Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Games of the Decade

It's year-end recap season, obviously, and even if the decade isn't technically over until next year, these are certainly the end of the 00s, which means it's decade recap season as well. (In case you're curious, here are my decade recaps of music and books.)

It occurs to me that my personal decade recap of videogames is, in part, a eulogy. I can call up any album I've ever owned on my iPod, and I'm already well on my way towards acquiring a similarly era-spanning library on my Kindle, but I'm not entirely sure I could play Crazy Taxi on my HDTV without having to run out and buy an appropriate set of cables; hell, ever since I got the original Xbox back in 2002, my Dreamcast has been sitting in a box in a closet, and right now I'm not sure that I even have my original Xbox anymore. And, of course, whenever I play a PS1 title on my PS3, it takes me a little while to get used to how fuzzy and low-res everything is. When I played Final Fantasy VII earlier this year, I had a very difficult time believing that this was (at the time) the most beautiful game ever made.

The point is, with a shortage of cabinet space and in the absence of backwards compatibility (and/or pirating/hacking), a lot of my favorite games in the first half of the 00s are games that I'm probably never going to be able to play again - and even if I could, I'm not entirely sure that I'd want to. Let's take FF7 as an example again - I never played it when it originally came out, so I have no original glow of memory to compare it to. But even by today's JRPG standards - a genre that is incredibly reluctant to evolve in any truly significant way - it's a bit antiquated. Sure, you can still play it, but it's missing features that I've grown accustomed to. Similarly, an FPS like Quake 2 - one of my personal favorites, a game that I've played through numerous times - just feels dated now. Graphics have changed, sure, but so too has storytelling.

Which is a long way of saying that a 10-year recap of videogaming, especially considering the technological advances of this particular decade, is somewhat problematic. Videogames, as a medium (dare I call it an art form?), have evolved almost to the point of being unrecognizable. I now take 1080p, wireless controllers and online voice chat for granted, and I'm more or less ready for digital distribution to be my primary method of acquisition - hell, I've already been doing that with Steam on my PC for years. And these are all things that never would have occurred to me 10 years ago as being necessary.

That being said, there's a nice symmetry for me here. While I was rabid about videogames when I was a little kid (the Atari 2600 era), I wasn't really agog until my friend bought a PS1 in 1998, with which we played Oddworld and Crash Bandicoot almost every single night. And I didn't own my own console until December 1999, when my then-girlfriend bought me a Dreamcast as a birthday present. So in many ways, the last 10 years have been all I've ever had to go on.

So: please pardon any obvious gaps in the ensuing post. I'm doing my best with what I have.

CONSOLE OF THE DECADE. This is undoubtedly the PS2, and here comes the first aforementioned obvious gap - I never owned one. I loved my Dreamcast fiercely, which took me through the first few years, and when the opportunity arose (on 9/11/2002, as a matter of fact) I opted for the Xbox, specifically because of Munch's Oddysee. (Really.) But I'm not an idiot. The PS2 still sells upwards of 100K units a month these days, and I'm not above admitting that I've considered getting one just so that I could play all the great PS2 games that I missed - FF10, FF12, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. (The recent release of the God of War Collection, however, has sated that need for the time being.)

BEST STORY. I should probably mention here that these categories and their respective winners are of my own personal choosing; I'd originally intended this post to be a larger, collaborative effort between me and some friends, but for whatever reason that kinda fell apart. That being said, there was a considerable amount of debate over certain categories, this being one of them. Fellow SFTC scribe Gred felt that this was Half-Life 2's category, and I can certainly agree that Valve's approach to storytelling has always been unique and innovative. That being said, I've played all of the Half-Life saga multiple times, from the original game and its expansion packs up through HL2 Episode 2, and I'm not sure I'd ever really be able to articulate what's going on beyond the basic Humans v. Combine conflict. Ultimately, for me, this category falls between two distinct titles, and I'm giving it to Grand Theft Auto 4. Niko's story is by turns tragic, hilarious, nihilistic and redemptive, and it features some of the best dialogue and voice acting the medium has ever seen. For once in a GTA game, the story was every bit as impressive as the technology.

FAVORITE "WOW" MOMENT. I could easily write a 1000-word post on this category alone; there's almost too many to choose from. To be honest, though, a lot of those "wow" moments stem from graphical showcases - pretty much all of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Bioshock and Uncharted 2 would fall into that category. Certainly almost every car crash in every Burnout game has generated an audible "wow", as well as the first few times I played with Half-Life 2's gravity gun - and then, similarly, the first few times I played with the Portal gun. There was a part of me that was tempted to give this to GTA3 - not because of any particular bit of mayhem I had caused, but rather that I was able to find a quiet seaside cliff and watch the sun rise over the ocean, and that it was beautiful to see and hear. But there's really no question that this particular moment goes to the plot twist reveal in Knights of the Old Republic, which is the only time that I've ever literally dropped the controller from my hands and had my jaw drop involuntarily. I still get chills when I think about how that went down. I had played as a light-side Jedi the entire time, and I'd really gotten absorbed in the story and the characters, and when it was revealed who I actually was.... wow.

MOST OVERLOOKED/UNDERRATED GAME. It's funny; when I was putting this post together, this was one of the first categories I came up with, and Voodoo Vince was going to be my winner. It may have been just a shallow platformer, but it had a great visual style and one of the best soundtracks I'd ever heard. But then I remembered Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, and it occurred to me that I can't logically award this category to the first game that pops into my head. (And while I love it dearly, I never considered Beyond Good & Evil for this category - it was overlooked and underplayed, but it was also (and still is) a critical darling, which O:SW never was.) O:SW was a truly unique first-person shooter in so many ways - the live ammo concept was brilliant, and it took full advantage of the Old West setting. But it also had a great story, a quirky (if somewhat juvenile) sense of humor, and utterly fantastic production values from top to bottom... and almost nobody bought it. It more or less sunk Oddworld Inhabitants as a game developer, and it made EA pretty wary of original IP for a few years.

  • celebrity voice acting
  • Nolan North (great voice actor, but he's in friggin' everything)
  • light bloom
  • cloth physics
  • "open world sandbox"
  • amnesia in JRPGs
  • post-apocalyptic wastelands
  • game titles with colons
  • zombies
  • Nazis
  • the Unreal engine
  • Quick-Time Events
  • expensive, oversized peripherals with limited usage (i.e., plastic instruments, everything that isn't the standard Wii remote)
The one that's starting to grate on me the most, though, is the overuse of moral choices. It was genuinely interesting in KOTOR, but now it feels a bit almost like a cop-out on the part of the developers, freeing them up from having the responsibility to tell an actual story - and considering that most games have dumb stories to begin with, it feels even more lazy. I'm all for branching paths, customization and games that change based on the decisions you make, but more often than not these moral choices are really just "be nice" or "be a jerk", and then you turn slightly more blue or red, and maybe you'll get a few new powers, and then at the end you'll see a slightly different cutscene. I'd like to see games in general improve their storytelling, since it almost always feels like an afterthought, and they can start by having some balls and committing to a plot.

BEST YEAR. This has to go to 2007, doesn't it? Consider: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Portal (and the Orange Box), Call of Duty 4, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo 3. And that was all more or less in the second half of the year. That's INSANE. 2008 is pretty close, and 2010 looks to be pretty amazing as well, but those 6 games I listed above alone put 2007 over the edge; I'm sure there's at least 10 more hidden gems that I'm not recalling.

BEST GAME I NEVER ACTUALLY FINISHED. I first played Grand Theft Auto 3 on my PC; then I bought it as part of the Double Pack for my original Xbox; and then, during a lull, I played it again on my 360 just to see if there was any discernible difference in graphical fidelity. I've probably spent more cumulative time with GTA3 than any other game this decade (and if not, it's certainly pretty close). And yet, after how many hours (probably 150 or so), I've still never seen the ending. And I'm probably never going to - as fond as I am of that game, the controls are beyond archaic, now, and the punishment for failing a mission is too severe.

BEST FRANCHISE. Certainly there's a number of big-name nominees for this - Halo, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Gears of War (and some personal favorites like Burnout and Uncharted) - but none of them had the seismic impact that Grand Theft Auto did. GTA changed everything. It might not have invented the concept of non-linear gameplay, but it certainly made it the most fun, and it easily reached the biggest audience. It fundamentally changed not only how we played games, but our expectations of what a game was capable of doing. I'm going to quote Caro here, from our behind-the-scenes discussions - this was actually from her "Biggest 'Wow' Moment":

I'm not sure anything compares to the moment I first took control in GTA3. My jaw literally dropped in amazement. I couldn't believe it. Never before and never since have I been so aware of experiencing something that was going to change games--and, to some extent, our wider culture--forever. After spending my whole life in games whose environments were ripped from science fiction and fantasy, here was a world that bore a dark resemblance to my own, a grimy, dirty city that really felt alive. Music played on the radio. Rain fell from the sky. I could run over old ladies walking down the street. It was exhilarating. It was extraordinary. It was as if it was something I had always craved, without realizing it.

And now, my FAVORITE GAMES OF THE DECADE, in chronological order.

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum. My #2 game of 2009, and one that I can't wait to play again.
  • Crackdown. Orbs, how I love thee.
  • Mass Effect. Maybe it wasn't the true KOTOR sequel I was hoping for, but it was a fully realized sci-fi epic which lived up to its ambitions, elevators be damned.
  • Mercenaries 2. Of all the GTA clones, this was the best, and it did a lot of things better than GTA itself did.
  • Metal Gear Solid 4. In spite of how completely in(s)ane the story is, the gameplay is legitimately thrilling.
  • No One Lives Forever. It's a shame this never saw a console port; more people might have played it. This game oozed style and was genuinely funny.
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Yeah, the combat sucks. But everything else about it is glorious.
  • Psychonauts. I don't even mind the Meat Circus, to be honest.
  • Skies of Arcadia. Still my favorite JRPG.
  • Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. This was the best of the original Xbox games, with graphics that are still jaw-dropping.
  • SSX 3. The best snowboarding game ever made, for whatever that might be worth (probably not much), but an exhilarating experience all the same.
  • Super Mario Galaxy. I haven't finished it, but I can't deny that it's an incredible experience.

Rayman 2, Dreamcast
, 2000. According to Wikipedia, this came out in the Spring of 2000, which means its eligible. I'm going to call it - this is my favorite 3D platformer of all time. It was genuinely charming, which is all the more impressive considering the game featured a lead character with no limbs and a language that was entirely gibberish. It had a save-the-world story but it was told with genuine pathos, and the world you were saving was filled with lush detail and was absolutely joyous to behold. It was easy to pick up, it never got frustrating, and it was expertly paced. Even now, all these years later, I can't help but smile whenever I think about it... and I get genuinely bummed out when I see what's become of the franchise. (Not that Raving Rabbids isn't fun, or whatever, but, I mean... come on.)

Knights of the Old Republic, Xbox, 2003. I've already spoken of its plot twist, but the game underneath it is not too shabby, either; this was not only the best Star Wars property since the original trilogy, but it's one of the best RPGs ever made. It took the concept of a "role playing game" quite literally, which is partly why the aforementioned plot twist hit me so hard - I was thoroughly involved in my character's development from the get-go, and I never saw it coming. Every character in the game is richly drawn and expertly acted; the worlds you explore are rich with detail. You feel invested. I'm having a hard time remembering just how the combat worked, but it worked well enough that I didn't ever have a problem with it (unlike, say, Dragon Age). Yeah, the frame rate bogged down every so often, and you couldn't really look up; but that was besides the point; for 40 hours, I was a Jedi.

Burnout 3, Xbox, 2004. As far as I'm concerned, Burnout 3 changed the driving genre forever. It was faster than anything I'd ever seen; hell, it was the most spectacular game I'd ever seen. It took the main obstacle from other driving games - crashing - and made it an explosive, interactive, integral part of the experience. And the fact that it could be played online... I've still never played as much of a game online as I did with Burnout 3.

World of Warcraft, PC, 2004. I wasn't originally going to include WoW; I'm a little ashamed of it. I lost more hours of my life to WoW than I care to admit; I took sick days from work, I missed band rehearsals, I stopped hanging out with my wife. And I never even hit 60! Let's move on.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Xbox, 2005. I've written too much about GTA in this post alone, so I'll keep this brief. Each entry in the GTA franchise has been a landmark experience, and what's truly remarkable is that even though they're all similarly designed, each one has a unique and distinct personality. If I had to pick one, though, I'd pick San Andreas, which was so stuffed with things to do that they actually scaled back for GTA4.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Xbox 360, 2006. I'm not entirely sure how much time I spent playing GTA3, but my save file for Oblivion tells me I spent 110 hours with it; I got every Achievement for it and played all the DLC for it. And I still have quests I never finished!

Portal, PC/360, 2007. I wish I had graduated from high school in 2007, just so that I could have used "The cake is a lie" as a yearbook quote. Anyway, I don't know what to say about Portal that hasn't been said a hundred times better by a hundred different writers. There was something truly special about this game, and I think that's why it keeps getting talked about; nobody had ever seen anything like it, and we're all still waiting to see anything approach it. It took enormous risks in its narrative, and yet it seems so effortless because of how hilarious it is. It slowly taught you how to play it, and then it threw everything out the window and tried to kill you. I can't possibly imagine what Valve must be going through as it develops the sequel (and you are developing a sequel, right, Valve?); I have absolutely no idea how it can be topped or improved upon.

Bioshock, Xbox 360, 2007. Certainly one of the most atmospheric games I've ever played; the graphics and art design are certainly top-notch but it's the sound design that really puts this one over the top. "Would you kindly" never quite got the same traction that "The cake is a lie" did, but it certainly resonates deeply with those who were taken by surprise. And count me as one of the many whose belief was firmly suspended for the entire ride; after I finished the game I read a number of articles by smart writers who ripped the game apart for certain plot holes and contrivances. Maybe I'm dumb. But I fell for this game, hard.

Rock Band 2, Xbox 360, 2008. As a musician, I've always been a little skeptical about music games; as a NYC resident, storage space is at a premium, and I can't necessarily justify having plastic instruments lying around my apartment. But as a human being, there are few greater thrills than feeling like you're playing your favorite song with your best friends. There's a reason why cover bands still get paid these days; people like hearing their favorite songs. Similarly, there's a reason why an evite with "Rock Band?" as a subject will get immediate affirmative responses.

Uncharted 2, PS3, 2009. My #1 game of the year, but also just a staggering achievement from top to bottom. If I had known back in 2000 that games could eventually look and play like this, I'm not entirely sure I know how I would have managed to cope with all the bullshit I'd have to play in the interim.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Best Games of 2009

If I'm being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point - Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here's my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:
  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.
I "finished" 19 of those games. That doesn't mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game's main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:
  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin's Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush
And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it's based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I'm about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It's true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I'm really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook's own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don't even like real farming, or even going outside. There's no enemies in Farmville; there's no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there's nothing to do until everything's finished growing. And yet I've logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I've even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there's no new seeds for me to unlock. I have "beaten" Farmville, and yet I'm only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I'm not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 - I'd hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand... I don't even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn't even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I'd accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I'd made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it's a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS's best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. While I can't remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment - it really felt like GTA, even with the DS's hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I'd expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I've ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN'T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I've ever seen, and I'm terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can't hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it's more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4's artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn't win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I'm such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I've been seeing this pop up on a few "Worst Games of 2009" lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can't speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can't compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means "a lot." The game's mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game's levels are truly wonders to behold - I'm thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it's more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game's multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The "No Russian" level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game's constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN'T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I've played exactly twice. There's no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it's hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can't really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I'm going to give it to whichever Achievement it was - presumably in Assassin's Creed 2 - that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I'm including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn't really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, 'Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4's 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3's DLC and Borderlands, and it's clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don't know, small; it didn't take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it's definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2's single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I've ever heard. But that's the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 "10 MINUTES OR LESS" ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:
  • Halo 3:ODST. I'm officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don't care anymore. I'll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn't really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn't necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place - I'm a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn't, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.
THE "I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES" LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.
  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon's Souls. Maybe this shouldn't be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I'd have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that's only because I was impatient and didn't really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn't get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn't necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn't good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven't had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King's Story. I'm not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first "world"/"area"/"section", drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn't amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one - I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I'm not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I've been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.
THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN'T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON'T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I've given Silent Hill about an hour or so - the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I'd want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I'm hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn't qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I've ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3's motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 - mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it's really well done it's positively narcotizing. I haven't yet finished Torchlight, but it's not like there's a story - I've left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also - I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn't mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It's definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I'm of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information - all of it presented with tender loving care. I'm not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it - indeed, it's the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I'm on my 2nd playthrough - I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I'm going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin's Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would've been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn't, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2's immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it's at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn't mean it's any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It's a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you're Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It's a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year's sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I'd never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I'd never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game's got charm. It's got charisma, and it's got personality. And it's also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he's completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that's not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Some quick impressions, a tangent, and then what's next

Sorry for the lack of updates; after I finished AC2, time get away from me.

So, here's what's been cooking lately:

1. Finished both halves of the God of War Collection. God of War 1 was very good, albeit excruciatingly frustrating in certain sections; I nearly broke my controller in half throughout several areas in the 2nd half of the game. God of War 2, on the other hand, was absolutely phenomenal from top to bottom; the HD upgrade looked fantastic, the combat was just as crisp and bloody, the locales were varied and gorgeous, the sense of scale was much more epic; I am now fully on board for God of War 3.

2. Dabbled a little bit in The Saboteur. I have a soft spot for Pandemic; I was bummed to see them dissolve last week. And I knew that the reviews weren't really all that kind; I still figured I'd give it the benefit of the doubt. The reviews, unfortunately, were right. The game is glitchy as hell, and the free-running/wall-climbing feels awfully stiff, especially after playing AC2, which nailed it so well. It's got interesting ideas; it's just shabbily executed. Sad to say that this was becoming par for the course, as far as Pandemic was concerned; they peaked with Mercenaries 1.

TANGENT - It occurs to me, in the wake of The Saboteur, that game criticism has a unique set of criteria that other media don't generally have, i.e., technical proficiency. An album can be recorded with shitty microphones and yet it still kicks ass, almost because of how lo-fi it is (Guided By Voices); film can work in much the same way. But a videogame's technical shortcomings are never done on purpose, and they are nearly always detrimental to the player's experience. No game has a shitty frame rate on purpose; screen tears and physics glitches and bugs will always be annoying. And these sorts of anomalies don't really have similar counterparts in movies and music. Sure, a close listener can spot a rough overdub, and certainly there are continuity errors in film, but that's not quite the same thing as hitting LB and X to perform a stealth kill in The Saboteur and having nothing happen, over and over again, until the Nazi you're trying to murder turns around and then stands in one place shooting at you. The closest thing I can really think of is CG in movies, especially with a movie like Avatar - are the effects good enough to fully suspend disbelief? [I need to expand on this idea, I think; it's early in the morning as I write this and this is isn't as well formed as it could be.]

3. Played through the first stage of PixelJunk Shooter last night. It's pretty good, actually; it's got a great visual style, the music is terrific, and it has a really nice feel to it. You don't necessarily realize that you're actually playing a puzzle game instead of a dual-joystick shooter, and that's probably the most impressive thing about it.

The next thing you'll see on this site, aside from impressions on the new Zelda DS game, is our 2009 Games of the Year. And soon after that, we'll post our Games of the Decade.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Assassin's Creed 2: postscript


My previous AC2 post was cut short, but in retrospect that's probably a good thing. I was still at least a good 5-6 hours away from finishing it, and yet my original intention with that post was to try and guess where/when/what the sequel was going to be. Now that I've finished it (as well as being finished with it), I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea - and that's also a good thing.

First things first, though - the game itself. At the end of the day, there's really only 2 things that really bothered me about the experience - the freerunning controls tend to get screwed up at the worst possible times, and the final boss is one of those bosses that refuses to die, no matter how many times you kill him. I hate that. It's absolutely my #1 pet peeve in game design. And in this particular case, it's not like the guy is a wizard, or has particularly strong armor, or superpowers - he is, in fact, a fat fuck. And the fact that the game forced me to whittle this asshole's health down to zero 5 times and he still didn't die... GAAAAHHHHHHH.

That aside, AC2 is a lock for my #3 position for Game of the Year, which is remarkable considering that as recently as a month ago I wasn't even sure I was looking forward to playing it. Everything in it is refined and polished, from the combat to the graphics to the storytelling. I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by the end result of the glyph hunt (especially since I was hoping to assemble the pieces myself), and I ended up getting the super-badass armor a bit earlier than I was expecting - I almost thought I'd done something wrong - but it's a remarkable experience through and through, and if the improvements from AC1 to AC2 are any indication of Ubisoft's dedication to getting it right, then AC3 is going to blow us all away.

And speaking of AC3, let me get back to my opening paragraph. A lot of people were pissed off about AC1's ending, which was less of a cliffhanger and more of a dull thud. (I kinda liked it, actually, since it was abstract and vague, but I understand the criticisms.) AC2's ending could technically be called a cliffhanger, since nothing is resolved, but it's a bit more satisfying in that you still feel like you accomplished something, even if it's mind-bogglingly enigmatic. It doesn't feel like a setup for the final part of a trilogy - it feels wide open, like they could go anywhere.

I could see AC3 taking place all over the place, actually. My knowledge of history certainly has quite a few holes, but considering that the game ends in the very late 1600s, and the codex map that you eventually unlock in AC2 is ultimately a map of the world, with certain locations marked on each continent, it's entirely possible that you could go all over the globe. I think the most logical place to go would be the colonial US in the 1770s - lots of political intrigue, Freemasons, and different cities to visit. Plus, one gets the feeling that the events of the near-future are taking place in the US, so since Desmond is already on the run, you could see him following the literal footsteps of his ancestor. But I could also see the game taking place in WW2 Europe, too. The glyphs talked a lot about Rasputin, too, so I could foresee some time in Russia. And if the game requires some globetrotting, there's lots of Mayan ruins to run around in. Considering how strange AC2's ending is, I could even see Atlantis showing up.

Anyway: Bravo, Ubisoft.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Assassin's Creed 2: The Medium Is the Message

I apologize in advance for the repetition - all I can think about today is Assassin's Creed 2. Minor spoilers ahead.

Current Status:
I'm... let's say, 12 hours in. I'm a few missions into Venice - my most recent story-related Achievement indicated that I am in the middle of DNA Sequence 7, and so if the Achievements are a reliable measure of game progress I am just around halfway through the story.

I Was Wrong:
I wasn't really all that negative, but the the thing that bothered me the most in Friday's initial impressions was the disconcerting nature of how utterly meta the game is. Which is to say, the game never stops reminding you that you're playing a game, which seems fundamentally at odds with the level of detail that went into designing these Italian Renaissance-era cities.

And yet, now that I'm fully invested in it, this design makes absolute perfect sense. As you probably know by now, you are not actually playing as Ezio, your long-dead Assassin ancestor; you are actually playing as present-day Desmond, and you are looking through Ezio's memories through the Animus, a sort-of computer-controlled Matrix-esque brain scrambler machine. You have a HUD; you have a map; you have shimmery graphical cues and clues as to points and persons of interest; and you have all these things because you, as Desmond, need to search through Ezio's life to discover the answers to a mystery/conspiracy that is still ongoing.

I didn't really figure this out until Desmond finally got to take a break from the Animus. In the first game, Desmond got out of the Animus after almost every significant mission; in this sequel, I've only seen him at the very beginning and at this particular junction, upon arriving in Venice, which was after around 10 hours of playtime. In the first game, Desmond was put into the Animus because the evil organization that kidnapped him was trying to figure something out; in this sequel, it seems that Desmond's primary goal is to absorb Ezio's assassination skills (via osmosis, transference, etc.) so that he can be a fully-trained Assassin in addition to figuring out whatever it is that Ezio was up to.

And so, during this little break, Desmond is taken from the Animus room to a warehouse area and is asked to turn on the security system, which happens to have power switches right up near the roof. Desmond needs to jump and climb and leap just like Ezio in order to do so, which are skills that he didn't necessarily have before - if the Animus is to be believed, Assassins would absolutely murder the Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

And it was during this particular break in the action, while I was taking in how the same graphics engine that was powering these remarkably detailed Italian cities was also taking in this quasi-futuristic warehouse, that I suddenly noticed that there was no HUD, no map, no on-screen indicators of any kind. And right after I noticed that I was no longer "playing a game," Desmond suddenly fell into a hallucination which: (1) also didn't have any on-screen indicators, because (2) Desmond wasn't actually plugged into anything at the time.

This is all a long, not-terribly-interesting way of saying that the meta-game construction that so confused me at first is not confusing me any more. It's a contrivance, sure, but it's absolutely justified and makes the game's larger fiction that much more effective.

Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine:
And while we're speaking of gameplay mechanics that disturb the reality of the Italian 17th century experience, let us also talk about the glyphs. This is maybe my favorite part of the sequel, and it gets me absolutely giddy when I think about the next game. It's really just another collection mini-game, but there's a lot more to it than that:

I forget exactly how it plays out, but the basic idea is that there was a previous person in Desmond's position - Subject 16 - who was a casualty of the evil corporation's Animus experiments. Subject 16 managed to smuggle out, at great cost, a certain "truth" that has been chopped up into 20 different sections.

The first layer of this mini-game is that as Ezio explores each city, he may happen upon a famous landmark; a picture will pop up with some relevant historical information, along with a little red eye notation which indicates that there's a hidden glyph in the area. At which point, if you're so inclined, you'll scamper onto the rooftops and switch on your Eagle Vision, looking for anything that seems out of place. And then you'll see it: a line of Hebrew, a bar code, an Egyptian hieroglyph. You'll press Y, again, to scan it.

Once you've scanned it, you're taken out of Italy and into Subject 16's program. He'll warble something enigmatic, and then you're given a series of increasingly odd puzzles involving assorted historical figures. The first few are easy enough, as in: what do 5 of these 10 classical paintings have in common? (Answer: the prominent character is holding an apple.) But I'm now into my 10th (or so) glyph sequence and instead of find-the-missing-thing, I'm getting into these decoder-ring puzzles that involve base3 number systems, and these align-the-circular-disc puzzles governed by a maddening, impenetrable logic; and these puzzles are presented alongside photos of the Moon landing, correspondence (fictional(?)) between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, footage of nuclear bomb tests as well as the electrocution of an elephant... it gets very bizarre and spans across all eras of recorded history, implying that the powers that be have always been seeking these "Pieces of Eden", which is also what the Templars/Assassins have been seeking in the game itself.

And so once you've solved a short series of these puzzles, you then unlock about one second's worth of film footage. I've collected roughly 10 of these snippets thus far, and it appears to me that they're out of sequence; they are CG and appear to be a nearly-naked man and woman (Adam/Eve?) either being chased or running towards something.

I'm at a loss to explain what any of this stuff means; it's just that it's so friggin' cool.

Less Is More, Except When More is More:
In my earlier write-up I said that I felt overwhelmed with things to do, which was in direct opposition to how I felt about the first game, where there wasn't enough. I no longer feel that way. There's certain side missions that I'll admit I don't really care about; the races are fine, except when the auto-parkour controls get a bit wonky, at which point they get endlessly frustrating; this is also true of the courier missions. The assassination missions simply give you more opportunities to formally assassinate people, instead of just killing random patrol guards or important historical figures. I haven't felt the need to pursue these just yet; at this particular point I'm not really hurting for cash, which appears to the the main tangible benefit for completing them. I am, however, looting as much treasure as I can. I'm also finding the Codex pages - those are easy enough to do, and aside from the cash/health benefits for finding them there's yet another meta-level puzzle that goes along with finding all of them.

The best side-mission to go for, though, is the Assassin's Tombs. These are 20-minute long, self-contained areas which feel just like levels out of Prince of Persia, and they are show-stoppers. And unlike the rest of the side-missions (including the glyphs and the, you know right off the bat what the reward is - it's a bad-ass suit of armor that (I think) belonged to Altair, the hero of the first game.


I have to cut this short, unfortunately. But I'm sure I'll have more to say once I'm done with it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


That didn't take very long at all, actually. I hit 50K late last night in Assassin's Creed 2, after finishing a particularly flashy bit of killing.

AC2, by the way, is amazing. My initial concerns were probably just me trying to keep my expectations in check; I'm now at least 5-6 hours in and I'm totally in love all over again. In fact, I think the only reason why I'm awake so early on a Sunday (especially since I was playing until around 1:30 in the morning) is because I'm so anxious to jump back in.

My only real complaint is that sometimes the controls get fucked up. For the most part, the game tries to keep thing as simple as possible and so it'll more or less guess what you're trying to do and just let you do it without a series of convoluted button presses, but sometimes it guesses wrong and sends you careening backwards off a ledge instead of up the side of a wall.

OK - Venice, here I come!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Assassin's Creed 2: the first few hours

If memory serves, and my blog posts (from almost exactly 2 years ago!) are accurate (1), (2), I enjoyed the first 70% of the first Assassin's Creed.
Gabe at Penny Arcade made a pretty insightful newspost about this the other day; I'm paraphrasing, but he essentially says that his impressions of most of the negative reviews implied that the reviewer didn't really take his/her time, and just kinda sped through the game in order to see everything and make their deadline; if you actually take your time and play the game at its own speed, it's infinitely more rewarding...

...I kinda rushed through the last section of Creed, and suddenly all the 7.0 - 7.5 review scores made sense. You really do need to play Creed at a slow, thoughtful, deliberate pace - it helps you "get into character", so to speak, because when you're in that mode the game absolutely shines.
In my defense, I was rushing through the end of AC1 because I was desperate to start Mass Effect, but that's neither here nor there. The truth is that for everything it did right, AC1 was fundamentally flawed. Setting up assassinations became tedious because you were just doing the same things over and over again, and in doing so the incredibly detailed game world suddenly became very artificial. More to the point, it started to feel like a game, with a set of clearly defined rules and guidelines, which ruined the illusion of being an assassin who was free to do whatever he chose. And if you started to get impatient with the game's incredibly slow and methodical pacing and decided to run around and just try to get it over with, everything just fell apart. Animations and crowd dialogue were endlessly repeated; the much-touted "crowd physics" just felt clumsy; the combat became a nuisance. And then the story just... ended; it was intended to be a cliffhanger but felt more like a sudden crash into a brick wall.

According to the reviews I've read, the team at Ubisoft heard all this and decided to fix everything that was wrong. And judging from the reviews, they've been largely successful. I can't necessarily speak to that just yet, though.

One of the main complaints is that for all its open-world-ness, there was not very much to actually do in the first game. To counter that, there is almost too much to do, now - I'm only 2-3 hours in and I've unlocked a ton of side missions that are almost entirely optional. It's a little overwhelming, actually, because I'm generally compelled to do as much as I can in a game like this and I feel like I don't know where to start; and so I've mostly just been sticking to the main story missions.

The thing about Assassin's Creed is that it very much has a very specific feel to it, and that can take a bit of getting used to. The trailers make it seem like it's this fast-paced free-running action-packed adventure, but if you actually play it like that you get your ass kicked. You have to be slow and stealthy; you have to pick your battles carefully. It certainly took me a little while to adjust to it, but once I got it, I got it.

The game also has this weird meta-level to it that can be a little disorienting - this was true in the first game and it's doubly true in this one. The game features an incredibly detailed recreation of 16th century Italy, from the architecture right down to the shoes on the feet of the crowds. And yet for all of this, the game is constantly reminding you that you - the player - are from the future, and everything you're seeing is really just a memory of someone long dead; there's lots of weird futuristic visual glitches and every once in a while you'll get a voiceover from someone in that futuristic room with you.

Not only that, but the game's first real tutorial takes place at least an hour into the game, where you learn how to blend with crowds, how to pickpocket, and how to really do combat. And everything you do is just so plainly artificial and unnatural - the crowd blending in particular is just weird. (It reminds me a little bit, both in concept and in execution, of the motorcycle gang-riding thing in GTA4's Lost and Damned storyline.) Add to this the random side missions, which include races and courier missions and finding hidden feathers and other non-sequitors - basically, it feels very much like you're playing a game, instead of living and breathing as this character.

Also, Nolan North is the voice of your futuristic self, and as much as I like that guy and his performances, he's becoming a bit overused. He is the Prince of Persia; he is Nathan Drake; he is the dude in Shadow Complex; he is everywhere; he is everyone.

And for a game called Assassin's Creed, you actually kill a lot of people, not just the one dude you're aiming for. It's a weird sort of disconnect, similar to Condemned, where you're hunting down this one serial killer and in the process you yourself end up killing hundreds of people.

It really sounds like I'm shitting all over it, right? And yet I'm really, really into it this time around, just as I was at the outset of the last game. The story is engaging, in spite (or because) of being convoluted and maddeningly vague; and when you're actually doing it - when you've spotted your mark and you've figured out your entrance strategy and you're moving in for the kill, slowly, methodically, silently - it's breathtaking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The quest for 50K is going much better than I'd originally anticipated; I've got 6 weeks to get 327 points. I'm pretty sure I can get that relatively quickly from Assassin's Creed 2, with an assist from Left 4 Dead 2. So, hooray for that.

This past weekend was a little weird, gaming wise, but when I think about it it actually worked out to my advantage. The weekend's primary goal was working on music, but every once in a while I needed a break, and so I'd dive in to something on the 360; and since I'd finished Modern Warfare 2's campaign already, I didn't feel pressured to pick one thing and finish it.

I keep grinding away in Forza 3; I kinda messed up and bought the wrong car for an upcoming race in the Season Play mode, and so now I'm just going through tournaments in an effort to make that money back. I can't remember if I made the analogy here or in an email, but here goes anyway: Forza reminds me a lot of the Tiger Woods games, in that there's an absolute ton of stuff to do, a lot of which I've already done in previous versions in the franchise. On the flip side, Forza 3 does not in any feel like it's treading water, the way the Tiger games have for the last few years.

I'm also still running around in GTA4: BOGT, which is making me love the original GTA4 a little less. The game just feels dated; not in its story or setting, but in its actual gameplay mechanics. Combat feels incredibly clumsy, and the game is just brutally punishing if I fail a mission - I lose cash, armor (if I had it) and ammo (which doesn't get replenished), plus time keeps moving forward so if I had something I wanted to do at a certain time, I probably don't get to do it if I have to keep doing a mission over and over again. Saints Row will never be confused with GTA in terms of story and emotional resonance, but in terms of having fun and not being endlessly frustrating, it's not even really all that close anymore. The Houser brothers are starting to make a little bit of noise about GTA5; I know there's tons to think about in terms of making a great GTA game (story, setting, dialogue), but I would suggest that they also add some refinements, if not a complete overhaul, of the way the game is actually played. Let us recharge our health; let us have mid-mission checkpoints; let us not be punished so harshly for failure.

I'm starting to get really excited about 2010 Q1; specifically, Mass Effect 2. And it occurred to me that I never finished my 3rd playthrough of ME1, so I decided to give that a bit of a whirl. As it happens, I'd stopped playing near the end of the last DLC they released; said DLC was more or less a glorified combat tutorial, which is arguably the least successful aspect of the original game. But whatever - I turned down the difficulty and plowed through the last few missions and got 100 Achievements for my efforts, and then I saw where I actually was in the story, and then I decided to call it a day. (If you're familiar with the first game, I'd just gotten off the Citadel and hadn't yet started those first 3 long missions you get in order to advance the story; in other words, I'd have a looooooooong way to go.)

And then, in a bit of idle panic, I downloaded the Torchlight demo from Steam, just because I'd heard it was good and I was curious to see if my aging PC could run it. The short answer is yes, it can, and shortly thereafter I'd purchased the full version and now I'm totally hooked.

This week: Assassin's Creed 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and the God of War Collection for PS3.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to Pandemic Studios, who very well might be getting shut down today. Mercenaries was one of my favorite games on the original Xbox, and Star Wars Battlefront was a lot of fun, and even Destroy All Humans! was worth a few chuckles. I'm hopeful that Saboteur will at least be a fine farewell from one of the more ambitious developers out there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Modern Warfare 2


For years now, there's been a growing discussion about the importance of Story, specifically as it applies to videogames. The people having that discussion also may bring up the concept of Art, as in: "Are videogames art?" As the game industry grows larger and fights for legitimacy in the public eye, this question becomes important, even if it's not necessarily relevant.

A lot of great game franchises have been ruined by Story. The Tony Hawk franchise is a perfect example; the first few games really just focused on capturing the experience of skateboarding, and to that end they succeeded mightily. Eventually, though, as the game kept churning out sequels with marginal technical improvements and the need to innovate became stronger, the game developed a story mode. And that's really where the franchise fell apart, for me. I didn't care about being a little skate punk, I didn't need to stick it to the man, etc.; all I wanted to was skate, and do the things that I couldn't do in real life. I suppose I could've hung in if the story was at least told well, but it was bland and unoriginal. What was I supposed to expect? The developers had been making a skateboarding game, but now they were supposed to tell me a story? How do those particular disciplines mesh?

Then there's games like Brutal Legend, which is so focused on its story and the design of the world you play in that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn't. On the opposite side of that spectrum, a game like Borderlands has almost no story to speak of, but the gameplay is so well-designed and focused that it almost doesn't even matter that there's no story-driven motivation.

And then there are franchises like Metal Gear, where the story is so central to the experience that there's almost no actual game to play; a 10 minute action sequence will be followed by a 40-minute cut scene, and then you'll walk down a hallway and another 30-minute cut scene will ensue. I'm not going to get into MGS's story quality, because that's an entirely different 10,000-word blogpost, and in any event I've already written about it.

But story quality is important, and that's my real bone to pick with Modern Warfare 2.

The Call of Duty franchise's defining characteristic has been its scripted events. You'll play as an American soldier, and then after a big "event" you'll switch perspectives and then play as a British soldier, or a Russian soldier, etc. Call of Duty 4, which moved the franchise out of the trenches of WW2 and into modern day, kept this perspective-switching intact but also took it in intriguing and shocking new directions; the very beginning of the game features your character suddenly being executed, and the end of the game features your character dying in a nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of watching yourself die, totally powerless to save yourself, was unnerving and visceral and powerful.

The stakes for MW2, then, were set very high. How could the game's developers manage to top the jaw-dropping moments of the first game? The answer to this question was, unfortunately, "if some is good, more is better."

The "airport level", as it's been called, is genuinely controversial, and rightly so. You play an American soldier, undercover, who somehow has managed to be inserted into a Russian terrorist cell right next to "the most dangerous man in the world." The scene begins in darkness; you hear the sound of guns being loaded. The lights fade up; you see that you are in an elevator. The most dangerous man in the world says a few words, and then the doors open, and you see that you're in an airport, and you and your fellow terrorist are slowly walking through the airport, killing everyone you see. The creepiest thing about this sequence isn't the killing of civilians, or the obvious parallel to 9/11 and the lingering paranoia about airport security; it's the fact that you're all walking so slowly, making sure you're all taking the time to kill as many people as possible. You don't even have to pull the trigger during this sequence; the rest of your gang members will do all the killing for you. The lingering sense of dread is almost overwhelming; it's disturbing and uncomfortable.

So this is all shocking, and this occurs only about 1-2 hours into the game. But this isn't where the level ends. After you get out of the airport, you're back to shooting police and soldiers trying to stop you, and then the level ends with the Most Dangerous Man In The World suddenly revealing at the very last possible moment that he knows you were an American the whole time, and shooting you in the head.

Let's set aside for the moment that your identity as an American sets off a chain reaction that plunges the U.S. and Russia into a global conflict that eventually sees you, among other things, staging an assault to reclaim the White House in the wake of an aborted nuclear missile attack on Washington D.C., and let us instead examine the other ways in which your player character is suddenly killed at the last possible moment in an unforeseen twist. Your character is also in a helicopter that gets shot down and when you wake up you are trapped in the wreckage, with no bullets; an enemy helicopter approaches, and the screen goes white.

Then, for no apparent reason, your perspective shifts and suddenly you're an astronaut doing a space walk by the International Space Station, watching a nuclear missle's arc cross the horizon. This is shocking enough - that's probably why they put it in the commercial - but suddenly the missile is detonated and the electro-magnetic pulse generated by the missile's explosion sends you flying out into space.

And then, the scene flashes back to you being trapped under the helicopter wreckage - it turns out that the EMP happened directly overhead, and so everything electronic in the area suddenly conks out, and the helicopter that was about to kill you crashes, and so you escape. Hooray! Except that it turns out later that, after you've raided the Most Dangerous Man in The World's safehouse and retrieved valuable "intel", you're shot in the head by the main U.S. General in charge of the war effort, who then also sets you on fire.

And THEN, you're in the desert, for some reason - I'm not even sure who the "you" is, at this point, since "you" have already died several times - and you're chasing this same U.S. General, who manages to get into a helicopter from a moving speedboat, and then you manage to shoot the helicopter down, and it explodes, and then your speedboat falls over a cliff, and somehow you survive, and as it turns out the U.S. General also survived, and then he stabs you in the chest with a knife, and then eventually you regain the strength to pull the knife out of your chest and throw it (the knife) directly into the General's eyeball. And then the credits roll, while people walk around in a museum, presumably showcasing certain famous scenes of the war, which are really quite violent for a kid-friendly museum.

This is all to say that the story is so over the top that it becomes melodramatic and nonsensical and just plain weird. And the thing that really makes it ridiculous is that, at least in my experience, you die a lot during the campaign. The game is hard; it only takes a few bullets to put you down, and there are a lot of enemies who fire a lot of bullets. The game has a relatively generous checkpoint system, as well as recharging health, but therein lies the breaking of the suspension of disbelief - I've already been shot a hundred thousand times in the course of this level; why shouldn't I recover from being shot in the head at close range? Again?

The game part of the game is, of course, expertly well done. It's graphically impressive, the weapons feel incredibly powerful, the atmosphere is charged and violent and unsettling. The rag-doll animation following a kill shot is especially unsettling; people just drop. And then of course there's the multiplayer suite, which I dabbled in briefly last night and which better people than me can pontificate on. It's all very well done, and it's certainly worth a purchase, which is maybe a ridiculous thing to say given that anyone reading this probably already owns it.

But the story... wow. Here's a suggestion for the sequel, which was inevitable even before it was set up by the game's surprisingly clunky cliffhanger of an ending: maybe don't kill the player character as much. It's already been done far more than is necessary, and it ceases to mean anything since it's not like your character even says anything, or is even clearly identifiable. There were a number of times during the campaign where someone would shout something to someone, and it took me a while to realize that they were shouting at me.

On an unrelated note, a hypothetical question: who kills more people, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, or your player character(s) in Modern Warfare 2? I could probably actually look this up and get real numbers, but off the top of my head it seems like the numbers would probably be pretty close.

Monday, November 9, 2009

WIPTW: Confessions of a Crack Addict

Me and my level 36 Soldier finished Borderlands early Sunday morning, and after selling off my excess loot and giving my skills a re-spec, I decided to screw around with the Playthrough 2 mode and see if it would really be worth playing through a second time, and about two hours later I forced myself to turn off the 360. That shit is dangerous; I was getting ridiculously awesome loot drops just outside the very first town.

I remain totally amazed at how much I enjoyed Borderlands, especially considering that I have absolutely no idea what the story was about, or who anybody was, or what I was ultimately supposed to be doing. I'm even more amazed that I never really cared about any of that stuff. My main focus was leveling up and getting better gear, and that remained constant even as I began my 2nd playthrough. The story is ultimately irrelevant. It would be nice if a sequel addressed this specific flaw, but the mechanics of the game itself are so well-designed that I'm not entirely sure I'd notice, one way or the other.

The only time I was bummed out by the lack of story was at the game's ending, which can't even be called "ambiguous", as that would imply that something actually happened. And it's really only a bummer because it was the first time since I'd started the game where I wasn't engaged in some sort of forward motion, towards something. The game's promise of the Vault was just vague enough to keep me somewhat interested, even though I couldn't really tell you what of the game's missions were actually about, besides going to point A and killing a bunch of people, or going around the map to collect certain items. I never really questioned why I was doing any of that stuff, as long as it meant that I was getting XP and new guns. If the game had even touched upon that element, in a sort of meta/Portal/Bioshock way, that would've been nice. Instead, the game's ending just felt obligatory, as in: the game is over now.

If Modern Warfare 2 weren't arriving tomorrow, I could easily see myself spending another 10-12 hours playing through again, and even more than that if I somehow didn't hit level 50.

Also spent a little time with the 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins, which is... a little disappointing, although to be fair I haven't really sat down with it and allowed myself to get sucked in. I will say, though, that it feels awfully weird; I keep expecting it to have real-time combat, and it most certainly does not, and I suppose I'd be more into it if I were playing it on the PC.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Quest for 50K, or, the world's saddest violin playing just for me

Today is November 3, 2009, and my Achievement total is currently sitting at 48,723. That gives me 2 months to get just under 1300 Points. Hitting 50,000 wasn't necessarily a stated, determined goal of mine, but I hit 40K on my birthday last year, and getting 10,000 points in a year seems like something worth pursuing. However, I'm not entirely sure I'm going to be able to cross the 50K threshold in time, and maybe there's a tiny part of me that's a little bummed out about it.

Yes, I'm going to be busy with other stuff over the next 2 months; we all are; the holidays are nearly upon us and we all have stuff to do. But I'm also just not entirely sure that the games are going to be there.

There are 5 major Xbox360 games left in the calendar year, as far as I'm personally concerned: Dragon Age: Origins (currently shrinkwrapped, sitting in my messenger bag), Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and Saboteur. I'm also still heavily invested in Borderlands and Forza 3.

So that's 7 games, not including Brutal Legend which I don't know that I'll ever finish (and certainly won't get any multiplayer achievements for), and not including the 500 points for both episodes for GTA4, which I'll be lucky if I get half of.

I can rule out getting more than 300-400 in both MW2 and L4D2; I don't really play multiplayer all that much, and in the case of MW2 I'm sure I'll only do the campaign on Normal difficulty. I'm sure I can rack up 400-500 in Assassin's Creed; I have no idea how much time I'm going to put into Saboteur, and if it gets shitty reviews I might just hold back from renting it altogether. So it's really about finishing Borderlands (which supposedly isn't all that difficult), getting as much as I can out of Forza, and doing my darnedest with Dragon Age, which is anywhere from 40-100 hours that I probably don't even have.

It's going to be close. It would certainly be nice if the 360 did something cool to mark the event; I'd even settle for a "I got 50K gamerscore and all I got was this stupid t-shirt for my avatar" thing. Most likely, though, I'll cross 50K and nobody will know but me; I'll pour myself a glass of single-malt scotch, pat myself on the back, and then blog about it here, for an audience of none.

Monday, November 2, 2009

WIPTW: World Series edition

I am incredibly superstitious when it comes to the Yankees in the postseason, and the incredibly annoying feature is that the superstitions are always changing from year to year. During the 2004 meltdown against the Red Sox, I feel like I let us down; the first three games I'd listened to on the radio, and because I was traveling on the 4th game I ended up watching it on TV, which is where everything fell apart. This year's winning formula is apparently that I cannot watch any of the game on television, or even be in the same room if the game happens to be on. I'm serious. Within 5 seconds of me turning the game on, something bad happens to the Yankees; I turn the game off; they end up winning.

As a result, I've been able to get a bit more quality time on the 360. This weekend was all about Forza 3 and Borderlands, with a tiny bit of GTA4: BOGT on the side.

Forza 3 is definitely the best in the series. All the pre-release hype made special mention of Turn Ten's desire to make the game as accessible as possible for all kinds of gamers, not just driving sim enthusiasts, and to that end they have succeeded. The single-player campaign is long, robust, endlessly customizable, and thoroughly rewarding; just about every single race ends up giving you something new. And since I know nothing about cars, I feel much freer to simply buy cars that I'm somewhat interested in, since I can always auto-tune them up before a race if they're underperforming. The franchise is really only guilty of two things; recycling content and less-than-spectacular graphics. I suppose I can forgive the graphics; they're certainly not bad, they're just underwhelming compared to, say, DiRT 2. The recycling of tracks, though, does get a bit annoying; I feel like I've been driving the same tracks for years.

Ultimately, Forza reminds me a bit of the Tiger Woods franchise, in that they're both great time-sucks and, simultaneously, great for just a quick dip. If only Tiger Woods could make the same sort of advances in terms of keeping the game fresh.

Borderlands continues to be the game that keeps on giving. My soldier is now up to level 28, I think, and I feel like I just can't put the damned thing down. I have absolutely no idea what's going on in the story, and I couldn't care less; I pick up a bunch of missions in a particular area, I clear 'em all out, I score tons of loot, I cash them in, I level up, lather, rinse, repeat. That the game does a pretty terrible (i.e., nonexistent) job of letting you know which of your 10-15 missions is actually essential to moving the story along ends up freeing you to explore more of the world because, well, why not - there's loot in them thar hills, and sticking to the main questline would render a lot of it unexplored.

One can't help but be reminded of Fallout 3 when playing Borderlands, as post-apocalyptic first-person RPGs aren't really a dime a dozen. And yet the two games could not feel more different. Leaving aside from the drastically different art styles - which I don't really want to do, as Borderlands looks absolutely incredible and utterly unique - they move at completely different paces. Fallout 3 was slow, ponderous, and dark - and it absolutely worked in that particular context. Borderlands might as well be a first-person shooter, on the other hand, as it plays fast and furious. It's dark as well, but it's also zany. I think I enjoyed the overall experience a bit more in Fallout 3, and yet I'm probably having a bit more fun playing Borderlands.

Ultimately, Borderlands is clear-cut proof that a game - specifically an RPG - doesn't need a great story in order to be fun. That kinda sucks to admit, because I wouldn't at all mind being a bit more emotionally invested in what's going on in Borderlands, and it flies in the face of what Tim Schafer and Valve and GTA represent. We'd all like to see better writing and storytelling in games. And yet even without a clear motivation to get from one side of the game to the other in terms of story, here I am, compulsively doing missions and killing dudes and exploring and wanting to turn the game off after just finishing up this last thing and then holy shit, another hour has gone by, and look at all the cool stuff I have now.

I almost feel bad that I barely gave The Ballad of Gay Tony any time this weekend; I did a few missions, got a feel for the story and the characters, remembered how to get in and out of cover, and more or less left it at that. It's still good old GTA4, even though the game is starting to look a little rough around the edges.

Which reminds me - there's a lot of driving in both GTA4 and Borderlands (and Forza), and the controls are totally different for each game, and it takes more than a few minutes to remember which is which. I do wish there was some sort of control scheme that all game developers could agree on when it comes to driving in 3rd-person action games.

Jeez, I almost forgot - I also tried out the first hour or so of the new Ratchet & Clank game. It's good, fun, solid, and I just don't have the time for it right now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What I Played This Weekend: ALCS edition

It always seems like whenever there are a ton of great games coming out all at once, I'm usually really busy doing lots of other things, and yet I feel compelled to own them all anyway. In any event - the little gaming time I had this past weekend was divided up pretty evenly between trying my hardest to enjoy Brutal Legend, and being very pleasantly surprised by Borderlands, with a little bit of Uncharted 2 online co-op, and a tiny taste of Demon's Souls for the hell of it.

I don't quite know how to express how bummed out I am about Brutal Legend. The art direction is stupendous, and the world itself is just fantastic. I love driving around and exploring the world and seeing all the incredible stuff there is to see, and my compulsive need to seek out hidden collectibles is very well satisfied. The dialogue and cutscenes are fantastic, and even though the sidemissions are incredibly repetitive, they almost never last more than a few minutes, and the rewards generally result in neat stuff in Ozzy's Garage.

But goddamn, the stage battles completely suck all my enthusiasm out of the game. It eventually got to the point where I had completed every side mission and found every hidden thing I could possibly find, just because I wanted to play the game as much as possible without having to go through the stage battles. And, of course, the story can't progress unless you do those stage battles, and therein lay the tragedy.

I don't necessarily hate real time strategy games, I'm just not very good at them, and Brutal Legend's brief tutorials don't really help me in terms of figuring out what the hell is going on, and the game does such a terrible job of providing adequate feedback, especially when I'm on the ground trying to kill people because my army refuses to move. Once you start getting wounded, and the screen starts turning red and the heartbeat starts pounding louder, you're almost always dead, and I've yet to figure out why. Even when I try to fly away, I die. And even though I've eventually won every stage battle I've participated in, I really don't understand why, and the whole thing just feels shoddy and poorly implemented.

I have all the respect in the world for Tim Schafer; I'll play anything the man works on. But I'm starting to feel that there's more to a game than art direction and funny dialogue; ultimately, a game either succeeds or fails based on how much fun it is to play, and Brutal Legend is not very much fun at all.

Meanwhile, Borderlands is fun as hell. It starts a little slow, but once you finish the first round of missions and get a vehicle, it really starts to open up. I dinged up to level 15 pretty quickly, and have been itching to get back to it ever since. Haven't tried online co-op yet, though, since none of my real-life friends have been able to find a copy in stores.

Speaking of online co-op, I did a few levels with Gred in Uncharted 2, and while they're pretty much taken wholesale from the game, they're still a lot of fun. It really shows just how improved the combat is; the mechanics are rock-solid and it's arguably even more fun when you're shouting out positions and scrambling for cover and ammo and trying to heal each other.

Finally, more out of morbid curiousity than anything else, I tried Demon's Souls for 20 minutes yesterday. I can see why the game gets good reviews; the game is hard but it's fair, and I eventually died because I was being impatient, not because the game cheated. And then, of course, I saw where I respawned from, and saw how far I'd have to go to reclaim my lost souls, and I said "fuck this." I don't have the time or the masochistic tendencies to really put it through its paces.

Tonight: Forza 3.

And coming soon, we're going to be doing a big GAMES OF THE DECADE feature, featuring a special guest or two. Stay tuned.