Weekend recap: alternative facts

And so here we are, finally, the first Monday in Trump’s America.  We are expecting Nor’easter-ish conditions here in the NYC region, which seems fitting.

I don’t necessarily want to turn this blog into a political soapbox, but these are strange times, and like it or not, Trump’s current employment is going to affect us all one way or the other.  (I cannot and will not call him President.)  While I understand the impulse to say “Hey, man, leave politics out of it, you’re talking about games and music and books,” the truth of the matter is that Trump’s decisions are absolutely going to affect games and music and books.  Not just in terms of their subject matter, but – in more practical terms – they may very well affect our ability to purchase games and music and books.  Because unless you are a (white, male) billionaire, life is about to get more difficult, whether you like it or not.

And the thing is, Trump and his cronies are legitimately frightening, while also being incredibly ridiculous.  It is hard to take ridiculous things seriously, and yet we as a nation have to take them seriously, because otherwise the truly frightening fascistic shit will get lost in the shuffle.  So while we’re all enjoying a laugh at the insanity of Kellyanne Conway presenting “alternative facts” as a sublime bon mot, let’s not forget that it’s only been 72 hours and the Trump administration is already preparing to leave the United Nations, renegotiate NAFTA, and go into full-bore isolationist mode.  Oh, and that whole healthcare thing… that’s gonna fuck everybody up, too, including people who already have healthcare through their jobs.

In any event:  I despaired on Friday, but after seeing the enormity of the protests on Saturday, I am inspired and rejuvenated.

To that end, I spent last night replaying Wolfenstein: The New Order, because suddenly killing Nazis is cathartic again.  I wrote about this the last time I played it, and it’s still true.  Given that one of the highlights of this weekend was seeing alt-right neo-Nazi Richard Spencer get punched in the face, and then having that punch become a viral meme, I felt that it was my patriotic duty as an American to get my Nazi-killin’ skills in good shape.  I’m still a pacifist, I still hate guns, I still feel a little weird about the shooter genre, but I will alwaysalwaysalways have room in my heart to mow down some Nazis.

If I’m honest with myself, I should probably concede that I have not yet spent enough time with my PSVR to fully justify the expense of owning it.  And yet, my brother and his fiancee hung out with us over the weekend (they were escaping DC, as it were), and I got to blow their minds with that shark tank demo, and that in and of itself is justification enough.

I also dabbled in some other VR experiences; I gave Bound another look, and the difference between Bound in regular mode vs. VR is night and day.  It’s still a bit weird, but the visual experience is nothing short of breathtaking.  Similarly, I finally unlocked the fabled “Area X” mode in Rez Infinite, and all I can really say about that is wow.  Good lord.

I continue to screw around with my backlog, and I continue to find myself drawn towards replaying old favorites in lieu of playing new stuff.  I am having a very difficult time getting into Final Fantasy XV, and Dishonored 2 is also a bit of a struggle (although in that case it’s more that I’m just not very good at it, and while I want to be able to sneak around I end up having to kill everyone, and it becomes a bit of a drag).  I’m also having the same problem with Watch Dogs 2, actually, except I really don’t care about getting into gunfights, even though I feel like I should.

And yet I am more than happy to revisit The Witcher 3, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, and such.  Those games are still great, and given that time remains something of a limited resource, I’d rather spend my time enjoying what I’m doing than not.  It’s an indulgent attitude, I suppose, but these are strange and difficult times, and one has to find happiness where one can.

The Year (So Far) In Games

A bunch of sites have been putting up “Best Games of the Half-Year” posts this week, and I was tempted to follow suit, but after looking at my Games Played spreadsheet I found myself wondering how I could spin Wolfenstein: The New Order and South Park: The Stick of Truth into 800 words; it’s just not happening.  Those are two surprisingly terrific games, and they’ll most likely end up in my year-end list, and you should play them if you haven’t already.  Beyond that, it’s a bit of a reach.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call the first half of 2014 a disappointment; I expected this transition period between last-gen and current-gen to be a little weird and underwhelming.  That being said, a lot of the year’s biggest-hyped games fell relatively flat for me.  I was certainly impressed with the tech in Infamous: Second Son, but I hardly gave it a second thought after easily getting to 100% completion.  Similarly, there are certainly quite a few things to like about Watch Dogs, but if I think about that game for more than 5 seconds I get irrationally angry.  And Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is what it is, I guess, though I haven’t felt compelled to pick it back up since I finished it the first time.

I could continue on in this vein – there’s plenty of bummers on my Games Played spreadsheet (*cough* Thief *cough* Mario Golf World Tour *cough*) – but I’d prefer to keep the rest of this somewhat positive.

Jazzpunk!  That’s a spicy meatball if there ever was one.

I enjoyed playing Tomb Raider again on the PS4 and my HDTV, although I suppose its retail success is partially to blame for the HD double-dips that are in our immediate future as we wait for the real next-gen stuff to appear, i.e.The Last of UsGTA VDiablo III, to name a few off the top of my head.  And I’m planning on at least renting all of those games, too, so I suppose I’m partially to blame as well.

Speaking of Diablo III, I suppose I should heap a little bit of praise on its Reaper of Souls DLC and the additional patching that game’s received in the year since I last turned it on; the DLC managed to suck another dozen hours of my life after I’d sworn I was finished with it forever, and the daily missions and objectives are an intriguing carrot that I still consider chasing after.

I really enjoyed Bravely Default right up until I realized that I was going to have to play the entire game a second time; and then I read some walkthroughs that revealed that I’d actually have to play the whole thing 3-4 times before getting to the final ending.  This will not do.

What else, what else… I’ve not yet had that much time to actually play anything in depth on my PS Vita, and yet I keep downloading free games on it.  I’m very happy to finally own it, though.  The port of Fez is great – I just love having it in portable form – and Luftrausers is excellent and I need to get back to it, and Olli Olli hurts my brain but is also really good.

I was also going to include my favorite bits of gaming journalism and criticism, but it’s a gigantic list so far, and it’s also full of rather depressing stories of how toxic this industry is.  Still, if you’d like to check it out, I’ve made it publicly available as a Google Doc.

This weekend I’ll be away with the family, so I’m not sure what gaming there’ll be.  I’m currently playing A Story About My Uncle, which is both exhilarating and frustrating, sometimes simultaneously; I’d like to try and finish it tonight, since I’m not taking my PC with me.  I picked up Civ Rev 2 for my iPhone this morning; it’s not quite as graphically interesting as the 360 version from a few years back, but it’s leaps and bounds better-looking than the previous iOS version, and the touch controls are a lot more intuitive.  I’m still way over my head most of the time, but such is life.  And I guess I’ll bring the Vita along, too, and maybe keep plugging away at Tearaway and also perhaps one of the 6 Final Fantasy games I’ve got on there.  (The voting was inconclusive.  I might go with 8 or 9, since I’ve never touched those before.)

Have a happy and safe 4th, everyone.

Weekend Recap: Dogs and Wolves

I’m maybe 8 hours into Watch Dogs, even though I only finished Act 1 (of 5) last night.

The reason why I’m 8 hours into the game but am barely 20% into the story is because the game is constantly interrupting me with other things to do besides the main story, and since playing the main story means having to listen to shitty dialogue made worse by shittier voice acting, I’m more than content to indulge those side missions.  I check into hotspots; I hack the shit out of ATM accounts (even though I’m not spending any of the money); I hack into buildings and spy on weird people; I unlock ctOS towers (WD’s version of the radio towers in Far Cry 3 and/or synchronizing viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed).  Anything that involves not having Aiden Pierce speak (whether to a person or simply as part of an internal monologue) is something I’m more than happy to indulge in.

Actually, say what you will about the narrative and the characters and the numerous plot holes and nonsensical premise and the rest of it – and I’ll get to all of that – but Watch Dogs is, for all intents and purposes, the modern-day Assassin’s Creed that I wondered if we’d ever see.  My wife watched me play it for a few minutes and thought it was Grand Theft Auto – and certainly you can make that case.  But the DNA between Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed is so similar, in fact, that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see that this future-Chicago is, in fact, part of the Animus.  Even the digital glitches seem familiar.  (This Eurogamer article all but confirms that the two franchises take place in the same universe, even if the bottom quote of that article calls these references mere “Easter eggs”.)

I can’t seem to talk about Watch Dogs without getting totally scatterbrained, so I’m going to do the rest of this in bullet-points:

  • Comparisons to GTA being unavoidable, I’d have loved it if Watch Dogs had stolen GTA’s driving model, if nothing else.  It is fucking impossible to keep a car moving at any speed on the road without spinning out, hitting a dozen cars, or killing civilians who are all too eager to get in the way.  (Perhaps those civilians feel guilty in that their complacency in letting a private corporation like the one that makes ctOS completely take over Chicago.)
  • To that last point – the reason why the NSA’s surveillance tactics are as thorough and as voluminous as they are is because they are (or were) collected IN SECRET.  There is only a certain amount of disbelief I can willingly suspend, and the idea that a private corporation could do what the one in Watch Dogs has done is completely in-fucking-sane.  In a major, heavily liberal city like Chicago, no less!  Certainly there’d have been some angry op-eds in the local papers, at the very least, because I’m not sure that the general populace would be content letting a group of anonymous hackers be their voice, either.
  • The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pierce, is one of the more difficult protagonists in modern games to empathize with.  And this particular problem with empathy is totally different than what you might expect with the three men of GTA V, who you at least understand right from the get go are monsters.  Aiden is (at least I think) meant to be someone you root for, someone you understand, someone who can guide you through this city and show you how messed up it is.Alas, Aiden is poorly introduced.  The opening cutscenes establish that he’s some sort of hacker, in the middle of the digital robbery of an upscale building.  Something goes wrong and he bails, and then, some time later, he is shot at by gangsters while driving his car, resulting in the death of his niece.  Now, the way this opening sequence is laid out, one gathers that we are meant to feel bad for Aiden, and that this scene helps us understand his rage and his quest for revenge.  They killed a child, after all!  But: he’s also a criminal, right?  Even if he’s only robbing the rich (and who even knows if that’s the case), he’s engaged in illegal activity as a full-time profession, and he got caught, and the bad(der) guys tried to take him out.

    And he’s not charming or witty or even likable, as with, say, the Ocean’s 11 crew.  He’s poorly acted, as he’s basically been a one-note grumble so far, and it doesn’t help that his dialogue is so stupid.

  • Also:  he’s continually recognized by passers-by as “the vigilante in the news”, which makes literally no sense as his face and body are digitally obscured by all the cameras you hack – plus, at least as of yet, he’s done nothing newsworthy to grant him that title.  And while I appreciate all this extra stuff to do, I don’t understand why he’s so interested in doing it when he’s written as being single-minded of purpose.  Why should he care about random crimes?  Why should he care about random people, for that matter?  For all intents and purposes he is a broken man out to right a grievous wrong – why the fuck is the game interrupting me literally every 30 seconds with gang hideouts to break up and criminal convoys to derail?

As I haven’t seen nearly enough of the game’s story to comment on it in any detail, I won’t.  But I will absolutely pass along Cameron Kunzelman’s pretty definitive look at some of the game’s larger issues.  That article alone is enough to keep me stalling, let alone all the other ridiculousness detailed above.

And it’s a shame, too, because there actually is some interesting stuff here.  Underneath all the narrative stupidity and the horrendous, horrendous driving (and the average third-person shooting), the game offers unique ways of handling enemies that have nothing to do with guns.  One of my favorite moments thus far was how I was able to unlock a ctOS station – different than unlocking one of the radio towers – purely through hacking cameras.  I found a hidden vantage point, hacked a surveillance camera, found the guard with the access codes and hacked him, then found another guard wearing a hidden camera, distracted him with a ringing cell phone which put him in the same room as the [cable box?], hacked that; mission accomplished.  I could have just as easily gone in, guns blazing, mowing all the guards down and doing everything directly.  But this was a far more satisfying way of dealing with the situation, and I didn’t have to kill anybody.  Didn’t even have to sneak around!  I just stood out of anyone’s line of sight and my phone did the rest.

This is how the game generally encourages you to play, for whatever it’s worth.  And it’s a really interesting concept, and for the most part it’s satisfying to pull off.  But it’s not foolproof, and it’s not always successful, and you can’t take too much direct fire before getting killed, and the checkpoint system is somewhat inconsistent; a mid-mission death can either mean replaying 5 minutes, or 20.

I’m going to keep playing it, because there’s more than enough to do to keep me busy for the rest of the summer, but I’m not sure how much I’m going to enjoy it.

On the other hand, I can’t say enough positive things about Wolfenstein: The New Order.  Indeed, I very well might put Watch Dogs back on the shelf if it gets too infuriating just so that I can go back to Wolfy and find all the collectibles I missed the first time around.

Unfortunately, it’s now been almost a week since I finished it, and so the words aren’t coming as quickly as I’d like them to.  I did write a whole bunch while I was in the middle of it; I’d really only add that it’s remarkable and refreshing to see a single-player-only FPS so lovingly crafted and cared for in this day and age.  With every ensuing Call of Duty I find myself getting more and more cynical, wondering if the FPS genre has passed me by; even the more interesting shooters, like Far Cry 3, still have moments of tedium (as well as troubling, tone-deaf overtones of tribalism and racism).

Wolfenstein is, at heart, an old-school shooter, and it’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel here.  What it gets right, though, is so tough to do these days; it has astonishingly good pacing, objectives that are clear and understandable, a supporting cast of characters that are as three-dimensional as you could hope for (given their relative lack of screen time), and a diverse and satisfying arsenal and thousands of Nazis to kill.  There are a few tough spikes in difficulty, and towards the very end (maybe the last 30 minutes of the game) I turned the difficulty down just because the hour was getting late and I wanted to see at least the first 20 minutes of Watch Dogs before going to sleep, and because I’m a grown-ass man and I don’t have to feel bad about that sort of thing.  Even with the difficulty lowered, the game was still fun; I don’t feel like I diminished my experience at all.

I’m not sure what the rest of the year’s release calendar is looking like – E3 is just around the corner, but I also expect a lot of games to get delayed until next year – but I’d be very surprised if Wolfenstein wasn’t in the running for my Game of the Year.  Highly recommended.

Weekend Recap: Killing Nazis on the Moon

(Before I forget, I wrote up a thing over at Gamemoir taking a guess at what Rockstar’s new title is going to be.  It went up yesterday, when most of the USA was away from the internet, so if you’d like to check it out, here it is.)

Here’s something I never expected to say:  I’m far more interested in finishing Wolfenstein than I am in firing up Watch Dogs, which just arrived and which is sitting in my messenger bag at this very moment.  As much of a sucker as I am for open world games, and as much as I succumbed to the insane amount of hype that Watch Dogs had gunning for it, I am thoroughly enjoying Wolfenstein and very well might go back to play it again once I finish it – or, at least, go back chapter by chapter to find all the hidden stuff I missed.

Whenever I talk about “shooter fatigue”, I’m talking about a combination of things:  (1) a lot of the big budget shooters (and there are quite a few of them) basically feel and look the same; (2) those shooters have very flimsy narratives and it’s often a struggle to understand why you’re going where you’re going or why you have to kill so many people beyond those people being “the enemy”; and (3) I’ve grown weary of having the murdering of virtual people as the primary game mechanic.

Wolfy solves a lot of these problems for me, actually, and one of them comes as a complete surprise.  In 2008 I’d complained of how tired I was about shooting Nazis, actually:

Nazis have been the de facto bad guys in popular culture for the last 50 years. They are a perfect enemy; nobody gets offended when you have to kill them. Castle Wolfenstein illustrated this in interactive 3D, and the videogame boom as we know it was born.

I think, however, that we’ve reached a point in our society where the evilness of Nazis has lost a bit of its power. The videogaming generation did not grow up in WW2, and neither did its parents. When you kill Nazis in videogames, you’re not avenging the horrors of the Holocaust anymore, or freeing Europe from the tyrannical grips of a monster; you are killing bad guys in order to make it to the next checkpoint, and Nazis have always been an easy target for game designers because (a) you don’t have to worry about cultural sensitivity issues, and (b) who doesn’t enjoy killing Nazis? It’s just that most WW2 games these days don’t really focus on the why; they focus on the experience of the soldier in the middle of the battle, rather than the reason why the soldier is over there in the first place, and as a result, the enemy Nazi soldier is no longer as capital-E Evil because they all look the same and there’s so damn many of them.

As it happens, that same column was about how zombies were the new Nazis, and how I thought that was kind of great, because we needed a new type of baddie to kill.  Now, of course, zombies are everywhere, and it’s gotten to the point where I actively avoid playing games with zombies – even The Walking Dead Season 2 – because I’m so, so tired of them.

So you can imagine the irony in which I’m now singing the praises of a game that eschews zombies altogether and goes back to killin’ Nazis, and how much goddamned fun it is to be killing all of them.  I feel, at times, like I’m a part of the Inglorious Basterds, and it can feel downright cathartic to mow down wave after wave of them.

And I also can’t say it enough, how impressed I am at how good the game feels.  The shooting is excellent; your arsenal is potent and varied, and I’m always pleased at how I can improvise and change tactics with a different weapon if my preferred gun is low on ammo.  (Also:  dual-wielding automatic shotguns is insane.)  The game is also fantastically paced, especially for my personal tastes; there is plenty of action, to be sure, but there are also welcome lulls (and also dedicated sections in the resistance safehouse) where I can root around and look for hidden items and secrets (of which there are so many, which is delightful).  I’m probably 8 or 9 hours in at this point and there have only been maybe 3 or 4 times where I’ve come across a frustratingly high spike in difficulty (one section in particular drove me bananas, though I did eventually manage to outlast it), and those spikes were often solved simply by remembering that I don’t always have to charge in head-first.

I remain surprised at how much I’m enjoying myself, and part of that may simply be that I never expected a Wolfenstein game to be this good.  The Wolfenstein brand has always been more important than the games themselves, I think; the original game is what started this whole 3D first-person shooter thing in the first place, and while we may have fond memories of playing it way back when, I don’t know anyone who prefers that game to Doom.  I played bits of the last few Wolfenstein sequels on consoles, and they always felt somewhat out of date; or, rather, that each subsequent sequel felt like a desperate attempt to keep the IP relevant.  This game, on the other hand, feels remarkably fresh and alive, and yet it also knows how silly it is.  After wiping out most of a U-Boat’s crew, the captain exasperatedly exclaims – “What’s wrong with you?  He’s just one man!”  B.J. Blazkowicz himself, after infiltrating the Nazi lunar base and radioing back to his resistance HQ, says, “Well, I’m on the fucking moon.”

Re: that silliness – I understand what the critics are talking about w/r/t the game’s wildly divergent tone.  There are opportunities for character development that never quite get maximized, and one can get the impression that the corporate overlords at Bethesda/ZeniMax took the developers aside and said “Hey, enough with the talky-talky, we need more shooty-shooty.”  Still, what’s there can be rich and deep and dark, and I guess I’m just grateful that it’s there at all.  B.J.’s comrades have very different motivations for joining a resistance that they all acknowledge has nearly no chance of succeeding, and even if they’re not given all that much to do, they feel real enough to make you feel like part of something important.

It’s a hell of thing, really, to make a Wolfenstein game in 2014 feel important.  To that end, I tip my cap to Machine Games, who’ve made something quite special indeed.

The First Few Hours: Transistor, Wolfenstein

I’m heading off the grid in a few hours; the wife and I are celebrating our 10-year anniversary and, as such, I will be doing everything I possibly can to not look at the internet for a few days.

Before I go, though, I did want to jot down some thoughts on this week’s big releases.

1.  Transistor, the latest game from Supergiant, certainly appears at first glance to be cut from the same inspirational cloth as their previous release, Bastion: it’s got a remarkable art style, a striking musical backdrop, and a bit of running commentary (from your sword).  The gameplay is quite different than its predecessor, of course; it’s actually got one of the most unique combat systems I’ve ever gotten my hands on.  It’s one part hack/slash, one part turn-based strategy, with both parts happening at the same time.  It sounds complicated, and it sort-of is, at first.  Certainly the special powers you acquire are not all that well explained, and while it’s cool that you can link them together to create unique combinations, it’s not particularly intuitive, and I find myself feeling confused rather than empowered.   I trust that the story will get around to explaining itself a bit more, as the game starts in medias res and hasn’t yet fleshed itself out.  I’m still early on, but I’m feeling a bit put off.

2.  Wolfenstein: The New Order, on the other hand, is something I wasn’t expecting at all – an old-school shooter dressed in next-gen finery, and executed really, really well.  The biggest knock against it from the major sites is that it has a rather inconsistent tone; in one moment you’re surrounded by surprisingly three-dimensional characters that’ve been through hell and back, and in the next moment you’re shooting the crap out of dozens of Nazis and their mechanically-enhanced dogs, all the while scooping up food, ammo and armor like they were candy.  The food in particular makes Bioshock‘s trash-eating look quaint, but it’s also a throwback to the original game, and somehow it works.  I’m happy to turn off my brain for it; the game (and the Dualshock 4) feels quite good in the hands, and the various set pieces I’ve encountered so far are pretty spectacular.  (I’m currently in the London Science Museum, a little bit past the area celebrating the Nazis’ successful moon landing.)  And there’s so many secrets!  So many nooks and crannies!  Oh, man, I know I’ve complained of shooter fatigue but this is very much hitting the spot.

3.  I’ve also been dabbling a bit more in Final Fantasy X on the Vita.  It’s… well, having never played it originally, I’m not really sure what to think about it.  It certainly looks quite nice, and the combat is well-tuned, but the sphere grid is… um… completely insane?  And also the dialogue is mostly ridiculous, and the voice acting is not doing the script any favors?  It’s hard to know how much of it I’m supposed to be taking seriously.  The overall story has a certain momentum that I can stick with, but each moment-to-moment cutscene is just… silly.  I’m rather inexperienced when it comes to Final Fantasy games, having only actually finished 13-1 (before I knew it would have 2 sequels) and having dabbled a bit in a few others, so I have no idea where FFX ranks among the hard-core fans.  I gather it’s mostly notable because it was the first FF game to be fully 3D?  Is that right?  Anyway, the most difficult part for me is finding the time to play it; I’m not thrilled about the idea of pulling it out on the subway, and the Vita is too conspicuous to play at work, and my home-play time is gonna be mostly devoted to Wolfy and Watch Dogs (and Transistor, when I decide to switch it up).

Lastly, I’ll have a piece going up on Monday over at Gamemoir about my guesses for Rockstar’s next title, and I’m also hoping to have this other thing for Videodame that’s turning out to be one of the more difficult and intimidating things I’ve ever written.  I’m a little nervous about it, mostly because it’s me talking about things that I generally don’t talk about, and explaining why I don’t talk about them.  And then I think I’m finally doing something for Unwinnable, and I’m aiming for the first week of June for that one.  It’s weird to be doing more writing about gaming than actually gaming, but that’s also why I’m doing all this in the first place.

Enjoy your weekend, everybody!

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