.

Hypothetical: The Inevitable HD Remake List

My digital copy of Destiny finished pre-loading over the weekend.  I have a thing tomorrow night, though, and I’m not sure if I’ll be awake enough when I get home to do much more than create a character and go through the first 1-2 levels before hitting the hay; therefore, being that anyone reading this will likely have already played through what I wouldn’t get to until Wednesday at the earliest, there probably won’t be a “First Few Hours” post.  And, ultimately, I expect the opening hours to be more or less what we played in the beta, albeit with some additional graphical spit-shining (and (hopefully) some new Dinklage VO).

In the meantime, I think I’ve burned myself out on Diablo III.  (Speaking of which:  if you haven’t yet read Carolyn Petit’s take on Diablo 3 and Dark Souls 2, you should fix that ASAP.)  I find that, these days, I can really only play it for about 30-45 minutes these days before feeling restless and bored; coincidentally, 30-45 minutes is actually just enough time to run some bounties and/or run a Nephalem Rift, get some new gear, and log out.   The bounties don’t seem to change, though; every time I log in it’s the same stuff.  Do I have to finish all 5 bounties in all 5 Acts before they refresh?  That seems… kinda dumb.

So, in order to keep the ol’ wheels turning here at SFTC, and because I’m in a somewhat cynical mood, I’ve spent the last few days guessing what the next inevitable HD remakes are going to be.

We already know about these AAA re-releases, which have either already come out or have been announced as forthcoming.

  • Tomb Raider
  • The Last of Us
  • Metro Redux
  • GTA V
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • Saints Row 4
  • Halo 1-4 box set

By the way, the AAA designation is specific and necessary to this discussion.  I’m well aware of stuff like Fez,  Minecraft, Abe’s Oddysee, Hotline Miami, Journey/Flow/Flower and other such indies getting ported to the new consoles; I’m also going to be the first person to buy the Grim Fandango restoration as soon as it’s released.  But I’m specifically talking about AAA titles from the 360/PS3 generation, as those games seem to generate the most press from the big sites – and porting those games also serves as valuable experience for the developers in terms of learning how their existing tech works on the new systems.  (I believe Naughty Dog talked about this specific idea when they ported The Last of Us to PS4 – it helped them learn how to best tweak their engine before getting Uncharted 4 off the ground.)

So, then, what other AAA franchises from the last console era might we expect to see in the future?

  • Beyond: Two Souls is almost certainly getting a PS4 port, according to a number of sources (1, 2, 3).
  • Mass Effect trilogy.  I’ve heard this rumored more than a few times, and it’s not necessarily a bad idea (though it’s asking quite a lot for people who sunk hundreds of hours already to do it again in a higher resolution).  That being said, the boring bits in ME1 would still be boring in 1080p, and the ending in ME3 would still be the ending.  I don’t think Bioware would spend the energy tweaking that stuff when they’d rather work on the new ME game.
  • Bioshock 1, 2, Infinite.  The more I think about it, this seems like a no-brainer.  Consider: the recent iOS port of Bioshock 1; Irrational Studios is all but shut down; TakeTwo surely considers Bioshock a formidable IP that they don’t want to lose.  Just imagine what Bioshock 1 would look like on new hardware.
  • Uncharted 1-3.  Probably a long shot, given that Naughty Dog is already working on Uncharted 4 (and that, as said above, that they learned what they needed to learn about their engine through porting The Last of Us), but it wouldn’t surprise me if Sony outsourced this to another dev house.  Sony’s stated reason for re-releasing last year’s TLOU was because a lot of people who bought a PS4 never owned a PS3; it stands to reason that those same people have never played what is arguably Sony’s biggest exclusive franchise.
  • Gears of War 1-3.  Probably less of a long shot, given that Microsoft needs anything they can get their hands on to get the Xbox One into more living rooms, and given that the Halo box set is a thing that’s already happening.  But this might depend more on Epic and Unreal Engine 4.
  • This most certainly won’t happen, but I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Rockstar come out with their own Orange Box, with Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire, and Red Dead Redemption in one HD package.  For me, personally, that would be my birthday and Christmas every day for the rest of my life.  Hell, I’d just be happy with Red Dead.  It will be a sad day when my 360 dies; RDR is the only reason why I haven’t yet pulled the plug myself.
  • Similarly, I would be very, very surprised to see Bethesda do ports of OblivionSkyrim or Fallout 3/New Vegas.  I’d be inclined to check those out, certainly, but the amount of work necessary to properly port those games seems far too excessive, and it’s all but certain that work on Elder Scrolls VI and Fallout 4 are well underway already.  (And, of course, the PC modding community is also doing a bang-up job as far as those games are concerned.)

What would you like to see?  Or are you done with HD remasters?

On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

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

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the first few hours: The Last of Us

Before I start talking about The Last of Us in earnest, I want to mention two interesting things that won’t necessarily fit in the context of the discussion, but are still related to my personal experience with the game:

1.  Slight spoilers – a few hours into the game, you’ll meet two characters named Henry and Sam.  As it happens, Henry is the name of my son, and Sam was the name of my grandfather.   My grandfather died when I was in high school, so Henry never got to meet him.  But there they were, dodging zombies and armed maniacs along with our heroes, Joel and Ellie.

2.  One of the game’s many strengths is how well it conveys atmosphere, especially when you’re in dark basements.  In addition to the sheer visuals, there’s lots of ambient noises and sonic textures that make you feel really claustrophobic and creeped out.  This is doubly effective when there’s an actual mouse in your actual apartment, scratching and squeaking behind the walls, and you’re alone in your living room with a sleeping baby behind a thin wooden door just a few feet away and the lights turned down low.

*     *     *

While I’ve more or less conceded that my desire to be a full-time game journalist is hopelessly impractical at this point in my life, I still occasionally think about getting into the freelance game-review business.  Especially now, given my earlier post about being short on cash.  I mean, I know that reviews don’t necessarily bring in a ton of money, and I wouldn’t always be playing stuff that’s good, but surely there are less pleasant ways to supplement one’s income.

And yet I can’t help but feel that I’d be terrible at it.

For example:  sometimes I feel like it can be a cop-out or a crutch (or, more likely, a habit of laziness) to compare someone’s new work to their old work.   Like:  if you can’t assess a thing for what it actually is without comparing to something that it never tried to be, then you’re probably a shitty critic.

Which is to say, I know that comparing The Last of Us to the Uncharted franchise isn’t fair, because they’re completely different experiences and want to evoke radically different reactions from the player, even if they appear to share a lot of common factors:  the same jaw-droppingly amazing graphics engine, some of the best digital acting in the business (to go along with a very well-written script), a meticulous attention to detail (both in art design and character work), and a relatively even gameplay balance of exploration and combat.

As to that last point, I feel obliged to point out that The Last of Us and Uncharted also share another, more disconcerting feature, and one which is relevant to my attempt at criticism:  when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, I hate the combat.  I am willing to concede that I might hate it because I suck at it; but it should also be noted that – at least in my opinion – there is always too much of it, and it gets in the way of all of the non-combat stuff which is infinitely more enjoyable.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve never liked the PS3’s controller, especially when it comes to action games, but I always feel ham-fisted and clumsy in combat situations, and even on Easy I die a lot.

I ended up finishing Uncharted 3 on Easy because I wanted to see the end of the game, and shooting bulletproof soldiers had stopped being fun after the 300th kill.  While The Last of Us has a much different combat feel – indeed, the game implies that you can (and should) sneak your way around combat rather than rushing headlong into it – I also am playing it on Easy (after an earlier combat scenario took me 30 deaths and around an hour of frustration to complete), because while I try to sneak around, I always get found, and because I don’t find the combat all that fun (possibly because, as I said, I’m terrible at it), I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible so as to keep the story moving forward.

*     *     *

Tangent #1:  My complaints about the combat in Naughty Dog’s games (and The Last of Us specifically) remind me of my complaints of another of 2013’s major releases – Bioshock Infinite – in that both games feature incredible worlds that you can’t help but want to explore, except for all the crazy people who want to murder you.  I am far more interested in exploring and scavenging and crafting than I am in the combat.  But if there were ever two companies that could actually make the game that I truly want to play in this coming generation – games with fantastic visuals, well-crafted stories and interesting characters  and worlds that beg for exploration and interesting puzzles instead of  combat as the “filler” to get you from point A to point B – I just know that Naughty Dog and/or Irrational could pull it off.

*     *     *

Tangent #2:  I would love it if this new generation of consoles made it possible to invent a new kind of gameplay “filler”.  I suggested “puzzles” in the paragraph above because it was the first thing that came to mind (and because Portal 2 proved that you can make an amazing, full retail product without having to fire a single bullet) but surely there must be something else that can be done.  As I am not a gameplay designer, I have no idea what that might be.  But I would be VERY EXCITED to find out.

*     *     *

Wow.  This was supposed to be a post about my overall impressions of The Last of Us, and I’ve already spent 900 words horsing around, so let’s get to it.

I am around 10.5 hours into TLOU, Naughty Dog’s swansong on the PS3, and judging from the chapter listings in various walkthroughs (not that I’m using walkthroughs – I honestly just wanted to see how much was left), I’m just over the halfway mark.   (I keep feeling like I should defend my using a walkthrough with the express purpose of determining length, even though nobody cares; it’s just that unlike books, music and film, it’s impossible to judge a game’s length while you’re playing it – and this doesn’t even take into account personal play style.  If I weren’t so interested in exploring every single nook and cranny in TLOU, I suspect I’d have arrived at this halfway point after only 5-6 hours, as opposed to 10.)

Leaving aside my personal displeasure at Naughty Dog’s combat system, and my weariness with zombies and the end of the world as a storytelling trope, it is immediately apparent that TLOU is a staggering technical achievement, and deserves all the respect you can give it.  But it is also – at least for me – a difficult game to enjoy.  TLOU is relentlessly dark and grim, with horrific, gruesome violence at almost every turn, and where terrible things happen to good people pretty much non-stop.  (My wife watched me play a little bit yesterday, and she said it felt like a combination of The Walking Dead and I Am Legend – which is pretty much spot-on.)  It is a game that probably shouldn’t be played in long marathon sessions, which is what I usually do with games like this; instead, I’ve been getting little hour-sized chunks here and there for the past week or so and that’s pretty much all I can take before I need to switch over to something a little less gloomy.

I’m not quite sure where the story is going, but I have a pretty good feeling about certain upcoming plot points.  I’m normally not all that quick in terms of picking up that sort of stuff, but I knew what was going to happen to a number of characters long before their fates were inevitably decided.  Of course, this is what happens when you set your story in a gloomy post-apocalypse and you establish early on that anybody, no matter how “innocent”, can die at any moment; you stop being surprised when the plot twists, and instead you find yourself simply wondering how the plot will twist, which (to me) isn’t nearly as interesting a question.

That being said, now that I think about it, I’m starting to think that this is deliberate; the game is trying to evoke a sense of dread, and since the inevitability of death hangs over every scene and character and action, you can’t help but feel a little terrible.  You know that bad things are going to happen; the best you can do is to make sure you have as much ammo and supplies as you can find and hope that you can press on long enough to get to the next cutscene.  This is very much like real life.

Like I said above, I’m playing the game on Easy after struggling for a bit on Normal because the story and the characters are far more interesting to me than the combat, and as such I’m having about as good a time as I can stomach.  I’m still dying, a lot, but I’m still able to press ahead.  I’m finding the core relationship between Joel and Ellie to be authentic, even if it’s maddeningly obvious why Joel acts the way he does and it’s incredibly frustrating that he won’t admit it to himself.   (This Guardian article, which has been linked to a lot on Twitter and which I haven’t yet read all the way through, has a different take on their relationship.)  Still, the digital performances are quite powerful and moving and real, and even if the Guardian is right and the game’s central relationship of an older man taking care of a helpless girl in the face of the apocalypse is yet one more entry on the ever-growing pile of stories featuring male dominance over subservient, weak females – or even if the core problem is simply that the game is being told from the man’s point of view, LIKE IT ALWAYS IS, I still find that, at the very least, TLOU has its heart in the place.

I find myself compelled to press on, even if I don’t really want to.

*     *     *

Amazon is having a gigantic Digital Games Summer Sale, and at the prodding of a friend I ended up buying Need For Speed Most Wanted for $15.  I’d previously been rather sour on the game (1, 2), but the PC version seems to be a completely different beast.  It looks far better than the 360 version, and it also seems to be playing a bit more fairly, too – the AI still rubberbands from time to time but it’s not freakish and unfair, and what constitutes a crash seems to be a lot more consistent.  If you have it and need some Autolog friends, my username (as it is everywhere else) is JervoNYC.

of zombies, peaches, and time

I’ve had very little game-playing time in the last week or so.

This is actually a good thing, as far as The Last of Us is concerned; its relentlessly grim atmosphere can start to feel suffocating after a while.  I’m not sure how far I am into it, actually, because my time with it has been so stuttered; if you’ve already played the game, then you’ll know where I am when I tell you that I just recently picked up the bow and arrow for the first time, and am in that booby-trapped town, trying to help this guy find auto parts so that he can build us a car.

It’s weird how I can binge-watch a show like Hannibal and have a really great time (even if I end up having trouble sleeping), but that I can’t play TLoU for more than 30 minutes at a time without feeling restless and agitated.  Of course, I’m also having trouble enjoying TLoU.  It’s an incredibly well-crafted experience; it’s probably the best-looking game on the PS3 (which is no mean feat; how Naughty Dog managed to top its own Uncharted 2/3 is beyond me).  But aside from the oppressive atmosphere and the overwhelming sadness that pervades every inch of this apocalyptic wasteland, it also suffers from the same kinda-shitty combat that plagued the Uncharted games.  To be fair, the body count thus far is much, much lower than in Uncharted, and the stakes feel much higher – the violence actually means something this time around.  But it still feels awkward, and I die an awful lot (even on Normal), and one-hit kills stop being devastating after you’ve been one-hit killed 20 times in a row.   I feel compelled to push on, as it’s one of the last truly significant games of this generation, but I can’t honestly say I ever look forward to playing it.

I suppose I’ve also reached my saturation point with zombies.  In the mid-’00s, I was getting tired of killing Nazis; now it’s zombies.  They’re a very convenient enemy – you don’t feel bad killing them, you won’t offend anybody by making them the bad guys, and it’s easy enough (if you want) to drape your own morality tale over whatever metaphor you want the zombies to represent.  I get it.  And zombies are still a hot commodity right now, and if there’s anything you can do to get a new IP off the ground, zombies have a proven, successful track record.  But how many more goddamned zombies are we going to have to kill before the industry feels comfortable inventing something new?

*     *     *

The having-no-time thing is a bit of a drag, though, with respect to Animal Crossing: New Leaf.  Ordinarily I’d appreciate the slow pace and the do-what-you-want gameplay, but because my time is so limited, I feel this weird sort of pressure to try and finish all the town maintenance stuff I need to do as quickly as possible.  Now, to be fair, it’s not the game’s fault; it doesn’t necessarily punish you for not staying on top of things all the time (though it does mean there’s more weeds that need to be picked up, and sometimes you’ll end up missing on certain special events).  I fully acknowledge that my previous addictions to stupid timer-based town-maintenance shit like Farmville have informed my approach to AC:NL.  Still, though, it is what it is, and my weirdness about not having any time is making the game less fun to experience.  Which is a drag, because it’s clearly something that everyone else on my twitter feed is madly in love with.

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.

Uncharted 3: Gut Check

I was home sick today, and so I ended up finishing Uncharted 3.  Some key statistics:

Time played: 8:42
60 treasures found (out of 100)
791 enemies defeated
156 checkpoints failed/restarted

791 enemies defeated – that’s a lot of bad guys.  That’s a militia, is what that is.  That seems like maybe too many enemies.  I’m not sure I’ve killed 791 bad guys in all three Gears of War games combined.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with all three games in the Uncharted franchise.  When I’m away from the game and reflecting on what I’d seen and done, I’m swept away by the game’s technical merits.  The presentation in U3 is, as always, outstanding.  Attention has been paid to every last pixel.  The voice acting is terrific, and they’re working from a great script, which goes a long way.  The story is maybe a little silly, but it’s nothing that would seem out of place in an Indiana Jones movie.  The action set-pieces are out of this world.  I had a smile on my face for much of the cutscenes, and I genuinely cared about Nathan and Sully and the gang.

But when I’m actually playing the game?  That’s a different matter.  Enemies continue to soak up large amounts of bullets – it’s not as egregious as it was in the first game, but it’s still pretty bad here, with enemies sometimes requiring 4 shotgun blasts to the head from point blank range before falling.  They can see me when I’m hidden; they outflank me before they have any right to know where I am.  They have uncanny aim.  They do like throwing grenades an awful lot – so much so that I actually got pretty good at throwing them back.  If you see above, I failed/restated 156 checkpoints – I’m assuming that number is specifically related to how many times I died.  That’s a lot of dying, and not all of it was my fault.

I do want to play it again at some point – I want to get all the hidden treasures, because that’s always fun.  Actually, another reason as to why I’d like to get all the treasures is so that I can actually look at the world, instead of looking in the corners and tucked-away places.  Every time I play these games, I get distracted by shiny objects.

A number of reviews have all said something along the lines of Uncharted 3 being a great game although it fails  to surpass the lofty highs of Uncharted 2.  I’d agree with that, for the most part.  Uncharted 2 was unexpectedly great – indeed, it’s probably still one of my favorite games of this generation.  Uncharted 3 has some pretty amazing moments – the burning chateau, the sinking ship, the crashing plane, and the finale are all pretty jaw-dropping.  But the combat remains my least favorite element of this franchise, and unfortunately the combat is what ends up overwhelming the experience.

It’s still a must-own if you’re a PS3 owner, there’s no question about that.  I haven’t even touched the mulitplayer, which is robust and feature-packed and probably pretty fun.  Just know that the campaign can get a bit frustrating, even in spite of your jaw being on the floor.

Batman and Uncharted and GTA5, oh my

1.  I just finished watching the GTA5 trailer.

So it’s Los Angeles.  And it looks like it’s keeping the gravitas of GTA4.  The most impressive thing to me is how colorful the trailer is – not that GTA4 was bland, but everything here is crisp and bright and beautiful.  Didn’t catch a release date, but I’d guess it comes out next spring/summer.

——————–

2.  So I’m a little over 2 hours into Uncharted 3; I finished the “burning chateau” section and that seemed like a logical place to stop for the night.

The good:  it looks absolutely phenomenal.  It is, hands down, the prettiest game of this generation – which includes Uncharted 2.  The dialogue and voice acting are terrific; I like these characters and care about them and I enjoy watching them interact.  The platforming is still engaging, and the few puzzles I’ve encountered so far are interesting and have been immensely satisfying to solve.

The bad:  the melee combat is really awkward and unsatisfying, and this sticks out specifically because I’ve spent the last 20 hours of my game-playing life beating the shit out of every living thing in Batman: Arkham City, which does 3rd-person melee combat better than anyone else.  The gunplay is still awkward, too – the early enemies aren’t bullet sponges, which is much appreciated, but it’s still a bit touchy, and it’s also a bit off-putting to consider how many people Nathan Drake murders over the course of an adventure.   (As noted above, I’m only 2 hours or so in and I’ve already killed dozens of bad guys.)   The walking/running animations are, for the most part, really beautiful and fluid – except when they’re not, like when you suddenly change direction.  And there are quite a few chase sequences when you’re running towards the camera, and the controls in those sequences are pretty rough, and you’ll die a lot, and in doing so you lessen the impact of the chase itself – it becomes less about HOLY SHIT LOOK AT WHAT I’M RUNNING FROM and more about rote memorization and hoping that the controls move the way you intend.

I’m still enjoying the hell out of it, but I’m not as enthusiastic about it as I’d hoped.  Its strengths are still top-notch, but its weaknesses are becoming glaring.

——————–

3.  I’m more or less done with Batman: Arkham City.  As noted above, I’ve put at least 20 hours into it; I’ve found almost 300 Riddler trophies, and that’s probably enough for the time being.  I may put it in every once in a while during a release lull to try and get all 400, but it’s not a priority.

My first impressions were not overly kind, to be honest; in my excitement for the new game during the summer I’d replayed Arkkam Asylum on the PC and so the first hour of AC was pretty much the exact same experience.  But I grew to really enjoy it.  The story is ludicrous if you look at it for more than 5 seconds, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief it’s an enjoyable ride, and the ending is easily one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, in any medium.  (Again, keeping my disbelief suspended.)  And I was certainly excited to know that after I finished the story I’d still have more to do – and for the most part, that was true.  But I’m a little fatigued with it now.  Knowing that I have over 100 Riddler trophies to go is not enticing – it’s exhausting.