2015: My Year in Games

It’s December 28 as I write these particular words, which means I’m beyond late in terms of getting this thing out the door.  And if I’m being honest, I should admit that I’ve barely started it.  Usually at this point I at least have my GoogleDoc template filled out with rough ideas of what I want to say, nominees for categories, etc., but it’s practically empty.  Indeed, it’s only because I’ve had to make some Top 10 lists for other people that I have even the slightest idea of what I might write here at all.

It’s hard for me to come to grips with this, but here it is:  my apathy towards games is starting to become less of an abstract threat and more like a very real thing.  I feel like I have more or less checked out in terms of keeping tabs on the “scene” as far as things like Twitter.  Nothing in my to-play pile is holding my interest.  I look at what I played this year and can only identify one true masterpiece, two better-than-expected games, two out-of-nowhere surprises, and the rest of my Top 10 is really just me scraping the barrel.  I look ahead to 2016 and while there’s certainly more than a few games I’m looking forward to, I can’t necessarily pick any that would cause me to call in sick.*


* For the record, the announced-for-2016 games that I’m looking forward to are as follows:

  • The Witness
  • XCOM 2 (especially if it eventually comes to consoles, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t)
  • Far Cry Primal (maybe?)
  • Uncharted 4 (though I worry that this game’s emphasis will be far more focused on action than exploration)
  • Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda (50/50 this comes out in 2016)
  • Crackdown 3 (see ME:A)
  • Dishonored 2
  • FF15 (50/50 for a 2016 release is very optimistic, I think)
  • Gears of War 4 (if only to give my Xbox One something to do)

What would I like to see in 2016?  I don’t even know.  I’d love to hear something about Red Dead Redemption 2, if only that it exists.  I’d obviously love to hear something about Portal 3, though that seems even less likely than Half Life 3.  I’m curious to know if the new Mass Effect will incorporate any save data from the original trilogy – if only in terms of the end-of-game state.  (This would also impact what platform I play it on, as I played the original trilogy twice on Xbox 360.)


In previous editions of this post, this would be the point where I’d spend a few thousand words recapping all the games I didn’t finish, all the games I barely started, all the games I consciously ignored; my favorite gameplay mechanic, my most irksome glitch.  But it’s too depressing to revisit some of that stuff, and in any event if I went through all the disappointments this post would be 10,000 words long, and not even I can bother with that sort of nonsense.  So I’m cutting to the chase.

I give 2015 a big fat “meh”, but – as with many things these days – I don’t know if that “meh” is directed at the games I played, or at myself for not getting into them.   In any event,  I humbly present my Top 10 Games of 2015.

10.  You Must Build A Boat (iOS)
An expansion on, and an excellent refinement of, the sliding-tile-based 10000000 from a few years back.  The recent addition of a new daily dungeon has brought this one back into my daily rotation.

9.  Alto’s Adventure (iOS)
I can’t speak for anyone else’s apathy as far as endless runners/scrollers go, but I’m still a fan of ’em; there’s a bunch more that came out this year that I still play regularly that didn’t make this list, actually.  Alto’s Adventure is a side-scrolling skiing game with an absolutely gorgeous graphical style and atmosphere, and I only wish I hadn’t gotten so terribly stuck on two of the three level goals at level 38; there’s still more to see and do, and I simply never got there.

8.  The Room Three (iOS)
I love the Room games; they’re magnificent showpieces for what mobile games are capable of.  More to the point, though, the puzzles are almost always fair; they might be tricky and obscure, but they ultimately make logical sense in order to proceed.  This edition is bigger and more complex than the previous two combined; I’ve only been able to solve one of the four endings, and the only reason why I’ve not been able to continue is that my iPhone’s low on available hard drive space.

7.  Lara Croft GO (iOS)
Yes, you read that correctly; this is the 4th iPhone game to appear in my top 10.  This is a puzzle game in the vein of Hitman GO, except that it’s a bit less frustrating to solve, and the art style is actually quite complementary to the Tomb Raider aesthetic.  I’m currently picking my way through the recently released DLC episode; it’s much trickier, but no less fun to work through.

6.  Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4)
If this is the end of Rocksteady’s Batman run, they certainly did a bang-up job.  I’m not sure that anything will ever top their first one (Asylum), but I still had a great deal of fun with this one; I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I recall the common critical consensus indicated I would.  The introduction of the Batmobile was surprisingly great, even if I still preferred to grapple/wingsuit my way around the city.  And it looked absolutely stunning; the decision to stay current-gen only was clearly a good one.  (Well, maybe not as far as the PC was concerned, but that’s a different story.)  It was exhausting, eventually – I can’t claim to have come anywhere close to solving all of Riddler’s challenges, nor did I feel any desire to try – but everything else was quite satisfying.

5.  Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4)
Here’s maybe the feel-good story of the year, as far as AAA development goes; fresh off the utter disaster of last year’s Unity, Syndicate turned out to be one of the best games in the whole franchise – and starred my favorite protagonist yet.  Evie Frye is a bad-ass, and more than redeemed her douchebag of a brother.  I should probably go back and check out that newly released Jack the Ripper DLC, actually…

4.  The Beginner’s Guide (PC)
I absolutely adored Davey Wedren’s Stanley Parable, and found this a uniquely compelling and emotionally involving follow-up.  To say more would spoil it; the game itself only takes about an hour or so to experience, and so I’d simply suggest you run out and pick it up.  (I’d also very strongly recommend picking up “Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist“, which is free and 20-minutes long and works as a very interesting companion piece to Beginner’s Guide, as it was created by one of the Stanley Parable’s other developers.  It too has quite a lot to say about game development, but from a much different angle.  Literally.)

3.  Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)
Like a lot of people I was initially irked that this was an Xbox-only release, especially since at the time of that announcement I hadn’t yet bought one.  All that said, I’ve grown to appreciate that the decision to concentrate development on one console was the correct decision; this game looks fantastic and runs incredibly smooth, and is an excellent showcase for what the Xbox One is capable of… even if I have no doubts that the eventual PS4 release will look even better.  Deeper analyses of the game’s narrative might reveal some unfortunate developments in terms of Lara’s character arc, but as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing it I found it quite wonderful.  It’s got everything I like in these sorts of 3rd person action/adventure/exploration games, especially with regards to the exploration/combat ratio; I spent far more time exploring than killing, which is exactly how I like it.  (And which, as noted earlier, is why I’m more than a little nervous about Uncharted 4.)

2.  Rocket League (PS4)
The feel-good story of the year, bar none; this little indie game came out of nowhere and became one of the most addictive multiplayer experiences I’ve had since the days of Burnout 3.  There was a stretch earlier this summer when I could do nothing but play Rocket League; it didn’t matter whether I was good or not, even just touching the ball was fun in and of itself.  It’s been so long since I picked it up that I’m probably too rusty to be an effective teammate… but a lack of skill didn’t stop me from having a blast earlier this summer, either, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go back as soon as possible.

1.  The Witcher 3 (PS4)
This was hands down the best game I played in 2015, and maybe one of the best games I’ve played in years.  Hell, I should probably revisit my all-time top 10 and see if I can’t fit this one in somewhere.  I’d dallied about in the first two Witchers but wasn’t at all familiar with the world or the lore, and it hardly mattered; each and every character was incredibly well-written and presented, and nearly every mission and side-quest was interesting, no matter how small or trivial; the attention to detail is second to none.  This game scratched all the itches I had from Red Dead Redemption, and so if we’re not getting Red Dead Redemption 2 any time soon, this is as worthy a substitute as we’re likely to get; and if anything I might’ve enjoyed this one even more.  An absolute masterpiece, and without a doubt my favorite game of 2015.

 

New Album Progress Report

MUSIC:  So:  I’ve been busy.  audioThe attached .jpg represents almost everything I’ve uploaded for my beta listeners since I started this recording project in late-January; there’s still a few more sketches on my hard drive that I haven’t uploaded yet, mostly because there’s not much to them.

I’m working on a bunch of things at once; I’m writing brand-new stuff, and also revisiting some much older stuff that’s never been properly recorded, and I’m also now starting to examine everything as a whole, and am beginning the process of separating the keepers from the b-sides.  And at some point I need to start working on lyrics.

All things considered, this is as productive and prolific as I’ve been in years.  For the longest time – like, the last 20 years – I was too complacent and lazy to ever get my ass in gear.  I’ve always wanted to record an album, but couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything, or let myself get into a songwriting routine – I was focused on other things, or just simply too unmotivated to get off the couch.  Hell, I have a hard time even calling “Untrue Songs” a real solo album – it was recorded over the course of 8 years and I wasn’t ever sure if any of it was going to see the light of day at all, and basically I put it out because I wanted my newborn son to know what all the instruments in the office sounded like.

For whatever reason, though, this time is different.  This time I’m genuinely excited to get home and start working.  Even on nights where I say to myself, “you know what, it’s been a long day, let’s take it easy tonight and switch off”, I still end up going into the studio and start tinkering with something.

So even if I technically failed the RPM Challenge, the overall experience has been nothing short of a fantastic success; I’m making music again, and I’m as happy about it as I’ve ever been.  I don’t necessarily have a timeline for finishing this thing, but believe me when I say that I’m as excited to get this new stuff out into the world as anything else I’ve worked on, possibly ever.

GAMES:  Because I’ve been so music-focused lately, games have obviously taken a bit of a back seat.  Obviously, given the current release calendar, I haven’t necessarily been missing all that much.  I treated myself to a bunch of well-regarded indie games last week but haven’t really given myself any time to play them:

  • I did the opening tutorial for Helldivers, and I think that’ll be a lot of fun in co-op.
  • I did the first 3 levels in Pneuma: Breath of Life; it’s an interesting (and beautiful) 1st person puzzler that’s trying just a little bit too hard to be self-aware and meta, taking inspiration from something like Stanley Parable as an obvious example.  It also offers up achievement points like CRAZY; even though that’s a thing I’m not really paying attention to anymore, I couldn’t help but point out that finishing the first 3 levels gave me a whopping 300 points.
  • I played about 30 minutes of the very stylish noir adventure White Night, but can’t offer any insightful commentary beyond its graphics.
  • I bought Never Alone but haven’t yet fired it up.
  • I downloaded OlliOlli2 because it’s free for PS+ members, but I must admit I was afraid to get started on it, because the first one was so fiendishly difficult.  And yet, for whatever reason, I’ve figured this one out, and even though I’ll never be a Jedi master at it, I can get all 5 stars on the early levels, and I’m enjoying it immensely.  It could be simply that there’s no narrative to get lost in; all I have to focus on is level geometry and the proper timing of button presses, and after a while it’s very easy to zone out.

I did end up renting The Order 1886, though it hasn’t arrived yet; I also rented the DmC HD remake, if only because I really like that game and would like to see how it could look even better than it did on my aging PC.

Side note – I am still kinda curious about those upcoming Steam Machines, and if I can get one with great specs for a relatively reasonable price, I very well might buy one and have it replace my PC.

BOOKS:  I finished Charlie Huston’s Skinner this morning.  I liked it, I think?  I don’t know.  It moves quickly, and some of the action set pieces are pretty exciting, but for an action-spy-techno thriller I never felt any danger, and the main characters are impossible to relate to (given their very plot-necessary personality quirks).  Now I’m finally reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I’ve been meaning to get to (and yet was very intimidated by, for reason I can’t explain).

Weekend Recap: Awards!

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GAMES:  Last night was the 4th Annual New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards, and it was a pretty great evening all around.  I was honored and humbled to present the Best Mobile Game award with my buddy Sara Clemens of Videodame, and was personally delighted to see Threes win that category.

The other winners included:

  • Best Children’s Game:  Mario Kart 8
  • Best Handheld Game:  Hearthstone
  • Best World:  Far Cry 4
  • Best Indie Game:  Shovel Knight
  • Best Remake:  GTA V
  • Best Writing:  South Park The Stick of Truth
  • Best eSports Experience:  Super Smash Bros. Melee
  • Best Music:  Transistor
  • Best Acting: Trey Parker, South Park
  • Best Game of the Year:  Wolfenstein The New Order

In other news, I’ve been super-busy with music stuff (which I’ll get to in a second), and as such I haven’t really had time to sink my teeth into Sunless Sea the way I’d hoped – I had about 15 minutes to spend with it the other day, and the only thing I can tell you is that I need a lot more than 15 minutes with it in order to get absorbed into its rhythms.  It’s a slow, methodical drone of a game, and in the right context that’s exactly the sort of thing I want to get into; I just lack that particular context at this particular moment.

So, instead, I’ve been getting back into GTA V HD, for some reason.  Maybe I’m still in Far Cry 4 first-person open world mode?  Dunno.  I’m trying to not pay attention to the characters and the dialogue, and instead I’m really just taking in the first-person perspective as much as I can.  It makes me wonder if Rockstar is going to implement this view with its other IP – specifically, I can’t help but hope that the Red Dead Redemption sequel will get this feature (and that Rockstar will also incorporate a better screenshot utility than GTA V’s smartphone).

MUSIC:  If we’re at the halfway point of the RPM Challenge, then my current tally is at 9 recordings, totaling 16 minutes.  There’s a few additional sketches that I’ve recorded but haven’t bounced or sent out to my beta listeners; and I suppose I’m cheating a little bit by including something I recorded around 2 weeks before the Challenge technically started.  This album is not going to be finished on March 1, of course, and if I’m honest with myself there’s really only 3 or 4 of these 9 recordings that I’d feel comfortable extending into fully-fledged songs.  Still – that’s a very healthy batting average, as far as my personal process is concerned, and so I’m feeling pretty good about things.

All that said, this last week was a weird one, and yet also productive.  I decided to switch gears and start recording with guitar instead of just keyboard, and while that generated some new material very quickly, it also revealed some computer problems.  To wit:  my Macbook is having difficulty recording both audio and MIDI at the same time – so, if I record guitar and then want to put down a synth track, I have to unplug everything and then restart my Mac two or three times and then hope that it decides to record the synth track.  This is certainly not an ideal way to work, but I’m still making progress nonetheless; there’s one new song in particular that I’d originally recorded several different sketches with guitars, but because of the aforementioned technical problems I decided to combine all the sketches into one take and use keyboards instead, and it sounds fucking great, and now I’m wondering if I should even bother with the guitars at all.

I’ve also started to put together some artwork, and I’m also starting to think about lyrics.  The less said about my lyric-writing process, the better; it’s never been an easy process, and considering how long it’s been since I last tried, I’m honestly a bit apprehensive.  I even started flipping through my old songwriting notebooks (and by old, I’m talking late 90s) and started adapting some of those scribblings into something workable – my lyrics were shitty back then, too, but the difference was that I wrote every single day, and now that it’s 20 years later I can maintain some level of objective distance from them, and despite their relative vapidity there are still certain phrases and concepts that stick out and might work.

BOOKS:  I’m now in the last third of Richard Powers’ Orfeo, which I think I’m enjoying.  He’s an absolutely marvelous craftsman of language; every single sentence is beautiful to read.  And the way he writes about the experience of listening to music is rather extraordinary.  The characters, however, have a tendency to feel like props instead of real people, and I’m not entirely sure I’m all that engaged with the story.  This NY Times review describes a lot of what I’m thinking, actually.  All that said, I’ve been listening to a lot of the music that’s described in the book (there’s even a few Spotify playlists that include each piece mentioned), and the experience of listening to the music as I read along with his descriptions is nothing short of exhilarating – Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Steve Reich’s Proverb, Messaien’s Quartet For the End of the World.

Weekend Recap: Wishes Upon Wishes

BOOKS:  Finished Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist very late last night, which made for some strange dreams.  It’s very nearly impossible to discuss without spoiling what makes it so intriguing and puzzling, and it’s got the sort of ending that you’ll need to re-read at least twice, and then also flip back to the very first chapter, and then step back and realize what the fuck just happened.  That being said, it’s an excellent book, a “literary murder mystery/adventure” story set in a rather unique period in history (and one that certainly piqued my interest, being that I – as I’m sure many other people my age – had a rather rabid interest in ancient Egypt as a kid); and so even if I can’t remember why I bought it, I’m very glad I did.

Next up: at long last, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 1.  I sincerely hope I haven’t set myself to be majorly disappointed, given how badly I’ve wanted to read this for so long.


GAMES:  There was more free gaming time this weekend than I expected to get – chalk it up to the wife’s recent promotion, which means she also has to bring work home with her on occasion.  Still, I’m in that awkward situation where, while I do have a backlog to deal with, I’m remembering why that stuff got put on the backlog in the first place, and so I’m kinda just flipping back and forth between a few different things, not really getting into the rhythm of anything in particular.

Specifically, my attention was split between four games this weekend:

GTA V, which made me wish I was playing Saints Row.  Honestly, I never thought I’d ever say that, but it’s true; playing GTA V for the second time makes the experience a hell of a lot more tedious and annoying – not just the horrific dialogue and misogyny and everything else, but the actual missions you do.  Like Trevor loading cargo containers onto a truck, or Franklin towing cars all over town.  Dockwork went out of style with Shenmue, for fuck’s sake.  While it’s true that the Saints Row franchise has never had a city that is as engrossing to be in as GTA, it’s also true that Saints Row stopped caring about “realism” right from the get-go, and has taken the concept of the “open world sandbox” to ludicrous extremes.  Actually, now that I’ve remembered that it’s coming out, I think I’m going to at least rent the Saints Row IV HD remaster thing that comes out later this month; I think that’ll be a lot of fun.

Destiny, which makes me wish I was playing Mass Effect.  I really only fired it up to pick up whatever legendary presents I’d been given, and then I did a Daily Story Mission or whatever it’s called, just to see if I still cared about it.  Yeah, the shooting’s still good, but there’s so little else there worth caring about.  I’m also a little pissed off; I thought I’d bought the Digital Guardian edition, and I’d bought that thinking that it was a season-pass thing for DLC.  But when I fired it up, I saw that The Dark Below expansion still cost $20.  If $20 is actually a reduced price for an expansion, then I might as well just delete the damned thing from my hard drive and be done with it.

Far Cry 4, which makes me wish I was re-playing Far Cry 3, or really anything else.  It’s also very disorienting after playing Destiny and also GTA V in first person, too, which shouldn’t be the case, since FC4 is actually supposed to be played in the first person.  I’m really just kinda nibbling at FC4; I’m unlocking towers and hideouts, and doing a mission here and there, but I’m mostly hunting if only so that I can craft everything I need to craft and then never worry about it again.  I will say that it’s a little comical to watch an eagle lift a goat straight up off the ground, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be intentionally comical or not.

Infamous First Light DLC, which I only really dabbled in for a brief period – it’s a free download this month for PS+ member, which is honestly the only reason why I picked it up.  Surprisingly, it was kinda neat to be back in that game again – I did like the original game even if it was somewhat empty and forgettable, and I forgot how good it looked.  I’ll probably keep this in the rotation for a little while, though it’s been so long since I beat the original game that it might take me a bit to get my bearings.

The First Few Hours: Trials Fusion (PS4)

Current Status:  I’m around 2.5 hours in.  I’ve gotten gold medals in all of the first 2 locations (“Easy”), I’ve completed the third tier with silvers (“Medium”), and I just unlocked the trick system, which also opened up a whole bunch of locations, costumes and bikes (including 4-wheel ATVs).

I have been a heavy-duty Trials fan for what feels like years now, even if I’m nowhere near an expert.  There was an early, PC-only version (whose name escapes me at the moment) which I was terrible at, but when the Trials games appeared on Xbox 360 I immediately devoured them, even as I repeatedly beat my head against the wall of “Hard” difficulty.  Last year, when I was in my hard-core PC gamer phase, I even went and bought the Trials HD edition on Steam (which combined those first two XBLA games, plus added some bonus content) and tried to play that for a little while, although that PC version is kinda terrible.

And as I think I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve become fiendishly addicted to Trials Frontier, a completely new game for iOS, with a free-to-play model that is surprisingly not terrible.  The game plays just fine, but the reason why it’s worth bringing up here is that it’s also made some significant tweaks to the Trials formula – namely, it’s now a kind of RPG, in that there’s a narrative, a “bad guy”, and a host of NPCs that give you tasks that reward you with XP, money and blueprints for new bikes.

What this iOS game ultimately succeeded in doing is to make my appetite for a proper, next-gen edition all that much more difficult to sate.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait very long.

There are good and bad things to discuss with regards to Trials Fusion.  Let’s start with the good.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Trials Fusion is drop-dead gorgeous.  I’m aware that the Xbox One version came with a day-one patch that upped the resolution a bit, but the PS4 version arrives fully formed in glorious 1080p, and a frame rate that feels pretty rock solid despite the craziness of the backgrounds.  And, man – there is a lot of craziness happening in the backgrounds.  Buildings explode, wind farms collapse, dams break – and the draw distance is deep, so everywhere you look there’s something bananas going on, even if it’s something that looks 5 miles away.

The game also feels great, and a lot of this has to do with how much better the PS4 controller is at handling the fine-tuned movements that are vital to landing certain jumps or climbing steep inclines.  I do not find myself missing the 360 controller, which says pretty much all that needs to be said as far as that goes.

And the level of variety in each course is astonishing.  Again – I’m still towards the beginning of the game, but each course is radically different and shows off a hell of a lot more than I ever saw in the last-gen games.  I have no doubt that the creator community is going to go absolutely nuts once they get their hands on the tools.

There’s also, like in the iOS version, a quasi-RPG system, though it doesn’t yet appear to serve any real purpose.  You gain XP and money for completing levels and meta-objectives (more on that in a second).  I think I hit level 20 last night, but that doesn’t really mean anything as far as a noticeable increase in my skills or in my bikes – all it means is that I’ve reached certain plateaus where previously locked bikes and clothes are now available for use.*

* I think it would be neat, eventually, to have an RPG system in a Trials game that actually improved your skills dependent on how well (or how often) you executed them – like in Skyrim, or (digging deep here) Aggressive Inline.  So, for Trials, if you show that you can land flips regularly with ease, you should have greater control over your spin with a heavier bike, for example.

Those meta-objectives are interesting, in that they can be tough to ignore.  The levels are already pretty challenging, but once you see that you can earn bonus XP for landing 10 flips in a zero-fault run, or if you avoid touching certain colored obstacles on the course, those things are tough to un-see, and so it adds an extra layer of stress to your run.

The biggest change to the Trials formula is probably the trick system, but since I only just unlocked that before calling it a night last night, I’m not quite ready to discuss it.  It’s a neat idea, though, and I suspect that it’ll give multiplayer matches a lot more depth.  (Oh, yeah, there’s multiplayer.  Haven’t tried that yet, either.)

Alas, not all is perfect in Trials Fusion.  In a game famous for giving you the ability to immediately restart a race at the touch of a button, the biggest grievance I have is the interminable waiting that happens after you finish a run; there’s a period of what may be only 30 seconds but feels like 20 minutes as the game does… something… after you finish.  Perhaps it’s sending your run to the uPlay cloud?  I’m not sure what the cause is, but it takes WAY too long and completely ruins the flow.

The weirder aspect is that there’s also an attempt here of some sort of narrative.  There are two disembodied voices that you hear – one is a male announcer, making either kinda lame jokes about how it’s only been 14 minutes since the last workplace accident, and to “keep up the good work”, or else some weird attempts at giving the weather.  The other is a female AI named Cindy, who walks you through each tutorial phase and who also tends to chirp in from time to time to comment on the male announcer’s ramblings.  Between the futuristic laboratory environments and the AI companions, it’s almost as if they wanted to set a Trials game in Portal‘s Aperture Science, but forgot to hire funny writers.

And, also, the writers they did hire did not factor into account how many times you might restart a race – which, if you’re like me and you’re determined to get as close to gold as you can, is an awful lot – and so you’ll hear the same quips over and over and over and over and over again, until they stop making any sense (if they ever did make sense), and you kinda just wish they’d shut up.  Cindy keeps making these odd comments about how nice it is to see you – or, at least, this version of you, anyway – and this is strange in a game that takes such gleeful joy in ragdolling your rider in increasingly bizarre and convoluted ways after each finish line.  Is the joke that we’re just a bunch of clones?  Is that the big twist?  That’s not really that big a stretch.

Anyway – long loading times and weird storytelling aside, it’s a next-gen Trials game, and if that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy, well, you’ve probably already downloaded it.

 

weekend recap: bones

1.  The newly-announced Titanfall / Xbox One bundle sounds intriguing, it really does.  Except… I still kinda don’t give a shit about Titanfall.  Which is, of course, not Titanfall’s fault; my friends who were in the beta say it’s pretty awesome, and I’d expect nothing less.  It’s just that:  (a) I’m still not all that into multiplayer shooters, and (b) with each new major multi-platform release, comparisons between the PS4 and the XBO make it that much clearer that the PS4 is the better-performing console.  I’d get the XBO if there were a true killer app for it that specifically appeals to my tastes – and, indeed, that day may yet come – but for now, I’d rather keep that $500 in my savings account if I can.

2.  I was curious to try the Final Fantasy 14 beta over the weekend, but the installer kept crashing.  After spending 20 minutes signing up and creating passwords and squinting like mad to read the fine print (is there really no way to expand the internet within an app?), everything seemed like it was OK, but then the installer would conk out once it hit 20%.  It’s just as well, I suppose – I can’t really afford to get sunk into an MMO right now anyway.

3.  I continue to make progress in Bravely Default; my party is level 35 or so, my town is pretty much fully rebuilt, and the difficulty level is now starting to weave all over the place; dungeon mobs are still mostly one-turn kills, but bosses and “asterisk fights” are ludicrously hard.  It is not quite getting tedious, but I think that’s because I’m still only playing in short bursts.

4.  Reviews for the new Thief are all over the place; mostly negative, but some reviewers are willing to cut it some more slack than others.  Here’s the part where I tell you that I’m aware of, but never played, the original, highly regarded trilogy, and so my interest in this game is purely out of wanting something to play on the PS4.  I did play one Thief game a while ago – was it the the one on the original Xbox? – and it suffered from a lot of the same problems that Deus Ex II did, which makes sense since I think they were using the same engine.  And I wasn’t particularly good at it, though I think that’s because my experience with stealth games was largely influenced by Splinter Cell, and you really can’t play Thief like you’re Sam Fisher.  So I’m hoping that I can be a bit more patient with this one, if only so that I can not send it back after 10 minutes.

5.  Speaking of having (or not having) patience, here’s a funny story.  I rented Far Cry 2 when it first came out in 2008; played for 5 minutes, died in the very first shootout, and said “fuck it”; sent it back to Gamefly.  In the intervening years, Far Cry 2 has taken on this mythical “greatest game ever” status among certain critics and people I greatly admire, and there was always a little part of me that wondered if I gave up on it too quickly.  Fast forward to this past weekend, where Ubisoft had a massive Steam sale.  I looked up at one point and saw that Far Cry 2 was being sold for something like $2.49.  Picked it up immediately.  Loaded it up.  Died in the exact same first shootout, screen faded to black.

BUT THEN THE SCREEN FADED BACK UP AGAIN.  And a man was talking to me and the game was teaching me how to heal myself.

All this time, I’d thought I just sucked at Far Cry 2.  I never knew that you’re supposed to get knocked out in that first shootout.  I am an idiot.

*     *     *

Today’s subject title is from the excellent self-titled album by The Forms.

Weekend Recap: Operation Backlog begins

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tom Bissell on GTA V

Not a GTA V post from me; instead, it’s Tom Bissell writing about GTAV for Grantland.  I’ve not even yet finished it, but this particular bit was worth reposting:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. …I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

GTA V: of yoga and torture

I wasn’t necessarily planning on blogging every GTA V play session, but, well, it’s a slow afternoon.

I did the much-ballyhooed “torture” mission last night in which Trevor and Michael are, for some reason, brought in to (a) help the FIB interrogate a prisoner and (b) assassinate someone based on the prisoner’s intel (given under duress).  It wasn’t necessarily as awful as I’d been led to believe, but that’s not to say it wasn’t utterly distasteful; I suppose the most offensive part was that I’d failed to get the gold medal after I completed the mission because I’d failed to use every torture device available.  Let me rephrase that:  the game said I didn’t do a thorough enough job of torturing an innocent man, even though I’d removed two of his teeth with pliers, hooked his nipples up to a car battery, and broke the shit out of his kneecap – all while using his frantically-offered information to assassinate someone who may or may not have been “bad.”  The whole thing reminded me a bit of the infamous “No Russian” level in CoD:MW2, in that it was senseless and mean-spirited and there simply to make you feel bad, not necessarily to provoke or inspire thought or discussion.

20 minutes after this, I completed Michael’s first yoga exercise, which came replete with the expected sexual innuendo and jokes (including a few ripped straight out of the terrible, terrible film Couples Retreat, which, I mean, come on).

That the controller mechanics for the yoga were not all that dissimilar from the controller mechanics of the tooth-pulling is maybe the game’s slyest joke thus far.

 

GTA V continued: now it gets interesting

[Previous spoiler warnings still apply; I try not to get into story spoilers, but talk about missions and characters are unavoidable.  Do not read if you’ve not yet played.]

[Also: I’d been working on this post all morning but then I got sidetracked with the SteamOS announcement, and so I have no idea what the hell this post is about any more.]

So, where was I….

Ah, yes.  In my last post, I was treading water, somewhat; I had not yet performed the first in-game heist, and I was kinda just messing around in the world, killing time until the last piece of the pre-heist puzzle was solved.  I was feeling a little bit lost, a little less enthused about the game than I’d hoped.

I am many more hours into GTA V now.  Its hooks are now firmly planted in my brain.  I am still a little put off by the relentless profanity for profanity’s sake, but I admit that could just be me and my changing attitudes towards that kind of thing.  The game itself now has a forward momentum that the early hours just didn’t have.

That forward momentum is, of course, personified by the game’s introduction of Trevor, the final member of the player’s trio.  He may yet be the least sympathetic character in the entire franchise; he is also the most appropriate.  He embodies the sociopathic nature of the franchise; he murders and destroys because it’s fun, and because he’s good at it.

But first, before I talk about Trevor, I need to get caught up.  I did finally finish that first heist.  All things considered, it was pretty satisfying to pull off – and the take was nice, too – though the post-heist escape was lifted straight out of Italian Job.  I haven’t seen the original film, so I’m not sure what’s referencing what, but the only real significant difference between the Mark Wahlberg remake and GTA V was the absence of Mini Coopers.  There are times when I wish GTA wasn’t so reliant on pop culture references; things feel familiar when they shouldn’t, which ends up spoiling the surprise.  It’s one thing for film references to help put you in the right frame of mind (i.e., Scarface/Vice City), but sometimes it feels as if the mission designers would rather ape something tried-and-true than come up with something original.  This is something the entire GTA franchise has been guilty of since at least III; I’m just noting it here because it seemed particularly egregious.

(I’m not totally against references, mind you; I just get ornery when it feels like a missed opportunity to do something unique.  That said, there is a post-heist Franklin mission that takes place in what might as well have been CJ’s house and cul-de-sac in San Andreas, and that one gave me goose bumps.  That reference works, though, because it’s (a) subtle, and (b) earned.)

*     *     *

Quick tangent: having never been to Los Angeles – or California, or the West Coast – the verisimilitude of Los Santos is something I can’t necessarily appreciate in the way that I, as a native New Yorker, could with Liberty City.  But I did play L.A. Noire, and San Andreas, and I’ve certainly seen lots of movies that are set out there, and so there’s quite a lot of stuff that I recognize, and everything certainly feels true, which is pretty amazing.  And yet: it’s the stuff north of the city that really knocks my socks off…

*     *     *

But yeah, once the game shifts gears and introduces Trevor… wow.  He’s a really tough character to watch.  People complain that GTA IV was too dark and gritty for its own good, but Trevor is even darker, more menacing, and completely insane – and also maybe a little bit silly, which is off-putting, to say the least.  Are we supposed to laugh at him?  with him?  Is he meant to be entertaining?

We are introduced to him mid-coitus, as he discovers that Michael (his old thieving partner) is not actually dead.  5 minutes later, he’s more or less killed a biker with his bare hands.  It’s hard to know whether what happens over his first set of missions is a continuation of earlier events or simply Trevor’s id exploding with rage, but it almost doesn’t matter; everything goes batshit insane immediately, and without warning, and so the narrative context is made irrelevant.  (This may or may not be a good thing; it’s hard to tell.)  Trevor’s personality is so dynamic and dominant and spontaneous that it’s entirely possible that he just decides to take over all meth operations in that part of town, blowing the hell out of everything in his way in the process – it’s not a culmination of months-long planning, it’s just a thing that he chooses to do, right then and there.

And so suddenly the game is no longer about social issues or class warfare or the financial crisis; it’s about blowing shit up and causing maximum amounts of chaos… which is kinda what the game has always been about.  The franchise just never had a protagonist who enjoys this sort of work with the glee and gusto of a true psychotic sociopath.  Trevor wouldn’t be out of place in Saints Row, frankly, except that the cast of Saints Row aren’t this dangerous; they’re wacky-ha-ha, not wacky-holy-shit-look-out.

On the flip side of the coin, being introduced to Trevor also introduces us to the northern half of the map, which I can’t even describe without completely losing my train of thought. I knew the game would eventually take me up there, but I was too wrapped up in the early missions to really go exploring.  Once I was up there, though… it’s truly breathtaking, what Rockstar’s managed to create.  For all the vulgarity and the racism and sexism and ugliness of the narrative, the world itself is mindblowing.  I mean, the city of Los Santos is as incredibly detailed as anything I’ve ever seen in a game, but once you get out of the city it somehow gets taken to a whole new level.  Honestly?  There’s a part of me that kinda wants to finish the story as quickly as possible just so I can get it out of the way and have the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of that map.

*      *      *

Tangent, part 2:  If I were to interview Rockstar – and specifically the guys in charge of the gameplay experience, however that’s delegated – I think the main question I’d want to ask is how they balance the need for narrative urgency to complete the next story mission against allowing total freedom to do whatever the player wants, or if that’s even something they worry about anymore.  GTA3 took the idea of non-linear, emergent gameplay and made it the centerpiece of the game experience; with each subsequent game they expanded the number of toys you could play with, while also making their narratives larger and more ambitious.  Here in GTA V, they’ve gone and given you THREE different main characters to play as, and yet they’ve also given you the largest and most pliable sandbox ever created.  (This is to say nothing of the online component.)  So, then:  is the story even necessary?  

*       *       *

This post is now running very long and is probably long past being coherent, so let me try to run down some things that are working for me, as well as some things that are not.

Things that work:  The stock market.  I’m really impressed with how this system works, and it’s only because I’m an idiot that I didn’t truly make the most of the first two assassination missions that could’ve given me millions.  Even in spite of my stupidity (wherein, as Franklin, I immediately spent most of my post-heist take on buying a taxi dispatcher business, which meant I had less than $50,000 to play with), I made over $160,000 by buying up the cheap stock that was set to explode because of each mission.  And it’s only now occurring to me that I’ve done two of these missions now and never bothered to switch over to Michael or Trevor so that they could take part in the action as well.  *sigh*

Things that don’t work:  Franklin’s dog.  And not just because the iFruit app is completely useless right now.  Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be that big a deal so far, and so I’ve been content to ignore it, but it’s a needless distraction in a game already full of distractions.

And speaking of Franklin, I’ve been spending most of my time playing as Franklin at this stage in the game; he’s certainly the most sympathetic character of the three, and his special driving ability is a lot of fun to play with, and his new house in the hills is sweet… but it also needs to be said that his character is not written all that well.   I don’t really understand why he was willing to follow Michael so blindly at the beginning; similarly, nearly all of his side missions are taken with great reluctance  (i.e., the paparazzi dude, the legalize-weed dude).   He gets pushed around and agrees to do things for no good reason other than the game makes him, which is kind of dumb.  It makes him look weak, and I’m not sure the game intends for him to look weak.