Weekly Roundup 11/11/2012

It’s the final stretch of 2012, and the games are coming in hot and heavy. This week I’ve been juggling a few of them, including finishing Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. I managed to play through every ending, and fortunately the final, "true" ending did manage to be completely ridiculous like I had hoped. I think I like 999’s ending a little better, but Zero Escape’s does live up to the legacy, and makes the game worth seeing through to completion.

The multiple timelines are definitely neat, but they can overlap a little too much.

I said most of what I have to say about Zero Escape last week, but I do have a few closing thoughts to add, primarily about the game’s few drawbacks. My only serious complaint with Zero Escape is that I feel it drags on much longer than it needs to. The multiple timelines idea is neat and all, and it does well to let you jump around at will and skip dialogue you’ve already seen before, but the game still manages to repeat itself a lot. The very nature of the dialogue is also slow moving in general, often being overly elaborate and wordy. That’s not unusual for adventure games like this, but I still frequently found myself wanting the game to just get on with it. I also experienced some other, more technical issues with Zero Escape. I had the game lock up once, which I’m pretty sure is the first time that’s ever happened to me on a handheld. Equally frustrating was a late game puzzle design issue that essentially prevented me from advancing without reloading. I’ll spare the details here, as it’s kind of a long story, but it‘s a pretty obvious and glaring oversight. Anyway, these issues are definitely unfortunate, but in the grand scheme of things aren’t the end of the world. On the whole I really enjoyed Zero Escape (I covered why last week), and think it’s a solid adventure game worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing. This series is establishing itself as a great entry in the genre, and assuming they don’t overdo it, it will be neat to see where they go from here.

I also continued to play Need for Speed: Most Wanted this week, which is still pretty great. I’ve now finished the single player “campaign”, which wasn’t all that special. You basically play the game in any way you want to rank up, unlock the ten main races, and take down the associated “most wanted” cars. I played some normal races for a while to accomplish this, but once I found a car I liked and got all the mods for it, regular races got kind of repetitive. Also, by far my least favorite thing about Most Wanted are the cops; I think they’re nothing but a hassle. They’re especially annoying when I’m simply trying to get to a waypoint, or trying to explore the city in search of billboards or gates to smash. I would enjoy the single player significantly more if the cops weren’t there at all. That said, roaming around the city more or less aimlessly has been one of my favorite parts of the game. I had similar fun in Burnout Paradise, and while Most Wanted’s city isn’t as impressive, it’s still well designed and fun to explore.

The boys in blue are my least favorite thing about Most Wanted.

Really though, most of my time spent playing Most Wanted this week was dedicated to multiplayer. It’s absolutely fantastic that the points you earn in multiplayer count towards your single player progress (and vice versa). That allowed me to unlock the last few single player races via multiplayer, which became my preferred way of doing it given that the multiplayer is so well done. To me, the big draw of Most Wanted (along with the Burnout games) is that the car handling is excellent; plain and simple. The next step is then to create activities that take advantage of such sublime control without overshadowing it, and that’s exactly what the multiplayer does. By mashing such a wide variety of simple events together, the actual driving always remains front and center, but it’s always supplemented by small goals that give direction to your driving. It’s a super smart way to give players stuff to do without losing sight of what makes the game fun to begin with, and it’s even better that many of the challenges are completely goofy and ridiculous. From trying to get near misses in a pipe to repeatedly driving off a cliff, these things can get pretty bizarre, and it’s a hilarious way to interact with other people online as well. The game also makes sure to keep everything appropriately competitive without taking itself too seriously. You’re always racing to starting points between events, and the game tries to get you to wreck into each other as much as possible, but it’s all so outlandish and over-the-top that it never feels cutthroat. It’s a good time.

I’m sure I’ll keep playing Most Wanted’s multiplayer here and there, but I think I’ve said pretty much all I have to say about it over the past two weeks. I think it’s a pretty sweet driving game, and while it has a few caveats here and there, the only substantially negative thing I can say about it is that it feels a little overshadowed by Burnout Paradise’s existence. Because the two games are so directly comparable, and I like Burnout Paradise better, it can make Most Wanted seem less impressive than it actually is at times. And while I still think I would have preferred a proper new Burnout game in its place, Most Wanted is more than good enough to fill the void for now. The world’s better off with Criterion’s style of racing however we can get it, and Most Wanted fits that bill just fine.

Halo 4 is totally a Halo game.

Finally, along with the rest of the world (or at least those not snubbing it for Call of Duty: Black Ops II), I picked up Halo 4 this week. Full disclosure: I’ve never been the world’s biggest Halo fan. I’ve always been pretty indifferent on the series in general, and have never thought it has been either bad or great. It’s just kind of there, offering a series of well made but otherwise straightforward shooters that can be fun to play through cooperatively with a friend. Halo 4, to no surprise, doesn’t change any of that. It’s another Halo game, and it’s totally fine by that standard. I’ve finished the campaign cooperatively on Legendary and had a good time doing it, though it also didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. The few new weapons and enemies fit pretty comfortably among both standard Halo and general FPS archetypes that they don’t add (or subtract) anything from the game, and its pacing and feel are very much what you’d expect. The game does try to include a few Call of Duty style “set piece” moments, with more scripted vehicle sequences and quick time events, and I feel like these moments are pretty weak. Then again, I don’t like them in other shooters either, and they feel even more out of place in Halo.

Halo 4 looks fantastic, especially the character models.

Overall the campaign was good enough though. I felt that the first half or so was as good as any Halo game, while the second half became a bit of a slog that was overly focused on fighting the same enemies over and over. I also didn’t get that into the story, and don’t think it did a very good job at giving much context for what was going on. More than that some of the characterization seemed really weird to me, which may be because there’s some background information I’m not aware of. Either way, it kind of bugged me. On another note, I do think that Halo 4 looks and sounds better than the series ever has. This is easily one of the best looking Xbox 360 games I have ever played, both technically and artistically. Character models in particular look much better than before, with tons of fine detail and smooth animations, and some of the environments are absolutely gorgeous. Also, the guns finally pack that punch I’ve always wanted them to. One of my biggest complaints about Halo has always been how the weapons felt like cheap plastic toys. They finally sound tough in Halo 4, which simply makes them more fun to shoot. The musical score, however, is kind of hit or miss. I never thought Halo’s score has been as amazing as everyone says, but it was at least consistent and effective. Halo 4’s score is generally fine, but it’s also all over the place thematically, and never felt like it fit as a result.

Finally, there are some other weird little things that bugged me about Halo 4. Maybe Halo has always been like this and I don’t remember it, but there’s a strange momentum to the way Master Chief moves (at least during the co-op campaign). When I let go of the thumbstick after running forward he takes an extra step or two, which doesn't feel very good to me. Also, the game doesn’t seem to count your co-op progress if you don’t beat levels in one session, which led to us having to replay a few levels start to finish. There’s no excuse for that at all, especially since levels can take up to an hour to get through and provide numerous checkpoints. We also had the scripting break once, to the point where we literally couldn’t interact with our objective. We had to wander around until it fixed itself, which took a good five minutes. That’s pretty lame. I also think Spartan Ops is pretty uninspired, and a lousy substitution for Firefight. Firefight was pretty wild and crazy in a way I could get behind, and Spartan Ops is super dull by comparison. It’s just a lot of drab fighting on boring maps with no story; I think it’s pretty garbage.

So that’s Halo 4. There was a point in time where I hoped Halo would strive to be a bit more than a pretty standard FPS, but that time has clearly past. So now I come to Halo expecting a well made if unspectacular shooter, and in that Halo 4 delivers. I had fun playing the campaign cooperatively, but probably won’t do a whole lot more with it outside of a little multiplayer (which is perfectly fine by the way). That, along with Most Wanted’s multiplayer, will probably compromise most of this coming week, as I’m still on the fence about both Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Call of Duty: Black Ops II. I’ll be out of town on vacation next week, so I likely won’t have a new blog up next week. By the time I get back PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale will also be out, which seems pretty cool. Anyway, this blog has gone on excessively long (trying to get it all out before vacation!), so it’s time to wrap this thing up. Until next time!

Currently playing: Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Halo 4

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Weekly Roundup 11/04/2012

In what turned out to be a crummy week for a lot of people on the east coast, I lucked out with Hurricane Sandy. Despite some strong winds I managed to not lose power, which meant that my gaming went along unhindered this week. In fact, I actually got an extra day out of the storm due to work closing. So what did I use that extra day for? Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, of course.

The Nonary Game returns, and is as deadly as ever.

I really enjoyed Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (still a gloriously ridiculous name) when I played it early last year. It was a bold adventure game with an insane twist near the end, and the way it justified the idea of multiple endings within the context of its narrative kind of blew my mind. In fact, 999 was just plain crazy in general, which was certainly one of the things I liked about it so much. Despite the name change, Zero Escape is a fairly standard follow-up to 999. You’re once again trapped in the “Nonary Game” with eight other strangers, forced to solve puzzles in attempt to escape with your life. The particulars of the Nonary Game itself have changed a bit this time, most of which are pretty minor (such as the way you open doors via colors rather than through digital roots). The biggest change by far is the way the game forces you to periodically “ally” or “betray” different characters (a variation on the "prisoner's dilemma"). At the end of each round you vote to "ally" or "betray" the person you were partnered with that round. If both parties choose “ally”, they both get 2 points. If both choose “betray”, they both get 0 points. But if Party A chooses “ally” and Party B chooses “betray”, then Party A loses 2 points, while Party B gains 3 points. To clarify, you start with 3 points, and getting to 9 lets you escape. If you get down to 0 points, you die. Shit gets real.

In theory, if everyone chose to ally every single time, then everyone would gain points equally and everyone would escape safe and sound. That’s the ideal outcome, but all it takes to mess the whole thing up is one greedy person who wants more points faster, and is willing to take advantage of someone else’s trust to get them. It’s a dirty, dirty game, and the entire dynamic ends up being more or less the thematic core of Zero Escape. It certainly takes its opportunities to comment on human nature where it can, frequently challenging how much you can trust characters you barely know. In addition, how the different characters react to being “allied” or “betrayed” creates some of the game’s most touching and/or heart-wrenching moments, and just a lot of tension in general. Not only that, but these choices are also the main factor leading to the game’s insane multiple timelines that define the game’s flow. Every choice between “ally” and “betray”, along with the different doors you decide to go through, splits the timeline further and further until you’re left with a jumbled mess of parallel outcomes. It’s a butterfly effect of sorts, and a lot of the joy of the game is seeing how each of the different threads resolve. There are a lot of different crazy mysteries going on behind the scenes of the Nonary Game, and the only way you can piece it all together is to explore all the timelines and see all the endings. Hopefully that will all be justified by the game’s end, just as it was in 999.

Solid characters and writing are the core of any good adventure game.

In fact, Zero Escape relies even more heavily on the multiple timelines idea than 999 did. You have access to a flowchart showing all the different paths from the start, and you can actually jump around at any time without losing much progress in the path you’re currently on. On top of that, you can skip dialogue much quicker, and can fast forward through dialogue you’ve seen before too. All of this makes Zero Escape a much snappier game than 999, which could be incredibly slow at times. I do wonder if any of Zero Escape’s endings will be able to match 999’s though. That will be tough, as 999’s “true” ending was totally nuts. So far that hasn’t happened, but Zero Escape looks like it has more endings to work with (it’s definitely a bigger game). I’ve seen about half of them so far, so the potential is still there. Finally, despite the ridiculous premise, what really makes Zero Escape work is that same thing that makes every good adventure game work; the characters and the writing. The game’s cast of characters are diverse and interesting, and the writing is clever and sharp (and surprisingly well voice acted). I’m enjoying simply seeing the story and its mysteries unfold, and guiding it along as I see fit. I’m really curious to see how it all ends up, and will certainly keep playing.

To balance the slower paced, story focused nature of Zero Escape, I also picked up and started playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted this week. Those two games actually complement each other very well; just when I get tired of one, I’m in the mood for the other. Most Wanted, in contrast to Zero Escape, is no story and all action, and the action is beautiful. I’m a known fan of the Burnout series, but have never really liked many other driving games. Burnout Paradise in particular is an all-time favorite, and I’ve basically been following Criterion ever since in hopes that they can deliver more magic. Their Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit didn’t do it for me two years ago, but Most Wanted is fortunately a big step in the right direction. I’m digging it so far.

Most Wanted's car handling is awesome.

Honestly, the main reason I’ve liked Burnout as opposed to other driving games is because Burnout is completely balls out; it sets the speedometer to 11 and only goes up from there. The series always focused on driving hella fast, crashing as often and as gloriously as possible, and most importantly, running super smooth and controlling incredibly well. It’s as far removed as you can get from any kind of realistic driving, but that always made it feel more like an actual enjoyable video game to me, like the design decisions were made to be crazy and fun rather than sterile and realistic. Most Wanted seems very much in line with that vision, and with the exception of the comparatively pitiful crashes (damn those licensed cars), it hits most of the high points that Criterion established with the Burnout series. Mainly, it’s super fast, and it controls super well. My biggest question mark going into this game was how the car handling would be, as Hot Pursuit’s handling was a little closer to the stiffer simulation side of things. Fortunately, the car handling is fantastic in Most Wanted. Everything is super snappy and fluid, and you can whip cars around corners at high speeds with ease. It’s good stuff.

Fairhaven is a lot of fun to explore, even if it's not as robust as Paradise City.

There are some nit picky things with the basics though. I do wish some of Burnout’s more outlandish stunts returned, such as flat spins and barrel rolls. Those types of feats are the only things I find lacking in Most Wanted’s control department, which is a minor enough omission, but it also speaks to the kind of stuff that makes Burnout special. The game also doesn’t run quite as well as I would like, at least on the Xbox 360. Past Burnout games were silky smooth, but Most Wanted has the occasional stutter here and there, and otherwise just doesn’t seem to be as crisp. Again, not a game breaker, but still a notable downgrade. Lastly, the other thing Burnout Paradise in particular did that really blew me away was provide a huge, well designed city to explore and mess around in. Most Wanted finally gets Criterion back to an open world racer, but Fairhaven hasn’t been quite as impressive as Paradise City so far. For the most part it’s totally fine, and I much prefer it to selecting races out of a menu. But from what I’ve seen the city isn’t as big or as varied, and doesn’t seem to have a comparable charm or personality. It’s still a whole lot of fun to drive around and explore Fairhaven’s nooks and crannies (especially since the car handling is so great), but I feel like it won’t keep me hooked quite as long as Paradise City did. We’ll see.

Anyway, those are all early impressions on Most Wanted’s basics from a Burnout fan. It’s not quite Burnout, but it’s most of the way there, especially where it matters most. In other words, it’s probably the best I can hope for in lieu of a proper new Burnout game. I’m certainly enjoying it so far, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to add next week as I dig further into the game’s various activities, both online and off. This week will likely continue to be more Most Wanted and Zero Escape; keep the winning pair going. I'll also probably pick up Halo 4 at some point, but I haven’t committed to anything there just yet. So that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, Need for Speed: Most Wanted

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Weekly Roundup 10/28/2012

Before I get around to what I actually played this week, I’d like to spend some time on Dishonored. I more or less blitzed through that game last weekend, and needed some time to gather my thoughts on it rather than hastily jot something (probably incoherent) down last week. I did allude to the fact that I didn’t like Dishonored last week though. That fact has not changed.

It’s not any one thing about Dishonored that I don’t like either; nothing about it feels very good to me. The way the game handles stealth is far and away the main offender though, and that kind of sets the tone for everything else the game is about. Full disclosure here: I’m traditionally not a fan of stealth games, and for the longest time I more or less hated the genre. I really wanted to like things like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell back in the day (I never played the Thief games), but everything about their stealth gameplay rubbed me the wrong way. Yet in recent years I’ve felt like plenty of games have done stealth in a way that I could get behind. I loved Batman: Arkham Asylum’s stealth mechanics, and more recently had a blast playing Mark of the Ninja. I figured stealth games were changing in a way that benefited me, and the talk surrounding Dishonored suggested it was following the trend.

Dishonored reminds me why I used to dislike stealth games.

Dishonored’s stealth doesn’t feel like any of those recent games at all though. It’s far more in line with the stealth games I played around a decade ago. Things like Mark of the Ninja give you a lot of clear, concise, consistent information, and present it in such a way that makes navigating areas full of wandering guards something more engaging and less frustrating than classic trial and error methods. In fact, it almost becomes more of a puzzle game at that point, placing the focus on using the ample tools and information available to make it through areas undetected. Dishonored, on the other hand, doesn’t give you much information, and what’s there isn’t all that consistent. Its difficult to judge exactly how far guards can see or hear, and other than an ability that outlines enemies through walls (a lesser version of Batman’s detective vision), there’s nothing that makes you feel any more capable of being stealthy than a regular dude would be. Basically, I don’t feel like there are enough actual stealth mechanics to make it feel like a good stealth game. Instead, it feels like I’m bumbling around as I would in any other first person action game, the only difference here being that being seen by guards has substantial consequences.

Dishonored's clumsy combat nevertheless manages to offer the path of least resistance.

This makes the whole act of trying to play Dishonored in a stealthy way really tedious to me, and I quickly fell back into the cliche trial and error routines of old (which involves a lot of reloading). The game’s clunky movement doesn’t help things either. Even Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which arguably has less of a focus on stealth than Dishonored, had simple cover mechanics and effective ways to move between pieces of cover. Dishonored has nothing past normal movement, which only compounds the problem of feeling like any generic, clumsy dude walking around, rather than someone who’s actually capable and equipped to be stealthy. Also, the “leaning” thing is just super goofy and didn’t seem to work right; I was spotted while "leaning" multiple times. I will admit that Blink is a cool power, and open ups interesting ways to navigate the terrain. That said, I never found a use for Blink other than as a slick navigation tool (not that the bland level designs make the best use of it though). It never helped me be stealthy, and it never helped in combat, which I bumbled my way through just as haphazardly as I did the stealth. Ranged combat is nothing more than a mediocre shooter, and melee combat always seemed to devolve into wild flailing. There’s not enough technique involved in either the movement or your combat abilities to allow for anything more substantial than that.

Despite the combat not feeling very good or satisfying it was incredibly easy, and I ended up turning to that way more often than I tried to be stealthy as a result; it was simply the path of least resistance. I frequently laid waste to entire hordes of dudes by mostly mashing, essentially swinging my sword and shooting bullets in random directions. It all kind of devalues the feel I think the game is trying to go for. I never felt like an elite assassin in the slightest, yet the fact that I could murder everything all the same made it seem like everyone else was even less competent. Some of the powers make this even more trivial, especially the time stopping power, which seems kind of broken. Then there were other powers that seemed to have no real practical use. Dishonored certainly has a lot of things that are just "for show”.

Strong art style and voicework aside, I couldn't get into Dishonored's world.

Finally, I didn’t get into the world or story of Dishonored either. They try to grab you early with an “important” character dying about five minutes in, which falls completely flat since you’ve just met this character and don’t know anything about them, or otherwise have any kind of attachment. From there it becomes a very simple revenge plot with obvious plot twists, and it tries to portray itself as being way more hardcore and edgy than it really is. The game’s tagline is “Revenge solves everything”, which is super dumb, and does a good job at describing the game's somewhat juvenile tone. Visually, the world itself looks pretty neat, and I do really like the art style. I also give props to the game’s voice talent, as the voicework here is consistently great. But other than that the actual happenings in the world are super dull, and I found none of the characters to be memorable. Anyway, that’s Dishonored. The whole thing kind of bummed me out, and I came away pretty disappointed. Fans of older stealth games will probably like it, but that's not me at all.

This week was something of a palette cleanser, as we played through the first Borderlands 2 DLC, Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty. The Borderlands franchise continues its tradition of great DLC names, and I really enjoyed the actual content of the DLC too. It’s more Borderlands 2, and it’s done well. After that I started Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward this weekend, but have only played maybe an hour or so. So far so good, and I’ll definitely be playing more this week. I’m also looking forward to Criterion’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which is out on Tuesday. Granted, my gaming this coming week will be highly dependent on how long I lose power from Hurricane Sandy. Hopefully the damage will be minimal; fingers crossed. And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

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Weekly Roundup 10/21/2012

I started off the week by finishing my first game of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I talked a lot about XCOM last week, and covered most of the broad strokes. If you couldn’t tell from that, I really, really like XCOM, and am excited to play another game soon. I played my first game on normal, but I think my next go will be on ironman classic. That seems like the best way to play once you learn the ropes; I’m expecting things to get pretty gnarly.

Gotta get them satellites up.

Anyway, to wrap up some miscellaneous thoughts about how my first game actually went, I did extremely well on the tactical side of things and reasonably well with all the base management. By far my biggest misstep, which I thought was going to cost me more than it did, was that I didn’t get enough engineers and satellites up early on. This lead to two countries (India and Nigeria) withdrawing, which seemed pretty dire at the time. I scrambled to get more satellites up to help keep panic down, but it turns out there’s a lot of things you need to do to make satellites, all of which require more engineers than I had at the time. Eventually I got it worked out though, and from there I was able to stay more or less on top of panic, research and production. I didn’t build any S.H.I.V.s or fiddle with psychic stuff though (until I had to); I played it pretty straight. Still, I found the basic progression of weapons, armor, equipment and soldier upgrades to be pretty fascinating. Some of those late game armors in particular are awesome, like the ghost armor and archangel armor. Being able to have cloaked shotgun wielding assaults and a hovering sniper is incredible.

Assaults are probably my favorite class right now.

While all of this was going on I was more or less nailing the actual missions themselves. I don’t consider myself some sort of tactical genius, but I have played a decent number of “tactics” style games, so I know my way around. I also don’t think normal is that punishing, and I definitely got lucky a few times. I had three different soldiers go down during the game, and all simply became “critically wounded” rather than dead, which was very fortunate. My typical squad consisted of two assaults, two supports, one heavy and a sniper. That felt like a good balance to me, and each class felt like they served a necessary role very well. My best assaults made liberal use of Run & Gun and Rapid Fire to mow down the front line, my supports were master medics and were great on overwatch to hold a steady line, while my heavy was great at blowing stuff up in a jam. My best sniper (who received the nickname ‘Godfather’) was probably my MVP though. The Squadsight ability combined with Double Tap seems completely insane to me. He could usually kill two enemies a turn, and once I threw archangel armor on him he could float above the battlefield and have a clear shot at absolutely everything. It felt kind of broken.

I should also mention that, as much as I love XCOM, there are a few things I think could be better. The main gameplay tweak would be to let the player choose what class rookies become. For a while I wanted a second sniper, but all my rookies became supports, even though I had about five supports and only one sniper at the time. So that’s pretty annoying. I also think there should be a better interface for swapping items around among your troops. Otherwise the game can be a little buggy. Most of that is wonky visual things that don’t affect actual gameplay, such as clipping textures. I did have a cyberdisc move through a wall once though, which was bad. That stuff was very rare, but the game could be definitely be cleaner from a technical standpoint. Anyway, that stuff aside, XCOM is fantastic. I had an absolute blast with my first game, and I’m really eager to see how ironman classic will go.

Some neat new characters don't get used to their full potential.

After finishing my game of XCOM I played Episode 4 of The Walking Dead. No surprises here, but that game continues to be great. I personally don’t think I like Episode 4 as much as the previous ones, but that in no way means I don’t like it. For a game that’s been so consistently enjoyable, a small dip here and there doesn’t mean that much. Still, Episode 4 feels like it has a little more filler to me, at least in the context of the greater overall plot threads. More of the tasks you end up doing feel like minor distractions, and the way they introduce some cool new characters, only to have them leave before really developing them seems like kind of a waste. It basically feels like they could have omitted Episode 4 (minus the final five minutes or so), and we wouldn't be any the wiser. That said, I do think Episode 4 has one of the single best decision points in the entire game so far. In retrospect I think the entire episode was meant as a side story created for the purpose of this single, gut wrenching choice. I’ve contemplated the implications of that decision more than any other so far, though not in terms of what it means for the game going forward. It’s more of a separate, isolated moral quandary, and it’s great to see that video games are capable of presenting such questions in a way that involves the player.

I also think the final minutes of the episode set up the fifth and final episode very well; Episode 5 should definitely hit the ground running. There are a lot of story threads to wrap up, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all goes down. On another note, I had a bug where the game couldn’t load in my choices from Episode 3 (playing on Steam), which was a bummer. Choices from the first two episodes were kept in tact, but I had to randomize the ones from Episode 3. It didn’t seem to make a huge difference, but it still sucks, and makes me even more wary of the episodic format. Playing a game piecemeal has been weird already, but when the pieces don’t connect like they should it’s even worse. I think next time I try this format I’ll probably just wait until it’s all out and do it all at once.

So long Diablo III... for now.

Other odds and ends: we finally beat Diablo III on Inferno. A new patch came out which made the game easier yet again, which finally lowered it enough that we could basically beat the game without any extra grinding. You know, beating it without making it feel like work. Each patch has lowered the difficulty a little at a time, and we’ve made a little more progress with each one. It turns out 1.0.5 was the final one we needed, and it actually made it kind of easy. So beating Diablo himself was a little anti-climatic, but oh well. It’s kind of nice to actually finish that one off in whatever way we can. Finally, I basically blitzed through Dishonored this weekend. I’m going to save my thoughts on that for next week for a few reasons. First, this blog has gone on long enough already. Second, having played most of the game in the past 48 hours, I think I need some time to formulate my thoughts more clearly. I will go ahead and say upfront that I did not enjoy the game that much, but I’ll get into that more next week.

This coming week will likely be an assortment of stuff. We’ll probably try and play Borderlands 2’s first DLC, Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty, and I also might start that ironman classic game in XCOM. I’m also interested in Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, which comes out on Tuesday. I liked Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors quite a bit, so hopefully the follow up will be neat. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: Maybe XCOM: Enemy Unknown? Maybe Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and her Pirate's Booty?

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Weekly Roundup 10/14/2012

There’s a lot to talk about this week, so I’m going to dive right in. Past hitting level 50 and finishing up “True Vault Hunter” mode in Borderlands 2, the early part of my week was spent playing Tokyo Jungle. Needless to say, that game is completely ridiculous. I happen to be a fan of the ridiculous though, especially the Japanese kind, and I've been having fun with Tokyo Jungle as a result. There’s just something about seeing a cute Pomeranian viciously take down a deer, or seeing a cow stomp a rabbit to death that’s immediately compelling in a weird way. It’s the video game reenactment of all those wildlife showdowns you might have pondered as a kid, and it ends up being a pretty imaginative idea. A lot of the appeal is definitely in seeing all of these animals interact with each other; it still freaks me out every time I turn a corner and see a giant crocodile staring at me. What’s especially great is that the game takes it all so seriously, while clearly knowing that it’s a totally silly idea. Also, for the record, Tokyo Jungle’s box art is amazing.

Cow vs. Pomeranian: Showdown of the century!

The premise and tone of the game are easily the best parts about it, but Tokyo Jungle holds up perfectly fine as an actual game too, even if it wears thin a little quickly. The main survival mode is really the only mode of interest to me (I find the story to be dull and tedious, and don’t care about multiplayer), and there are a number of fairly neat mechanics in place. The basic premise of trying to survive as long as you can is well served by a nice balancing act of having to avoid strong predators and find appropriate food. The way your hunger meter is always depleting means you can never sit around too long, which makes the entire thing super tense. You always need to be moving in search of food, but you also need to tread carefully, as any number of deadly creatures could be waiting around the corner. There’s also a lot of other things for you to deal with, such as toxicity, age and mating, and random challenges that you can complete for extra points or gear. Some of these ideas almost give the game a slight roguelike feel in some ways, as they can come together a little differently each time you play. The map is always the same though, which seems like a wasted opportunity.

Tokyo Jungle has a lot of systems in play, most of which I’ve mentioned above, but all of them are pretty simple when you get down to it. That’s especially true with the combat and “stealth”, which are as bare bones as it gets. As such, Tokyo Jungle can get kind of old after playing it a handful of times. Each run ends up following a similar pattern, so I kind of felt like I was just going through the motions after a while. There’s certainly a somewhat addictive quality to unlocking new animals (which there are a lot of), and seeing the subtle differences between each one is interesting at times. But the base game doesn’t evolve much, and I’ve gotten a little bored with it. It was definitely worth the $15 download though, and I may still play it here and there down the road. For now I’ve had my fill.

This was about as far as I got in the original XCOM.

Tokyo Jungle did its job, however, which was to fill in the tiny gap between Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I spent the majority of this past week playing XCOM, and if I put it bluntly, that game is fucking awesome. More generally speaking, my previous experience with the XCOM franchise involved loading up the original about a year ago (acquired via Steam sale), staring at a world map for about ten minutes, and realizing I had no idea what to do and quit. I’m all for games being hands off as much as anyone, but this was pretty extreme. I’m not one to go read a small novel to learn how to play a game as complicated as this; that’s about where I draw the line. Fortunately, Enemy Unknown has what I consider to be a great tutorial. Not only is it completely optional (old school purists can have it their way too), but it hit each topic once in a timely manner, and then left me to my own devices afterwards. Concise and effective. Anyway, I feel like the tutorial is worth a shout out because XCOM is such a busy game with a lot of moving parts. Tutorials in such games are always a tricky thing, but I think XCOM pulls it off incredibly well.

The main gameplay dynamic in XCOM is the balance it pulls off between the tactical turn based missions (think along the lines of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics style games) and the more big picture strategy game that takes place between the missions. This strategy portion bears some resemblance to Firaxis’ own Civilization series, as you can queue up various research and facilities, all of which takes a certain number of days (very much like turns) to complete. I find this back and forth to be completely mesmerizing. I could personally spend inordinate amounts of time in the base fiddling with stuff, but the way various alien attacks continue popping up all the time really keeps you on your toes, and serves as a great counterbalance to the relaxed nature of base management. Make no mistake; these missions are super intense. Things can potentially go south real fast if you don’t pay proper attention, so the missions demand a consistently high level of focus if you want to get through unscathed. They aren’t necessarily the toughest things ever, but you do have to constantly be very attentive to all sorts of details, which can be a little draining.

Missions are varied and intense.

That’s what makes the back and forth so great; the high intensity of the missions combines nicely with the more somber base management to give the game a really nice flow. Even better is that each of the two parts are equally fantastic. The missions offer enough tactical variety to be interesting without being overwhelming. One of my personal favorite features is that soldiers can die permanently. It’s something I’ve always loved about Fire Emblem, and while soldiers in XCOM aren’t exactly developed characters with personalities, I still really like that permanence. I get attached to these guys as I see them level up over the course of dozens of missions, making it hit that much harder when a long standing favorite bites the dust (not to mention the strategic repercussions). Past all of that, the variety of abilities at your disposal and the large array of enemy types you can encounter lead to all sorts of interesting scenarios. A single game of XCOM is pretty long and I’ve played dozens of missions, but I’m still constantly running into new situations, which is fantastic. Those chrysalids man... those things are seriously messed up.

There's a lot of neat things to manage back at the base.

Directly in service of the missions, a big part of your time spent in the base is focused on making sure you have enough soldiers, that they have strong enough weapons and armor, etc. You need to be ready for just about anything when you hit the field. Otherwise there’s a wide array of facilities and upgrades you can invest in, all of which cost a whole lot of money and offer drastically different benefits. In the base it’s a constant case of “I want these ten things, but can only afford one or two of them”. I really like this dynamic, as it makes me actively think about what I’m getting; if I drop cash on something it damn well better be worth it. Fortunately most things are, but I learned the hard way that some things are more worth it than others. Namely, you really want engineers and satellites early on. Engineers are needed for virtually everything, including those all important satellites. Satellites serve two important functions: they help keep panic levels down, and provide extra funding, both of which are super important to establish ASAP. That’s by far the biggest mistake I’ve made in my game (I’ve since corrected the ship), and would be my one big tip for any other first time players (like myself) out there. Getting that stuff early can save you a lot of headaches later.

Anyway, I could keep talking about XCOM all day if I wanted, but those are the broad strokes. I’ve been completely absorbed by the game over the past week, and feel pretty safe in saying that it’s sucked me in more than a game has in a long, long time. I’ll definitely keep playing it this week, and talk about it a lot more next week (I think I’ve gone on long enough for now). I also have Dishonored that I’d like to get to at some point, along with Episode 4 of The Walking Dead and Borderlands 2 DLC. Yep, it’s that time of year again. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Weekly Roundup 10/07/2012

Borderlands 2 kept on going this week, and we finished our first playthrough. In fact, we’ve almost finished our second playthrough (level 49 with only a few story missions left), which has gone significantly faster than the first. Quick aside: being able to throw down two turrets, each equipped with rockets and a bubble shield is pretty rad. Anyway, I’ve talked a lot about that game over the past two weeks and don’t have a ton to add to what I’ve already said, but I can essentially wrap up my thoughts on the game. Which is basically that I really like Borderlands 2. Now that I’ve seen pretty much everything it has to offer, I can safely say that my love of the first Borderlands wasn’t a one time thing. This franchise is simply turning out to be pretty darn awesome all around.

There's always room for more loot.

It’s an interesting thing too, because I traditionally don’t like loot driven games. I never liked Diablo II back in the day for example (though I like Diablo III pretty well), and yet the Borderlands franchise not only clicked with me immediately, but has shown some serious staying power. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I have some guesses. The main one is that, as a first person shooter, Borderlands has more engaging action than the traditional click-fest that defines most loot driven games. The action feels very good too (Gearbox can make well playing shooters), and I generally enjoy the act of fighting things in Borderlands. I also really like the vibe of Borderlands’ world. It’s totally silly and stupid in pretty much every way, but it makes for a light, fun world that’s easy to spend dozens of hours in. The humor doesn’t necessarily always work, but it’s the kind of world that’s easy to just jump into without having to take things so seriously. It’s a relaxing way to hang out with some friends (I guess I should also stress that I’ve not played a single minute of this game by myself, and that playing with friends is a must for me). I also really dig the art style, and Borderlands 2 in particular has some nice environments. The skills are generally well done too, though Borderlands is not unique in that regard..

When it comes to me and loot games, the loot itself is never a hook; you won’t find someone who loathes grinding for randomly generated loot more than me. But the Borderlands series gives me a fun, light world to dive into, and backs it up with solid action and interesting classes and skills. It’s easy to ignore the loot and just have a good time running around, doing quests and hanging out with friends. That’s what I did for 200+ hours with the first game, and the second one has been just as fun so far. As explained over the past few weeks, I don’t think I like Borderlands 2 quite as much as the first game (I also explained that’s likely impossible), but it’s certainly close enough. It hits pretty much all the same highs, and I’ve been having a blast playing it. Anyway, I’m probably more or less done talking about it here, as I feel like I’ve covered everything by now and have pretty much seen everything in the game too. We’ll keep playing it though, especially once the DLC stars coming out. I’ll give updates as I feel like it, but that’s basically it for Borderlands 2. Great game.

Mark of the Ninja is an incredibly well designed game from top to bottom.

I also finished Mark of the Ninja this weekend, and that’s another fantastic game. I easily place it right alongside Batman: Arkham Asylum as having some of my favorite stealth mechanics in any game I’ve played, though unlike Batman this game is devoted entirely to stealth. That makes it more impressive in some ways, as it’s a fairly long game that manages to maintain a high level for its duration. The levels are smartly designed to remain fresh and creative, and the game does a good job at continuously introducing new mechanics throughout the game. The upgrade tree certainly has some interesting abilities, but most of it really does come from the level design. A small example: at some point the once sturdy platforms you’ve been using with no penalty all game long start crumbling once you stand on them. This changes the game in a simple, subtle way that keeps you on your toes. Consistently smart tweaks like this keep the game going strong all the way until the well timed end.

Really though, it’s the core mechanics I talked about last week that shine brightest. Mark of the Ninja is that rare stealth game that makes you feel vulnerable (thus giving you a reason to be stealthy) without feeling weak. You have a lot of smart, powerful tools at your fingertips to hunt down your foes, but once you’re exposed you’ll go down pretty quick. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but the game pretty much nails it. I also found the story to be pretty decent, even if it’s nothing super special, and the game both looks and sounds great. If I have any complaint at all, it’s of the few sections in the game that put you under time pressure. The basic mechanics are more geared towards slow, methodical play, and once you’re forced to scramble quickly things feel much less precise. Fortunately this didn’t happen but a few times, and those sections managed to be pretty short. It’s a super small blight on an otherwise stellar game, one that I would highly recommend to just about anyone. It’s easily one of the better games I’ve played in quite a while.

Resident Evil 6 may be a bummer, but at least there's no shortage of good games to play.

Anyway, the Fall is ramping up and a ton of games are starting to come out now. As a huge fan of Resident Evils 4 and 5 I was hoping Resident Evil 6 would be the first good release of the season... but I think we all saw how that turned out. I played the demo and didn’t like it, and combine that with the other (overwhelmingly negative) information available and I’d be a fool to shell out $60 for a 30+ hour game that looks as bad as it does. It’s a bummer the way that all turned out, but oh well. At least I won’t have to dwell on it long, because XCOM: Enemy Unknown is out next week, and that game is looking fantastic. I’m also keeping my eye on Dishonored, which seems like it has potential, and we’ll keep playing Borderlands 2 as well. Finally, I just started playing Tokyo Jungle this weekend; I couldn’t ignore such a ridiculous looking game. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: Borderlands 2, Tokyo Jungle

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Weekly Roundup 09/30/2012

I got plenty of good, quality gaming time in this week, which hasn’t been the case for a few weeks now. It felt good to really get my teeth into some games, and it helps that there’s been some awesome ones out recently, with Borderlands 2 remaining my primary focus (here's last week's initial thoughts). The more I play it the more I remember why the first game sucked me in like it did, and the more I appreciate the fact that the sequel exists. It’s good stuff.

There's a ton of gun variety, but I don't care for a lot of the goofy stuff.

Anyway, my commando is currently level 30, which means I’ve gotten enough skill points now to make my turret pretty powerful. It was the skill that attached rockets to it that did it, and it makes the turret a DPS machine. I’m not sure I necessarily like it better than the one from the first game yet though. That turret still did a ton of damage, could be modified to deal elemental damage on top of that, and also kept everyone’s ammo full. I’ve actually run out of ammo a few times in this game, and every time I do I miss my old turret. Another minor annoyance is that pretty much all the good guns we find are SMGs and revolvers for whatever reason, which is kind of a bummer. Also, while there’s a ton of gun variety in this game I don’t enjoy using a lot of the weapon types. For example, the ones that start out horribly inaccurate but get better as you fire don’t seem great to me, and I also don’t like the ones that you throw when you reload; my compulsive reloading nature means I waste a lot of ammo with those. I've been especially frustrated with the assault rifles, as there haven’t been that many all around solid ones. They all do something weird, like take a while to start firing fast or shoot awkward explosives that are hard to hit with. I tend to prefer the straight shooters, which means I’ve been sticking to a lot of Jakobs revolvers. Those tend to deal a lot of damage, fire fast and are pretty accurate, which is all I really want. The goofy stuff can be amusing at times, but I generally just want to kill stuff efficiently.

Some quests can feel a little protracted, but on the whole they're totally fine.

I’ve heard and seen a lot of chatter about how Borderlands 2 is objectively “better” than its predecessor. To be honest, I’m not seeing that at all. I don’t think it’s any worse either, I simply think it’s more Borderlands. There are certainly minor differences, but nothing that amounts to any sort of quality disparity between the two games to me. In fact, if I do want to go down that super nit picky road I probably dislike the majority of the changes for Borderlands 2. I miss gun proficiencies, or otherwise some incentive to stick to a particular gun type. The side quests are more spread out in such a way that requires you to spend more time traversing the same areas multiple times; the first game seemed to have a slightly smoother side quest progression in that regard. There also seem to be more spots where enemies keep pouring out for way too long, which combined with the side quest progression makes the game feel artificially longer. It’s like they’ve tried to stretch things out a bit where they could without changing too much of the established structure. Again, this is all very nit picky, so take it with a grain of salt.

What really matters is that I’m having a blast with Borderlands 2, and for all the same reasons that I loved the first game. It’s just a fun world to spend time in, with crazy weapons, solid FPS combat and great character progression. Borderlands remains the only “loot lust” franchise I’ve ever gotten super into, and Borderlands 2 has only driven that fact home even more. I might speculate on that a little more next week, and will probably wrap up my thoughts on the game then (there's still more to say!), but I think that’s enough Borderlands 2 talk for today. The game’s pretty awesome. The other game I played during the week was Mark of the Ninja, which I only played when I couldn’t get the Borderlands crew together. I’m traditionally not a fan of stealth games, and I never enjoyed things like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. That said, I loved the stealth mechanics in Batman: Arkham Asylum. That game wasn’t primarily a stealth game, but it still had a lot of stealth in it, and embodied a lot of what I want from the genre.

One of my favorite "stealth" games.

The thing that made Arkham Asylum’s stealth so fun to me is that it didn’t make you feel weak and fragile like most stealth games do. To be honest, you kind of were; a few bullets would mess you up pretty fast. But the game realized that power in stealth games comes from knowledge, and things like detective vision gave you a lot of information to always give you the upper hand. Basically, you always had more info than anyone else in the room, and that made it feel like you were the predator hunting them down. There was no stumbling around in the dark, only knowing where a guard was by clunkily running into them. You could plan your attacks ahead of time (which is what most stealth games lack until you’ve done the trial and error part), and the game gave you plenty of fun gadgets and abilities that opened up plenty of options. Batman was also super agile, which made navigating all the nooks and crannies to get into ideal positions a delight.

You're on the hunt in Mark of the Ninja.

Not to talk too much about Arkham Asylum here, but I feel like there’s a lot of parallels to be drawn between it and Mark of the Ninja (Batman’s pretty much a ninja after all). Knowledge is everything in Mark of the Ninja, and it’s super fun to approach a room and be able to see everything that’s going on in it. The game does a great job at outlining everything you’d need to know very clearly: you know what exactly what every guard’s vision range is, you know exactly how far the sound you make travels, and you know exactly how you can interact with everything in the environment. Your character is also extremely nimble, and the traversal mechanics work incredibly well, and make getting around each room as painless as possible. All of this makes you feel very powerful (even though you still die very fast once you’re spotted), and making your way through each room is a ton of fun. The levels are also designed very well to allow you to tackle them in multiple ways, and the whole process of planning your attack is highly rewarding. It’s almost more of a puzzle game than anything, which I think works well for stealth.

I would estimate I’m roughly halfway through Mark of the Ninja, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I get closer to the end, but those are my first impressions of the base mechanics. I will say that there have been a few annoying things so far. One time I got checkpointed into an almost inescapable position (I basically cheesed my way out of it), and I find any kind of time pressure to be very annoying, which the game has done a few times. Those gripes aside I’m really liking the game, and I really appreciate its take on the genre. Anyway, this has gone on pretty long again, so I should wrap this thing up. The coming week will likely be a lot more Borderlands 2 and Mark of the Ninja; keep the good times rolling. And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Borderlands 2, Mark of the Ninja

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Weekly Roundup 09/23/2012

The last leg of my personal Zelda journey came to a close this week, though perhaps not in the way I would have expected. The final game I had to play was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and to cut straight to the point I didn’t enjoy the few hours I spent with it at all. I debated with myself if it was worth stubbornly pushing my way through a game that I actively hated playing solely for the sake of saying I had beaten every Zelda game (or at least all the “main” ones). I ultimately decided that it wasn’t, and feel surprisingly comfortable with that choice. Perhaps it’s because Zelda II is so drastically different from the other Zeldas that it doesn’t feel as essential to me. Or maybe I just hated it that much.

Bleh

I’m sure Zelda II seemed ambitious in its day, but by modern standards it comes off as kind of a mess. The controls feel very unresponsive and frustrating to me, and even worse are the level designs. The dungeons are filled with long corridors where you fight the same enemies over and over, and the ensuing combat is super repetitive and tedious. Maybe later in the game you get some better spells and/or abilities, but between the finicky controls and the way enemies zip around the screen I found every encounter to be extremely annoying. I also didn’t find them to be very satisfying; getting through a room never led to a sense of accomplishment or pride, only a small sense of relief in the fact that I would never have to do that again. I also never encountered anything else to break up the tedium of combat, and the overworld was just a chore to navigate. One particular cave tasked me with jumping over a pit of lava as an enemy stood waiting on the other side and a bat flew down towards me as I jumped. It induced bad memories of the original NES Ninja Gaiden, and was more or less the last straw.

Zelda II is definitely a hard and demanding game, but not in the way I like my hard and demanding games to be. It primarily asks you to execute boring, tedious combat routines over and over, and punishes you fast and hard for failing. I also don’t find the base mechanics that interesting to begin with (including the surface level, out of place RPG mechanics), all of which culminates into a game I simply did not enjoy playing at all. It’s kind of a sour way to end my Zelda journey, but I won’t let it bother me too much. I can handle one dark spot on a franchise I’ve otherwise thoroughly enjoyed over the years, and I am really glad that I went back and filled in the gaps. There’s a nice sense of closure to that process.

Conquest is a solid Pokemon spin-off.

Anyway, after finally putting Zelda behind me for the foreseeable future I then finished Pokemon Conquest. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said about it last week; it’s a pretty simple game that didn’t add much to the experience in the last few hours. I still really enjoyed the game overall though, and think it’s easily among the best Pokemon spin-offs out there (maybe the best). It successfully takes a lot of what makes Pokemon such a fun franchise, such as the fantastical world and creatures, and embeds them within an entirely different genre. I also happen to really like strategy RPGs, so Conquests should be a win-win for me, and it pretty much is. In fact, the only gripes I have are pretty minor. I think a few of the battlefield layouts are kind of annoying, some of the link mechanics aren’t explained very well, and most importantly the game is pretty simple and easy. There’s certainly room for the game to grow, but it’s still a solid first step that I definitely enjoyed playing. Collecting new Pokemon and building a team remains addictive, and the battles require just enough battlefield strategy to make them interesting. In short, I would recommend it to both fans of Pokemon and strategy RPGs alike.

It's likely impossible that Borderlands 2 can have the impact on me that the original did.

Finally, the game I actually spent the most time playing this week is the same game everyone's been playing: Borderlands 2. I’m about as big of a fan of the original Borderlands you’re likely to ever find (I would estimate I clocked 200+ hours in that gem, across all four classes and all the DLC), so it’s no secret that I was excited about the sequel. That said, I’m always hesitant to get too excited about sequels to games I love as much as Borderlands. One thing I’ve learned is that expecting a follow-up to a game that's close to my heart to strike the same chord and be just as memorable and impactful as the original almost never works. Even if it ends up being a better “game”, you simply can’t replicate that first experience again. A perfect example for me personally is the Elder Scrolls series. Oblivion was the first one I played seriously, and I loved it. Then when I played Skyrim I felt that it was a better “game”, but it just didn’t have that same magic that Oblivion did for me. That’s no fault of Skyrim’s, but it's still never going to measure up to my first time.

So far Borderlands 2 is the Skyrim to Borderlands' Oblivion for me. Perhaps in some ways Borderlands 2 is a better "game", but when you get down to it it’s extremely similar to the original, and thus never going to make the same impression by the simple fact that I'm not seeing it for the first time. Now that I’ve hopefully clarified that incredibly important point, I’m still really, really liking Borderlands 2 so far. I played a lot of every class in the first game, but my favorite was pretty easily the soldier (though the siren was very rad too). I felt like he had a wider range of interesting abilities, and more stuff to do on the battlefield. As such I’m playing the commando in the sequel, and to put it bluntly the turret is still freaking awesome. They’ve done some interesting ability tweaking for the classes that’s making it fun to experiment with these familiar classes again as well. For me the big change is that I can’t rely on my turret as much; it’s not as powerful, and there aren’t as many skills that directly buff it. So I have to get in the thick of things more often, and figuring out how I want to go about picking skills for that is great. Side note: it seems that the siren is now the “medic” class. The “shoot people to heal them” skill apparently got moved from the soldier to the siren while nobody was looking.

Borderlands 2 is still all about the guns.

There also aren’t clear weapon focuses for each class anymore. In the original game soldiers were clearly geared towards assault rifles and shotguns. The weapon proficiency system in that game further encouraged you to stick to one or two weapon types, but that’s all been removed for Borderlands 2. There are still a few skill and class mods that might give you a relatively minor bonus for one weapon type, but for the most part all classes can use all guns just as effectively. This has led to me using anything I pick up that seems good, and I can safely say that the gun design is much more varied here than it was before. At the same time, I haven’t really found any “all purpose” guns that I like. It’s probably a conscious design decision, but most every gun seems to have at least one substantial drawback or limitation. It might be wildly inaccurate, have a tiny clip, kick way too much, not deal a lot of damage, or simply take forever to reload (that’s the one I hate the most). So on the one hand it’s kind of frustrating to never find that “perfect” gun for my style, but on the other hand it’s fun in a different way to try so many different guns all the time.

There’s a whole lot more to say about Borderlands 2, but I’ll save it for now. I didn’t play as much this week as I would have liked, but you can bet I’ll keep going, and should have plenty more to say next week. As for my current status, right now I’m level 17, and have been playing with two friends who area siren and a gunzerker. Oh, I also downloaded Mark of the Ninja today, and really want to play as I find time for it (probably whenever I can't get the Borderlands 2 crew together); it looks great. So that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Borderlands 2, Mark of the Ninja

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Weekly Roundup 09/16/2012

I started off this week by finishing The Last Story. That game’s certainly not terrible, and it does have its moments every now and then. As I felt last week, my favorite parts of the game ended up being the characters and dialogue. There were a select few moments that were done surprisingly well, and Mistwalker almost makes pulling off a strong narrative look effortless on a few occassions. The overarching story is pretty cliche though; it’s more the execution that’s done well, and even that’s mostly relegated to a handful of climactic moments. The rest of the time everything's kind of mundane.

Likable characters and well written dialogue can't always overcome boring gameplay.

Overall I didn’t get into The Last Story very much, which is primarily due to the passive nature of the gameplay that I talked about last week. It just feels like you need something else to do in combat. Full party controls, move moves and abilities, more enemy variety, or just flat out more interesting gameplay systems; these things could have gone a long way towards making the game infinitely more engaging. It’s weird too, because there actually are a number of systems in place, but they’re all so brainless and require little to no strategy. It creates this weird scenario where battles can feel kind of chaotic, but when you really break it down I beat 95% of them by simply mashing A. It’s like the game was trying to be really ambitious while making it super accessible, and it comes off as just kind of goofy and mashy. I also found the movement in combat to be extremely clunky, and the camera was even worse. I had other more technical issues from time to time too, mainly with regards to framerate. Fairly regularly the framerate would slow to a crawl, which was just baffling. The game looks decent, but I’ve seen plenty of Wii games (and even some PS2/Cube/Xbox games) that look just as good and are just as ambitious with how much is on the screen, yet run just fine. I really don’t know why The Last Story has that issue.

Anyway, I talked a lot about The Last Story last week, and think I’ve pretty much covered everything at this point. It’s an okay game, and not the worst way to spend 20-25 hours or so (which I think is a good length for a JRPG personally), but I didn’t find it to be that engaging on the whole. After that I decided to resume my personal quest to play all of the Zelda games, and I finally played through the original The Legend of Zelda. I finished it last night (it’s pretty short), and if I’m being 100% honest I looked up a handful of things in the back half of the game to keep it moving. I got a good feel for the game’s pacing in the first half, and there are some late game things that I would have never figured out on my own in a timely manner. Still, I really enjoyed the game, and am really glad that I’ve finally played this classic.

Zelda holds up surprisingly well 25 years later.

My big takeaway from Zelda is that I think it still holds up pretty well today. There’s definitely some really obtuse moments in there that certainly wouldn’t fly anymore; simply gaining entrance to some of the dungeons can feel like a complete stab in the dark for example. Starting with only three hearts after dying also seems like an unnecessary inconvenience, but there’s not much more than that that really feels that dated. It’s a testament to the game’s design that I still enjoyed it 25 years later, and in many ways I think it remains more ambitious and bold than a lot of today’s games. It certainly never holds your hand, and yet I rarely found the game that frustrating. I enjoyed exploring and figuring things out on my own (excluding those excessively obtuse moments that I did look up), and I can only imagine what it might have been like playing this game when it first came out. How did people figure some of these things out before the age of the Internet? I bet you’d feel like either the smartest or the most doggedly determined person on the planet if you did the entire game on your own.

I‘ve talked about and played a lot of Zelda in general this summer, and after experiencing the original I feel like it’s kind of come full circle and reinforced what the franchise means to me, and what it’s meant to gaming in a greater context over the years. So that’s pretty cool. I don’t feel the need to say much more about Zelda though, as it is a 25 year old game that’s been talked about to death by now, but I am super happy that I’ve been able to experience the starting point for one of my favorite franchises. Even better is that it holds up as well as it does. Now there’s only one Zelda game left that I haven't played: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I haven’t decided exactly how I want to tackle that one yet, as my understanding is that it’s kind of the “black sheep” of the franchise and might not have aged that well. But I’ll figure it out.

It's Pokemon! They're fighting on a grid! They take turns doing it! There's strategy involved!

Finally, I’ve been playing Pokemon Conquest here and there the past week or two. I’ve been playing it at a fairly slow pace, roughly 30-60 minutes before bed each night, and am finding it to be a surprisingly enjoyable game. It’s basically a strategy RPG (think Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem) adapted to the Pokemon universe, and the combination works pretty well. The battles play it pretty straight, where you take turns moving your Pokemon around a grid fighting enemy Pokemon. It’s certainly never as deep or intricate as the genre stalwarts, but it’s enjoyable enough. It helps that it has Pokemon specific hooks too, especially with regards to catching new Pokemon and building your team. All of the Pokemon moves and types are present and accounted for, and you have plenty of opportunities to catch new ones and train the ones you have, all to try and take out the other trainers around the world. So in a way it’s just as much like normal Pokemon as it is a strategy RPG, and I think it’s that unique combination that makes it appealing to me (I like both Pokemon and strategy RPGs a lot).

I’ve made pretty good progress in Pokemon Conquest, and will likely finish it relatively soon. Otherwise it’s Zelda II and Borderlands 2 for me in the near future, the latter of which comes out on Tuesday and I couldn't be more excited for it (the original Borderlands is very dear to me). And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Pokemon Conquest, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

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Weekly Roundup 09/09/2012

The main games I played this past week were Sound Shapes and The Last Story. Sound Shapes is pretty short, and I was easily able to finish it early in the week. The best word I can think of to describe it is “neat”. I personally didn’t get all that into it though; the campaign is super short, and while it does a good job at showing off what the game is about, the bulk of its focus is on the level editing tools and community features. It’s similar to LittleBigPlanet in that way, and you’re not going to get a ton out of the game if all you do is play the campaign (which is all I did). But for those that really want to dive deep into the level editor and play community levels, there’s a lot of cool hooks here.

Cool music and cool art make for a cool game.

Even playing just the campaign I could still appreciate the game’s core ideas. At its heart Sound Shapes is a simple platformer. As you move through the levels you pick up these collectible items that produce notes. These notes are repeated for the rest of the level, and as you collect more and more of these items you end up making music. As such, there’s a heavy rhythm aspect to the game, if not so much in the gameplay itself then at least in the aesthetic and appeal; you’re going to have to like its music to like Sound Shapes overall. And that’s really all there is to it, jumping around and making music. I don’t think the platforming felt particularly great, as it’s pretty slow and meticulous without ever presenting much challenge. It’s more of a “stop and smell the roses” type of platformer, which only works at all because the music is indeed really good, as are the varying art styles. Sound Shapes is a treat for the senses if nothing else, and those that get the most out of it are going to be those that want to just sit back and relax, and chill to the music. Getting into the community side of things is also important if you want to get much out of the game, and fortunately that stuff seems like it’s done very well.

That about sums up the game's tone.

I’ve never been one to spend a lot of time on a game creating levels or digging through other user made content though, as great as that stuff can sometimes be. As such I’ve moved on from Sound Shapes, and have since spent a decent amount of time with The Last Story. I don’t really know where to begin with it either, as it's a pretty weird game. Being a JRPG I guess it makes sense to start with story stuff, which is probably one of the better parts of the game. I find the characters to be likable, and the writing in particular is pretty sharp. It’s not as overly wordy as the genre can often be, and the dialogue does a good job at really expressing what these characters are all about. The plot itself is very standard though, not really swaying things one way or the other. Otherwise, there's this weird, cheeky undertone to everything. The game makes these really campy jokes all the time, and usually pauses in a way that seems to be waiting for you to laugh. And sometimes I do, simply because it’s all so goofy. There’s also a lot of innuendo and making fun of different character quirks (there’s a drunk and a flirt on your team for example), and I honestly don’t know if I like the game’s tone or not.

The act of playing the game is equally weird, but for entirely different reasons. If you really break it down, you honestly don’t do all that much in The Last Story; it’s a pretty “hands off” game in many ways. A high percentage of the time is spent watching cut scenes and/or listening to dialogue, and even worse is that you don’t have a lot of input once you do gain control. This is mainly because the game has been very linear and very easy so far. This all culminates in the battles, which are incredibly simple. Battles occur in real time in a 3D space, and you can run around and swing your sword as you wish (amusing side-note: the default controls only let you attack via the auto-attack, which is triggered by literally walking into enemies). So there’s kind of an action bent to it, but I’ve basically beaten every fight so far by running at the nearest enemy and mashing A over and over. As the game goes on you slowly start getting some control over the rest of your party, and each character seems to end up with two or three total skills, but there’s never that much to manage past occasionally telling someone to cast a spell. And even that you can only do periodically on a timer.

Not really that much to do in battles.

What makes the battles weird are some of the other little things they do. You can get behind cover, you can shoot a crossbow third person style, and you have five lives in each battle. Why are there third person shooting mechanics in this JRPG? I honestly don’t know, and I rarely use them. There’s also a weird stealth component sometimes, and none of those auxiliary features feel good at all. In fact, most of them feel bad and tacked on in a “why not?” kind of way. Anyway, past the battles there’s simply not a lot else going on gameplay-wise. Equipment is extremely bare bones, there’s nothing at all in the way of skill trees or interesting customization, and the side quests are as boilerplate as they come (leading me to simply skip most of them). It all makes the game feel very “JRPG lite”, almost like it’s meant for a more action audience than the traditional JRPG crowd, and I’m not sure exactly how much it appeals to either one as a result. It’s a similar feeling I got from playing Final fantasy XIII in many ways, which is kind of disappointing, and goes a long way towards describing my biggest complaint about The Last Story: it’s pretty boring. It’s such a passive experience that I frequently find myself getting distracted, and haven’t been able to play the game for long stretches.

The one thing The Last Story has over Final fantasy XIII and Xenoblade Chronicles (that other Wii “JRPG” I didn’t care for) is that it’s supposed to be a whole lot shorter. I think I’m getting relatively close to the end, so I’ll try to see it through to get some story closure if nothing else. The game isn't altogether terrible, but it’s goofy and boring such that I’m ready to be done with it. Anyway, I’ve also been playing a little Pokemon Conquest here and there, and will have more to say about that next week. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: The Last Story, Pokemon Conquest

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