PC Rising

Preparing For Phase Jump

Sins is a great strategy game from any number of angles.

When Sins of a Solar Empire came out back in 2008, it was the one PC game that made me sad I didn’t have a gaming quality PC at the time (coincidentally, more on that below). I picked it up recently in one of the many Steam sales, and finally got around to giving it a shot. I’m glad I did too, because Sins is totally awesome. It’s an incredibly clever hybrid of real-time and 4X turn-based strategy conventions, combining the tactical combat of something like StarCraft with the long range planning of something like Civilization. In fact, pretty much everything about Sins lives in a comfortable middle ground between those two extremes. Battles occur in real-time and require some micromanagement, but it’s more big picture and less frenetic than your typical RTS, with only light tactical management and the ability to pause anytime. Empire building is broad in scope and has you managing different colonies like your typical 4X game, but there aren’t quite as many resources, units or technologies to consider. The tech tree finds a similar middle ground, and diplomacy options with your potential adversaries even manage to split the difference. Finally, my average game has taken around 3 hours to complete thus far; much longer than a RTS, yet much shorter than a 4X game.

Sins strikes this balance in every facet of its design, which sounds like it should be absolutely disastrous. Yet somehow it isn’t, and the game manages to nail exactly what I like about both genres in equal measure; it’s part building units and counters to compose armies with very specific tactical makeups, and part addictive “one more turn” style empire management. The game gives you enough of both without piling on so much of one that it would override the other, and it's executed to work better than it has any right to. In short, I really like it. It could probably be a little better balanced in spots, but the only thing that potentially seems like a large issue is that I could see the game reaching a kind of stalemate scenario at times. Granted, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but since resources are infinite and there’s no timer on a game, I could see two players splitting control of the map and maxing out their tech tree, only to end up butting heads indefinitely. Fortunately I have yet to encounter this scenario, so I’ll go on thinking that Sins of a Solar Empire is the magical melding of ideas that it’s proven to be thus far.

PC Rising

Who needs a PC when you got Mode 7!?

For most of my life I’ve spent the vast majority of my gaming time on consoles. From the Super Nintendo to the PlayStation 3, and covering just about everything in between, I’ve always gravitated towards the controller and TV experience. I could go on and on about the various reasons and historical details why, but it mostly came down to two primary things: the games coming out for consoles appealed to me more, and consoles were easier and cheaper to maintain. Sure, I played PC games here and there; StarCraft is an all-time favorite after all. It was simply never my platform of choice. The PC hit a personal low during the first half of the current console generation (meaning about 2005-2009), as the combination of very few interesting PC exclusives and me not having ample means to invest in a gaming quality PC meant that I played virtually no games on the PC during that stretch. All the talk about PC gaming dying seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, and I was perfectly satisfied and content to ignore the platform in favor of the flourishing consoles.

That slowly started turning around in 2010, when after getting my first “real” job I was able to buy a legitimate gaming PC. The double hitter of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Civilization V then kicked off what’s turned out to be a surprising turnaround for the platform. It’s not any one thing either, as a whole host of different factors have combined to give the PC a new life for me. They include:

Digital distribution and sales are among the main areas where consoles are falling behind.
  1. Some great “big budget” exclusives like the aforementioned StarCraft II and Civilization V, along with Diablo III, which are all endlessly playable games that make use of the PC’s strengths.
  2. After years of bad ports, PC versions of multiplatform games like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Battlefield 3 and Far Cry 3 are now regularly surpassing their console counterparts.
  3. Near universal controller on PC (I’ll always be a controller guy).
  4. Day one digital downloads for literally everything. Sony is doing much better at this recently, but Microsoft is strangely content to ignore this on the Xbox 360.
  5. The growing “small games” movement (be it indie or otherwise) has shone brightest on the PC recently, where developers don’t have to fight strict console certification processes. Games like To the Moon, FTL: Faster Than Light and Hotline Miami may have never happened on consoles, and prominent figures such as Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish have had many well documented issues with putting their games out on those platforms.
  6. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, PC gaming is cheaper than ever. Digital pricing is often cheaper than retail to begin with, and regular sales (primarily through Steam) are simply incredible; the rate at which games dip below $20 makes buying any game at $60 feel antiquated. The upfront investment for a PC is still higher than consoles (though that’s also cheaper than ever), but I believe PC gaming is currently cheaper in the long run due to digital pricing and sales. Not to mention that you don’t have to pay for any online services to get the most out of your games; here’s looking at you Xbox Live Gold.

Those last three points are the biggest ones for me, and are the areas where the consoles have the most catching up to do. The PC has proven to be a highly adaptable and varied platform over the past few years, and the way you can now get tons of quality content on the cheap, from both big and small developers, be it retail or digital, is the way of the future. It’s likely that the consoles are lagging behind due to their protracted cycle, and it’s completely possible that they will catch up and I will switch right back to them once the next generation begins in earnest. But for the time being the PC is the way forward, and for the first time in my life it’s my platform of choice.


Act II is Always a Desert

Survival Non-Horror

Good atmosphere, bad combat.

Continuing my recent foray into genres I don’t traditionally like (that’s what a backlog is for right?), I decided to give Lone Survivor a shot and recently played through it. Maybe this was a little naive of me, but I was kind of hoping that if something like Mark of the Ninja could make me like a stealth game, then maybe the same could be done for survival horror. If that’s possible, Lone Survivor isn’t it. Pretty much everything I dislike about the genre is present and accounted for in Lone Survivor, including messy inventory management, painfully clunky combat, and poor communication. In fact, that lack of communication was the most frustrating thing about Lone Survivor to me. It’s often incredibly unclear what objects in the environment you can interact with, which results in a few almost “pixel hunt” type moments. There’s also no real explanation for how a lot of the items and systems in the game work (such as food and eating), and the combat (in addition to controlling poorly) gives little feedback; I often couldn’t tell if I was hitting enemies or not. I actually can’t tell how much of this is by design either. Survival horror has always been the type of thing to actively handcuff players to try and make them feel uncomfortable, even during the most menial tasks. It all just ends up being annoying to me, and I can’t tell if Lone Survivor is intentionally trying to be that way, or if it did so by accident. Either way, I don’t like it.

All of these issues are things that feel like old school staples of the genre, and are the exact same things that never endeared me to the likes of the original Resident Evil or Silent Hill in the first place. I will give Lone Survivor credit for its atmosphere (how sad would it be if it didn’t do that well?), and I really like the look and the art style. That said, I also didn’t find the game to be scary at all, and pretty much everything about the gameplay was either dull or frustrating. Survival “horror” continues to not be my thing.

The Biggest Bo

That was SWEET!!!

I also played through Binary Domain recently (it’s been a good few weeks for getting through some shorter games I got on the cheap; thanks Steam!), which is a really dumb game. The gameplay is super generic third person shooting, even though it actually tries to do a few clever things with party management and gaining favor with your party members. There are almost hints of a BioWare style party dynamic in there, but it never goes as far as it could, and what’s there is really silly. I mean, you can respond “God damn” or “Love you” to most questions your party members ask you, and it never makes any sense. Anyway, 95% of the gameplay is very bland third person shooter gunplay, which is mostly serviceable if uninspired. Ironically though, the gameplay doesn’t even compromise the majority of the game. Binary Domain is surprisingly heavy on story, complete with tons of dialogue and cut scenes. All the characters are the biggest stereotypes imaginable, and the actual plot is dumb in that summer blockbuster kind of way. And yet, I still managed to like the story overall. It’s ultimately pretty pointless, but the delivery is good enough, the characters are fun (Big Bo!), and it makes for an enjoyable ride if nothing else. Binary Domain doesn’t win any points for originality in either gameplay or story, but it does both of those things just well enough to be entertaining. It’s still pretty dumb though.

Act II is Always a Desert

I feel like I've done this before.

Some friends and I had been making our way through Torchlight II over the past few weeks, beating it last week. There’s not really a whole lot to say about Torchlight II; it’s one of those kinds of games through and through. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Diablo-inspired subgenre of RPGs, as I’ve never given a crap about randomly generated loot. And that’s ultimately where Torchlight II fails to grab me as well, as it’s pretty exclusively focused on pure and simple loot. I can see why some people might enjoy that over Diablo III, because it does emulate the slot machine vibe much more directly. Put bluntly, you keep clicking and colored goodies keep popping out of everything in sight. But as someone who doesn’t care about loot, Diablo III was still able to grab me with with its snappy, great feeling combat and its robust, varied skills (it's perhaps the only game in the genre to do so). By contrast, Torchlight II’s combat is mindless clicking, and the skills don’t seem to have a lot of functional variety to them (most of them are simple damage dealers). I also prefer the way you can mix and match skills on the fly in Diablo III, which rewards experimentation and allows for more diverse combat options. In Torchlight II I was more or less stuck with the few skills I chose early on, and spent most of the game putting more points into the same skills rather than earning new ones. That meant that the play experience remained mostly unchanged throughout, and it got pretty old pretty quick to me as a result.

Anyway, enough about Diablo III. Torchlight II is generic, lighthearted fun, and was fine to play through with friends. It's also cool that it's priced at $20, which feels like a solid price for a game like this. I’ll probably forget it just as quickly though, as it was pretty uninspired on the whole. You know exactly what you’re getting before you even begin; Act II is still in a desert, as always, which speaks to the game’s lack of imagination and creativity as much as anything. But if you crave nothing more than the clicky-clicky and loot geysers, it will probably give you your fix.


Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Komodo Dragons and...)


Between Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light, I’ve played more games in the past year that can be compared to roguelikes than I ever have before. FTL has been the one occupying me recently, and like Spelunky before it I’ve had an up and down relationship with it. My first impression was fantastic, thanks to the game’s solid underlying mechanics. The balance it strikes between fighting battles and upgrading your ship is incredibly exciting and interesting, and the game moves at a snappy pace to be constantly engaging. It also has great atmosphere and and an even better soundtrack (continuing the trend of indie games absolutely nailing their soundtracks). But as with all games that are kind of like roguelikes (roguelike-likes?), FTL relies on randomness a lot, which is where my relationship with it becomes a little rocky.

Oh FTL, I would like you more if you weren't so random.

Pure randomness is fine to an extent, but at some point I get frustrated when I feel like my ability to progress is hindered by a roll of the dice. Even the best runs have a chance of going south regardless of what you do, and while there is certainly a layer of strategy to the game, and you can improve your odds of success by playing better, it’s never entirely in your own hands. This makes it especially hard to learn from your mistakes, as it’s often difficult to tell if (and where) you did something wrong, or if you simply ran into some plain old bad luck. Finally, it can be tough to make strategic decisions when you don’t know what’s coming up ahead; the best you can do without any concrete information is attempt to play the percentages and hope it works out. I feel like all of these problems are more pronounced in FTL than they were in Spelunky, for the sole reason that a single game of FTL can take over an hour to play. When I die in Spelunky I’ve wasted maybe five minutes, but playing a game of FTL for over an hour with nothing to show for it can be hard to swallow.

I realize that the primary way to enjoy such games is to let go of results, and to focus more on the journey than the destination. And by that measure, I have enjoyed playing both Spelunky and FTL to a certain extent. Almost every run has a lesson to learn, but I simply don’t know if or when I will learn enough of them (and get lucky enough) to “beat” either game. Ultimately, only the dice can help decide that, while I will likely decide that my time is better spent on the giant pile of other games I have to play.

Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Komodo Dragons and...)

Interacting with animals is my favorite thing about Far Cry 3.

I recently finished Far Cry 3, which I really enjoyed. In fact, had I played it during 2012 it would likely be on my top 10 list for the year. But alas, it was not to be. Anyway, I generally don’t care for open world action games that much, as I feel like they tend to stretch themselves too thin and often become really bogged down with menial tasks. Far Cry 3 certainly has some of that, but I also like a lot of its tasks more than most open world action games, and find it easy to ignore the rest. The standout for me is easily the hunting, or more accurately animal encounters in general. The animals have a certain ferocity to them that’s exciting, and they are absolutely everywhere. The game basically infuses animals into everything you do, which can lead to intense standoffs with a bear in the middle of the thickest jungle, or hilarious moments where enemy pirates get overrun by a roaming pack of komodo dragons. It gives the game a certain primal edge that you generally don’t see in games of this quality, and it ended up being my favorite aspect of the entire game.

Not only is interacting with animals in Far Cry 3 a total blast, but the upgrades you earn from hunting them are totally worth it. More weapon slots, higher ammo capacity, etc. If I have one gripe against the hunting it’s actually that it’s too tempting and too easy to blow through it all right up front. A few hours into the game, before doing virtually anything else, I had maxed out all of the meaningful upgrades. Maybe that’s my own fault for not pacing myself, but I still wish a larger percentage of the game involved hunting. When it comes to the other activities, I really liked climbing the radio towers and clearing out enemy camps. I feel like the towers rewarded me for exploring the game’s gorgeous island (something I’d be prone to do anyway), while the camps let me make use of all the weapons and abilities I had acquired. The stealth and combat in Far Cry 3 are surprisingly fun in small bursts, and I feel like those qualities shine brightest when infiltrating these camps. Most of the other side activities I found to be pretty dull, such as the “Wanted” quests, supply runs, Rakyat challenges, and the myriad of pointless collectibles. At the same time, they were all easy enough for me to ignore, and didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the game.

Vaas is amusing, but otherwise I didn't like much about the story missions.

The main thing that did hinder my enjoyment of the game was the other thing I tend to not like about open world action games, which are the main story missions. They’re super rote and generic, if not just plain bad, and are by far the weakest part of Far Cry 3 to me. Boring corridor crawls, escort missions, rail gun sequences, fetch quests, driving time trials, and lots of repetitive combat in general (all without the open ended aspect that makes taking enemy camps so fun) plague the main missions, none of which I care for at all. The story itself didn’t do anything for me either, but I didn’t find it as aggressively offensive as some people seem to. For me it’s just kind of “there,” not really hurting or helping matters, which is only a bit of a shame since the story missions do need help. Anyway, those missions were pretty easy to mindlessly plow through, and ultimately didn’t ruin the other great stuff Far Cry 3 does in the long run. I may not be a fan of open world action games in general, but Far Cry 3 has proven to be one I can get behind, and is probably among my favorite such games I’ve ever played.


Thirty Flights of Scam

A few items of note before I begin. First, I was on a podcast with a handful of Giant Bomb duders last week to do our own GOTY deliberations. I think it turned out pretty well (and it was a lot of fun to do), and if you want to give it a listen you can find it over here. Secondly, this is my first attempt at replacing my “Weekly Roundup” writings I did last year. Bear with me and treat it as an experiment for now, as if it sticks I’m sure it will get more refined as it goes. The basic idea is the same, but the format is slightly different to accompany various wants, and I won’t necessarily be posting every week (consecutive weeks are possible, it’s just not my goal). Anyway, we’ll see how it goes!

Resident Evil of the Year

Nothing revolutionary, but it's proof that Resident Evil still has merit.

I played through Resident Evil: Revelations recently, which is surprisingly good. Given that 2012 was riddled with multiple lackluster Resident Evil games (you know which two I’m talking about), it’s a welcome sight to see that all is not lost for a franchise that delivered something as spectacular as Resident Evil 4. Revelations does a decent job at emulating what made that classic so great, and even if it doesn’t do it nearly as well, it’s good enough to be worth playing. The over-the-shoulder controls work well on the Nintendo 3DS (even without the circle pad pro), the gun upgrades are cool, exploring the Queen Zenobia and its winding, atmospheric hallways is tense and exciting, and the game looks absolutely incredible. If Revelations is any indicator, the 3DS has some serious horsepower under the hood. It’s nothing revolutionary by any means (despite the name), and it bogged down a little for me near the end. But if you have a 3DS and appreciate a solid Resident Evil game, or merely want your faith in the franchise restored, Revelations fits the bill.

All We Have Are Raisins

Resonance of Fate is a whole lot of this.

I really wanted to give Resonance of Fate an honest shot. My brother liked it a lot, and it seemed to have some interesting ideas; its battle system is certainly different in a neat way. I kind of appreciate the way the game opens everything up right from the get-go too, even if it also creates an insanely high learning curve up front. The in-game tutorials do a terrible job at teaching you the ropes as well, and if you’re anything like me you have to just get in there and try it (and die) a few times before you really figure out what’s going on. That was initially frustrating, but I was fine with it after a few hours. Ironically, I ran into my biggest problems once I had figured out the battle system. I feel like the game focuses on the core battle system to the point where that’s all it’s really about. Any semblance of variety and/or pacing is completely absent, as during the almost 10 hours I played I simply fought the same enemies over and over as I went on fetch quests and crawled through dungeons. From what I can tell the game seems to go on like that for upwards of 50+ hours, with battles forming at least 90% of that playtime. You simply have to be up for the grind, and I don’t think I am with regards to Resonance of Fate right now.

I don’t mind long winded RPGs on principle, but they need to do something past “fight battles for 50+ hours”. Past better variety and pacing, most good RPGs do it with upgrades and/or character progression that constantly change how the game plays in interesting (and perhaps subtle) ways, or a compelling story and characters. Resonance of Fate has none of that for me. While I think the gun modification stuff is neat, I also feel like it’s fairly thin. Maybe twice in the almost 10 hours I played I spent roughly 10 minutes tinkering with my guns, decking them out with the best upgrades available. Not only was that a small part of my playtime, but it also didn’t really change how battles played out. Past that, there’s no other meaningful customization or progression that I saw, meaning that battles seemed destined to play out mostly the same for the majority of the game. The game’s “story,” if you could even call it that, is virtually non-existent as well (and what’s there is laughably cheeky and dumb). By itself that wouldn’t bother me, but for a game that needs something past fighting battles, it seems like a missed opportunity. I’m glad I finally checked out Resonance of Fate for myself, and I don’t think it’s a bad game, but I ultimately decided that my gaming time is currently better spent elsewhere. It’s not like I have a shortage of games to play.

Thirty Flights of Scam

I feel like I was the one robbed here.

A lot of people have been giving Thirty Flights of Loving a lot of praise, and I’m not talking about the “That game is fun” kind of praise. I’m talking about the “This is a very important and innovative game” kind of praise. In fact, David Jaffe himself dubbed it his favorite game of 2012, claiming that it creates a new paradigm for video game storytelling. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I played through Thirty Flights of Loving (all 15 minutes of it), and didn’t think it was fun, innovative or... good. You do essentially nothing as the game drags you through a handful of bare bones, disjointed scenes via hard cuts, and attempts to tell a simple, loosely connected story through rough environmental cues. Not only is that completely terrible from a gameplay perspective, as you have virtually no input on proceedings (if you want to invoke the tired “is it a game?” debate, here’s your candidate), but the ambiguous storytelling it attempts to conjure is nothing new by any means. It’s also been done much better elsewhere, making Thirty Flights of Loving feel like a step backwards in that department.

To be honest, I found Thirty Flights of Loving to be straight up bad and worthless to the point where it felt kind of like a scam. Despite only costing me $2.50 (via Steam sale) and only taking me 15 minutes to play, I found it to be a complete waste of both time and money, and it didn’t feel any more substantial than any number of free flash shovelware games you can find all over the internet. I rarely feel regret for buying and playing a game, but Thirty Flights of Loving joins that dubious company, as I’ve now funded something terrible that I don’t want to see any more of ever again.

Gameplay Second?

Spec Ops' great story deserves better gameplay.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot more than normal lately are video game stories. I feel like 2012 saw a lot of different games succeed purely on the strength of their stories and characters, often times in spite of mediocre or dull gameplay. Binary Domain, Asura’s Wrath and Spec Ops: The Line are all examples of this trend, and I heard the following recommendation for all three of these games: “Play it on easy to get through it, because you’re playing it for the story.” I don’t know that I can think of many more damning things you could say about a video game. After all, if you’re actively trying to circumvent the part that makes video games distinct from other forms of media, then why even bother playing video games in the first place? (For the record, I have no problem with playing games on easy, if it’s done for the right reasons.) I’m all for having better stories in our games, and we shouldn’t have to settle for bad ones by any means. But I also don’t think we should settle for lackluster gameplay just because it’s in service of a decent story either. It’s an incredibly slippery slope that has me questioning the current status of the once commonly held notion that you play video games for “gameplay first.”


12 Video Game Soundtracks for 2012

I've always been a huge supporter of video game music, and have always felt that a strong video game soundtrack can elevate an otherwise good game to new heights. 2012 saw tons of games with great, memorable soundtracks; I feel like it's been a particularly good year for video game music. I've certainly enjoyed my fair share, and I'd like to give the soundtracks that have had the biggest impact on me their due. I've picked out 12 soundtracks from 2012 that stand out to me, and have posted my favorite song from each one here. It should be noted that I'm only counting original soundtracks, so licensed or reused stuff doesn't cut it (here's looking at you Theatrhythm). Also, there's no ordering of note (I've alphabetized it to avoid confusion), and while I thought about writing a few words for each song, I think it's best to leave it at just the audio; this music speaks for itself. Anyway, I hope you enjoy listening, and let me know what some of your favorite soundtracks of 2012 are!

EDIT: Neither Closure or Dust: An Elysian Tail seem to have their soundtracks on Youtube, and I've been having problems trying to embed their Bandcamp players on this page (this page locks up whenever I try). For now I've simply linked to those two songs, but if any technical wizard out there has advice, I'm all ears.

Botanicula - Juchu

Closure - Shadows of the Forest

Dust: An Elysian Tail - The Sorrowing Meadows

Dustforce - Cider Time

Fez - Adventure

Hotline Miami - Hydrogen

Journey - Apotheosis

Little Inferno - Reporting From the Weather Balloon

Mass Effect 3 - A Future for the Krogan

Nintendo Land - Main Plaza

Sound Shapes - Cities

The Walking Dead - Alive Inside


Weekly Roundup 12/09/2012

This week has been largely spent playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as I plugged away at my attempt at beating the game on Ironman Classic difficulty. My first game (a few months ago) was on Normal, and it became pretty clear pretty early on that Classic is a substantial step up. The main differences I’ve noticed have been that my chance to hit enemies is substantially lower, and global panic levels seem to rise a lot faster. I’ve had to fairly drastically adjust my approach to missions to account for lower hit chances (by playing more cautiously, making better use of guaranteed damage like grenades, and trying to flank when I can), and increased panic levels make getting those satellites up quickly even more imperative. It can be pretty nuts, yet I was doing pretty well for a while. I got past the alien base, had satellites up everywhere, and my squad, while not perfect, was doing well enough. I was digging the challenge, and Ironman made everything much more tense in a way that was genuinely thrilling.

When you don't stop spinning, you might be in trouble.

Then I got hit with a game breaking bug that halted all progress. Basically, going to Mission Control and hitting “Scan for Activity” resulted in endless scanning, but never finding anything. For a second I thought I was getting a little lucky, as I was able to accumulate some funds and catch up the research that I had resources for. But pretty quickly it became apparent that something very bad was happening. By the time something did pop up it was a story related event, and all the enemies were way more powerful than I could hope to combat. Put bluntly, taking out sectopods with the starting weapons is nigh impossible. As such, I had to completely abandon that game. Ironman mode is neat, but man, you feel it when a game breaking bug hits. I’m giving the game one more chance, as I started a new game on Ironman Classic this weekend. So far it’s been pretty smooth, and I’m feeling good so long as I don’t get any horrible bugs. If that happens again, I doubt I’ll try a third time, but hopefully I’ll get through uninterrupted.

I also played through Little Inferno early in the week, which wasn’t a long game. I think it’s a really neat game though, but maybe not so much due to the “game” part of it. Billed as a “fireplace simulator” (never thought I’d see that), you spend most of your time tossing all sorts of items into a fireplace and burning them. You have to buy the items, and as you burn them you get even more money back, which you can then use to buy bigger, better items. The game has upwards of 100 “combos” that you perform by burning different items together, and it will often require you to perform a certain number of them before you can unlock more items and advance. The combos are only described in vague hints, and that’s where the game gets pretty much all of it’s challenge, in trying to puzzle out what the combos are. It’s still never that hard though, as there are enough obvious combos, and the requirements for combos aren’t high enough to stump you for long. But it did add a nice, thin layer of stuff to think about.

Burn ALL the things!

Anyway, the basic gameplay is a simple, somewhat repetitive cycle that I found to be surprisingly entertaining, if not for the actual gameplay itself then for the dressing around it. It’s pretty clear pretty early on that Little Inferno is made by the same people what made World of Goo. The aesthetic is similar, and it has a comparable charm permeating the entire game. The art style, the music (oh the music!), even the dialogue and quirkiness of the story all bear a resemblance. I appreciate that, as not only does it give these talented dudes and their work its own unique and identifiable flavor, but that’s one of the things I really loved about World of Goo, and it’s equally strong here. There’s also a great sense of humor throughout the game, especially in the descriptions of the game’s many, varied items (not unlike Plants vs. Zombies’ unit and item descriptions), and there’s a subtly engaging narrative that’s full of plenty of commentary happening in the background. The actual plot meshes well with all the burning you’re doing on screen, and it all culminates into a thoughtful, touching ending that I thoroughly enjoyed. World of Goo had a similarly subtle and thoughtful story, and it’s nice to see that trend continued. That alone made Little Inferno worth playing for me, and I’d recommend it to those who liked World of Goo’s style, even if I don’t think the base gameplay is as strong as World of Goo’s.

Finally, I have decided to put my “Weekly Roundups” on indefinite hiatus, making this the last entry for the foreseeable future. As I tend to do at the end of the year, I’ve been contemplating changing some things up. I haven’t decided exactly what I want to do quite yet, but I have some ideas, none of which involve this exact format. I’ve certainly enjoyed this frequent “What have I been playing?” style of informal writing about games, but it does have its limitations. After doing a full year of them (hardly missing any weeks at that), I’d like to try some slightly different things. Before that, however, I’ll be doing some end of year reflections and thoughts over the next few weeks. Then once the new year begins I’ll hopefully have a better idea of how exactly I want to do things going forward. So it’s not an end by any means, just a new beginning. And with that said, that’s going to do it for now! Until next time!

Currently playing: XCOM: Enemy Unknown


Weekly Roundup 12/02/2012

SPOILER WARNING: I talk about The Walking Dead’s ending very vaguely here. I don’t think it really counts as spoilers, but anyone overly sensitive to that kind of stuff probably shouldn’t read the first three paragraphs.

In theory, new releases should be slowing down heading into December, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. The first thing I made sure to do after Thanksgiving break was play the final episode of The Walking Dead, which was of course fantastic. Season 1 has gone out on a real high note, giving a good sense of closure to a lot of the main characters, while leaving just enough open questions to provide a jumping off point for Season 2. It’s smartly done.

It's been a long journey for Lee and Clem.

Anyway, Episode 5 continued to do what the entire season has so done well, which primarily comes down to great writing and characters. It all builds to a head here though, and for many of the characters we finally get some real emotional payoff, and frequently closure. Episode 5 might be my favorite episode, but that’s not really because it’s fundamentally better than the others; it’s the simple fact that this is a memorable end to a long journey, and it’s a well done one at that. And, ironically, the ending is great without incorporating one of the series’ selling points, which is the idea of player choice. Like Mass Effect 3 before it, in spite of all the various choices you’ve made across each episode in the series, everyone’s ending winds up being essentially the same (I’m talking about literally the final few moments). Granted, it’s an extremely well executed ending, but the game still does that diamond shaped thing with the different paths players can take. Everyone may deviate wildly in the middle, but the beginning and end are the same for everyone. After finishing it I talked to two other friends who had also finished, both of whom had made drastically different choices than me during the course of the season, yet all of us saw the same ending.

That fact about the ending does not bother me one bit though (just like it didn't bother me in Mass Effect 3). I bring up that point because I think it highlights what I consider to be the most brilliantly subtle thing about The Walking Dead on the whole, which is the illusion of choice. You’re constantly making choices throughout the game, and each and every one of them feels incredibly important and potentially game changing. And yet, none of them really do change the game, as I’ve found out by comparing my choices and their results with others. It’s the way said choices make you feel that makes them resonant though, and the fact that I came to be deeply invested in my own personal playthrough despite recognizing this fact makes it that much more impressive. In the end, it’s not so much that your choices change the game, but more that your choices change you. That, to me, is the defining feature of The Walking Dead, and explains why I think it’s so great.

Not as similar to Smash Bros. as it initially appears to be.

Moving on from The Walking Dead, I’ve been playing a fair amount of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale this week, which is a super weird game. I’ll go ahead and get the obligatory Super Smash Bros. comparison out the way right up front by saying that it’s not as similar to Smash Bros. as it initially appears to be. Sure, the idea of taking some of the biggest "PlayStation" characters and pitting them against each other in a four player free for all has a similar ring to it, but the unique fighting style that defines Smash Bros. at its core isn’t here at all. Where Smash Bros. is a wild, rambunctious brawler that’s almost more of a party game than a fighting game, PlayStation All-Stars is a lot more technical in its execution, having more in common with the Street Fighters of the world than with Smash Bros. in a number of ways. There’s a real measured, methodical pacing the the game’s movement that’s built around a more delicate system of combos and counters than you might expect. Smash Bros., on the other hand, is built around pure chaos.

Connecting with your supers is everything.

PlayStation All-Stars mostly tries to fit in that middle ground between Smash Bros.’ more unruly nature and Street Fighter’s more demanding, technical one. And that’s where things get weird, as the game doesn’t really find a great balance in a lot of ways. The weirdest thing by far is how you kill other players. Rather than knocking them off a ledge or whittling down their health bar, you damage them to build up your own super meter, which you then use to unleash super moves (which can miss, thus wasting your meter). Connecting with these super moves is the only way you can get kills, which means virtually everything rides on these handful of all-or-nothing moments once your meter fills. That’s where PlayStation All-Stars runs into the most trouble too, as I don’t think the super moves are balanced at all. My brother can smack people around all day with Big Daddy, but he can’t connect with his level one super to save his life (it's mind-bogglingly terrible). Other characters like Raiden, on the other hand, are easily and consistently able to get multiple kills with their level one super. It’s a total shame too, because I feel like other than the super moves, most of the roster is fairly well balanced. But the game puts so much stock in the super moves that it becomes real apparent real quick when one is more effective than another, rendering most other aspects of the characters useless.

Those super moves, to me, are the core of the game’s design, so it’s a bummer that I don’t think they work that well from a balance standpoint. Everything else around that can be kind of hit or miss. The rest of the fighting (ignoring the supers) feels pretty solid for the most part, though the movement and timings can be a little sluggish, and there’s a lot of animation priority here (not uncommon for the genre). I still prefer Smash Bros.’ more rambunctious approach, but I also like this middle ground better than a pure technical fighter, which is a genre that I’ve never gotten into at all. What makes it better is that I’ve played quite a bit online and have had almost no issues; it runs smoothly with a full four players virtually every time. I’ve been playing a lot of 2v2s with my brother online, which is something I’m not sure any other decent fighting game reliably offers, and that right there is a pretty big plus to me. Finally, the game’s roster could be a lot better (why are there are two Coles again?), and the single player offerings are super lame. The arcade mode is too long and boring to be worth grinding out more than a few times, and the various challenges and trials aren’t much better. Playing free-for-alls or 2v2s online is hands down the way to get the most out of PlayStation All-Stars, and by that limited and occasionally flawed measure, the game does manage to be pretty fun.

I’m sure I’ll keep playing PlayStation All-Stars this week (my Ratchet needs practice), and Borderlands 2’s second DLC recently came out as well; in theory I’ll find time for that at some point. Last but not least, I finally made the plunge and started my Ironman Classic game in XCOM: Enemy Unknown this weekend, and that thing doesn’t mess around. Anyway, that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, XCOM: Enemy Unknown


Weekly Roundup 11/25/2012

So, maybe you’ve heard: the Nintendo Wii U is out! I was out of town during the past holiday week (hence no blog last week), and I spent a good chunk of that time at my brother’s apartment. The crazy guy pre-ordered a Wii U, which meant I got to spend a fair amount of quality time with the system up close and personal, and feel like I got a pretty good handle on what it’s all about thus far. I really like the controller; its comfortable and the touch screen is solid as always. So far I don't care for games that use the gyroscope though, particularly for camera controls. That shit's just annoying. The system’s interface is also super smooth, the online seems to work fine so far, and it seems technically on par with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In other words, no real surprises yet, but it’s always nice when a system feels good right out of the box.

The competitive minigames like Mario Chase were my favorites.

Anyway, the games are ultimately what matter here. My brother got three of them on day one: Nintendo Land (he of course got the “Deluxe” version with the pack-in), New Super Mario Bros. U and ZombiU. We naturally dove into Nintendo Land first, and as all minigame collections are, I thought it was kind of hit or miss. We had enough people over to test out the multiplayer games in a proper setting, and the three “competitive” minigames (the Mario, Luigi’s Mansion and Animal Crossing ones) ended up being easily my three favorites among the entire lot. They’re all pretty similar, revolving around one player with the touch screen having more information as they face off against up to four other players. The lone player is generally either trying to catch or avoid the other players, and the extra information they have gives them that advantage compared to the advantage the others have in sheer numbers. It’s a fun idea, and it uses the touch screen controller very well. At the same time, it’s not like this idea couldn’t have been done on any other console over the past 5-6 years, especially online. So they’re fun minigames that make smart use of the Wii U gamepad without really being that revelatory in the grand scheme of things. The rest of the minigames were mildly interesting to varying degrees, though I don’t think I would spend that much time with them overall. To me, Nintendo Land is all about those three competitive games, meaning I’m not sure the game would be worth a $60 stand alone purchase, but I definitely think it’s worth getting the Deluxe Wii U for the pack-in (among other things). Also, the Nintendo Land soundtrack is boss.

After that, we played through roughly half of New Super Mario Bros. U together, which didn’t really do much for me. I thought the original New Super Mario Bros. was kind of neat on the Nintendo DS as a weird novelty, but ever since then I’ve never liked the “New” Super Mario Bros. series. While Mario’s 3D platformers are consistently inventive and creative, this 2D series has always felt stale and pandering to me. I know they sell much better than the 3D ones, so in a way I can’t really blame Nintendo for making them, but I just find them boring, and this one is no different. In fact it's even worse, because they are trying to sell a new system with a game that could have essentially been done on a Super Nintendo. Also, the fact that you can’t use the gamepad to play multiplayer is total garbage (you need even more Wii Remotes and/or Pro Controllers). When I get my Wii U, this is a game I will definitely skip.

ZombiU handles inventory management in an interesting way.

Finally, we played a fair amount of ZombiU, which ended up being by far my favorite game of the bunch. We fiddled around with the single player some, and there are a lot of neat ideas in there. On its own, the game almost has a Demon’s/Dark Souls vibe in some ways. When you die you lose everything you had on you, but have one chance at a “corpse run” to get it all back. The game also seems pretty tough in spots, resources are scarce, and it absolutely never gives you a break. The most clever example of this is that when you need to fiddle with your inventory you have to look at the controller screen to manage stuff (as if you were looking in your backpack), and the game doesn’t pause. As such, you’re always vulnerable while messing with inventory, and that small example does a good job at describing the philosophy behind the entire game, and makes it feel like a great, modern day “survival horror” game. I probably only saw an hour or so of the single player, so I’m not knowledgeable enough to say much more about what it does. I will say that the game doesn’t look amazing, and it doesn’t feel that great as a shooter (clearly a design/programming thing, not a hardware/controller thing). Whether that was intentional or not, I couldn’t say. The game does have an effectively thick atmosphere, but most other parts of the production are pretty mundane.

ZombiU's multiplayer mode is surprisingly neat.

More than the single player we played a fair amount of ZombiU’s multiplayer mode. Like the competitive Nintendo Land minigames it makes surprisingly clever use of the touch screen, but isn’t something that couldn’t have been done on other platforms over the years. Even past the controller setup, however, it’s a very clever mode that's surprisingly fun to play. One player, with either a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination or a Pro Controller (the latter we didn’t have) plays on the main screen first person shooter style, while the other player uses the Wii U gamepad. That player, dubbed the “King of Zombies”, controls the zombies in a pseudo RTS of sorts. They automatically gain “resources” over time, and can spend them to spawn various zombie types into the arena. They can’t control the zombies directly, but they can place them where they want, and can also choose among various upgrades as they level up. It’s an interesting idea that pits two different gameplay styles against each other, and we had a lot of fun messing around with that. It would have been better if we had a Pro Controller or if the game was simply a better feeling shooter, and I don't believe it works online which is a total bummer. But for what it was I had more fun with it than I expected.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of my whirlwind experience with the Wii U. I think it’s a neat system, and even though the launch lineup isn’t amazing (which is true for any system), the combination of Nintendo Land and ZombiU was more than adequate for the few days I had access to the system. I’m a little worried about how the system will hold up in the long run, but I’m in no position to do anything other than speculate on that. All I can do is evaluate the tangible evidence before me, and on those grounds I think the Wii U is pretty cool. I’ll almost certainly pick one up sometime during the next few months, the ultimate target being before Pikmin 3 comes out (Pikmin 2 is an all-time favorite). Until then I’ll keep rolling along with the old guard, which at the moment means playing PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. I’ve played a few hours of that, and will continue to play it this coming week; so far it’s a little weird, but I’m enjoying it. I also just finished the final episode of The Walking Dead, which was fantastic. I’ll write more on that later, once I gather up my thoughts on both that episode and the season as a whole (maybe in a separate, dedicated post). That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale


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


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