Sparky's Update - Forza Horizon, XCOM, and John Dies At The End

"Folks, I shit you not. Sparky's Update is like crack-laced Kool-Aid. I can't get enough of it!" -Thomas Jefferson, circa 1695.

If you want a quick synopsis of this week's updatery, here it is - play Forza Horizon and XCOM. Also? You absolutely must read John Dies At The End. That's a moral imperative, almost a law passed down from me unto you, my loyal subjects guinea pigs lab monkeys readers. All three are delightful. I'm also gonna touch briefly on my final thoughts on Yesterday, which was delightful but terribly short.

The Game I Swore I Wouldn't Buy

I didn't intend on buying Forza Horizon. When I heard that they were doing an installment of Forza so soon after Forza 4, I was mildly irritated at the thought of one of my favorite franchises becoming a watered-down yearly installment. I also had a bit of Forza fatigue, mostly from a long stretch of time when I'd hammer out five to six races a night in order to eventually get that All Gold achievo (a task I still haven't accomplished). Months later, and I'd almost all but forgotten about the title when the GB crew reviewed it and released that Quick Look. And then, damn it, I had the Forza jitters all over again and wanted to get my hands on it. So when it came up for sale in a nice B2G1 free sale, I snapped it up.

Let me start by repeating this analogy I used earlier this week - Forza Horizon is the Randy Quaid to Forza 4's Dennis Quaid. Both are excellent actors in their own right, but they're vastly different personalities. Horizon is fun, slightly quirky (though a very sterile quirky, as I'll explain in a second), and while not quite as prestigious as its brother, is definitely an awards-bound title. Forza 4 is the clinical, more dry brother - while not as fun, its depth and professionalism are astounding. Sadly, however, neither Forza ever actually says, "Shitter was full!" That's sort of disappointing.

Horizon eschews the serious quality of Forza 4, and instead goes for a flashier, warmer feel of an arcadey racer. That's not to say that it controls entirely like an arcade racer though - with the assists off, the game mechanics will kick you in the teeth if you're not prepared. But there's definitely been some slight tinkering to make the game feel a little less like a sim and more like a video game. Whereas Forza 3 and 4 helped me feel a bit of that old adrenaline and love of driving, Forza Horizon feels just a touch more cartoonish without actually turning it buffoonish. The controls are a little more forgiving with the assists off. Powerslides and drifting are a breeze, and going off-road no longer is quite so deadly to your finish, especially in AWD cars.

The presentation too is warmer. Some of the racers are given personalities, though they aren't particularly fleshed out or all that important. It's still a great step forward to making the races less robotic, and it's something I'd love to see expanded upon. The festival atmosphere is kind of tame by design, but it allows for some great new additions to the formula, such as the street races. Those are my favorite part of the game - you're set up with multiple other cars, and race across the countryside with only checkpoints and your mini-map to guide you. No fenced in areas, no tracks, and lighter restrictions on cars makes Sparky a very happy boy.

There are some negatives to be found, however. Most notable is the glaringly sparse (compared to Forza 4, anyways) car list. There are dozens of cars included, but considering that almost all are ripped straight from Forza 4 with very few new additions, this is sort of a downer for any car enthusiast and should be noted if you're trying to decide between the two. The DLC is also kind of despicable. Again, instead of introducing new cars, most are taken straight from Forza 4. Essentially, you'd be paying twice for content you already own, and that's not at all cool.

There's also this strangely pervasive feeling that Forza Horizon has been designed by committee. Despite being way less clinical than Forza 4, I get the feeling that the developers were given very strict guidelines about what could be considered for the game. Take the music, for example. There's a few good songs in there, especially from the Black Keys and the game's mellow vibe station. But it all feels sort of sterile and safe. You won't hear any hard rock. There aren't any offensive lyrics to be found. The most "dangerous" part of the game is its inclusion of the street races and Skrillex. And it's not that I want the game to be dangerous or edgy, but for a game that features such a crazy festival atmosphere and supposedly gripping street races, I want to listen to something a little more pulse-pounding, a little crazier, a little more alive. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I don't even think there are any songs older than 2008 in the mix. Give me some Ghetto Bird. Give me some Metallica. Give me some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, some Rolling Stones, something with a little more vigor. As it stands, the soundtrack is pleasant, but it feels ripped straight from SSX, a game where the mellower music definitely fits better.

And that same feeling tends to crop up throughout the rest of the game. The few racing personalities are given a few by-the-numbers lines with which to trash talk you before races, but there's no fire in them. They're not given enough time or energy to feel like much of a rival, and they're certainly not allowed to say anything that might offend the mothers of the teenagers who play this game. There's also a female guide of sorts whom you interact with briefly in a couple of cutscenes. It's implied she's slightly interested in the player character, but this goes nowhere after the second cutscene. She guides you along with a bunch of generic "go get 'em, Tiger!" phrases, but it leaves me wondering, why bother having those two cutscenes in the first place? It reeks of a rushed production, but it leaves me hopeful that if there are future installments of the Horizon sub-franchise, they will continue to make the world around the races a little more vibrant.

Do I necessarily want a full-fledged story in my racing games? It couldn't hurt, but I guess what I'm after more is personality to the AI. Make the periphery interesting, or expand upon it and don't just let it trail off. I hope Forza Horizon 2 does this - and expands on the game's stellar basics a bit more.

XCOM Marks The Spot

Hey, you try coming up with an X-pun that hasn't been used already.

I'm only about two days into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I'm already head-over-heels in love with it. The fine folks at Firaxis are the Zen masters of melding accessibility and easy controls with variable levels of brutality. Errr... difficulty. Right. Much like with Civ V, and to a lesser extent, the Pirates! remake, they've eliminated a bunch of needless stuff that cluttered up the basic gameplay without sacrificing the deep and addictive elements.

Ammo counts and action points are out the window. This might seem off-putting to long-term X-Com fans, but it's really for the best. Each character is essentially given two turns, one to move and one to shoot. This varies a little depending on what class you play as and how you choose to advance in each character's skill tree. Snipers, for example, will need to stay put if they want to fire off a shot (unless they take a perk that allows them to move with a penalty to aim for their shot). Alternately, a character can choose to Overwatch, the basics of which should be familiar to those who have played older strategy games. Your character basically goes into an alert status, and will fire on the first enemy he or she sees.

The cover system is smart and intuitive. You can take fire from four angles, essentially, and your cover can account for one or two of those angles. That's not a guarantee you won't take damage - you will get shot in this game many, many times - but you're a damn fool if you're ending a turn outside of cover. Most cover can be shredded, too - logs will burst into flames, walls and windows will be demolished, and that parked car you've been hiding behind can blow up and take you with it. The cover becomes a part of the tense nature of the gameplay.

Speaking of tense, if you aren't already aware, this game is tough. I've been switching between easy and medium pretty freely, mostly thanks to those chrystallis bastards. They will bend you over a countertop, rip off your drawers, and increase the hole in your backside by a fair country mile. If you're sane, you'll keep a few saves in rotation - one for the beginning of each mission, one for each time you head back to HQ for debriefing and cocktails, and generally mid-mission. Any less than that, and you're begging for failed missions and squadrons of dead soldiers. Which you'll still have, incidentally. But that difficulty also comes with a terrifically rewarding sensation, especially when you've completed a mission and not lost anyone.

It's also a game that tests your intelligence in a very chess-like fashion. You're either smart enough to try to anticipate the enemy's moves, or you're left floundering for air while berserkers smash your front lines to bits. I cannot recommend it enough. It's everything I love about Firaxis games.

The Rest

-If you take nothing else away from this blog, read John Dies At The End. It's a horror comedy, essentially three novellas tied into an overarching plot. It can be brutal and gory while being intensely funny at the same time. It's both black comedy and nearly slapstick at points. That comedy does a great job of highlighting the few serious turns in the novel. There's this sort of frenetic, slightly dark energy to the whole thing that I adore. It's not flowery. It doesn't recycle some overused cliched villain. It's truly the most original horror novel I've read in quite some time. I cannot wait to read its sequel.

-I also finished Yesterday. It's a quality idea for an adventure game, highlighted by some dark occult themes, but it comes to a conclusion fast. It also lacks the charm of the characters from The Next Big Thing. On the whole, if you can get it for dirt cheap along with the rest of the Pendulo games, I encourage it. It definitely has its heart in the right place.

I think that's it for this week. Have a happy Thanksgiving, dear devotee of the Sparkster.

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Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

"Folks, I shit you not. Sparky's Update is like crack-laced Kool-Aid. I can't get enough of it!" -Thomas Jefferson, circa 1695.

If you want a quick synopsis of this week's updatery, here it is - play Forza Horizon and XCOM. Also? You absolutely must read John Dies At The End. That's a moral imperative, almost a law passed down from me unto you, my loyal subjects guinea pigs lab monkeys readers. All three are delightful. I'm also gonna touch briefly on my final thoughts on Yesterday, which was delightful but terribly short.

The Game I Swore I Wouldn't Buy

I didn't intend on buying Forza Horizon. When I heard that they were doing an installment of Forza so soon after Forza 4, I was mildly irritated at the thought of one of my favorite franchises becoming a watered-down yearly installment. I also had a bit of Forza fatigue, mostly from a long stretch of time when I'd hammer out five to six races a night in order to eventually get that All Gold achievo (a task I still haven't accomplished). Months later, and I'd almost all but forgotten about the title when the GB crew reviewed it and released that Quick Look. And then, damn it, I had the Forza jitters all over again and wanted to get my hands on it. So when it came up for sale in a nice B2G1 free sale, I snapped it up.

Let me start by repeating this analogy I used earlier this week - Forza Horizon is the Randy Quaid to Forza 4's Dennis Quaid. Both are excellent actors in their own right, but they're vastly different personalities. Horizon is fun, slightly quirky (though a very sterile quirky, as I'll explain in a second), and while not quite as prestigious as its brother, is definitely an awards-bound title. Forza 4 is the clinical, more dry brother - while not as fun, its depth and professionalism are astounding. Sadly, however, neither Forza ever actually says, "Shitter was full!" That's sort of disappointing.

Horizon eschews the serious quality of Forza 4, and instead goes for a flashier, warmer feel of an arcadey racer. That's not to say that it controls entirely like an arcade racer though - with the assists off, the game mechanics will kick you in the teeth if you're not prepared. But there's definitely been some slight tinkering to make the game feel a little less like a sim and more like a video game. Whereas Forza 3 and 4 helped me feel a bit of that old adrenaline and love of driving, Forza Horizon feels just a touch more cartoonish without actually turning it buffoonish. The controls are a little more forgiving with the assists off. Powerslides and drifting are a breeze, and going off-road no longer is quite so deadly to your finish, especially in AWD cars.

The presentation too is warmer. Some of the racers are given personalities, though they aren't particularly fleshed out or all that important. It's still a great step forward to making the races less robotic, and it's something I'd love to see expanded upon. The festival atmosphere is kind of tame by design, but it allows for some great new additions to the formula, such as the street races. Those are my favorite part of the game - you're set up with multiple other cars, and race across the countryside with only checkpoints and your mini-map to guide you. No fenced in areas, no tracks, and lighter restrictions on cars makes Sparky a very happy boy.

There are some negatives to be found, however. Most notable is the glaringly sparse (compared to Forza 4, anyways) car list. There are dozens of cars included, but considering that almost all are ripped straight from Forza 4 with very few new additions, this is sort of a downer for any car enthusiast and should be noted if you're trying to decide between the two. The DLC is also kind of despicable. Again, instead of introducing new cars, most are taken straight from Forza 4. Essentially, you'd be paying twice for content you already own, and that's not at all cool.

There's also this strangely pervasive feeling that Forza Horizon has been designed by committee. Despite being way less clinical than Forza 4, I get the feeling that the developers were given very strict guidelines about what could be considered for the game. Take the music, for example. There's a few good songs in there, especially from the Black Keys and the game's mellow vibe station. But it all feels sort of sterile and safe. You won't hear any hard rock. There aren't any offensive lyrics to be found. The most "dangerous" part of the game is its inclusion of the street races and Skrillex. And it's not that I want the game to be dangerous or edgy, but for a game that features such a crazy festival atmosphere and supposedly gripping street races, I want to listen to something a little more pulse-pounding, a little crazier, a little more alive. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I don't even think there are any songs older than 2008 in the mix. Give me some Ghetto Bird. Give me some Metallica. Give me some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, some Rolling Stones, something with a little more vigor. As it stands, the soundtrack is pleasant, but it feels ripped straight from SSX, a game where the mellower music definitely fits better.

And that same feeling tends to crop up throughout the rest of the game. The few racing personalities are given a few by-the-numbers lines with which to trash talk you before races, but there's no fire in them. They're not given enough time or energy to feel like much of a rival, and they're certainly not allowed to say anything that might offend the mothers of the teenagers who play this game. There's also a female guide of sorts whom you interact with briefly in a couple of cutscenes. It's implied she's slightly interested in the player character, but this goes nowhere after the second cutscene. She guides you along with a bunch of generic "go get 'em, Tiger!" phrases, but it leaves me wondering, why bother having those two cutscenes in the first place? It reeks of a rushed production, but it leaves me hopeful that if there are future installments of the Horizon sub-franchise, they will continue to make the world around the races a little more vibrant.

Do I necessarily want a full-fledged story in my racing games? It couldn't hurt, but I guess what I'm after more is personality to the AI. Make the periphery interesting, or expand upon it and don't just let it trail off. I hope Forza Horizon 2 does this - and expands on the game's stellar basics a bit more.

XCOM Marks The Spot

Hey, you try coming up with an X-pun that hasn't been used already.

I'm only about two days into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I'm already head-over-heels in love with it. The fine folks at Firaxis are the Zen masters of melding accessibility and easy controls with variable levels of brutality. Errr... difficulty. Right. Much like with Civ V, and to a lesser extent, the Pirates! remake, they've eliminated a bunch of needless stuff that cluttered up the basic gameplay without sacrificing the deep and addictive elements.

Ammo counts and action points are out the window. This might seem off-putting to long-term X-Com fans, but it's really for the best. Each character is essentially given two turns, one to move and one to shoot. This varies a little depending on what class you play as and how you choose to advance in each character's skill tree. Snipers, for example, will need to stay put if they want to fire off a shot (unless they take a perk that allows them to move with a penalty to aim for their shot). Alternately, a character can choose to Overwatch, the basics of which should be familiar to those who have played older strategy games. Your character basically goes into an alert status, and will fire on the first enemy he or she sees.

The cover system is smart and intuitive. You can take fire from four angles, essentially, and your cover can account for one or two of those angles. That's not a guarantee you won't take damage - you will get shot in this game many, many times - but you're a damn fool if you're ending a turn outside of cover. Most cover can be shredded, too - logs will burst into flames, walls and windows will be demolished, and that parked car you've been hiding behind can blow up and take you with it. The cover becomes a part of the tense nature of the gameplay.

Speaking of tense, if you aren't already aware, this game is tough. I've been switching between easy and medium pretty freely, mostly thanks to those chrystallis bastards. They will bend you over a countertop, rip off your drawers, and increase the hole in your backside by a fair country mile. If you're sane, you'll keep a few saves in rotation - one for the beginning of each mission, one for each time you head back to HQ for debriefing and cocktails, and generally mid-mission. Any less than that, and you're begging for failed missions and squadrons of dead soldiers. Which you'll still have, incidentally. But that difficulty also comes with a terrifically rewarding sensation, especially when you've completed a mission and not lost anyone.

It's also a game that tests your intelligence in a very chess-like fashion. You're either smart enough to try to anticipate the enemy's moves, or you're left floundering for air while berserkers smash your front lines to bits. I cannot recommend it enough. It's everything I love about Firaxis games.

The Rest

-If you take nothing else away from this blog, read John Dies At The End. It's a horror comedy, essentially three novellas tied into an overarching plot. It can be brutal and gory while being intensely funny at the same time. It's both black comedy and nearly slapstick at points. That comedy does a great job of highlighting the few serious turns in the novel. There's this sort of frenetic, slightly dark energy to the whole thing that I adore. It's not flowery. It doesn't recycle some overused cliched villain. It's truly the most original horror novel I've read in quite some time. I cannot wait to read its sequel.

-I also finished Yesterday. It's a quality idea for an adventure game, highlighted by some dark occult themes, but it comes to a conclusion fast. It also lacks the charm of the characters from The Next Big Thing. On the whole, if you can get it for dirt cheap along with the rest of the Pendulo games, I encourage it. It definitely has its heart in the right place.

I think that's it for this week. Have a happy Thanksgiving, dear devotee of the Sparkster.

Moderator
Posted by Video_Game_King

Thomas Jefferson said that? Man, I really have to keep up with the Assassin's Creed games.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Video_Game_King: He was also responsible for the Fonz's "Heyyyyyyyy...." and the inimitable, "Can I get a what what?" True story. It is, however, a fabrication of the upper class that he wrote and directed the music video for Gangster's Paradise.

Moderator
Posted by ArbitraryWater

Nice to see you are enjoying the XCOM. As you well know, I think that game is dope and a total bastard on anything higher than Normal. Normal actually becomes something of a joke late-game, or at least it did for me. Meanwhile, any attempt to play Classic Ironman has been swiftly rebuffed.

Also, Forza Horizon was the first time I looked at a Forza game and said "I would be willing to pay money for that", something that hasn't happened with a racing game since NFS Hot Pursuit (and the last racing game I bought and enjoyed was Burnout Paradise).

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@ArbitraryWater: I think I've become dumber with time. No. I know I have. I used to be pretty okay at the original. Not great, mind you, but I got to the point where, as a young teen, I could at least survive by the skin of my teeth. But with this one, I'm getting kicked in the teeth and have had to restart. Even my new game is kinda fucked. I've already lost three nations, and I haven't even bothered attacking the alien base yet. What's funny is I know how I'm supposed to play. I know the logistics of how to win, and how to best prepare for that. I do okay with my squads, but the HQ stuff is just killing me. But it's a good frustration in a funny way. I'm almost eagerly anticipating my next run-through. Weird.

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Posted by dankempster

How did I miss this last week? Man, I've seriously been slipping on the blog-reading front lately. Time to make amends!

After my recent time with DiRT, Forza Horizon sounds like exactly the kind of racing game I want to play right now. I'm not sure the game's watered-down sense of personality would bother me too much, as I've never been a fan of the 'racer-with-a-story' conceit, at least not how I've seen it done before in games like Need for Speed: Underground and other such street-racing titles. If Forza Horizon is an improvement on that and features a little less of the 'Fast and the Furious'-style machismo, I'm sure what is there wouldn't bother me too much. Anyway, I'll definitely be looking to pick that one up in the New Year, when January sales are in full effect and my wallet has had a chance to recover from Christmas.

XCOM makes me curious, but also apprehensive, and both for exactly the same reason - I have never played a game of that type before. Hence, I'm curious to know what all the fuss is about, but at the same time worried that because I didn't see it all the first time, I might not 'get it'. I've seen nothing written from the perspective of somebody going in 'fresh', with no previous experience of the franchise, and so can't really even attempt to gauge how I might get on with it.

I've put a copy of John Dies at the End in my Amazon basket and will order it as soon as I get paid on Friday. I have to confess I've not read much of late. The last book I read was Pete Townshend's autobiography, which I found fascinating as a fan of The Who and rock music in general, but I can't imagine the casual reader would get much out of it. I'm just about to embark on a re-read of The Hobbit, with a view to finally atoning for my fantasy-writing sins and getting through The Lord of the Rings. Here's hoping it's as wonderful a book as I remember it being.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@dankempster: One thing about Firaxis's games post-rebooted Pirates! is that they're accessible. That's not to say that XCOM isn't a difficult game - it really is, and I only beat it on a mixture of medium and easy difficulties by the skin of my teeth. However, it can be just as difficult as you really want it to be through the generous allowance of saves - if you keep a steady rotation of saves going, theoretically, you could get through the entire game without a single person dying. I don't know if it's for everyone, but I've been so hungry for a quality turn-based strategy game of this sort for so long that I'm not capable of a fair, unbiased look at it. I'd say give it a shot if you find it on the cheap. I think it would likely be the best gateway game into more hardcore entries in the genre, like Jagged Alliance 2, Silent Storm, and the old XCOM games.

Forza Horizon's story is definitely minimal. It's unobtrusive, through and through, so it shouldn't irritate you in the slightest (I would think). I just wish that what was there went just a shade further. Regardless, it's a huge leap in personality from prior Forza games. The spirit of the game is definitely commendable - I just hope in the future, it doesn't feel so methodical.

I have no idea if you'll like John Dies At The End. It's irreverent, it's hilariously and deliberately stupid at times, and at its absolute best, I think it's one for the ages. It's not Shakespeare. It's not even Douglas Adams. What I keep coming to in my mind is a distinctly Americanized version of Shaun of the Dead, complete with fart jokes, but even that's not quite right. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Posted by procrasturbate

Nice reads.

No custom soundtrack option on Horizon??

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@procrasturbate: You mean with in-game music? Not that I've seen. But you can always import your own music and play it instead. If I'm playing single player, I usually just hook my laptop up and listen to Pandora while I'm racing.

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