I Am Going to Beat Video Games 2013: February Edition
In case you missed last month's entry, I am on a quest to beat as many video games I can this year, and will be chronicling my conquests in a monthly blog.
So I totally forgot that February only had 28 days in it. I procrastinated too much this month, and as such I didn't really get to write as much as I would have liked to about certain games. But lets get started anyway.
FarCry 3 2/2/2013 - Completed story.
Far Cry 3 really tested my resolve. I knew going the game that I probably wasn't going to empathize with the hero of the game, and that the story was nothing but a base power fantasy; I just didn't think it would interfere with my enjoyment of the game as much as it did. While playing Far Cry 3, I was constantly fighting my tendency to get my fill of the enjoyable parts of a game and then move on anytime I saw something I didn't like. This one was certainly a tough one to finish.
I am probably most surprised at my feelings on the story. I am typically into the whole power fantasy thing. I have seen people poo-poo on on games like Skyrim for being nothing more than a power fantasy. To that I usually say “Fuck ya its a power fantasy! I am a Dragon-Man that shouts at bears to set them on fire!” I am usually way into that kind of thing. You can set bears on fire in Far Cry 3 as well, but what troubled me is the in-game reason as to why you can set bears on fire. In Skyrim the reason is obvious; you are a Dragon-Man. In Far Cry 3 they don't really tell you what makes Jason Brody so special, it is left up to the imagination.
I started looking at the similarities and differences between my character and the NPCs of the island. We all have guns and access to other special equipment, so that can't be it. Presumably we all have these special tattoos, so that isn't it. There is no way in hell Jason Brody is the first person to have his friends or family abducted by Vaas and his gang, so it can't be his lust for revenge that makes him unique. There was only one reason that I could divine that set Jason Brody apart from all the other Rakyat warriors on the island. He wasn't from the island. The implications this presented disgusted me. Not in a “oh god, this game has opened my eyes” kind of way; more in a “oh god, this game is fucking disgusting” kind of way.
I am probably making too big a deal about it though. Despite my issues with the narrative of the game, I still had a good time with FarCry 3. The island was fun enough to explore, especially once you acquire the wing suit, and most of the missions were paced well and had some well designed shooting galleries. The game is pretty gorgeous as well. The lighting is incredible, but this also means that at night the island isn't nearly as impressive as when the sun is up. The overall package is a good one, even if I think the story was pretty atrocious.
Hotline Miami 2/2/2013 - Completed Story
THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. Dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-WAAA Dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-WAAA Dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-dipidipi-WAAA dipidipi-OOWEOOWEOOWEOOOOWWWWWwww. Seriously though, I didn't really like this game.
I think the best word to describe Hotline Miami is unsettling. Nearly everything about the game is unsettling. The soundtrack, character portraits, and visual style are all things about the game that I enjoyed being unsettled by. The plot, violence, and gameplay, are all things that I hated being unsettled by.
Chances are if you have heard of this game, it was in the context of how awesome the soundtrack is; and it really is awesome. The soundtrack does a great job of setting the mood, whether it be depressing and desperate in the main character's apartment, or manic during the combat missions. The visual style does a great job of reinforcing the mood set by the soundtrack. The character portraits and masks are all ugly and surreal. The filters and tilting that happens with the camera are more great touches that do even more to reinforce the basic themes.
Thank god for the visuals and sound, because Hotline Miami is maddening as all hell to actually play. The basic game play loop is similar to games like Super Meat Boy; trial and error is the name of the game. The problem is, the game's mechanics aren't solid enough to curb frustration. Too many deaths come cheaply from enemy AI that doesn't seem to operate on any consistent logic. Sometimes a mobster will see you from across the map, out of your own range of view, and sometimes you can just walk right by a pair of enemies, seemingly without their notice.
When you are spotted and the action starts, it all unfolds quicker than the game's clumsy controls allow you to react. I tried both the mouse and keyboard setup, as well as the gamepad controls, and neither option left me with the feeling that I was in total control of the character. I ended up having to rely on exploits and boring repetitive tactics in order to trudge through the game. This type of gameplay can work for some games, but for Hotline Miami it never felt satisfying for me.
I also didn't care for the plot and violence. The game rewards you for being more violent. For instance, punching a guy to the ground, picking up a dart, then stabbing the guy to death with it will net a much higher score than simply shooting the guy with a silenced pistol. The violence was a bit to over the top for my tastes, but I think it only really bothered me because it was compounded with my frustrations with the gameplay. The plot also seems to just be about violence, which I didn't care too much for.
Also, why do people still insist on putting one-off stealth levels into their games? What about it seems like a good idea? Stealth is a niche area in videogames, and is a genre that is hard to pull off when all development resources are put towards making stealth gameplay fun. I have never once in my thousands of hours of playing games been happy about playing a stealth section in an otherwise non-stealth game. I am not saying that developers shouldn't keep trying, just don't make gamers play through it if it turns out bad. Better yet, make it optional. Give me the chance to try it and maybe enjoy it, but if I hate it, let me watch a cutscene to get the narrative instead.
Saints Row: The Third 2/9/2013 - Completed story
So since the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, I have held a personal conviction about open world crime-centric video games: they are boring, and I just don't like them. Enter, Saints Row: The Third. A game so ridiculous that it can't help being endearing. Saints Row solves a couple of my major issues with GTA IV and thus corrects my mistaken views on the genre.
Saints Row: The Third follows the typical format for these types of games. It plops you in an open world, tells you that you can only explore part of it for now, and gives you a steady stream of missions and side missions to complete in order to advance the story, open up the world, and get new items and abilities. On paper, Saints Row should bore me, but it fixes so many problems I have had with the Grand Theft Auto games that I ended up having a great time.
One of my biggest complaints about the Grand Theft Auto games (by the way when I refer to the series, I mean from GTAIII and on) are the cutscens and plots. I have just never been able to identify with, or care enough about any of the characters in order to sit through the amount of cutscenes that are in that game. I have the same problem with movies that have similar themes. I just don't find criminals doing crime all that interesting most of the time.
Another complaint I have about the GTA games is the pacing and content of their missions. Even when a cutscene finishes and a mission starts, it seems like half the time the first task of the mission is to sit in a car with some guy and listen to him talk for 5 minutes. Then after some guy I am giving a ride finally shuts up, I find out that the mission consists of a stealth section...in a car. These are the worst missions in these games, the ones where you have to stay a certain distance away from a car as you tail him to some place so he can do some crime. The fact that the combat in the games isn't that great sure doesn't help.
Saints Row: The Third rectifies these issues. Firstly, the main character is customizable, which creates an immediate bond between me and him/her. The protagonist of the game is my protagonist, so I am more willing to get invested in her story because I have already put some effort into her appearance and the way she presents herself.
Secondly, Saints Row isn't always trying to make me empathize with the other characters. A lot of the characters in the game are presented in such a ridiculous way that empathy isn't the end goal, its hilarity. I actually found myself more interested in what characters had to say when the way they said it was amusing. I never thought I would actually like a pimp in an open world crime game. Pimps seem like they would be horrible people in real life; then I found the pimp whose voice is always autotuned. I enjoyed hearing him talk, so I was more willing to sit through a short cutscene and learn about his purpose in the game and what we would be doing.
Finally, the mission structure is much more interesting, at least in the main missions. The tools the game gives you during combat are far more interesting. Calling down airstrikes, riding flying motorcycles, being a toilet. All of these things make an otherwise mediocre shooter entertaining. I may not have fallen in love with Saints Row: The Third, but I at least liked it enough to prove my preconceptions about the genre wrong. I may never give GTA V a shot, but I am now more open to trying other titles with similar themes. Titles like...
Sleeping Dogs 2/14/2013 - Completed story.
Now Sleeping Dogs I did fall in love with. Enjoying Saints Row gave me the courage to try a game with a more grounded setting, and I am certainly glad that I did. Sleeping Dogs is certainly a jack of all trades, and master of none. Pretty much every major gameplay system in the game is fun on its own. Fighting, shooting, and driving are all solidly implemented and come together to make a fantastic final product. All of this is tied together by a serious narrative that I was actually able to get into.
The narrative is competent enough and has its share of twists and turns, but the characters and the actors' performances are what really steal the show. The game puts you in the shoes of undercover cop Wei Shen embedded in one of the major triads of Hong Kong. The fact that the protagonist is a cop makes it easier for me empathize with him and the characters around him, even if he does end up killing hundreds of people. I found myself actually caring about Wei and his difficulty balancing his orders to bring criminals to justice with his quest for personal vengeance against the people he blames for his sister's death.
Most of the justice and vengeance in the game is dealt out with your fists. The melee combat system is pretty similar to the Batman Arkham games. You have basic light and heavy attacks that you can string together to make combos and enemies glow red before they strike to indicate an opening for a counterattack. What sets Sleeping Dogs apart from Batman is the environmental kills. Scattered around melee fights are environmental hazards that Wei can use to brutally finish his enemies. Hanging enemies on a meat hook, impaling them on swordfish heads, or smashing their heads with payphone receivers; the game can get pretty brutal. Normally I would avoid using these tactics as an undercover cop, but I actually found myself using these violent finishers more and more as Wei's personality got more erratic in the story. I thought this was a cool way of encouraging the player to try different combat styles by giving them a narrative justification.
The shooting in the game isn't terribly interesting on its own. The cover system in the game is pretty clunky, but it doesn't matter all that much. Cover in the environment is really meant to be vaulted over instead of ducked behind. Stylishly vaulting over cover allows you to enter into a bullet time mode and line up easy head shots. The only thing actually remarkable about the shooting is the tutorial for it. While a character is teaching you the controls, you are also framing a rival triad member for murder in order to incite a gang war. The scene plays out in a stylish manner and really left a lasting impression on me, more so than any of the on foot shooting missions.
The on-wheel shooting missions, on the other hand, were pretty incredible. Most games that I have played that task you with driving and shooting (including Saints Row:The Third) fail at making the combined experience enjoyable. You are somehow expected to watch the road and aim at enemies at the same time. Sleeping Dogs solves this problem by slowing down time when you aim while driving. It is such a simple solution, but it ends up being so effective. Leading your aiming reticle to account for the speed of the bullets while whizzing down a highway at high speeds is exhilarating And popping a car up by shooting out the tires, and then gunning the gas tank to finish your enemies never got old for me.
Sleeping Dogs ended up being my favorite game of the month. If you told me I would say that about a game that was once used in the same sentence as the True Crime series, I would have never believed you. Saints Row convinced me that maybe I was missing something by ignoring the open world crime genre, but Sleeping Dogs has given me the confidence to try similar games in the future. I'm still not going to get GTA V though.
Spec Ops: The Line 2/17/2013 - Completed campaign on Suicide Mission difficulty
So I finished Spec Ops: The Line entirely in one sitting. That was probably a bad idea. There came a point in the game where I felt compelled to keep playing, no matter how long it took. The narrative in Spec Ops is very thought provoking. Plenty of writers better than me have written pieces about Spec Ops: The Line's story; I will keep it brief and just say that the game does a great job of resolving the story in a way that made me feel emotionally drained in a satisfying way.
I think I ended up enjoying the combat in the game much more than most people seemed to as well. I found the AI to be very challenging, and some of the battles were constructed in a very interesting ways. Most of the battles were multi-leveled and provided a pretty impressive degree of verticality.
A particular standout took place in an abandoned water-sports stadium. Snipers were taking pot-shots at me from lighting fixtures above while I made my way through the stands down to the play-field below. I also really enjoyed the art direction in the game. The desolated wastes of an abandoned Dubai makes for some very striking imagery. I'm not sure if the interiors of buildings were based off of real life locations, but they were a very beautiful backdrop for a shooter. I really liked Spec Ops. It wasn't perfect, but the story is something I am glad I experienced, and the gameplay was a nice surprise.
Legend of Grimrock 2/25/2013 - Completed campaign on hard difficulty
I got Legend of Grimrock in some Humble Bundle and it intrigued me enough to give it a try. Grimrock is a first person dungeon crawler, which isn't exactly my favorite genre. But hey, I liked Doom RPG, so I gave it a shot.
It took me a while to get into Grimrock's battle system. You control a party of four that moves as one unit. You click on weapon icons to perform attacks and choose combinations of runes to cast spells. The strange thing (at least to me, this could be standard for the genre) is that everything takes place in real time. At first I was really put off because it wasn't a turn-based system, but after I spent a few hours delving into the depths of Mount Grimrock, I really started to enjoy it.
The combat actually reminded me a lot of my days playing World Of Warcraft. Setting up the best attack orders for your party to maximize DPS and minimize cooldown times was pretty fun. I found a comfortable mix of casting ice spells to freeze enemies and maneuvering around the frozen enemy to set up backstabs.
The most intriguing thing about Grimrock was the world. Your party is a group of prisoners that has been sentenced with banishment into a prison called Mount Grimrock. You enter the mountain from the top and work your way down through a multileveled dungeon in order to earn your freedom. At the beginning you get to customize your crew of convicts and the options are pretty wild. My party ended up consisting of a Lizard-man who was good at throwing stuff, a Human lady who only used her right fist as a weapon, a Minataur-dude who smashed things with maces, and a Praying Mantis (lady?)wizard.
The halls of Grimrock held many secrets and I enjoyed the dark atmosphere that was accentuated by the excellent ambient audio design and music. Most of the puzzles were easy enough to solve, which is nice, and the map is automatically generated, which is even nicer. The game lasted longer than I expected it to. It could have been a bit shorter, but I enjoyed most of the 15 hours or so it took me to complete the game. Its good to hear that the game did well enough to warrant a sequel from the indie team that mate the game. The game ends quite well and I am excited to explore more of the world of Grimrock.
February is in the Books
Well that certainly was an interesting month. I feel like I expanded my gaming horizons. Any feedback on my writing is welcome, and I really want to know what you guys think of these games.