Sonic Generations could use some more Sonic Unleashed.

What I'm about to say might get me kicked out of the Cool Kids Club, but here goes. I love Sonic games. Not just the 2D platformers from when I was a kid. I mean, I've consistently enjoyed the series from 1991 until today. Sure, there have been missteps along the way, but I appreciate Sonic Team's efforts most of the time. Each major Sonic release is markedly different from the last, and even when it doesn't work, I respect the hell out of them for trying. It's an interesting contrast to the trends of today's game industry, where being “safe” is more important than trying new things. Sonic Team gets an idea, does it, and even if it doesn't hit, bless them for trying.

3D Sonic games have been steadily increasing in quality over the past few years. Sonic Unleashed was a thrilling, blisteringly fast game with the addition of the Boost mechanic. I remember playing that game for the first time and being blown away because it was the fastest Sonic has EVER been. On the flipside of that were the Night stages, less well received by the general public but enjoyed by a few (me plus maybe...three other people?). The night stages were basically God of War with deeper combat mechanics and better level design, but I can admit that they suffered from being too long and committing the unforgivable sin of cutting into BLARING COMBAT MUSIC every time you got into a fight.

Seriously, guys. I'm trying to enjoy the smooth jazz here.

Sonic Unleashed was pretty enjoyable and contained mostly 3D, behind-the-back gameplay as Sonic. There were 2D stages built in for fans of the older games, and the perspective during Day stages would often switch to 2D, but those sections complimented the game. I appreciated the fact that there was a GOOD 3D Sonic platformer again.

Sonic Colors on Wii followed that a few years later. While it was heralded as the “best 3D Sonic game” by quite a few people, I hesitate to agree with that sentiment. The fact is that the majority of this game is 2D. Sometimes 2.5D. But you are not spending the majority of it in the behind-the-back 3D style that Sonic Unleashed, and previous games like Sonic Heroes and the Adventure series did. Don't get me wrong here, it's still a fine game. I just would have preferred if they used their improved 3D gameplay as opposed to mostly ignoring it.

The 3D sections are really well designed in Colors, better than Unleashed even. They lack the cheap death traps and occasional control awkwardness of Unleashed and added multiple paths...but they're incredibly short, often a few seconds long. If Unleashed was 80 percent 3D and 20 percent 2D, I'd say the ratio in Colors is exactly opposite.

I was a bit disappointed by this. The 3D platforming is so good! Why have so little of it? I actually felt like for the first time, Sonic Team was playing it a bit too safe. They know people will always love the 2D Sonic games, so they stuck to that closely to avoid offending lapsed fans.

Then, they came up with something that looked like it could be the best of both worlds.

Sonic Generations is a tribute to the entire franchise that embraces both styles of Sonic gameplay. Modern Sonic has the Boost-happy 3D sections in the style of Unleashed/Colors, and Classic Sonic has the style of the 2D Sonic platformers I grew up with.

Sonic Generations is better than Colors and Unleashed, undoubtedly. The little control kinks from Unleashed are totally gone, the occasionally awkward to control Wisps from Colors have been mostly removed, and they even introduced some old gameplay mechanics that haven't been in Sonic games in a LONG time (Electric Shield!)

Still, I think they could have done more with it. I want to point out a couple of specific areas where Unleashed beats Generations, because I'm enough of a crazy fanboy to nitpick one of my favorite platforming games ever. Generations is fantastic, but they could have had a classic on their hands if they took a few cues from Unleashed.

1. Unleashed has better hub worlds.

One thing I really enjoyed about Sonic Unleashed were the towns you'd visit between levels.

These hub worlds are pretty small, but full of life. The personality comes from the villagers that you can speak to. They'll send you on sidequests or comment on the plot with some short speech bubbles. It's mostly optional to speak to them, but they add a lot of flavor to the game. I especially enjoyed how the dialogue of each character would consistently change throughout the game, based on how far you progressed the plot, or if Sonic was in Werehog or Hedgehog form. I ended up speaking to people a lot more than I thought just to see how much unique dialogue there is.

The hub world in Sonic Generations is...not as good. The White Space is a mostly empty level select where you can just go left to right. At the far left is the space for collectibles and the power-up store. Sure, you “unlock” Sonic's friends as you go along, but they don't have much to say. They have a few canned quips to repeat, mostly tips about the stage they are standing in front of. But they have much less dialogue than the citizens of Unleashed, and it's not nearly as clever. One thing I found out recently is that they'll have one piece of dialogue if you do a cooperative sidequest and talk to them immediately afterward...but only if you finish it and go talk to them RIGHT NOW. Why couldn't they add that little speech bubble to their repertoire permanently? Why is Classic Tails a character but not Classic Knuckles, or Classic Amy? It's little touches like this that make the hub in Generations not feel as lively as it could.

Also, the sidequest gates are occasionally difficult to get to, forcing you to switch between Sonics on the fly to make it easier. It's not great.

2. Unleashed has better music.

Sonic Generations has a fantastic soundtrack. I remember hearing the modern remix of “City Escape” and completely nerding out. It's a remix of the obscure Snowboard Race theme from Sonic Adventure 2 Battle! The guitar solo is ripped from Sonic's old theme “It Doesn't Matter”! Don't even get me started on Classic City Escape sampling “Endless Mine”, that awesome “Super Sonic Racing” remix by Cash Cash, or the composers pulling what can only be described as a near-miracle (nearacle) by making a remix of “Rooftop Run” that is superior to the original. Seriously, don't get me started. We will be here all day.

Still, there are some moments of odd restraint on the soundtrack. Green Hill Zone and Sky Sanctuary have Fast versions that kick in when you hit top speed as Sonic, and that is really cool. Why not do Fast remixes for every stage? There's a couple of themes that are just bummers: Modern & Classic Planet Wisp suffer from poor sound mixing and just being a really bad song, respectively. Modern Chemical Plant is a bit bland, Modern Speed Highway is both barely a remake and inferior to the original, and then there's the issue of the “remastered” tracks from 2D Sonic games.

For some reason, the majority of the unlockable tracks are “remastered”, which means they re-recorded them with instruments that sound worse! I appreciate the appeal to nostalgia, but these tracks just do not sound good.

So, I preferred Unleashed's soundtrack overall. The Day stages are upbeat rock and techno tracks with a bit of orchestral flavoring sprinkled in, but where the game really shines are the jazzy night themes.

Despite my issue with that battle theme cutting off the music every few minutes, I really love these tracks. Sonic Team took the tried-and-true fighting game rule to heart here: beating up dudes while jazz music plays is really cool. I can't think of many songs on the Unleashed soundtrack that I don't enjoy, including the hub themes and cutscene music. I believe it's a better soundtrack as a whole, while the Generations soundtrack has far too many immediate aural disappointments.

3. Sonic Unleashed has better writing.

In all aspects, the writing of Unleashed was superior to Generations. There were tons of funny clips from the NPCs. Professor Pickle was an absolute delight. And the game comes to a very satisfying emotional conclusion in regards to the sidekick character Chip. It's a simple story done very well.

In comparison, Generations is a simple story that could have used some more writing. I wanted more in-jokes for fans of the series. It's a giant nostalgia trip but they rarely reference it in the cutscenes.

There should have been more moments like this! Knuckles should quip about Eggman taking advantage of his gullible nature. Amy should meet Metal Sonic and freak out. There should have been an extra-long load time before Crisis City to poke fun at the awful loading of Sonic the Hedgehog '06.

Also, the dialogue during the final boss battle should have been cut entirely.

I know it's a homing shot. I knew it the first ten times you said it.

I don't know if the writing team was changed, but the script in Generations really lacked the quirky charm of Unleashed and the genuine humor of Colors.

4. Why so much 2D platforming?

Like I stated before, the majority of Sonic Unleashed is 3D gameplay, behind the back as Sonic. It's a bit janky at times, but they improved on it in Colors and even more in Generations.

However, my complaint from Colors is still here. The 3D gameplay is the best in the series, and they don't use it enough! I was under the impression that Modern Sonic would be fully 3D and Classic would be 2D, and only the latter half of that impression is correct.

In Modern Sonic's stages, the majority of gameplay is 2D or 2.5D. I was disappointed in this, because the 3D sections feel right. They're really refined and really fun, and criminally underused. In my view, it doesn't make much sense for BOTH characters to spend the majority of their time in the 2D plane, and Modern Sonic should have stuck to a mostly 3D style.

I actually enjoyed the Modern stages more than Classic in Generations, because the camera for Classic Sonic is a bit too zoomed in, and his controls are a little off. The developers claim to replicate the sense of momentum from the older games, but it's not completely there. He still feels a bit sluggish in a way I can't explain. It's something you'd have to try for yourself. Play Sonic 2 and the Classic Stages of Generations next to each other, and you'll be able to tell that Classic Sonic is not what he used to be.

I don't know much about Sonic Lost World yet, but I'm looking forward to playing it eventually. I know Sonic Team has done the Sonic Team Thing and created an entirely new gameplay style that's nothing like Colors, Unleashed, or Generations. Is it a good thing? I won't know until I get my hands on it. Still, I appreciate them trying new things every time, in an industry where major publishers and developers are actively discouraged from doing so.

So while I might not get the awesome, fully 3D Sonic game in the style of Generations that I want, I'll keep playing and enjoying Sonic games for years to come. You can keep my Cool Kids Club card.

13 Comments

I Suck At Fighting Games: Street Fighter x Tekken

Before I started playing fighting games, I considered buying the latest incarnation of Street Fighter IV as a starting point. Street Fighter seemed like a good fighting game to jump into because it will teach you the fundamentals that carry across all the genres. Street Fighter has been cited by people better than me to contain “everything you need to know about fighting games”.

However, the announcement of Ultra Street Fighter IV put a damper on those plans. I decided against picking up Street Fighter IV until the newest iteration and went for something that might scratch the same itch.

I played this game after putting a good amount of time into Tekken Tag Tournament 2, which ended up being a pretty good idea. It turns out that this game shares a couple gameplay mechanics and the general strategy to doing well is quite similar to that game.

So, to start off I jumped into the Tutorial mode to check out the game's systems.

It's a very good tutorial. There's a lot of mechanics in here, but since I have a basic understanding of how Street Fighter works through watching too many streams, it didn't take long for me to pick up concepts like meter management and EX Special Moves. Some of the names for techniques are confusing (I consistently mix up Cross Rush and Cross Assault), but it turns out that some of the mechanics in this game are unnecessary so it doesn't make matter if you remember them or not. Let's go into the pointless mechanics.

Pandora: Pandora is Street Fighter x Tekken's comeback mechanic. When one of your characters is at 25% health, you can sacrifice them, transfer their remaining HP to your other character and put them in a super powered state. They gain regenerating meter and their attacks get more powerful, but they are also on a time limit. If you can't KO your opponent before your time runs out, you lose.

I have rarely found a practical use for Pandora. If your opponent has over 50% health, you will probably not be able to KO them before your timer runs out. It's really easy to run away from attacks in this game, so that will also work against the person who activated Pandora. I've gotten a few lucky victories against mashers by activating Pandora and immediately using a Super Art, but it's not a sustainable strategy. Overall, Pandora is almost never worth it.

Quick Combo: If you have 1 bar of meter, you can use a Quick Combo. This is a combo that you have to program yourself in a buried menu. I suppose it could be useful for beginners, but I always found it more practical to use the meter I gained for a solid combo with an EX Special Move.

Cross Cancel: I fully admit that I only find this mechanic underwhelming because I suck. I see it used somewhat often in high level play, but I just don't use it. It's a guard cancel. If you find yourself forced to block for a long time, you can hit Forward + Medium Punch + Medium Kick to immediately reversal with an EX Special Move. Like I said, I'm sure it's useful but I've rarely been put into a situation where it's a good idea to burn some meter and use it. And the input is a bit difficult so I just end up walking forward (and getting hit) when attempting to Cross Cancel.

Most of the Gems: Gems are one of the most widely disliked aspects in Street Fighter x Tekken. I haven't seen any that were gamebreaking, but I did have to deal with this.

The process of customizing a Gem Unit is dreadful. The menus load slowly, and many of the gems have unrealistic activation parameters and aren't worth looking at. Some of them are as simple as “break a throw” or “have your attack blocked five times”. But then you get into Gems that require your opponent to activate Pandora, gems that give you a boost to power but cut your speed, gems that are downloadable content and it just gets silly.

Like I said, none of the gems I've encountered are game breaking. But the poor interface and lack of diversity in gem effects makes me wonder why the customization aspect was even included. I would have preferred if every character just had default gem sets. Maybe 1 for Power, Defense, and Meter gain and that's it. The system is a bit too complicated right now, and since only default gem units are allowed in major tournaments what's the point of letting people customize them?

After finishing the Tutorial, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that each character has Trials, which teach you all of their special moves, and a few basic, practical combos. It reminds me of the Challenges in Persona 4 Arena which I love and wish were in every fighting game. Trials in Street Fighter X Tekken really helped ease me into the Street Fighter style of 2D fighting that I'm mostly unfamiliar with.

So after doing trials for several characters that I liked, I picked Lili and Nina. Lili because I was familiar with her, being my main character in Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and Nina because her moves looked cool and were easy enough for me to pull off.

Online Mode in Street Fighter x Tekken is barebones, but gets the job done. I mostly played Ranked battles, choosing “Any” area and opponent skill for “Same” so I didn't get beaten too badly. There's a neat system where you gain points for each match you win, and lose them if you lose. You get a larger amount of points if someone is ranked higher than you, and less points if they're equal or lower ranked than you.

The thing I noticed very quickly is that the netcode in this game is not good. You can see your opponent's connection before accepting a match and it's on a ranking of 1-4 bars. 4 bars is preferable, and anything below that is borderline unplayable. The game hitches up online often, shows things that maybe didn't happen (for example: I've connected with a throw, the game rewound in the middle of a throw animation and decided that my opponent actually broke the throw), and is generally unstable. I played several matches in a row against a friend who lives one state away from me. We always had 4 bar connections but there would be lag spikes at unpredictable times.

Maybe the internet connection suffers due to the large amount of detail in the backgrounds? Maybe it's an issue with Capcom games in general? I remember playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 online and having similar problems, but encountered very little lag in other non-Capcom games that I've been playing. Either way, I began to decline every match that wasn't a 4 bar connection because below 4 bars quickly became unacceptable.

So, what is the basic game plan for Street Fighter x Tekken? I found it to be similar to Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

1. Hit a combo with your point character.

2. Launcher/Cross Rush to tag in your second character mid combo

3. Continue the combo with your second character.

That seemed to be the best idea to get high amounts of damage. I didn't discover until several matches in that there are more nuances that weren't explained in the Tutorial.

This game has a juggle system that is somewhat similar to Tekken Tag Tournament 2. Certain moves will cause a “bound” state, where you slam your opponent hard into the ground and they make a big yellow shockwave. You can use an OTG to pick them up from this state and continue the combo. It's a bit complicated because you need to learn which of your character's moves will cause a bound if they hit a jumping opponent or if they are a counter hit.

The damage scaling is very harsh. I found out on several occasions that my fancy, long combo did exactly eight points LESS damage than an easier combo. From what I can tell, you want to do your heavy attacks early in the combo to get the maximum damage, because the damage scaling kicks in very quickly. It's interesting to see how damaging a 2 bar or 3 bar Super Art is if you hit it raw as opposed to in the middle of a combo, because they scale REALLY harshly when used mid combo.

From what I can tell, the Tekken characters are better than the Street Fighter ones. Tekken Strings are more versatile than the “Target Combos” available to Street Fighter characters. In my team, Nina has a go-to Tekken String that is a mid, low, and launcher. Lili has a very fast mid to low string that's basically a built-in mixup. I saw many more Tekken characters online than Street Fighter ones. They seem to have several ambiguous animations where it's tough to tell if an attack hits high or low, and most of them have quick, reliable overhead attacks.

So, Street Fighter x Tekken isn't the easiest game for newcomer to get into. The tag mechanics in particular took me a while to get used to, especially when doing a tag combo. The tag input is a bit awkward (Medium Kick + Medium Punch) and I'm trying to teach myself how to hit it to Cross Rush in the middle of a string. I also had to do a bit of research outside of the game to maximize my potential. By asking some good players on Twitter, I learned that team synergy is pretty important. Nina doesn't need much meter to do high damage, but Lili really depends it. So I learned after several days of playing that I should put Nina in front and Lili in the back, which ended up improving my game quite a bit. The game doesn't really give you any tips on team synergy like that, and never truly explains how the juggle system or OTG attacks work. That's the type of thing you'd have to look up online.

Pros:

-Huge cast of characters with very unique mechanics. They look cool and are mostly fun to use.

-Tutorial Mode is quite in depth and entertaining. Trial Mode is very good at teaching basic but useful combos for each character.

-Really nice presentation in the story mode. Win quotes and titles are full of silly jokes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJj4BVBOSJ0&list=PL008CD580C4107249&index=29

-Matches are mostly quick and fun due to high damage potential. You rarely get stuck in long combos, so there is always an opportunity to come back and win.

-Excellent training mode with most options that you'd need in a training mode. (Needs a display to show which moves hit High, Low, and Mid though!).

Cons:

-Cluttered with unnecessary mechanics like Pandora, Cross Assault, and Quick Combos.

-The timer runs too quickly and leads to many timeout decisions

-Online netcode is poor

-Poorly designed menus for Gem Customization. Too many Gems overall that are pointless/do the same thing as other Gems. I don't care for the Downloadable Content Gems that are better than the ones in the game. The Gem system as a whole should be simplified.

-Tutorial Mode doesn't explain a few key aspects like OTG combos and team synergy.

It's hard to believe it considering the mess that this game was at launch, but I think Street Fighter x Tekken is a really fun game. It's the type of game that I randomly get ideas for new combos and boot up Training mode to try out. Of course there are optimal routes to do maximum damage, but I found it enjoyable to explore how the damage scaling worked to find alternate, easier routes to do maximum damage.

There isn't much here for single player content, aside from the well-produced and often hilarious Arcade mode. But the game thrives in competitive play and it's compelling to try to keep your win streak going so you don't rank down.

The biggest problem is that the online netcode is discouraging me from playing it. It's the type of game I'd enjoy to play locally where I can be sure to consistently hit combos without random frame drops, but the online netcode is really poor compared to recent fighting games.

Will I keep playing Street Fighter x Tekken after Ultra Street Fighter IV comes out? I don't think it's likely that I'll keep playing it online if Ultra has better netcode. Still, I enjoy playing the game even though it's a bit of an odd introduction into the Street Fighter series. If you're willing to put in the effort, it's worth checking out for new players. It eases you in enough, has a lot of cool characters, and invites a surprising amount of experimentation when putting together combos. I don't know if I'll be any good at the next Street Fighter game when it comes out, but now I feel like I understand why that series is so popular. It's addictive to go from learning fundamentals to putting together combos, and learning to read your opponent on the fly.

And if that doesn't sell you on the game, check out the dancing bear.

10 Comments

Volition, can you stop this please?

Before I start talking about an aspect of Saints Row IV that I absolutely hate, I want to preface this by saying that I like the game. I've played every Saints Row game in the series, and was absolutely delighted by IV. Not only is it full of fanservice for fans of every previous title all the way back to the first one, it is one of the most fun games I've played in a long time. Every activity was a delight, and the story mode had a great mix of humor and emotional impact. As of now I'm saying that Saints Row IV has a high spot on my Game of the Year list.

Now here's the annoying part of the game. The cosmetic DLC.

This started in Saints Row The Third with the planned 40 Weeks of Downloadable Content marketing line. And very few people who heard of this thought it was a good idea because there's no way they could release 40 weeks of substantial content that enhances the game.

Guess what? They didn't. 90% of those "DLC weeks" were packs of costumes, weapons, weapon skins, and additional Homies you could call. Normally it would be easy to ignore dumb cosmetic DLC like this (Horse Armor) but this is a particularly egregious case for this franchise. Saints Row should have NEVER had paid cosmetic DLC.

The main complaint I had about Saints Row The Third was its lack of customization options compared to Saints Row 2.

The base character creator in Saints Row 2 has many options that are not in The Third or IV. You can use a slider to customize your character's body type, so instead of being 100% Male or 100% Female you can choose an in-between point that suits you. You could also customize your character's hand-to-hand combat style, walk cycle, and default facial expression.

There were also several "wear options" for clothes in stores. You could buy and customize socks and undergarments, choose to layer your clothing, choose what belt you would wear with certain pairs of pants, and even do silly things like decide if you wanted your jeans to be dirty and frayed or in pristine condition.

Understandably, many fans were disappointed or upset when these options were removed from Saints Row The Third and didn't even return in IV. So it made the addition of more clothes as DLC in those games feel like they were getting taken advantage of. You'd have to buy clothes in 3/4 to get as much customization options that you had in 2.

There was also the issue of the DLC packs not being fairly priced and not being included with the Season Pass. In the end, buying all the cosmetic DLC in Saints Row the Third costs more than buying the Season Pass that has missions and substantial game content.

Why couldn't this content be in the Season Pass? Why did they lock so many cool guns as downloadable content when Saints Row 2 had more guns as in-game unlockables? And most importantly why is this process being repeated for Saints Row IV?

It's not the best barometer for gauging audience reactions, but comments and ratings for the cosmetic DLC trailers in Saints Row The Third were almost universally negative, if one were to check the Saints Row Youtube page. And most of these people share the same sentiment as me: having less content than the previous game with the intent of selling us more in the future leaves a terrible taste in our mouths.

It's happening right now, too. The Season Pass for Saints Row IV doesn't include the various cosmetic DLC packs already released. The prices are too high ($3 per pack). And I still can't customize my character's walk cycle or get a more malleable gender slider.

Saints Row IV is a great game, but this poor use of downloadable content is an ugly black mark on a generally great product.

17 Comments

Assassin's Greed III

During an intense struggle against boredom last spring, I visited my local Gamestop to pick up something to play. Since no new games were out that I was interested in, I figured I'd go back and play one of the many games on my “critically acclaimed but I never played it” list. So, I picked up Assassin's Creed II for cheap.

I enjoyed the first Assassin's Creed game in spite of its many issues with pacing, control, and poor mission variety. The story and setting of the franchise fascinated me but Assassin's Creed 1 was not a very good game. I heard that the sequel was better, and those reports were 100% correct. Over the course of 2012 I played every Assassin's Creed title, got very involved into the lore, and even attempted to get all the Achievements in the game. I would say that so far, Assassin's Creed is my favorite video game franchise of this current generation.

And because I enjoy the series so much, I am extremely worried about its future. I think Assassin's Creed III was possibly one of the worst Xbox 360 games I've ever played, and I have almost no faith in Assassin's Creed IV being good. So why did I dislike Assassin's Creed III so much? I can only explain that by first telling you what I enjoyed about the other games.

Assassin's Creed II

The most obvious compliment this game has been given is “it is better than the first game”, but I don't think that goes far enough. Being better than the heavily flawed Assassin's Creed 1 isn't exactly difficult. But what Assassin's Creed II did was build something really solid on top of the foundation already laid..

The story of Assassin's Creed II is much more impactful. You play through Ezio Auditore's birth and early life, seeing how good his life was and how tragically it all gets ripped away from him. Replaying the game recently, I empathized even more with him during a late cutscene. He's been chasing the men who killed his family for the majority of his life, but feels like he'll never get his revenge or worse, that it will not satisfy him. Ezio is much more humorous, charming, and emotionally tormented than Altair was in the first game. It makes you want to see him succeed and the sheer amount of his life that you see makes his motivations and actions incredibly clear. There are some moments where his rage gets the better of him, but it shows that he's a flawed, yet heroic character.

The big controversy about this game was the ending. It brought in the larger narrative of the series in a somewhat random-feeling infodump and ends on a cliffhanger. I found the ending oddly humorous in its absurdity, but there is more than enough foreshadowing about how things will turn out. The “Truth” segments in the game are optional, sure. But it's not difficult to do them and get some very revealing clues about where the main plot is going to go. Personally, I liked the ending just fine.

The gameplay received a major improvement from the first. Mostly, the free running is much more enjoyable and less prone to freaking out. In an open world game, having a significant amount of travel time can wear down on the player. However, if you can make the travel enjoyable in some way, you've solved the problem. I really enjoy how fluid free-running looks and feels in the Assassin's Creed series. I'd say at least half of my enjoyment of the games is free-running and observing the beautiful architecture. Also, there are sidequests EVERYWHERE to do, so I was frequently breaking up my travel time by stopping off to the side to do a race or pick up some flags. It never really felt boring to me.

The combat is much better but I find it difficult to go back to Assassin's Creed II because of how simplistic it is. The majority of enemies can be taken out by counter kills, and they attack you one at a time even when you are totally surrounded. Heavy enemies must be thrown off with a kick to open up for combos, or you can just fight them unarmed and win handily. I felt like the fighting itself got repetitive after a while due to lack of variation, but it stays somewhat engaging until the last stretches of the game.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

Most people would call this game the peak of the franchise. I'm not inclined to agree, but I see why it's so beloved.

The story might be why I don't care for this game too much. There is a goal (kick the Borgias out of Rome, get your revenge for your uncle's death) but it felt too much like a collection of random events than a plot. Mission threads lead you around seemingly unrelated incidents a lot of the time, leaving me wondering “when are we gonna get the Borgias?” There's some strange backtracking where you visit a major location for at least two missions and must enter it almost exactly the same way. It felt like padding there. Also, the end of the game locks you into a LONG string of missions that you can't quit from and barrels you toward the ending at an uncomfortably fast pace. I felt like Brotherhood lacked the emotional impact of II with the story of Ezio's slow build from a regular man to a trained killer. Sure, he becomes the Mentor of the Assassin Brotherhood in this game, but it is handled with little fanfare.

The ending of the game also felt like a cliffhanger for the sake of one. I can't complain too much because I was able to play Revelations immediately after finishing Brotherhood, but the cliffhanger ending felt nonsensical. Instead of making me excited to see the next game, I was just left cold and confused by this one.

The gameplay is quite an improvement. The combat has been made easier but more engaging. You can counter kill enemies in a row with one strike, but they are much more aggressive and force you to pay attention and time your counters better. You also get an absolutely HUGE amount of tools to use in combat like guns, poison darts, and the incredibly overpowered crossbow that you can use for long range stealth kills. I really enjoyed how the unique weapon classes let you fight how you want, and I switched between quick-but-weak knives or slow-but-powerful Heavy Weapons depending on what type of mission I was getting into. This missions have each been enhanced with optional objectives that really aren't good for anything but an Achievement, but are still enjoyable to pursue and give you reason to replay them.

The economy system was introduced in Brotherhood, and is much more engaging than this description will make it sound. You unlock new buildings around the area with money, and having more unlocked buildings lets you build cash faster. It's one of the few open world games with a very intelligently designed economy. I can't even call it “fun” to walk around buying buildings, but I also can't stop doing it. You want to have money to unlock new buildings or get new weapons, and so you do sidequests to get money, but then you spend it all again unlocking new buildings.

Brotherhood also adds Borgia Towers. You have to kill a specific Captain in order to “unlock” a tower/synchronization point to climb it. These made for some interesting experiences, because you can approach them several ways. Depending on how the area is laid out, you can either sneak in and assassinate the Captain, or hire a group of thugs to rush the front door and take out everyone. Because the layout of each Tower is different, it lets you experiment in completing them, making for some of the more enjoyable segments of the game.

Some of the worst segments of the game were Leonardo's Machines. You generally have to sneak into an area and destroy a paper before you're spotted. This part sucks because it falls into the worst mission type in stealth game history, the “Get Spotted and You Fail” mission. It doesn't help that every time you fail, you are subjected to a long loading screen. And the payoff for doing these missions isn't great; they all culminate with piloting the machine you were sent to destroy. The majority of these missions are not enjoyable because the machines are fragile and have very poor controls. It's an unexpected gameplay shift to go from third person stealth to piloting a mini-boat and sinking ships, but unexpected gameplay shifts are only cool when the alternate gameplay doesn't feel awkward and unfinished.

Basically, none of the Leonardo's Machine missions are as cool as the boat sections in Assassin's Creed III.

I didn't like Brotherhood as much as II despite recognizing all of its improvements. I enjoy these games mostly based on atmosphere and setting, and Rome just wasn't as nice to look at as Italy. There are too many large, open fields with nothing in them. The buildings don't look as impressive. The soundtrack is a major step down from Assassin's Creed II. And I didn't really care about the story this time around because it felt too impersonal and unfocused. I think Brotherhood is a better game in terms of gameplay, but I just didn't like anything else about it nearly as much as II.

Assassin's Creed Revelations

I'm in the minority here, but this is by far my favorite game in the franchise. Most people dismissed Revelations when it came out because it was the third yearly installment in a row. So I understand that they felt burned out. I probably view it more favorably because I paid less for it than most, but I also think it succeeds because it polished every previous mechanic from the series while adding a few more.

The story is much better than Brotherhood. Ezio is pretty darn old in this game, and you're playing through his last major quest as an Assassin. So there's an appropriate amount of references to previous events in the franchise, and some winks and nods at things only hardcore fans of the series will get. The main plot revolves around discovering a secret that Altair has hidden, and you do this by playing as him in flashbacks. These sequences give Altair more character development than the entirety of the first game and an accent that actually makes sense. Unlike Brotherhood, your goal is very clear from the start and the game does even more examination of Ezio's personality. It does nothing to advance the “main” plot of the franchise, but it brings Altair and Ezio's stories to a close in a poignant way.

The gameplay does one thing very right off the bat by rejuvenating the free-running mechanic. Since Ezio is so old now, he needs tools to help him move as fast as he used to. The Hookblade not only makes climbing and jumping easier, it also lets Ezio climb faster than he's ever climbed before. If you make a bad jump, you can even hold the right hand button to extend your hookblade and save yourself. Free-running everywhere through three games in a row could potentially get boring, but the addition of this simple tool (and the new scenery) made it as enjoyable as the first time I did it. It also helps that Constantinople is much more visually interesting than Rome. The buildings are designed differently as well, so you have to climb them differently. The change of scenery really was welcome here, and I like Constantinople more than Rome or Italy.

The sword combat hasn't changed dramatically from Brotherhood, but the introduction of bombs lets you approach combat situations differently. I think the interface for creating bombs is a bit too clunky, but using them is worth it. It's tough to assassinate a small group of guards, but it's very easy to throw a poison bomb in the middle of them and kill them instantly. In the middle of foot chases, you can throw down spikes to hinder people chasing you and aid your getaway. You can even replace the old “Throw Money to distract guards” standby with a Gold Bomb that explodes coins everywhere! Not every bomb is useful, but using them tactically will make the game much easier and give you an incentive to approach situations differently than “run here and stab all these men”.

The mechanics behind recruiting and leveling up an Assassin hit squad to guard your back have been made a bit deeper, but not all of the change is for the better. The Assassins are linked to several strongholds you have on the map, and they can defend them from Templar attacks when fully leveled. You can also go on multi-part sidequests with them that have unique stories, which I did enjoy.

However, the interface for assigning Assassins to a stronghold is clunky. So is the one for sending them out to complete missions in “Mediterranean Defense” and assigning them to certain countries after you take them over. I won't get too much into that because the design of this part of the game is very poor, and I don't want to waste 1000 more words explaining exactly how it works. Just wanted to note how it's not very well designed.

The only gameplay in the Real World are first person platforming sections where you can spawn your own platforms to run across. I felt like these were the weakest parts of the game because the controls aren't fit for first person. It's especially jarring after playing Mirror's Edge. These sections were not worth finishing.

Despite those few quirks, I enjoyed Assassin's Creed Revelations. It's still my favorite game in the series after going back to replay them all. The new setting and revamped free-running gives new life into the basic act of traveling, the bombs open up a lot of fun options in combat, and the story has a very satisfying arc and conclusion. Even if it doesn't really advance the Real World plot that everyone wants to know about.

______________________________________________________________________________________

So why I just spend so much time describing my experience with the other Assassin's Creed games if this blog is about III? I need to convey how much III disappointed me. I saw the series steadily improve and add more mechanics to benefit the player over time, culminating in Revelations being one of my favorite games of this console generation. Then, Assassin's Creed III took most of the good in the franchise and threw it away.

Assassin's Creed III

Initially, I wanted to play and beat every game in this franchise in the same year. I finished Revelations in August 2012 and waited patiently for III. I avoided most preview materials to cut down on spoilers, and all I really knew was that it would take place in America. Sounds cool.

So in November I rented Assassin's Creed III and played through Haytham's prologue in a few days. I was extremely unimpressed. At launch, the game was glitchy as hell. I would frequently fly off into space during random jumps, clip through people, voice/music cues would stop working, the AI was idiotic, and I had two hard freezes. Not only that, but the prologue was just boring. I knew I wasn't playing as the protagonist and couldn't force myself to care about Haytham's story. I spent that part of the game just waiting for it to truly start. So I finished the prologue and returned the game to Redbox after two days, not wanting to play it any more.

At launch, I couldn't justify paying $60 for a glitchy game with bad controls. I waited until July 2013 for a good sale and gave it another shot from the beginning.

The Story

After playing through the game a few more times, I've grown to appreciate the prologue with Haytham. This is because Haytham is FAR more interesting than the actual protagonist in the game. He's certainly evil, but Haytham and the Templars in this game actually have motivations that are more subtle than “blow up the world”.

What I really enjoyed about the story is that it shows the shades of gray in both the Assassins and Templars. The Assassins want everyone to be free but are accomplishing it with murder. Connor isn't a clear-cut hero because he does many things for selfish reasons and is short-tempered and naïve. In fact, Connor is significantly less likable than Ezio for more reasons than that. He doesn't seem to have much agency in his life and is just being pulled from conflict to conflict. His duties as an Assassin are consistently clouded and ignored due to his desire to drop everything and save his tribe. He also has none of Ezio's charm or humor.

The speeches given to Connor by the major Templars he slays makes him appear even less heroic. The post-death in this series were always a little silly because the majority of Templars were gloating villains, but in Assassin's Creed III very few people are fully evil or fully good, including the seemingly heroic Assassins.

Connor's story has a bittersweet, but satisfying end after one of the most climatic and cool “boss” confrontations in the entire franchise. The same cannot be said for the end of Desmond's story in the real world. It rarely makes sense, is anticlimatic, and has a truly egregious sequel hook. Say what you will about Mass Effect 3. Bioware had a clear vision of how they would end the series and did so.

Ubisoft continues to make Assassin's Creed go on further, get more confusing, and push the conclusion further out of sight. Assassin's Creed games have to come out annually, so they're afraid of wrapping up the plot because they can't monetize it anymore if they do so. I felt for the first time in III that I had been had. I played through a pretty significant arc to see how they would handle the “end of the world” scenario and so far all I have is “we'll solve it later”.

The gameplay in Assassin's Creed III is almost as bad as the first game. I could go over the little things like removing the "walk and talk" feature where you automatically walk with a group you're blending with, or how the HUD doesn't label how to use some of your items, or the Notoriety system being busted, but there's no time. Let's just hit the two big ones.

Free Running. It has been simplified for the worse here. You hold the right trigger to jog or depress it fully to sprint at full speed. Also, you are in "climbing mode" whenever you have the trigger held down.

In previous games, you sprinted with Right Trigger and went into "climbing mode" by pressing a different button. It was more complicated, but it also cut down on the amount of incidents where you accidentally climbed a thing that you didn't want to. Because you're ALWAYS in "climbing mode" while sprinting in Assassin's Creed III, there is much more room for error. And holy crap did I run into a lot of errors. I frequently would climb structures I didn't want to, jump off buildings to my death accidentally, and lose targets around corners because Connor decided it was more important to run up some scaffolding than chase his target.

Combat. This is actually an area that I felt was improved. The counter system has been reworked, so when an enemy is about to attack you hit the marked "Counter" button. Time freezes, and you can choose to either disarm, throw, or instantly kill them. Due to the time freezing mechanic, the combat in general feels much easier. They ramp it up by throwing a truly absurd amount of enemies at you, and varying their types. Some enemies must be disarmed before you can kill them, some are more vulnerable to punches than swords, and some of them will draw guns and shoot at you, forcing you to act quickly before you take a ton of damage. Combat is one area that I generally consider better in Assassin's Creed III.

I love the fist fight music too.

Assassin's Guild.

In Brotherhood and Revelations, one of the most enjoyable things to do was to call in your recruited Assassins. You whistle and wave your hand, and they materialize out of nowhere to stealth kill your target.

In III, you don't gain the ability to call in Recruits for a long time. You have to do a large amount of poorly designed sidequests to get them, and when you do, they're not very good. They have very low stamina and WILL be knocked out if you call them in a fight with two or more guards. It's nice that they are now only temporarily knocked out instead of killed permanently like previous games, but they are so fragile that it's not worth calling them. There are a few special commands to issue them like "Marksman" that works as a screen nuke or "Covert Escort" that allows you to sneak undetected into certain areas. The problem is that these skills are absolutely not useful. Marksman and Assassinate are for killing a small handful of guards, but the others either don't work as advertised or end up getting your recruits injured.

In the end, it's better to kill guards by yourself because Connor is so powerful. The recruits are little more than meatshields, even if you bother to use them enough to raise their levels.

Stealth. This game introduces more stealth elements on top of the old "hide in a haystack to escape" element. There are short bushes and shrubbery to hide in, and non-lethal stealth kills like bows and unarmed takedowns to lower your chances of detection. This is to support some truly awful stealth sections in this game. There are too many missions where you must tail a target without them seeing you, because if they do see you, the mission is over and you have to sit through an overly long load time to try it again. You have more options to hide because guards are much more vigilant in this game, sometimes initiating a chase against you if you were simply standing in the wrong place for too long. That is one of the larger issues in the game: being chased so often and for seemingly no reason. And despite the inclusion of more hiding spots, chases last much longer than they need to and can put you miles away from a mission you were about to start.

Economy. I don't want to spend too much time on this, because it's too much to speak about. The economy in this game is much more confusing and pointless than the previous games. You earn money by crafting and selling items with the worst user interface ever. You use this money to buy upgrades for your ship to do optional missions. If you don't enjoy the ship combat, then you have no reason to do this because there's nothing else to buy. Purchasing weapons is pointless because they don't vary combat significantly, and it is definitely possible to complete the game with your default weapons because combat is so easy.

The attempt to add complexity with the economy completely backfired because they made it too complex to the point that it's not enjoyable to use. The poorly designed menus and fact that they're nothing decent to buy only pours more salt onto the wound.

This minigame.

Sums up Assassin's Creed III very well. Doesn't explain how to complete it, isn't fun, and gives you a pitiful reward.

I could go into the numerous glitches I experienced while playing Assassin's Creed III, but those don't ruin the game. What did was the overly complex HUD, poor mission variety, frequent loading times, uninteresting story, and sequel baiting ending. I enjoy playing Assassin's Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations all the way through, but there are a few pockets of boredom in them.

Assassin's Creed III is mostly boredom, a large chunk of frustration, and contains a few nuggets of fun gameplay. It went from a series that is possibly my favorite of this generation to one I don't look forward to anymore. What I've seen of Assassin's Creed IV seems that they improved the beloved ship combat mechanic and left everything else with the game alone. Will they get rid of the glitches? Will the Current Era storyline be wrapped up at all? Will the missions not be incredibly boring and contain "mess up one thing and you fail and sit through a long loading time" fail states?

I don't know anymore and I don't think I care. I have no faith in this franchise being able to produce a good game again as long as the current cycle of "turn one out every year" continues. People complain about an annual franchise like Call of Duty getting stagnant, but stagnation is preferable to releasing a game that is not only stagnant, but significantly less enjoyable than the last.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3

This is the game we play!

Out of all the currently popular fighting games available today, I've seen the most of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. You can watch streams for it pretty much any time of day and it's frequently one of the “main event” games at tournaments. So I've done a lot of homework on it and learned a lot of the core gameplay mechanics just by watching and asking questions.

Good thing too, because this game is never gonna teach you how to actually play it.

Before I get into that though, why is Marvel vs. Capcom 3 so popular? The premise is instantly appealing. Comic book characters and videogame characters fighting is a really cool concept that drew my attention and probably anyone else with even a slight interest in either field. Could Dante kick Captain America's ass? Who would win in a fight, She-Hulk or Tron Bonne? All very important questions that can be answered by Marvel.

So, I think it goes without saying that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is incredibly fun to watch once you know what's happening. Characters shout specific one-liners related to who they're battling, Hyper Combos cause the screen to rip like a comic book page, and all kinds of pretty, LONG combos are happening when the game is being played at a high level.

It's understandable why so many people want to play this game. It just looks really cool.

Now let me tell you why I found it near impossible to actually get into it.

I started this series of blogs to find a game I liked and could get good at. I hope it has helped you pick a game that isn't too intimidating right off the bat. Due to the lack of tutorial and training options and how complex Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is, I don't believe it's a good game for newcomers to jump into. In fact, it might be one of the most difficult fighting games to get good at. It is difficult to learn and even harder to master.

Until recently, the majority of fighting games seemed to have very limited tutorial options. What that means is you'd have to spend as much time learning the systems of the game as learning combos and matchups. This game came out in 2011 before Skullgirls in 2012, a game with one of the best tutorials in any fighting game. So maybe Capcom didn't care to clue in new players on how to play the game?

So, here's what tutorial options you actually have. On the main menu there is “Offline Mode” which includes Training and Mission. Mission is what you're looking for. Each character has ten missions that teach you some of their special moves, some of their Hyper Combos, and basic combos.

I learned a couple things from this. Most characters have a basic combo that involves three ground hits, launcher, four air hits. It's generally Light, Medium, Heavy, Special, Medium, Medium, Heavy, Special. I played the Missions for every character and I'd say about 90% of them have this combo or some variation for it.

Here's where Mission Mode fails. It doesn't show you every special move, normal move, and Hyper Combo each character has, only some of them. There is no information given as to why one would use these certain moves. Some of the moves are Mashable, which means they can be extended and do more damage if you mash buttons or rotate the analgo stick while you perform them. The game does not explain this anywhere.

When you pause the game to look at the command list, it takes you to a huge list of every character's commands in the game. Why? Just immediately link me to the character I'm playing so I don't have to scroll through this list. I'd like to see demonstrations for some of the Missions to see what I'm doing wrong, but it's not there. It really should be there, but it isn't.

In fact there are entire gameplay mechanics that go unexplained. There's no basic tutorial in the game to teach them to you. So X-Factor's uses aren't explained, but you have to do it to complete some of the Missions. Team Aerial Combos, where you do a combo in midair and tag out to another character to continue it, is never explained. I only know how to do both of these maneuvers because I asked friends, watched a lot of streams, and studied a wiki page.

There's a juxtaposition between the game appearing approachable but actually not being so. I like a few things it does. S (special) seems to be the universal launcher, and slams your opponent to the ground while they're in a your air combo. The “magic series” combos (L, M, H, S, air M, air M, air H, air S) are near universal so you have something to fall back on if you're trying a new character. You can save a favorite team as a “Reserve Unit” to quickly access during character selection, which is useful because there are a LOT of characters to scroll through. There are some neat bonuses for beating Arcade mode like new artwork, unique endings, and really detailed character biographies. And even though the menus are outdated, the HUD in game is very nice. Your assists are clearly marked with AI and A2 so you know which button will call them out. The Assist system is very simple. You tap one button to call an assist, hold it to tag to that marked character, hit both buttons to do a Team Hyper Combo, and snapping in is quarter circle forward + assist. It's much easier to learn than Skullgirls' more complicated, multiple button system for assists and tagging, and I prefer the assist system here over that game.

However, a lot of the game's presentation feels dated and very poor. To set a Reserve Unit, you have to go to the main menu, go to your “License” card, and set it there. Why can't I select three characters to save as a Reserve Unit during character selection in Arcade or Training mode? It would be nice if I could hold a button to go into “save” mode and create my new unit right there.

The menus move sluggishly and there's a lot of waiting while the game saves whenever you return to the main menu. The online options are very limited, as you cannot set a specific region for searching within. And on the same topic, the online netcode is poor. Compared to games like Persona 4 Arena which works with minimal to no lag even under bad connections, it was jarring to go to Marvel vs. Capcom 3 online and be able to feel a delay between inputting an attack and the attack coming out every single time.

I won't complain too much about the slim single player offerings, since this game came from the era where it was acceptable to have almost nothing to do offline. The distant year of 2011...good times. I will compliment the Heroes and Heralds mode, which I spent a good amount of time playing. You collect trading cards that give your team buffs and fight against the computer or online. The AI isn't particularly difficult, but I enjoyed fighting against weird shiny versions of the characters and making the most broken combinations I could with certain cards.

So, I don't have much else to say about the game, really. I don't think it's particularly fair or balanced. Getting stuck in long touch of death combos is a bummer every time, especially considering that the game doesn't teach you how to do them. I know we're expected to do some level of online research to get good at fighting games these days, but Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 doesn't even give you the bare minimum to get started. X-Factor is a cool idea: you gain a damage and speed boost that gets more potent as you lose more characters. However, I found it to be an unfair comeback mechanic because of the damage boost. It does some smart things like let you negate chip damage while blocking and works as an animation cancel. If you're in blockstun you can activate X-Factor and immediately counterattack. That's cool! But the damage boost makes it far too unbalanced.

The tiers in this game have a large effect on how well you'll do. In general, you will do better if you add a top tier character to your team like Wesker, Dormammu, Zero, Vergil, or Doctor Doom. I'm one of those weirdos who plays games for fun, and I was having more fun learning characters I had some personal attachment to than picking a top tier to make my life easier. But the simple fact is that the low tier characters have to work harder to win and if you're really into winning, you better throw one or more of them on your team to make your time a lot easier.

So I don't think I'll be getting good at this game. It's enjoyable to play with people who are my skill level (which is about zero out of 10 on the Skill Scale), but the amount of time and dedication it takes to get truly proficient at it is too high for me. Maybe I got into it too late because people online are so much better than me that I can't even learn from losses (too busy stuck in an unbreakable combo to learn!). But the fact is that the game won't ever teach you how to play it. If you're a new player looking to get into a fighting game for the first time, you might want to look somewhere else.

It's a shame, too. I really was liking my Tron Bonne/Frank West/Super Skrull team. I like seeing these characters in action and I still get a thrill of of spectating and watching on streams. I also don't want to put in the effort to learn a game when it's not willing to teach me even a little bit.

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Why Saints Row 2 Poops On Saints Row IV (It's A Better Game)

I see a lot of people getting excited about the upcoming release of Saints Row IV. But did you know that you are actually wrong?

Yes, it's true! The Saints Row series peaked at 2 and has been circling the drain since. I don't know if it's out of laziness or just plain contempt for their audience, but the developers made The Third a worse game and will probably ruin IV as well.

I know some of you were introduced to the series with Saints Row The Third, so let me explain why Saints Row 2 is the high point of the series that they will never reach again, ever. Prepare to get sad.

Stilwater is a more interesting city than Steelport

Stilwater in Saints Row 2 is one of the best open worlds in a video game, and I'm just talking aesthetically here! We'll get to the other good stuff later!

There are so many distinct districts and areas of Stilwater that it's crazy. You have a college campus with skateboarding students, a huge student center, and the "Frat Row". You've got a nuclear power plant island, Chinatown, the airport, factories, some high-class downtown areas that have totally different street textures, a trailer park...pretty much every traditional “open world city” setting is here. The cool thing is that they're all visually distinct and have different NPCs walking around depending on the area. You won't see gang members strolling around in baggy jeans in the downtown area.

In comparison, Steelport is a mostly flat, all industrial city that gets more boring to explore as they close off bridges. There's no variable weather or day/night cycle. You're looking at mostly the same scenery throughout Saints Row The Third and it gets boring. As opposed to Saints Row 2, where every location is visually distinct. It feels like a real town. Steelport feels like a video game fake city, lessening the joy in exploring it.

Basically, there are no cool hidden secrets like this in Steelport.

And this is only tangentially related, but the soundtrack in Saints Row 2 is the best in the series. I actually recognized a lot of the songs, as opposed to the soundtracks in Saints Row The Third and IV which are just obscure to get indie cred. Whatever, I'll be over here killing dudes to this amazing music.

More Customization in Saints Row 2

The city of Stilwater has LOADS of clothing stores, each catering to a different style. There's a hippy store, used clothing store, campus store with college clothes, and even separate stores for jewelry and cars. There's even a mall with a few unique stores.

Steelport in Saints Row The Third has like 20 Planet Saints (that all have the same clothes), and three specialty stores that are really far out of the way. I like the clothes in Nobody Loves Me, but why is there only one in the entire city? Am I gonna drive all the way through this boring city to get clothes there? Probably not.

I suppose there's a metaphor at play here. The Saints in The Third have grown soft and complacent, so they just monopolize the city's clothing outlets because they're boring now like the game is. And it makes shopping for clothes a boring time when there's 30 of one shop EVERYWHERE, and then three other shops that are out of the way. Why not spread that out?

Anyway, there are more glaring omissions to customization in Saints Row The Third. Stuff that was already in 2 that they removed for no good reason. You can't have custom walk cycles. You can't customize how you wear your clothes. In 2, if I buy a pair of jeans I can choose to wear them sagging, the type of wear they are (regular, battered, or acid washed for example), if I want a belt on, and many other options.

In The Third, that stuff is just gone. I can't customize my own walk cycle. Why? I can't customize how I wear my clothes. Instead of buying a pair of jeans and wearing them how I choose, I have to buy Baggy Jeans 1, Belt Jeans 1, Acid Wash Jeans 1...it's such a step backwards. For no good reason.

More Stores in Saints Row 2

Back in my day, Saints Row games had hella stores. In addition to the clothing options I already went over, there were some extra stores that most open world games don't have.

I'm talking about the liquor stores, mostly. In gas stations, liquor stores, and nightclubs in Saints Row 2, you can buy alcohol and weed. Now I'll admit, there's no reason for there to be several types of stores selling the same thing. And I don't even know what the alcohol and weed does besides be less useful than food powerups. They don't add anything to the game...except charm.

You know, the thing Saints Row The Third went very far out of its way to avoid? Having charm and personality? Saints Row 2 has that.

There's also record stores so you can buy songs for your portable MP3 player. That's right, you can listen to music from the radio even when you're not in the car. Another feature pointlessly removed by Saints Row The Third. I can't wait to not hear the soundtrack in Saints Row IV because I'll be running around with my super speed! Not using a car ever, because why would you?

There are car dealerships to buy cars to store in your garage in Saints Row 2. Which is...kinda pointless because you can steal whatever car you'll need. But that shows the length the team used to go through to immerse you in the game's world.

Saints Row 2 has regenerating health, but sometimes you don't want to just sit in a corner as your health recharges (which happens all the time in The Third). So you can go to fast food shops and buy healing items to store in your inventory. And even though every store has unique food items for no good reason because they all work the same way, and even though there's no real reason for them to offer multiple sizes of health packs because you should just buy the biggest one anyway...why take that out of the game?

It's a good idea and you just remove it. Great job.

More Side Missions In Saints Row 2

This one is a pretty big failure. Sidequests Fight Club, Crowd Control, Septic Avenger, Tow Truck, Ambulance EMT, Ho-ing, Taxi Driver, Tagging, Secret Areas, CD Collection, Drive-By, and Mugging are just gone from Saints Row The Third.

Why? Well, some could make the argument that a good deal of those aren't fun. And they'd probably be right. But find a replacement for them or tweak them to make them more fun instead of just cutting huge amounts of content.

I really enjoyed customizing your character with different fighting styles in Saints Row 2. You could pull off cool combo attacks in addition to using improvised weapons everywhere, like traffic meters and wooden barrels. And they take it all out in The Third for a worse melee system with no combos and the glitchy “finisher” button. I guarantee that the wrestling match would be more fun if they kept the old combo system.

Unlocking more rewards by completing Side Missions in Saints Row 2 was rewarding. It was admittedly annoying playing side quests just to progress the story. And even more annoying having character power-ups tied to some of the side missions, especially if the side mission wasn't fun. Why should I have to play Mayhem to make my character better? I don't like Mayhem. And Snatch is terrible.

Oops, I'm supposed to be praising Saints Row 2 here. Uh, just don't play that stuff if you don't want to! But then play them to unlock new missions and finish the game because you have to. Moving on.

THE STORY

This is the biggest reason why the Saints Row games won't be as good as 2. The story in Saints Row 2 was perfect. It's one of the few games to pull off the Playable Character being a villain. In their rise to the top, this character does some despicable things. They poison a rival with radioactive waste out of spite. They manufacture and sell hard drugs. They CONSUME hard drugs. They brutally decapitate another rival. They spray feces all over nice houses for some cash.

You do some ridiculous stuff in Saints Row 2, but there's also some story beats with true emotional impact. Like the infamous scene where Carlos is murdered, or when you kill your former boss for no good reason. The last one in particular shows how ruthless the Boss has become.

Each gang storyline has a buildup where you learn to really despise your rival, and a final confrontation where you kill them off in a satisfying way. There's buildup, and payoff. Even the sidequests have some story behind them.

In Saints Row The Third, all of the gangs are a big conglomerate that fight against you. The bosses are defeated anticlimatically because there was no buildup. When Loren dies from having a giant ball dropped on him, I honestly don't know anyone who didn't say “That was it? The big boss guy just dies like that?”

Not only that, but the over-the-top elements of Saints Row The Third disconnect the player from any emotion. I really wanted to kill Maero after he tortured Carlos to death.

I didn't feel anything toward any of the bosses in The Third because the plot jumped around so much. It felt like there were large sections of story content cut out, giving the game a disjointed feel.

And now Saints Row IV seems to go in the direction of eliminating all the drama the series once had for sheer absurdity. That's not why I liked the game in the first place. The mixture of silly stuff and characters I actually cared for made it worth playing.

So, go back and play Saints Row 2. Ignore Saints Row IV and any future games in the franchise. They've peaked, and instead of improving on what they did right so many years ago, they'll just continue to get away from it and make strange “wacky” games with less and less content than the second game. But at least the gunplay and driving feels better, right?

Sigh.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Tekken Tag Tournament 2

Here's some key links if you want to learn Tekken Tag Tournament 2:

TTT2 For Dummies

Avoiding The Puddle Text Tutorials

Most new fighting games are trying to strike the elusive balance of “easy to learn, difficult to master”. Ideally, the game has mechanics that are intuitive enough to understand instantly, or have a tutorial that's so thorough that new players will understand. Then, the depth of the game emerges naturally through learning matchups, combos, and your own character's unique abilities.

This happens to be a game that I found hard to learn, and even more difficult to master. It'll kick your ass at the start, but once you start to understand how the game works, it rewards you every step of the way.

The first thing that immediately caught my attention when watching Tekken gameplay were the crazy characters. There's Black Disco Stu, a kangaroo, a bear, a robot maid, and so many other characters that are very far out of the traditional fighting game archetypes.

Really, seeing that Snoop Dogg has his own stage and wrote a song for the game was a big selling point for me.

The craft put into this huge cast of unique characters carries over to the rest of the game. Menus are very clear on what options they provide and load quickly, the graphics in game are incredibly detailed and even include small touches like characters getting dirt on them as they fight, and the soundtrack is a fine combination of rock, trance, and dubstep.

Watching gameplay for Tekken, especially commentated ones, was a bit daunting at first. I try to watch a lot of footage of people playing the game to get tips and learn the ropes, but I was lost. Thankfully, the tutorial of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is long, detailed, and has the exact amount of challenge I wanted.

Note: If you're watching Tekken tournaments with commentary, 1 and 2 are Left Punch and Right Punch. 3 and 4 are Left Kick and Right Kick. Took me forever to realize that.

The Fight Lab is one of the best tutorial modes in a fighting game right now. If you want to get into Tekken but are afraid of the high learning curve, I guarantee you the Fight Lab will help you out.

It's split into multiple chapters, each one focusing on a certain element of gameplay and ending with a boss battle. There's also a lot of text boxes for the “story” of the Fight Lab that actually give more detail into when and why you need to use certain techniques.

For example, the guarding tutorial starts off with lessons on how to block high and low attacks and escape throws. Then you're thrown into a gauntlet of color-coded enemies who will either attack high, low, or try to throw you. The lesson helps, but the real importance is getting to use your experience in an actual combat situation right away.

The Fight Lab doesn't hold your hand, either. You have a health bar, and some of the mission constraints are very strict. So you can definitely get knocked out and have to retry a stage, but you are also rewarded with bonus Gold (for customization) if you do very well.

Even as I began to understand the game more, I frequently revisited the Fight Lab to replay older missions and hone my skills by shooting for higher ranks.

One of the most daunting things I've experienced as a new player to fighting games is “Who do I pick?” Especially in games with huge rosters such as this one. I want to try out every character and see if I like the way they handle, but it's not realistic with a lineup of 55 characters. So I took the advice of a beginner's guide and just picked who I liked.

What I would recommend doing first, unless you are 100% sure who you want to play, is going into Arcade Mode, choose Solo, and pick a character you think is cool. I started off with Lili and it happened to be a good choice. Something about the character just “clicked” and I felt like I knew how to play as them effectively in a short amount of time.

Once I found my main character, I jumped into Practice Mode and learned her key moves. You want to learn all of your character's launchers, Bound moves, and moves that allow you to tag to your partner after they connect. Luckily, there is a Command List that has an icon next to all of these moves. You'll want to practice their Sample Combos as well, which the command list also includes along with video demos.

I probably harp on this a lot but EVERY FIGHTING GAME SHOULD HAVE IT. Command Lists and move demos are invaluable for new players and even veterans who want to make sure they're doing the moves correctly!

Now, how do you actually play this game? To simplify most of what I learned...AIR COMBO. A lot. Here's your general game plan in Tekken Tag Tournament 2:

  1. Launch your opponent

  2. Do a short combo that ends in a Bound attack

  3. Tag your partner in

  4. Combo again

Ideally, you want to do this as much as you can to drain your opponent's lifebar because they can't do anything about it. You can't block while you're getting punched in the air, you see.

In practice...it's not that simple. Speaking as a beginner, this game can be frustrating as hell. Advanced players will pop you up in the air, juggle you, and carry you into the corner where you get hurt even MORE. Air combos don't typically do a lot of damage, but they carry you towards the wall and wall combos HURT. So it gets disheartening to spend what feels like most of the round in the air: you can't do anything about it.

The emphasis on juggles is why Tekken was a game I initially overlooked because it looks like you spend too much of a round being helpless. I'll admit I was a little biased. Still, persistence pays off and there are ways to counter being juggled. If you don't have great defense or spacing, people online will BEAT it into you. So while the game looks crazy as hell, the spacing is so important. You can almost never just rush in and go crazy. Patience is the key to winning most rounds.

Backdashing is an important tool to establish space, but has a recovery period at the end that can be easily punished. One thing I didn't quite get the hang of was backdash canceling, which lets you get some breathing room but is much safer than a normal backdash.

I felt like sidestepping in this game was less useful than in other 3D fighters, only because so many moves track. They'll hit you regardless of your position, so I didn't feel a need to use them that often.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2 turned out to be a game where I spent more time than expected just working on movement: sidesteps, dashing, dash cancels, and jumping. It took some getting used to because it's very different from Virtua Fighter, but I think the controls feel great. I've quit playing fighting games before because the characters feel awkward or unresponsive to my inputs, but TTT2 does not have that problem.

There are a few minor issues have with Tekken. There are a couple of Free Moves (like God Hand!) that every character can do. On wakeup you can do a big springboard kick that has a lot of startup frames and covers a lot of space. If you can break into a full sprint, you can either tackle or do a slide that knocks down. Also, hopkicks are a universal launcher for everyone (I think everyone has it?) that you can do by jumping and inputting Right Kick. I don't know if everyone has these moves though, as the game or tutorial doesn't explain what they are or how to do them. Throws and how to throw break could have been explained in more detail because they are more complicated than they seem: each character has a 1+3 and 2+4 throw that you must input a certain button to break. Then there's air throws, wall throws, and tackles that require a certain input to break. The tutorial doesn't go in-depth enough with what seems like a pretty complex throw system!

Save yourself some grief and read this tutorial http://www.avoidingthepuddle.com/news/2012/9/5/ttt2-beginners-guide-unit-2-types-of-attacks.html, but I do wish they would explain these things in the game.

What I Liked:

-A fantastic tutorial for beginners and experts. It teaches you all the things you'll need to know, and then gives you a tough pop quiz to make sure you know how to do them.

-Presentation. The music is great, the characters are cool, there's a huge amount of customization, the menus are smooth, and the character endings aren't even constrained by the game's art style.

-Very challenging to get into, but extremely rewarding once you begin understanding the systems.

What I Didn't Like:

-Long load times in some occasions

-Random lag spikes online

-Tutorial doesn't explain some of the more obscure aspects like backdash canceling, free moves, and throw escapes

Tekken is a tough series to get into for a newcomer. You won't get any lucky wins here, you'll have to earn them. And while it's frustrating initially to just feel like you're getting juggled to death, the reward of unleashing your own air combos is very much worth it.

I feel like this is one of the few fighting game series that hasn't changed significantly over the years, so if you were good at Tekken before you will probably still be good at Tekken. I hear the movelists for characters don't change much between releases, so I'm probably going up against people who have been with their characters for years.

It'll take a long time to get to a position where I feel I'm truly “good” at the game, but I think it's worth it. The game does one thing very right: it just FEELS good when you hit someone. Like you actually hit them and not just a hitbox. There are a few strange elements with “flop” stuns where you're comboing your opponent's legs and not them, but it still feels pretty satisfying.

As a beginner, I'd recommend Tekken Tag Tournament 2 to beginners. It's rough at first, but if you stick with it it'll pretty much beat the fighting game fundamentals of better spacing and better blocking into your head. It's a long road to getting good at Tekken, but a road worth traveling.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 9

All pictures from Xensin. I found the link at http://ufgtus.wordpress.com/. Check it out, they're really great! http://www.flickr.com/photos/xensin/sets/72157633637670661/

Last year, I bought Skullgirls and this heavy $200 arcade stick. I couldn't really play against many people online back then, but I kept myself busy by learning how to play each of the several fighting games that came out that year.

I've been able to play online with more regularity recently, thanks to getting a fiber-optic internet...thing. I have no idea how it works, I just know I can play fighting games online mostly lag free. So after training as well as I could, I got the crazy idea to go to my first tournament ever.

As I've said in previous blogs, the experience of playing online is hardly comparable to playing locally. I've had very few experiences playing games locally, and by that I mean “I have played Skullgirls against one of my friends a handful of times”. So the pressure of playing when you're sitting right next to someone, with a group of people behind you watching and talking is way higher than “if I lose, I'm gonna rank down”. So I'll go into each game I entered, and what it was like playing it IN REAL LIFE.

Friday

Persona 4 Arena: I might have psyched myself out a little bit before playing this game. I saw someone else playing my main character Kanji, much better than I can play Kanji. So I knew this person was in my pool, and I really didn't want to lose to them and make a fool out of myself. I ended up only playing a handful of casual matches before my actual pool began.

First game, I took a few rounds but ultimately lost. It was against a player who was clearly WAY above my level and played a character I had a terrible matchup against. So I didn't feel too badly about it.

The next game, I won handily against a player who was clearly better than me, but I could tell that he wasn't on top of his game. I think he just played a game and lost, so he was a little rattled and messing up where he normally wouldn't. Of course, I'm not too great either and my win was pretty sloppy. I could hear the Kanji player behind me talking trash about my play, which kinda made me feel bad. I haven't fully gotten over tournament nerves, so I was dropping what little combos I knew. Still, I'll take it.

The last game, I was playing against a player who I recognized from the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 community. I've seen him on the internet! But I didn't get starstruck or anything, because that would only make me nervous and make my chances worse. By this point, I didn't care that people were watching just a few feet behind me. But I DID feel stupid when I lost...badly. Kanji works best at close range and has few options when far away. His character was Yukiko, a zoner who kept me at basically full screen and chipped away at my life until I died. I got frustrated while being juggled and comboed with no way to retort, but didn't give up. I think I took one round but was thoroughly beaten, and with that, I was out of Persona 4 Arena.

Divekick: This game seemed to be incredibly popular throughout the whole tournament, and had an E3 style booth setup as well as a table to play casual matches. And while I've unfortunately heard a lot of complaining about the pandering in this game online, I feel like everyone should play Divekick. It might change their mind on it.

Divekick is a simple game, but even with two buttons each character is incredibly unique in terms of special attacks, movement, and hitboxes. I played a lot of this game before and after my pools to get find a character I liked. I ended up settling on Mr. N and Markman. There are character-specific matchups, but the tiers aren't so wide that there are “top tier” and “worthless” characters. What impressed me the most about this game is that it captures the essence of fighting games: reading your opponent. In most fighting games you want to get your opponent to do something, or convince them to slip up so you can hit a combo and do huge damage to them. In Divekick, one hit ends the round. So you spend the entire game waiting for your opponent to slip up, or scaring them into a situation that's advantageous to you. It's tough to explain, but after a few matches I completely understood it. At their core, fighting games are about reading your opponent and trying to predict what they will do. Instead of every match containing multiple instances of this guessing game, Divekick rounds only contain one. It's really tense, and really fun.

Anyway, I did somewhat well in this tournament! Didn't get out of pools, but I beat a fair amount of people and even “frauded” two of them (when you win five rounds to zero). By the time I was eliminated, I got a good amount of experience, and even got some direct training on how to play Markman by the tournament organizer (Thanks Keits!). I'll definitely be picking up this game when it comes out.

Saturday

Skullgirls: Holy hell, I did terribly in this game. I mean, I had an idea of how bad I was (because I lose every online match I play), but it was even harder to deal with in person. I played three matches and didn't take a single round from anyone I played. Didn't even get close. I did play a couple casual matches afterward, but didn't do any better or learn much from it. Then again, I didn't know where to start as "how do I get my ass kicked less?" doesn't tend to lead anywhere. Oh well.

BaraBariBall: I entered this tournament because of the free entry, and was pleasantly surprised when I finally got my hands on it. First of all, this game should have had some more exposure. Until the finals there was only one table with two setups to play on, in the back of the ballroom. It's a really fun game, a combination of Super Smash Bros and...whatever sport it is where you have to dunk a ball into the opponent's pool of water.

Luckily I shared a hotel room with two experts of the game and learned a lot of tactics from playing with them. I beat a few people in the tournament but was ultimately eliminated. Like Divekick, it's a game that's simple to pick up but takes a certain amount of skill to master. It is very accessible, but practice and character knowledge pays off.

Since I'm not great at explaining, here's a video of the aforementioned experts playing.

Mystery Game Tournament: This was really special, and something that sets UFGT apart from other fighting game tournaments. There was a small setup of three TVs near the main stage where you entered into a tournament playing...something. At seemingly random intervals, the tournament organizers would switch the game to something different. I saw Sonic Adventure 2 Battle being played, Virtua Fighter Kids, weird, obscure fighting games I had NEVER heard of, and Hydro Thunder during my pool.

To sum up how strange and fun this tournament was, one of the finals matches was Soul Calibur 2 on DDR pads. It's that real.

I had way too much fun and laughed way too hard while playing these weird games, and I will be entering the Mystery Game Tournament for sure at next year's Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament. Here's a video of the Grand Finals, where you can really see how most matches go: players scrambling to find out how to play before eventually figuring it out and putting on a really hype match.

Since I was eliminated from every game I entered by Sunday, here are some other things I just wanted to note.

CHECK-INS: Remember to be early for your tournament pools, everyone. Because sometimes they'll pronounce your name wrong and it takes longer for you to check in than everyone else. Most people don't use the term "perfidious" in normal conversation, you see.

MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3: I watch a ton of streams, but I've never actually seen this game being played in real life, or played it myself. Holy crap, it is fast and flashy. The streams really don't do it justice. After watching some matches, I see why people get so into this game: it's like it was created specifically to draw attention and excitement.

People got REALLY serious about this game too. While I was in Divekick pools I heard some guy yelling at the station behind me. Turns out a full-on argument about the game/car ownership (?) had broken out and he was getting REALLY upset. So upset that photographers rushed over to capture a possible fight breaking out. And during finals, another fight almost happened on the main stage!

Myself and a lot of other players talk a lot of trash about Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but I really understand now why people get so into it and why it's considered the most hype fighting game out. I probably won't play it ever, but I get it!

FUN & GAMES: While I had some downtime, I checked out this fun little diversion. Located near the back of the ballroom, there were three $1 entry non-video games to play for fun and profit. Yes, games where you actually had to interact with people IRL.

If you won any of these games, you get a raffle ticket and a lot of “doubloons” to cash in for prizes at the prize table. To make sure everyone had fun (and kept giving money to play!) they even gave losers doubloons. Basically, you messed up if you left this tournament without getting SOMETHING from that prize table.

I spent most of my spare cash playing Divekick 21, a blackjack variant where you basically have hit points and can pass undesirable cards to others. So while my first few games were pretty amicable, some people want to play a little rough. That means DIRECTLY BUSTING OTHERS BY HANDING THEM CARDS in blackjack. It was really fun, and I even won a game!

I played a friend in Balrog Ball as well, which I can't describe but reminds me of a similar ball-rolling game that I played at Magic Mountain years ago...plus Street Fighter. The important thing is, I beat him and got another raffle ticket and some more doubloons.

I didn't win any of the raffles but left with a cool UFGT9 mug full of candy, and a small, fancy glass (also full of candy). I hope the Fun & Games tables return next year, as they're a great way to kill time between your matches. Or just hang out...I swear I saw some people just playing these games the whole tournament and never saw them play a video game. It was that good.

THE CROWD: This is another reason why I want to go to more tournaments. You really can't get the same energy watching a stream than you can watching these players live while sitting in the crowd. These people were absolutely hilarious. A man of questionable sobriety with a funny hat spent $100 combined in character auctions for Injustice and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, only to lose immediately and get mocked by the announcer on stage. But he won a raffle later so it's all good.

Audience members pulled out money to bet on an impromptu rock-paper-scissors match. People not only react loudly to someone pulling off flashy combos in a game, but yelling along with the characters on screen as they did super moves! My personal favorite being a few upstanding citizens yelling “FUCK YOU!” as Lobo flips off his opponent.

This match is pretty incredible to watch, but being there and hearing the crowd lose their minds at the conclusion made it unforgettable.

So, let me wrap it up because this blog is far too long already. Next year, I want to go back, improve my game, and bring my own console to play Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown with others. I saw some people playing it in the Bring Your Own Console area but didn't have time to join, unfortunately.

Going to a tournament was a humbling experience, as I learned that I'm nowhere near as good in any of these games as I thought. I have a long way to go, and I won't excuse it by saying “well, I spread myself too thin by playing too many games”. Nope! It gave me the drive to learn more and compete even harder in the future.

If you're even remotely interested in fighting games, go to a tournament. It was expensive for me, but it was worth it. I can't say what you'll get out of it, but what I got was a renewed interest in the games, and the motivation to improve myself even more as well as attend local tournaments.

It showed me, for better or worse, what games I really want to put more work into. At this point I'm still playing Persona 4 Arena regularly, I've gotten back into Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown as pretty much my “main” game and am playing it a lot, and I got so discouraged by losing in Skullgirls that I haven't touched it since...I don't know about that one now. We'll see.

So, thanks to Keits and his staff for making the tournament run smoothly and providing TONS of extra stuff to do outside of competition. Thanks to all those Godlike Sundays guys for sharing a hotel room, being hilarious and fun to hang out with, and keeping me up at 4 AM playing Capcom games, damn it. And thanks if you read this. Hopefully I've sold you on seeing a side of the fighting game community most casual players don't see.

I'm still playing all the fighting games I can get my hands on, too. I've got Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Street Fighter X Tekken and Injustice to work through so one of those will be up next.

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100 Percent Later: Saints Row The Third

Warning: This game came out in 2011 and I'll be talking pretty extensively about it. EXPECT SPOILERS!

A few days ago, I completed a gaming goal that I was working on since late 2011. My goal was to get 100% completion on Saints Row The Third, including every single Achievement. It took a lot of time, more money than I expected thanks to downloadable content, and it was completely worth it.

I'm not really gonna talk about the process of getting 100% completion, because the end of that writing would be “and then I did donuts in an airport for 40 minutes”. That's pretty boring, and not really the point. I want to talk about why I decided to perfect the game, and revisit it after taking a long break.

I've been a fan of the Saints Row series since the first game, and was completely enthralled by Saints Row 2 back in 2008. So I was unbelievably hyped for Saints Row The Third, so hyped that I broke a years-long streak of not renting games in November 2011. I couldn't afford my own copy until 2012, but as soon as I got it I literally did not want to put it down. I convinced friends to buy copies to play co-op, I downloaded and uploaded characters to SaintsRow.com, I even obsessively hunted down all the original music in the game AND THEN obsessively tried to find out who composed it.

Well, I say that last one as if I'm not still doing it. I'm still trying to find out where some of this fantastic original(?) music came from. But I digress.

So, I liked the game so much that I didn't want to play anything else. Why not play it to completion then? To the point where I could say “this is one of my favorite games ever, and I've gotten everything I can get out of it”. And I did.

Due to the unstoppable train of games coming out and my backlog glaring at me, I knew I couldn't realistically play the game forever, as badly as I wanted to! So after completing the main story mode three times, I've pinned down why I like Saints Row The Third so much. It's not just a great game, I think it's a game that other open-world games should be taking lessons from. Let me explain.

The music.

The licensed soundtracks in open world games rarely stand out to me, just like the radio in real life. This one, however, grew on me in a way I wasn't expecting. The KRHYME station introduced me to rappers I'd never heard of like Yelawolf and Robert Raimon Roy. It encouraged me to find what other good, new rap was coming out in 2011.

I couldn't recognize any of the tracks on the electronica station by name, but they're all extremely catchy, and perfect driving music. Continuing the standard set in previous Saints Row games, the classical station is filled with some of the most recognizable songs of the genre. And Adult Swim has perhaps the best station in the game, spanning multiple genres and having genuinely funny ad breaks and DJ banter.

The radio isn't what makes the game really special though. The use of licensed music in missions is brilliant. This entire mission is memorable because of the music (open in Youtube, copyright won't let me embed it).

I was bored of Power by the time this game came out. Couldn't stand it anymore, from it being all over the radio and used in every other video game trailer/movie trailer out there. This mission still gives me goosebumps because of how perfectly the music is used.

It isn't just the few setpiece moments either. As opposed to many open world games, the missions are neither dead silent nor “spiced up” by a radio song you've already heard. No, there are original compositions everywhere in this game, from mission music to amazing store tracks to excellent end of mission themes. The music is used so well in this game, and the effort put into using an ORIGINAL soundtrack in this type of game is admirable. Well, at least I think it's original. I've been sleuthing around for a while to see if it's just a lot of lesser-known acts that were licensed out, or if it was produced in house?

Voliton, please respond to my emails on this. The people want to know.

The economy.

Every open world game gives you cash for completing missions, even if you don't know why or where the money actually came from. What do you usually do with that cash? Buy more weapons and body armor. Saints Row The Third actually has reasons for you to seek out the cash, really good ones in fact!

It's easy to piss off rival gangs, so how about having safe spots everywhere? Buying stores gives you that security, basically allowing you to call "base!" where enemies can't attack you, like playing tag when you were a kid.

Buying stores also gives you an increase in the money you gain every hour, which lets you buy upgrades for your character more often. The steady increase in the amount of money you earn is balanced by the steady increase of prices for upgrades. Some upgrades are locked until you get enough experience, which encourages players to either complete Saints Book missions or progress through the main story, because these activities result in higher experience gains.

The game encourages you to keep doing activities, build up your character, and drain your wallet. It's one of the few games in this genre where money is really important, not just a way to get better guns or refill your ammo. The whole system is genius.

There's always something to do.

It's incredibly tough to put this game down, because there's something around every corner. A new sidequest, a building to buy, collectibles, enemy strongholds to bust up, in-game goals to progress toward, and so much more. Even if you're just wandering around aimlessly, you'll get calls to come help in a random turf war! Again, many open world games give you your main quests and a few scant side missions. Saints Row The Third is stuffed with content, and most of it is fun to do. And if it isn't fun, it's at least profitable due to that great economy. I can rarely play this game in small chunks because of the constant allure of "one more thing to do" being right around the corner, at all times.

So, that settles it. If Saints Row The Third isn't the best open world game I've ever played, it's damn sure in the top 3. It's cheesy, but I feel like completing the game fully is a way of showing appreciation. Like, “thanks for making one of my favorite games ever, Volition”. I rarely take the time to perfect a game and I've never been a hardcore Achievement seeker, but when a game is this special and still fun to play multiple times, it's worth it.

It was a little bittersweet getting that last Achievement and uninstalling the game from my hard drive after so long. I can't explain the feeling, but I guess it's always tough letting go of anything that's been in your life for years.

I'll probably replay the game in the future, but it's time to move on to other things. Hopefully Saints Row IV gives me the same feeling as this game did. Or if not, I hope some other games realize what made Saints Row The Third such incredible fun and a true highlight of the genre and TAKES NOTES. Because I'd love to spend the time getting 100 percent on another game that's worth it.

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Game of the Year 2012: "When It's Done" Edition

Okay, April is late enough. I'm officially at the cutoff point where I feel like I played enough games in 2012 to make a list I'm satisfied with.

Most years, I struggle to find ten games I played that resonated enough with me to even consider a Top 10 Game of the Year list. Partly because of the unstoppable backlog carrying over from last year, partly because I might be a snob who refuses to step outside of my comfort zone.

Last year, I took a few steps away from the genres I normally enjoy to compile this list. The length of the entries may get longer as the list goes on further, but only because I appreciated many of them for reasons further than strong gameplay, which anyone can “get” by playing the game themselves.

It’s not a recommendation list or “10 Games To Play Before You Die”. They’re just ten games that I felt were worth the time, for one reason or another.

#10 - Prototype 2 - Radical Entertainment / PC/PS3/360

You're a very crude person, aren't you?

Lots of games get incorrectly labeled as “power fantasy” titles, where you are supposedly an unstoppable force who can do anything you want, making the world your playground.

Prototype 2 is one of the few games where the "power fantasy" label is correct. Open world games often make a misstep in having monotonous travel, but this is certainly not the case in this game. You can run or fly anywhere, and feel completely in control. The combat is a marked improvement from its predecessor, giving you multiple tools to deal with enemies while still respecting the combat style that each player will develop. No Whipfist domination this time. The difficulty curve is steady and while your enemies are challenging, there is always a way to overcome them and prevail.

The dread of facing skyscraper-sized enemies in Prototype 2 is only trumped by the satisfaction of taking them down. All the hits you land on enemies feel and sound like they hurt, giving each encounter a sense of bone-crushing satisfaction.

Prototype 2 also has an excellent final encounter that tests your skills and dexterity against a unique foe. The final boss battle plays nothing like any other fight in the game, and tests your skills unlike any other fight in the story. Prototype 2 keeps the pace up throughout, and ends up with one of the most satisfying conclusions of any game on this list. If flying across half of New York to piledrive a helicopter into the ground is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.

#9 - Binary Domain - SEGA / PC/PS3/360

Everybody alive? Holler if you're dead!

Winner: The “Kill.Switch Award” For Excellence In Cover-Based Shooting

Well, this was ten dollars well spent.

Maybe it’s because of the budget price I picked up the game at. Or because SEGA’s failing track record. Either way, I was not expecting the level of quality I got from Binary Domain. On the surface, it’s a basic third person cover based shooter. But the enemy design is where Binary Domain steps it up a bit.

Each enemy you face is a highly intelligent robot that adapts to combat on the fly. There’s a cool limb damage system that makes them react accordingly depending on where you shoot: blast the rifles out of their hands, and they might scramble up to melee you or scour the field for a new gun.

Shoot their legs out, and they’ll crawl toward you, still attacking. The various enemy types, with unique reactions and weapons, really come into play once you start getting overwhelmed. The game forces you to prioritize targets on the fly: kneecap them all so you can have some breathing room? Take your time to aim for headshots and blow them up faster? The answer is never the same as the enemies get smarter and more types are introduced.

Speaking of breathing room, Binary Domain is impeccably paced. There are very few breaks in between the action, making it very possible to reach the game’s conclusion in one sitting. It rarely lets up.

The story also plays with science fiction cliches in a surprisingly thoughtful way. “Human-like robots take over” is hardly new, but your squad’s character development through the simple “Trust” system can make pulling the trigger difficult, even though it’s not a full-blown moral choice system. They start off as stereotypes, but as things get more personal, their true, and sometimes shocking, motivations come out.

The microphone gimmicks aren’t even a factor. Turn that off and enjoy the best sci-fi TPS of 2012.

#8 - Sleeping Dogs - United Front Games, Square Enix London/ PC/PS3/360

A man who never eats pork bun is never a whole man.

Winner: The “Friday The 13th” Award For Excellence In Game Over Screens

Making a really great open-world game takes effort that a lot of developers aren't willing to put in. Somehow, the troubled development of Sleeping Dogs lead to one of the most polished games in the genre and not a complete mess.

Most open-world games have poor hand-to-hand combat. By borrowing and refining the system popularized by Batman: Arkham Asylum, they made hand-to-hand combat that’s fun throughout the entire game. There’s always a new move to unlock or brutal environmental kill to see. You're even rewarded with bonus experience by varying your combos, so there's really no reason to do the same moves unless you're really boring.

Car chases in these games are poor, so the Sleeping Dogs team gave you plenty of options to make them less annoying. Shoot out the tires easily with a generous slow-motion feature. Ram into a car enough and it stops. Or you could just jump out of your car into the other car and rip out your target, Just Cause 2 style.

Even the mission structure is carefully crafted to tone down the amount of “drive here, shoot this man” missions that I'm tired of.

Simple stuff, right? It’s not a reinvention of the genre, it’s just a very thorough polishing. The polish carries over to the absolutely gorgeous graphics in both the city and character models. The story is predictable, but the excellent facial animations and voice acting still drew me in. Even the downloadable content is smartly designed. The game is full enough without buying more, but the content you can buy are additional, full-fledged story scenarios that don’t feel like they were egregiously cut from the game.

The game almost imploded during development multiple times, but I’m glad it didn’t. Here is how you make a strong open-world game. Just take out all the boredom and things that waste time. It's simple!

#7 - The Walking Dead - Telltale Games/ Mac/PC/iOS/PS3/360

You ruined that dude's face.

Plenty of games write video game characters like video game characters. Exaggerated personalities and actions that disconnect players from the character seems to be the norm.

What I enjoyed about The Walking Dead was the writers giving the characters realistic motivations and reactions. Not all of these are pleasant, but they felt like how human beings would react in dire situations.

Since the gameplay is limited to point-and-clicking through environments and action Quick Time Events, there’s no way to truly “fail” in The Walking Dead. There aren’t even many puzzles, despite the adventure game format.

Why this game kept me glued to my seat was a strong sense of agency. Your conversations and actions with others have a visible effect on how they treat you. How they feel about you comes into play when you’ll inevitably have to make a difficult decision. Instead of going through dialogue trees to exhaust every option, I found myself contemplating what to ask, to which person, and when.

One wrong misstep could lead to someone who supported you saying “screw you, do this on your own” when you needed help the most. The things that end up happening to you and BECAUSE of you feel like hard punches to the gut, and it is effective because the characters feel more like people than plot devices.

The Walking Dead was a watercooler game for me. I enjoyed the episodes as much as I enjoyed talking with friends who played the game, debating why we made some of those messed-up decisions we did.

I value replayability of games because of how few of them I play. However, I don’t think I’d replay The Walking Dead soon. My own experience with it was something I want to keep in my memory, and playing it through to see all the different permutations of the story would somehow make it less special. The way the story played out was my creation, and the emotional payoff of The Walking Dead is so strong that I could remember it if I didn't play again for years.

#6 - Mark of the Ninja - Klei Entertainment/ XBLA/PC

The beginning of a kill is like embracing a lover. The end, of course, is not.

Winner: The “Ratchet & Clank” Award For Excellence In New Game Plus Design

When I really sit down and think about it, I can’t remember a single moment of Mark of the Ninja where I wasn’t entertained. There are a few weak levels, and it definitely goes on for too long. Yet, I engaged throughout the entire game.

It’s one of the most well-designed stealth games I’ve played. On paper, it sounds like your character would be too powerful with the information provided you. You can tell when you are visible, what items you can hide behind, the range of your ninja tools, even how much noise you are making through audible sound waves.

This information proves to be necessary to level the playing field. Each room is a tension-filled puzzle, because enemies can kill you in an instant. You’re driven to maximize your score by eliminating enemies in unique fashion, but you are given the equipment to kill them all in direct combat or sneak past them if need be. It’s not the typical stealth game where being spotted leads to battles with poor controls: you are always capable of escaping the situation or killing all of the guards without being taken out, because the controls are excellent and all of the visual design perfectly communicates what you can do.

Each level adds a new layer of complexity in the environments and enemy types, but also gives you more tools to deal with them while teaching you how to use these tools effectively.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying it’s an excellent stealth game, one of the best available, even. The tension of being so fragile that one mistake can kill you mixed with the feeling that you are clever and well-equipped enough to kill everyone else without a scratch. It’s a specific type of tension that few of these games get right.

Also, the New Game Plus completely changes turns the tables. It’s a much different challenge that’s worth going through even after finishing the campaign once.

#5 - Persona 4 Arena - Arc System Works, Atlus/ ARC/360/PS3

Let me teach you the secret to bodybuilding. First thing: protein. Second thing: protein. Third, fourth, and fifth? More protein.

Out of all the games on this list, Persona 4 Arena made me lose the most sleep. Before bed I was watching some combo videos for my main character, Yosuke. A few hours after I fell asleep, I got an idea for a new combo. So I got up, scribbled some notation on paper, set it on my desk, and went back to bed. Oh, and I watched a couple more combo videos before sleeping.

I might have a skewed perception of this; after all, most people don’t play Persona 4 for 38 straight weeks, but Persona 4 Arena was worth my money for the story. If you’ve beaten Persona 4 and had the brief “I’ll never play another game this good” blues as I did, get Persona 4 Arena. All I really wanted was a direct sequel to the game I spent hundreds of hours on, and I got it. I got to spend more time with those flawed but endearing characters, as well as some from Persona 3, solving a mystery like only they could do. The script is just as sharp and well-acted, the style is all there including the vivid colors and fantastic soundtrack, and it doesn’t shy away from including the same type of highly emotional moments that Persona 4 did so well.

Plus, there’s a really good fighting game in here. I’m fairly new to the genre, but Persona 4 Arena goes out of its way to be accessible in ways that most fighting games don’t. There’s a tutorial that teaches you every mechanic in the game, a feature-rich training mode, and advanced tutorials for each character to teach you their special moves and combos. There are limited comeback mechanics like an invincible reversal move to get you out of bad situations, and a Burst that lets you break an opponent’s combo roughly once per round. Even though my characters aren't “the best”, I feel like my losses are because of my own mistakes and not character choice. Each member of the cast are very different, yet feels balanced enough that you can choose a character you feel comfortable with and win, if you can take advantage of their unique strengths.

The system is deeper than it looks as well. You can mash the Auto Combo for a while, but it’s easy to block and the game quickly encourages you to branch out to explore all of your options. It takes a lot of time to learn what your character is capable of, what combos work on which characters, and when the heck to use stuff like the short hop (the answer is just don’t). This all works because the feeling of mastering your character is worth all the work.

Persona 4 Arena is mandatory playing for any fan of Persona 4, and an easy recommendation to anyone looking for a great fighting game.

#4 - Rock Band Blitz - Harmonix / XBLA/PSN

Getting rid of baby fat

I’ve spent more money on Rock Band that most rational human beings should. Between buying instruments, downloading new songs, and buying countless bottles of Pepsi (long story), I’d say I've spent…well, let’s not think about it too hard.

Yet, I haven’t played Rock Band 3 in quite a while. By the time it came out, I had pretty much hit the peak of my skills in guitar and bass, and had no room for any other instruments. So when Rock Band Blitz was announced, I was feeling like I might be done with the series. Little did I know that Blitz would prove me completely wrong.

Rock Band Blitz favors competition heavily over co-operation. The chase of a high score, and the ever-present leaderboards and options to start betting competitions against friends for in-game currency made me realize something about myself: I’m extremely, dangerously competitive.

The high-score strategy for Blitz rewards multiple plays of the same songs to get higher scores. I experimented with the combinations of different power-ups and passive boosts to get high scores on songs I already played ten times before. (Hint: Use Super Vocals on "One Week". Not Super Drums!)

In the end, Rock Band Blitz did something the series never accomplished before. It made every single song fun to play, regardless of the chart. I spent years building my Rock Band song collection back when I played it with fake plastic instruments, and this new game started the cycle all over for me. Sorry, wallet.

#3 - Lollipop Chainsaw - Grasshopper Manufacture / PS3/360

Ha ha! It IS fun! It makes me forget that most of my friends are dead!

Winner: The “Saints Row The Third Award” for Excellence in Licensed Music

My opinions for most games associated with Suda51 can be summed up in a short statement:

“This game’s style is fantastic! But it really became a chore to play.”

It’s a shame because the games nail everything else except keeping the gameplay interesting throughout. Imagine my surprise when Lollipop Chainsaw averted this for the first time.

It’s in the same style of a Bayonetta or Devil May Cry game, but it doesn't feel as fluid as those games. Still, I never felt like the game would benefit from dodge offsets or switching weapon sets on the fly. Upgrading the combos expands Juliet’s moveset to incorporate some moves for animation cancels, necessary crowd-control moves, and a few instant kills. And even though you’re only facing zombies, there is enough variation between them to keep you on your toes. They get much fiercer as the game goes on, and you’ll need to really learn how the game’s system works if you don’t want to spend it knocked on the ground.

It’s not all combat, however. Each level has a few goofy minigames like macabre variations on high school sports, and one truly memorable level where you play arcade games. It’s much better than it sounds, trust me.

Tying all of it together is the trademark style that seeps into every game Suda51 puts his name on. The soundtrack is fantastic, with incredibly clever uses of licensed music complimenting a huge original soundtrack. The bosses are just as elaborate and colorful as the main attractions of the No More Heroes series, and the humor is gleefully insane. It’s the type of game where most of the gore is replaced with hearts, rainbows, and sparkles and it makes sense.

The marketing and fanservice isn't there to distract you from a thin story. In fact, the story still has layered themes you’d expect from games associated with the developer. It’s a refreshing look at exploitation in a way you wouldn't expect. Juliet isn't as ditzy as she seems, and Nick ends up being more sympathetic and hilarious than most severed heads are. It has all the raunchy humor and surprising sweetness of a teen comedy, but there’s more to it than the cover implies.

Lollipop Chainsaw is worth starting because of its manic sense of humor, and worth seeing to the end because the gameplay is just as silly and frantic as the script. More like this please, Grasshopper.

#2 - Far Cry 3 - Ubisoft / PC/PS3/360

Why would someone place these pink and fuzzy stripper handcuffs here?

Winner: The “Banjo-Tooie Award” For Most Unexpectedly Scary Game

This is a good time to explain why I like the Assassin’s Creed games so much. The setting makes it. I enjoy the game fine enough, but the combination of a stirring soundtrack, cast of people you might recognize from history class, and absolutely beautiful landscapes to traverse makes the experience much more memorable.

I feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise lost its way with Assassin’s Creed 3. The beautiful graphics and fresh setting drew my interest, but I never finished the game due to its awful control, frustrating mission design, and pointless sidequests.

So, I brought that up to bring this up. Far Cry 3 contains everything I like about Assassin’s Creed and nothing I don’t.

These comparisons aren’t completely random, as the structure is similar enough to invite them. Main story missions in FC3 are open at any time, but you are encouraged to climb towers to uncover your map and nearby side missions. Why this structure works is that every side mission is enjoyable and has a desirable reward.

My personal favorite were hunting down animals for their skins, which sometimes leads to encounters with powerful “legendary” animals. These hunts give you the provisions you’ll need to improve the amount of items you can carry. It also highlights one of the most intriguing things about the game: the interaction between the various animals on the island and your enemies. I remember a time where I was attacked by two bears while staking out a pirate camp. Instead of sneaking into the camp to take out the pirates myself, I ran directly through it. After a few seconds of confused shouting and frantic gunfire, the bears and pirates were dead, and the camp was mine.

Far Cry 3 is full of “I wish I recorded that" moments. The story is serviceable, but doesn't live up to the cool things you’ll inevitably do while exploring. There are some disturbing moments that take full advantage of the perspective to be genuinely horrifying in ways that most horror games aren’t. If you’re paranoid about things sneaking up on you, prepare to spend a lot of time jumping and shouting when something unexpected sneaks up on you. And the excellent voice acting and facial animation makes the main character’s actions pretty disturbing, but unfortunately the story loses steam quickly and peters out due to plot holes and a poor ending.

Despite that, Far Cry 3 is an example of first person shooting and open world gaming at their peak. The combat supports whatever playstyle you want, from tactical cover-based combat, to fully realized stealth, to picking up the biggest machine gun you can find and finishing missions with guns constantly blazing. I personally played the game like Assassin’s Creed, relying on distraction, knives, and silenced weaponry to take out enemies with minimal direct combat, and the game’s open-ended structure makes me wish there was an option to replay missions, just to see how much I could experiment with it.

There is a lot to do in Far Cry 3, and I didn’t even mention the skill tree, economy, minigames, multiplayer, and co-op. The thing that sets it apart from that other Ubisoft game is that all of the distractions are fun and directly rewarding to accomplish. It never wastes your time, and you feel like your time was well-spent, whether it’s spending ten minutes hunting down boars or thirty minutes playing poker.

#1 - Hotline Miami - Dennation Games/ PC/Mac

Winner: The “Spec Ops: The Line Award” For Excellence In Making You Feel Like A Terrible Person

My hand aches because I’ve had the mouse in a death grip for ten minutes. My eyes start burning as I become aware that I haven’t blinked in about the same amount of time. I get a little self-conscious as I realize that I’ve been nodding my head and tapping my foot along to the music almost involuntarily. I realize how fast my heart is beating because I’ve held my breath too long. I felt like that at the end of every level in Hotline Miami.

This is the one game that grabbed my attention every second that I played, and refused to let it go. Most games let me put down the controller and space out during cutscenes, but that never crossed my mind during Hotline Miami. I was always on the edge of my seat, jamming to the music and the rhythm of gunshots and slashes as I wiped out buildings full of white-suited faceless goons. Each room in the game is a thrilling combat puzzle, and figuring them out requires quick thinking and faster reflexes. It demands your concentration at all times, and while the punishment is swift and often, the reward of solving each battle is great.

I’ll admit that I’m biased toward games with great soundtracks, but Hotline Miami’s music is more than just window dressing. It’s such an integral part of the experience that you can’t just turn it off or switch it out and fully "get" the game. The soundtrack is bass-heavy, driving, and sinister. Sinister because it serves to distract you from what you’re doing. I’m nodding my head to the beat as I crack an enemy’s skull open with a baseball bat, and watch him pointlessly crawl around the room. I’m tapping my foot to my favorite song as I punch over a mobster and take him out with a power drill, in the most awful way a power drill can be used.

The simplistic graphics and loud music distract you from what’s really going on. The player is committing some really terrible acts of violence to get a high score. Eventually, I started to see things in a different light as the story opened up. Am I really the bad guy here? Are these actually mobsters wearing the same suit, or am I looking through the eyes of a traumatized individual who is seeing things the way he wants to see them? It becomes even more difficult to excuse when you start facing enemies who can’t be considered “evil” in any sense.

Hotline Miami’s use of an unreliable narrator and slightly vague narration are a little confusing, but not in a frustrating way. The subtle audio and visual cues start to expose what’s actually happening without stating it outright. It’s open to interpretation in a way that means my view of the story might be different from yours, and they’re both valid.

It could be a critique of violent games. it definitely made me question why I enjoyed the violence in this game and others so much. Am I a bad person for committing mass virtual murder for fun and relaxation? Is the violence necessary to make a compelling narrative in games? Why does so much media rely on constant violence? Do we even need it?

All I know is, I took out that whole floor of enemies with just the power drill execution. It’s kinda slow, but that’s how you get the most points, you know. Try to beat my score.

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