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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quick Thoughts on Brutal Legend / Uncharted 2

I won't write about Brutal Legend just yet. It's clearly a labor of love by Tim Schafer and his DoubleFine team, and it wouldn't be fair to talk about it before I've finished it. The reason why I haven't finished it, though, is that the RTS-lite stage battles make me miserable, and every time I fire the game up I do everything I can to avoid having to do them. As a result, I've explored about as much of the world as I can, and I've found a whole bunch of the secret collectible stuff, and so now the game exists in two distinct halves for me; there's the half where the world is awesome and the artistic vision really shines through and everything is hilarious and fun, and then there's the half where I take the game out of the tray and wait for my rental copy of Borderlands to arrive.
Wait, didn't I say I wasn't going to write about Brutal Legend just yet? Shit.

I will write about Uncharted 2, though, and I'll do my best to speak coherently about it; it's been a few days since I finished it, and hopefully I've flushed most of the excess hyperbole out of my system.

Because I'm not as great a writer as I like to think I am, I'm not entirely sure I made the point I wanted to make when I got all pissy about Adam Sessler calling U2 the best game he'd ever played. (After all, something's got to be the best game you've ever played, and now that I've played it, U2 is as good a choice as any.) The point really should've been that there are better, more responsible ways for a critic to speak about something s/he is reviewing; otherwise, you're basically writing pull quotes for the box art, and it makes me suspicious.

And the truth of the matter is that U2 is fucking fantastic. For all that it might lack in innovation, it is exceedingly ambitious; Naughty Dog strove to make the best action adventure game ever made, and to that end, they succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. They have set the bar immeasurably high. U2 is at the very least the finest PS3 game of this generation and will probably keep that distinction for the rest of the PS3's lifespan, and if something even better somehow comes along, we will all be the better for it.

It is perfectly, relentlessly paced; exploration glides into action and back again, within the most beautifully constructed locales ever seen in digital form. Perhaps you've heard of the train sequence; it's easy to talk about and it occurs early enough in the game that you can talk about it without really giving anything away. Other games have featured action set-pieces on moving trains - one of the Splinter Cell sequels immediately comes to mind - but here, the train isn't just moving along a straight line, in the dark, past the same few lightposts over and over again. You're in the jungle, in broad daylight, and the train's course is constantly undulating back and forth, which means you have to compensate and anticipate the train's movements when you're trading gunfire and tossing grenades; not only are you fighting enemies but you're also trying to move to the front car, which means you're also climbing all over the train and dodging signposts and traffic signals; oh and there's also a helicopter shooting rockets at you. It's all you can do to remind yourself to blink and exhale.

I haven't tried the multiplayer or the co-op yet, but even so - the single-player campaign is a staggering achievement in interactive entertainment, and is absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Word of Warning

Remember just a few days ago, when I ranted here about the excessive use of hyperbole in game reviews? Yeah, well. I'm at Chapter 22 out of 26 in Uncharted 2, and all I can say is that I'm going to break the world hyperbole record when I write whatever it is I'm going to write about it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Hyperbole

This is the first paragraph from Adam Sessler's review of Uncharted 2.
I’m not 100% certain when it happened. I think it’s when I had Nathan Drake atop a building in a war-torn Nepalese city, cornered and being fired upon by a helicopter, engaged in a fist fight with the screen slowly draining of color, snapping my enemy’s neck and quickly rolling into cover to reload my grenade launcher only to turn and fire upon the chopper one last time as I watched it crash and explode. I think this is when I realized that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was the best single-player game I have ever played. [emphasis added]
Uncharted 2 has been getting great / fantastic / multi-orgasmic reviews pretty much across the board, and I don't doubt that the reviews are genuine and sincere in their appreciation for a job well done. I personally have been foaming at the mouth for it ever since the E3 reveal trailer, and when I get my grubby little paws on it next week I'm never going to let it go. But as someone who uses hyperbole on a regular basis to describe even the most mundane events of his day, I'm a little suspicious when someone as high-profile as G4's Adam Sessler says something like "this was the best single-player game I have ever played," especially since it comes during the same paragraph that implies that he was still in the middle of playing it for the first time. (He himself defended his statement in this little follow-up video, which more or less lets him say the exact same thing.)

Again, I'm not necessarily doubting the sincerity of his statement. He may full well truly believe that Uncharted 2 is the best single-player game he's ever played, and it may well in fact be true. But I think that saying something as completely audacious as that, without providing any sort of context (i.e., what other games has he played to compare it to) or self-reflection (i.e., will he still feel this way in a week/month/year) is maybe a little disingenuous.

It reminded me a bit of the post-release discussions of Metal Gear Solid 4; I recall one podcast/roundtable thing where people talked about the story and the gameplay and everything and one guy in particular said that everything about MGS4, straight up and down, was perfect. As soon as he said that, I immediately treated everything else he said as a lie, because willful ignorance in the face of stone cold facts just means you're an idiot who loves something because you have to. I no longer trust your objectivity, which means your subjective opinions are irrelevant. And let me be clear - I ended up really liking MGS4, and nobody was more surprised about that than me. Hell, I even said it was one of the best games I'd ever played.

The difference, of course, is that I didn't say it was the best. I was still in the middle of the post-conclusion adrenaline rush, and I had not yet regained equilibrium. At the end of the year, I said it was the best PS3 game I'd played in 2008, but consider what else came out:
  • Braid
  • Little Big Planet
  • Fallout 3
  • Rock Band 2
  • Left 4 Dead
Oh, and Grant Theft Auto 4, which was my 2008 GOTY by a landslide. I loved the hell out of GTA4. I tried playing it the other day, in fact, to get ready for the new DLC that's coming out. I'd gotten stuck in a mission in the previous bit of DLC, and I wanted to try and get past it. And suddenly, my memories of how amazing it is came into direct conflict with my experience of playing it again with fresh eyes. For all of GTA4's incredible strengths, it could sometimes get a little stupid or silly or needlessly difficult, and so it got frustrating, and I took it back out of the 360's tray.

It's easy for me to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best single-player experience I've had this year. I knew that when I was playing it, and as of today it still holds true. This is because 2009 has been a pretty shitty year for games, and aside from Resident Evil 5 or The Beatles: Rock Band there hasn't been much else that would make it into that discussion. That's context.

When I think about the greatest games I've ever played, even now, I have a hard time picking one that stands out from all the rest. My criteria has changed; my TV has changed; my available time has changed. In fact, when I think about my favorite things, across all mediums, there's really only one time that I was ever able to say "this is absolutely the best thing I've ever [------]", and I wasn't even able to say that until I'd finished it, and that's because when I was reading Infinite Jest, during my junior year of college, when my own life was in a bit of upheaval in all sorts of directions, partly because of close friendships gone astray, partly because of girls that I cared deeply about and kept making mistakes with, partly because of non-stop pot smoking, and partly because I was contemplating giving up the acting life (and thus negating my 6-figure tuition that my parents had scraped together) in order to try and become a rock star, which I seriously entertained as a legitimate possibility - and but so in the midst of all this I started reading the book and ended up staying in my dorm room and not moving or talking and just lived with that book for an entire week, cover to cover, from the opening sentence to the very last 6pt-font-ed footnote; the sum total of all of that was a life-altering experience, and I could feel it happening as I was reading it. I had changed after reading that book.

Which is to say - when you care about something, when you spend money you don't have in order to experience it in all its forms, and you obsess about it and you maybe start a blog in order to better organize your thoughts about it, and you end up getting a job in a field where you get paid to talk about the stuff you care so deeply about, and the job is high-profile enough that people you don't know and will never know hear the things you say and read the things you write and take you at your word because you are now an authority, and then you experience something as part of the daily course of your job and then immediately call it the best experience you've ever had, without any sort of visible period of gestation and self-reflection, without providing any sort of context, and especially in this post-Gerstmann-gate era where you never quite know if there's under-the-table payola being bandied about, you'd better fucking mean it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

U2 Rock Band Setlist Guesses

Cheap traffic-generating stunt, or legitimate blog post? You decide. In any event, it looks like Bono reads SFTC because I fucking called this 2 weeks ago. Via Kotaku:
With the music business falling apart, musicians are hoping to get their cut of the music game pie — even The Beatles have their own Rock Band title! Now, it looks like Irish rockers U2 want in, too.

U2 hasn't lent their likeness to games, and from what bassist Adam Clayton tells USA Today, it sounds like the group has turned down offers. Here's Clayton on the odds of U2 in a music game:

We definitely would like to be in there, but we felt some of the compromises weren't what we wanted. That could change. I love the idea that that's where people are getting music, and we'd love to be in that world. We'll figure something out. What The Beatles have done, where the animation is much more representative of them, is what we're interested in, rather than the one-size-fits-all animation. We didn't want to be caricatured.

So, then. A U2 Rock Band game, inspired by the Beatles mold. DELICIOUS. This is totally doable. Over a dozen solid albums, numerous hit singles, distinct sonic eras, legendary visual designs, 4 distinct personalities, and challenging instrument tracks. The only thing missing is an intimidating mythology, but even the Beatles Rock Band game didn't really delve into all the squabbling, so there's no real story that needs to be told aside from the political/social eras that U2 inserted themselves into. (Rattle and Hum wasn't necessarily a narrative masterpiece, either.)

And if we're going to follow the Beatles mold, then it stands to reason that 40 songs is a nice round number to work with, giving each album its moment in the sun and getting a bit deeper into the catalog beyond the singles. I'm going to err on the side of caution and assume that the game would concentrate on album tracks and not obscure B-sides; one notable exception could be the live version of "Bad" from the Wide Awake In America EP, which is one of my personal favorites; the version of "Sweetest Thing" that appeared on the Best Of compilation might also be up for consideration.

So, then, here's my best guess for a setlist for a game that does not yet actually exist. And let it be known that I'm intentionally omitting some of my favorites - "All I Want Is You," "Ultraviolet," "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World," "Acrobat," "Daddy's Going to Pay For Your Crashed Car", etc. - because, well, you can't throw 'em all in. Along those lines, I'm throwing in a few songs from Pop because, well, every album's gotta be represented. (Can I also admit that I haven't listened to the new album, even though I've owned it for months?)

  1. I Will Follow
  2. Out of Control
  3. Electric Co.
  1. Gloria
  2. I Fall Down
  1. Sunday Bloody Sunday
  2. Seconds
  3. New Year's Day
  4. Two Hearts Beat As One
  5. 40
Under A Blood Red Sky
  1. Party Girl
  2. 11 O'Clock Tick Tock
Unforgettable Fire
  1. A Sort of Homecoming
  2. Pride (In the Name of Love)
  3. Bad
Joshua Tree
  1. Where the Streets Have No Name
  2. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
  3. With Or Without You
  4. In God's Country
Rattle And Hum
  1. Desire
  2. Angel of Harlem
  3. Bullet the Blue Sky (live)
Achtung Baby
  1. One
  2. Until The End of the World
  3. The Fly
  4. Mysterious Ways
  1. Zooropa
  2. Numb
  3. Lemon
  1. Discothèque
  2. Staring At The Sun
All That You Can't Leave Behind
  1. Beautiful Day
  2. Elevation
  3. Walk On
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
  1. Vertigo
  2. City of Blinding Lights
  3. All Because of You
No Line on the Horizon
  1. No Line on the Horizon
  2. I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
  3. Get On Your Boots

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Talking About Talking: The Fake SFTC Podcast

We've been wanting to get a STFC podcast going for a while, now, and we've been so busy with other things that we haven't been able to figure out the logistics of making it happen. (Speaking of which, if anybody reading this can recommend a reliable method of recording Skype calls, please leave a comment below.)

In the absence of having a podcast, then, what follows is a fake transcript of what a STFC podcast might sound like, as we've been having a rather interesting email conversation about Uncharted and Brutal Legend over the last few days and we don't feel like keeping it to ourselves:


Gred: Goddamn, the Uncharted 2 reviews have me salivating!!! They even motivated me to start clearing my plate for its release. I went back and played a bunch of Batman. I think I'm nearing the final act (just left Croc's lair, now on my way to have it out with Poison Ivy in the Botanical Garden). Once that's wrapped up, I'll go back and push through Uncharted 1. And if there's still time left over before U2 comes out, I'll finish HL2 Episode 2. I hope you won't be too quick to swear off Uncharted 2 multiplayer! I know you're not an online shooter guy, but if it's as fun as the initial buzz suggests, then there should be plenty of fun to be had even by the sucky...

Fuck. I just remembered that Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend come out on the same day. I'll buy both, but how am I supposed to choose one to play first???

Jervo: 1. You are indeed near the end of Batman. But I would make preparing for U2 your highest priority.

2. I tried the U2 multiplayer demo last night for a few minutes; it's definitely U2 multiplayer. As combat is my least favorite part of Uncharted in general, I'm not entirely sure how much time I'm ultimately going to spend with it (especially since my bluetooth headset doesn't always work), but it's solid and clearly no joke. If you're so inclined, I'd say you should download it when you get home, and maybe we can try it out together before getting DiRTy.

3. I've preordered both U2 and BL, and having played the BL demo already, I think my choice is clear; I'm playing U2 first. I liked the BL demo, although I'd already seen most (if not all) of it already - it's more or less what they showed at E3. And I must admit that I'm not as excited about BL as I feel I ought to be. The more I hear about it and how it changes from a GoW action game to more of an Overlord-type RTS, I get a little... I don't know... nervous. U2, on the other hand, is right in my sweet spot; that's the sort of game I want to be playing right this second.

Gred: I'm super excited about BL. I totally trust Double Fine. Psychonauts certainly wasn't perfect, and parts of it were tedious, but it was all wrapped in such a terrifically imagined world with such outstanding writing that I was able to forgive a lot. I don't expect BL to be the be-all end-all in terms of its gameplay, plus I'm beginning to wish Jack Black had never become involved, though that has admittedly provided a good visibility boost which should help sales. But until Double Fine fails me I will buy their games on day one, RTS elements and all. So that's why the strategy stuff doesn't make me nervous as far as my own enjoyment of the game. But it does worry me from a potential sales standpoint... A game based on an original IP that doesn't lend itself to easy categorization could find itself in limbo at retail. Not that Double Fine should kowtow to the mainstream 100%, but Lord knows they could use a hit.

That said, I probably will play U2 first. Seems like U2 lends itself more to burning through the single player campaign in a fevered rush, whereas I could see myself taking my sweet time with BL.

Jervo: I'm an old-school Jack Black fan; I am generally embarrassed whenever he appears in anything these days (except for Tropic Thunder) but I loved Tenacious D before it was cool to do so, and everything I've seen of BL confirms that it was a perfect casting choice. (I was going to say something snarky here about how voice acting's impact on gameplay is less than negligible, but that's not necessarily true; it's only true when it's obvious that 90% of the development budget went towards the voice acting. Frankly, one of the things that made the first Uncharted so endearing was the quality of the voice acting, and all the reviews indicate that U2 is even better in that regard.) I'm sure BL will be enjoyable, and I've already ordered it, so I feel like I've done my part in terms of supporting DoubleFine. It's just that, well, U2 is going to be jaw-dropping.

Gred: Dunno if you saw that Action Button reviewed the first Uncharted: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=607. I haven't read it yet, but I assume it's a great read!

Jervo: I told you about this the other day. They call it a "murder simulator."

Gred: Oh. Right.

Yeah, so I read it. Definitely not one of their better pieces. I thought they'd take it somewhere more interesting, but they kind of briefly made their point, and then the review fizzled out.

Jervo: Well, considering that our main problem with the game is that you can't kill the bad guys easily enough, I think it's a pretty insightful point to make. The game does such a fantastic job in terms of story and presentation and motivation and yet it can't be ignored that you're killing hundreds of human beings - and I was never actually sure why I was killing them, except that they were in my way. It's a similar observation to that of going to Rapture in Bioshock and eating potato chips out of the garbage that are at least several years old and getting healthier as a result.

Gred: The Bioshock potato chip thing makes very little sense, particularly because of how dissonant some of the contrivances in Bioshock are with their bend-over backwards attempts to get you to buy into the plausibility of Rapture, as the ActionButton guys brilliantly observe and explain in their review.

All the Uncharted killing, though, makes at least some sense to the extent that all of these guys are trying to kill you. I agree that the combat gets tiresome and that the game would have been more interesting with fewer, more considered confrontations. But movie-like games remain games nonetheless. They require a different sort of suspension of disbelief than movies do. Drake is not Indiana Jones. Drake leaps up crumbling fortress walls hundreds of feet up as a matter of course, whereas if Indy did that repeatedly (rather than, say, as a unique set-piece moment) we might not so readily accept it in the context of a movie. It's not apples to apples.

But if we do want to compare apples to apples, I don't really see how Uncharted is all that different from most large-scale shooters. How is exterminating all of these guys is different from annihilating untold numbers of Covenant, German soldiers, Locusts, etc.? Sure, those are framed as larger-scale "save the world" scenarios, but at the end of the day it's still "Kill them or they'll kill you." Drake's own adventure admittedly starts as a mere treasure hunt, which is hardly the noblest of causes nor one that would justify a triple-digit body count. But as far as I've gotten in the game, they've worked in enough alternative motivations (search for and rescue Elena, avenge Sully) that the killing just doesn't bug me from a moral standpoint (though it gets pretty damned tiresome from a pacing/fun perspective). Plus, the enemies in Uncharted are presumably mercenaries, i.e. men who have entered the private army business for money. These guys (including Drake!) are all vying for a big fat prize, and they are all willingly playing a high stakes game. In that regard, it wouldn't be a tragedy from a story perspective if Drake was killed during his quest. He's a mercenary of sorts himself. From a gameplay perspective, of course, his death sucks.

The Uncharted body count doesn't keep me up at night. Far less morally challenging or ambiguous than, say, the countless games which turn World War II into a shooting gallery. (Sure, I play them. But there is something about it that's unsettling.)

Jervo: Indy's personal body count in Raiders, by my perhaps faulty recollection, is actually rather low. He punches a lot of dudes, and knocks out a few guys to change clothes, but he really just shoots that one dude with the sword - and according to film legend that was an ad-lib by Harrison Ford because he was violently ill and didn't want to do the fight scene choreography. The guy he fights by the plane ends up getting his own head chopped into sushi; shit, even God ends up killing more dudes than Indiana Jones.

I'll admit that the combat in Uncharted is necessary as it breaks up the action and creates a different sort of tension. It's a game, after all, and you kill dudes in games. And it was clearly something that the design team thought about and tried to implement as well as they possibly could - the cover system works well, the death animations are convincing, and the whole thing would've been perfect if the enemies hadn't been so bulletproof. As long as we're talking about Uncharted influences, Tomb Raider's combat (at least in the more recent, better iterations) is not nearly as much fun or as well implemented - of course, there's not nearly as much of it, either, so it kinda evens out.

But I submit that Uncharted is different from other large-scale shooters because Nathan Drake is not a soldier, and he's not saving the world. He's not killing aliens or Nazis or zombies. More to the point, I don't want Uncharted to be Modern Warfare with platforming and puzzles. My favorite parts of Uncharted - as they are in Tomb Raider and other games of that sort - are the exploring and the puzzle solving, when you're not rushing against a clock or dodging bullets, and you're free to examine the environment at your own pace. That's the part where you actually feel like a treasure hunter, because it's actually you and your brain that's solving the puzzles; that's the part that could actually happen in real life. You don't have to suspend any disbelief (other than the idea that every archeological find can only be found by moving blocks onto weighted floors).

Gred: See, that's where I think their point is interesting. Would/could Uncharted have been a sales hit without all that shooting? Shooters sell. Is there a "realistic" style exploration-based adventure game that sold out there? I can't think of one. So they are totally right to call bullshit on all of the gamers who cry foul and say "Not all games have killing!" Right. Just the ones that sell. And 85% of the games I buy. But I still find the term "murder simulator" to be a bit silly.

Jervo: Would Uncharted have been a sales hit without the shooting? No, probably not. Does that suck? Yeah, it kinda does. Can we be grateful, then, that the combat mechanics in Uncharted are at least well-designed and constructed, except for the bulletproof enemies? Absolutely, and that's probably got as much to do with why the game did so well as anything else. Hell, that's why they built a whole multiplayer mode around it.


There's still way too much killing in Uncharted than is necessary for the game to still be successful and enjoyable, and that's a stone-cold fact. And the fact that the enemies are bulletproof merely exacerbates how tedious it becomes, this killing of people over and over and over again. We can assume AB purposefully uses the term "murder simulator" to recall good ol' Jack Thompson's railing against GTA, and in that context they're probably right - I've probably killed more virtual people in Uncharted than I did in GTA4. (Not counting driving accidents, of course.)

Gred: Sucks that it wouldn't have sold without shooting: Herry hoo. [Translation: Very true.]

Too much killing: Herry hoo. (Though I still see the high body count as a difference of degree and not kind from most other games.)

I love that running people over in GTA games doesn't count! Even if you try to play the earlier games as a "nice" criminal who avoids killing the "innocent" (Niko can't really be played as nice), you can't avoid running people over or the game will just be hell. So it's a "necessary" evil, the necessity being that it would otherwise take forever to drive anywhere!

And then, suddenly, we were both hit by a truck.