By dankempster 11 Comments
As the title states, I'm not professing this to be a comeback of any kind. It's simply yet another long-overdue update to my increasingly-neglected portion of the Giant Bomb blogosphere. The last time I wrote anything was almost two months ago, a rambling muse on the status of collectibles in video games. I'm sorry to report that this blog won't be anywhere near as focused or as interesting as that one. It's much more an update on what's been going on with me, what will be going on with me, and what games I've been playing over the last couple of months. More than anything, it's an attempt on my part to flex my flabby blogging muscles and get back into writer's shape. Not interested in that stuff? Feel free to skip right down to the stuff about video games. That is why we're here, after all. With that said, let's stop rambling about rambling, and start rambling proper.
What's Been Going On
As I said earlier, it's been almost two months since I shoved anything up into this space. A lot has happened in those two months, and a lot of it has played a role in keeping me away from things like this. Strangely, most of the things that have prevented me from contributing to this site are things that I'd have thought would have given me more free time. Take unemployment, for instance. I left my part-time job as a cleaner in mid-June, mainly due to leaving the area I've been living in for the last three years. At the time, it seemed like a weight had been lifted and I would now have lots more time to spend doing the things I enjoy. As it transpired, my unsociable work hours meant that most of my new-found free time was spent sleeping. On top of that, I've also had to re-direct a lot of my regular free-time into looking for more work back in my hometown, where I'll soon be moving back to semi-permanently (more on that later). So if anything, unemployment has resulted in less free time, rather than more.
Another example of this is University. When I finished my exams on June 2nd, I considered myself free. As it turned out, I spent the next four weeks waiting nervously for the exam results that would determine my future, while at the same time putting a lot of energy into preparing for a graduation ceremony that, for all I knew, I might not even be attending. Thankfully, everything went well. I came out of my three-year Uni education with a First (the highest band of undergraduate degree in the UK), and graduated this past Wednesday, officially making me a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature.
While back home visiting my family, they bought a second dog - a six-month-old Alaskan Malamute pup called Kanook (on the left in the photo). I know what you're thinking - a little puppy coming into a family of five can't be that much of a time-sink? Well, Kanook isn't a little puppy - he's massive. At half-a-year old he's already much bigger and heavier than our other dog, the collie-sized, two-year-old Mya (on the right in the photo). That enormous, weighty body belies the behaviour of a naughty pup, making it doubly hard to deal with all his misbehaving. To top it all off, Mya came into season just two days after we got him, so the first three weeks of owning him were a constant battle to prevent them having puppies of their own! Thankfully I'm informed things seem to be settling down now, and I can't wait to see how much more progress he's made when I move back in with my parents next week.
That move is also taking its toll on the amount of time I have at my disposal. On Wednesday, my girlfriend and I will be moving out of the student flat we've been living in together for the last two years and moving back in with our families, at least until circumstances allow us to find a place of our own. The impending move means we've been spending a lot of time packing things up ready to be sent home and tidying the place up ready to hand it back to the landlord. The next few days in particular are really going to be hectic, as we try to balance all the things that need doing with all the people we want to see and all the places we want to go, possibly for the very last time in our lives.
What little free time I do have, I'm trying to pass doing lots of things that I haven't been able to do for ages. I've been getting back into reading, something I haven't been able to enjoy ever since my University course started forcing me to pick apart specific texts and sapping all the fun out of literature. Picking up books that I bought before University and finally getting a chance to read them for pleasure has been brilliant. I've also been playing a lot of video games, as the second half of this blog will illustrate. While visiting my parents over the summer, I was able to play cricket and darts, and finally get back behind my beloved drum kit - things I haven't done in ages.
Without wanting to sound self-important, another reason I've been reluctant to blog is the lukewarm reception my last few entries have attracted. I don't write these things specifically for user responses, but it is pretty deflating to spend hours working on something that you're convinced will make for an interesting discussion, only to watch it slowly sink to the bottom of the forum feed. Doubly so when you see deliberate flame-bait and half-arsed threads attracting scores of comments. Ultimately though, I blog because I love to write. Giant Bomb turned three years old this week, and in those three years I've written over a hundred and fifty of these blogs. That's over fifty a year - almost one a week. I think I'd be nuts if I left this blog to die a death, especially when just writing an entry brings me so much pleasure. That being said, just like any other medium, I consider a blog to be an exchange between creator and audience. I write these things as much for you as I do for myself, and it means a great deal to me to know that people enjoy what I write, as well as to hear your opinions on the subjects I write about. Seeing that discourse wither in recent months hasn't been especially enjoyable. I realise it's probably just as much my fault for not blogging as regularly as I used to, and for my part I'll do all I can to correct that. I hope that in the future, we might be able to rebuild that discourse. Believe it or not, the stuff you guys think matters to me!
What Will Be Going On
Unfortunately I can't promise that things will drastically change from here on out. I've done that in the past, only to be swamped by other commitments. Judging by the way the immediate future is shaping up, the chances of that happening again are pretty high. After we move out of this place, my girlfriend and I will have to start our job-hunting in earnest - full-time graduate work, and all the commitments that are bound to come with that. We're also hoping to find a place of our own and move back in together, hopefully before Christmas if circumstances will allow it. As unlikely as it probably is, I'd love to try and reform my old band for one last gig at my local pub before it closes in September. Now that University is out of the way, I'm also planning to get serious about finally writing a novel. I've been working on plans for some time, and I finally feel like I've hit on something worth pursuing. Without saying too much, it's concerned with insomnia, and blurring of the lines between dreams and reality. I still have a lot of research to do, but I'm hoping that I'll be in a position to start writing it at the end of August, with a view to completing the first draft before the year is out.
All that is going to involve a pretty heavy time investment, I should imagine, so please don't expect blogs every other day. I'm hoping that once a week, perhaps at weekends, I'll be able to sit down for a few hours and craft something to put up here, but don't hold it against me if that doesn't materialise.
I Have Played Some Games
To all those of you worrying this blog has gone completely introspective, fear not - I haven't forgotten that Giant Bomb is a website about video games. Below is a brief but comprehensive summary of every game I've spent a considerable amount of time with in the last couple of months - nine in total.
The PSP Resurrection
As someone who doesn't own a PlayStation 3, the PlayStation Network outage of April/May this year didn't affect me. All the same, I couldn't resist dusting off my PSP to pick up the two free titles offered to everyone with a PSN account. The games I ended up choosing were both portable versions of well-established PS3 titles, LittleBigPlanet and ModNation Racers. I also finally gave in to curiosity and downloaded Monster Hunter: Freedom Unite, just to see what this Japanese craze is all about. Here's how I got on...
Having never played the PS3 original, I can only judge the PSP version of LittleBigPlanet on its own merits. On that basis alone, I'd say it's one of the best simple platformers I've played in years. The whole aesthetic, from the cuteness of Sackboy to the feel-good soundtrack, seems to be built for the purpose of offering a relaxing, almost soothing experience. The imprecisions of the floaty controls are largely negated by very user-friendly level design, ensuring that playing the game never became frustrating for me. The creation tools seem powerful and robust, although I do have one quibble with this part of LittleBigPlanet PSP - level creation would presumably take hours, and that definitely isn't something that lends itself to portable play. All in all, though, I had a lot of relaxing, lazily-paced fun with the game - the perfect accompaniment to many summer afternoons in the garden.
Ever since I first got my grubby mitts on a copy of Crash Team Racing for the PlayStation, I've loved kart-racing games. ModNation Racers is a game very much in that vein, with the added twist of a wealth of user-created content. The racing itself is solid, fast-paced and frantic, with enough versatility in weaponry and manouevres to ensure things stay exciting right up to the finish line. The tracks are also well-designed, with plenty of short-cuts both obvious and hidden. One area in which ModNation trumps LittleBigPlanet on the PSP is with its creation tools. The creation aspect of the game seems perfectly suited to portable play, with it being possible to cook up a new kart, racer, or even a track in mere minutes. While I haven't finished the career portion of the game yet, I'm determined to see it through to the end when I pick my PSP back up.
Monster Hunter: Freedom Unite
The Monster Hunter phenomenon has been intriguing me for years now, and last month I finally decided to download a copy of Monster Hunter: Freedom Unite and see what all the fuss is about. My initial impressions were mixed, uncertain what to make of the game's focus and mechanics. Only when I started playing Monster Hunter less like an action-brawler and more like a simulation game (similar to Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon) did things start to click. Before I knew it I was engrossed in the game's rich mythology, hunting down monsters not for the purpose of quest completion, but to round out my inventory of impressive weapons and suits of armour. I ended up getting slightly burned out and put the game down after about twenty hours, but I can definitely see myself picking it back up and returning to hunt even more monsters in the near future.
Dusting Off The Ol' PlayStation
...Well, that isn't strictly true, as I played these games on my slightly less old (and slightly less dusty) PlayStation 2. Even so, I find something rather thrilling about returning to original PlayStation games. Probably because it was the first console I could truly call my own - the Master System and Mega Drive that had preceded it belonged to the whole family, but my tiny whitish-grey PSone was mine and mine alone. Among the games I played to death but never ultimately finished were the two MediEvil titles - action-adventure games with a wicked sense of humour, developed by what is now known as SCE Studio Cambridge. Here's how I got on with them...
In a lot of ways, MediEvil holds up rather well. The graphics, while of simple build, are still pretty tolerable to look at. The game boasts a Monty Python-esque sense of humour that carries the story above the level of Arthurian knock-off. The basic premises of object-collection, puzzle-solving, inventory-building and boss-fighting are solid enough to still feeling satisfying and enjoyable. At the same time, MediEvil is held back by imprecise platforming, which wouldn't be so much of an issue were it not for the fact that a lot of the game's closing levels feature demanding platforming sections. The game also suffers from its lack of lock-on targeting, which makes combat more frustrating than it needs to be. Given it's a contemporary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, there isn't really much of an excuse for this. All in all, though, MediEvil was a fun and funny experience for me, and I was glad to finally see the credits roll on it after all these years.
After finishing the first MediEvil, I picked up MediEvil 2 almost immediately. It's an improvement over its predecessor in just about every way - it's prettier, it's funnier, the boss battles are bigger and better, and the puzzles are more coherent. It also largely dispenses with awkward platforming sequences, albeit not completely. Unfortunately, a lack of lock-on targeting still makes combat more frustrating than it needs to be. It also suffers with brevity - my playthrough clocked in at just over six hours in total, after collecting just about everything. The story, which could have been something special, is instead barely developed and left feeling undercooked. Even so, though, this is without a doubt the better of the two games to play, especially if you're playing them in 2011.
Returning To The DS
After two years of not owning a DS, I finally bought a new one earlier this year. After a couple of months in the bottom drawer following extensive playthroughs of Pokémon White and Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, I decided to take it back out and power it back up in order to finish up a game I started almost three years ago - The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Find out how that's going below...
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Having already played one of the best Zelda games earlier this year in The Minish Cap, and also having played one of the best not-quite-Zelda games even more recently in the form of Darksiders, I went into Phantom Hourglass with outrageously high expectations. At what is probably roughly the halfway point of the game, it feels almost mediocre by comparison. Don't get me wrong, it's a great game. It's just not an exceptional Zelda game at this point. The amount of backtracking is also bothering me, especially in the Temple of the Ocean King. To say one nice thing about it, I do really like the implementation of touch-screen controls for this game, and it does look pretty damn gorgeous. I'll certainly see it through to the end, but I'm not sure I've enjoyed this enough to warrant splashing out on a copy of Spirit Tracks.
Continued 360 Gaming
Last year saw my Xbox 360 definitively overtake my PS2 as my most-used gaming system. Not unsurprisingly, that trend has continued this year, with me playing through two pretty lengthy 360 titles in the last two months - specifically, L.A. Noire and Assassin's Creed II. More recently, I've also been taking advantage of its backwards compatibility in order to play through the Xbox version of Fable: The Lost Chapters with my girlfriend. More details are below...
Despite my relative inexperience with the point-n-click adventure, I found a lot to like about L.A. Noire. The story and characters are without a doubt some of the best yet realised in this industry, aided in no small part by that incredible facial animation motion-capture technology. The ending in particular, while not particularly enjoyable, definitely seemed like the most fitting denouement to Cole Phelps' time in the LAPD. I also enjoyed the simple nature of the clue-finding, and the suspect interrogation, although obvious in a few cases, definitely turned out to be less clear-cut than I was expecting to be. L.A. Noire does stumble in some places, though, particularly in its treatment of collectibles, as I outlined in my blog last month. All in all, though, I found it to be a thrilling ride, and I hope to see more games like it in the coming years.
Assassin's Creed II
Assassin's Creed II is an improvement over the original in just about every possible way. The upgraded free-running and combat mechanics make Ezio feel like a much more capable assassin than Altair ever was, and the new structures applied to the story missions and side-quests made for a much less repetitive experience. I think pretty much the only thing the original Assassin's Creed has over its successor is the setting, but at this point we're simply talking personal preference. I wasn't a huge fan of the way Ezio's tale ended - after the build-up of the last two games, the final reveal was a major anti-climax. Even so, the game was an incredible experience, to the point where I'm seriously tempted to pick it back up and try for an S-rank. I'll definitely have to see how Ezio's story continues in AC: Brotherhood very soon.
Fable: The Lost Chapters
My girlfriend chose Fable: The Lost Chapters as the game she wants us to play through before we move out of our flat on Wednesday. We're working as a team, in which I press all the buttons and she makes all the choices, and so far it's working out pretty well. While it definitely doesn't hold a candle to Fable II mechanically or visually, there's something undeniably charming about Fable: The Lost Chapters that's making me enjoy it even more than I did its sequel. Whether we'll save Albion from Jack of Blades before I'm forced to pack up the 360 remains to be seen, but given how much we're both loving it so far, I'd say the odds are in our favour on that one.
Some Closing Thoughts...
It's been a long time since I wrote one of these, so it's understandable that it's going to be long, but I apologise for the length of this blog nonetheless. It's been a pleasure to write, and I hope it's a pleasure to read as well. All that remains is for me to say thanks very much for reading, and that I'll see you around - hopefully sooner next time.
Currently playing - Fable: The Lost Chapters (XBOX)