How to Approach a Dragon

I have a cute little dev-crush on BioWare, you see. My BioWare adoration spans back to the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic days. I remember late 2003 better than most years in gaming, thanks to randomly discovering what would become one of my favorite video games of all-time. Back then, I was at the tail end of my teenage years; still innocently ignorant to many genres – thankfully, genres that I am well-versed with today. At the time, the concept of a Western RPG never registered to me. I was so cooped up with the PlayStation 2’s endless catalogue of Japanese RPGs that I didn’t have the time to explore anything different. Towards the end of the year, I found myself bored and in dire need of a new game. I hopped in my beat up ’89 Honda Accord and drove out to the now defunct Video King store, hoping something would pop out. As usual, I wandered through the PS2 section to see if there was some spectacular game that I miraculously forgot existed… only to find nothing. I saw their small little Xbox section and dismissed the possibility of finding anything. “It’s probably a bunch of copies of Halo and other shit I’ve played already,” I proclaimed to myself as I walked over to that isle. It turned out that my not-so bold prediction was right, but I looked down and saw KotOR sitting there ‘diamond in the rough’ mode.

A fierce one man mental debate took place. I kept reminding myself that I was not a Star Wars buff. I never understood the appeal. For that reason, I quickly dismissed the game and started to give up on the hunt. Before I could put KotOR down, I recalled the overwhelming praise that I’d heard of the game – the incredible storyline, the infamous plot twist, the satisfying gameplay and so on. I reminded myself that it was only $5 to try it out, so I abandoned my preconceptions and took it home. I won’t bore you with a step-by-step walkthrough of how I came to love KotOR, so I’ll sum that part up by saying “and the rest is history.” Western RPGs emerged as one of my favorite genres in video games, and BioWare, in turn, earned a lifelong fan. Apart from BioWare shoveling Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords off to Obsidian so they could develop the grossly overrated Jade Empire, I’ve been a happy BioCamper ever since. Most of BioWare’s games dominate my list of favorite games of all-time, and was no sign of slowing down.

You noticed the italics, didn’t you? “Was” as in past tense? Perhaps. My perception of BioWare is a bit skewed right now, because I have neglected to play the Dragon Age series. Initially, my reason for ignoring Dragon Age was purely accidental. I passed on Dragon Age: Origins because there had been a bunch of other games I was playing at the time. I didn’t think anything of it – the game wasn’t going anywhere and when the time was right, I go in and try it out. Eventually I did, but I made the mistake of purchasing Dragon Age: Origins alongside two other games in a B2G1 promotion at GameStop. I ended up playing just an hour’s worth of the game (nowhere near enough time to gather an opinion) and eventually got caught up in the other games. Time passed, I traded it back to afford something else and that was that. Still, I had the intention of going back and giving it another try. Before I knew it, Dragon Age 2 was in stores and I thought “oh great, now I’m really far behind.” The hype surrounding the sequel was strong, but I was floored to hear that Dragon Age 2 was a monumental letdown to BioWare fans. It got so bad that people were telling other people not to play the game at all – it was that bad. Man, just as I start warming up to the idea of playing the Dragon Age series again, this happens? BioWare made a bad game?

After making my way through the hectic holiday releases of 2011, I was back in that familiar neutral zone of not having anything to play while still being months away from my next must-have game. You know how that story ended, of course. I went on to pick up Saints Row: The Third and relished in its goofy glory… but you didn’t get the whole story. The day that I brought my games to trade for Saints Row: The Third, I had a brief moment of second guessing. It had nothing to do with my excitement for Saints Row, but it was because I happened to glance through GameStop’s PS3 wall and saw all of the Dragon Age titles (including the Awakening expansion) on the cheap. Suddenly, I was brought back to that fateful day at Video King. There I was, staring at a BioWare game as a foreigner once again. The mental deliberations kicked in, and I was hashing out everything that I had heard about Dragon Age – how much everyone adores Origins and Awakening, but how Dragon Age 2 had become the Devil May Cry 2 of BioWare’s catalogue. I did the thing that every gamer is prone to doing, which is scanning the manual and the back of the case, hoping to find something that tipped the scale even though I already knew plenty about the series. This time, however, I didn’t abandon preconceptions. I sat the game back on the rack and plucked Saints Row: The Third out of the pile instead. History didn’t repeat itself, and there’s no ironic coincidence to make mention of. I said “no” to a BioWare game. It’s been nearly a week since I picked up Saints Row: The Third, and now that I’m hitting home stretch with it, I’m glancing at Dragon Age all over again… and I don’t know what to do.

I don’t know how to approach Dragon Age. I really don’t. With so many people making a fuss about how far the series has fallen, I’m understandably hesitant to invest hundreds of hours into what could be a colossal letdown. Some people have told me that both games are awesome. Some people have told me that I should play Dragon Age 2 first because that game was such a step back that it actually makes Origins feel like the sequel. There are even a few acquaintances that told me to avoid the series all together. I am extremely confused, friends. I acknowledge that the logical next step is to play it and see for myself, so I will. But, the title of this blog wasn’t meant to proclaim anything about Dragon Age to you. It was a question to help me. What is the best way to experience this series? Do I play them in chronological order, or do I flip it and play the “inferior” Dragon Age II first? Should I avoid Dragon Age 2 completely? Most importantly, what do you think about the Dragon Age series? You tell me, guys. Seriously, leave me a comment below to help me figure this out. I am probably a couple of days away from playing something Dragon Age, but I’ll pull the trigger once you guys tell me where to aim. What can I say? I’m open to suggestions. Tell me what you think of Dragon Age and how someone late to the party can still party with BioWare.


The Spirit of a Saint

I’ve decided to kick off 2012 with something different for my blog. I’m turning over a new leaf this year. What exactly? Well, here it goes. I spent much of 2011 both playing and writing about all the big budget, highly anticipated video games on the scene. Hardly a crime, but as the year came to a close, I felt like I got way too swept up in the hoopla of mainstream titles, media buzz and the would-be Game of the Year contenders. For that, I had this “genius” notion to play every single big time console release this year; passing on several lesser known or underappreciated video games that I really wanted in order to have a proper perspective on the bigger fish. I made it a point to be well-versed in the mainstream gaming scene, and I paid for it by making most of my year feel very unsatisfying. I’m about to break some hearts here, friends -- I never wanted Batman: Arkham City, I had absolutely no interest in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was endlessly cautious about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and I stomached all of Skyrim’s fallacies just long enough to have an opinion of merit. Tally it up and that’s 240 U.S. dollars, people. $240 spent on games that I had little to no aspirations to see to the end. I played the role of a highbrowed journo with a finger on the hot button stories, and that wasn’t me. As cardinal of a rule as it is, I broke the rule of playing the games that I wanted to play. There comes a time when every gamer loses his or her way, but you brush it off and move forward. Therefore, this blog is going to be an adjusted take on my usual antics. Instead of babbling about the games getting the headlines, I’m going to talk about the games I want to talk about. If those games happen to be a heavy hitter, then fine, but if I get a few less clicks for talking about a less relevant subject, then it is what it is.

Now that I have that self-congratulatory epiphany out of the way, I’m ready to hit the ground runnin’. With this new-ish change of direction of mine, I decided to pick up a video game that I kept telling myself I couldn’t have given the time of day to. That game is… Saints Row: The Third. I’m sure a few acquaintances and close friends of mine are thinking “really, Marco? REALLY?!” Don’t make me bring the owl out. I’m going to sidetrack for a minute so I can be brutally honest about something. So far, I think Rockstar Games has sucked during this generation. Bu-bu-bu-but what about Red Dead Redemption? Silence, peasants. Look, I’m not knocking Rockstar’s ability to create amazing, fully realized worlds – they’re geniuses when it comes to that. Regardless of the location, era or theme, those guys bring it every time. Rockstar’s problem is two-fold: they can’t seem to get gameplay/controls right and they’re a victim of their own brilliance. I’m pretty sure the first reason speaks for itself, so I’ll fast travel on down to my second point. Red Dead Redemption? Quite possibly one of their best depictions of a time period; however, some of the missions and things to do fit the Wild West theme a little too accurately. By that I mean herding cattle back to the daggum pasture and shootin’ down them there coyotes before they gee’yit to the chickens. Them Wranglers were fittin’ a little too snug, if you pilgrims are catchin' muh wayward breeze. Yes, those two examples do add to the immersion of the era, but at the grave cost of tampering with fun factor. And that, my friends, is the problem. I can go on down the line and toss in a few more examples from Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV (taking a friend to a comedy club? That’s fun?) or even the fingerprints they left in LA Noire, but I’ll digress for now. I’ll save my ammo for when Grand Theft Auto V gets here. Underneath all of the flash and flair of their games lies a lot of problems that, in my opinion, have harmed their ability to make intricate, yet fun experiences anymore.

Saints Row fans need not hoot and holler, because up until now, the Saints Row series has been nothing short of a ‘me too’ GTA clone. Volition seemed to be content with copy & pasting every pro and con that present day GTA games have, which gave them back-to-back “second fiddle” awards. With that in mind, I had plenty of reasons to scoff at Saints Row: The Third. If anything, it looked like a batshit version of Grand Theft Auto, which didn’t seem like enough to get moist over. It was yesterday’s news before it hit the stands, and I was on to the next super duper holiday release. Soon, the year was nearly over and like many of you, I tuned in to every gaming media outlet to check out everyone’s favorites from 2011. I was quietly intrigued at how many reputable people in the industry ranked SR3 in their top fives… sometimes higher, sometimes top honors. Yet even after hearing countless people praise Saints Row: The Third as one of the year’s best, I still wasn’t compelled to play it. It’s one of those games that make you cringe when it’s explained to you. Man, if I hear one more person brag about being able to use a giant purple dildo as a weapon I swear I’ll jam a lit cigarette in my eye. I get it. Saints Row: The Third is a crazy, crazy game. Ignoring all of the examples of the wacky “slapdick” humor, I keyed in on something else instead… something far more important -- fun factor. Saints Row’s most cynical of cynics were having a blast with the game, which caught me off guard. With games as cuckoo as Saints Row, you can’t help but take the game at face value. Saints Row: The Third looked like it was all about shock value; whether it was dressing up as a furry, streaking through the city butt-boon naked or spraying doodoo all over pedestrians. It’s an over-the-top game without any real context for why. To me, it was a series tailor made for immaturity, but fun? Hmm.

On January 31st, OnLive had a promotion that allowed us to play a gracious five hour trial of Saints Row: The Third, as well as having the full game on sale. It was my one shot to try the game out, so I figured I’d take advantage of the offer and see what all the fuss was about. I laughed at the thought of playing Saints Row for five hours, but I still fired up the game and predicted I’d make it through about ten minutes and be done with it. Five hours later… I was cursing symbols like Barrett in Final Fantasy VII. The trial was over, and I wanted more. I was ready to sell a limb and a future first round draft pick to get this game. I frantically called every GameStop within my proximity to see if anyone had a used copy to spare. No luck. I tried again the next day – still nothing. After a few more days of excruciating trial and error, I finally found a store that had received a copy. I hopped in my car with a few games to trade (since GameStop had a 50% trade-in bonus when purchasing a used game) and I was back home an hour later with my crack on a disc.

If you have the slightest ounce of reservation about this game, I’d urge you to find a way to play through the first mission. Hell, OnLive still has a thirty minute trial for the game, so download the program for free and try it out. I’m not a betting man, but I can guarantee that by the time you finish the bombastic opening sequences of the campaign, you and your e-boner will be aching for more. The great thing about Saints Row: The Third is that it never lets up. Nearly every mission I’ve played so far has been insane fun, with hardly any lulls in between the action. That isn’t necessarily what won me over, though. It was the fact that Volition finally found a way to give these silly thrills proper context to the story and structure. Every single outlandish thing you can do has a rhyme or reason behind it. Those reasons are still very comical in nature, but they’re integrated into the game a senselessly sensible way. There’s a method to the madness. Now, all of this would mean nothing if SR3 played like shit, but in an odd twist, Saints Row: The Third has the best gameplay in the GTA-styled sandbox genre, hands down.

It’s almost ironic that Rockstar Games is taking us back to San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto V, because it honestly feels like Saints Row: The Third is the true spiritual successor to the old PS2 classic. It makes you wish that Rockstar Games still had the balls to make the loony, yet engaging sandbox experiences from a generation ago. They’ve long since dismissed imagination for overlyrealistic depictions of past and present day worlds. All signs point to GTA V using our current recession and economic woes as a central theme. My question is why? Seriously, people play games like GTA to escape reality and wreak havoc in a fictitious city… not to be reminded of everything that’s fucked up in the world. I don’t need foreclosures and high gas prices in my GTA, thanks. It’s this ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach that transformed 2008's GTA IV into a stiffer, downtempo experience with an occasional flicker of what the series used to be, and I don’t ever want to see that again.

Saints Row: The Third doesn’t bog you down with things like this. This game is all about plopping you into a city and making it your playground. Not since the original Crackdown have I felt such a feeling, which for me is quite a compliment. There’s no leaping from building to building to collect agility orbs or anything, but I can take me and my “up to no good” attitude and run amuck in Steelport, constantly finding new hijinks to partake and new toys to tinker with. As I started to mention before, the gameplay and controls really shine, so pulling off all of these reckless deeds are delightfully easy to pull off. The controls are strikingly accessible, which makes piloting choppers, airstrikes (yes, airstrikes), base jumping and simple gunplay fit like a glove. You just jump in and have at it. It’s hard to knock a game that doesn’t have you flipping through a manual to figure out how to wipe your ass. Travis Touchdown approves this message.

If we’re strictly looking at the evolution of the Saints Row series, one of the other major improvements was made to the presentation department. Menus are slick and straight forward, with bangin’ in-house tracks keeping the mood upbeat while navigating through your micro-managerial options. Speaking of music, SR3 features a very commendable soundtrack. Some of their selections for licensed music will have you thinking “damn, how did Rockstar miss that one?” I’m talking about shit like this: Each radio station features an eclectic list of artists and genres – classical, thrash metal, hip-hop, reggaeton, dubstep, house, 80’s synth and others. Cutscenes also pack a bigger punch, in terms of accentuating the strengths of the outlandish characters and tongue and cheek plot. Volition’s cutscenes and dialogue frequently break the fourth wall and in a smart, self-aware, “we know about archetypes” kind of way that will give you a good laugh. For example, you’re on a mission to take out a Syndicate leader in his humongous, 50 story building. As you and your homies are driving to his base, one of the characters say something to the effect of “I’ll bet you anything that his office is on the top floor! It’s always the top floor, isn’t it?” I think it’s genius that this game can poke fun at itself about something as predictable as mowing down enemies floor by floor until you reach the top where the boss fight awaits. It’s refreshing – many games enforce you to take those archetypes seriously, but not Saints Row: The Third. The presentation is flashy, funny and succeeds at pushing you to keep playing. My character and a few of the main characters were talking about an upcoming mission, and the way it was explained at our home base and during the car drive there were awesome. We were to go out and rescue a pimp named Zimos who speaks in autotune who was taken hostage as a servant in an underground S&M sex club. Ku-fucking-dos to Volition for getting me to say “Oh shit, I gotta see this” and them actually delivering on that one. Nothing beats having someone yell at me to pick up a gatling gun in full T-Pain styled autotune… NOTHING.

Saints Row: The Third may straddle the line of gratuitousness, but at no point has it ever felt obnoxious to me. It’s a lighthearted game hell bent on being fun, so if you have it in you to match that premise with a parallel mentality, you’ll have a much better time. Wind your life-clock back to 2001 and let this be your new GTA 3. Allow Saints Row: The Third to seep into your mind and bring out your inner douche. If you can harness such a power, all of the flying motorcycles, fighter jets, S&M, autotune, anime spoofs, energy drink commercials and incomprehensible weapons will make your day. It’s quite rare, but Saints Row: The third is one of those “wouldn’t it be awesome if…” projects that actually work. My gaudy pimp cap goes off to Volition for reawakening the rambunctious rebel in me. Those old nostalgic feelings from the GTA 3 days are back, and you’d be lying to yourself if you think that you’re too old for that. It’s clear that Rockstar Games wants to move on from the days of controversial, ball busting mayhem, but you’ve got to wonder if they just gift wrapped their successful formula of yesteryear to Volition. Volition didn’t just take the ball and run with it; they took the ball, ran it over, hocked a loogie on it and pelted it at Rockstar’s ovaries.

At this point, it’s still unclear what Grand Theft Auto V will become. If it’s anywhere near as lethargic as Niko Bellic’s “rags to slightly nicer rags” tale, the series could be in a lot of trouble. Critically? No. In terms of sales? Not a chance. But in the eyes of the fans with the rose-colored remembrance of what the GTA series used to be, there’s a big void that might go unfilled again. I’m not worried about GTA V’s setting. I’m not worried about GTA V’s depiction of the modern day. I’m not worried about GTA V’s impeccable cultural references. I am worried about equipping an RPG and blasting down a police chopper without it feeling weird or out of place. I am worried about picking up my controller and feeling like I’m playing with two left hands and carpal tunnel. I am worried about a brilliant backdrop and genius narrative serving as a smoke and mirror effect to hide the core game. Luckily, I have Saints Row: The Third’s delicious schizophrenia to remind me that Grand Theft Auto as we knew it isn’t dead after all. You can have your recession – I’ll be busy dropkicking someone through their windshield, stealing their car and riding off into the sunset. Let’s pop some blowup dolls, baby. It’s just you and me… and the sixteen cop cars behind us.




Back in Black?

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Ever wonder why Call of Duty fans always say that the last iteration of the series is always better than the current one? If you scour through message boards long enough, you’ll notice that reoccurring pattern. Some call it “rose-colored glasses syndrome.” Once upon a time, the popular thing to do was bash Call of Duty: Black Ops with a snooty “Infinity Ward would never do that” attitude. All the while, we painted a beautiful picture in our heads of what come from the inevitable release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Screw your RC cars, attack dogs and currency system and give me my Modern Warfare, right? Every brave new idea or refinement in Treyarch’s vision for Call of Duty was frowned upon at first glance, and November 8th, 2011 couldn’t get here fast enough. Fast forward to today. In the three weeks since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 released, emotions have ran the gambit. First there was elation, then annoyances, followed by hair-pulling frustration and resentment. Then the pattern goes full circle – Call of Duty fans start clamoring over last year’s game; citing a newfound appreciation for what that particular game did right that the latest game didn’t.

While Treyarch seems to be the bigger punching bag out of the two and a half teams behind Call of Duty, this trend occurs with nearly every game in the series, post Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But one has to wonder: is this really rose-colored glasses syndrome or a sign of the series’ decline? One of the most popularized statements about the Call of Duty series is that they hold their value, since each game’s community remains surprisingly strong despite their age. But why is that the case? Why are people still glued to Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops? What’s the catalyst for this? It could be the degradation of the series. Each of these games lost a little something as time went on; by adding, subtracting, cluttering or tampering with the essence of the series. Where the last game succeeds, the new one fails. There are certainly some shades of grey there, and some Call of Duty games are more privy to these effects than others, but there’s something to be said about this dynamic. I don’t quite know what that something is; and honestly, that isn’t for me to figure out. That’s an issue best suited for Treyarch, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer to piece together.

My best guess is that it’s a difference of intended perception versus actual perception. These teams want you to perceive Modern Warfare 3 as the follow-up to Modern Warfare 2, and Black Ops as the sequel to World at War. In theory, this makes sense. However, in the minds of the gaming community, the perception is much more literal. Modern Warfare 3 is the sequel to Black Ops. With that in mind, all of those aforementioned subtractions, additions and re-workings that Modern Warfare 3 brought to the table appear far more jarring as opposed to comparing each pseudo-series as separate entities. Like it or not, but Black Ops is the game that sits freshest on our minds, and it’s not as if the Call of Duty community ignored Black Ops’ existence or anything – just look at the numbers, Mason. We played it... a lot of us played it. So, it’s silly for Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer to think that we weren’t going to hold Modern Warfare 3 up to Black Ops’ standards, for better or worse. Yes, MW3 does do a few things better than Black Ops, and vice versa; but it’s hard for many fans to understand why a new feature or improvement from last year’s game didn’t make the cut in Modern Warfare 3. It’s perplexing, and understandably so. Some people will shoo off this argument by saying “ah, well you’re just looking at it wrong;” but in actuality, it’s a very plausible explanation.

No matter how you want to cut it, there’s an ever growing crowd of people reverting back to Call of Duty: Black Ops. Personally speaking, I can’t say I’m against that notion. I couldn’t help but think back to all of the things Black Ops did right and miss it. Personally, my biggest reason is the map design. Modern Warfare 3’s maps aren’t the kind of thing you can fix with a patch – they are what they are. They’re way too small and claustrophobic, and cause an abandonment of player strategy, rampant spawning issues and they render certain weapon types useless (see: sniper rifles). With its tight corridors and close quarters, you are forced to run around like a mad man to make a splash in the game, which is a sharp contrast to Black Ops’ allowance of varied styles of play. Objective-based modes are as fun as ever; however, the tiny maps end up making just about every matchtype feel like team deathmatch since you end up running into a swarm of enemies a few seconds after you respawn. Although Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer plan on tweaking MW3’s spawn placement, I fail to see how any forthcoming patch can truly fix the issue when the maps are the real problem.

If I had spent that extra $49.99 on Elite to have all the upcoming downloadable content, perhaps I would have been a little more patient so I’d get some use out of the money spent; but I didn’t. That decision was by design -- I wanted to wait and see what kind of product Modern Warfare 3 would be before investing in what’s to come. After three weeks of highs and lows, I’m glad I held out. The big question to ask is if Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer is listening. Are they hearing our cries or are they going to pump out more content that mirrors what we were given out of the box? I don’t know, and I don’t want to pay to find out. What’s more, I don’t know if I’ll still own Modern Warfare 3 by that time. The more I look back at Black Ops, the more I wish I was still playing it. Black Ops had its fair share of issues, but at least it had the basics down pat. The maps were solid, the action was far more structured and subdued compared to other Call of Duty titles and most of all, Treyarch sought out and fixed the same connectivity issues that plague Modern Warfare 3 today. If we want to widen the view and look at campaigns and co-op modes, Black Ops proved to be the better value. The Zombies mode in Black Ops decimates the solid, yet thoughtless co-op mode in Modern Warfare 3; and the campaign was far more imaginative and unique to the series, thanks to a story that actually mattered – a first for Call of Duty.

I’m not retracting everything I said in my review for Modern Warfare 3, but I have learned that understanding each new Call of Duty takes time – be it weeks, months or sometimes all the way up until the newest game releases. I believed that I had a good grasp on what Modern Warfare 3 was, but discredited the monster it could become once the community discovers its loopholes and capitalizes on it. When the community was still in that green little discovery phase, it was fun. It felt like we were in it together. We experimented around, tinkered with all of the new toys and had a blast. Today, Modern Warfare 3 is littered with people who’ve learned spawn points and when they swap sides throughout a match. It’s caked with people who use the same exact killstreaks and the same weapons – Type 95 and PP90. Maybe it’s the community that takes the fun out of the community, but the foul is on the developers who facilitate it. Black Ops is no angel either, but sometimes you don’t know what’cha got ‘till it’s gone. I miss numbers.


Yes... Oscar and Mike Can Come Over Too.

I have spread my dreams beneath your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. - W.B. Yeats

Maybe I’m just in “military shooter” mode, but I’m finding myself strikingly more interested and enthusiastic about the pending release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. I don’t think I can accurately express how strange of a standpoint this is; because it’s a far cry from the sentiments I had about the game for the majority of this year. When I think back to all the years spent on playing nearly every Call of Duty title in this generation, I can’t deny that I’ve had some good times with the series. These days, Call of Duty is more on the repetitive end of the spectrum, but I may have been a little harsh towards the series. That doesn’t mean I’m budging on my beliefs regarding some of the issues of Call of Duty, but the overall quality of the franchise has been consistently strong and successful, and I think that deserves a little bit of props. I know, I know... what is happening to me?

I think part of the reason why I’m warming up to playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is that I have a much clearer perspective of what the series means to me. Thanks to Battlefield 3, I don’t have to become enraged with everything that Call of Duty isn’t – it’s less tactical, less strategic and more willy-nilly and frantic than what I prefer in an online multiplayer experience. But for what is arguably the first time ever (in my case, that is), I can accept that. The way I see it is, I have Battlefield 3 for my primary multiplayer shooter experience, since it gives me exactly what I look for in an overall FPS product. Therefore, my perception and expectations of Modern Warfare 3 are a little more relaxed this go'round. I can appreciate MW3 for what it is, instead of focusing on what it isn’t. That is the reason why I ultimately decided to purchase both games instead of my original plan of choosing one over the other. Well, there was also some "nod nod, wink wink" nudges from my better half to get Modern Warfare 3, since she’s a big fan of the series. Still, I think the act of buying both games works on two fronts – it gives me some comparative perspective with this particular video game rivalry and it simply gives me two highly entertaining games to enjoy. My heartbeat sensor didn't exactly skip a blip for Modern Warfare 3, but the Call of Duty series still deserves a place with me -- a scaled back, subdued place; but a place none-the-less.

It’s quite obvious that Call of Duty has gone from being the trend setter to the trend itself. In the not too distant past, I had a very snobby, elitist attitude about that notion. Thankfully, I’ve recently eased off of that feeling, for the most part. When I look at the Call of Duty series now, I just say “let it be.” If you’re waiting for a John Lennon reference, you aren’t going to get it. Well, technically you did just get one… anyways, you get my drift, right? Seriously, just let Call of Duty be Call of Duty. We don’t have to like it 100% of the time, and no outcry of angsty rebellion is going to change the makeup of the series – it’s futile. To me, as long as this franchise remains rock solid and rakes in tens of millions of dollars, what’s the point in arguing it? This formula, as redundant as it is, is working for a reason -- people like it. You can scoff at the the perceived mindless, shallow-minded folk that gorge on this series all you want, but it obviously means Call of Duty is doing something right. It's catering to an audience; and no, that doesn't necessarily mean you. It’s all about acceptance here, my friends. I accept Call of Duty. Looks like my Fragaholics Anonymous classes are starting to pay off. My “drunken” anger with Call of Duty is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

With my latest pseudo-change of heart out of the way, the question must be asked: what excites me about the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3? If I had to describe my reasons for my anticipation in one word, the word would be “expectance.” As I stated in previous blog entries, much of what Call of Duty is and is going to be is a foregone conclusion. As it relates to Modern Warfare 3, I’m expecting every familiar feature, bell and whistle to be the same as it has always been. I’m expecting to plow through the action flick-inspired campaign and take in all of the bat-shit moments that Sledgehammer will throw my way. I’ll cut my teeth all over again in the multiplayer mode and relish in the twitchy, fast paced frag fest and obsess over ranking up. I’ll pass my extra controller to my girlfriend and take on some of the relentlessly challenging survival mode missions together. All the while, I will remember Modern Warfare 3’s place. When I want to play a game with a meaningful storyline in its single player campaign, my finger will hit the eject button. When I want to play a multiplayer game with tactics, strategy and teamwork, I’ll pop Modern Warfare 3 back into its case and play something else.

I have spread my other games beneath your feet. Tread softly, Call of Duty, because you tread on my games.


Battle Blog

I told myself I’m just going to shut up and play the game. I indulged in every mode, every feature and every multiplayer match type for two straight days. I stopped frequenting every message board or online gaming community to gather up everyone’s impressions on Battlefield 3. I stopped reading the reviews. I skipped over every Battlefield 3 segment in every gaming podcast that I listen to. Why? Battlefield 3’s widespread media focus is annoying. It became too much. In fact, I even annoyed myself when I looked at how many times I wrote about Battlefield 3, or how many times I would tweet about it, or how often it would be the topic of discussion amongst my friends. I had overloaded myself with too much Battlefield banter, and by the time the game was in my hands, I was already drained. That’s quite a contrast from the norm. Usually, all of the immense pre-release hype surrounding a big game serves to fuel the excitement, right? Instead, I was worn out on this game before I even popped the disc into the damn console. I almost ruined my enjoyment of Battlefield 3, and it taught me a valuable lesson or two.

As soon as I went on that media/community blackout, Battlefield 3 was Battlefield 3 again. Instead of dwelling on all of the kinks, quirks and hot-button issues stemming from its pre-release melodrama, I could simply play the game for what it is. Everything else was moot. My being able to formulate my own opinions about the final product feels like a relief. Now I can finally surface from my self-made cave and talk about the game with a clear head. I love this game. It certainly isn’t without its share of problems or disappointments, but in the end, Battlefield 3 lived up to what I wanted it to be – an involving experience that I will enjoy and come back to for years to come. Much of that long term replay value has to be attributed to the strength of the multiplayer component, which is Battlefield 3’s strongest suit. Battlefield 3’s multiplayer picks up where Battlefield: Bad Company 2 left off, and includes most of the traditions of Battlefield’s standard design -- intricate maps, class-based systems, leveling progression and killer vehicles/aircraft are back once again. While each of those aspects of Battlefield 3’s multiplayer retains the fun familiarity that fans beckoned for, there are a few tweaks and streamlines made that allow the other crowd to relate to the experience a little faster.

At first glance, that element of accessibility can sound like a bad thing, depending on who you are. Team Deathmatch might not be what Battlefield is all about to us enthusiasts, but I see no harm done in including that matchtype if it keeps the casual crowd entertained. Merging the medic and assault class together was another ballsy move from DICE, but it works surprisingly better than expected. Not only did it eradicate the “nobody wants to be a medic” ignorance, but it gives teams more opportunities to assist each other than standard kill counts or objective points can. The sizes of the maps are perhaps a little more scaled back (at least on consoles) than Battlefield’s predecessors, but I appreciate the fact that it gets players relatively closer to the action, yet not close enough to the point where you’re dead 15 seconds after you respawn. I can understand how those refinements could be a too much for Battlefield diehards to stomach, but none of those things take too much away from what we came to expect out of Battlefield 3. In short, I came into Battlefield 3’s multiplayer in a somewhat defensive stance because of my knowledge of those forthcoming changes; but after playing it, I am beyond satisfied at how well it ended up working.

DICE incorporated a similar philosophy into the single player campaign; and as expected, there are some mixed results. I won’t say that Battlefield 3’s campaign isn’t important, but it definitely wasn’t the most important feature of the overall experience. For me and many others, Battlefield campaigns are typically a one-off playthrough that we won’t touch again. So in my case, I was a little more relaxed about Battlefield 3’s campaign being groomed for the Call of Duty audience. There’s no question that Battlefield 3 fits the Call of Duty mold as the “intense, action-packed blockbuster” game of the holiday season, but that choice of direction came with some expected drawbacks. The campaign mode plays and feels like a carbon copy of any ordinary military shooter – ripe with booms, bangs and explosions that are supposed to give you those “holy shit” moments. Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable, and that causes the campaign to feel a little flat and uninspired. Pair that with a storyline that lacks any real depth or incentive, and you have a campaign that feels more contemporary than remarkable. While I can’t fault DICE for making a hard-nosed campaign experience, Battlefield 3 could have benefited from having some personality. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 did a terrific job of getting players to form a bond with the protagonists in a way that compelled players to keep plodding through the game to see the story through. Battlefield 3 tips the scale in the other direction, and sadly this disconnect leaves little to nothing for players to truly grasp on to or appreciate in the long run. It’s just a bunch of stiff military missions with tiny bits of an unimaginative and trite story peppered in.

As a whole, Battlefield 3 is an excellent experience that continues to thrive on its past successes, yet falters from the same failures. By no means am I saying that Battlefield 3 isn’t worth your time – actually, I think it’s one of the strongest FPS releases in recent memory. The issue here is that Battlefield 3 isn’t exactly a great all-around experience. The star of the show is the multiplayer, and that’s fine. If there’s anything I’d want DICE to knock out of the park, it’s just that. If this is the point where you’re thinking about Modern Warfare 3, then you’re just in time. As far as the campaign and multiplayer go, Battlefield 3 set the bar both low and high, and it’ll be interesting to see how Call of Duty fares against its biggest competition in quite some time. The thing that is ultimately going to set these two games apart is, in fact, the campaign modes. I can’t help but catch a whiff of irony – I find it funny that the single player portion of these games are usually the afterthought, when it could very well be the one mode that determines which game truly trounced the other. Look, Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3’s multiplayer components are foregone conclusions. We knew exactly how both multiplayer modes would function, because they are more-or-less the same as they were before. This rivalry will have to be measured by something else, and I think the strength of the single player modes will be the best way to gauge who comes out on top. We’re a hair under two weeks to go before we know for sure, but until that time comes, Battlefield 3 remains atop. How copy?



I sat in my car and giggled. Have you ever done that when you get a video game you’ve been dying for? Maybe that’s just me, but I’m no stranger to letting myself get all giddy and excited when a terrific new video game is in my possession. It has been a very long time since I’ve been able to do that, so I’d consider that a huge compliment to NBA 2k12. If you’ve been following me on Twitter @thetempestblog (probably none of you, so help a brother out) then you’ve been forced to watch me gush over NBA 2k12. I’ve been at it for weeks, and I guess all of my hype and anticipation caused me to put this game into “holier than thou” status. In my original estimation, there was absolutely nothing that could dampen the mood. In my eyes, there wasn’t any foreseeable scenario that I could think of that could cause NBA 2k12 to be a less than stellar experience. Two short days later, I’m sitting here absolutely startled at how much of a disappointing game NBA 2k12 actually is.

It isn’t as though my initial confidence in this game lacked justification. I enjoyed NBA 2k11 beyond my wildest expectations, and the post-release patches and updates alleviated almost all of the issues that could have knocked the experience down a few notches. With that said, there comes a point in my mind where I am going to assume that those issues, bugs or glitches that 2k Sports fixed for NBA 2k11 won’t be present in the follow up – a lesson learned, right? However, after two days of consistent playtime with this year’s game, I’m suddenly very upset and disappointed that most of the same issues came back to NBA 2k12, and then some. I placed this game at the number two spot in my predicted Best of 2011 list, and I’m ashamed to have done so after what I’ve been seeing out of this game. Sure, I can sit here and reassure myself that in due time 2k Sports will fix these reoccurring issues. Even though that is likely to be the case, that can’t prevent me from being furious at 2k Sports for giving us so many problems out of the box. In other words, I’m not handing out a free pass. NBA 2k12 is very much the best depiction of NBA basketball, in video game form, of all time; but when nearly every mode, feature and online component built around the core game is a mess, then criticism is deserved… no, better yet, then a lashing is deserved. Fixable or not, these problems make me feel like I’ve been conned out of the experience I was told I’d have; and worse yet, I look like a fool for preaching the good word about this game for all these weeks and months. I just got posterized. As I stated before, the core basketball gameplay is as unrivaled and unmatched as one would believe – as close to perfect as can be. In fact, it’s the only silver lining out of the entire ordeal. If we’re talking about just playing exhibition games, NBA 2k12 is a dream.

The enhancements and improvements to the player control, animations, AI logic, post game and player tendencies comes together beautifully to depict an incredible rendition of the sport. The strides made in the presentation department never cease to amaze me, since it actually feels like I’m watching an NBA broadcast. All of my favorite players look, move and act just like their real life counterparts, and each team operates as a carbon copy of the real thing. In those regards, I couldn’t be any happier with NBA 2k12 – if only the modes and features built around it were able to catch up to that quality. Instead, 2k Sports fans are being given the same list of problems all over again. The biggest problem with NBA 2k12 is the online component by far. I don’t think I need to sit here and give you a string of bulletpoints about how lag, latency and connectivity issues can dismantle an experience, but I do need to sit here and explain how this issue will mangle NBA 2k12’s longevity if it isn’t addressed soon. In one fell swoop, NBA 2k12’s online lag issues obliterated all of the advancements made to all of those high marks I listed off earlier in this paragraph. All of the sophisticated controls, strategies and smoothness of the game are gone, and nobody in their right mind is going to force feed themselves that diminished experience. 2k Sports has been notorious for not addressing their online issues -- instead choosing to place their priorities on improving the core game. I can’t knock them for that choice… look at what it gave us. Yet still, it comes across as unabashedly bone-headed for them to sweep these longstanding online issues under the rug for yet another year. They deserted the quick match addicts, Online Association gamers and My Crew enthusiasts straight out of the gate.

Even the offline modes are riddled with quirks and problems; old and new. Take the NBA’s Greatest mode as a huge example. 2k Sports made it a mission to shove this mode down our throats for months on end. They went on and on about how immersive and accurate this mode was going to be. Specifically, they touted a very special retro styled audio filter for the classic NBA games from yesteryear, among other era-specific presentation throwbacks. 2k Sports championed the Bill Russell game from the 1960’s as the de-facto proof of concept, in that the audio would sound crackled and the commentary would sound as if it was coming out of an old tin-can. Thanks to a bug that somehow slipped past the grip of 2k Sports, many people (including myself) have reported that all of those audio tweaks aren’t present in NBA 2k12. I couldn’t wait to jump into those hardwood classics, but now I’m refraining from doing so until this problem is addressed. My intent isn’t just to be immersed in the gameplay, but in terms of this particular mode, I wanted to become immersed in the era. I want to feel like my nice little HDTV is an ancient, black and white fish bowl TV with terrible reception and tin foil wrapped around the antennas. I wanted to be teleported to the glory days, but in reality, I was snapped back into the unfortunate realization that they’d botched their own self-professed killer feature. I simply cannot understand how they could have missed this one.

Out of all the modes to tinker with, my personal favorite is the My Player mode. I love creating my own little digital likeness of myself and taking my player on a trip of a real life NBA superstar. 2k Sports put a lot of effort into this mode, as well as the Association mode that allows players to be in direct control of all team-related operations. I appreciate the fine tuning and refinements made, but they let a very familiar bug crawl under the door this year. That bug is called trade logic, meaning that almost every mode that involves playing through a regular season (My Player included) will be susceptible to constant off-the-wall trades that aren’t set in reality whatsoever. Within a matter of weeks of your regular season, regardless of the mode, your team is likely to be overhauled without a single rhyme or reason. The infuriating thing about this bug is that this was a massive problem in NBA 2k11, but it was identified and solved. I’m beside myself in confusion that they could let this happen again… I mean, I really don’t get it. I wasted my time. I spent nearly an hour on creating my player and choosing his moves and style, and logged in several hours of playing through the season and my original team is about 75% new players via trade, so my first foray into the NBA 2k12 My Player mode is a wash. The other bone to pick about My Player is how little the mode has changed as a whole. Other than the early stages of the mode being void of the rookie combine and summer league (in favor of a one off NBA rookie showcase game before you’re drafted), there’s nearly nothing new. Skill points are distributed in different ways, and there are a few new drills to do, but that’s about it. That means that the player creation tool is still extremely limited, post-game conferences (and the game-related ramifications from them) are the same thing as last year and worst of all, you can’t choose the voice you want your player to have – your white player will sound black and say “you feel me?” all the time.

I’ll have to sit around and wait for a patch before I can fully enjoy NBA 2k12 as it was intended, and that is an awful takeaway from a game that I held in such high regard before it released. The thing that stirs me up the most is that 2k Sports is too busy tweeting links to NBA 2k12’s high review scores instead of being vocal and addressing these rampant complaints about these major issues. Of course there’s one or two people from 2k Sports that are actually getting out there to try and help, but overall it seems like all of these problems aren’t too important to them at the moment… especially when the game is scoring 9’s and 10’s across the board. They can have their moment in the sun and relish in the glory of their high MetaCritic average for a little while, but they have to remember just how many people they’re letting down right now. Until they put some effort into patching these bugs for our sake, I’ll be forced to play nothing but exhibition games, because that’s the only mode of the game that isn’t flawed for some reason. All disappointment aside, I believe in 2k Sports, and I know all about their pedigree as developers and how passionate they are about this game. I know they won’t leave these loopholes open for much longer, but I have to be fair and call it like I see it. NBA 2k12 having been released in this state was flat out wrong and shame on them for letting this happen! I love NBA 2k12 for what it can be… not necessarily what it is right now.


Boom, potshot!

We’re just about two weeks away from Battlefield 3’s launch. As mundane as it sounds, the hype surrounding this game is escalating as the due date draws closer. However, even in this time of hype and eager anticipation, a growing list of concerns has begun to accumulate. We aren’t quite at the point where those concerns are reaching critical mass, but it would be wrong of us to look the other way and not identify some of the possible forthcoming issues with Battlefield 3. As a longtime fan of the Battlefield series, I’m retaining my confidence in the outcome of the Battlefield 3 product; but as a level-headed video game enthusiast, I have a few lingering concerns about exactly what kind of product EA and DICE are shaping this game up to be. We can’t talk about Battlefield 3’s impact without mentioning the elephant in the room. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is coming, and so are the projected 18 million buyers that are likely to be in tow. Whether you’re the fan that unapologetically lives and breathes Call of Duty or the through-and-through Battlefield diehard, both sides can agree on one thing – Call of Duty will make a dent in the sales of every major first-person shooter released near or around it. This subject has been the type that most media outlets have backed away from, because the idea of pitting these two games against each other sounds like cheap message board fanboy fodder that we get enough of already. It’s understandable banter, but in lieu of Battlefield 3’s marketing strategy, beta and apparent campaign direction, it’s crystal clear that this direct comparison of these two franchises is exactly what Electronic Arts and DICE want.

When the tagline in every new Battlefield 3 trailer reads “Above and Beyond the Call,” it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that this slogan is an indirect jab at Call of Duty. We’re supposed to sit here, read that slogan and connect the dots -- the keyword in that phrase is “call,” because it ever-so slightly refers to that other game; yet it is just vague enough to slip through the cracks and sound like an innocent old military saying. You think your game is better than Call of Duty. We get it. In fact, we always have. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this tactic from EA and DICE when it comes to throwing a few jabs in Call of Duty’s direction. Think back to the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 days, where we were treated to a few comedic trailers starring the ragtag team from the campaign – poking fun at some of the often mentioned annoyances of the Call of Duty multiplayer (think grenade spamming or the “spray and pray” gameplay style). Better yet, go play the campaign of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and listen closely, as some of the in-game dialogue between the protagonists take potshots at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I think the one line that stood out was the “heartbeat sensors are for pussies” diss. Is it true? Absolutely… and thank goodness I’m not the only one who feels that way, but it was yet another knock against Call of Duty that scored a collective “oh no they didn’t” from gamers on both sides of the fence.

While all of us writers, bloggers and journalists are trying to do the best we can to play nice, it’s obvious that not only does EA and DICE have no reservations about acknowledging their rivalry, but they are persistently on the attack every go-around. They want the comparisons, they want the fan-based warfare and they certainly don’t mind people putting the word ‘versus’ in between the names of these two franchises. So in my eyes, if that’s what they want, then that’s what I’m going to give them. You want the truth? Battlefield 3 has been tripping over its own feet lately. Between embarrassingly poor television spots with Jay-Z, a controversially inept beta and the latest news about the single player campaign sporting a mindless Michael Bay “nuke the universe for wow factor” Call of Duty formula, Battlefield 3’s stock is starting to dip into a more grounded reception. I don’t like the sound of that either, but it’s hard to deny that EA’s star player could potentially have a sub-par season. Is it all gloom and doom? If you’re an unbiased gamer, then absolutely not. The biggest culprit to most of the alleged backlash was the quality of the beta, but anyone who has a smidge of understanding of what a beta’s purpose actually is can disregard the deafening “Battlefield 3 sucks” mongering that kicked into gear during and after the beta window. If you’re the type that wants to sit down and judge an unfinished product, then have at it. Sure, you can make a few reasonable arguments for and against the state of the beta – you can either echo the point that I just made, or you can say “shame on you, DICE” for electing to put out an overly rough representation of Battlefield 3 that may have compromised their success against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 this holiday season.

Regardless of which way you look at it, the beta was most assuredly an attempt by EA to say “we’re going to give you access to Battlefield 3 right now, because we want to prove to you that we’re better before you spend that $59.99 on MW3.” Some would say that my last point was a bit of a stretch, but when looking at EA and DICE’s track record against Call of Duty, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if that was the actual mentality. If the aim of the beta was a pre-emptive strike to rip and pull all of Modern Warfare 3’s would-be buyers away, it arguably backfired… fair or not. In terms of hypothetical strategy, EA probably believed that the gap between the release dates of Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 was too small, and that most people would elect to wait an extra week to ride with Call of Duty again. By giving people a window into Battlefield 3 a few weeks before it releases, it would hopefully boost their chances for higher sales and more pre-release notoriety. In the end, they may have done more harm than good, and I hope it’ll be a lesson they learn from here on out.

I touched on something earlier that I want to elaborate on, which are the early impressions from various outlets that outlined the shift towards a more over-the-top Michael Bay-inspired campaign in Battlefield 3. Contrary to what the majority of fan responses have been like, I done have a massive issue with this. While most Battlefield campaigns range from decent to good, it is yet another FPS game where the single player mode feels like an appetizer for the multiplayer main course. Battlefield titles can certainly use a campaign that attempts to pack a bigger punch, so I don’t mind a few extra mindless booms and crashes if it makes the experience a little more memorable. The real problem that I’m seeing with Battlefield 3’s campaign direction is that it contradicts what the series is synonymous for as well as the anti-Call of Duty stance that DICE and EA have been touting all this time. I can’t help but think back to last year’s reboot of Medal of Honor. That was a game that ditched just about everything that made Medal of Honor well… Medal of Honor. In actuality, change was exactly what that series needed. However, the choice to craft the new look Medal of Honor into a second rate Call of Duty came across as a desperate attempt at competing with Call of Duty to hopefully steal away a few loyalists from the record breaking series. It sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Medal of Honor’s failure proved that you can’t put a crack in Call of Duty’s riot shield with a copycat game. While Battlefield 3 is still keeping the vast majority of its integrity, it’s still bothersome to me to watch EA continue to try and beat Call of Duty by putting more Call of Duty in their Battlefield 3. There is an Xzibit “Yo dawg, I put a _____ in yo _____” meme somewhere in this argument, isn’t there?

From a marketing standpoint, catering to the Call of Duty fanbase doesn’t make sense. It contradicts their entire potshot strategy, and feels like another lofty attempt from EA to strong-arm Battlefield 3 into becoming that elusive “Call of Duty killer.” Even though Battlefield’s campaigns could use a little more oomph, it still isn’t going to help EA get what they really want. The whole reason why so many eyes have been stuck on Battlefield 3 right now is because of how different the series actually is. For the people who have grown tired of the same Call of Duty formula, it gives them an exciting alternative that feels refreshingly new and breaks the mold that they’re used to. Reverting back to the same strategy that they test drove with Medal of Honor won’t get EA anywhere – it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The key to Battlefield 3 beating Call of Duty is letting Battlefield 3 play its own lane. The more you architect Battlefield into a Call of Duty game, the more likely people will play Battlefield 3 and say “I’d rather play Call of Duty.” Instead, stick to what you know, and stick to what you do best. That strategy is the very reason why Battlefield is such a successful franchise, so EA… don’t screw it up just because you can’t stomach seeing Call of Duty sell units. You’ll only end up causing Battlefield 3 to fall by the wayside. Pick your battles and go above and beyond the battlefield instead of going above and beyond the call.