Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 "To Play" List: The Wolf Among Us - Episode 1

It wasn't until the day after I finished this game that I realized something: over the course of the 2+ hours I played it, I never died. True, this is only about 20% of a complete game, but it still feels odd to me to play an adventure game for that long, even a point-and-click one, where I didn't do something that got my character killed (or at least reached some sort of premature "Game Over" screen). I'm still trying to figure out if that's a good thing or not.

On the one hand, it is a good thing as it reinforces the feeling that you are "playing the comic". If you are reading a story, the author doesn't have the main character die then come back again to try a different approach to a problem. (Well, I'm sure there are books out there like that, but that's not the point.)

But this is supposed to be a game and you "win or lose" games. One of the main ways to lose a video game is to have your character die. When that never happens, you start to feel like you could just be reading the game's story and saving yourself all the tedious pointing-and-clicking bits. This "experience" was more a matter of eliminating highlighted objects by clicking on them and fighting battles that probably had a predestined outcome before they started. True, there were very obvious storyline paths you had to choose from a couple of times, but it was clear you were going to end up back at more or less the same point regardless of which one you picked.

I didn't have as much of this feeling with The Walking Dead, probably because I knew, more or less from the beginning that getting Lee (or Clementine) killed was a very real danger. In the first episode alone, I got munched by the cop and babysitter more times than I care to admit to. As I got used to the controls (and switched to playing on PC instead of 360), I was able to complete large parts of the game without dying, but there was always that tension that if I did something wrong, even a minor slip up, it could get me or Clem turned into zombie food. Maybe that's the way it should be, though. The world of Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead are very different. One is a sort of normal city environment, the other is a hostile world where survival is always in question.

Anyway, I liked this game, overall, but it was a bit of a tough sell. I'd never heard of the Fables graphic novels, but several of the podcasts I listen to had mentioned it and they thought it was very good. The world you play in is pretty bizarre, what with talking pigs, frogs, and an alcoholic flying monkey. I've since started reading the comics, which is making me more interested in the game, and the next chapter is being released next month. As I already "bought" the series, I'm sure I'll keep playing it. And like The Walking Dead, I'll feel compelled to play the next episode very soon after receiving it. It's like getting the next season of a favorite series - you just have to watch it as soon as possible!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Yesterday's Worlds #5: Burnout, Call of Duty 2, and some Capcom Classics

Burnout 3 Takedown / Burnout Revenge / Burnout Dominator - (Criterion Games/Electronic Arts/2004,2005,2007) - Played all before, but Takedown and Revenge on Xbox.

I intentionally didn't spend much time with these games since I've logged a ton of time on the first one and gave the other two a fair play back in the day. Mostly I was curious on how well the racing held up after all these years and another generation of consoles. Also, I wanted to see if Burnout Revenge was as bad as I remembered it being, and refresh my memory on Dominator.

I found the racing in Takedown just as enjoyable as ever (maybe a little harder due to my aging reflexes) but the worst thing was that the PS2 version of it (and Revenge) only used the face buttons to control acceleration and braking! There was no way to change the control to the L2/R2 triggers. This made power slides very difficult to initiate. For some reason, when they made the Xbox version, Criterion mapped to the triggers on that controller, but why they did the PS2 differently I can't imagine.

I remember Revenge being a bit of a disappointment at the time after enjoying Takedown so much. After all this time, I have to say I think the main problem was not the game, but that Takedown was so fresh in the memory. (I still remember hearing people say that Revenge was so much better and wondering why they thought that.) One thing I still find distracting about the game is that it encourages you to ram the backs of other cars. I guess they were looking for a new game mechanic and decided you needed to create more mayhem, but as a gamer, you get used to racing that penalizes you for crashing and it takes some effort to aim your car at the rear of another.

 I also realized that I had been only playing the Xbox version, not the 360 version - I didn't own a 360 back then. I'll be tracking down a copy of that in the near future. (Update: I got a copy and found it surprisingly enjoyable.)

Dominator didn't improve with age, however. I recall that at the time, Criterion and EA put out Dominator as a "fan service" to those waiting for the next Burnout game for the HD consoles. It felt thrown together in short order and did little to interest anyone. All I remember about playing it was constantly hitting the barriers they put in the middle of roads, making you feel like they were just making it harder to drive fast - which is the whole point of a Burnout game!

So, I parked this trio by the side of the road and answered the call...

Call of Duty 2: The Big Red One (Treyarch/Activision/2005) - New.

It's hard to express how I feel about this game. Somehow I can only come up with "a gross misalignment of fate".

Back when it was still about the ol' WWII, Activision wanted to provide two generations of consoles with sequels to the original Call of Duty. Infinity Ward made the next-gen shooter defining Call of Duty 2 (which I had heard called "the game you buy to show off your Xbox 360, HD TV and 5.1 sound system to your friends"). Treyarch made CoD2: The Big Red One, a sort of consolation prize to those who didn't have next-gen hardware (only the 360 at that point). But....that's not how it should have happened. And if it hadn't happened that way....where might we be now?

You see, while both games are first-person shooters, this one tried to make you care about the soldiers you were with. It was a tribute to a real army unit, the First Infantry Division, the oldest division in the US Army, and included a respectful dedication in the manual. The battles you fought were supposed to mirror the actual campaigns the unit fought in. While fictitious, there were bios for your squad mates and I was really looking forward to fighting along side them. But, the game was hampered by being designed for a console generation that was nearly over. The finished product looked more like it should be called The Big Brown One. The graphics were muddy and lacked practically any detail. There are much better looking shooters on the PS2, so you can't entirely blame limitations of the system. This was a game that didn't receive enough support because it was simply designed to be a place holder for last gen gamers. So, when CoD 2 came out with its generic FPS action but high definition action sequences, the volume of sales quickly made it the defacto military shooter formula.

But I have to wonder, what if the games had been reversed. What if The Big Red One had been the first of the HD FPS games? Would we see more shooters with historical settings? Games with squad members that you could really care about? Ones you'd want to try to save by fighting as hard as you could? Men you'd be proud to die with, if it came to that? Fate it would seem, had other plans.

Capcom Classics Collection 1 & 2 (Digital Eclipse/Capcom/2005 & 2006) - New.

I have the utmost respect for these types of game collections. I feel it's vitally important to preserve vintage arcade games in a format that makes them easily accessible to future generations of gamers.

But that doesn't mean I particularly want to play them anymore. Oh, to see how far we've come!

It's been many years since I've been even remotely decent at true arcade games - games that were designed primarily to separate teens from vast quantities of their quarters as quickly as possible. I tried all the games in both of these collections and I wasn't able to survive for more than about 2 minutes in any of them. The reflexes just aren't what they used to be. However, I was able to finally play Black Tiger, the game featured in the book every gamer should read, Ready Player One. While I did a little better at it, I still found myself dying well before I had gotten very far. Beat this on one quarter? Yeah, right!

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 Wrap-up and Plans for '14

Looking over my blog posts from 2013, I saw that it was April before I posted a list of the games I played and finished in 2012. Part of the reason it took so long was procrastination, but another part was that I did finish a number of games that year and it took awhile to get all my thoughts straight on them. 2013's list is somewhat smaller - by a lot! You see, I got a new best friend on January 18, 2013 and the days of long gaming nights were severely curtailed by puppy-hood. And I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world!

As Nagano grew up, we settled into a routine of late evening gaming while he napped on the sofa. (Doggy play right before bed isn't very conducive to sleep.) Staying up til midnight or later every night probably isn't the best thing for getting enough sleep, but I feel energized by a good game session so it's worth it.

My main gaming activities this year have been my retro PS2 collection play through and some Steam gaming toward the end of the year, along with a healthy amount of Animal Crossing on the 3DS.

I think that my completion of the PS2 Batman Begins game was the best part of my 2013 gaming. I'm not usually a gamer who finishes games - I lose interest in them either because they get too repetitious, too hard, or take too long (game fatigue for me sets in around 8+ hours). However, I stuck with this one because it kept presenting fresh challenges, but never any that were soul-crushingly difficult. I also enjoyed that the story matched the movie - a rarity for a movie tie-in game, and that the character modeling was surprisingly good. I really felt like I had uncovered a lost gem from a generation of past consoles. Considering this was also the year that new systems were released, I felt it particularly fitting.

As my Steam game library is now over 600 (!), I spent a fair amount of time playing games there. I've started to setup categories for games (Currently Playing, Ok but not great, Played, Casual, etc) and will hopefully have all of them sorted at some point. It will take a long, long time. My "finished" list here is limited to fairly short games - 2 to 5 hours each. I got through Gone Home, The Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 1, and, just last night, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (ok, technically that was 2014, but only the last 45 minutes).

Gone Home is currently the hot GOTY topic/controversy because a lot of people think it isn't a game. To me, it felt like a weird concept Half-Life 2 mod which wasn't worth the full $20 that it was priced at (but it's been available lots of times for considerably less). However, finding out about this family in bits and pieces, putting together people's lives from things you find around this huge empty house at night, in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, and having it all come together in an orderly fashion that builds tension...WOW! Call it a game or not, it was a great experience!

The first episode of "season two" of TWD left me a little at odds with myself. On the one hand, Telltale Games has improved the overall look of the game, and we are indeed playing Clementine, but I don't know if that, playing her, is a good thing. I felt more attached to the game when I was playing Lee because I felt that it was me protecting Clem and as a parent myself, I could relate to that. Now, I still feel like I'm protecting her, even though I'm supposed to be her. It makes my choices feel less like something she might do if I wasn't looking out for her. I also think they tried too hard to make the episode "intense" by having Clem do something that I don't think even most adults could do. Just seemed too over the top and was more a case of having to do something that was expected of the franchise.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was the kind of game that just makes you feel great to be a gamer. It puts you in control of two characters at once - something very few games have ever done. You have to guide the brothers on a mission to find a cure for their gravely ill father, their only living parent. For this reason alone, the fairly short play time is justified - there is urgency in returning to your father's healer. The lands you cross on this trek are like something out of the finest fantasy art books! Best of all, the actual playing of the game (the "platforming" for lack of a better term) doesn't get in the way of this quest. Most puzzles are fairly simple and revolve around using both brothers at the same time for some tasks. The result is a storybook kind of progression, a gradual continuation of their tale with the option from time to time for "side-quests" of minimal complexity.  I will admit, I was not prepared for the ending. When you look at the screen and say to yourself, "No, not that. Don't make me do that! Please!" you realize just how powerful a game can be when  it's created by true artists.

And, eyes wiped and nose blown, time to look ahead to 2014.

While there are two new consoles out there (ok, 3 if you count the Wii U), I'm not in any hurry for the PS4 or Xbox One. Frankly, I think there will be a backlash against these consoles in the spring when people who rushed to buy them find that there are few new games for them. A Wii U for me is a consideration if it falls to about $200 for a 32gb model and Mario Kart Wii U looks too good to pass up. We'll see.

Toward the end of 2013, I picked up a used PS Vita for a very reasonable price and am starting to play around with it. It's sort of part tablet, part PSP, and is probably the only system I own that I won't buy games for - in physical form anyway. That's because I also got a cheap subscription to Playstation Plus which gives me a number of "free" games, more than I'll probably ever play on it. Currently, I have one physical game for it (Tearaway) and the rest will be download, I'm guessing. The screen on this thing is fantastic!

As for my 2014 plans, I'm going to try keeping a running journal of daily play so that I can review it this time in 2015 to get a better idea of what I liked best (and least) during the year. When I try to think back more than about 2 months, everything starts to get fuzzy. Until I looked at my 2012 review blog, I thought I had played The Walking Dead Season One this year!

I also want to make a goal for myself to catch up on the big titles of this year (and the last year, and before that, etc). So, in no particular order, these are the games I want to play some of in 2014 and why:

The Last of Us (2013 GOTY for so many people.)
Dishonored (2012's GOTY - I'm a little behind.)
Bioshock Infinite (Another GOTY for this year.)
Amnesia: The Dark Decent (A landmark horror game I should have already played.)
Borderlands 2 (The first one sort of lost my interest. Hope for this one.)
Max Payne 3 (A serious action/FPS game.)
Far Cry 3 (I really want to play the open world part of this game)
Portal 2 (Can you believe I haven't ever played this?? Shame on me!)
Saints Row 3 & 4 (The GTA alternative. Never got beyond a little of the first one.)
Spec Ops: The Line (Not a long game from what I hear and very dramatic.)
The Stanley Parable (What is this game? Must find out.)
The Wolf Among Us Episode 1 (To keep me busy while waiting for TWD:S2E2.)
XCom: Enemy Unknown/Within (I've played the demo and really want the full experience.)
Diablo III (I really should give this one a try since I bought the PC Collector's Edition!)
Assassin's Creed IV (It's a pirate's life for me!)
Fallout: New Vegas (I had been playing Fallout 3, but got sidetracked. Might as well try this now.)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (It would be a shame to wait any longer to play this.)
Mario & Luigi's Dream Team (Last year's big Mario game.)
Gran Turismo 5/Forza Motorsport 4 (Need to try a serious racing game.)
Tearaway (Best use of all the features of the PS Vita and a lot of critical praise.)
Device 6 (This is here so I finally open up my iPad Mini and use it.)
Heavy Rain (At some point I'll be getting Beyond: Two Souls. Should play this first.)
Infamous (Old PS3 game, but want to play it with the third one coming to PS4 later this year.)
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (My token Wii game and I haven't played it yet.)

So, that's my Dream List. It's not supposed to be the only games I play, but they are ones that I feel I should at least try to play before I'm looking back on another year. Let's see how I do by January 2015!