The Challenges of Limited Gaming Time

Oh, how I long for the days of college when I could spend time engrossing myself in a game for hours on end. Now, I have a real dilemma when it comes to playing games - there are so many good ones out there, so many that I wish I could devote large swaths of time to, but just can't.  
 
With a job, a fiance, and other responsibilities, I just can't shut myself off for 6 hours and play a game. Add to that, I'm now following what games are coming out more than ever, and there's more and more that I want to devote my time to. 
 
I'm currently making my way through Read Dead Redemption and loving it - I've just gotten to Mexico after 2 weeks of playing the game. It pains me when I see people online who have managed to finish long games like Read Dead, and I'm forced to ignore the ongoing conversation and avoid spoilers as much as possible. I want to see and experience the game to its fullest, so don't want to rush, but being able to play only 3 or 4 hours in a given week just puts me behind everyone else. I guess it's not a competition or anything, but I don't enjoy feeling left behind. 
 
At least there's a bit of a break in the release schedule for now.... 

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Movie Review: Iron Man 2

Is Robert Downey Jr's second turn in the Iron Man armor as fun and entertaining as the first film? Probably not. Is it worth seeing if you enjoyed the first film? Probably, yes. 

Iron Man 2 suffers from a fair amount of sequel fatigue - too many characters, too many sub plots, and a little too much time spent setting up the upcoming Avengers film. While the first film let Downey's Tony Stark steal the show, this second outing seems to introduce too many over-the-top characters and not enough straight-men. Don't get me wrong, Downey still has immeasurable chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle takes over well from Terrence Howard as Colonel Rhodes. It's more that the introduction of Sam Rockwell as Stark competitor Justin Hammer and Mickey Rourke as villain Whiplash/Ivan Vanko do not work nearly as well.

Rockwell's hammer is sort of a mirror Tony Stark, only not nearly as cool. While I realize his character is supposed to be irritating, it felt like a misuse of an otherwise fantastic actor. Likewise, Mickey Rourke never comes off as a truly threatening villain. Perhaps it's the fact that we're operating in a post-Dark Knight world, but I expect to feel some level of menace from a supervillian. Rourke's Whiplash is given a thinly described motive for revenge against the Stark family and Hammer's main focus is securing defense contracts. The film has some moments of great character work, however the pacing suffers from some lengthy scenes between Rourke and Rockwell.

Additionally, the film only offers three major action scenes - and while satisfying - the film might have been better paced with a little more suspense and action and a little less exposition. The final battle seems over a bit too quickly and plays very much as a ramped up copy of the War Monger fight from the first film. 

Despite these flaws, Iron Man 2 is still a worthwhile action film and a cut above most popcorn fare. The action scenes (limited as they are) are fun and offer the same high-tech superhero fun as the first film. Robert Downey Jr. is still the perfect person to play Tony Stark and it's hard not to get some fanboy chills each time he dons the red and gold suit. There are some fun nods to the expanded Marvel universe, including an entertaining, if not a little on-the-nose reference to the upcoming Captain America film. If you had fun with the first film, Iron Man 2 is a good way to spend an evening, but don't expect it to feel as fresh and original as it did before.

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Film Review: Exit Through The Gift Shop

Part documentary history of the street art movement, part commentary on the art world as a whole, and part post-modern comedy, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a difficult film to label.  
  
Directed by the elusive street artist Banksy, the film follows Thierry Guetta, an eccentric, obsessive French shop-owner turned amateur documentary filmmaker as he chronicles the burgeoning street art movement.  

Beginning with Guetta’s initial outings with his cousin, an artist who goes by the name Space Invader, and continuing as he moves deeper into the street art movement Exit Through The Gift Shop becomes more about the man behind the camera than the subjects he’s filming.  

The filmmaker sets out on a quest to film the biggest figures in street art which leads him to the notoriously private Banksy. Eventually tracking him down, Guetta begines to serve as something in between a documentarian and an apprentice for the artist. It is here that the film begins its transformation from street art documentary to something else entirely. 

What began as a film about Banksy and his contemporaries becomes a story about the strange man who set out to uncover their world. Though the film’s first act features some fascinating footage and interviews with the luminaries of the street art world - including some great scenes following Shepard Fairey working undercover in Los Angeles - once Banksy is in the picture, the focus of the film undergoes some drastic changes. 

After filming Banksy working several of his undercover art projects, the artist begins to get curious about what the strange Frenchman has been filming for. When it becomes apparent that Guetta knows very little about taking the massive amounts of footage he has captured and turning them into something watchable, Banksy takes the reins. The result is Exit Through The Gift Shop

This story-within-a-story is just the beginning of the twists and turns in this film. I’m remiss to spoil anything as this is a film best watched knowing as little as possible, but suffice to say, the third act raises a great many questions. The story of Guetta’s journey into the world of street art results in questions of the value of art, the concept of originality, and a damning condemnation of the art world.

Ostensibly a documentary, by the end of Exit Through The Gift Shop you will be wondering what is real, what is fake, and if the whole thing has been just a giant joke pulled by Banksy, perhaps the world’s greatest prankster.


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A Confession: I sometimes play games on easy

Today I admit it - I sometimes play games on easy/casual/beginner whatever it may be. 
 
I'm easily frustrated and get no joy from replaying a segment of a game over and over. I have a job and responsibilities, I want to experience a game and get as much out of it as I can. I don't want to fall into the trap I did in the last generation of having a ton of games that I got through 60% of before getting bored or fed-up because I wanted to beat it on a decent difficulty level.  
 
I was never a high-score gamer, or someone who felt the need to beat people in multiplayer. I play games for the escape and immersion into a new world and approach a game in the same way I approach a novel. I actually appreciate that some games are getting easier in order to move the narrative along. I just don't have the world's best reflexes and it killed me growing up that I couldn't experience games the same way as other people because in many I'd undoubtedly run up against a wall where it just got too hard. 
 
So yes, sometimes, especially if I hear a game has a considerable difficulty curve, I put the setting to easy and if I like the game, maybe I'll play it again on normal. So there, that's off my chest - I'm not proud of it, but I've come to terms with it.

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Mass Effect 2: A Full Sci-Fi TV Season

We tend to make a lot of beef about games being "cinematic" and it's pretty easy to spot the influence of film on more than a few games. Playing through Mass Effect 2, I realized that a large part of why I really enjoyed the story was that it didn't try to structure itself like a film. Instead, I think the more apt comparison was that it felt like a season of a good sci-fi tv show.  
 
The game opens by introducing you to the main conflict and felt very much like a season premier - giving you the bad guy, the main character, and then a mission to build a crew. Following that, we spend "episodes" picking up members of the crew and then getting to know them better with their loyalty missions. Interspersed in these missions were major plot episodes, like going to the abandoned Reaper ship, or exploring a colony under attack by the Collectors.  
 
Now that I'm an adult gamer, with a job and responsibilities, I'm rarely able to put in the 10 hour+ gaming sessions that were once commonplace. I loved that with Mass Effect 2, I could go and do an "episode", feel like I've gotten a good story arc out of it and then shut down for the night. I got my hour or so episode in and was able to feel like I had a satisfying experience.  
 
I sincerely hope that we see games with this sort of structure more often. I know that Alan Wake is going for a literal TV season feel. As gamers get older, I think we're going to want more encapsulated gaming experiences, without sacrificing epic stories. Giving us episodic missions is a great solution.

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Assassins Creed Revisited Post ACII

I'm currently in between finishing my Mass Effect 2 play through and waiting for my copy of Dragon Age: Origins to get here, so this weekend I decided to go to my backlog of games and make some progress in ones that I'd shelved. Now Assassins Creed was a game I didn't enjoy, for the reasons that many have mentioned - the repetition, pacing, and a combat system that I just never mastered. That said, Assassins Creed II was possibly my favorite game of 2009, so I thought it was time to give it another chance.  
 
And so I dove into the shoes of Altair once more.... and I found that I liked it much more than before. I still think ACII is an all around better game, but spending so much time with it had allowed me to master the controls, and understand how the game wants me to play in the world. No longer was I bumbling around the city causing fights with each and every guard I came across. I was utilizing the tools in my arsenal to be stealthy and achieve my objectives correctly. 
 
That said, the game still shows its flaws. The need to walk at a snails pace in order to not arouse suspicion, as well as the lack of variety in the world stand out even more now that I've played its successor. What I missed most was some of the interface elements - most importantly the locations of enemies marked on my HUD and map - something which is arguably even more important to be aware of in the original with its "shoot-on-sight" guards. 
 
Will I finish the game? Who knows, especially with Dragon Age on my horizon, but this is the first time I've gone back to a game I didn't like after enjoying its sequel and I was happy to see it in a new light after being "trained" by the better of the two games.  

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