Sparky's Update - Boy, Do I Suck at These Video Game Things

"You don't have to front on me, dear, so why don't you just give that bloggie here?" -The N.W.A. when asked about the latest Sparky's Update

Why, hello! I didn't see you standing there. Grab yourself some pickled pig's feet, a cold 40 ouncer, and some chaw, son. We're about to talk a little bit business. Yeah, that's right - it's the weekly Sparky's Update, brought to you this week by Golden Grahams and Pepsi Max. I don't actually have their endorsement at all, but maybe by plugging them, it'll get the ball rollin'! This week, we've got a lot to talk about, you and I. First, I'm going to discuss the two games this week that nearly caused me to punch walls (and why I suck at gaming in general). I'm also going to cover my early impressions of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, final thoughts on Tomb Raider: Legend, and take an updated look at Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. If that wasn't enough, I'm also going to talk about Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and give my (short) piece on the Whiskey Media craziness. Whew. That's a lot, so let's get started.

You're Better at Games than Me

If you're reading this blog, I can almost guarantee that one simple fact. No matter how bad you are at a game, I'm probably worse. I've been an avid gamer for nearly a quarter of a decade (holy shit!), and while I've beat a ton of games, rarely have I ever played a game on a hard difficulty or specifically set out to obtain 100% completion in a game. I'm usually the guy who plays a game on casual or normal difficulties, content to see out the story as opposed to face any real challenge.

In short, I really suck at games.

A lot of it's laziness. A smaller chunk is my eternal hatred of gaming frustration. I don't find it fun to repeatedly die in games (with certain exceptions, like the brilliant death mehanics in ZHP or Herc's Adventures - now there's a game I'll bet you haven't heard mentioned in a decade). About the only difficulty I enjoy in games comes from puzzle or adventure games, and even then, if I feel my frustration rising to a point where the game is in danger of no longer being fun, I'll happily jump on the Internet to get the solution to the puzzle. My vision problems are a topic I've talked about ad nauseam and aren't the point - even if my vision was 100%, I'd probably still attack games in the same lazy, half-assed manner.

That's not to say I won't turn the difficulty up if it'll make the game more fun. I'm always tinkering with the difficulty in Bethesda games, and I adore the later Halo games on harder difficulties because they never feel impossible. I'd even like to try Gears 3 on a harder difficulty when I get that back. It all boils down to frustration versus reward - if I'm not having fun with a game because of difficulty, then it's just not worth the hassle. Games are meant to be fun first and foremost for me.

This week held a one-two punch of insurmountable difficulty. The first game was Binding of Isaac, which I'd bought off Steam for a measly buck and a half or so. Having heard great things about it, especially that it was a rogue-type (one of my absolute favorite niche genres), I decided to give it a go. The introductory chintzy artwork and sly voiceover were pleasant. The menu screen looked great. I hopped into it and almost immediately hated it.

The difference between my favorite rogue-types and this game is simple. Games like ZHP can be difficult, to be sure, but they never feel entirely impossible. The minute I fought my very first boss in Binding of Isaac, I thought, "There's no possible way in hell I'm ever going to beat this game." It wasn't fun for me. The four directional shooting was imprecise at best, and I'm awful at room-to-room shmups anyways (I still love and hate you, Smash TV). The bosses and enemies have a full range of motion missing from the player character, and can often weasel in at weird angles that I just can't escape from. If I was a better gamer, the challenge might have appealed to me. As it is, I can't stand the shooting mechanics, the awkward movement, and the too-random room placement. Even ZHP had a little reason to its levels, damn it.

Frankly, nothing about this game said, "Play just a little longer and it'll get easier!" Instead, it screamed, "Hey, Sparky, you're going to spend hours of your life wishing you were being hit in the nuts with a 2X4 instead!" That's not a game I want to play. So I didn't.

Goodbye, Binding of Isaac. You won't be missed.

Not twenty minutes later, I found myself switching from my laptop to my 360, popping in a game I eagerly thought would be more my thing - Dark Souls. Yeah, right. I'd watched the Quick Look and thought, "Yes! It looks challenging but I can do this!" Uh, no. Not a chance in hell. Mind you, I was pretty good at first - hell, I even managed to beat the first boss after dying only once. I liked and understood the basic controls (it's all very smooth, with none of the difficulty coming from awkward controls or a bad scheme). There's this odd feeling in the game, a very pleasant one, that the controls are set up to respond as though you were controlling each hand independently. I know it's been done before in shooters and such with dual-wielding, but here, it just feels right.

And it's a good game. I'd even go so far as to call it fantastic. I wish I was better at it. But after that dragon fight, after mopping up a few loops of mobs for souls, I realized that it's a game I'm never going to beat. Hell, I'm not even going to get to the end of the second level. What was, at first, a fun challenge quickly became punishment. I'm not talking about mechanical or gameplay failures, even - it's just a fuckin' tough game. It's no fault but mine that I'm no good at it. But I know, after encountering some ghosts and skeleton warriors in the game, that I'm simply just not ever going to be good enough to get the enjoyment that some people have had. I said it late last week - this game feels like masochism in digital form. Some people are going to love that. I didn't.

Goodbye, Dark Souls. You will always be better than me.

A Castlevania Game I'm Actually Good At

I'm way late on this one, but guys? Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is pretty good! I'm not going to say it's great - there are some problems that drag the experience down just a touch. The core gameplay is that of a basic Devil May Cry-styled action game, which is perfectly fine by me. You gain points to spend on skills, leading to some great-looking combinations and special abilities. The combat is brisk, but it can be highly repetitive in spots, leading to some humdrum moments that can drag the otherwise great pacing of the game down. There are plenty of fantasy cliches, too, which is a bit unfortunate. Yep, you'll fight countless goblins and giant spiders. The environments look great, but in the parts I've played, they stick pretty closely to fantasy tropes. I'm hoping that as the game goes on, I'll see more of the crazy enemy types from prior Castlevania games and less of the generic sword fodder.

That said, the boss battles in this game are nuts. One of them, a boss fight against a titanic golem in the midst of a frozen lake, might be relatively simple in nature (you alternate from dodging his slow, cumbersome attacks, scaling his body, and attacking weak points), but it's done with such enormous scale and style that it definitely winds up being a jaw-dropping "Holy shit!" moment. While I'm still relatively early on, I'm definitely liking this game - it's worth it just to see what the hell is around the corner.

Rantin' and Raidin', A Whoopin' and a Hollerin'

A while back, I had some trouble with Tomb Raider: Legend, specifically in the Arthurian tomb level. I simply and literally could not see the solution to a relatively easy puzzle. I tried looking on Youtube, but that was no help as the video was obviously even smaller and harder to see. A few days ago, I recruited a ringer to help me out. That's right - I went to that oldest and noblest of gaming fallbacks. In other words, I got a kid to help me out. Turns out I was just missing a grappling hook spot. The usual icon was blending into the background a little too well. In any case, thanks to the kid, I managed to get past that puzzle and thankfully had no more trouble beating the game.

Overall, I really enjoyed the basic gameplay. It felt like what a modern Tomb Raider should - the controls are sleek, the gunplay is great, and the environments look good for a game that was essentially designed to work on last-gen systems. It's not entirely without fault - despite the great voicework, Lara is still disturbingly a Barbie-doll fantasy in digital format. The tombs never feel all that expansive, although truth be told, the linearity didn't bug me all that much until I played a bit of Anniversary. Then I realized just how confined Legend really is.

What's really weird is that something bugged me more than the blatantly sexualized Lara - the idiotic way Arthurian mythology is treated. One of Lara's assistants has been apparently living in a goddamn cave his entire life, because he's never heard of anything Arthurian related. Lara and the other assistant provide a fleeting, severely half-assed treatment of the myth. As a former protege of an Arthurian scholar, by the end of the game, I was decidedly pissed at the ham-handed storytelling and sheer idiocy of the way the mythology had been treated by the game's apparently twelve-year old writers. Seriously, they had to have been kids just verging on puberty for Lara's costumes alone, but add in the butchering of the Arthurian mythology and they come off as even more juvenile.

I played just a touch of Anniversary. It's not enough to really warrant a whole lot of time here, but the gameplay is ripped straight from Legend (a good thing), and the levels feel much bigger. Lara's outfits are still as ridiculous as ever, but I guess that goes with the territory.

Simply put, if Tomb Raider is to become a relevant series again, it needs to grow up.

Golden Gameplay

I've been playing Golden Sun: Dark Dawn off and on for the last week or so. I've mentioned before that it's a pretty great little RPG for the DS, combining classic turn-based RPG mechanics with a Pokemon-esque "gotta catch them all" approach to magic. You see, for your characters to gain new spells (called Psynergy) and summons, you have to find little creatures throughout the world and capture them in a fight. Most of them are easy to find and obtain, but a few are only obtainable by carefully searching environments or by solving some clever puzzles. It's an absolutely superb system that rewards exploration with genuine results.

The story itself is still sort of bland, relying far too much on fan-service in regards to the first two games. Almost every major character is either a main playeri in those games or is related to them. It leaves Dark Dawn with very little in terms of original story, which is a shame. Still, it's enough of a story to keep me gaming. I look forward to exploring more of the huge world.

Randomness!

-Upon dankempster's advice, I took up the His Dark Materials trilogy and have recently finished The Golden Compass. I'm happy to say I think it's a great book. The parallel world idea has always fascinated me, and Lyra's parallel England is no different. It's vibrant and alive, full of little nuanced touches that make me eager to see more of the world while leaving some of it to the imagination. The plot is brisk without making any sacrifices in terms of depth or character development. And speaking of the characters, with the exception of Lyra, I'm a huge fan of the way Pullman develops every character, be they big, little, or bearish. And while I'm not a huge fan of Lyra, I do think her character develops and changes enough that I want to stick with her story longer, to see this whole thing through. I'm already about a third of the way through the next novel, and am thoroughly enjoying it, too. More on that later, though - this blog is already huge.

-My dog managed to kill one of my 360 controllers. It was plugged into a Play n' Charge Kit. I'm kind of awestruck at how precisely he managed to kill it. He snagged his foot on the cord and accidentally sent the controller sailing a good three feet from the table it was resting on to his water dish. Had the controller gone a half inch left or right, it would have been fine. As it was, I awarded my dog three points and promptly ordered a new one.

-Regarding the Whiskey Media purchase and split, I'm enthusiastic about the futures of most of the WM sites. Given the openness about Gerstmann-gate and the team's enthusiasm for the move, I think Comic Vine and Giant Bomb will only go on to crazier, bigger things. Same with Tested, though for obviously different reasons. I sort of worry about the future of Screened, but Matt Rorie's a fantastic content producer and I'm sure that whatever happens, he'll land on his feet regardless. I don't buy into any of the conspiracy theory bullshit about the sale of the company, nor do I think people should be so upset or worried. This can only lead to greater things, guys.

And that's it. Whew. That's a hell of a wall of text, for which I'm truly sorry. I hope you all have a great week.

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Sparky's Update - Ocarina of Time 3DS

OK, I said no Sparky's Update earlier today, but I find myself with half an hour to kill while I boil the everloving shit out of these delicious looking brats. Living in the country does have its advantages, one of which is deer and elk meat made into jerky and brats. So freakin' good. Anyways, today's update will be ever so brief. Think of it as a loving caress from your pimp for bringing in an extra $100 for the evening instead of the usual beating I give you for not havin' all my damn money. Damn it, woman, don't you know daddy needs his lettuce?

Right. On with it, then.

Playing with a Flute... and Not the Skin Kind, Jackass

This week, I hardly played any games at all save for those on handhelds. I've talked a bit about Star Ocean: The First Departure and feel no need to reiterate the basics again - it's solid, good fun. Instead, I'll focus on my big purchase of the last week - a 3DS.

It wasn't costly at all, thanks in part to me busting my game trade-in cherry. That's right - your pal Sparky traded in games for the first time ever this last week. I've given them away, sold them to friends, and flat-out lost them before, but never have I traded in any games to a shop. I didn't trade in anything I'd regret later - just a bunch of old sports games, a handful of games I'll never, ever touch again (Record of Agarest War and Alpha Protocol, you won't be missed), and games that didn't work for me visually (Gears of War 1, namely). I also traded in my DS, figuring it would be fairly pointless for me to have both. All told, the 3DS (used) was about $130. With all my trade-ins, I whittled that down to a $30 purchase. Not bad at all.

None of the 3D nonsense will be used - I flipped it on to see if it would work with my eyes, and of course, that's a big "no." I do think, however, there are enough great games out for it and on the way that the purchase is warrented. I didn't buy any games for it. I have a ton of DS games I couldn't play because of a broken shoulder button on my old DS, so I figured I'd wait for some good deals on 3DS games and whittle down my To Be Played list. I did, however, borrow Ocarina of Time from a pal. I don't think there could have been a better way to enjoy the system day one. Ocarina of Time on the 3DS feels like gaming perfection. The controls are much more natural than its N64 counterpart, The graphics look cleaner without really varying too much from the charming look of the original. The gameplay is still superb. And for the three or four hours I played, it was an absolute joy to revisit. I was worried nostalgia might have affected that game's quality, but I'm happy to say that it is still one of the best games out there.

Randomness!

-I did finish off a few games of Civ V this week, mostly from old saves that I hadn't quite gotten around to beating. I played as Gandhi, Caesar, and Alexander, with Alexander being the clear-cut favorite of the three. The production boost you get from buildings already created in the capital cuts costs down by a ton and encourages rapid and militaristic expansion. It's pretty great. I adore that freakin' game.

-Do you watch Spartacus? Because that motha fucka cut a man's face off this week - and it was awesome.

Sorry for the brevity of this update. Much more to come next week, as I explore some old DS games and maybe start in on the next Tomb Raider game in the PS3 collection. We shall see. Enjoy your week, and bring daddy his goddamn money!

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Sparky's Update - Cat Pee, Gears, and Forza Cheer

By gum and by golly, it's that time of the week again when I rock your eyeballs with some talk of gaming nonsense. No clever opening today, I'm afraid. I'm running a mile a minute around here, and I'm too exhausted to even try to be clever. Or whatever passes for "clever" in my Updates. Anywho, this week, we're going to talk about my 2nd proudest achievement to date, Gears of War 3, and cat piss in a bag. Hooray!

I Hate Cats

OK, really, I don't. But around seven years ago, I was in the middle of a flurry of moves, from college to home to another school to home to yet another school... it was a crazy time. Needless to say, some stuff got lost in the shuffle. One of the things I had chalked up for lost was a duffel bag containing, among other things, my slim PS1 from my college days as well as a bunh of PC games from about 2000-2003.

Today, I found that bag. And I'm not pleased.

Let me be up front about this - what happened is no one's fault but my own. I know how to keep electronics, games, and the like. But this time, I was lazy. I threw everything into a duffel bag, left it somewhere in my parents' house, and ran to do... well, whatever the hell it was I was doing back then. Probably getting drunk and hitting on married women, which was usually the case. Seriously, guys, if you want to make a woman smile, go up to a married woman and shamelessly flirt with her. Never take it further than that unless you want extra holes in your body, but it's the most fun a guy can have at a bar if there's no real game - and half the time, it'll make the single women rethink your scruffy, unshaven looks and the Mario t-shirt you unwisely chose to wear that day.

Back to the point.

I found that bag today. Huzzah. That bag was full of years-old cat piss. Boo. Thankfully, none of the games were worth much. In a way, I'm sort of relieved about that - if it had been my long-lost copies of Quest for Glory, Leisure Suit Larry, and my LucasArts collections, I'd have been upset. As it is, I'm kicking myself for doing something dumb, but oh well. We live and learn.

Chainsaws of War

I really enjoyed Gears of War 3. I need to preface this whole thing because at times, it's going to sound like I'm shitting on this game when I'm really not. I don't need to tell you why it's fantastic - the combat is fuckin' crazy and awesome, the characters are all kinds of cheesy machismo grunty types straight out of shlocktacular military science fiction (something I adore), and the game looks and feels spot-on for this generation.

It's also a deeply moving testament to how far we've come this generation in terms of how accessible games have become to those of us with vision problems. Due to my shades of color blindness, all the baddies in the first game had a tendency to blend into the backgrounds. The game was virtually unplayable for me. This game, though, has rectified that, especially when it comes to the Lambent. Their day-glo yellow body parts make them unmistakeable, but even the Locust have more colors and more details to make them stand out against the background. It's remarkable. In no small way, this game kindles my faith that on some levels, publishers and developers will continue to make games accessible for all while still keeping the heart and soul of the gameplay alive. That's a pretty damn cool thing.

I'd be lying, however, if I said Gears of War 3 was without fault. It is superb in almost every regard, but that quality almost makes its weakest portion stand out glaringly - namely, the story and pacing of the middle third of the game. While opening incredibly strong with Marcus and Cole's unique struggles against the Lambent (as well as Cole's awesome return to his glory days - one of the best moments of the game) and ending in a pitch-perfect moment, the middle third feels like a by-the-numbers affair, completely predictable and incredibly derivative. While some of the environments and gunfights are great, there are moments such as an entire town of infected, zombie-like people that made me roll my eyes. You've seen this in a dozen different sci-fi military shooters, from Halo's Flood to Resistance 2 & 3's infected populaces. Even the "desperate miracle cure" story is played out. It's super frustrating because you can see lots of moments of greatness, and the dialogue is both ridiculous and kinda great. Bro-tastic moments such as Cole's story are met in turn with quiet, reflective moments such as when Marcus Fenix and the character voiced by the great Claudia Black (who, it should be noted, has become one supreme voice actor) share a moment together. Marcus asks the Claudia Black character, "Are you okay?" After a long, heavy silence, she replies, "No. And neither are you." It doesn't sound like much, but there's an absolute ton of levity put into those couple of lines.

So it's a shame then that the individual moments don't quite add up to a better story overall. But Gears of War 3 is still a fantastic game, and a testament to the willingness of publishers to give a pat on the back to those of us with visual problems. Thanks, Epic.

One Hell of An Achievement

I beat Forza 4's career mode like a redheaded stepchild this week. Other than that ridiculously insane Arkham City achievement that required you to fly perfectly through a tiny corridor, this is my proudest achievement on the 360. It takes a hell of a long time, and yet, it's only a fraction of the time required to get the "All Gold" achievement. I may never obtain that one, but at least I can hold my head up proud and say, "Hey! I got a completely meaningless award in a video game time will forget when its inevitable sequels arrive!" Booyah, bitches. Booyah.

Randomness!

-Star Ocean: First Departure continues to be an unexpected delight. I'm a huge fan of the skill system. You essentially have skills that you can invest points into. On their own, these give you minute bonuses and change your stats slightly. But investing into certain combinations of skills grants you special abilities, such as cooking or the ability to dictate your rate of random encounters. It sounds convoluted, but it awards exploration, grinding, and experimentation like little I've seen before.

-On dankempster's recommendation, I've started the His Dark Materials trilogy. So far, I'm enjoying it. More thoughts to come later, but the world is cleverly designed, the dialogue is intelligent, and the novel never feels as though it's condescending towards the reader. That's a solid foundation!

And here's your Internet randomness for the week. Enjoy!

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Sparky's Update - Revisiting some modern classics

Howdy doody, el cowpoke-erinos (if you're not into the whole brevity thing). Gird your loins, says I, because... well... I'm about to do the writing equivalent of whatever would cause you to gird said loins. That's right, sugar dumpling, it's the weekly Sparky's Update.

This week isn't going to center around one or two games per usual. I've really been playing more bits and bobs of games I've played already rather than doing anything constructive like cutting down on my to-be-played pile. Join hands with me, then, as we sing Camptown Ladies, drink some cheap hooch, make up S'Mores, and I tell you some boring ass tales about one man's venture through the gaming world.

Da Randomwilder

Half of you just zoned out and decided to listen to Method Man and Redman instead. I'm perfectly okay with that.

-My progress through Tomb Raider: Legend has been, unfortunately, halted prematurely due to my gaming archnemesis - visual problems. In a tomb in England, I've reached a point that's a bit hard for me to, er, puzzle out. Hee hee ho ho ha ha. I'm such a jokester. Seriously, though, it's been a surprisingly great game so far. I'd hate for it to end here, but if it does, I feel satisfied already with my purchase of the collection. The fact is, I still have two other games on the disc to go, so I've got even more Tomb Raidin' to be done. I will probably alternate in another game before I tackle the other two, but you never know.

-I've been playing Broken Sword III on the PC. It's a game I sort of adore, despite a few niggling quirks. The puzzles are generally logical, though one does require that you either guess at its solution (ahem - as in my case) or that you've watched old police shows and know how to get a key from a door using only a newspaper and a pencil. Thankfully, though, puzzles like that are far and few between, and the game instead relies on basic logic puzzles to push you through its pretty good story. The main characters are voiced by the same actors as in Broken Sword II, and the side characters are a hilarious mix of good and awful talent. There's one French accented woman that sounds like she's reading her lines like the children from the old Charlie Brown cartoons. It's pretty great. I do sometimes take issue with the fact that you can't skip lines, especially when you're hunting down some bit of information from a phone message or something similar. It sounds minor, but in an adventure game like this, you cover a lot of the same ground and it can get old, fast. To balance that out though, there's no permadeath. See, before about 2000 or so, most non-Lucas Arts games forced you to save constantly for fear of dying every few minutes. It was an annoying mechanic that thankfully died along the time quick saves and the early 2000's hit. Everyone started to emulate LucasArts' style of no-death adventure gameplay, and I'm damned glad. You can, I guess, technically "die" in this game, but it will load seconds before your accident and you can easily avoid it. It's a great little adventure game.

-I revisited Borderlands after getting super pumped up about IGN's features on the character classes. Yes, I read other sites than Giant Bomb, and some of them are popular. Sue me. I finally got around to beating General Knoxx on the console, as well as revisiting Crawmerax (Clawmerax?). While I didn't beat the mythical beast (something that's eluded me even on the PC), I did have a great deal of fun. I plan on knocking out Moxxi's Underdome and Claptrap Revolution sometime soon, as they're two of the DLC packs I didn't visit until now.

-Skyrim is still pretty amazing. I finished up the last of the Daedric quests, though the achievement didn't pop. I suspect the reason is that I didn't always side with the Daedric princes. Oh well. It was still fun. I'm now at level 62, and am currently working on getting my Destruction skill up to 100. I'm putting it down until there's DLC. I don't want to burn out on it.

-Saints Row 3's DLC is fun, if a little disappointing. If the packs had been priced at about $5, they would have been worth the money. As it is, I regret buying the season pass, but I don't really regret supporting Volition. Unless there's a sale on these sometime, don't bother with the DLC so far. That being said, the Genki Kitty Yarn Ball mini-game is a fucking riot.

-I've just barely scratched the surface of Star Ocean: First Departure for the PSP. I'm enjoying what I've seen so far. It's a very basic game at heart, as it's a remake of a classic, but the visual aesthetic is super pleasing, combining some great looking backdrops and towns with great cartoony-looking characters. I'm not a fan at all of the anime cutscenes, which are as cookie-cutter as you can get. But overall, it plays great, looks great, and it seems very meaty.

Internet Bag of Fun!

This is a new section of the Update, wherein I throw in some random game-related machinima, artwork, or general links of gaming goodness. I'm deliberately keeping it open to interpretation, so the content might be old, new, or somewhere in between. Today, I'm sharing one of my favorite bits of machinima, from Halo Reach. You've probably seen it already, but oh well - it's a classic for a reason.

Books!

I've been reading some of Raymond Feist's latest. As pure fantasy popcorn, they're okay - you know they're not going to fill you up and they're terrible for your mind, but as a snack now and again, they're not bad. On dankempster's recommendation, I'm going to be moving on to His Dark Materials soon-ish. More to report then.

And that's it for this week! Thanks for reading. Next time, remember the marshmellows for S'Mores, okay?

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Sparky's Update - Crisis Core, Divinity II, Tomb Raider Legend

It's the blog your mothers warn your of-age sisters about. That's right, babycakes, it's Sparky's Update. This week, I'm going to give Divinity II all the time I think it deserves in my final thoughts on the game, as well as talk your ear (eyes?) off about Crisis Core. While my experience with Tomb Raider Legend has been brief, I'll try to sum up some early thoughts. I'll also be covering my brief love affair with the latest Rifts books that I've picked up, and I'll continue covering bits of random nonsense as I see fit.

All You Need to Know About Divinity II

I beat it. Don't play this game. The end.

OK, so it's not as bad as that. Hell, it even had the makings of a decent game in its first half. But when you obtain the Battle Tower, everything goes completely awry in that game. The ending does have a pretty good twist that leads nicely into the expansion, but let me put it this way - by that point, I didn't give a shit if the ending was Shakespearean, let alone the half-good oasis in the desert of shittiness that it was. By that point, the paper-thin plot, godawfully tight and repetitive exploration, and terrible dragon transformation elements wore me down to a point when I was literally saying out loud, "When will this just end?"

Do yourself a favor. If you play this game, stop when you get your Battle Tower. Pretend that's the end of the game. Or even better, go out and find copies of Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity, both of which were loads better than this. You deserve better than this.

Nathan Drake Before the Sex Change

Once upon a time, children, the tomb raidin' wasn't done by a charming, smarmy guy and his uncomfortably attractive female partners (seriously, Chloe, call me sometime if you become real, mmmkay?). Instead, it was done by a woman with square and triangular looking body parts that, if you squinted really hard, looked vaguely and grotesquely feminine. She was, of course, Lara Croft. While I don't claim to have the deepest attachment to the rest of the games, I did play and enjoy the first title in the series. It was a fun puzzler with some neat set-pieces and a heroine the likes of which we really hadn't seen in games until then.

Fast forward a whole bunch of years, and here I am in 2012, catching up on the latest of Lara's forays into tombs with the PS3 collection of Legend, Underworld, and Anniversary. I haven't picked up or seen a Tomb Raider game since that original one, but I'd heard these latest ones were pretty good and the price point over the Black Friday sales (around $15) seemed perfect. I'm only about four levels into Legend, and I can already tell you that the purchase was justified. It's a solid, good game with some minor quirks.

The first thing I was surprised about was how fluid the movement felt. I remember old Lara being a lot clunkier than this, and I sure am pleased. Not all the movement is spot-on - sometimes jumping from wall cracks or poles can be a bit frustrating and inaccurate, but for the most part, there's a fair amount of grace and fluidity to everything going on. The combat is remarkably fun - another thing I remember distinctly not liking about the original. Sometimes enemies can be bullet sponges, but given that the pistols have infinite ammo (smart thinking on the developers' part) and that there are apparently upgrades to the pistol along the way (haven't figured that bit out yet), I don't think this is much of a problem. I particularly like how the tomb raiding is broken up with some action scenes. There's a really nice flow to the game so far, and the story, while a little vanilla, is told with an infectious fervor and enthusiasm.

There is one bone-headed mistake, though, and that's in the fact that the game quick saves BEFORE cinematics are shown. It can be super frustrating to have to sit through these brief interludes before jumping back into the action, especially when I need to run from a threat. It screws with the flow of the action, and being able to skip only about half the cinematics really kind of adds to the irritation. The QTE's aren't great either, but at least the onscreen buttons are usually huge.

All in all, I'm having fun with it. I plan to finish up Legend, take a break with a different game, then come back to Anniversary and Underworld seperately. All in all? Lara's aged pretty well.

What If... It Was Zach Braff Rather Than Zack Fair?

Aw shit. I'd probably play that too. Damn, I hate admitting that.

When thinking about Crisis Core, I have this image in my head of the world's biggest asshole making Dairy Queen Blizzards with chunks of sour candies rather than sweet, delicious M&M's, peanut butter cups, or Butterfingers... oh, man, I'd love some ice cream right about now. So good... huh? What's that? Oh, yeah, video games.

Massive spoilers ahead.

For the most part, Crisis Core is the delicious vanilla ice cream in that Blizzard. The gameplay is rock solid action-RPG fare. It introduces a neat leveling system based on random slots in combat. If two numbers add up, your various equipped materia can level. If you get straight 7's, your character gains a level. Neat-o. It adds a lot of fun and randomness to the combat, and it rewards a lot of materia shuffling.

Another cool element is the materia fusion system, wherein you can take two materia and mold them together for more powerful bonuses or a change in materia type. Adding an item to the mix further increases the bonus, and there are a ton of materia to combine and play with. It's a rewarding system, and since most materia is easy to obtain, it allows the player a great deal of freedom. This is a system I wouldn't mind seeing make a return in future Final Fantasy games.

But the real draw of the game for a Final Fantasy nut like me is in its nostalgia. This is pure fan service, through and through. Seeing places like Midgar and characters like Aerith and Cloud warms me down to my bones. I still consider Final Fantasy VII to be one of my absolute favorites (even if it has been technically surpassed), and this game managed to hit on a lot of pleasure centers in my brain. Unsurprisingly, some of the best moments for me lie in the game's music, which smartly updates the FF7 themes while avoiding too much tinkering. Aerith's theme still is the standout, while updated versions of Shinra's and Sephiroth's evil themes made my inner child grin ear from ear. The game's killer CGI drives the nostalgia home. Aerith's CGI is my standout favorite (I guess at this point it's pretty clear to my readers that I greatly enjoy Aerith as a character, both in FFVII and here), but there are some stellar moments with Cloud too, especially the ending cinematic. And oh lordy, seeing ol' Sephiroth in the flames of Nibelheim again... man, that just sealed the deal on how much I knew I emotionally liked this game.

All that said, though, we haven't covered the Blizzard's sour candies. I abhor the story between Zack, Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth. As a matter of fact, almost all of the non-FFVII moments were pretty awful in comparison. Genesis is one of the series' worst antagonists, a complete one-note joke of a character who never comes close to licking Sephiroth's bootheels (and I don't consider Sephiroth to be a particularly outstanding villain). Angeal, Hollander, and Lazarus, the other "biggies," are never given time to flesh out as characters. The locations other than Nibelheim and Midgar felt too restrictive and linear, with little to no interaction with any of the places. The English translation could be spotty, though some of this might just be the fault of the script itself. One example is during one of Zack's special attacks, when he calls upon Tseng. In a moment of complete Japanese incomprehensibility, Tseng growls, "Is this the end?" to which Zack responds with, "I'm trying! I'm trying!" Now, I'd be lying if I said this really bugged me all that much, since I've seen it in a dozen JRPG's before, but it's one of those things that really should be addressed somewhere down the line if Japan decides to bring a focus back to JRPG's in the west.

As it stands, I'm super glad I played Crisis Core. It reminds me that while I'd happily play a remake of Final Fantasy VII, I really want to see the series return to the careful love it once gave all of its characters and settings. I want to see a much-needed dose of creativity and care in Final Fantasy XV. And most importantly, I want Square to care about its games as much as it cares about its dollar bills. I don't know what I'll play next on my PSP, be it a PS1 classic or another PSP RPG. We shall see.

Books and Other Nonsense

-I have a small Christmas tradition wherein each year, if I have the money, I buy myself a Palladium Books Christmas grab bag. Quick explanation - you essentially send them a wishlist of sorts of the books they publish as well as if you'd like artwork, t-shirts, or other swag. For about $35 plus shipping, they then send you a random selection of books and swag from your wishlist totalling about $80-90 value. It's an awesome deal with a nice little element of surprise. This year, they extended the sale until late January, and I managed to snag one at the last minute. Among the books they sent me was Dead Reign, a new zombie pen-and-paper RPG they've released over the last few years. Very cool stuff, and if you're interested in this sort of thing, it's a great setting with some neat ideas. I don't actually play pen & paper RPG's, but I've loved Palladium's Rifts books since I was a little kid. They are a lot of fun, and creatively, very inspiring. I'd highly recomend Rifts and Dead Reign, but their other books are pretty cool too.

-Borderlands 2 in late September! That's a lot earlier than I expected, and I'm super stoked.

-Don't let your entitlement carry you away to the point where you'd slander and verbally defile a woman. I don't care what she said in 2006, I don't care how you feel about Bioware. Don't be an asshole.

-Just a reminder - I'll be starting an RPG retrospective sometime later this year, and have posted a list of game I either own or can easily purchase. If you have any games from that list that you'd like to see me cover in detail, hit me up with a comment on that list. It's still a long ways down the line, but I welcome any and all input ahead of time to help me plan out a strategy for attacking the games.

And that's about it. Whew. Long blog today. Rest your little doggies, hit me up with comments and thoughts below, and keep on having fun.

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Sparky's Update - JA: Back in Action

Sparky here, with your usual weekly update of all things inane. I'm going to be filling you in on my thoughts on Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, and since I still haven't gotten around to doing any significant reading of any sort, I've decided to use that section as a random catch-all. I'll also be talking a little bit more about my progress in Divinity II. Grab some Tylenol for that Valentine's Day hangover, because this word magic is about to get you drunk all over again.

Mercs with Mouths

Guys. Guys. GUYS! Guess what?

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action doesn't suck!

You have no freakin' idea how relieved I am as a long-time fan of the series to say those words and truly mean it. It's not great. It's frankly busted in spots. There are bizarre problems everywhere. But overall, it's good ol' Jagged Alliance goodness at its core. After a substantial number of years without a great title in the squad-based tactical genre, this is more than a breath of fresh air. This is a full-on revival of a niche genre I thought long dead. And that alone has warranted the game's purchase, in my eyes.

That being said, unless you're an old school Jagged Alliance fan, don't buy this game - yet. Give it at least a year, maybe more. Give the developers time to iron out all the problems (and there are a TON - we'll get to that in a minute), and more importantly, give the rabid modding geniuses of Jagged Alliance 2 time to get their hands on it. This can go from being a middlingly decent game to a genuinely great one with time. It's obvious this was released way too early. The game is rife with spelling errors that a simple sweep by a couple of American testers could have found. There's a distinct and jarring framerate problem (at least with my laptop, though my rig should be well equipped to run it). And most importantly, it's missing key features of Jagged Alliance 2 such as the create-a-merc that seemingly will be implemented at a later date, either by the game's developers or by fan modders.

I do have some issues with the game's fundamentals that will probably not be addressed by updates, but thankfully, this list is fairly short. The real-time gameplay just doesn't do it for me as much as the turn-based did. Part of that problem is that it's a bit half-assed. Unless specifically ordered to enter into a stance, mercs won't return fire or even look in an enemy's direction until told to. Returning fire seems to be a crapshoot, depending on the way the merc is facing. The inventory management (especially between mercs) is clunky at best. There's no difficulty settings (that I've found, anyways - I could be wrong on this one), meaning you're stuck throughout the game on one difficulty. And believe me, that difficulty is fucking brutal. There are ways around it, of course - saving after every successful firefight, no matter how small, is crucial. Pausing the game to micromanage is your best option, but this can be little counterintuitive if you try to play the game like an RTS.

In short, it's a game with a terrible identity crisis. It seems to me that this game is almost a warm-up, a way to justify a future sequel that will hopefully define whether this game wants to be a proper Jagged Alliance turn-based game or move towards a real-time squad combat game. I'm fine either way - I recognize that the turn-based format of the older games feels archaic and unwieldy. But if they make another Jagged Alliance, and I hope to God they do, it needs to find a better balance between real-time and turn-based.

As it stands, this is the sort of game I will probably play for years to come in small chunks - half an hour here, five minutes there. It's the sort of game I've been missing on the PC, and I'm damn glad it's here.

A Big Ol' Pot of Random Stew

-Divinity II takes a sharp nosedive right after the point where I left off last week, specifically right after you obtain the "Battle Tower." There's a laundry list of problems after that point. The game's sense of exploration is suddenly and severely cramped. Entire areas of the world I've just explored and come to enjoy have become completely inaccessible (to be fair, they give you ample warning). Worst of all, I've suddenly been left with incredibly little guidance other than vague, brief quest notes. Instead of opening the game up with the ability to turn into a dragon, they actually made it much more narrow and boring. The few civilized areas I've encountered are dull, lifeless affairs, lacking that charming little spark of vitality from the game's first half. It's a disjointed experience, as the beginning offers promises of a poor man's Gothic II, while the latter half is an ugly, scattershot affair with absolutely nothing new to offer besides repetitive moments when you need to turn into a dragon and topple the enemy's defenses. Frankly, it's a shame and I'm not entirely sure why I keep plodding on, except that I've already come this far. I'll give it as much as I can, and I'll dip into the expansion pack once I've hit the wall. I cannot recommend this game to anyone, not even die-hard RPG fanatics like me.

-With the release of both the Vita and a new console Twisted Metal this week, I feel like I should be far more excited than I am. I can't believe I'm saying this, since I've waited forever for a follow-up to Twisted Metal Black (one of my favorite games), but I have zero interest in Twisted Metal except when its price has been slashed. I don't want Twisted Metal to be about helicopters or giant transforming robots. I want classic Twisted Metal recreated for a new console, and this doesn't feel like it. It's got a case of the "me-too's," cashing in on the multiplayer premises of other games while trying to find a halfassed way to fit in with the newer generation of games. It's not that it looks like a terrible game. It just doesn't seem like a real Twisted Metal, and therefore, I can't get excited about it.

As for the Vita, Sony just hasn't put out any games that really have caught my eye. I'm still sorta pissed at them for their PSN fiasco. It really doesn't help that I think the Vita is far overpriced and has way too many gizmos that gamers don't need and developers won't implement. Listen, all I really want from a new consoles and handhelds is better graphics technology and further improvement on technology that we use consistently in games. I don't need or want eight different ways to touch the screen, or a rotorootertransmogrifier to spin the screen as I twist around. I just fuckin' want it to have great games and be reasonably priced. We've already got great controllers and ways to play the games, so concentrate instead on refinement and durability. That's all.

-Steam and GOG.com games for $2-5 surely don't count when it comes to my rule about buying new games, do they? Sigh. Picked up Plants vs. Zombies this week, and I damn near bought a few games from GOG over the last couple of weekends that I really don't need. But when you throw a hand-animated adventure game in my face that I've never heard of (Jack Orlando), it's almost a moral imperative! Seriously, it was everything I could do to click the "remove from cart" buttons.

-On to TV and movies - I thought Alcatraz started strong, but it's floundering. Seriously, producer and showrunner people, we need to move beyond "case of the week" TV blues. Speaking of case of the week, I finally saw the first three episodes of Sherlock, which was as good as advertised. But seriously - three episodes a YEAR, Britain? Grrr. I almost wish I'd watched it after the show has finished and all the DVDs were released here in the States. Oh well.

And that's it. Long entry today, I guess. I'm bushed, so I think I'd better go cuddle my dog, nurse my V-Day hangover, and chow down on leftover pizza. Hope you all had a great Valentine's Day.

I usually don't like to post my blogs to the forums, but I do it every now and again to try to get a larger readership. If you like what you've read, feel free to follow me. I put these out roughly each Wednesday.

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Sparky's Update - The Re-Up, and Divinity II

Hey, folks! This week's gaming content is probably going to be a little light, but I'll be talking a little bit about Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga as well as my reasons for deciding to re-subscribe to Whiskey Media. Better call up Kenny Loggins, because you're in the danger zone. Thanks, Archer.

A Half Full Cup

I didn't come into Divinity expecting much. I'd played Divine Divinity six or so years ago, followed shortly by its pseudo-sequel Beyond Divinity. Both were isometric action-RPG's in the vein of Diablo. The first featured some pretty all right questing and looting. Nothing that would blow your mind, and it's since been far surpassed by other Diablo clones (namely Titan Quest and Torchlight), but as a $10 budget title, it was amusing. The second tried out some new, fascinating ideas that never quite translated into a great game. It had you shackled to an evil knight, your lives bound to each other's survival. It was a cool concept, but a frustrating difficulty and dull early gameplay kept it from being a great game. Both are pretty recommendable if you're looking for some Diablo-esque games to tide you over until the real thing.

Forgetting the head-shakingly bizarre naming convention for a minute, let's talk about Divinity II, the most recent game in the series. It has basically rid itself of the 3rd-person isometric trappings and the dual-character gameplay for a generic 3rd-person action-RPG. While it's still a heavily loot-based game with lots and lots of side-quests, it has, for all intents and purposes, become an entirely different beast. The developers have tried for less cartoony graphics, gunning instead for a bland, poor man's Bethesda feel to the visuals. There's this feel permeating the entire game that this is very much a freshmen effort, despite Larian's name being stamped on a few games before this.

The plot is about as weak as I've seen since the days of Metal Dungeon. Seriously, it could have been written by a twelve year old. It's that bad. It's bizarre then that so much of the dialogue involving side quests is witty and straight up funny at times. It hasn't exactly made me bust a gut, but little winks such as a despicable monster correcting my grammar make it pretty bearable. That little bit of charm and sparkle in the dialogue adds up, because you'll be visiting a ton of places. It's too bad the main story stinks, but at least all the little people make it worth it.

The game is big. Really big. Deceptively so, too, like in the vein of Gothic 2 wherein you seemingly had a straight path for the first few hours and then everything and everywhere opens up to you. As a matter of fact, I really got a good Gothic 2-esque vibe from a lot of things in this game. Both are fantasy generica, to be sure, but the gameplay and endlessly explorable worlds give it a rugged charm.

I'm also growing super fond of certain gameplay elements in Divinity II. The mindreading aspect, which allows you to pay experience points to read a person's mind, is a nifty way to circumvent harder quests, find treasure, obtain some side quests, or just have a laugh (two town residents echo "Laurel?" and "Hardy?" at each other in one of my favorite little moments). There are a ton of abilities to learn, some more useful than others, most of which can be selected repeatedly to boost the skill's powers. The base cap is five, but paying a fairly cheap sum to a trainer will allow you to up a skill ten levels. By that point, my Whirlwind ability was mowing down the game's enemies with a fair amount of consistency. The game can be frustratingly difficult at times, but by exploring a different area and leveling up a bit further, no encounter has seemed impossible so far.

I should also mention just how much I enjoy the music. It's not anything grandiose, but it's super catchy and well put together for a generic fantasy game. The game came with the soundtrack, so that's also crazy cool.

I couldn't tell you how far I am into Divinity II - I just got to what I believe to be a significant event in obtaining my "Battle Tower" and my ability to transform into a dragon, but so far, it's been a surprisingly fun game for the $10 I paid for it. This isn't even getting into the second half of the game's package, the expansion Ego Draconis. That's a lot of game for $10.

Those Whiskey Media Types Are Bad News, Man

I re-upped my subscription this week to Whiskey Media. I didn't need to think twice. Though I don't watch a lot of the regular subscriber-exclusive content, I do feel like the purchase was warranted. Here's why!

The Best E3 Coverage - These guys kill it during E3, which is probably my favorite week of gaming in the entire year. I make up snacks and food for the inevitable long hours in front of a computer as I soak up all the little bits of news. For me these last couople of years, there hasn't been any site with better or flat-out funnier coverage than Giant Bomb. It's the moments like the Braid creator taking journalists to task during an open and honest conversation during the Bombcast or the excellent and often hilarious moments from the recaps (Ryan's "Power" moment in the last one still gets a play from me now and again - terrific editing).

The Randomness - I love when an unannounced video is about to start or I see something archived that I missed live, be it from GB, Screened, Tested, or Comic Vine. There's a lot of charm to the idea that something can just be thrown together on the spot for the amusement of the community.

The Classic Segments - I don't know what I did before Quick Looks, but holy crap, are they amazing. Same goes for the rest of Whiskey Media's features that I view regularly, such as the Half-Good series, Norm and Will's latest forays into the tech I wish I had the money to afford, and Comic Vine's excellent occasional video. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish for more straight-up written reviews from Giant Bomb in particular, but given that it's such a small crew, it's understandable.

The Podcasts - I'm not a regular listener to the GB podcasts, but when I need something to listen to while doing a gaming grind or research, it's invariably the podcast I go with. Part of the fun is that randomness we've already covered, part of it is me silently arguing certain points, and part of it is just the consistent quality.

And that's it for this week. A little short, I know, but next week will bring possibly more on Divnity II as well as my first impressions on one of my most anticipated titles, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action.

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Sparky's Update - War in the North, fantasy novels-to-games

Hey gang! I'm afraid this will probably be a bit of a dull update this week, as I've really been dedicating a lot of time to Forza 4. I did manage to get very close to the ending of War in the North, so I feel like I should talk some more about that game. I didn't go over its strengths very well, so I thought I'd dedicate a little more time to that and to what in particular I'd like to see out of future LOTR games. And while I've been doing a lot of research this week for my writing, I haven't been reading too much for pleasure. That doesn't mean you're not going to get some arbitrary little bit on novels, though, as I plan to continue the fantasy novel-to-game theme by describing a few of my favorite ideas.

Hacking and Slashing

It occurs to me first and foremost that I never did do a great job explaining what exactly War in the North is. I described it as an action-RPG, and while that's certainly the genre it most resembles, I think it merits a better description. You essentially have a group of three characters, each with a certain role to play. Their classes should be familiar to anyone who has played LOTRO, but if you haven't, here's a quick overlook. The dwarf is a champion, meaning he's essentially the fighter/damage dealer of the three. He's also got some tank-like skills, but seems primarily to be focused on dealing out lots and lots of melee damage. His skills reflect that, including a sweeping attack that can nail multiple mobs, a fierce attack against a single opponent, and an aura called War Cry, which essentially boosts the skills of the dwarf and nearby companions. Those attacks can be modified slightly through the skill trees - for example, War Cry can regenerate health over time, help you ignore enemy attacks (incredibly useful), and up the defense and attack power of allies. Each of those abilities can be upgraded several times. The human Ranger is more or less a stealthy ranged killer, with some options to become more warrior-ish with dual wielding. The elf lore-master is the mage of the group, using her spells mostly to heal but also for some nice ranged attacks.

While I haven't played around too much with the loremaster or ranger, I feel I can say that the game does a pretty good job of allowing you a certain range in how you can play your character. Some skills are less useful than others, but with respec potions available from shops early on, it's not really a big deal to go back and change your character when you start earning lots of money. Armor sets and weapons help reflect personal choices in gameplay styles too, as you can slot different gems to armor and weapons to augment your stats or deal certain types of damage. It's all fairly standard stuff in this type of game, but it's rock solid and done well. It really helps that all the armor and weapons appear on your character, and by the end of the game, you get some really neat-looking sets.

The game is broken out fairly rhythmically - you go through one large dungeon area, broken up into several smaller pieces, and then you encounter a town or village. Once you get to the town, you can then go back and revisit those dungeons. The mobs become easier (possibly through the generous leveling), there are no minibosses or bosses, and all the chests and breakable objects have been reset. Grinding out levels, when necessary, is ridiculously easy once you get past the first dungeon, and honestly, people, you shouldn't need to grind out levels in this if you're even slightly good at action RPG's. Achievements are doled out handily, and I can only imagine that people could easily S-rank this one in a week or so.

It's too bad then that the game's slavish devotion to sticking to the edge of the trilogy's story hinders it so. You get the feeling that given more freedom to the story and the locations, this game could have been something really remarkable. As it is, it's basically trying to flesh out a story that's already been told in books, movies, video games, and every other possible medium.

The Other Games!

I got into a real Forza 4 kick this week, spending most of my time gaming devoted to polishing off a year and a half in the career mode. I also spent a stupid amount of time designing a few cars. You can find pictures of those cars in my profile's pictures, if you're interested. Really, the only one of particular note is that Hyundai Genesis, which I'm super fond of. Not much more to say. The awesome additions to the cars via DLC has been even better in this game than in Forza 3. I definitely feel like I'm getting my money's worth out of this one.

I've made a few hours progress into Crisis Core, not enough to really warrant much more talk, but I'm still really digging the combat system. I'm not a huge fan of the stifling environments, but maybe the game allows for some exploration of the world later on. Right now, I can only visit a few Midgar areas, which already makes it 1000 times more explorable than FFXIII.

Fantasy Novels that Should Be Games

Here's a fun fact for you - I read a ton of fantasy novels. I've got everything on my shelves from Mallory to Tolkien, Tad Williams to Harry Potter. If it's even remotely decent looking, odds are I'll read it. Here lately, while playing through Lord of the Rings, I've been contemplating what fantasy novels should be made into games. Some of these already have a game or two released, but either they need updates or a new genre. Here's the list:

Tad Williams - Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn:

While I think there are better individual novels on the market today in terms of modern fantasy, I don't think we've seen the collective equal of Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It's a huge world, and Williams spends some time getting the reader nicely acquainted with it without going as batshit overboard as Robert Jordan. As a game, it's begging for a Bioware-esque RPG, complete with a big party full of the various races and denizens of Williams' world. The Sitha would make great villains, and you could go either for the main story of the novels themselves or a new one. If and when I make the sci-fi equivalent of this list, expect to see Williams' equally brilliant Otherland series.

Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time (duh)

While we've had countless MUD's and a surprisingly decent PC game based on Jordan's novels, there has yet to really be a definitive game based on his works. I think the world is an MMO company's wet dream waiting to happen, but it would require a monstrous amount of tech behind it, as the world would have to be huge to appease the novels' fans. I'd stick to the events of the novels here, as the story should be hefty enough to support an MMO a decade after its released.

Anne McCaffrey - The Pern World

It's already been a sad year for book lovers with the passing of Anne McCaffrey. But her legacy of countless fantasy novels should live on for quite a bit longer. I can't claim to be the biggest fan of her books, but I can guarantee you I'd play the hell out of the games if they were made right. She invented a charming world with a lot of potential for video games somewhere down the line - not now, not so soon, but definitely somewhere down the line, I think a line of adventure-heavy third person games could definitely work well in this universe. Maybe even a Telltale-esque adventure game? Hmmm.

T.H. White - The Once and Future King

Maybe it's just my inner child, but I really want a big blowout adventure game based on T.H. White's masterpiece. We've seen dozens of Arthurian games, but a sprawling adventure game with three very distinct acts, each with a different mood, could definitely get some playtime on my PC or console.

And that's it for now. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on books of any genre you'd like to see made into games. Or just spout random nonsense at me. Your choice!

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Sparky's Update - Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Hey gang! It's probably going to be a quick update this week. I've only been playing two games over the last week: War in the North and Crisis Core. I've barely scratched the surface of Crisis Core, so I will say little of it for right now save that I'm enjoying its mechanics and not at all enjoying its bland story. That might change, as I do dearly love the trappings of Final Fantasy VII and the game is still getting started. But enough of that for now. Let's move on to the game I've really been playing.

Oh, I'll also quickly review Jonathan Maberry's third and final (for now) Pine Deep novel, Bad Moon Rising. Short version? It's one of the best horror novels of the last decade or so.

A Real Mixed Bag

The next few paragraphs are probably going to make it sound like I hate Lord of the Rings: War in the North, but I want to be clear up front - I'm really enjoying the game. It's an addictive, loot-based action-RPG set in Tolkien's Middle Earth. That right there is enough to get me hooked. Each of the three characters has a very specific role, but a lot of wiggle room in his/her skills to make the character feel unique to your particular choice of playstyle. Some of the environments look great, blending a bit of the movies with a bit of what appears to be inspiration from Lord of the Rings Online. That's a good thing - that game was beautiful. The music is superb, as I've come to expect from LOTR games. It seems to be original compositions, though I'm not entirely certain about that. Character models look fantastic, taking likenesses from the movies along with a bevy of characters both original and literary.

So it kind of pains me to have to describe what War in the North does wrong - and holy shit, does it do a TON of it wrong. Some things are apparent right off the bat. While the visuals look great and the enemies and characters have a nice bit of variety to them, you'll notice a massive amount of clipping both from bodies appearing where they're not supposed to (half in walls, running around stuck in an environment item such as a rock, etc.). Given that I rarely care about graphics, this isn't a big deal to me. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid.

Storywise, the game starts with your three protagonists thrust right into the Prancing Pony for a meeting with Aragorn on where you need to go to help distract the Enemy from his business. And that's it - you're given no introduction to the three protagonists. There's little backstory given, save for bits dropped throughout the game's various town locations. There is literally no reason to care about these protagonists and their story whatsoever, and that's maybe the worst thing I can say about any game based on Lord of the Rings. The story insists on interweaving with the events of the novels, a poor decision in my opinion, as Tolkien had notes on thousands of years of Middle Earth lore to draw upon, not to mention the countless possibilities of a story skirting the main story altogether. Instead, they've made a game that insists that you follow the main stories told in Lord of the Rings without actually being any of the great characters involved. You're stuck with three of the blandest, most generic fantasy characters I've seen.

And then there's the core mechanics of the single player game. Let me get this out of the way - the multiplayer is great, if you can find two partners who can help "carry the load," as Samwise said. No complaints there. However, the single player experience is loaded with stunningly bad design decisions. Let me explain in several parts:

1) Character selection is only possible between lengthy action sequences or by returning all the way out to the main menu. This would be fine, except...

2) Switching characters does NOT transfer over items you've given said character, but experience and game progress DOES. I played through most of the first area as the dwarf champion, giving my other characters all sorts of nifty items and equipment, thinking I'd be able to go through later and sort out who would wear what, who would get certain sets, and then selling it all off in a big lump. Didn't work that way at all. The AI controlled characters picked outfits and weapons I'd given them seemingly at random. When I switched over to those characters later, I was horrified to learn that each one carried only his and her stock items, but still had to deal with high level enemies at the exact point I'd left off with the dwarf. Fuuuu-

3) You CANNOT control your AI companions' skill growth or inventories! This is the dumbest part of them all. I could deal with playing the champion the whole game - he's a little damage dealing tank with a nifty buff. What I don't like is not being able to control the focus of the other characters. I need the lady elf to be a healer, which thankfully does seem to be the focus of the AI controlling her. The male ranger is seemingly a bizarre mess of a character when controlled by the AI, split between being a weak archer (I've handed him stronger bows, but I have no way of telling if he's equipped them or not) and a weak dual-wielding glass cannon. Or rather, in his case, glass pea shooter.

Those three design decisions are almost fatal flaws. What I wished I'd known, and you should too if you decide to play through this game (and hey, it is a fun game), is that you should stick with one character throughout the first dungeon. Just go with whoever you've picked, get through the lengthy initial areas, and bam - you have the ability to replay that first area piecemeal. You don't have that option in the middle of the area, but once it's completed, you can redo it, one small chunk at a time. This allows you to not only get a feel for the character, but gets you the loot you'll need to properly equip your characters.

Whew. So yeah. Good game, just some stupid decisions made.

Bad Moon Rising

I talked a little last week about Dead Man's Song, Jonathan Maberry's (and it is Maberry - sorry for the misspelling) second in the Pine Deep trilogy of horror novels. It was a great book with a few glaring problems, well worth a read for anyone desperate (or not) for a real goddamn horror novel. Well, just twelve hours after picking up the third novel in the series, I finished it - and that's not at all an insult to the book's length. It is, without question, the finest horror novel I've read in the last decade.

Bad Moon Rising is almost purely action-driven. The characters have been well established by this point, and while emotions run high in the novel, there's no awkward breaks in the plot for surreal, overly saccharine love scenes as in the last novel. It's a grim novel, full of blood and tears and a whole metric ton of bodies. Yes, it's vampires and werewolves, but unlike those glittery emo kids' novels, this is a man's horror novel, full of blood, gore, and nary a single emo girl in sight.

If there's one problem with Maberry's finest work yet, it's that he uses foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a baseball bat across your forehead. It's an annoyingly bush-league writing trope that reveals the fates of several characters far in advance, and it lessens the impact somewhat. It's not enough to really detract from the novel, but it is worth noting.

And that should do it for this week. I'm going to continue playing through War in the North and Crisis Core, so expect more on those next week. Have a good one, folks.

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Sparky's Update - Assassin's Creed: The Third?

Last week, I discussed how I'd like to see Saints Row evolve, and what needs to be addressed. This week, I'm going to examine Assassin's Creed II as compared to Brotherhood and Revelations. I'll also be discussing my thoughts on Jonathan Mayberry's novel Dead Man's Song.

Slowing Down When You're Ahead

I started playing the Assassin's Creed series with the release of Brotherhood, and was pretty much blown away. If you've played an Assassin's Creed game since or including II, you pretty much know why. The story was rad, the exploration and realization of an ancient Rome was beautifully well crafted, and there was a lot to do besides just the main quest. I had some issues with the combat (still not a fan - more on that later), and after a while, some of the side quests grew a little repetitive, but that was it. And honestly? Playing a game for that long so often, it's bound to start to feel a little repetitive no matter what the game is. I played that game pretty solidly in and out for a month or two. Come this Thanksgiving and Amazon's annual Black Friday Week sales, and I found myself scooping up its sequel, Revelations.

I knew going into Revelations that it was going to be more of the same, and by that point, I was perfectly okay with that. It had been close to eleven months since I had played Brotherhood, and I was eager to jump back into the boots of Ezio and discover who this Altair guy was. The first half of the game was surprisingly bland and narrow in scope. Having traversed the same areas countless times, I started to grow really tired of the game. But then, the latter half of the game - and particularly its story - really started to ramp up. By the time the game's CGI finale had rolled, I was pumped up and ready for even more Assassin's Creed. Luckily for me, my so-called white whale of gaming deals had finally been fished out of the sea.

For the last couple of years, whenever Assassin's Creed II came up for sale, I somehow missed it, through bad timing, a lack of money, or a technical glitch through Amazon or another online vendor. But I had finally nabbed it for a respectable $10, an absolute steal given how much time I've put into the game. I played a few other games and knocked 'em out of the park. Assassin's Creed II came up in my pile of shame, and while at first I was hesitant to play more so soon after Revelations, I realized it was a great opportunity to look at where the series has gone and how much has evolved.

My basic conclusion is this: Assassin's Creed is Ubisoft's early attempt at a Smackdown vs. Raw. You see, I genuinely love the Smackdown vs. Raw series (though I guess it's called WWE xx now), but I'd be hard pressed to tell you that each new one is a technical marvel. Assassin's Creed has become much like that. With each iteration, they've taken the basic formula of Assassin's Creed II and tweaked it just enough to market it as a new game. Oh, and added multiplayer too, which doesn't really factor into these ramblings. I like the multiplayer, don't get me wrong, but I'd never buy a game solely for its multiplayer and I don't feel as I'm the best judge of its evolution or comparison to other incrementally changed games.

Where Assassin's Creed II shines far better than its descendants is in its staggering scope. This is a huge world. The story doesn't quite have the consistency of Brotherhood or the exciting feel of the latter half of Revelations, but on merit of sheer size and the desire to explore, this game trumps them both. From the gray waters of Forli to the remarkably beautiful Florence, I have spent hours just running around, collecting treasure, feathers, and the like. While I had that feeling in both Revelations and Brotherhood, I didn't feel it on the level that I do with II.

In a way, I almost hope Assassin's Creed III becomes a single-player game again. Will that happen? Most likely not. But with the continued diminishing returns on both the gameplay and the worlds, Assassin's Creed III needs to have larger ideas. Do they necessarily need to re-evaluate the series as a whole? No - as a matter of fact, I think they've got one of the most remarkably solid foundations for a series since Gears of War. But the developers and the publishers need to dream big. Bigger than just shoving another one of these out the door in late 2012. Bigger than a small chunk of a city. Bigger than a few incremental combat upgrades.

What definitely needs to be addressed though is the combat. Holy crap, does combat in the series stink. With the refinements made in Revelations, especially with the awesome addition of creating your own grenades, this is obviously something that Ubisoft is at least trying to fix. Honestly, though, it'd probably take massive stretch to entirely change the awkward enemy focusing, the rock-paper-scissors-Spock attacking and defending, and the strange group AI. However, that being said, Revelations and Brotherhood have managed to fix a great many of the UI problems from II, including seemingly random weapon switches, a more responsive weapon select wheel, and the seperation of primary and secondary weapons.

The graphics have remained largely untouched. That's not really a surprise, but it is sort of disappointing. When the series finally jumps ahead to a new protagonist, perhaps the graphics will change to reflect the new surroundings. But as it is, every location save Forli and Venice sort of all start to blend together into one pretty but congealed mass.

All in all, I really have enjoyed each of the games in the series that I've played. I hope Ubisoft decides to put a little more time in between sequels, but since that doesn't appear to be happening, at least I can hope that they'll start making more meaningful upgrades to the system. As it is, I can only recommend these games at discounted prices. For $35, they feel about right. Any more than that, though, and you'd be paying a ridiculous sum of money for what is essentially Assassin's Creed II.2. Or II.3. You get the idea. Really, though, if you're just after the single player experience, you should be fine playing Revelations without playing the others. It might be smaller in scope, but there's enough meat to the gameplay that you'll get the full experience as well as an excellent conclusion to Ezio's story.

A Real Horror Novel? Be Still, My Beating Heart. Well, Not Literally.

Jonathan Mayberry's Ghost Road Blues was an excellent debut novel, certainly one of the best in true horror novels in the 2000's. While some of the characters are a little black and white, he's got the fundamentals of what makes a modern horror novel great - lots of action, a sense of dark adventure, and some genuinely frightening and gruesome scenes. It's all too easy in reviews to resort to comparisons, so I'll simply say this. Mayberry has his own voice, but writes his novels in what is becoming the classic modern horror novel fashion. It's sweeping, with a lot of head-hopping, and it's got a great sense of rhythm.

Dead Man's Song, the sequel to that novel, is even better. It's more refined, taking the black and white characters from the first and giving them a little more flavor and color. His antagonists in particular come into their own, becoming frighteningly unstoppable (not literally). And while the good guys have a little glimmer of hope, they take some nasty licks this time around. It doesn't hurt that while the novel is fairly lengthy, it's fast-moving and lean where it needs it. We've been given the basics on these characters in the prior novel, so now it's about the story and the direction, and that's fantastic.

And that's it for this week. I plan on starting in on Lord of the Rings: War in the North sometime in the coming week as well as possibly finishing off Bastion. I may also get a start on Crisis Core, but we'll see.

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