Minecraft – Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Xbox 360, Raspberry Pi, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, etc

Minecraft-360

My list of things to do over winter break included reading and preparing for class next semester, getting through “Catch-22“ and a few other books for my own sake, taking the Jeopardy contestant test, studying for the GRE, and catch up on game reviews so I could post more frequently than once per week. What did I actually accomplish over the last six weeks? Minecraft. Often for four or more hours per night.

Now, nursing an addiction for a video game could easily sound like praise, but with that logic you might say that watching someone do heroin for ten years would offer a sparkling endorsement of opioids. Likewise, I don’t want to compare Minecraft to drug use, although it did have a tendency to leave me looking like I hadn’t eaten or slept in a week. Rather, picture a combination of Fallout, Final Fantasy XII and Legos. I’ll start with the obvious comparison.

Like many others my age, I spent an inordinate amount of time learning my ineptitude at engineering through these plastic Danish building blocks. My creations, subject to the terrors of my grand imagination, grew larger and more complex as the weeks went on until gravity popped her ugly head in to see my accomplishments as they shattered into pieces under their own weight. Minecraft offers the same sort of appeal as Legos without the nasty clean-up and inevitable three days of locating errant pieces with your feet. The world consists of an invisible cubic grid, and most objects found in the game can either fit into this grid or combine into other objects or mechanisms that you can build with. Gravitational force shows up every now and then like a know-it-all friend, offering horrible advice–“I think that pile of sand should come down here!”–or unexpectedly dropping a flow of lava on your head, then laughing hysterically as you lose your supply of rare diamonds, tools, and the blocks you spent the last three hours harvesting, but for the most part it stays out of your way so you can build your dream castle-slash-mansion-slash-dungeon-slash-pornatarium a hundred meters above the surface of the earth.

Each new game randomly generates a world full of specific geographical features–mountains, deserts, oceans, forests, etc–animals, monsters and other dangers, and minerals for you to mine. Beginning with nothing, I set myself immediately to the task of ripping down a nearby tree with my bare hands, then shredding the log into planks to build a crafting table, which let me work with some real tools. From then on, the game makes a little more sense, although not much. Different tools work best for different jobs; the axe cuts wood better than stone, while the shovel digs dirt, sand and gravel better than the pickaxe, etc. Unfortunately, after about three days of playing I realized I didn’t need anything except a strong pickaxe since the shovel and the axe managed to dig dirt and chop down trees only a little more effectively than a slice of watermelon (or any other random object found in the game). And since tools degrade over time until they shatter, the watermelon has thus far proven more effective.

The game offers a simple tutorial, but otherwise the player has to figure out their goals on their own. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to dig to find better minerals to make stronger tools that can mine the stronger minerals, all the while dumping the pile of stuff you pick up into whatever grandiose object you chose to blight the landscape with by making. It really amounts to an experience akin to building with Legos, except instead of searching through a giant tub of blocks, you search though the heavens and the earth, hoping to find whatever you need before something explodes behind you, emptying the contents of your pocket onto the ground and sending you to some random location to respawn in hopes of not getting too-lost before the time limit expires and your stuff vanishes from the game forever.

So after about two or three weeks of this, I realized I had found a smattering of most of the items in the game, built most of a castle, and splattered both my innards and several hours worth of progress all over the surface of the earth due to monsters sneaking up on me (more times than I care to admit), when as a character I had a mid-life crisis of sorts and seriously questioned my life’s path. I had a castle, diamonds, electricity…and planned to use it to mine more stone for castles, diamonds for pickaxe making, and electricity…so I could build more and mine more minerals…for the purpose of mining more…

You get the point.

As I enjoyed Final Fantasy XII more than most games, I played through it once with a completionist mindset. Once I had collected every trophy and found almost every item, I turned my sights toward the Wyrmhero blade…only to get an hour into the fishing minigame before I realized, “I have no reason to ever use this sword.” I had destroyed every challenge in the game. A super-sword would have no benefit other than a useless trophy. I went on to the final boss battle barehanded, hoping to salvage some shred of challenge.

I hadn’t experienced this feeling again until I realized the futility of Minecraft. Sure it kept me busy, and I sunk a lot of time into it, and yes, having my own flying castle satisfied me…much in the way that watching Indiana Jones satisfies my desire to travel…but I just couldn’t justify continuing in a game where I could accomplish all the major challenges within a few hours. Only the monsters and natural dangers offer any real degree of challenge, but since the game doesn’t focus on combat, they would fit in just as well in Sim City, Katamari, Trauma Center, or Wheel of Fortune.

Several platforms have versions of Minecraft, each one of them slightly different from the others. I played primarily on the PS3, but also checked out the Raspberry Pi edition, while Anne spent some time getting killed on the Mac version–that’s right, in addition to natural game dangers, online players have to worry about minor wars destroying all their accomplishments. We agreed that the PS3 played the easiest, since using a console controller limited the concentration we needed to devote to complex coordination tests–and also the Pi edition has no feature to save your progress…kind of a theme with the game, I’ve noticed–but you may have noticed this review lacking pictures.  Apparently the developers of this game, which fosters creativity, didn’t feel the need to include a function to take screenshots, so it won’t let you record in malleable form any progress you happen to make despite the game’s best efforts to ruin you. While I usually search for images online to insert in my posts, the only thing that pops up are the accomplishments of those who can take screenshots. Google it for yourself. I don’t need to root through their pictures for you.

Honestly, the game has the best of intentions and a unique concept (although the pathetic inclusion of combat aspect kind of ruins that concept), but one other aspect not only breaks the camel’s back, but crushes the camel and grinds its viscera into the sand beneath it: inventory management. With a limited number of inventory slots and a maximum of 64 items per slot (only if it lets you stack them), you quickly find yourself with half a planet’s worth of material in your pockets. Storage chests don’t offer a lot of relief, and pretty soon you notice yourself spending half the game just collecting, moving, sorting, and looking for all the items you’ve already collected. Just like in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the game offers over a hundred hours of play time, but less than half of that feels fun, while the other half makes me feel I would use my time better by cleaning my apartment.

The game does give a sort of unexplained sense of satisfaction, but has some issues to work out. For starters, the list of bugs and glitches–including the randomly corrupting data files for anyone who plays split-screen–don’t really belong on a console game, and shouldn’t have seen a PS3 release until they could iron those out (save the glitches for PC games, guys!). Other than that, yes, theoretically the game has an end boss, but without orienting itself toward combat, you really can’t claim any achievement other than that you’ve hollowed out an entire planet.

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Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time – Android, iOS

A screenshot that successfully tells the player what to expect from the game--notice the load hasn't completed.

A screenshot that successfully tells the player what to expect from the game–notice the load hasn’t completed.

Plants vs Zombies got me through my last semester of grad school. Marathon reading for ten hours a day often left me twitching as though I suffered from the residual effects of a sturdy blast of electro-shock therapy. But having the trusty cartridge in my DS, ready to whip out and play a few flags of endless mode lifted my spirits like a busty cheerleader jumping up and down on the sidelines waving her…pompoms. Despite its flaws, the first Plants vs Zombies game kept my attention and stayed interesting through months of casual play. So you can imagine after delay upon delay, when the lightning bolt struck to bestow new life upon this deceased corpse of a game, I fully supported their choice to subtitle the game, “It’s About Time!”

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And if that didn’t clue you in, the game flopped like a trout sunbathing on a stone slab. Yes, the game garnered high scores and praise from critics and spread itself like a plague to the rabid 25 Million rabid PvZ enthusiasts who downloaded the game without a trace of realization that film directors have used zombies for years to criticize mass consumerism. Yes, it designed new worlds with clever themes for their zombie attackers.  And yes, it gave us brand-new plants and let us unlock costumes to make them look cuter.

This screenshot alone nearly reaches the total I paid for the completed original

This screenshot alone nearly reaches the total I paid for the completed original

But when most of the features hide behind the checkout counter of the online store, the game basically amounts to playing a commercial, and even with all the optional purchases you couldn’t tempt viewers with such a threadbare ad if you played it during the Superbowl. In fact, I only felt inspired to make a single purchase during the entire game; the HD version of the original. (The DS version had a tendency to seize up when the player blankets the entire field with Cob Cannons) The DVD rack in my living room will testify to my willingness to shell out as much as $60 for a game, but I would rather pay more for a complete game than a pittance of coins to buy parts in installments. Naturally though, if they thought they could have made more money with a single up-front cost, they would have sold it that way. Rather, PvZ2 inundates you with an avalanche of tiny purchases that EA hopes no one will tally up to realize how much money they’ve actually vaporized playing the game.

Yetis drop lunchboxes with prizes. Don't expect to get this, though; they deleted keys from the game.

Yetis drop lunchboxes with prizes. Don’t expect to get this, though; they deleted keys from the game.

Furthermore, taking a page from Microsoft’s book, they haven’t even completed the game yet. One world, as of the time of this writing, still remains blacked out with question marks enticing us to keep us playing indefinitely, so they can dangle their unlockables in front of us like the light on an angler fish’s head. To add to this, every few days they’ll offer a “yeti event” or a “party,” a bonus level that lets you…kill a robotic yeti or play a specialized mini-game level, which I’ll admit had me running to the game every night until I realized that this offered virtually nothing except a handful of in-game cash too meager to use for anything because they’d rather sell you in-game cash in exchange for your real cash. Fair trade, right? Think of it like buying a gift certificate, only less useful. While the shop in the first game had interesting items that added to all aspects of game play, money in PvZ2 will only buy you Deus-ex-Machina attacks, which don’t fall in the category of “useful tools” since you can finish every (existing) level with just the (free) plants.

The map offers players branching paths that let them decide what order to unlock prizes. Don't expect to see this; they removed it from the game.

The map offers players branching paths that let them decide what order to unlock prizes. Don’t expect to see this; they removed it from the game.

To add to the frustration of not having a completed game, PvZ2 underwent a massive redesign about a month ago. Formerly a map with branching paths that could be unlocked by keys randomly found (but more often purchased) by completing challenges, they opted to make it linear, offering angry players a handful of in-game cash to sooth the anger welling up over the fact that some of us played the game for weeks trying to build up those damn keys! The redesign also added the gigantuar mini-bosses from the original, but even with the addition, the variety of zombies, attack patterns, and–even with all the purchasable items the number of plants.

Also, don’t look for mushrooms, night levels, roof levels, aquatic plants, or a Zen garden. The mini-games have also lost variety and almost entirely resemble the main game, as well. Factor in the change from branching paths to a linear progression, and one may suspect the game designers visualize us as helpless dolts, fearful of having to make the slightest decision without consulting our life coach or dialing up our psychic friend or pulling de-contextualized phrases out of the Bible like we’d read the phone book and interpreting them as literally as possible. Sorry, but even the simplest of minds enjoys making their own decisions once in a while, but when you strip those decisions down to which handful of plants you’ll use each level, the game becomes boring very quickly.

This shot shows some of the interesting mechanics added to the game. Unfortunately, they don't make it as interesting as it looks

This shot shows some of the interesting mechanics added to the game. Unfortunately, they don’t make it as interesting as it looks

Recognizing the fact that I don’t always describe very well the games I write about, I suppose you may appreciate a run down of the game to figure out what I’ve yammered on about for the last three pages. Tower defense. Zombies come at you. Five rows of them. Plants based off clever puns. Pea shooters, iceberg lettuce, bonk choy. Zombies eat plants; zombies eat your brains. There. Does that help?

Yup. Still waiting. They call it future world, but by the time they release it they'll have to call it "the Past."

Yup. Still waiting. They call it future world, but by the time they release it they’ll have to call it “the Past.”

The game doesn’t exactly thrive on complexity. The original did very well not because it reinvented the tower defense genre, but because they put a lot of care into the elements of the game, easily giving us a variety of problems, decisions, strategies, etc that forced us to adapt level-by-level. The game offered amusingly misspelled notes left by zombies who offered very thin facades to coax us into opening our doors to them (one note even bearing the signature “mom (not the zombies)”). Plants vs Zombies 2 replaces the variety of elements with a variety of sales pitches, and rather than genuinely humorous interludes, we get your neighbor, Crazy Dave, searching through time to find a taco he ate at the beginning of the game; this seems to attempt Stupid Humor (think “Napoleon Dynamite”), and while a lot of people seem to enjoy Stupid Humor, the returning fans will miss the Clever Wit of the original, while the taco quest becomes the same joke repeated indefinitely. Literally indefinitely–we have no idea when they’ll release the next world of the game.

Plants vs Zombies 2 doesn’t qualify as retro, I know, but I thought I should drop in a reminder about why we should play more retro games.  As game developers lean more and more toward terrible ideas, gamers need a refuge where they can play something fun. So ignore the positive reviews. PvZ2 loses its charm very quickly, while the original will hold your attention like Fallout 3 on Ritalin. Buy that one instead.

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Update (July 7, 2014): PvZ has, by now, released two new worlds for this game. However, by this point, I have long since stopped caring.

Resident Evil 6 – PS3, XBox 360, PC

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So technically I guess Resident Evil 6 isn’t retro, but by the time I get any readers, people will either have moved on cluttering up my facebook feed at the push of a button with the PS4, or living with the X-Box One sitting around like a roommate with boundary issues, not quite sure that his website of pictures of you sleeping on the couch might make us all feel just a little uncomfortable.

These gimmicks and features don’t really enhance the games at all, they just aim to make games more social.   I don’t know when anyone decided that video games needed to or even could be a social experience. You want to socialize?  Don’t play a video game!  With the possible exception of Journey, which requires natural intelligence to figure out gameplay aspects with minimal communication, I’ve never played a game and thought, “Yep! This is just as good as human contact!”  I always looked at games as something to do when you couldn’t find anyone to do anything else with (which in my life, has been all too often).

Thankfully, Capcom seems to have heard the voices of all of us angry peasants who hated being forcibly paired up with Sheva in RE5.  For those of us living the hermit lifestyle, this presented the player with the dire decision of playing through the game solo and relying on the inept AI, or finding a second player and dealing with something even worse. The latter option forced people to scrounge up little sisters, mothers, or hobos from the bus station in attempt to avoid the terrible decisions made by the AI (or as we referred to it in the day, “The Computer”).

While you have the option of joining another player online, the AI Partner mechanics give you a player who will always drop everything they’re doing to try to save you, and who won’t die themselves, so any self-respecting player will shut-off the network connection immediately as to prevent the game from turning into a babysitting mission. (I’m looking at you, Ashley.) It’s highly possible that when you’re on the verge of death, enemies can reach you before your partner, so it keeps an element of challenge, but you can still play through the game with the feeling that you can do what you want to do, instead of walking through a crowd of zombies with one hand on a gun and the other holding a baby monitor to your ear with the other.

Although the AI mechanics show promise for continuation of the series, whether or not RE6 lives up to expectations depends entirely on what you might expect from a Resident Evil game. That question becomes muddled when you take into account the fact that the series made a dramatic shift from Survival Horror to Action between Nemesis and RE4. Still, we can tally off some common aspects we enjoyed from previous games, right?

One: It’s not a first person shooter or a rail shooter. It’s not like anyone would think that’s a good idea anyway, right?

Two: More than one playable character, likely in response to the criticism that RE5 didn’t last long enough. The game stars Leon and Chris. And Ada. And a grown-up Sherry Birkin. And the son of Albert Wesker, some random army guy, and a woman who follows Leon around for some reason I’m sure they explained at some point. While having multiple characters with intersecting scenarios has long defined the replay value of Resident Evil games, the story does feel like a Racoon Class of ‘98 Reunion.  Fortunately, since they’re paired up, the story doesn’t become extraneously convoluted, and we know, as always, that only the characters from the first two games matter.  Unfortunately, working through a survival horror game in pairs takes away one of the most frightening aspects of the genre: being completely and utterly ALONE!

There does seem to be a level of predictability in the stars. I even remember thinking back in 2008, “You know what would be neat? An RE Game starring the grown-up Sherry Birkin.” Ten-to-one odds they bring back Claire (and probably Jill) in the next game.

Three: Monsters. As with the massive split on characters, it feels like they’re trying to draw back to anything anyone may have ever liked about the game. Leon’s scenario involves handling a zombie outbreak, a la RE2 and RE3, while Sherry and Chris deal with J’avo, who are much like the Ganados from RE4 and the Majini from RE5.

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Four: Uh…guns? Puzzles? Poorly written story line? A convoluted element that puts the “Resident” in Resident Evil?

Honestly, I can’t think of a whole lot more that the games have going for them. I played through this game slightly miffed and disappointed at the poorly-written scenarios until I remembered that  Capcom always manufactured their RE plots from beat up sci-fi cliches they found rotting in a dumpster outside a 1950s drive-in movie theatre. So what if we don’t fully understand what’s going on, or what makes the characters move forward, or why Leon stops and tries to reason with a zombie? That isn’t the point.

But that does lead to the major problem with the game. RE4 drew so many new fans to the series that every game since has tried to re-create that success, and as is so common in game development, they’ve done that without the slightest inkling of why people enjoyed it so much.

See, even after the genre switch, players loved the games because Resident Evil built atmosphere so well.  Right from the beginning, they rely on environmental sounds, dissonant tones in place of music, and sudden starts to scare the wits out of players. Enemies didn’t respawn. Ammo ran out. As a result, some zombies had to be ignored, the player running past them every time they backtrack through an area. Other areas could be cleared out, traveled through a dozen times, and then suddenly a new monster would dive through the window to snatch you up like a donut in those plexiglass cases at the grocery store. People mock the older games because it sounds like Leon Kennedy frequents cobbler shops, but the echoing footsteps play a vital role as well; different floors have different textures, and the crunching of glass underfoot sounds exactly like a feasting zombie. I can’t tell you how many times I froze solid only to realize I was standing alone in a room covered with junk on the floor.

This series–including RE4–relies on silences and downtime for effect. There must be the possibility of being alone along with the chance of being attacked. Scares in the horror genre never come from monsters; they come from the stress of suspense. RE6 abandons this idea completely. Gameplay is unrelenting. Monsters respawn as though someone were in the back running them off on a Xerox, and the player rarely has any downtime. To add to this, the macho-military theme for Chris Redfield’s scenario feels like it belongs in a Call of Duty game rather than Resident Evil.

Despite the lack of atmosphere, I did enjoy playing. The Mercenaries mini-game probably captures the feel of what’s fun about RE6 better than anything–running a gauntlet of monsters for a high score. Some of the other features gave me a laugh as well; you have the option of hopping on the network to play as a monster in someone else’s game. Although this makes for great novelty, the mechanics have to be worked out since the human characters can pulp you into cottage cheese within moments, and spawning points are distant and take time to load.

Although I’m not likely to be quoted on the packaging if I say, “It’s okay, considering,” the game is okay, considering it drops the key defining feature of survival horror. As always, the squish of a zombie’s exploding head satisfies me to no end.

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