Sparky's Update - A Fistful of Games!

Hi diddly ho, el Giant Bomberinos! It's your favorite neighbor, Neddiddl.... errrrr.... Sparky! It's a lovely day - for beatin' down some fools digitally! This week, I played a whole bunch of games, which I'll briefly be covering here, along with my thoughts on LOTRO's free-to-play system. Grab your butts!

ALPHA PROTOCOL

Sigh...OK. Alpha Protocol is a mess. There are two great ideas - the conversation system, and its cause-and-effect nature. Both really are game-changers in terms of how I want to see these types of things done in games in the future. Absolutely everything else though? Completely and totally subpar.

I've written a review on the game here on Giant Bomb, and I don't feel to reiterate every point I've made. But let me give you a brief summary. The controls are awful. The combat is completely unrefined and counters just about every skill point and upgrade you put into your weapons. The art style, music, and sound effects are bland. Almost nothing about this game is memorable or decent, save for those two points I mentioned above. It's a disastrous game that received no support after its release, meaning no patches, no fixes, nothing. Everything that was broken about the game at launch is still broken now.

Oh, one other thing. If you're an achievement whore? Ridiculously easy achievements ahoy.

BURNOUT PARADISE

I might still be pissy with Sony over the whole PSN debacle from a couple of months ago, but that certainly hasn't stopped me from taking advantage of their sales (albeit with PSN prepaid cards this time). Chief among those purchases has been Burnout Paradise for seven or eight bucks. I hadn't played a Burnout game since the third one, which I felt needed to be rectified, especially at that bargain price. I'm damn sure glad I bit.

In a weird way, though, Burnout Paradise has done more to piss me off than any game in recent memory, though to be fair, it's not actually the in-game content that upset me. First, in order to download the thing, I had to clear off space from the PS3's hard drive. Irritating, but not a big deal. I had some PS1 games saved on there that I can just download again later. That cleared up enough hard drive space to get the game installed - or so I thought. When the game finished downloading, my PS3 kindly informed me once again that I needed to clear yet more hard drive space in order to further install the son of a bitch - and the second install size was still freaking enormous. This isn't new to me. As I've mentioned, I've downloaded a few PS1 and PSN arcade games, but their install sizes when downloaded were so small as to be nearly pointless. This was not. I cleared off more games from my hard drive, but was still shy a gig or two. I ended up having to go through each and every game data file to uninstall the biggest ones I wasn't planning on playing anytime soon.

It really pisses me off that a) Sony doesn't lump the download and installation into one file size and process, b) I have huge game installs on my PS3 for games sent out on Blu-ray discs, and c) that I didn't have enough liquor to get piss drunk throughout the whole process. Seriously, a bottle of rum and I probably wouldn't have given two shits about the whole thing, but as it was, when I was finally able to boot up Burnout Paradise, I was completely pissed off.

And then? The game made everything all better. It's a pretty great game. The racing is intense and satisfying, the "wreaking damage" mode when you press R1 and L1 is about as addictive as crack, and the takedown mode is still a blast. I'm about five hours into it, and the races are becoming quite a bit more difficult for me, but that's okay. There's so much else to see and do that having problems with one small portion of it feels like no problem at all.

My only complaint with the game is that I wish there was a way to navigate previous events through a menu, with the option to quick travel to them. Also, a way to repeat events you've just lost without having to drive back would have been good. All in all, though, it's a spectacular game, especially at that price. I just hope next time I play a game on my PS3, I don't have to sacrifice 90% of the other games I love just to play it.

RECORD OF AGAREST WAR

Let's keep this brief. You know those times when you hear a mass of voices saying how mediocre or terrible a game is, but you want to believe otherwise and so end up buying the game based on the one lone voice in the crowd who says, "Hey, that game's pretty good?" And you know how after you start playing that game, you realize you really want to hit that stupid fucking reviewer over the head with a brick? That game for me right now is Record of Agarest War. Remember everything I said about Yakuza 4 being sexist? Yeah, fuck that. True, I knew the game's reputation going into it, but Record of Agarest War makes Yakuza 4 look as progressive as California.

Plus, the gameplay? Just horrible. Oh, it has all the proper elements of a SRPG, but it's like the did the absolute bare-assed minimum amount of work on the game before shipping it out. I think the publisher's mantra must have been, "Take the money and run."

HECTOR: BADGE OF CARNAGE

Here's the thing about Hector: Badge of Carnage. For better or worse, it is 100% faithful to classic point and click adventures. For some people like me, that's a great thing, even fantastic. And if you're looking at a modern nod to the days of LucasArts point-and-click games (or mid-to-late 90's Sierra, when they adopted the LucasArts motif of no-death, no-loss adventure games), it's fantastic. Hell, even gamers new to the point and click adventure genre will find a lot to love about it. But there's a strict adherence to the genre's staples that might make some newcomers wonder what the hell the fuss was about. And you know? I sure couldn't blame them.

You find inventory items. You combine inventory items in increasingly bizarre ways to solve puzzles that should be solvable in much more logical ways. There are dialogue trees a-plenty. Environments are generally static, with usually only one to two NPC's per screen to talk to. Hell, there are even genuine moments of pixel hunting. If all of that gives you goosepimples the way it does me, you'll want to check it out. If none of that appeals to you, this might not be the game for you.

Oh, and where the hell are the rest of the episodes?

LORD OF THE RINGS ONLINE - THOUGHTS ON THE FREE TO PLAY SYSTEM

When Turbine announced Lord of the Rings Online was going free to play, I thought the game was on its last legs. I didn't understand that it was a smart move from a business perspective, because I idiotically forgot how people will actually pay real cash for the most inane bullshit items on the face of the Earth (or Middle-Earth, as it were).

That's not to say that the free-to-play system in LOTRO is a bad thing. In fact, if you're looking for a F2P game, this is an absolutely incredible opportunity to play through the bulk of the main game (minus its expansions). They've included all the main quests, as well as enough side quests to help gamers level enough to stay just competent enough to finish the main plot... with the right help from other players. Of course, that help is going to be required regardless, since many of the quests require a group effort to have a chance of succeeding.

I've paid for a subscription, and as such, I've seen what all becomes available. Basically, you get a little more of everything - more quests, more outfit slots, more inventory space, more characters, and so on. You also get 500 or so free Turbine points a month, their currency to purchase things from the online store. Nothing is ever quite as cheap as I'd hoped it would be. Costumes can cost upwards of 2000 points (with no stat increases whatsoever!), while actual real equipment can make that seem paltry. Some skills and boosts are pretty decent ways to spend those points, though, and there are new sales pretty frequently. Permanant stat and skill increases are fantastic, as they add up very quickly and are usually fairly cheap. One online purchase I've made good use of has been additional fast-travel slots, which have made navigating Middle-Earth much speedier.

The biggest perk of a VIP membership is the quests, without question. Having the main quest line available in a free-to-play system is nice, but the lore and writing of LOTRO is so solid that having all the quest lines available is a must for me. I loved Tolkien's works, and while I have my issues with boredom in MMORPG's (seriously, fetch/kill quests? Eat me), I love seeing the attention to detail Turbine has put into this game.

So while I'm still not cool with microtransactions and the cost of items in the Turbine store, I've gotta say, I appreciate what they've done with the F2P system. It's brought in some new players and it's big enough that gamers will get a good taste of whether or not they want to plunk down the cash for the full experience.

AND THAT'S ABOUT IT...

I played some other games too, most notably World of Goo and Defense Grid. I don't feel either really needs a paragraph unto itself, so I'll just say I immensely enjoy both. I also started to play Monster Hunter 3, which I don't feel I've delved into deep enough to warrant a decent write-up. And finally, I played a whole bunch of Mario Kart Wii, which is one of my all-time favorite games. So glad to have my Wii back up and running - I know, I know, that's not the popular opinion.

This coming week, I'm hoping to get caught up on my Wii backlog, including Monster Hunter and maybe Goldeneye. I'll also try to continue stomaching Record of Agarest War. We shall see.

In the meantime, I recommend checking out Giant Bomb user Egge's latest blog. Pretty damn well written.

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Sparky's Update - next-gen systems, final thoughts on Yakuza 4

Truth be told, I haven't been playing many games over the last couple of weeks, due to a problem with my glasses. That problem was resolved yesterday, so hopefully I should have more progress in individual games for next week. On with the update.

THE MOST APOLOGETIC BAD GUYS YOU'LL EVER MEET

A numbered rating system of any sort just sort of falls flat when it comes time to write a review about Yakuza 4 (and one will be eventually incoming). It's certainly a very fun and engaging game, filled to the brim with all sorts of content to justify the purchase. And its core systems are pretty good. I like the RPG mechanics in regards to how you build your characters up throughout the game. The combat could stand to shy away from the animation-driven moves that start to feel awkward when you really get into the guts of the later game, but it's surprisingly fun to beat the holy hell out of opponents. There are an absolute ton of substories (basically sidequests) to complete, many of which are intriguing in their own right.

But in a lot of ways, the game feels too entrenched in its own past, both in terms of the story and the gameplay. There's this feeling permeating throughout the entire time I played that this wasn't quite designed to be a giant current-gen game. It felt like some of it was - the character facial models are superb and the CGI is shockingly good. But then little details start to fall through the cracks. NPC's have limited ranges of animation. Special moves cut to canned animations that don't quite jive with what was just happening. The little details of the city's design start to feel flat and regurgitated. All of these sound like little details, but when you start adding them up, it leads to this really jarring feeling that the game's basic core is still very much last-generation.

If you want to think about it metaphorically, Yakuza 4 is like a poorly kept 60's muscle car. It's still damn fun to drive, but once you get it up to 70 miles an hour, little niggling problems keep it from being what you know it could be.

I've also talked at length about Yakuza 4's approach to women, and my distaste for it. That's something I feel can't be properly expressed with a numbered review. How do you convey in a 3 star rating that it's one of the most sexist games I've ever played without hoping that the person looking at the review will actually read it to find out why? How do you explain to them that it's a hell of a fun game, but it needs serious retooling in its next incarnation? And believe me, when there's a Yakuza 5 (and there damn well better be), I'll be taking a look. But if it feels remotely like this stubborn, cranky old car of a game, I'm not sure it'll be worth a purchase.

WHAT I WANT FROM FUTURE CONSOLES

I'm seriously starting to get pissy with my PS3. It's this magnifient beast of a machine, but it's time for the next generation, says I. What's my latest irritation? Storage space. Anyone with a modest collection of PS3 games and an Internet connection will tell you the same thing - no matter the size of the goddamn hard drive, the PS3 chews through storage space like Cookie Monster at a bakery. It led me to wonder what it is exactly I want from the next generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles. Note that I'm leaving out the Wii U, as I no longer feel like the Wii is a direct competitor of the two. Well, it kinda is, but I think Nintendo is heading in another direction with their consoles. Whether that'll be to their benefit or not will be seen eventually, but for right now, I just can't hold it up against the two.

1) Bigger and better everything. I want more hard drive space in everything, and the option to add external hard drives without mess or fuss. I want big goddamn graphics cards that developers can actually work with, not some damn obtuse concept of a graphical powerhouse that has every game developer banging their head up against a wall. I want motherboards that make fatherboards weep for shame of their lack of manliness.

2) Cable integration. Let's face it. Sooner or later, Microsoft and Sony are going to start offering some way to connect to cable television through their systems. I doubt it'll be this generation, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts it'll be in the next. Is it something I'll use? Fuck yeah, especially if it's cheaper than my regular satellite now (it can't get much higher).

3) Refined d-pads and grips for controllers. Forget the Six-Axcess nonsense and focus on making an ultra-responsive controller. I don't think either company needs to change much in terms of layout. Microsoft could possibly widen the bumpers just a hair and maybe reduce the width of the controller just a smidge. Sony should think about making triggers that actually feel like triggers (in a FPS-heavy environment, it makes a difference). Both should include rechargeable battery packs via plug-in cords standard.

4) Find some way to do away with huge-ass game installs for Sony. Seriously, Gran Turismo 5 and Yakuza 4? Fuck you.

5) Expand upon cloud storage ideas for both systems. Pretty self-explanatory.

6) Resizable font sizes. Please, please, PLEASE include this, especially you, Sony.

AND THAT'S ABOUT IT

This coming week, I expect to play some Alpha Protocol and possibly Burnout Paradise. Expect some thoughts on the state of Lord of the Rings Online next week, as I sing the praises of a free-to-play system and curse the generic feel of fetch and slaughter quests.

If you're looking for a good read, I've stated it before, but Gamer_152's blog is pretty damn great. I may not agree with him on all his points 100% of the time, but that's a good thing. Give it a shot.

And if anybody out there cares to answer a question of the week, here you go. Do you have any serious irritations with the current-gen systems in terms of hardware?

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Sparky's Update 2.03 - Trails in the Sky, Yakuza 4's sexism

Oh, you startled me. I didn't see you standing there! Well, I'm Professor Sparky_Buzzsaw, and today, we've got three games to discuss, albeit probably a bit more briefly this week. Take a load off, and sit back for a spell. Shit's about to go down!

CLASSIC VANILLA FLAVOR

There's not a whole lot that will make Trails in the Sky for the PSP stand out to long-term RPG gamers. It only really does one thing uniquely well, and that's it's magic system. Does that keep it from being a bad game? No. But don't go into it expecting anything more than a truly vanilla turn-based anime-RPG, and you won't be disappointed.

It never does anything awful with the genre. The turn based combat features some nice elements, namely the ability to interrupt the turn order with super moves, once charged. These moves can turn the tide of more difficult battles in a heartbeat. Beyond that, the magic system in the game is superb. After each battle, you collect any number of magical stones from ten or so categories, ranging from Fire, Earth, Water, or Time to more unusual (and welcome) categories like Mirage. These stones, in turn, can be used in several different ways in various shops. You can either sell them for mira (the game's equivalent of coin) or use them to unlock orbments, the game's Materia of sorts. These orbments can add spells, increase stats, or give some unique abilities, such as being able to see enemies on the field from a longer distance. Each character has very specific orbments that can be slotted, with (I believe) up to about eight orbments per character. The main character can equip any kind of orbment, making her a robust customizable character that can specialize in just about anything. Joshua, the main character's adopted brother, usually focuses on Time orbments, making him a faster, more agile all-around fighter. It's a cool system that rewards the player for battling mobs, and it's one I'm looking forward to exploring more.

Beyond that, though, the game just feels bland. The story is generic, the settings are uninspired and typical RPG fare, and the other great system of the game (a job board that gives you quests) is severely hampered by incredibly tiny writing that renders it practically useless. But what irks me is the lackadaisical nature of the characters involved. It really is a case of "insert anime stereotypes" here. You've got the plucky, heartfelt, dimwitted girl. You've got the quiet, reserved, noble boy with a mysterious past. You've got the perverted sex object. It's almost infuriating in a way to have to listen to any of the crap these characters say, because while I may not know the specifics, I know practically how each character will act at any given moment, and it drives any fun that might have been gained by the story right out. It's too bad, too, because the game is built on such a solid foundation. I'm still relatively early in, though, and I plan to stick with it to see if any of these thoughts change. Hopefully they do.

SEXISM IN YAKUZA 4

There's no clever title for this one. In a way, even more so than the Tomb Raiders of the world, Yakuza 4 might be the single most sexist game I've ever played.

The hostess clubs are an easy target. I didn't feel comfortable with them at all at any point. Just because the woman isn't paid to have sex doesn't mean she isn't being whored out. It's as simple as that. While I liked Akiyama in general (he really is a well designed character), his hostess club managing gave him more than just a surface level of sleaze. I get that this is going to piss off some of the Japan-ophiles out there, but look - a woman getting paid to entertain men and give them some sort of fantasy is completely and totally sexist.

Now, the attitude towards women in general in the game is even worse. There's a level of subservience to them, of being the playthings to the men of the game that gives me this icky, detestable feeling in the bottom of my gut. And why do I feel that way? Because I'm actually having fun with the game. I hate that a game as great as this can be so intent on sticking to views of women that should never be acceptable.

And I hate it because I won't put it down despite these flaws. Maybe then, my cussing out this game's sexism is really just me flailing at myself for not standing up for things I believe in. Maybe I should be selling this game back to appease my moralistic nature. Fuck, I don't know. It's a great game, but as a social exploration of Japan, sometimes the sexism makes it incredibly bad.

RETURN OF THE HEMI

Awful pun there. Just truly awful. Anyways, I've revisited Gran Turismo 5 this week in an effort to appease the racing game fan within me. I was surprised at the number of updates the game has received, and after reading the patch notes and playing the game for a bit, I was pretty thrilled. A few things have been fixed (GT TV, namely), a few gimmicks added to keep me racing (rewards for seasonal races like outfits, horns, and paint schemes), and a definite feel that the developers are actively trying to polish the game. It's still not up to par with the amount of fun I have with the Forza series, due mostly to the lack of an auction house and customizable vinyls. But it's come a ways, and it shows great promise for future updates.

The seasonal events are still the best part about the racing experience in the game, and the sheer number of cars available is still staggering. But the lack of things to do with most of the cars in the game is still infuriating. I'm still hunting only for the top-tiered cars in any event, making most every other car eligible for those races useless. Want to race in the classic Lamborghini races? You'd better have the dough for the very best Lamborghini, or else your car is going to be completely useless, even tuned.

WHEREIN I RAMBLE ABOUT WHAT I'M GOING TO PLAY

Really, the games mentioned above are about it for this week. I might or might not delve into Record of Agarest War, which came up on sale on Amazon this last week. I'll probably be playing a few Steam games as well.

And that's going to do it for this week. Adios.

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Sparky's Update 2.02 - Operation Babe Hunt, LEGO Branagh

Pssst.... you. Yeah, you. Come over here a sec. You wanna read a blog, man? It's real good, too. Oh, just ignore that "Written in Japan" label. That's nothin', baby! This is 100% authentic genuine Sparky_Buzzsaw gold! You read this blog, I guarantee you, you won't be sorry. Only $20, man. Well, okay, it's free today only, because I like you. And, well, because I can't technically charge you. Just keep it on the DL, kid. You come back next week, and I'll hook you up again, how's that for a deal? Huh? Huh?

Thanks to radical user c0l0nelp0c0rn1, I now have mastery over headers. Booyah, I say! BOOYAH!

I BEAT HOW MANY GAMES LAST WEEK, PART DEUX!

In my haste to bring you only the finest in Internet banality, I'm afraid I made an egregious error last week. You see, I forgot one of the better games I played and beat that week, and it's a damn shame, too, because it certainly didn't deserve it. That game is LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4.

What? Oh shut up.

Let's get some things straight. I'm a grown-ass man. I'm nearly thirty. I have a degree in English, having specialized in creative writing and Shakespeare. You could say I'm kind of a bookworm, but that doesn't really do it justice. I crave reading. I love it beyond every other physical and mental activity, and that includes 2-for-1 days at the Bunny Ranch. I read books the way a man dying of thirst would drink a glass of water. I say all that because you should know one thing - I very rarely ever read anything meant for young adults. I have a couple of childhood favorites I revisit from time to time, like C.S. Lewis or The Hobbit. But the vast majority of my reading definitely encompasses the adult side of things. Harry Potter was one large exception to this rule. I started reading them thanks to (what else?) the recommendation of a beautiful, sharply intelligent woman. Although I never quite grew passionate about the novels, I did enjoy several of them and read the series in rapid succession.

I don't find Hogwarts particularly endearing, nor do I have any great love for the characters or events of the Harry Potter novels. But the novels have an undeniable charm. I enjoyed the novels from a distance, you might say. They were a Sunday afternoon's bag of popcorn - nothing I could survive on, but certainly a nice snack for my mind. I think much the same about the prior LEGO games. They won't be in my top 10 favorites of all time by a longshot, but the games are great fun for a short while and make for a nice break now and again.

And really, that's all I wanted out of LEGO Harry Potter. Lo and behold, it delivered. Yes, at it's core, this is still very similar to the prior LEGO games. The characters play along similar lines, the controls feel very much alike, and the assets are essentially just re-skins. But for what it is, LEGO Harry Potter is a very enjoyable game. It has the trademark Traveller's Tales wit in its cutscenes, but what was most surprising was the clever nature of the game itself. Instead of focusing in on combat, LEGO Harry Potter instead centers itself around puzzle-solving. There's nothing too terribly complex in regards to the main game itself, but finding all the little collectibles and secret hidey-holes can be surprisingly challenging and enjoyable. It never borders on frustrating, save for a few odd glitches here and there, like potion items not cropping up when they should.

I beat the game at about 40% completion early last week, and completely forgot I did so within the span of that week described in my prior blog. Don't take that to mean that the game is somehow inferior to the others. It's not, and it's totally a blast. I'm not sure how much you could take away from it without having either read the novels or seen the movies, but if you even remotely enjoyed either, it's well worth a look.

OLD WORLD BLUES? MORE LIKE "OLD WORLD.... GOODS!"

I did end up buying Old World Blues, the latest DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but I wanted to give some brief thoughts. It's pretty hilarious, with some great dialogue and fantastic voicework all around. The level cap increase is great, and the new traits are interesting. No really interesting selectable perks this time around, though there is a ton of experience to be gained in Old World Blues as well as a few not-so-hidden perks to be gained from combat. Some of those new combat perks are fantastic and really useful, while others are sort of... well, bizarre, much like the rest of the DLC. The weapons are about as strange as they come, with a few great additions and a fantastic bit of armor if you're willing to do a little extra work. All in all, I think it's about equal to the last bit of DLC.

IT ENDED. IT FINALLY ENDED.

Here's my biggest complaint about Persona 3 Portable right off the bat - it's about twice as long as it needs to be to remain fun and interesting. Does that make it a bad game? No. But by the end of it, I was sick to death of fighting in the similar feeling dungeon levels time after time. After a while, the game just became a ridiculous grind to the end.

I think the game could've benefitted greatly from spreading its dialogue around a bit. I know, that would have fucked up our beloved Persona gameplay. But the game could have done with a lot less word vomit each month of gameplay and given each week more chunks of the story in order to keep the gamer's interest. The story is bizarro-Japanese, of course, as is the music, the settings, and the dialogue. There's a ton of meat to the game, with all sorts of crafting, Persona management (essentially monsters that fight for you and can be bred or changed slightly), and many friendships to be gained or lost. It's a complex RPG in the best ways possible, but after a while, it does get pretty old. I'm going to be glad to be moving on, but I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for a lengthy RPG and has a clue as to what kind of weird shit they'll be getting into.

One thing that still bugs me is the visuals of the children (and they ARE children, teens or no) putting guns to their heads and firing. I know, they're not really guns, but "Evokers." Well, fuck that. They look like guns. It made me queasy to see this emulation of suicide from the heroes, mostly because of their youth. Now, again, I've beat the game and I know what's happening. But it's still a completely unnecessary and violently sickening visual to use, and frankly, it's completely tasteless and useful only for shock value which adds nothing to the game.

BRINGING AN UMBRELLA TO A MACHINEGUN FIGHT

I purchased Yakuza 4 recently in an Amazon sale. I was a bit worried that the game wouldn't be something I'd enjoy, that it would be cheaply made, a third-person brawler with an open world feel, or that it would be the equivalent of a Dynasty Warriors game - fun in concept, but incredibly poorly produced. Thankfully, Yakuza 4 is none of those things. In fact, as early as I am in the game (only about five hours in), I'd say it's one of the more enjoyable games I've played this year. There's one really glaring problem with the game in its insanely shitty mini-map and lack of quest directions, but once you get used to the streets and can start running a mental map of where everything is, it turns into a fantastic experience.

It's really got a lot in common with Shenmue, but it feels rightly like its own game. Combat is much faster, the mini-games are more varied and even more addictive, and the story feels a lot more interesting than Shenmue's. But spiritually, they feel like siblings. Shenmue is slower, more methodical, perhaps a bit more philosophical. Yakuza 4 is the harder hitting, quicker paced, fun-loving brother. Both have their advantages, but given that Yakuza 4 has eliminated almost all the problems Shenmue had, namely QTE's, I've really gotta give the nod to Yakuza 4.

One particular thing I enjoy about Yakuza 4 is that it feels distinctly Japanese without being embarassing to play. Unlike the Disgaeas, the Personas, or the Phantom Braves of the world, this is actually a Japanese game I feel comfortable about my family and friends seeing me play. Sure, it's got some Japanese strangeness in it, and I'm probably NEVER going back into a karoake club in the game, but I feel like the little Japanese quirks and silliness are endearing and captivating instead of feeling stupid.

WHAT I'LL BE PLAYING

Well, my "Shyeah, Right" award from last week was a winner. I did not, in fact, play a bit of WKC this entire last week. I hope to remedy that, and so, despite my inauguration of the award just last week, we're going for a double winner. I highly doubt I'll be getting around to WKC again this week, as Yakuza 4 looks to be one heck of a long game (especially since I'm hooked on the substories).

Other than Yakuza 4 and possibly White Knight Chronicles, I'm going to be trying out Trails in the Sky for the PSP. I look forward to playing it, as I've heard nothing but positive things, and yet know very little about the game or story itself. In the case of JRPG's, that's a good thing for me. Love a good surprise, and even a middling one will make me satisfied.

And that's about it for this week, folks. I'm afraid I haven't had much time to scour Giant Bomb for new and exciting blogs, but dankempster has put up a lengthy, introspective, and great read, so go check that out. Your question of the week, should anyone choose to answer it, is this. What's a game you keep promising yourself you'll return to, but can't for some reason or another?

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Sparky's Update (2.01) - I beat how many games this week?

Welcome one and all (probably emphasis on that "one," eh, you lone reader, you?) to the revamped, revitalized, reinvigorated, and reincarnated Sparky's Update. Yep, I'm bringing back an age-old boring format where I blather on about games I've played and my thoughts on the industry as a whole. You read a thousand of these a week, but guess what? I don't care! I like writing, I like the sound of my own voice, and damn it, I love games. I'm probably going to start up a similar but much shorter version of this for Screened, where you can read about what I'm watching (and I don't mean my peepin' Tom exploits either, you pervs). Damn, it's good to be back. Let's giddyup now, little pardners! Yeeehaw and such!

I STILL HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO MAKE HEADERS

What? Stop judging me, Judgy McJudgenut.

I BEAT HOW MANY GAMES THIS WEEK?!?

I've talked before on the forums about my "rainy day" game collection, but for the uninitiated, here's the scoop, the skinny, the rundown, the lowdown, the facts. For the last few years, around Black Friday or so when games are at a huge discount, I pick up oodles (yep, oodles) of games that I'm interested in. These are the games I'm unsure I'll like, or for which I can't justify paying full price. Purchases like Arkham Asylum (see below), Enslaved (also see below), Deadly Premonition, Ratchet and Clank Future, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts are prime examples of games I've picked up during those deep discount sale days. I then play each game briefly to see if anything really pops out at me, and then store the games in a specific order in which I want to complete them, usually alternating between great looking titles, ones I'm not sure about, and mediocre looking games, in order to keep a steady variation on game quality and hopefully stave off gaming doldrums. I usually put major releases or games I'm genuinely excited about before these game titles, thus saving them for a "rainy day" when I don't have a shiny new game of the month to play. You get the idea. This stack of games also includes games I just haven't gotten around to completing yet for one reason or another, but those are the rarity. I don't claim to finish every game I've begun, but I justify that with a simple "hours of entertainment to price" ratio. If I'm not interested in playing a game to completion (e.g., Final Fantasy XIII, Last Remnant, Wild Arms 3), then I try my damnedest to play those games to the point where I feel like I got my money's worth. I collect games and never trade them in, so a system like that makes sense to me.

I wrote that big wall o' text to give you some idea as to why I was playing Arkham Asylum, Enslaved, and Fable 3 this week. Given that there aren't any major releases I'm interested in until the release of Forza 4, I've got some time on my hands and games to complete. I spent the bulk of the week's worth of gaming playing Tiger Woods 12 (thanks Claude for helping me fix that) and various Steam purchases made through their recent sale. Finding myself craving some action and story oriented games, I reshuffled my rainy day games a bit and came up with Enslaved and Arkham Asylum. I'd enjoyed what very little I'd played of both (about an hour's worth of both) back in the tail end of last year, but I had yet to hit them in my rainy day games list (it's been a spectacular year for my gaming tastes, so I've been really busy with a handful of games released since then as well as others in my stack).

I can't believe I didn't play either one to completion earlier. Enslaved's absolutely incredible character interactions and great, basic story make it a clear-cut contender for one of the best games I've played all year, and that's not even touching on the fun combat, surprisingly colorful visual asthetic, or the enchanting world the game's designers have created. I played it in one sitting, with the only breaks being for the bathroom and some ice water. It was an experience the likes of which I haven't had since playing through the entirety of Halo in my sophomore year of college with a roommate. I've had several gaming marathons even lengthier than the one I've had with Enslaved (all usually with games from a developer that rhymes with Shmefezda), but not to their entirety since that misspent day of my college youth. "But Sparky," you ask, "didn't you just say you played the game for an hour or so last winter?" "Yep," I respond, tapping the ashes of my smoldering cigar into a filthy coffee cup, "but I restarted the game. Duh."

Batman: Arkham Asylum had me a bit less enthralled, but as I've stated on my profile, it's not any fault of the game. No, in fact, the game is terrific. Other than some minor trouble with a bad little camera angle (you're naughty, you vent cam, you), it was shockingly proficient in every area. But my detachment came from the DC universe itself. I'm just not a huge fan of DC's villains. Save for the Joker and possibly Lex Luthor, they've never had quite the same punch or draw for me as Marvel's villains so frequently do. If this had been a Marvel game, you'd probably see my drool come up classified as a new lake by land management agencies. But as it is, I just didn't find myself drawn into the story or really get absorbed with what was happening. Is it a great game fully worthy of five star reviews? Absolutely. Is it going to be on my list of favorite games of all time? Probably not. But it should be.

And then there's Fable 3. Sigh. The Game That Should Have Been. I had played the game damn near to completion late last year, and then just gave up on it, only an hour or so from finishing it off. I finally pulled the trigger on that last hour or so this week. I'm disappointed with Fable 3 in many ways, but none so much as the feeling that this one is Molyneaux having to phone it in. I say "having to" because there's gotta be an enormous amount of pressure on Lionhead to develop quantity over quality. I hope that's the case, anyways, and that Molyneaux hasn't become the latest developer to run out of steam. I don't know though - with those latest videos of that new "not on rails but it's on rails" Fable game, I'm not entirely sure what to think of Lionhead anymore. Fable 4, if and when it happens, needs to take the reverse approach to "dumbing it down," and get rid of the paltry fart and kid jokes, the controls meant for drooling morons, the convoluted and disappointing visual menu system, and the general story of the game. They need to create a bigger world I actually want to explore, rebuild the engine for a new generation, and tell a complete, non-rushed story that just doesn't suddenly end. Do this, and I'll gladly put Fable 4 on the same level as its venerable predecessor Fable 2, which was and is one of my favorite games of all time.

WHAT I'LL BE PLAYING THIS NEXT WEEK OR SO, OR "LET'S GUESS HOW MUCH MY PREDICTIONS WILL SUCK"

With those three games out of the way, this next week is going to hopefully see me finally finish Persona 3 Portable, which I've been playing off and on since I bought my PSP a few months ago. It's a great game, but I am ready to move on to other games on the PSP.

I'll also keep chipping away at Lord of the Rings Online. I want to make it to level 50, see how much I like the Moria and legendary weapon content, and then see if I want to continue subsribing to the game. If not, bye-bye MMORPGs for a good, long time.

I'll be playing through a few other PC games, namely Defense Grid (which is great fun in short bursts, which is exactly how it should be played), possibly Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, and Hector: Badge of Courage.

On the console front, I'm aiming to wrap up the last of Super Street Fighter IV's character endings, as well as play the new New Vegas (wow, that's redundant) DLC due out this week. If it's not going to crash my 360, that is. Hmmm, on second thought, maybe I'd best wait on that DLC. I'll also try to get a good chunk of White Knight Chonicles finished, which I'll label as this weeks, "Shyeah, Right" prediction. Man, I just cannot get interested in that game.

WHAT YOU SHOULD BE READING INSTEAD OF THIS

SonicFire is writing up a great look at playing and achievement whoring some old Xbox 360 games. His thoughts are fairly random and often hilarious. It's well worth a read. Also, be sure to give user and former intern EpicSteve a pat on the back as he prepares to deploy to some not-so-pleasant areas of the world. Oh, and his blogs are pretty damn good, too.

THAT'S A WRAP. MMMM... WRAPS... AND YOUR QUESTION OF THE WEEK!

As with my older blogs, always feel free to hit me up with comments. If you've been reading some great user blogs or reviews that I'm not pointing out, give me a holler. I'll feature what I think is great, but I do like to plug the "little guys" of the site as well, so if you read some obscure blogs that need a quick pimpin', let me know.

Your question of the week is... what game character duo's interactions do you like the most?

I won't be attaching these to the forums often, as this one's just a shameless plug to try to get myself a few readers. Hope you enjoy and partake in future blogs.

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E3 predictions, I fart in your general direction.

Thanks to Dalai for the inspiration on this one. Only one of my predictions really came true. I suck.

Halo 4 was announced! Booyah, son. Booyah.

As for the rest, I should have remembered Star Fox was in the works for 3DS. Don't know if Paper Mario had been announced prior to this E3, so I'm chalking that one up as a half-win for myself if it hadn't. If it had... for shame, Sparkster, for shame. Perhaps the most disappointing is that we won't be seeing a Borderlands 2 announcement anytime soon. Pitchford's stage address seemed a little reluctant, so I'm not entirely sure if maybe Gearbox just isn't getting hammered with their already busy schedule or what. But with Duke, Aliens, and now Furious Four, a Borderlands announcement isn't likely any time soon, let alone the actual game.

No word on the Firaxis guys, which isn't unusual. E3's not exactly known for high-profile computer game announcements. Disappointed Nintendo didn't reveal a game lineup for the Wii U, but that means there's still hope for an F-Zero. Fuck, technically, that means there's hope for anything I damn well please on that console. The tech looks cool, and I've gotta admit, the ability to play a game on a controller tablet while zoning out to a TV episode sounds mighty appealing. That'd be killer for a grind-heavy game. I'd probably be way more into Final Fantasy XIII if I could let my mind concentrate on something else while I fight corridors of baddies.

All in all, it was a great E3. I'm still catching up on a lot of trailers and announcements, like that silly one for the Frank West-centric Dead Rising 2. Kind of disappointed there wasn't a stronger showing from straight-up RPGs, but with all the fantastic games on the horizon, maybe that's a good thing. The thin trickle of details on Forza 4, Skyrim, and Saints Row: The Third have been my favorites, but the awesome Nintendo lineup and that killer Uncharted 2 demonstration were awfully great too. And as much as I hate to admit it, I think both Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 look absolutely stunning and I cannot wait to play 'em both.

Surprise showing of the entire major conferences? That Rayman game. I hadn't heard much about it (if anything at all), and that demo made it look damn fine. I am giddy as all hell about Halo 4, too, but I try not to judge these things on CGI trailers alone.

All in all, this is going to be one of the best holiday seasons we're likely to see in video game history. And early 2012 should be pretty awesome too, if everything ships on time. Fingers crossed.

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Games I Want to See Announced at E3

Borderlands 2 - Perhaps more than any other franchise, I want to see a new Borderlands be announced. 
 
F-Zero Wii2: It's high time for this and a new... 
 
Star Fox Wii2: Give me an old-school Star Fox blaster with no adventure nonsense.  Or at the very least, combine the two in a better fashion. 
 
Halo 4: I think we can still have the Halo universe center around the fight between the Covenant and humanity.  Let's see more alien worlds and technology. 
 
Ratchet and Clank Future 3: I love this damn series. 
 
Civilization Revolution 2: Although I'd much rather see Civ 6 get announced, I think another console Civ game makes sense and would be a smart decision.  Alternately?  A new Alpha Centauri or Pirates! game. 
 
Super Paper Mario 2: We don't really have a Mario game in the works.  This would make a nice last blast along with Zelda for the Wii. 
 
Suikoden 6: Fuck, a guy can dream, can't he? 
 
And my perennial pick: 
 
Jagged Alliance 3: It's the unsung vaporware of my lifetime.

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PSP thoughts, The Killing, LOTRO

Just a quick update tonight, folks.  Expect more later this week, but for now, consider this my "welcome back, Giant Bomb" blog of sorts.

 

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEAT.............. UHHHHH, PSP 3000

 

Oh, damn, now I have an idea for my first Screened blog - my favorites of MST3K.  Jesus, that's a daunting proposition.

 

So I ended up buying the PSP 3000 along with a few games.  Among those are ZHP, Final Fantasy Tactics,  Dissidia 2 (I refuse to look up the full name of that game, for reasons forthcoming), Star Ocean 1 & 2, Jeanne d'Arc, and Lunar.  I picked up the games in a killer sale at a semi-local game shop, saving me a fortune.  With the exception of Dissidia 2, all the games were purchased for less than $10.  I've had a chance to dabble in most of them, save for Star Ocean and Lunar.  Most of the games are pretty great, but I'm glad I bought them all at discount prices.

 

Jeanne d'Arc is easily the best of the games I've played so far, with a solid as hell strategy RPG backbone, an intriguing story I love alternate reality novels, so this was pretty much guaranteed to succeed) and an anime art style that I'm really enjoying.  Yes, your anti-anime buddy Sparky just said he actually LIKED the anime stylings  of a game.  It's far more adultish than, say, the aforementioned ZHP.  Some of the battles are rough, but there are ample opportunities to grind out levels, skills, and the like, so I'm really, really digging it.  The only annoying part is the turn limit to each battle.  It adds an artificial tension to the game that just isn't necessary.  Overall, though, this one should hold up with just about any strategy RPG in my book.  It's superb.

 

ZHP is pretty typical Nippon-Ichii, which is Sparky-speak for, "It's truly and completely loony."  If you've played Disgaea or one of the other Nippon Ichii RPG games, you kinda know what you're getting into here.  Heroes, through love, courage, and a whole bunch of other touchy-feely nonsense, overcome crazy odds to be a hero, along with a cast of typically zany Japanese anime cookie-cutter figures.  I say cookie-cutter with a certain degree of fondness.  NIS games, starting with Disgaea, had some of the strangest characters you're likely to find anywhere, but by now, their characters feel like a well-worn glove of sorts.  There's a pattern to the lunacy, one I half-heartedly hope they'll break from upon release of Disgaea 4.  Overall, though, the gameplay is super addictive, crazy tough at times, and probably not the best game for an NIS beginner.  But if you've played and enjoyed their games in the past, or want to dabble in the super-hardcorest of RPG's, this might be for you.

 

Final Fantasy Tactics is Final  Fantasy Tactics.  Some of you might remember me fawning over the series in the past.  This remake is good, if unspectacular.  I haven't really got a chance to play with the new classes or characters, but you can bet your ass I will sooner or later.  I've yet to actually beat the entire game, and I intend to this time around.

 

Final Fantasy: Dissidia 2 leaves a fucking bad taste in my mouth.  The only reason to buy this game is if you're a die-hard Square fan who doesn't mind a plodding, incomprehensible story (even by JRPG standards), shoddy gameplay, and god-awful generic design.  It has a ton of fan-service, though, so if you've really been looking for that game that throws together all your favorite Final  Fantasy characters, I guess this is it.  This is the Square equivalent of a poor man's action game, with little to no redeeming qualities in my mind besides the superb quality of the character design in the cutscenes.

 

THE 4TH BIRTHDAY

 

Lord of the Rings Online is celebrating its fourth anniversary this weekend, and to judge by the server I play on, you'd think it was its last.  There are very few people logging on for the bonus experience, games, and frivolities that come with the usual holidays around LOTRO.  And maybe that's part of the problem - by now, we've seen these types of celebrations, we know what to expect, and to be honest, we know this is the sort of limitiation put upon games this old without severe overhauls.  There aren't going to mysteriously be new mini-game types.  We're not going to be able to dice, or play cards, or snowboard down Mount Doom.  I hope I'm wrong, and I hope the eventual release of the new expansion pack changes all this, but honestly, right now, there's very little to draw people in.  I still dearly love and enjoy the game, and cannot wait to see what they do down the road, but more and more, I find myself hankering for a new experience and cannot wait to see if maybe The Old Republic won't fit that bill.

 

THE KILLING

 

If you're not watching AMC's The Killing, you're missing one of the best shows on TV.  Period.  Exclamation point.  Upside down question mark?

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PSP, Torchlight, the wonderful Patrick Rothfuss, movies!

Short and sweet update from your ol' pal Sparky this week.  I've only really been playing one game of particular note (hint, hint - it's Torchlight), so I'll discuss some of the major changes from the PC version.  Other than that, it's pretty much a books n' movies sort of week.  Grab a slice, crack a beer, and plug yourselves in for what I'm tentatively calling Captain Sexypants's Ballin' Update of the Motherf***in' Week  
 
Like I said... it's a tentative title.  On to the show! 
 
BABY I'M BURNIN' I'M BURNIN' I'M BURNIN' FOR YOU 
 
Or rather, Torchlight is. 
 
Say, if you're new to the whole Torchlight shebang, why not check out one of Giant Bomb's Quick Looks?  If you're lookin' for the short and sweet of it, Torchlight is a great little Diablo clone, available on the PC and Xbox 360.  I've played both versions pretty extensively, and while I think the PC version is slightly better, both are definitely fantastic versions of the same game.   It focuses on action, leveling, and, of course, finding that sweet, sweet loot.  You have three generic classes (warrior, mage, archer/rogue), each with three subsets of skills to choose from as you level up.  And level up you shall, as the game is pretty great about handing out experience and items. 
 
So Torchlight isn't anything new, but it revels in its homage to Diablo and comes away all the better for it.  Other than Titan Quest, I think it's the best Diablo-clone on the market, simply because it recognizes the core elements of what made Diablo fun and runs with those in a very smooth, very tight package.  The PC version has a better inventory system and better menu navigation.  The Xbox 360 version has stabilized the sometimes atrociously bad achievements of the PC version (I talked to that goddamn horse at least 200 times before the Steam achievement kicked in), and has bumped up stacks to much higher amounts, making inventory management slightly easier.  The PC version edges out the 360 in terms of graphics, but since neither is really a graphical powerhouse, the difference is negligible. 
 
Most importantly, both are plenty of fun and have a ton of replay value.  You can retire characters, leaving behind one inherited item that receives slight stat boosts or an extra bit of enchantment (cue Sandal).  You can also transfer any items you'd like through a shared loot chest to your future characters, meaning that if you find an extra copy of a spell or a cool weapon that might be better suited to a different class, you can hang onto it and use it later. 
 
The difficulty for these types of games usually comes more from your character builds and your patience for testing out what spells or abilities work best.  Generally, I like to concentrate on three main abilities, passive skills that boost those abilities, and then... well, whatever catches my fancy.  The mage is perhaps the easiest class to play, as it has great pets and it can inflict massive amounts of damage through spells.  But you really can't go wrong with any class, as you'll find respec potions are relatively cheap and gear to be plentiful.  
 
My only real beef with the game is that there is no multiplayer.  Even something as simple as a way to gift items to friends would have gone a long ways towards enhancing the experience, but it's still a superb game for a pretty cheap price. 
 
PATRICK ROTHFUSS IS A NAME YOU SHOULD KNOW AND LOVE 
 
The reason I love books so much can be defined almost entirely by Patrick Rothfuss's newest novel, The Wise Man's Fear.  It left me feeling alive, adventurous, ready to take on the world and ready to come back home again.  That's a lot of hyperbole, but this book deserves it and more.  Rothfuss's prose isn't anything too complex or flowery, but it is beautiful.  He finds the exact balance between description and action, between movement and stillness.  It's more than meat-and-potatoes writing.  This is a master craftsman working on something elegant and making it look simple.  He never talks down to the reader, he doesn't choose the biggest words in his vocabulary, and he never overstays his welcome in any one particular act. 
 
If you haven't read it, please, I'm begging you - do yourself a favor and do so post-haste.  Along with Scott Lynch and Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss is spearheading a new wave of brilliant fantasy writers, and I thank him profusely for that. 
 
RDJ AND BRUCE WILLIS, OH MY! 
 
Really briefly: 
 
I enjoyed the hell out of Due Date.  It's a crass bastardized take on the Odd Couple-on-wheels concept that worked so well for John Candy and Steve Martin.  Of course, it's no Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (oh, man, that last scene of John Candy in that movie makes me cry every goddamn time - no shit), but it is fantastically funny, wry in all the right ways, and has a fantastic scene of insanity, especially in the fact that there are no repercussions whatsoever from some of the dangerously illegal acts Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifinakis get into. 
 
Red, on the other hand, is a bit of a let-down.  I guess I thought the film might take a more blackly comedic turn, so maybe my expectations weren't in the right place.  It's certainly not terrible, just not what I hoped for.  Still, a fantastic cast, solid dialogue, and a sense that the actors were having a blast makes this well worth watching. 
 
Just getting into 3rd Rock from the Sun, and wow, is it a joy to see these actors play.  The entire main cast and the supporting actors and actresses are incredibly fun to watch.  The sheer over-the-top bombastic nature of everyone involved makes me giddy and wish I was still acting. 
 
PSP, PCP... WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? 
 
I've decided I'm going to pick up a PSP 3000.  I'm looking for recommendations for games of any sort.  What are your favorites?  Don't just pick 'em from some website's top 20 PSP games list, either.  I want to know YOUR favorites.  Any genre, any age, I don't care.  Hit me!
 
 

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Dragon Age 2, Back to the Future, Brandon Sanderson, Chuck Hogan

Well, howdy there, lil' cowpokes, and welcome to the return of a semi-regular update thingamajig I used to do here on Giant Bomb.  Now, I know most of you pardners have some going-ons of your own, so let's giddy-up and get on with some quick thoughts, shall we? 
 
Today, I'm gonna be shootin' rounds at Dragon Age 2, Back to the Future (the Telltale game), Brandon Sanderson's latest in the Wheel of Time series The Towers of Midnight, Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain, and various thoughts on television shows I've been watching lately.  So let's grab some vittles, pull up a stump, crack open a sasparilla, and hunker down for a spell. 
 
DRAGON AGE 2 
 
Despite the lack of a strong central narrative, Dragon Age 2 is one hell of a sequel.  Other than the new approach to the combat system, it really just more or less expands on elements introduced in Dragon Age: Origins, fleshing out the world introduced in that spectacular little gem.  In this case (as in the case of New Vegas), this use of older tools allows the developers to expand upon what made the original great.  
 
Dragon Age 2 really shines when it comes to your party and the staggering number of side-quests and missions available.  Although the same environments are recycled a bit too often, I found myself drawn into the struggles of poor and rich alike, especially when some of the choices I could make weren't quite as clear-cut as in prior Bioware games.  There is still the three-tiered system of good, neutral, and evil choices (essentially), but the choices now have consequences and costs that hindered my ability to just play out the black-and-white Bioware characters I've become used to.  My party members didn't make this any easier, as picking between what's good for them and what's good for the world as a whole can sometimes be blurred, belying underlying attachments to the cast of Dragon Age II I didn't realize I had. 
 
The party chatter goes a long ways towards this as well.  Bioware smartly dropped most of the central protagonist's dialogue in favor of a natural evolution of storylines, doled out in small bits and pieces as time goes by in the world.  Instead, the party will chat amongst themselves frequently, trading barbs or jests depending on who is in your party and what choices have been made.  This dialogue alone makes me excited for my next playthrough, as I'm genuinely curious as to what reactions and consequences will take place when I make certain choices. 
 
The combat system does take some getting used to, but I think the changes Bioware made are generally smart ones.  It's a quicker pace, obviously, which isn't always a good thing as some remnants of the older PC RPG roots tend to shine through (particularly in a drawn-out boss fight).  Those fights were meant for a more deliberate, slower time of strategic gaming.  Don't get me wrong - they're actually the best fights in the game - but they do jar with the intended quickening of the battles.  I still needed to maintain a very deliberate pace when it came to battles, as quicker fights don't necessarily mean the game has become any easier. 
 
All in all, if you've been reading the doom and gloom types who have been saying that this game marks the end of Bioware as we knew it, don't listen to them.  It's a really great game that's obviously trying to find that line between its roots and what gamers want in a modern RPG. 
 
YOU MADE A TIME MACHINE... OUT OF A DELOREAN? 
 
I'm just gonna get this off my chest now.  I'm a Telltale fanatic.  And I'm a Back to the Future fanatic.  Seeing those two joined at the hip just gave me paroxysms of pleasure when I read the previews.  Playing the game was even better.  Although I'd have loved to have heard Michael J. Fox (one of my personal heroes, for reasons I won't go into) do voice-work, I think the actors they've hired to replace originals are fantastic.  Of course, hearing Christopher Lloyd as Doc again gives me goosebumps.  It's reliving a joyous part of my childhood again in a new format. 
 
The episodes themselves smartly focus on story, jokes, and characters rather than obscure puzzling.  I've never really found myself struggling with Telltale games as a whole, but this one seems even more breezy.  That might not be to your particular taste, but in my case, that's perfectly all right.  I'm in this one for the story and return to the world I so greatly enjoyed as a kid, and in that regard, I'm 100% pleased. 
 
A TROLLOC, AN AES SEDAI, AND AN OGIER WALK INTO A BAR... 
 
Towers of Midnight is a case of the whole being greater than the parts.  Sanderson, understandably, hasn't quite managed to make the intricate characters of Robert Jordan's novels read like themselves, but the guy sure does a fantastic job with the rest of it.  He has a magnificent grasp of the world Jordan so carefully crafted, and his deft touch with combat scenes is highly enjoyable.  Sanderson adds a level of tension to this one that I haven't feld in a Wheel of Time novel in some time.  I'm going to try not to get into specifics, but you should be warned that there will be LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. 
 
Perrin's part in this novel is a bit of a slow burn, starting off dreadfully slow and ending in a fantastic crescendo straining with blood.  It's nice to see some forward motion in his character development as well, as he's been a little stiff in the last few novels.  Sanderson's best touch in the novel is definitely done with Rand, surprisingly enough, whom I haven't cared about in nearly eight or so novels.  Rand becomes likable again, something sorely needed before the end of the series is met.  Mat is perhaps the hardest character for Sanderson to write, as his jokes and dialogue occasionally feel forced and cliched, though he has the single most hilarious bit of the novels as a whole in a particularly well written letter to another character.  Despite the difficulty in grasping the character, Sanderson puts Mat through his most harrowing moments yet, ending the novel in a heart-pumping manner that leaves me wanting the next in my hands right now. 
 
CHUCK HOGAN NOT AS COOL AS EITHER PART OF HIS NAME - NEWS AT 11 
 
Chuck Hogan's The Strain reads like a bad, bland beginner's guide to apocalyptica.  Emotions are  forced, characters are given no room to grow, and at no point did I care one bit about any person in the novel.  And when you're reading something as supposedly sweeping as this, that's a bad, bad sign.  Hogan's novel reads like a bad medical thriller with a few horror-light elements tossed in for good measure.  The characters are direct nods to Bram Stoker's Dracula, complete with a vampire-slaying professor.  But none of these characters are relatable, given instead to cliched methods of storytelling.  It's a classic example of the author telling instead of showing a story, and it aggravated every sensibility of my being.  There's a level of condescension to the writing as well, as Hogan stops frequently to explain various facts and phrases that could have easily been adapted into the story without such blatant explanations.  The mark of a great storyteller is that he or she can weave a complete tale without needing to stop to pander to an audience.  Hogan fails completely at that, and if it wasn't for my masochistic need to finish most every novel I start, I'd have dumped this one after a few dozen pages. 
 
IN LIVING COLOR 
 
No, no, no, this isn't a blurb about that old sketch comedy show.  These are just some quick (really, I rpomise) notes on TV shows I've been catching up on. 
 
-Eureka is good, silly fun.  It's light enough that I can keep it on in the background as I write.  It wouldn't really be my cup of tea if it wasn't for the brilliant premise and the fun lead characters.  I can't recommend it to everyone, but for me, it's a fun diversion. 
 
-Castle is much the same.  The police procedural usually irritates the holy hell out of me, but Nathan Fillion's charm and the decent writing makes this one tolerable.  I can't stomach more than an episode or two at a time, but for what it is, it's not bad. 
 
-Mad Men is very well written and acted, but I can't tolerate the existentialist bullshit.  I've never been able to get into fiction that relates to that intolerable belief, and this is another example.  If you believe in it, more power to you.  Just let me know if you write it, so I can keep the hell away from it.
 
-I missed out on 3rd Rock From the Sun as a teen, mostly because of our nearly 4 year lack of cable or satellite, but now I'm catching a few episodes of it here and there.  Watching John Lithgow and the rest of the crew play is just amazing.  As a former actor who loves watching great actors get a chance to completely ham it up, this is a treat.  Not a show I'm sure I'll watch through its entire run, but I'm enjoying bits and pieces of it.

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