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

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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

Duck Tales: Remastered – PS3

Because they couldn't make Mighty Ducks jokes in the 1980s.

Because they couldn’t make Mighty Ducks jokes in the 1980s.

I finally got around to playing the Duck Tales: Remastered edition that I first heard about last year. Before I start, I should explain that I approach games like these very carefully, like opening a can of root beer you found on the floor of your car; you can open it if you want, and you may even enjoy it, but you have a better than average chance of something exploding in your face resulting in a mess that leaves you with a sense of utter disappointment. Duck Tales has two problems in this department. For starters, Disney made it to cash in on the popularity of their cartoon–yes, people still watched the show when this game came out–and game adaptations of movies or tv (much like movie or tv adaptations of games) tend to maximize their entertainment potential when buried deep within the earth (I mean that seriously…look up the Atari ET Game Burial). Fortunately, we dodged that bullet back in 1990, when the game surpassed expectations.

Still, the PS3 edition still does something that makes me cringe whenever I hear about it. If you remember the year or two following the release of the PS1, one of the big game publishing trends liked to re-release old Atari or arcade port compilations, usually with only one or two games you feel like playing until you actually buy the game and play them, tossing the disc aside like a torn Kleenex rag. In a way, they did resemble the use of Kleenex, though, since you only pull them out momentarily to interrupt what you really want to do with your time. Yes, I know it sounds weird to devote my time to praising the value of old games, but re-releasing them on high-end consoles just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Imagine having the power to render images of 3-dimensional polygons on a 32-bit, CD-based system, and trying to sell the technology with Pac Man. It wastes the capabilities of the console, and let’s face it; you could take a massive dose of Ritalin and get bored with Pac Man after five minutes.

One small step for a duck; one giant leap for a duck with a pogo-stick cane.

One small step for a duck; one giant leap for a duck with a pogo-stick cane.

But those collections merely port the games, doing nothing to touch them up visually or to add worthwhile aspects to game play. How does an NES re-make stand up on a console 4 generations after its debut? Not bad, it turns out. The game starts off a little confusing, opening with the original 8-bit midi rendition of the Duck Tales theme used for the NES release. I feel that sends a mixed message–do they want a nostalgic game, in which case why change anything, or will we see how the PS3 can revitalize an old favorite, in which case, why not update the midi? A trivial point, I know, but not half as trivial as my next complaint; why do we always have to push the start button to load opening menus? Doesn’t that just add useless coding to the game?

I’ll stop. I swear. Anyway, the game actually works well. They’ve flushed out the story from the NES edition by, well, adding a story. Someone busts the Beagle Boys out of prison, and of course they flock to the one spot in town where they can reliably find a pile of three cubic acres of cash. Scrooge fights his way into his own money bin, fending off the Beagle Boys who have appropriated his Rube Goldberg Brand security system, but finds Big Time Beagle more interested in Scrooge’s new painting than the vault. After delivering a brutal thrashing–as we could only expect would come from a sixty-year old 1%-er who wears a waistcoat, spats, and top hat sporting a cane–he discovers a treasure map inside the picture, leading him to five of his characteristic adventures across the globe. And the moon. Cut scenes added to the individual levels, however, suggest something sneaky afoot.

In case you hadn't yet figured out that jumping on the monster's head wouldn't work.

In case you hadn’t yet figured out that jumping on the monster’s head wouldn’t work.

I really can’t say too much against this game–which actually makes it a bad choice to write about on a humor blog. The story they built up around the pre-existing framework actually does what every movie or tv game should strive to do; re-create the feeling of the TV show in an environment immersive to the player. I sincerely have to commend the writers, who captured characterization perfectly, creating conflicts and scenarios that blend in seamlessly from those you’d see in the television series. Most episodes had some character basis for Scrooge’s shenanigans; he’d feel old, so he’d hunt for the fountain of youth, or Webby would rue her life as a little girl, so she’d drink from a magic spring that would make her the size of Queen Kong. This game doesn’t have that; they focus entirely on the adventure. Also, they missed the perfect chance for a Duck-pun in naming the boss of the game “Count Dracula Duck” instead of “Count Drake-ula” or “Count Duckula” (but that one may have had legal ramifications). Otherwise, I can’t complain.

The game features voice acting by as many of the original actors that Disney could get a pulse from. The ironically named Alan Young–also famous for playing Wilbur on Mr. Ed, and appearing in “The Time Machine”–nails the high spirit and energy of Scrooge McDuck. Magica deSpell once again channels Natasha Fatale, voiced by the immortal June Foray–97 years old, we can only hope she takes good care of herself so that she has another 97 years left to voice such beloved characters. Frank “Fred From Scooby Doo” Welker provides the voice of the Beagle Boys, and Russi Taylor and Terence McGovern also reprise their roles. Unfortunately, some actors couldn’t make it on account of well…remember that pulse thing I told you about? I only put about 50% joke into that. Brian George, though, fills in a very close match for Flintheart Glomgold, and Chris Edgerly passes for Gyro Gearloose. They didn’t seem to put in a lot of effort for a replacement Fenton Crackshell. Instead of Hamilton Camp, they must have gone with “Some guy they found in the break room.”

Game play loosely resembles the original, but each level has a new layout, and rather than the dash-straight-for-the-end strategy from the NES version, they each have their own objectives that encourage exploration through the entire stage. The bosses come back with a vengeance, adding new attack patterns, making them much more challenging than your average koopa troopa. Also, the game includes a tutorial level–for those of you too inept to figure out a game that uses the D-pad and two buttons–and a new final stage. They get rid of all backtracking through the Transylvania level, which didn’t make a duck load of sense in the first place, so the game feels like an improvement. The game’s ended expands greatly from the brief newspaper article of the NES version showing you your score. Instead, the story concludes, the game flashes shots of its concept art, and you get to sit back and enjoy a list of credits so detailed that you learn the names of everyone from the executive producer to the the part-time janitorial staff for the European P.R. department.

Scrooge's office building, the money bin. I hear the employees fill the suggestion box with requests for stairs.

Scrooge’s office building, the money bin. I hear the employees fill the suggestion box with requests for stairs.

The gems represented one of the biggest frustrations from the NES version; no matter how much you picked up, you didn’t actually get any richer. You couldn’t trade Scrooge’s fortune for the cost of an SNeS. In the PS3 version, however…you still can’t. But the money goes toward unlockable concept art in an in-game gallery. And when you’ve unlocked all the pictures, the money goes toward filling the money bin, which you can dive into and swim through between levels, an activity that will keep you amused for at least the amount of time it takes you to climb back out of Scrooge’s stash. You might even swim a few laps back and forth before your mind drifts off to thoughts of Pac Man.

If you thought the water pressure in your swimming pool would crush your ears, try diving to the bottom of this sucker.

If you thought the water pressure in your swimming pool would crush your ears, try diving to the bottom of this sucker.

I didn’t cover the game until now because of the price. I liked the NES version and wanted to play the Remastered edition, but I didn’t know whether the $20 for the disc (or the $16 for those of you who don’t feel compelled to buy a hard copy). I still don’t know if the few hours of play time justified the cost, but I feel like it offers enough reason to replay the game (build up your cash pile) that I don’t mind the cost, and I figure when the NES version came out, I probably paid at least $50.

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?

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

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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.

Journey – PS3

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Does Journey fit nicely into the theme of retro games? No.  Probably, years from now when casual gamers have forgotten that any platform ever existed other than the PS5 and the XBox Pi, we can all come back to it and marvel at how an old-school game surprisingly still entertains us, but for the moment, it remains at the forefront of advances in technological, narrative, and musical progress.  Did Anne decide to play through it this morning while I needed something to write about during the time it takes me to finish Shining Force?  Welcome to my blog!  Look forward to a Sega Genesis review within the next week!

While I have more praise for Journey than most games, the initial description of what it is sounds about as appealing as clipping expired coupons from the supermarket to add to your grandma’s “collection.”  Developers and copywriters slap together promotional tidbits like “storytelling without words” or “a cerebral, haunting experience” or other such nonsense. Lead developer, Jenova Chen, claims he wanted to escape the modern idea of video games as being “shoot, kill, win,” so he built Journey around metaphorical themes of life and death.  The main character, a little jawa/bird creature, appears to the player in a desert.  He/she (shklee?) spies a tall mountain in the distance with a glowing pillar of light.  The rest of the game is simply the journey to that mountain.

Ignore that description.  I’ve seen sacks of flour with more pizazz than that.  The game does push envelopes, yes.  It doesn’t keep score, pit you against enemies, punish poor gameplay with “game overs,” but it does retain a lot of the aspects of video games that make it enjoyable to play.  It stresses exploration, with the main character able to find hidden glyphs that increase the length of its scarf, which gives the player the capability to fly short distances depending on that length.  In addition, some stages have monsters that can shorten the scarf; however, since it only cuts it in half, the player can never entirely lose it, and the normal course of the game doesn’t require flight anyway.

Yeah, yeah...everyone uses this image. It's the best from the game, but the rest are worth seeing, too.

Yeah, yeah…everyone uses this image. It’s the best from the game, but the rest are worth seeing, too.

I’ve often ridiculed the concept of high definition, since most people have low-definition eyes.  Yet I have to drop all pretenses for this game; the high definition world it creates adds every detail imaginable to the exploration.  Furthermore, the fully orchestrated score interacts with the player, changing seamlessly to match the emotion of the main character and its actions at any given moment.  Lost for witty comments to make here, I find myself slack-jawed and dumbfounded at the sheer brilliance of the composer (Austin Wintory) and programmers.

All though I will argue the storytelling value of plenty of video games dating back to the SNES-era RPGs, Journey may be the key to introducing the “electronic narrative” into the literary canon.  While the storytelling-without-words aspect takes itself much more seriously than Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the game does it using the full advantage of the technology, something that no movie or book could do; it uses social gaming.  And it uses it well, which surprises me.  The game connects to the internet and matches up two players who happen to be playing through any given point at the same time.

This accomplishes several things worth mentioning.  First, it reduces the urge to look up a walkthrough.  More experienced players–as denoted by the level of design on their cloaks–tend to show less experienced players where to find glyphs, several of which the player can’t actually reach on their own.  Furthermore, players discover in colder levels the value of huddling together for warmth.  All the while, the only “verbal” communication available is a small chiming sound made by the O button.  Without giving away too much, this feature of the game actually expands the story, again making me react with deer-in-the-headlights amazement.

Jackass...leaving me to freeze whie he bangs his head on a fricken wall...jackass

Jackass…leaving me to freeze whie he bangs his head on a fricken wall…jackass

Still, the best feature of the game also doubles as its most frustrating, as you’ll often get paired with players who somehow manage to express their amount of sheer idiocy with only actions and a small chime.  Having gone through the game a few times, I consider myself more of a mentor-player, and on one playthrough I attempted to show a newer player some of the secrets that others had shown me.  At one point, this guy started chiming like crazy, presumably to get my attention, then started walking over and over into a rock wall.  Figuring I should derive some meaning from it, I too walked into the rock wall.  Nothing happened.  I chimed a few times to get his attention, then got frustrated and left him still bashing his head repeatedly on the rocks, and I finished the colder sections of the game on my own.

The game often induces a calm feeling when I play it, but much like family, the stress level and frustration entirely depends on the random people you get stuck with, except you don’t have to worry about awkward Thanksgivings with them. It also affects your actions as a player.  A considerate mentor figure on your first few plays could turn you into a kind, caring, father figure to another newbie down the road, just like encountering morons and jackasses could set you down a bad path where you cooperate with no one, keep all the glyphs to yourself, and end up smoking, getting tattoos, and riding your Harley up and down the mountainside at all hours of the day and night.

I do plan on saying more about Journey (hopefully more entertaining, but good games are actually much harder to write about than bad ones), but as I mentioned before, this could make video games more literary, so I’ve put it on my Intro to Literature syllabus this fall–that’s right, come to the University of Minnesota Duluth and we’ll teach you video games! Until then, the game doesn’t cost much, and you have your choice of downloading it or buying the three-pack with Flower and…uh…that other game.  Although the impact wears off with subsequent playthroughs, Journey should leave the player with an emotionally soothing feeling upon finally reaching the mountain.

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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