Tuesday, November 30, 2010

GT5: the other shoe drops

I didn't necessarily come right out and say it in yesterday's post, but at the time I wrote it I was still feeling optimistic about Gran Turismo 5.  I had legitimate issues with how the game was letting me progress, and how inadequate I felt about picking an appropriate vehicle, but I also knew that I hadn't really given the game a truly fair shake - I knew what I did not know, so to speak. 

And so last night I spent another hour with it.  I did some of the Special Events; I raced some go-karts, some NASCARs, and did some time trials on the Nurburgring with an old BMW.  I raised my level from 2 to 7, and raised my bank account from $6000 to over $100,000. 

And you know what?  For all of its positive qualities, GT5 is downright aggravating.  It's obnoxious and arrogant.  It's emasculating and frustrating.  I turned the game off because I didn't want to break my controller in half, and because I didn't want to go to bed angry.  A driving game should not make you angry

I am still in the beginning areas of the career mode, and I will apparently remain unable to participate in at least half the races available to me because I have no idea what kind of car I should be driving - and, indeed, there are a few events in this beginner tier that require cars that I don't even have access to.  This makes no sense.  The information that the game gives out on each car might as well be copied and pasted from the sales brochure; it doesn't actually tell me anything objectively.  The used car market does not offer any information as to what cars are available for a given event, and the process of backing out from the market to the event itself is laborious because it takes between 5-10 seconds to load each menu.  One could argue that I could alleviate this problem by going to the desired event and writing down the necessary requirements with a pen on a piece of paper, but I would counter-argue by saying that I'm playing a fucking driving game and writing shit down should not enter into the equation.  It's one thing to write something down if I'm playing an adventure game and I need to solve a puzzle or remember where something is.  But when I put in GT5, it should be obvious that all I want to do is get in a car and drive

This could be a long winter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Weekend Recap: the holiday that wasn't

If all had gone according to plan, this post wouldn't exist.  The plan was to leave Thursday morning to go up to my dad's house for Thanksgiving, and to eventually return to the apartment on Saturday night, and Sunday would be a day of holiday decorating and football.  Instead, my wife had the flu and I had a nagging head cold, and we stayed home.  And so I played a lot of video games. 

In list form, in descending order of time played:
  • finished Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
  • got a few hours into Gran Turismo 5
  • kept dabbling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
  • went and bought Burnout Paradise on the PC thanks to yet another ridiculous Steam sale and got back into it very, very quickly
  • Train Conductor 1/2 on the iPhone is insanely addictive
  • played 2 games of NBA JAM HD with my brother, for old time's sake
  • and some Pinball FX2 with the wife.
I will give AssBro a more thorough examination later, once I've had a bit more coffee.  But I can say, now, that I think it's the best game in the franchise, and it will most likely wind up at #3 in my Top 10 of 2010. 

As for GT5; I'll be the first person to admit that what I know about cars could be inscribed on the rim of a shot glass with a dull Sharpie.  But I really love driving games, strangely enough, and while I tend to prefer crazy, insanely fast stuff like Burnout, I have been known to get sucked into a Forza game for hours and hours.  (I do have an aversion to NASCAR, though, which is probably similar to my aversion to country music and the tea party movement.)  I needed to see what GT5 was all about for several reasons:
  1. I haven't played a game on my PS3 since I finished FF13;
  2. The last time I played a GT game was on my friend's PS1;
  3. I am a graphics whore (which reminds me, at some point I need to talk about this fascinating article, which I got from the lovely and talented Caro), and if there's one thing that the GT franchise is famous for, it's graphics; 
  4. I loved the hell out of Forza 3, and felt obligated to see if GT5 was better; and
  5. After 5 years of development and endless delays, the curiosity was killing me.
After 2 hours of playtime, here's what I can say about GT5.
  1. It's prettier than Forza 3, generally.  I've read lots of people who have been complaining about how horrible some of the cars look; to my eyes, it looks great.  It's worth finishing a race in last place just so that you can watch the pretty, pretty replays, which are utterly convincing and gorgeous.  Some people complain that it's bland; I've only been on a few tracks, and driven a handful of cars, so I can't quite speak to that.  One could maybe argue that it's a little sterile, or perhaps a little too pristine.  
  2. Is it as fun as Forza 3, though?  Not sure.  It's certainly more accessible than I was expecting it to be, but that's relative - when you're buying a new (or used) car, the game doesn't tell you what the car's Top Speed is.  When you're like me and know nothing of horsepower and weight and acceleration, not giving out a car's Top Speed is basically a slap in the dick, and I ended up losing a ton of races because I had unwittingly bought the wrong car.
  3. Further to that last point, the game doesn't really dole out new cars and rewards the way Forza does.  I'm still only in the beginner tier of races in the career and at least half of the events I'm looking at require vehicles that I don't have, and I'll have to retry events I've already won just to earn enough coin to afford an applicable vehicle - a vehicle that I'll probably only drive once or twice until I get something better.  Seems odd.
  4. I haven't raced online, but the fact that the game's single-player campaign was so horribly fucked up because too many people were crushing the game's servers is absolutely unforgivable, especially for a game of this magnitude.  And if the game's developer is telling you to pull your PS3 offline so that you can play single-player without running into problems, that's just absurd.  PlayStation fanboys love talking shit about Xbox Live and how you have to pay for it when PSN is free, but file this under "You Get What You Pay For" as Exhibit 375. 
I remain intrigued, though, and there's so much content that it's sure to get me through the winter.  Although I may pull out Forza 3 again, just to compare/contrast.  My gut reaction right now, though, is that Forza feels more generous and accessible; GT5 feels more authoritative and legitimate. 

I was really looking forward to NBA JAM HD, and when my brother came over we finally got to try it out.  My brother had a Sega Genesis as a kid and we played NBA JAM endlessly.  The new game basically feels like the old game, which is great.  The problem is that it's really meant to be played with someone sitting next to you on the couch, and my brother lives in DC (and doesn't own an Xbox).  So, while it's tremendous fun in the right conditions, it seems pointless on its own.  I felt a little sad sending it back to Gamefly, but it is what it is.

AssBro final thoughts will go up either later today or tomorrow.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Weekend Recap: Assassin Down the Avenue

"I am an American aquarium drinker /
I assassin down the avenue."
 - Wilco, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

According to Raptr, I've spent 15 hours with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and another 5 hours in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  Both games are excellent and well worth your time.

Ah, but you want details!  You want experiences!   You want in-depth impressions!  (Do you?  I don't know who reads this thing anymore besides Russian search engines that keep bringing up my best guess at the Beatles set list in Rock Band.)  (That sentence right there, the one you just read, will have already generated 20 more hits before I even finish writing this post, so let's move on.)  (*Sigh*  Remember Rock Band?  I still really like RB3 but haven't touched it in weeks.)

Let's start with Need For Speed, then, since I got pulled out of AC:B and into a lot of NFS multiplayer this weekend with a lot of the same crew that used to play Burnout 3 every night for hours. 

Yes, it feels a lot like a Burnout game.  (Which is great.)  But you know what?  It also feels a lot like the old Sega classic Outrun, in that there's a shit-ton of drifting that you do, and all the cars seem to be superglued to the road, and they all have fat asses that always feel like you're about to spin out of control in a drift, but you never do.

The star of the show is clearly cops v. racers, and pretty much everyone that I've played with acknowledges that while both sides are fun as hell, it's playing as the cops that's really fun as hell.  That's as close as you get to the classic Burnout style of craziness, but now with spike strips, roadblocks and EMPs.  There's not a tremendous amount of depth to the gameplay, but that's OK - every race is different, and each track has a lot of side routes (as not all of the shortcuts are actually shortcuts) and, well, shit gets real crazy quick.   (Or, alternately, shit gets crazy real quick.  This game moves too fast for comma placement.)

The Autolog is also a pretty neat feature - it's essentially a real-time Facebook wall with all your friends' activity, so if someone beats your time in a race, you can very easily try to retake your position on the leaderboard.  It's very easy to get sucked down that particular rabbit hole.  At all times, you are aware of what your friends are doing (and have done) in relation to what you're doing, and before long another hour has gone by while you try to beat your friend's time.  I haven't played a game with this much "just one more go" in a while.

Although, now that I think about it, there's a lot of that "just one more x" in Assassin's Creed, which is partly why I racked up 15 hours without even really meaning to play that much.  And I'm not even a third of the way through the actual story. (!)  If the first Assassin's Creed was (fairly) criticized for not having enough to actually do, AC:B is possibly guilty of having too much.  My last 2 hours of gameplay yesterday was basically me trying to level up the 4 members of my brotherhood, which scratched my Farmville itch like crazy.  Is this a spoiler?  I don't think this is a spoiler - it's a feature, that's partly spelled out in the game's title.  A few memories into the game, you start recruiting fellow Assassins.  And you level them up by sending them out on all these little missions - you don't actually see them do this, and it doesn't affect you in any way, other than that your assassins will be unavailable for the 5-10 minutes it takes them to do their missions.  And so, while they've been doing that, I've been finding hidden flags and hidden feathers and doing all sorts of sidequests, and once they are sufficiently leveled up - or, more accurately, once I'm bored of flag finding - I'm probably going to start burning down all the remaining Borgia Towers that I currently have access to.  And then, maybe, I'll get back to the actual story.

The AC:B graphics engine isn't as bad as, say, the Gametrailers video review made it out to be.  I mean, my Best Games of 2010 - Best Horses award will still be going to Red Dead Redemption, but there's a lot about AC:B that's simply staggering.  The city of Rome is absolutely gigantic, and while it maybe lacks the variety that was a high point of AC2, it also feels a lot more cohesive.  (That being said, the engine is a bit old - and the more I think about it, the more I'm curious to see what an AC game would look like in the Red Dead engine.  Both games feature huge open worlds with wide open spaces - Red Dead doesn't have lots of buildings, of course, but its terrain is a lot more varied and textured.)

Anyway.  You get the idea.

My rental copies of Donkey Kong Country Returns and Gran Turismo 5 will most likely arrive while I'm away for Thanksgiving; I don't know that I have any time in my life for either of these games, let alone Disney Epic Mickey next week.  I'd very much like to be able to finish AC:B by the end of the year, and considering how massive the game is and how much there is to do, I wonder if that's possible, considering how busy I'm about to be...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

AC: Brotherhood - a more apt comparison

This was obviously meant to go in the last piece, but I might as well bring it up now - if we're going to compare AC:B to anything, why not Inception?  As long as you ignore the distinction between "dream" and "meta-history", you're more or less in the same conceptual ballgame, with layers upon layers of reality stacked on top of each other.  I think there's even a flat-out "dream-within-a-dream" reference in Desmond's first extended sequence.

More to come on this, obviously, if it ends up being something worth pursuing.

AC: Brotherhood - the first hour

Of all the big franchises out there that I'm proud to be a fan of, Assassin's Creed is the one that I have the strangest relationship with.  There's only 3 games in the series, but the pattern has already evolved thus:
  • I get phobic and downright hostile towards preview coverage, 
  • I start dreading the game's release, thinking it's going to be terrible;
  • The game comes out and gets rave reviews;
  • I buy it immediately and end up being totally in love with it.  
This happened with AC2 - watch me go from skeptical (1)...to puppy love (2)...to serious man-crush (3)...to full-on infatuation (4).  It's true that AC2 ended up only being my 3rd favorite game of 2009,  but look - 2009 turned out to be an amazing year, and I was torn between AC2 and Batman:AA as my 2/3 for weeks

AC:Brotherhood took the phobia and hostility to new, unprecedented levels, however.  First of all, I was not ready for a sequel this quickly - sequels that occur with this kind of pace rarely end up being great.  (AC2 came out almost exactly a year ago, which itself came out almost exactly a year after the first one.)  And, of course, the marketing for this game was totally screwed up - the initial coverage made it sound like it was multiplayer-only, which was definitely not what I wanted out of an AC game, and then when it was revealed that there was a single-player campaign also, I figured it was an obligatory tack-on, and then when it was revealed that it was still set in Italy, with Ezio, I was thinking that this was going to be some shitty quasi-expansion pack cash-in, and planned to avoid it at all costs.

And then the reviews started coming in, saying it was clearly the best in the franchise.  And so my rental copy finally arrived last night, and I started playing, and now I'm totally hooked, again.

The most recent Giant Bombcast has an interesting bit of discussion regarding AC:B (starting at 1:05:22), with one point being that when you break down what it is you're actually doing in AC:B, it sounds an awful lot like Fable 3.  Consider:
  • You are attempting to overthrow an evil, corrupt government
  • You buy property and shops, which help beautify each area and which contribute to your own personal wealth
  • There is an impending cataclysmic disaster that you must prepare for
And there are other comparisons to Fable 3 that are worth mentioning:
  • It's a sequel that appeared rather quickly
  • The combat is better than in the previous game, but still a little janky
  • The graphics engine is a little old - still capable of great stuff, but, still, old
That's the last we'll talk about Fable 3, though.  The first hour of AC:B has totally quashed any and all desire I might have had to slog through a 2nd playthrough of Fable 3, and in any event, the bullet points I listed above are simply conceptual similarities - otherwise, you would never confuse one for the other.

I feel silly even talking about AC:B at this stage in my initial playthrough; I've barely scratched the surface of what's there, and I already know too much about what is to come.  I suspect that most of the rest of this blog's entries for the remainder of this year will be related to AC:B, and I can already tell that this game will make me rethink my top 10 of 2010.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fable 3

I accidentally finished Fable 3 over the weekend.  That wasn't my intention.  I didn't know I was at the end of the game and had beaten the final boss until the credits started rolling.

I don't think I've ever been so torn on how to rate a game as I am with Fable 3.  I don't even know where to start, to be honest, other than to say that it's pretty clear that Fable 4, should there be one, needs to be a complete reboot.  The engine, the combat system, the map, the social interaction mechanic, the real estate management system, the pause menu, the controls; these are but a few of the major features that require a complete overhaul if this franchise is to stay relevant.

And that's leaving aside the surprising lack of polish that permeates the experience; the glittering trail that leads you to your destination is broken more often than not, and the mini-map that requires several button presses to access is more of an abstract representation of your current location than an actual, 1:1 reference, making it more or less useless - so if your glittering trail refuses to show up, and you're in a new location - or, indeed, in a location that you already know quite well - you can still get lost. 

And yet... I still kinda liked it.  I kinda liked enough to want to keep playing even though my campaign is over; and I must begrudgingly admit that, since my wife is out of town this week, I'm tempted to replay the entire campaign as a full-on evil bastard, since one of the few things that the game does remarkably well is adapt to the choices that you make.  If you play as a good guy, you'll notice that the world will change; the city of Bowerstone, for example, is a filthy, foggy cesspool when you first enter it, but if you choose to make improvements to the city, it's actually a quite lovely place to stroll through by the time you're done.

And what's more, there are repercussions to being completely good, some of which are quite shocking once you see them in person.  We're getting into spoiler territory here, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want to avoid them.  The game starts with you, as the king's brother, escaping out of the castle and starting to lead a revolution.  The revolution occurs at around the game's midpoint, and then you're the King, which means that in addition to your regular quests, you have several crucial decisions that you need to make; you learn that in exactly one year, a huge attack will descend upon your kingdom, and you need to make certain decisions in order to make preparations.  Those decisions will also affect your alliances that you've made as you formed the revolution; the promises you made to rebel leaders will affect your ability to properly save up enough money to pay for your kingdom's defense.  I was playing as a good guy, which meant that I kept all my promises, and which meant that I drained my kingdom's coffers completely dry in order to give my citizens a good life.  I assumed that I'd have enough time to donate my own (rather substantial) stash to make up the shortfall; and, if I'd dillydallied enough, I probably could have.  The problem is that the endgame arrived completely without warning; I thought I still had time to make some more money, but instead I suddenly found myself leading the final charge of the final battle.  (And the final boss battle... ye gods, what a fucking joke.)  Anyway, the point (the repercussions from being completely good) is that I had been a good king, but I didn't raise enough funds to protect my people; and so, after the final battle was over and I could continue playing, I decided to visit some older locations to pick up some loose threads from the campaign, and everywhere I went, nearly everyone was dead.  So, obviously, I'm curious to see what happens if you're completely bad.  End spoilers

Can I recommend this game, knowing how many other great games there are right now?  It's a very tough call.  If you're a fan of the franchise, and you're willing to forgive the game's numerous problems, both technical and philosophical, you'll probably end up having somewhat of an enjoyable time.  I know I did; there's just enough good in the game that made me feel like the experience wasn't totally worthless.  But if you're unfamiliar with Fable, or if you're trying to shoehorn it in to your already busy gaming schedule, you may want to rent it, and nobody would blame you if you wanted to avoid it altogether.  Life is about choice, after all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

feast or famine

I can't remember the last time I had so much good stuff to play, all at the same time.  It's a little overwhelming, but I'm not complaining.  AT ALL.

We covered Rock Band 3 and Fable 3 on Friday; RB3 is still excellent, and F3 is maybe not as excellent but certainly absorbing.  It's very easy to get sidetracked, which is sort of the point, and even though it feels incredibly artificial and "game-y", it's the sort of thing where you get used to that feeling pretty quickly, and it ceases being a concern.

I finished the first mission or two in the Red Dead Redemption Zombie DLC; man, that game continues to be awesome.  I've had RDR flip-flopping with Mass Effect 2 as my Game of the Year pretty much since the get-go, but RDR seems like it's the more complete package, at this point.  Every time I fire it up I'm immediately back in the swing of things.

My Gamefly copy of Kirby's Big Yarn finally arrived, and it's as charming and adorable as can be.  My wife is very much into crafting, and she took a shine to the art design immediately; I'm hoping I can get her to play it.
Your mileage will vary depending on your predilection towards video pinball, but if you're in any way inclined towards it, I would highly recommend FXPinball 2, which took up a number of idle hours this weekend.  For my money, it's the best home pinball solution outside of actually owning a machine.

And I finally caved and bought Game Dev Story for my iPod Touch.  I'm generally not one for these kinds of simulation games, or really any kind of sim game, but I'd heard too much good stuff about this one to ignore, and lo and behold, it's totally sucked me in.  VosstonVisions is about 4 years in, now, and while we'd like to get beyond ninja adventure games, we're starting to make some money.  Highly enjoyable, and highly recommended.