Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Weekend Recap: Dark Star, RDR, Limbo

I am feeling compelled to post something, anything, even though I'm not sure I have anything truly compelling to say at the moment.

The weekend was gaming-heavy, as it turned out. I've been dealing with some anxiety issues lately and having my mind occupied helped a great deal in getting over the hump. I finished Limbo, did some online co-op in Red Dead Redemption, and put in quite a few hours into Dark Star One, which is probably more than it deserves.

Let me clarify that last bit. I bought Dark Star One on the PC however many years ago, played the first few missions, and then put it away. I liked the idea of it - it was basically Grand Theft Outer Space - but for whatever reason I didn't really bond with it. (Ever since consoles really came into their own, I've had trouble really getting into PC gaming; I think the last PC game I truly got lost in was Grim Fandango.) But I was curious about the 360 port, because let's face it - there aren't any space combat games anymore. And these are the dry days of summer, after all, and there's nothing else to play, and Dark Star One has hours and hours of (the same) stuff to do.

Anyway. It's a straight-up port of the PC version, which means it's ugly as hell, and features some of the worst voice acting this side of Sacred 2. And yet there's something charming about it. The combat is actually quite exciting, which turns out to be quite important because in spite of all the story and side missions you need to do in order to advance the plot, all you're ever going to do is blow up other ships. There's also a sort-of economy system, wherein you can import and export certain goods, but it's not really all that necessary in order to make any money (which is good, because it's also never talked about or explained in any way - it's a good thing I still had my PC manual, because otherwise I'd still be confused as to what everything means). And the game feels... ambitious. This was not just a hack job done in order to fill in some numbers in a ledger somewhere (at least, the PC version wasn't); you can tell that a lot of passion went into the design and feel of the game, even if the talent wasn't necessarily in place.

It's charming enough that I've decided that I want Rockstar to stop making GTA5 and start making GTA Outer Space. Because if this sort of thing is going to be done right, then the right company needs to make it. (Also, I'm thinking that at this stage of development, Mass Effect 3 will not have space combat.)

Playing the online co-op in Red Dead Redemption reminded me how much I miss that game. I haven't really played any of it since I finished the game however many months ago; I dabbled in some post-ending Achievement hunting, and did a little bit of Free Roam with friends, and then that was about it. But the co-op was fun as hell, and I wish there was more of it. Maybe I'll start getting back into Free Roam again...

I am reluctant to talk about my experience playing Limbo. It's a wonderful game, don't get me wrong; it's just that I ended up using a walkthrough about halfway in and once I started I couldn't stop. I blame the Achievements. I do feel obligated to give it another go without the walkthrough, though, just to experience it the way it's supposed to be experienced. Hopefully I'll have forgotten everything by the time I get around to it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

SFTC Post #200!

I must confess I don't really have anything planned for this, the 200th post here at Shouts from the Couch. I came here today to talk about DeathSpank.

DeathSpank is a downloadable action-RPG, which sounds like it ought to be terrible. But it's written by Ron Gilbert, of Monkey Island fame, so that's promising. And it's got a fascinating and unique art design, which I'm not sure I've ever seen outside of something like Animal Crossing. And it's legitimately funny, and probably features the best voice acting of any game in 2010 (yes, better than Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption), and the combat is simple but not totally mindless, and there's so much to do, and it's so well done.

The quest is a search for The Artifact, which appears to be a piece of bacon. The side quests are mostly of the "fetch this for me," or "kill 10 of those things" variety, but they are all very funny, and I've found myself doing as many quests as possible just so that I can hear more of the incredibly well-written dialogue. And sometimes there are little puzzles that go on top of these quests; they're not terribly difficult, but they certainly make an easy side quest that much trickier, and everything is just so goddamned witty and awesome. At one point I found myself getting mobbed by tiny little Irish dudes and they all laughed and cackled and I nearly had to put the controller down, I was giggling like an idiot.

In short: highly recommended.

And I'll promise to have something more interesting for post #250.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Weekend Recap: Orbs and Time

I wouldn't say that I've had a change of heart regarding Crackdown 2, but rather a change of attitude. It's still not a very good 3rd person open-world shooter, but I think the mistake is on our part, for assuming that it's trying to be.

As with the original Crackdown before it, the game is merely a playground, and the main treat - the collection of Agility Orbs - is the real goal. All the people that you end up killing are merely obstacles in your path. It's sort of ridiculous that such a simple premise can make for such a compelling experience, but there it is.

I do not care about the story or the objectives or anything else - I'm just all about leveling up my dude. I've collected a little over 300 Agility Orbs so far, about 30 hidden Orbs, 5 or 6 of those Renegade Orbs, and so my Agility level is now just over 5. (The gliding ability that I just unlocked is not quite as awesome (or useful) as it could be.) I've started to relent and actually do the "game" stuff as well, if only so that I have more respawn points (such points also let you keep any new weapons you find out in the world), and that stuff continues to be uninteresting.

I'm still of the opinion that it feels more like a huge expansion pack, rather than a $60 retail purchase. If you're a fan of the original, you'll know exactly what you're getting here. If you're new to the series, this is certainly a good place to start, and (probably) well worth a rental.


I also did a little dabbling in Singularity over the weekend, which looks and feels a lot like some sort of high-concept Bioshock mod. (Seriously - it looks just like Bioshock.) It's not bad! It's got some neat time-manipulation puzzle business mixed with all the shooting and the killing. I'm maybe 2 hours in, so I've got a lot left to see, but it's definitely better than I was expecting it to be.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Compulsive Collecting

I've said it before, but it bears repeating (at least in terms of giving this post some sort of thematic focus): of my 57,908 Achievement Points, the points I'm most proud of were the 50 I earned for finding all 500 Agility Orbs in the first Crackdown. Yes, I earned them. I didn't use a walkthrough, I didn't cheat; I found all those motherfuckers on my own, and all the hours I spent in doing so were totally worth it.

The hunt for Agility Orbs more than made up for the game's many flaws, and the rewards for leveling up were tangible - Crackdown's Pacific City was made for running around and jumping, and having a maxed out Agility stat meant that running around and jumping was more awesome. In retrospect, I can acknowledge (well, admit) that the first Crackdown was not a particularly good game; it's just that it did this one particular thing exceedingly well, and that one particular thing was so much fun that it kinda became the heart and soul of the game, for me.

And so I pre-ordered Crackdown 2 without thinking twice. You can't put something as addictive as Agility Orbs in a game called Crackdown and not have collection junkies like me foaming at the mouth.

I got my copy yesterday, and guess what? It's almost the exact same game as the first one. This ought not to be too big a deal - hunting Agility Orbs is still fun - but the sense of deja vu is overwhelming, and the game's differences are mostly superficial. More importantly, the game's flaws are much more apparent, especially when compared to games like InFamous; the shooting is janky as hell, the driving is more or less unnecessary (and certainly feels like it was under-designed, as a result), and the city feels somewhat lifeless (which is odd, considering how many people are wandering the streets). Hunting Agility Orbs is pretty much my only real motivation for finishing the game, now, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to "play the actual game" unless I have to, in order to access a new part of the city. This makes me a little sad, frankly. This makes me feel guilty for slogging through a shitty game just so that I can find a new Orb.


My wife was out of town for this past 4th of July weekend, which meant that I had the TV all to myself. And this meant that I could play the hell out of Lego Harry Potter. There's not a lot that needs to be said about this game; if you like the Lego series, this is the best one of the lot. If you're a fan of the movies, you will appreciate this game a lot more than if you're just a fan of the books. If you're totally unfamiliar with the Harry Potter brand, this game will not make any sense, but it's still incredibly approachable and easy and if you're a compulsive collector, you will have a hard time pulling yourself away from it. I decided I'd had enough when I got up to 98% completion; I was never going to find every last character token. But I did get all 200 gold bricks, all 50 students in peril, all 20 red bricks, and the few Achievements I missed are not necessarily that hard to get; if I really need to, I'm sure I can go back and get the full 1,000 without too much trouble.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cut Off: A Redemptive Tale of Addiction and Clicking On Things

It's been almost a week, now - that's probably long enough for it to have sunk in - so I think I can manage to avoid jinxing it if I announce that I have finally conquered an addiction.

My name is Jervo, and I was a Zyngaholic. I was into Mafia Wars and FarmVille, I was a serious Treasure Isle junkie, and I even dabbled in FrontierVille, Cafe World, and I think there was a fish tank one also. I spent actual U.S. currency on intangible enhancements to virtual places, and I spent more than I care to admit. More than the money, though, I spent time. I kept a calendar in the back of my mind, making sure I'd be near a computer when it was time to harvest something, or if a reward was about to occur, or if I had enough energy to finish clearing an island. I had a routine - I'd get in to work, turn my computer on, grab a cup of coffee, check my work e-mail to make sure nothing was needing to get done, and then I'd take a deep breath, process the shame, and start clicking.

The magic had left a long time ago, of course. It had stopped being "fun." (Had it ever been fun?) It was a commitment that no longer felt reciprocated. I had long since stopped being "social" in these games. I never announced anything in my Facebook feed (unless it was really early on a weekend morning and I knew that other junkies players were online, and that they could hook me up with whatever it was that I needed and then I could hide the announcement). I never visited other people's farms/islands unless I needed XP. It became a solitary grind towards infinity; these games have no endgame, there is no final boss, there is nothing except the next thing, and if you act now, you can get this cute little decoration for only 10% off!

I think I knew I needed to stop a few months ago. The tipping point: I had built up a serious stockpile of fuel in FarmVille, and I'd also had a serious hoard of virtual cash. And I guess I had decided that when I was out of fuel, and out of money with which to buy more fuel, then that would be it; I wouldn't spend any real money to buy any fake fuel, and if that meant that I'd have to manually click on every goddamned square 3 times, then so be it, and if that meant that I was no longer interested, then that would be that. (If you don't understand, you'll never understand.)

As it turned out, that day arrived last week. I was out of fuel, out of virtual cash, and I suddenly felt free - I didn't have to click on anything today. And if I didn't have to spend money on a fake farm, then I certainly didn't have to spend money on energy packs for Treasure Isle, and I definitely didn't need to spend money on stupid mandatory items that I'd need to finish missions in Mafia Wars, and FrontierVille was fucking stupid anyway.

And now it's been almost a week. And I don't miss it. Well, sorta. It helped smooth out the idle hours at work. It was fun seeing other people's creativity when they designed their own personal spaces, and I certainly didn't mind helping them out when they needed something. But I don't miss the schedule. I don't miss the abstract sense of obligation. And I definitely don't miss the pressure to spend money on this shit.

You know what's sad? It's been so long since I've been playing these games that I kinda forgot why I got into them in the first place. I guess it was mostly just that I'm the kind of gamer who likes to grind without the pressure of failure; there was always some sort of reward for finishing a task, and when you first start out in these games there's a ton of rewards. There wasn't necessarily any sort of strategy or critical thinking, unless you wanted to power-level - and once I figured out how to do that, then that's where these games started to get insidious. With Mafia Wars and Treasure Isle, it was figuring out the timing - if you timed it right, you could level up and get a free energy refill without having to use any items, which also meant you could be that much more productive; with FarmVille, it was mostly about seeding high XP crops (hello, peas) and being as efficient as possible when harvesting, so that there was no wasted time, and then saving up money to buy Mansions which basically granted you a new level once you placed it.

If that last paragraph sounds ridiculous, then you have no idea how it actually feels.

Anyway, it's done. I'm done. I'm done with Zynga. I'm done with farms and treasure. I'm done with it all. I am free.

I am also available for Scrabble and I will kick your ass in Bejeweled.