Monday, April 26, 2010

Splinter Cell / FF13

Two things to talk about today:

1. I finished Splinter Cell Conviction, and
2. I finally got excited about Final Fantasy 13.

The most recent Joystiq podcast touches on both of these games, which made this morning's commute more fun as I was already well versed in both. And as an added bonus, for the incredibly small subset of people who listened to that podcast and also read this blog, what I'm about to say will hopefully not sound redundant.


It's funny. I was somewhat indifferent about the first Assassin's Creed, and so I wasn't really looking forward to Assassin's Creed 2, and in spite of the marketing crush I'd almost managed to forget about it, and it ended up being one of my favorite games of last year. Whereas, back in the day I used to be a huge Splinter Cell fan/apologist, and actively hated Metal Gear Solid and other stealth games, and now that I've played Conviction, I'm kinda hoping they kill the franchise (or else reboot it from scratch).

Conviction suffers from a wide variety of flaws, but the one that seems the most jarring to me is the same one that afflicts the rest of the Tom Clancy's games - the storytelling is just dreadful. Conviction takes great strides towards giving you a real motivation for doing the things you end up doing, but the characters are so broad and bland and the villains are so generic and dull and the conspiracy hardly makes sense, and I found myself in location after location unsure of where I was, why I was there, and what I was supposed to be doing beyond following the objective marker and clearing out room after room. I'd almost rather play the game as a series of training missions; at least they could just drop the pretense and concentrate on interesting level design.

The game is better at combat, which means that there's a lot more of it. Which is unfortunate. I still prefer to sneak around and silently dispatch guards, or avoid contact entirely, and there were a number of areas where that simply wasn't an option; you have to kill everyone in front of you - or, alternately, you find a path and run through it until you get to the next checkpoint, which is what I ended up doing more than a few times when I simply couldn't handle the odds.

Ultimately, though, I'm just done with these characters and the fiction; they were never particularly interesting to begin with, and I'd rather they just scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.


As for FF13.

I feel like I've talked about Chapter 11 at great length, which is appropriate given that I've probably spent as much time in Chapter 11 as I have for the first 10. But the game has finally clicked into place for me. As I'm probably at least 50 hours into it by now, that shouldn't be just happening, but it is; I saved my game last night and turned it off and couldn't wait to get back in and start again, which is maybe the first time I've felt that way since I first unwrapped it.

Let me explain why that's so weird.

As I think I mentioned before, I had originally started Chapter 11 without really understanding what I was supposed to do - to be more specific, I didn't understand the map. Chapter 11 is where the game stops being so ridiculously linear; you stop going in a straight line and you start picking up side quests in this absolutely gigantic landscape. When I first started it, I had picked up a side quest and assumed that the map in the upper right hand corner was leading me to the side quest's location; I didn't realize that the map was still leading me towards the main story's objective. And so it led me into these caverns where I was just getting my ass kicked repeatedly, and I was getting incredibly frustrated and annoyed, and then I realized that I must've missed something, or perhaps I just needed to grind a bit more, and so I restarted Chapter 11 and figured out what I'd done wrong.

And so I'd spent the next 20 hours doing all the side missions I could find, and grinding like crazy in between each side mission, and (surprise!) that was beginning to get tedious as well. I wanted to get back to the story; I wanted to see if I could finally handle those caverns that had dispatched me so effortlessly. I'd finished mission 16, couldn't find where mission 17 was, and decided that was probably a sign that I should just get on with it.

And wouldn't you know - I kicked ass in those caverns. And - lo and behold - mission 17 was in those caverns. And when I got to Vanille's big summon battle, which had utterly destroyed me originally - well, it still destroyed me, but I eventually managed to beat it. And now the game is leading me along a somewhat more linear path again, which is a refreshing change of pace, and when I decided to call it a night last night I'd saved right after picking up mission 18, which meant that I was in the right place after all. It's as if the game read my mind.

I'm still a bit shocked that I've devoted this much time and effort into a game that I've been so apathetic about, but I guess this is the payoff; I'm now fully on board and can't wait to get back.

Friday, April 16, 2010

sneakin' around

Maybe I haven't been the most vocal supporter of the Splinter Cell franchise, but I've certainly been a fan throughout the entire run; the series peak, Chaos Theory, is one of my favorite games on the original Xbox. I never had cause to bitch about the trial-and-error gameplay; that's what most games are, anyway, and it left my graphics whore needs more than satisfied. But I'll admit that in the time it's taken for this new game to come out, I'd pretty much moved on; I wasn't really all that excited about the first game on the 360, and the tales of development hell that abounded on this new title didn't exactly whet my appetite.

So, well, yeah. I'm a few missions in on Splinter Cell: Conviction and I kinda don't really give a shit. They've taken great pains to make the game more accessible - indeed, it's taken the right design choices from Batman:AA - but it's also made the game frightfully ridiculous. 2 missions in, you're breaking out of a private airfield and you're getting swarmed by, like 10 (incredibly chatty) dudes, with almost no shadows to duck into; I kept dying, repeatedly, and eventually found success simply by running straight through and making it to the next save point. Which is, as I said, ridiculous.

I will endeavor to finish it over the weekend, but it's not, like, burning a hole in my to-do list. Which is a little sad, I guess. I never thought I'd be so apathetic towards Sam Fisher and his fabulous lighting engine.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

evil / genius

I am just over 40 hours into Final Fantasy 13, but that's not quite specific enough; I am roughly 15 hours into the absurdly epic Chapter 11. I've gotta hand it to the developers; if nothing else, they've got some serious gold-plated balls to make a game like this. You spend 20 hours running along tightly controlled paths, always and only moving from point A to point B, and then suddenly you are in a wide-open expanse, free to do whatever you want.

Well, let's clarify that a bit. There is still definitely a Point B to get to, but if you are foolhardy enough to jump right in, you will most certainly get your ass kicked. This means that you need to grind a bit. Fortunately, Chapter 11 comes with a number of Missions which you can do - these are really just regular battles, against specific enemies. I've done the first 15 so far, but even that number is somewhat misleading, because I've spent 15 hours building my way up towards being powerful enough to handle some of those missions. Which is to say, I've killed a LOT of monsters. Basically, I've been grinding endlessly so that I can grind more effectively, if that makes sense.

It's a little ridiculous that the game is asking me to do this. Actually, let me rephrase that - it's downright jaw-dropping to realize that this is the game's intention, and that there is an audience out there that wants this.

And yet, here I am, 15 hours in and still invested. At the conclusion of Mission 14, I got myself a chocobo; that was my primary motivation for all this grinding, even if the end result is extremely underwhelming. (Hooray, I can go from one end of this endless prairie to the other a little bit faster.) And now that I'm here, I've started to figure out the evil genius at work.

See, one of the first things you'll see when you start Chapter 11 are these absolutely gigantic creatures - similar to those titanic elephant monsters in the LOTR movies. Like so:

You can't see how big that monster is - it's bigger than THIS BLOG. If you were to go after that fucker right off the bat, you'd get stomped before the battle even began. Hell, if I were to go after it right now - and remember, I'm 15 hours in on this chapter alone - I'd be lucky to get one hit in before my whole party got wiped. But I know that if I were to keep grinding and finish all of these "purely optional" Missions, I'd eventually get powerful enough to take one down. And I kinda want to be able to do that, at least once.

This is why I'm glad that the release calendar is still a bit dry; this is going to take quite a bit more time.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

end radio silence

Apologies for the recent radio silence; there hasn't been a tremendous amount to report here from SFTC headquarters. But here's what I've been playing of late:

1. Final Fantasy 13: I'm on Chapter 11, which is where the game supposedly starts getting interesting - or, at least, stops being so rigidly linear. I can absolutely attest to that last point - I basically had to restart the entire chapter because I misunderstood the map. No longer am I walking down a narrow corridor; I am wandering a gigantic expanse filled with monsters as far as the eye can see. If you so choose (and you should), you can do "missions", which are basically side quests, where you have to seek and destroy one particular monster. Unfortunately for me, I didn't realize that the location of your mission's objective had a different map icon from the main story objective; and so, after I finished Mission 1 and started Mission 2, I found myself in the middle of these weird caves, getting my ass kicked over and over and over again, not really understanding what I'd apparently done wrong. Fortunately I had a save file from the beginning of Chapter 11, and now I understand what's going on.

I'm not quite sure how much I'm enjoying it, but I don't really see myself playing much of anything else for the next little stretch of time; I'm not really as excited about the new Splinter Cell as I thought I'd be, and if my GameFly Q is to be believed, I'm not going to get excited about anything until mid-May, when Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake and Blur come out. Speaking of which...

2. The Blur multiplayer beta is out, and I gave it a whirl last night, and HOLY SHIT it's awesome. It's basically Mario Kart + Project Gotham Racing + CoD's XP system, and that means I am fully on board.

3. Played some of the recent Mass Effect 2 DLC. The Firewalker stuff is OK - someone else described it as a tutorial for something you'll start using full-time in ME3, which sounds about right. And then last night I did the Kasumi DLC, which was a pleasant enough diversion for the 60-90 minutes it took me to finish. I guess the coolest thing about it is the new section of the Normandy that's now finally opened up.

4. I cooled off a little on GTA4 PC, but only because I've been using my computer for other stuff of late. I'm considering buying Dragon Age for it, though, if Steam ever puts it on sale. I didn't like the 360 version and it's basically just taking up space - my PC can run it, and that's supposedly the version to get anyway...

So, that's what's been happening over here. There may yet be more actual content soon to come - another fake podcast transcript, perhaps.