Sneak King – XBox, XBox 360

For those of you who don’t remember, back in the early 2000s, Burger King’s marketing department discovered the line between “cleverly funny” and “call-the-cops disturbing” and decided to straddle that line like a 600-pound man balancing on a bicycle seat. They released a series of commercials in which a chibi-headed king approached people in awkward scenarios or appeared in unusual hiding places, only to pull a Burger King menu item out of his robes, after which a voice-over would tell you about said item if not just to distract you from wondering about the amount of Rohypnol the King may have just slipped an innocent bystander. Shortly after this, however, the marketing department decided to double down on this method of selling hamburgers by associating them with a masked stalker, and released the game Sneak King (ah, sneaking! I see what you did there!) for the XBox and XBox 360.

Uhh...I don't know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, "Dude...a little too far."

Uhh…I don’t know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, “Dude…a little too far.”

Honestly, I don’t know how to describe this one. It feels like a casual game, except it obviously plays on a console (since mobile phones in 2006 had all the processing power of a ham sandwich). I could almost compare it to a licensed game, as it aims to re-enact the commercials, but I find something almost unclean about the thought of Burger King not only charging me for their advertisements, but also labeling it “some assembly required.” At its core, Sneak King relies on stealth, a bold move considering most games include stealth elements more to give the appearance of variety than as an option they actually expect people to use, much like McDonald’s including a salad on their menu to let them shout out to gainsayers, “look! We have healthy options!” Although considering Burger King’s extensive history of game development and the game’s mechanics themselves, I can only assume they made this decision out of sheer coincidence.

In Sneak King, you take on the role of the King, ostensibly sneaking up on people to deliver food, although the NPCs have almost as much visual prowess as a one-eyed hedgehog with its head stuck in a traffic cone, so as long as you don’t barge through a busy intersection, the game pretty much boils down to how fast you can locate hungry people and get to them before they double over in pain and pass out cold, an activity I generally engage in only after eating Burger King food. This does pose a reasonable challenge, however, as these characters only blip on your radar immediately after their first hunger pangs, and afterward must be located entirely by looking for the people with thought bubbles over their heads dangling burgers just out of reach. From beginning to end, the entire process can take less than thirty seconds, so unless the King includes a shot of insulin with their meal, I doubt that any food hiding in his royal tights can save these people from slipping into a diabetic coma.

They actually can see him...they just pretend they can't. If you avoid eye contact, you don't have to talk to him.

They actually can see him…they just pretend they can’t. If you avoid eye contact, you don’t have to talk to him.

The challenge of racking up higher and higher scores provides the primary appeal of the game. Certain factors can multiply your score, such as how often people have spotted you, how close you get to the target before giving them food, and how much flourish you use to bestow the royal meat unto your subjects. However, you can increase your score fivefold by crawling into a barrel, dumpster, toilet stall, or any other hiding place before your hungry victim strolls by. This, sadly, doesn’t work very well. Despite having plenty of hiding places in each level, the NPCs all move on a programmed circuit, and most of them don’t get close enough to the hiding places for this to work. Furthermore, the ones that do either don’t get hungry at the right times, or they’ll spot the King slowly easing himself into his hidey-hole like an old man into a hot bath, a swimmer into Lake Superior in June, or a Carolinian politician into the thought of taking down the Confederate flag. Each of the four levels has twenty different missions, and those that require you deliver from hiding places usually end up with me finding one well-trafficked dumpster, then squatting in it for upwards of fifteen minutes while I wait for enough people to come by to get their hot, delicious burger and its distinctive aftertaste of rotting vegetables and soiled diapers.

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you'll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you’ll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

The King can also increase his score by presenting food with flourish, which involves hitting a button at the right time to stop a meter. Again, given Burger King’s inexperience with games, I think we can understand how they’d include an option that makes the game look fancier without actually making it more fun. Not that we have to forgive them for it. The King has three levels of flourish (which vary from stage to stage), and no matter how many times you’ve seen it before, you still have to sit through every second of his stupid white-boy dance.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

Adding even more unnecessary time onto the game, each of the four stages has twenty different missions. The developers tried their best to introduce variety into these challenges, but when playing a stealth game and getting the mission, “Let five people see you,” one tends to get the impression that the designers have checked out and just want to get paid their $3.99 (with the purchase of an extra value meal…later reduced to $0.99, for understandable reasons).

Sadly, the game really kept me amused for a few hours. Mostly, however, I attribute this to the novelty of the situation. It also felt somehow unique, and I liked the initial aspect of increasing scores, while it provided a rare example of a game without competitive aspects. (When researchers study violent games to “pro-social” games, I wonder if they use Sneak King as “pro-social.”) Still, about halfway through, the difficulty spiked by about a thousand times, which comes off more as poor design and testing than an intentional challenge curve, and by then the game had gotten repetitive enough, the flaws noticeable enough, and my constant battles with the camera obnoxious enough, that while I liked playing it for a little while, I would rather finish a large fries pulled from the King’s tights out of a garbage can than Sneak King.

But the creepy first-person mode, if nothing else, merits this game a spot in my WTF category.

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Resonance of Fate – PS3, XBox 360

10_calendar_1280_1024After nearly a month of not writing, final exams, dealing with irate students, and jumping through legal hoops to buy a house with a yard that retains water like a camel with a bladder obstruction, I’ve just finished Resonance of Fate. After finishing Heavy Rain–which ironically now threatens to slide my house into Lake Superior–I thought a good old fashioned RPG would hit the spot and provide me with some enjoyable stress relief after long days of dealing with insane bureaucrats in exchange for a salary comparable to the average burger-flipper, albeit with slightly less job security. A word of advice–when a game’s timer immediately indicates a capacity for triple-digit hours at the beginning, you may want to reconsider going through with it. And about three hours into Resonance of Fate, I already despised it.

You can do her hair, undress her everywhe-ere! Yes, Resonance of Fate claims its Barbie Doll simulator as its most entertaining feature.

You can do her hair, undress her everywhe-ere! Yes, Resonance of Fate claims its Barbie Doll simulator as its most entertaining feature.

And when I say I despised it, I mean to say I’d rather play Pin The Tail on John Goodman than Resonance of Fate. Trying to walk through an actual mine field would cause less stress than combing through the walkthrough of this game. Learning the finer points of cattle enema application would not only interest me more than the story, it would also feel more rewarding and leave me with a more refined product. I have not hated a game this much since the first time I played through Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I realized that games like Valkyrie Profile 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics only inspired blood-vessel-bursting levels of rage because I didn’t fully understand how to play them. So I gave it a chance and spent some time learning the complexities of the battle system.

So now when I say I despise this game, understand that if any game deserves ritualistic immolation, Resonance of Fate does. I would rather bathe in a cauldron of bacon grease than go through this game again. If you offered me a choice between a PS3 controller currently running this game, or a bare, uninsulated cord plugged into a 120v outlet, I think I would suffer fewer adverse health effects from the bare cord.

Because who wouldn't want to dress like a second-rate high school football mascot and chuck toys at kids' heads? This game manages to take the color out of Christmas.

Because who wouldn’t want to dress like a second-rate high school football mascot and chuck toys at kids’ heads? This game manages to take the color out of Christmas.

“Pony up, Jake,” you say. “Stop whining and tell us why you hated it.” Fair enough. For starters, critics have praised the game for its original battle system, which revolutionizes the tired old menu-based RPG format. And it rightfully deserves that credit. A semi-tactical game–like Valkyrie Profile–I really enjoyed the complexity of combat once I finally learned it. But learning took forever. Players can access a virtual instruction manual while in combat, which I found indispensable; mostly because the sadistic bastards locked the optional tutorial. The tutor in the arena offers to teach you the ins and outs of the gun-based fighting style, but only after you’ve accomplished each technique at least once in battle. I hated my Calculus teacher in college, but at least she didn’t turn me away, saying, “Come back once you’ve successfully landed a probe on Saturn!” And if that doesn’t immediately earn it status as the most useless tutorial ever, accomplishing the techniques didn’t actually unlock the tutorial. Sega’s pedagogical style reminds me a lot of your grandfather dropping you into the the middle of Crystal Lake, telling you the dead kid wants to drag you under, and figuring that sheer panic will teach you to swim.

But since no one actually learns that way, I think you deserve a simplified explanation. For starters, you have two types of damage to contend with, scratch damage and direct damage. Only scratch damage really matters, as weapons that deal direct damage have all the destructive power of flicking safety pins at someone, hoping they’ll unclasp and stab someone through their jeans. Deal scratch damage to enemies and their armor by running (and nearly always jumping), and that’ll whittle down their health. However, it doesn’t always stay damage. In order to get it to stop regenerating, use direct damage to make it official. Think of scratch as writing a schedule on a calendar in pencil, and direct as tracing it over in pen to make it official.

Roll for initiative. Pass Go to collect $200, then proceede to the conservatory to make your accusation.

Roll for initiative. Pass Go to collect $200, then proceede to the conservatory to make your accusation.

From there, in order to deal damage effectively in any way, you want each character to run between the other two–which uses up part of a gem gauge–for as many turns as you can, then pull off the special attack, making sure each one stands as far apart from each other as possible with no obstructions anywhere along the path. Seriously…your characters can only run in straight lines, and if they so much as nick their elbow on a wall, enemy, or each other, they’ll drop everything and sit there until the others have also given up. Thank you, Sega, for developing passive-aggressive character traits in combat.

The biggest problem with this gem system–other than characters completely incapacitated by the concept of side stepping those pesky support columns–occurs when one of the characters receives enough damage to reach critical status. At this point, several things happen to change the flow of battle. First, you lose the ability to run or perform the special attack. Second, your weapon strength drops considerably and the rate of fire slows to a crawl, sending your accuracy down to the level of Stevie Wonder in an archery tournament. Third, the enemies usually start regenerating health at alarming rates. In other words, Resonance of Fate doesn’t just want you to game over, it wants to make the process as painful as possible. After all, it has three digits in the game timer, and it desperately wants you to use it all. Hitting a critical state led to an inevitable game over except in rare, miraculous circumstances. And it costs you, by the way. Just like in Dragon Quest, resurrection comes with a hefty price. Fortunately, you can’t do a lot else with the money in this game, so if you just keep all your items until you want to buy something, then sell them for the cash, you should drain your wallet to the point where restarting can’t drain anything else from you.

If the barrel of the gun makes the bullet go faster, then twelve barrels ought to make it go warp speed! And with all those scopes, you can't miss! Do a barrel roll!

If the barrel of the gun makes the bullet go faster, then twelve barrels ought to make it go warp speed! And with all those scopes, you can’t miss! Do a barrel roll!

For the record, once I got the hang of the combat system, I did sort of get into it. For a while. However, if the game didn’t already have a major strike against it for making me go back to school to get a degree in Resonance of Fate Combat, I rescinded any thoughts of praise when I realized that the technique I described above doesn’t change. Ever. Leveling up appears helps you minimally if at all, and you don’t really learn new skills or abilities. While customizing your weapons offers an interesting side-challenge, it improves them unnoticeably at best (and not at all at worst), and the dozen or so accessories available in the game don’t offer any unique changes to combat or even noticeable addition to basic stats. In fact, the Johnny-One-Note theme runs so deep in this game that they only seemed to use three colors for everything; white, over-saturated gray, and kind of a dull, whitish-gray red. And if Sega didn’t attain the pinnacle of blandness with that, they built dungeons as a series of square battlefields with nondescript, cubic obstacles scattered here and there.

As you can see, this scene contains two and a half colors and zero geographical features. The rest of the game doesn't have any more color, but it has twice as many features.

As you can see, this scene contains two and a half colors and zero geographical features. The rest of the game doesn’t have any more color, but it has twice as many features.

Fortunately, even the shittiest of games can pull itself out of the deepest compost heap with a stellar story. Unfortunately, Resonance of Fate doesn’t have a stellar story. I might stretch the bounds of journalistic integrity by claiming it even has a story. I picked up that they lived in a sci-fi steampunk world built like a clock. The three protagonists work as “hunters,” meaning they do odd jobs for people in this society that seems to have an unusually high need to fill things with bullets. The obvious villain appears regularly in cut scenes to wax about his spite for God, which games these days seem to throw in as though the singular ruing of God’s name will earn edginess points and rocket it to the same literary depths of Xenogears. Each person has a crystal, and if it shatters they die. Something about human experiments, which again completely misses the point of why other games succeed. And…I really didn’t follow it any more than that. If it did have any more plot, it lost me in its extensively long side quests and battle sequences. Spreading forty minutes of cut scenes over a 100+ hour game aids the memory about as effectively as a gallon of whiskey and a pound of weed.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (part two) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

I’ll make this short. After two months of play, two or three dozen quests and an equal number of times accidentally nuking my vampire by taking her out in broad daylight, three or four times when an enemy disarmed me and I had to restart because I couldn’t find my sword on the ground, the most epic final boss battle a game has ever permitted me to watch without actually participating in, and one final bug that prevented me from receiving the prize for finishing the main storyline, I have finally finished Oblivion. And I find I have absolutely nothing to say about it. Having spent the final forty hours pretty much the same way as I spent the first sixty, with the notable exception of a nagging feeling of repetition, as though I’d traveled through the same dungeons killing the same monsters for the same meager handful of gold coins, armor too heavy to carry, and weapons too cheap to make it worth carrying them to the nearest shop to sell them for yet another shitty handful of gold coins. Congratulations, Bethesda, you took the time and care in making an RPG with a skillfully crafted world that still somehow feels like a randomized-dungeon crawler.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn't look like the same old caves I'd explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn’t look like the same old caves I’d explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

As Anne has already suckered me into a good forty hours or so of Minecraft since I finished the Elder Scrolls, I have to admit that the open-world, free-form game play does offer something therapeutic compared to the shorter, more directed games….Don’t expect me to explain it, though, as I just spent about ten minutes avoiding that question hopping from link to link on Facebook. (By the way, no, internet, Haley Joel Osmont did not grow up and become “super attractive.” He looks like a potato swallowing someone’s face like an amoeba.) Games like that, though, don’t need to rely on a well-written story or intricate game play, but with that same logic I could also say that Mega Man doesn’t rely on deep, philosophical introspection and God of War doesn’t rely on an anti-violence message or anger management techniques. You see an enemy? Hack it with your sword until it dies! Or maybe cast a spell on it. Which spell? It doesn’t matter! They all do the same thing! Just pick out the one that does the same thing more powerfully than all the rest!

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Bethesda, as I mentioned in part one of this series, has made a name for themselves by making the same game at least four times (I haven’t played Morrowind…maybe five). They’ve also made a name for themselves in expansive, open world, hiking simulators and pathetically lame boss fights. Yeah, by crawling through RPG Maker in what little spare time I have, I’ve learned the stool-hardening madness inspired by crafting bosses as interesting battles rather than simply a thirty-second-long random enemy encounter with special music. Still, could we at least ask for a boss with slightly higher stats than the average enemy? A specialized attack pattern that requires more than “run up, hack with sword, back off, repeat” to kill? At least with the Elder Scrolls games, you don’t have to worry about finishing off the battle with a quick glance at your V.A.T.S. system.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Cut out all the inventory maintenance, travel time, consulting the map every thirty seconds, and questionable emphasis on combat, and poorly written quests that generally amount to “go there, get stuff, come back,” and Oblivion boils down to a character void of any personality, exploring a huge open world of trees, caves, and other natural wonders, who enchants armor, brews potions, and carries a sword to fight off obnoxious skeleton archers. Congratulations, Bethesda, you made a high resolution version of Minecraft. Who would have thought that you could have made tons more money if you had only half-assed the graphics?

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Again, not that a game that offers aimless exploration with a handful of fringe benefits has to suck goblin nuggets. Games strive for a simulated experience, and even living on the cusp of the wild, untamed glacier of Northern Minnesota, I often feel way too wrapped up in our modern urban world, yearning, like Tolkien before me, to go “back to trees.” I think that people who read Tolkien and don’t see anything in it beyond “people walking” might not get the value of taking in the world for its wonders, which I think captures the true meaning behind Oblivion. So Bethesda, if any of you read this, stop releasing DLC and get the licensing to do a game set in Middle Earth. And then someone needs to develop immersive virtual reality so you can release your next game on a VR console. And also VR Minecraft.

Hellooooo....imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Hellooooo….imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (part 1) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

Yep...I've discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Yep…I’ve discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Captain’s Log: Morndas, Morning Star 19. Sixty hours into Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, I can see no end in sight. I occasionally pass the time by wandering through caves and fortresses, but most often I manage inventory. Encountered a bug today. Had to restart. Cost me an elven helmet I found after saving. At one point, I dropped my sword in some grass. Couldn’t find it again, so I had to restart then, too. Maybe I’ll walk around the map for a few hours. Perhaps I’ll stand in one place and jump to raise my stats. I don’t know. One of these days, I will find a way out…

Bethesda Softworks built their name around Oblivion. Or maybe Skyrim. No, on second thought, I think one of the Fallout games…What about Morrowind? I never played that. Maybe they built their reputation on that. I don’t know. It might do more justice to say Bethesda has risen to fame by making the same game at least four or five times. Kind of like Madden or Fifa for sci-fi/fantasy nerds. So you know what to expect: long hours of exploring a highly detailed world, accepting quests from a civilization full of people who want some random object in a dungeon somewhere, an inventory frustratingly limited by weight, and more bugs than the Temple of Doom.

Oblivion tells the story of…someone…who gets sprung from prison by the lackluster Emperor Patrick Stewart as he flees a group of assassins. The secret passage out of the city happens to go through your jail cell, and Emperor Xavier’s guards verbally decide not to close the door behind them “because it doesn’t open from the other side.” Because apparently, turning around and running back to assassins remains a better option than hiding your escape route from your pursuers. After getting sprung free, Emperor Picard drops a heavy quest on you–find his lost son and stop hell from overtaking all the world. You then do exactly what one would expect in a Bethesda game: you begin wandering aimlessly, accepting odd jobs from people with bizarre requests while giving a slight passing interest to the whole end-of-the-world thing every so often when it might not take too long to complete an objective.

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as "Sir Not Appearing in this Game."

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as “Sir Not Appearing in this Game.”

Given the absolute freedom to roam around the medieval fantasy world of Cyrodil, I immediately took in the sights, killed a bunch of monsters, wandered through what I would eventually recognize as bland, generic ancient ruins, and of course, contracted a horrible and incurable disease. I can proudly say I wrote the draft of this section in REAL TIME, as I actually “played” the game! See, out of all the quests in the game, the longest and by far the most obnoxious tasks you with curing the vampirism of the Count of Skingrad. And, for unfortunate bastards like myself, who spent the better part of a half hour adjusting the perfect face for a character only to contract hemophiliac porphyria, and to have the generic ugly vampire’s head swapped in its place.

So how does one cure vampirism? Well, considering the severe sunlight allergy you develop, you start by waiting indoors until night and then making a mad dash for your next destination, occasionally taking refuge in a cave or a shop. Asking around to the handful of people willing to talk to you without fleeing in terror or reaching for their wooden stakes, you learn about the Count of Skingrad, a quaint little village where everyone lives in lovely stone houses with reinforced steel doors. The count assigns you to go look for a witch who can supposedly cure the disease. She lives, surprise, surprise, on the opposite side of the country. Lacking the gypsy resources of Count Dracula, you’d better invest in a good pair of Nikes. So the witch asks for payment, which of course involves locating five extremely rare items without giving any indication of where you might find them. Then when you’ve paid in full–and advance–she sends you on the mother of all fetch quests to locate more super rare items. Once you have literally gone to Hell and back for her…you find out that the Game of the Year edition has a bug in it that prevents her from accepting one of the items, thus condemning you to live as a vampire forever.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon...end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon…end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Turns out, you can manage your vampirism, much like diabetes. Regular feedings will keep your photo sensitivity at bay, and people will gladly tell you how sick you look to indicate when you should hunker down in the mage’s guild living quarters until everyone goes to sleep. The bit about writing in real time? I got stuck in the witch’s house one morning, after twelve hours of questing for nothing. She wouldn’t go to sleep so I could eat her, and another bug in the game considered me a trespasser, thus rendering the “wait” feature inaccessible, and I had to stand there as the game’s timer ticked away to 8:00 pm. Fuck you, Bethesda. The entirety of God of War took less time to complete than this one quest. But no. I would rather sneak into a castle to pickpocket a key, dive to the bottom of a lake, search for the hidden trapdoor, make my way through three connected dungeons, and look for a random table, after which I have to locate a quest which opens a quest which opens another dungeon…all to get the one fracking ingredient that the witch won’t accept.

"Very Easy" my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

“Very Easy” my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

Due to the massive size of the game (which estimates online place at about 1036 km squared), I thought I should split the post up into at least two sections. So in a few weeks I’ll post about the remainder of the game (if Anne doesn’t sucker me into playing Minecraft for the next week while I prepare for the beginning of the semester). In the meantime, look at my estimated breakdown of the first sixty hours of game play:

2 Hours: Awesome world! More colorful than Skyrim…but not quite as HD.
3 Hours: I like how Cyrodil residents didn’t build all their fortresses and caves in straight lines…like in Skyrim. And look how unique they look! Skyrim seemed to repeat the same dungeons over and over.
0.5 Hours: Wow…Oblivion just repeats the same dungeons over and over…
1.5 Hours: So…when will Patrick Stewart come back? Did they honestly just hire him for the first scene?
12 Hours: Fucking Vampire Quest! Just let me go out during the day!
5 Hours: Fucking Vampire Diabetes! Should I even keep playing?
0.5 Hours: Of course I’ll play…I have an addiction.
5 Hours: Go into the cave to collect the treasure to buy the house so I have somewhere to put the treasure that I pull out of the caves.
0.5 Hours: Maybe I should spend some time on the main quest.
1 Hour: Oblivion! Hell dimension! Awesome!
0.5 Hours: Holy shit! The Siege of Kvatch monsters just won’t take damage.
1.5 Hours: Holy shit! I hate all the stupid, angry people on the internet giving advice for the Siege of Kvatch.
6 Hours: Shivering Isles? Score! It feels like a whole new game!
1 Hour: Looking for lockpicks after I broke all mine trying to open a chest that had six gold pieces in it.
20 Hours: Managing Inventory

Dead Rising 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC

Dead_rising_2_combo_card_heliblade_justin_tv_(2)
Does anyone else think the zombie craze may have overstayed its welcome? Once hailed as a symbol of our fears of a conformist “other” waiting in the shadows trying to strip us of our thought, reason and individuality, and later re-imagined as commentary on our culture of needless consumerism, the effectiveness of everyone’s favorite decomposing, foot-dragging, moaning monsters on a quest for brains–despite the fact that they only ever really quested for brains in one movie in the mid-1980s and a handful of zombie spoofs–may have hit its zenith with the Dawn of the Dead remake, World War Z, and Shaun of the Dead.  Considering that the most recent of those came out eight years ago, the intervening time has just mocked us, creating a widespread conformity to the idea of shelling out as much money as we can for the latest zombie movies, games, or merchandise. Enter Dead Rising, a fairly new series by Capcom set in a world that has the zombie apocalypse under control–mostly–and has learned how to exploit them for fun and for profit. After I learned that players saved their games by using the restrooms, I made an offhanded remark that “I may need to play this game,” after which I could not convince Anne that no, I didn’t really want to play a game solely on the basis of a witty save point. She insisted on buying Dead Rising 2 and forcing me to play it so she could watch it. She got bored and lost interest after the first hour or two.

...dead God, please let me hold the camera.

…dead God, please let me hold the camera.

Dead Rising 2 follows Chuck Greene, our low-browed, sloping-foreheaded motocross hero who keeps his young daughter, Katey, in the most luxurious of anti-zombie medications and portable Mega Man games by appearing on the reality TV show, Terror is Reality.  Contestants on this motocross competition rig their bikes with chainsaws, and then plough through an arena full of zombies to score points. Naturally, this draws the ire of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies, and their leader, Stacy Forsythe arrives in town to protest. However, when an unexpected outbreak occurs, Chuck, Katey, and Stacy find themselves in a safe house together…at which point Stacy forgets her anger with Chuck, her desire not to kill zombies, and any character points which might make her at all relevant to the story.  Some obligatory arguments occur in the safe house, then they task Chuck with venturing out into the mall–apparently all this has happened in a mall–to search for survivors and Zombrex for Katey. Stacey stays at the safe house, scanning for survivors on the mall security cameras, and every five minutes or so she’ll call Chuck on a two-way radio–usually when zombies have him pinned down and he can’t answer, or when he wants to quietly sneak by them–to tell him about another survivor.

If it sounds a bit muddled, then I’ve described the game well enough. The story starts off weak. It has some interesting points, such as discovering who framed Chuck for causing the outbreak, but it doesn’t really become coherent until near the end.  The inventory management feels a lot like digging through an overstuffed pocket looking for a dime, and the controls take some getting used to. Still, the story eventually comes together, I did eventually master the controls, and I even leveled up enough that the bosses didn’t completely rip me open and use my squishy carcass as their own personal sandbox. One thing, though, ruins this game like nothing else: the timer.  Adding a limit to every event in an otherwise sandbox-ish game had about the same effect as adding a third Austin Powers movie, two Matrix sequels, and a Star Wars Holiday special to their respective series; nobody wants to give their time and money to induce an aneurysm.

Look at those! Knife gloves. Pretty cool, huh? I couldn't ever find the parts to make them.

Look at those! Knife gloves. Pretty cool, huh? I couldn’t ever find the parts to make them.

See, people like the idea of having free run of a mall, and Capcom designed this interactive environment using notes stolen from Katamari Damacy.  Rewards for leveling up or rescuing survivors include combo cards, blueprints for combining items into eclectic weapons. Unfortunately, none of that matters because of the timer. With Stacy hounding you every five minutes to rescue someone else at the opposite end of the mall, I didn’t have any time to fight zombies on my way from place to place, let alone explore the game’s environment and look for items. If I built weapons, I usually made the first combo I earned because I could find the items in the safe house, and then I’d immediately race against the clock to get to some jerk who would ultimately make me pay for the privilege of rescuing them, or to watch their crazy cabaret show, or to give them something they could easily pick up off the ground themselves.

The game theoretically encouraged combo weapons, but mostly in the way that my Sunday school teachers encouraged me to pray–they couldn’t give a reason, admitted a lack of visible benefits, but I simply needed to do it anyway.  Likewise, Dead Rising 2 offers extra experience from zombies killed with combo weapons, but the difference between the normal 10 points and the combo 200 doesn’t add up all that fast when rescuing survivors gives you 12,000 points at minimum.  Plus, the combo weapons don’t last all that much longer than regular items.  While item degradation usually only forces me to muck up my Fallout inventory to carry dead weight, I must concede that I can see how bashing countless zombies with a golf club might cause some damage to the club, or how a gun that runs out of ammo might only weigh you down, but I draw the line at thinking that hacking through a few monsters with a sword would result in total disintegration of the steel. Considering that, when I found the broadsword, I stocked up because they understandably dealt more damage than pummeling someone with a power drill (no matter how many you attach to a bucket), and lasted just as long as any other weapon.

People? Can I guess people? Did you make people for dinner? Of course you did.

People? Can I guess people? Did you make people for dinner? Of course you did.

So that pretty much describes the game. You charge through the mall at breakneck speeds, hacking through crowds of zombies that never seem to get any smaller despite having no visible entrances or exits to the mall, rescuing survivors steadily over the course of three days. Most of these people, naturally, come out of nowhere (re: nonexistant entrances to the mall) and don’t seem to even notice the endless undead closing in around them. About a third of these people have snapped and will immediately try to kill you–apparently the game means to imply a higher density of psychopaths during zombie outbreaks.  These bosses take virtually no damage until Chuck reaches about level 20 or so. Or maybe I just hadn’t found the sword yet.  I don’t know.  One weird quirk offers you the chance to restart the entire game with all your experience and combo cards, and between the time limit and nearly impossible pyschopath fights, I got the impression that it wanted me to take this option. Let that indicate what level of quality to expect–lacking confidence that people will find value in replaying their game, Capcom tries to force them to replay it.

Yep. Somehow a tiger has lived in the mall for at least a day and no one has seen it. And if it doesn't join you, you never see it again.

Yep. Somehow a tiger has lived in the mall for at least a day and no one has seen it. And if it doesn’t join you, you never see it again.

Setting the game in a mall seemed a little weird, and the group of rednecks who show up to bitch about socialism felt a bit hackneyed too. Congratulations, Capcom, you figured out themes that Romero used decades ago.  Care to make them any more relevant? Well, as soon as I wondered that I began to think–yes, these redneck, Tea Party, Ayn Rand fanboys might ironically feel threatened by the brainless masses, but rather than picking off the obvious symbol of left-wing extremism infesting the mall, they shoot survivors, indicating they have no clue how to identify socialism or how to properly solve their political problems. The plot twist clearly shifts the focus of evil from consumerism to corporate greed, and the mall itself replaces anchor stores with casinos, which considering modern fears of class warfare, getting rich versus going broke, and the pure chance involved behind any of that, Capcom may just know how to use zombies properly after all.

Given interpretive value, the literature teacher in me says this game actually needs to exist. The gamer in me wants to hack the game and remove the time limits and any babysitting components, and possibly to tone down two or three of the early psychopath battles, but otherwise, the game doesn’t suck.
snowflake dead rising 2 tiger

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac

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I didn’t care much for Assassin’s Creed II. Blasphemy, I know. I felt the developers had an interesting premise and concept to build a game around…and immediately burned it into a disc, slapped a label on it and charged $50 a pop. Apparently shooting for a sandbox game style, the bland tasks combined with the ad nauseum approach to…well, everything…made it a perfect game for ignoring in favor of chain-smoking episodes of Scrubs. And I watched every season. Even the last one about medical school; and if I found the rich med school tool character more engaging than murdering my way through 15th century Italy, you can imagine how little interest I had in playing Brotherhood. But I bought both games at the same time, so as long as I have no classes to teach and no real burning call to play anything else, I figured I might as well plow through it.

Naturally, the story opens up with Desmond Miles, still undergoing virtual reality training to fight Abstergo, a corporation we don’t really see which supposedly came from the Knights Templar crusaders who somehow connect with the Borgia in Ezio’s time period by virtue of developers wanting their stories to connect really bad, but not exactly giving a damn if they do it effectively. So the player learns that Templars equal Borgia equal Abstergo, and pretty much has to just understand that with no more evidence than the game telling us that once in the opening sequence. Still on the run from the last game, Desmond, his slightly less cross-eyed love interest Princess Anna, and their team of wacky, zany characters, drive into Monteriggioni where they set up the Animus machine and continue his training. At the end of the opening sequence, Desmond stands tall, crosses his arms triumphantly smiling, and declares proudly, “My name is Desmond Miles, and this is my story!”

At which point the game promptly switches to Ezio’s time period with absolutely no sense of irony or awareness either at how badly they misjudged their own story or how little Desmond actually matters. Fortunately, you only have to deal with the obnoxious sap for an extended sequence early on where you wander through a darkened, non-interactive environment trying to locate power boxes and one doubly obnoxious segment of seemingly endless platforming just before the closing credits. I did receive notification part way through that I could leave the animus at any time so Desmond could check his email. I did this once, finding two absurdly pointless messages in an inbox that had no bearing on the game in any way. Thank you, Assassin’s Creed, for you have designed a video game that successfully simulates the experience of playing a video game.

You pretty much have to get this close for accuracy in Renaissance firearms.

You pretty much have to get this close for accuracy in Renaissance firearms.

But very early on we get to leave the twenty first century and go back to Renaissance Italy. At this point, I started looking for differences; improvements they may have made from one game to the next. Brotherhood, however, appeared exactly the same as ACII. Even to the point where I had to ask, “Why does Ezio’s robe have the custom dye job I gave it in the last game? And how does he have the same inventory and cash supply?” I thought I might enjoy playing a game that built directly from the last game, allowing me to keep weapons, armor, cash, etc, and didn’t feel creeped out in the least that Brotherhood had NSA-ed its way through my hard drive to import my ACII configuration. However, after a side trip to his Villa, a surprise Borgia attack destroys his clothing, weapons and armor, forces him to leave behind his cash, and somehow makes him forget how to jump-grab ledges while climbing. (Yeah…that didn’t make too much sense)

New to the running and jumping, Ezio can swing 90 degrees, reaching new heights of "hold down X" gameplay.

New to the running and jumping, Ezio can swing 90 degrees, reaching new heights of “hold down X” gameplay.

On the plus side, the game didn’t force me to play through a tutorial stage where I had to wiggle my toes or race anyone up a building. I don’t know if they just didn’t include it or if I owe that to the ACII save file, but I liked the pacing. In no time at all, I found myself merrily romping through the rooftops of Rome, stabbing and murdering willy-nilly and care free, leaping off great heights into stacks of hay conveniently placed around town, on castle ramparts, inside the pope’s house, and later on at a 21st century construction site. From here, I did begin to notice differences between games. They streamlined the combat ever so slightly, so rather than clanging your sword against an enemy’s armor for five minutes at a time, you only have to wail on him for about four and a half. Later I discovered the kick feature, which immediately dropped their guard, which I liked, but still didn’t find half as useful as walking up to people and stabbing them without a fight. Missions feel less like playing tag with a map icon. One of the big parts of Brotherhood involves liberating areas of Rome from Borgia control. This involves sneaking into a heavily fortified area, killing a captain, then climbing a tower and setting it on fire. Yes, you have to do this about a dozen times and they don’t really vary the mission formula that much, but enough can happen to make them feel like different jobs that require different tactics and responses that I didn’t mind the repetition.

Son, one day all the light touches will be yours...providing you invest public funds into infrastructure.

Son, one day all the light touches will be yours…providing you invest public funds into infrastructure.

Once you’ve liberated an area, you can put money into renovating shops in that district. Much like the Monteriggioni renovations in ACII, this opens up new options for Ezio as well as increasing Rome’s income, which despite Borgia’s influence, apparently gets deposited directly into an account for Ezio. But he seems to understand how to spend tax money better than the Borgia, so I’ll forgive Rome this indiscretion. Not that Ezio could really skim off the top, though. While cash doesn’t flow like booze at a strip club anymore, you can’t buy a whole lot of useful things. Shops have an even more limited supply than before (excepting “shop quests,” which open up new items and of which I managed to complete a grand total of one), so a handful of renovations and a little patience could get you all the cash you need rather early on. At that point, you can only use income for further renovations, which usually serve little practical purpose other than to increase income. But screw all that: I bought the Coliseum. Why? So I could say I owned the Coliseum. Still, it seems a redundant system of busywork, and I still don’t quite understand how setting up a neighborhood thieves’ guild manages to increase the city’s value.

Ezio communicates with his lackeys by giving information to a little bird to tell them.

Ezio communicates with his lackeys by giving information to a little bird to tell them.

Also on the redundant side, Ezio can recruit assassins for his cause. Once you rescue citizens from Borgia guards, they’ll join you and you can send them across Europe on missions to earn a few florins and experience points toward–you guessed it–sending them on bigger and better missions. You can call them to bail you out of tight situations, which makes certain battles significantly less daunting, but still, both AC games I’ve played seem to lack motivation; the player has stuff to do, but no apparent bonus in stats, inventory, or even storyline to gain by doing them. You just do the quests because the game gave them to you.

Leonardo invented everything else. Why not a tank, too?

Leonardo invented everything else. Why not a tank, too?

The real joy in Brotherhood comes from Leonardo da Vinci. Forced to make war machines for the Borgia, he hires Ezio to destroy his creations to ease his conscience. These missions always involve a segment where Ezio climbs into the war machine and uses it to destroy others; providing the only variable style of game play, even if a few of the machines feel clunky and tedious.

Overall, I didn’t hate this game. The characters looked better, still cross-eyed, but less so. The tasks repetitive, but slightly more interesting. If I expressed my feelings numerically, ACII may have ranked a negative 1, while Brotherhood hovers around a positive 0.5. Maybe I’ll consider finishing Ezio’s trilogy or playing the pirate version. But don’t hold your breath.

Assassin’s Creed 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC, OSX

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Years ago, a friend of mine had me play a little bit of Assassin’s Creed to kill time.  I didn’t get through much–just the first few tutorials–but it intrigued me.  Then after hearing the entire video game community collectively climax over the series (and finding a copy of Assassin’s Creed II for $6 at GameStop), I decided I needed to see what had absconded with everyone’s attention for so long.  Having just finished the game, I think I can capture its true essence with one sentence; Assassin’s Creed II allows players the rare opportunity to travel through time to visit the wonders of Renaissance Italy, see the sights from the heights of marvelous buildings, travel through the streets of Venice in a gondola, and meet historical personalities both famous and infamous…and then kill them.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Mixing sandbox-ish and platform-ish designs, Assassin’s Creed II provides 20-ish hours of interesting-ish gameplay.  The game opens with Desmond Miles busting out of  an Abstergo holding cell with his noticeably cross-eyed love interest in a thrilling escape sequence that I assume would make sense had I played the first game.  After establishing some stuff about the battle between the Templars and the Assassins, Desmond straps himself into a virtual reality machine called the Animus in order that we, as players, may forget everything we just learned about Desmond to focus on the real story; Ezio Auditore, a cross-eyed,15th-century nobleman, takes revenge on a conspiracy for the murder of his cross-eyed father and brothers. After their deaths, Ezio discovers his heritage as part of the Assassin organization, and he sheds his plain, average garb of a Florentine in favor of a gaudy white robe, hood, and armor that…helps him blend in with the average folk around him.

I know the frame story would (likely) make more sense in the context of the other games, but honestly I just don’t care. Video games have never needed story arcs or direct sequels before, and it actually sort of helps if they don’t. After all, Hollywood can expect people to pay three dollars at a Redbox if they want to understand the latest money-desperate sequel before, but games that charge a minimum of $30 and then require an hour of gameplay per dollar spent, I’d much prefer skipping to the better games rather than paying the time and money to play them sequentially.  Case in point: when I bought this game, I asked the guy at GameStop which Assassin’s Creed game he recommended I start with.  He suggested this one, and I thanked him for his expertise. Then Anne asked the girl working in the store whether she could recommend Disgaea 3 or 4.  She suggested starting with 3 because “It comes first, so you don’t want to miss out on the story,” and we both wondered how often she sleeps with the manager to keep her job.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes--with all seriousness--regularly in the game.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes–with all seriousness–regularly in the game.

Still, even with the solid storyline following Ezio, I didn’t exactly burn with desire to uncover the story–even with the plot-based sub-quest with its own menu section cleverly titled “The Truth.”  Ezio’s–and by extension the game’s–existence depends on killing people, the story does the bare minimum to prop up that premise. But since the term “assassin” implies a political murder, and since they seemed to want a fairly credible historical plot–at least until they start casting magic spells during the final boss fight–the writers had their hands full trying to tie together a series of actual murders, while also referring to any minor skirmishes along the way as “assassinations” as well.

At its heart, ACII revolves around stealth, which along with babysitting missions and quick time events, end up topping lists of things most likely to inspire players to send dead animals to the game designers.  However, while not quite as effective as Batman: Arkham Asylum, the stealth mechanics don’t detract from the game. Note that I say “don’t detract from,” not “add to.”  They don’t really encourage covert behavior, as the player has too many options for reducing notoriety among the NPCs.  For instance, you could lure citizens away with a handful of coins tossed into the street, then drop the body of a guard killed quietly on a rooftop down to draw the attention of a larger group of guards, then blend in with a crowd until you reach the guarded treasure–or you could just stab the guards in broad daylight, then turn around to find one of hundreds of posters plastered throughout the city with your face on it, tear it down, and everyone will forget that anything happened, despite the 99 other posters still hanging in plain view.  I ended up running, leaping, climbing and flipping through city streets littered with corpses, all with blood trails leading directly to me, and no one cared.  And if anyone did voice concern that I ought to not hang out on the roof of the palace, I could just stab them in the throat, rip down another poster, and continue on with my business.

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

While I have to admit in a certain level of satisfaction in walking up to an unsuspecting victim and thrusting my long, hard, rod of steel into their skulls, or leaping down from the sky to flatten them beneath me, breaking my fall with their spines, I mastered that very quickly in the game.  Because Ubisoft focused on historicity and realism, though, they didn’t escalate the abilities of enemies.  While yes, I have often wondered how so many Final Fantasy enemies can withstand explosions, gunshots, and swords through their torsos without so much as a strong cough throwing them off balance, I understand the reason for this; it keeps the game from getting stale.  ACII starts off at a reasonably simple difficulty setting, then as the player gains stronger weapons and armor it…well it doesn’t really change much at all.  Equipment doesn’t noticeably change your performance, enemies do just as little damage to you all throughout the game; even as you gain more health, it only allows you to stumble off of taller and taller buildings. And no matter how sharp your knives get, they can’t murder someone any more than “completely dead.” It gave me the option of using a poisoned blade at one point. I never even figured out how to use it, since stabbing them in the throat proved just a little more effective.  So the game basically provides a series of platforms to help an Italian guy kill enemies in one hit by falling on their heads. Great, Ubisoft. You’ve invented Super Mario. Except cross-eyed.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn't need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn’t need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

“Up yours, Jake!” You say? “This won game of the year!” Yes…so have lots of games. Each year, I might add. People hand out game of the year awards like copies of The Watchtower. I know I’ve pretty much panned a super-popular game, but if you’ll stay with me, I want you to consider one more thing; pretend you don’t see anything that doesn’t actually have a function. If entire cities become either smooth or climbable walls guarding the occasional treasure chest full of money that becomes obsolete by chapter five, or platforms to walk on or swim through, then you’ll stop seeing any variation in the different locations. Each city contains the same assortment of posts, ladders, haystacks, etc, and except for the framing story not allowing access to certain parts of the map, you can access any area regardless of skills learned, immediately. All the sandbox-ish missions blend together–run through some section of town very fast, get in a fight, or kill some guy–with no bearing on the plot and no reward except the practically useless cash.  Even the main missions only redeem themselves by advancing the story.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn't add anything that the previous shot didn't show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn’t add anything that the previous shot didn’t show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

While most games offer less actual variety of play than they seem, ACII pretty much consists of nothing except follow your radar to the next point on the map. Occasionally, you press a button once you get there–and not even like a quick time event, either.  At the very beginning of the game, Desmond approached the Animus virtual reality simulator and the game told me to “press any button.” No timer. No encroaching threat. Nothing. While quick time events have always annoyed me, Ubisoft found something even more pointless: the slow time event.  They provide an over-abundance of most missions with little or no variation in them, and it ends up turning into a geographical scavenger hunt more than anything else. Furthermore, traditional platformers required the player to properly assess the physics engine so as not to fling themselves past ledges and into the gaping abyss beyond like a Depression-era stock broker, but as this makes 3D platforming about as easy as juggling angry magpies, so the player only needs to hold down the X button to automatically hit the next ledge, pole or brick conspicuously sticking out of the wall for the eager climber.  But not to sacrifice difficulty, they made the controls hypersensitive to directly, so at any moment–usually while the camera auto-rotates–Ezio could flip along his public trapeze and then suddenly turn and leap crotch-first into the nearest wall, then slide down to his death like the world’s least-funny Looney Toon.

I don’t really understand the hype around this game.  Look at the pictures I posted; notice how little gameplay you see? When you google screenshots for a game and only get photos from the trailer, you can guarantee the developers did that to hide the lack of interesting gameplay from the market.  So I guess it kept my interest, and I got through the whole thing, mostly in the way my students get through the books I assign–they get bored halfway through, then skip to the end, using Spark Notes to fill in the gaps. And seriously…with as much detail as the PS3 can render, why does everyone have crossed eyes?