Grand Theft Auto III – PS2, XBox, PC

GTA3boxcoverBack in my undergraduate days, I worked at a Sam Goody. Never heard of it? Well, that just goes to show that charging $5 more per CD than anyone else selling music doesn’t constitute a particularly solid business strategy. But in trying to make up for dropping sales in overpriced music, they tried selling video games. Shortly after remodeling the store, adding the demo consoles, and gussying up the place all nice and pretty, I began to notice trending video games, two of which pop into mind as phenomenally stronger than anything else I sold to unsuspecting customers. One of these, Madden games, tricked people into buying the same shitty game year after year, only to disregard it as soon as the next installment came out. But even more popular than games doomed to life as a second-rate coaster, Grand Theft Auto III simply would not stay on our shelves.

Of course I took note. “Why does everyone want this game?” I asked. “Should I play it to find out?” Well, I didn’t. But I did hear about it. Open-world. Free-ranging. And prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. Also, controversy. Controversy always makes for a good game, right? Well, I’d like to pose a question to any readers who may have played the game in the early 2000s–did you actually like Grand Theft Auto? Can you still pop in the disk and relive the good times? Or, like Goldeneye, do you look at it and puzzle over what the hell you ever saw in it?

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Reading reviews, wikipedia articles, and the like make GTA III sound like the messiah of sandbox games. Freedom! Non-linear gameplay! Wide-open world! You can do anything you want! To a certain extent, I see how they can make those claims. GTA III gives the player complete freedom to steal any car and drive around any street and hit anyone you want! Some examples of the variety of things you can do here include: Steal a taxi and get paid to drive people to their destinations, steal an ambulance and get paid to drive people to the hospital, steal a police car and get paid to drive around looking for criminals, or steal a fire truck and get paid to drive around looking for fires. I don’t want to describe this game as stupid, but what it lacks in imagination, variety, and any enjoyment whatsoever, it more than makes up for in tedium, repetition, and boredom.

I know this looks bad...but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I know this looks bad…but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I went in expecting a crime spree game. Something like Scarface pointing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the Godfather while Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds, some L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction type stuff. Instead I get Cars, without the cute CGI or Pixar wit. GTA III basically reinvents the driving/racing genre. Imagine Mario Kart, if every so often Mario pulled Toad out of his car and stomped on his face. The game also uses the exact same driving physics and controls as every driving game ever. The challenge in driving under this system lies somewhere between “playing a 3D platformer while blindfolded” and “trying to steer a hockey puck with a leaf blower during a hurricane.” Despite the amount of time the game puts you in the driver’s seat, it does occasionally let you get out of the car and engage in a rudimentary form of good, old-fashioned gang violence, but the awkward interface makes aiming feel like target shooting during a grand mal seizure. Despite the contract you took out to assassinate…apparently a ramen vendor…the game’s target selection program generally assumes that the innocent bystanders pose a greater threat than the thugs charging at you with automatic rifles.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Odd as this may sound, GTA III feels less like a video game and more like a board game. I didn’t see much of a story line going on, other than the main character robbing a bank, his girlfriend shooting him, and then his friends busting him out of prison. From there, you look for work, and you visit certain bosses over and over, taking missions in a pre-determined, very non-non-linear fashion, until that boss has no work for you anymore. You can lose these missions in a number of ways, such as running out of time, getting shot, your car exploding, or getting caught by the police. These don’t really pose a threat so much as a minor inconvenience. Getting killed just makes you start over at the hospital, and despite your recent jailbreak, the police seem to have more of a catch-and-release program going on, and a string of murder, reckless driving and grand theft auto merit no more punishment than having to go slightly out of your way while running errands.

Yep...get used to this.

Yep…get used to this.

Also, veteran players may have noticed odd claims by now, so in full disclosure, I didn’t actually beat this game. In fact, I didn’t get very far in it at all, for a combination of two very good reasons. First of all, I didn’t find myself enjoying the game very much. Driving sims just don’t do it for me. I can barely stomach the thought of real driving. But I’ve finished boring games before. However, ramping up the difficulty to “harder than Charlie Sheen on a Viagra overdose” may not have endeared me to completion. After three days and roughly ten hours of gameplay, I had completed maybe seven or eight missions total. Maybe I just needed more practice, or more experience with driving games. Or maybe the damn game shouldn’t make you repeat absolutely everything every time something bad happens. Oh no! Ran out of time! Looks like I have to visit the boss again, watch the cut scene, go steal a car, look for the gun store, find a gun, look for the ramen stand, aim for the bad guys, shoot a few pedestrians by mistake, then get shot to death while the ramen noodle man hops in his car for a car chase that won’t happen. The sheer amount of time required for each individual mission, combined with the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the missions to begin with and the rage-inducing effect of the game’s shitty soundtrack of radio stations, indicated certain health benefits in walking away from this one.

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention...

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention…

Grand Theft Auto III which wins my coveted “Sarah Palin Award for Intelligence in Game Design,” cost me $2.99 at Savers. I think I paid too much. However, I also picked up a $2.99 copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So…I at least have to make a perfunctory attempt at that one in order to clear off my shelf full of games I bought and haven’t yet played. Joy.

Mega Man 3 – NES / PS2, XBox and Game Cube (as Mega Man Anniversary Collection)

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

So I’ve gone roughly twenty months on this project, but I’ve only written about one of my favorite franchises–Mega Man–once. But do you honestly need any more than that? Capcom released six main titles, each with a Game Boy spin-off, then moved on to the Mega Man X series, changing at most a handful of tools and the line-up of characters. If any series epitomized the “If it ain’t broke” philosophy more than any other…well, Madden, FIFA and all those sports games pretty much nailed it. But Capcom did it first. And as an added bonus, Mega Man has the advantage over Madden in that you can’t easily turn the game off and go fight a legion of evil robots, taking their weapons as trophies like an Assimovian serial killer. But as the first rule of robotics doesn’t preclude the murder of other robots, our favorite blue Dexterbot has free reign–even permission and justification–to slaughter all the bad people-bots in order to save humanity. And he does, but much like his human counterpart, Mega Man faces the challenge of killing over and over again without going stale. To that end, we get Dr. Albert Wily, mad scientist extraordinaire, modeled after Albert Einstein and inspiration for Albert Wesker. As a human, Mega Man can’t harm him, which gives him license to keep throwing robotic Batman-villain rejects our way until contentment dawns on our 8-bit faces or Capcom gets bored and suddenly stops producing the games in favor of Resident Evil.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

The story behind Mega Man 3 tries to preemptively answer the question of why Dr. Light keeps pumping out deadly robots if Dr. Wily will only steal them and reprogram them for evil. Well, fortunately Dr. Wily has “found his sanity,” to quote the instruction book, and has teamed up with Dr. Light to work for world peace the only way they know how: by constructing the largest, deadliest, most powerful robot the world has ever seen. That’ll keep everyone safe. However, a new batch of robots has appeared on mining worlds, holding the 8 macguffins required to get the new peace keeper up and running.  Light believes some anonymous “lunatic guy” has ordered these robots to steal the energy crystals required to activate the peace keeping robot, Gamma. Jeez, Dr. Wily, didn’t you just find your sanity? Maybe you could lend to this situation your expert advice which we obviously know contains no trace of mental instability whatsoever.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn't scream "Batman" enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn’t scream “Batman” enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

Fans have long considered Mega Man 2 the pinnacle of the series, and I really have to agree. The game introduced a number of features that fans had never seen before, but apparently would never reach the same quality again. Except Mega Man 3 improved upon everything. How does that work? Good question! Let’s start with the original Mega Man. For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of living in Asia, I should explain that Rock-Scissors-Paper games constitute an iron clad and legally binding contract between anyone under the age of 20. Drawing on this, the first Mega Man introduced this principle in the form of a guy who chucks scissors at you from his forehead, who goes down pretty easily if you’ve already beaten the guy who gives you the power to hurl rocks back at him. But since “Paper Man” sounded lame even on his own medium of attack, and a three-level game didn’t quite justify the $50 price tag, they had to beef it up a bit. So you might imagine Capcom designed themes for their robots, carefully crafted around well-balanced and clever real-world principles…just kidding! They went for the cliched trifecta of video game alchemy; lighting, fire and ice.

So in Mega Man 2, they went all-out with the alchemy, what with water dousing fire, fire burning wood (actually the combination of Earth and Water, but hey, who actually follows alchemy these days?), wood…I don’t know…filtering air? And then the other four robots. Except that metal guy looks like he’d do a number on wood man. And bubble lead somehow damages the time-stopping robot. So that game turned out a mess in the rock-scissors-paper department. Mega Man 3 tried to restore the feeling of one weakness per enemy. Except to keep it interesting, they made two separate circuits of weaknesses, ensuring you’d have to fight at least two bosses with just your mega buster.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man's stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man’s stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Furthermore, this game marks Capcom’s foray away from the usual fire- and ice-themed levels. Instead, we get the dark, starry world of Gemini Man or the ninja-bot, Shadow Man.  One might question why anyone built robots around these ideas. The original six robot masters all had some constructive purpose to society. I can even think of some useful, productive ways to employ Mega Man 2 robot masters. But Gemini and Shadow Man don’t seem very helpful, and then…well…Top Man. Yes, this game introduces the Slippy Toad of Dr. Wily’s minions, Top Man. Who spins. And throws tops. After defeating him, you get the top spin, a weapon so difficult to use that I often deal more damage to myself than the enemy I hope to target. Seriously…I hate this guy so much I just want to punch him in the face! Wait, what? You defeat him by punching him in the face? Excellent! Who do I get that weapon from? …Hard Man? Did anyone at Capcom think these names through all the way? Seeing as how he appears in the same game as Snake Man, I’d say someone on the development team had just a little too much inspiration from bad porn.

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

The game also rectifies the too-awesome-to-use trope among games where you collect items. None of the weapons has a limited number of uses–you can always replenish them by camping out in front of a giant penguin or something. However, these weapons usually take too much effort, and simply blasting through levels with your arm cannon provides the quickest and easiest way to the end. In Mega Man 3, rather than going straight to Dr. Wily’s castle after fighting the robot masters, an enemy called Doc Robot appears. With as much bearing on the plot as Arwen in the Lord of the Rings films, Doc Robot merely gives you a chance to use your weapons more. He inhabits four previously conquered stages, although he alters them drastically. Facing you twice in each stage, he adopts the attack patterns of all the Mega Man 2 bosses. Because Mega Man hasn’t, apparently, proved that he can mop the floor with all of them. Meh.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Having a little more relevance to the story, Mega Man also faces off against the supposedly mysterious Proto Man. Of course, if you’ve ever heard the term “Proto” before, the figuring out his identity has all the challenge of pouring a glass of water. He appears in several stages, usually to fight a few rounds with Mega Man. Ostensibly, he does this as a test, but while certain things–such as practicing for the SAT–might help you out just before going in for the real thing, you may not want a practice bout against Mohammad Ali ten minutes before the fight. Unless, of course, you can move faster without all that cumbersome blood. And really, doesn’t having perfect vision only dull your other senses? Proto Man couldn’t come off as more of a dick if he had actually sided with Dr. Wily.

Man's best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Man’s best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Also noteworthy, Mega Man 3 introduces a new series staple, Rush. Taking the place of the items from the previous game, Dr. Light built Mega Man a dog that can morph into vehicles to increase your mobility. Rush makes a good companion; he does whatever you ask him to, never gets in the way, and he doesn’t poop so you never have to worry about where you step. Each of his three functions–two of which you obtain after beating certain bosses and the other you have from the get-go–increases your mobility, allowing you to spring to new heights, soar over dangerous ground, or swim through that one patch of water in Gemini Man’s level. So maybe the implementation could have used some more thought, but did I mention he doesn’t poop? That puts him ahead of a real dog in my book.

Otherwise, if you’ve played any game in the series, you should know what to expect. Run, jump. Enemy robots. Pew pew pew. Pretty standard stuff.

Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly – PS2, XBox

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I have to confess that this week’s entry has put me in a situation not unlike walking in on a room full of beautiful, lonely lesbians; I may have just discovered the best thing in existence, but I can’t praise it because of a single catch in the logic that renders it of absolutely no use to me. To give you an idea of how confused this game makes me, that previous sentence took approximately fifteen minutes to write.  Have you ever played a game so brilliantly designed that you wanted to erect a statue of it and place it at the top of the highest mountain so that everyone could see your rather weird graven image, but one thing about it just kept driving you insane until you decided you’d rather construct an effigy of the game and hang it, set it on fire, then pee on the ashes? Well, if not, I recommend Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly.

Fatal Frame 2 tells the story of twin girls Mio and Mayu, who after a shaky-cam montage that the player can only pray to the game to explain, find themselves in an abandoned traditional village after nightfall. After a bit of exploration, the girls start hearing noises and seeing glimpses of movement here and there.  Doors begin to unlock by themselves, and items appear in rooms when Mio and Mayu leave to search other rooms. Soon, they come across a camera with a note explaining, in terms only slightly more scientific than the average paranormal investigator uses to describe their own equipment, that it has the power to exorcise ghosts. And then Mayu displays the most astounding lack of survival skills in the history of horror, running off into the village full of angry spirits without her sister, who now holds the only means of defense against the supernatural menace.

Most people believe they don't look good in pictures. Some people truly don't.

Most people believe they don’t look good in pictures. Some people truly don’t.

Fatal Frame 2 combines all the best aspects of successful survival horror games.  Like Resident Evil, the noises Mio makes as she traipses through the environment sometimes sound enough like ghost noises to keep you panicking.  Like Silent Hill, it creates an atmosphere of total isolation, garnished with introspection and the slight hint of a dark past.  The horror builds off of Japanese culture, especially the significance of twins and the mythology of butterflies, which many Western players will find unfamiliar enough to spook them (but relax; if you’ve seen “The Ring,” the game offers one scene of a ghost girl climbing out of a well). Furthermore, they took away the standard issue gun and replaced it with a camera, making the player feel completely helpless in the face of adversity–it even requires letting ghosts get close and attack in order to do any meaningful damage to them. Imagine a donut made out of birthday cake, filled with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, frosted with Oreo cream and topped with M&Ms; this game feels like that. (I’ve recently cut back on sweets…can you tell?)

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and...well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn't see much more than that.

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and…well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn’t see much more than that.

However, Fatal Frame’s Fatal Flaw might just negate all of that.  Have you ever played a survival horror game that asked you at the beginning to “adjust the brightness until you can just barely see the gray line”? Well, this game doesn’t do that. It just assumes you like it dark. In fact, not only do you not want to see the gray line, but you don’t really care to see the text asking you the question, either.  What? You can’t see Mio? Well, you shouldn’t look at her anyway, given her young age. If you need to know what your environment looks like, you have a map. Use it! (I honestly spent less time following my GPS through downtown Minneapolis than I did checking the map screen for Fatal Frame).

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

While I understand what Tecmo intended by making the game darker than a chain smoker’s lung, and while I have to begrudgingly admit that certain scenes would not come across as terrifying in a lighter environment, I often needed to check the map to see what direction Mio faced, and due to the adoption of Resident Evil’s shifting camera angles, even that didn’t guarantee that I knew how to get her to move forward instead of back, slightly to the left, or directly into the nearby wall. Horror relies on senses, and the deprivation of one heightens the unknown, forcing you to interpret information more heavily with your other senses.  Good horror can overload those senses. However, video games lack texture.  You can drop a character into a pitch black room, but the player doesn’t entirely come along for the ride. A vibrating controller simply doesn’t substitute for placing your hand on something warm and gooey that you can’t see. One might as well climb into a sensory deprivation chamber and then have a friend dump a bucket of spiders on the outside. Yeah, it might scare you if you think about it hard enough, but you have a good layer of insulation protecting you.

It turns out that other people have had this problem as well, but no one could offer an infallible solution. Despite the game having the option to increase brightness, you can only increase it enough by finding a TV that naturally has a more vivid contrast. For the record, none of mine could do it. They both interpret an increase of brightness as watering down the picture with more white pixels. All in all, not very helpful.

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

I wish I could get past that because I did enjoy the game (at least what I could see of it). I can only describe the initial ghost encounters as “pants dampeningly scary,” and by the time the shock wears off, it feels as if some sort of character growth happened…somewhere. (I don’t know. They don’t really talk much.) Despite occasionally pairing up with Mayu, it doesn’t turn into a babysitting mission. Still, they managed to make her creepy enough that I started to feel safer without her around. True to the genre, the player learns Mio’s story as Mio in turn learns the story of the village. Also true to the genre, she does this by picking up scattered notebooks, letters, and other writings left around the village because apocalyptic horrors always result from a breakdown in private filing systems. If you ever notice disembodied pages from diaries lying around town, get out while you can; those places collect monsters like Gamestop collects used Madden games.

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Unfortunately, not only did the lack of  vision and direction ruin the experience, but a plot full of dangling details never fully explained make the ending not quite satisfying (I played the PS2 version, but I heard they added endings for the XBox and Wii). Plus, while having doors unlock on their own adds to the creepy factor, it doesn’t give you that solid line on where to go next, like Resident Evil does when it hands you a specifically marked key.  And while the four houses in the village don’t really qualify it as sprawling, I’ve never enjoyed the “just walk around until something happens” mentality, which only pisses me off and sends me rifling through the internet for a walkthrough, a cardinal no-no in my book of game design flaws. Still, I have to give them credit for minimizing puzzles.

So I should probably lay out all the information to see my ultimate opinion of the game: creepy as hell, great atmosphere, nice departure from guns-n-ammo approach to horror, no stupid puzzle solving. On the con side: walking from room to room feels like solving a puzzle, shifting camera angles in the dark causes Mio to dance in little circles, and the ending falls just shy of explaining anything.  I can honestly say I have never played a better survival horror game, nor have I played a worse one.

Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis – PS2, XBox, PC

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If you follow my blog regularly, rather than flip through in disappointment after your search for “sex” and “video game” turns up nothing but a wall of text with a few irreverently captioned images, you’ve probably found more than one review complaining about game series that sold out by porting a downgraded version of their original to a same-generation console just to make a few bucks (or a few thousand yen). While I do love to put on my big, black sanctimonious robes and pound my gavel in condemnation for these cash-grab attempts, I would disgrace the dignity and sex appeal of my big, curly powdered wig if I didn’t admit I can’t really make a general rule out of that practice. Fortunately, another sell-out genre of video game lets me keep up the pretence of blanket hatred on a much more regular basis: movie-based games.

Because Spielberg thought people would prefer an obscure species of predator to the historical favorite for the third film. Yeah. Smart move there.

Because Spielberg thought people would prefer an obscure species of predator to the historical favorite for the third film. Yeah. Smart move there.

I loved Jurassic Park. It came out the summer before fifth grade, and I never remember a movie scaring me more than that.  Give me a chair moving very slightly in a ghost story and I’ll pucker my naval in boredom. On the other hand, give the shark from Jaws a pair of lungs, legs, the intelligence to open doors, and a plausible-sounding explanation of how scientists might make them a reality, and I’ll lie awake at night, terrified, unable to sleep until eighth grade. Granted, some of that stemmed from the fear that the sun would go supernova and incinerate me in my sleep, but still…raptors! So you can imagine that after years of games like the weird top-down/first-person SNES adaptation or the Sega version where you play as a raptor, when I found a copy of Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis for $3 at my local Savers, I reacted with an emphatic WTF (and not just because I found out later that the game sells for upwards of $80 on ebay).

As the game simulates an alternative reality where John Hammond succedes, capitalism seeps into every aspect of the game, including visitor deaths.

As the game simulates an alternative reality where John Hammond succedes, capitalism seeps into every aspect of the game, including visitor deaths.

Operation Genesis shows an odd sense of self-awareness, showing the main characters from the film selling out their principles to make piles of cash.  John Hammond apparently has made a full recovery from his lesson in human endangerment for the sake of capitalism (or if we follow the book’s plot, his death by compies) and puts himself to the task of opening another park and profiting off tourists, despite the occasional fatality. Rather than advising about ethical ramifications of cloning a long-extinct ecosystem, Dr. Grant now digs fossils for the explicit purpose of extracting DNA for use by the park (however, the fact that they manage to obtain DNA from solid rock, which has completely replaced any organic material, causes me to question the validity of the cloned animals).  Dr. Sattler has apparently renounced her paleobotanist ways and now works as a nurse for sick dinosaurs.  And John Arnold, no longer holding a grudge against the dinosaurs that dismembered and devoured him, returns as the park’s operations manager.

Gameplay resembles sim games, with construction mechanics similar to Sim City, but with tourists walking through the park, apparently completely incapable of finding things like restrooms, restaurants, and the dinosaurs standing right on the other side of viewing enclosures. Oh yeah, and the game also includes dinosaur cloning.  Although the game drops you right onto the island with no instructions after a paltry five-minute loading time, if you’ve ever played a sim game in your life, it doesn’t take too much effort to pick up the tasks. The park needs an entrance, fences, and at least one dinosaur before you can open, at which point park admissions becomes your primary source of revenue, along with charges for viewing, eating, and for the serious dick players, using the bathrooms. Restaurants, cleaning stations, ranger stations, and other buildings help tourists leave to spread the word about how satisfied they felt after wandering, eating, peeing, and not getting gored to death in your park, raising your rating and by extension, your potential to profit.

Most of the amenities and attractions require research before you can build them because apparently your staff simply can’t grasp how a gift shop might work without someone writing a dissertation on the subject first. I know why they include this mechanic in the game–it lets the player prioritize, adding variety to each play through, and insuring that the park could, theoretically, fail. It also adds some credibility to the scientific aspects of the game.  I just fail to see how developing a vaccine for previously unknown diseases that will work on species whose biology we’ve only ever known through rocks shaped like their bones takes the same amount of time to figure out as how to drive a jeep through a field of duck-billed hadrosaurs.

They call this building the hatchery. I think it looks suspiciously like a raptor pen.

They call this building the hatchery. I think it looks suspiciously like a raptor pen.

The process of cloning dinosaurs from DNA adds a layer of complexity to the game, requiring just about every step actually involved in real-life cloning except for the applications and approval from ethics boards. You start by digging fossils from a randomly selected dig site which, props for authenticity, coincides with real-life locations where each dinosaur species lived. You can purchase extra dig teams to make the excavation faster, but each team costs twice as much as the one before it and the process still feels like it takes sixty-five million years to get anything you can use. Also, sometimes they’ll dig up gold, silver, or opals, which have no use, but you can sell them. I usually use the money on store-bought fossils. You know why? Because I’d rather have fossils than gold, silver, or opals.  Once you have fossils, you have to extract DNA from them. Each sample gives you a small portion of DNA for a single species. You need 55% or more to clone a dinosaur. Yeah. It takes a while. And at 55%, they die off rather quickly. I like to imagine mixed characteristics of dinosaurs and frogs. Slimy, amphibious raptors hopping around their pens, or T-rexes trying to catch flies with their tongues. Anyway, once you have enough, and pay a hefty fee, your dinosaur hatchery (which you need to build) will start incubating and raising your park’s attractions: one animal at a time.

Allosaurus, a member of the Tyrannosaur family, struts for the camera. See, even T-Rex has relatives that embarass him at Thanksgiving.

Allosaurus, a member of the Tyrannosaur family, struts for the camera. See, even T-Rex has relatives that embarass him at Thanksgiving.

While at thirty years old, I still love the idea of dinosaur cloning and hope for the possibility to visit a real Jurassic Park one day, I don’t really know if the main focus of the game should force players to watch the research in real-time. While you start with enough material to produce at least one dinosaur species, it can take years of in-game time to get a second. Each dig site has only three species, and the fossils put up for sale only match the species of fossils you’ve found. Furthermore, out of the nine sites available, you can only access three per save file, so you can’t actually get all the dinosaurs in the game for your park. The game moves at the speed of fish climbing out of the ocean, but it only takes four or five hours of gameplay before you realize that, even though the game itself has other options, it won’t let you do anything to make your establishment more awesome.

Theoretically, disasters can add some panic into the game. Apparently tropical storms and disgruntled employees shutting off the power don’t quite match up with the excitement of the occasional twister (what, did you just copy and paste the coding from Sim City?), which can either add mild amusement in the need to follow along behind it immediately repairing fences, or it can game over you if it happens too early on.  Dinosaur rampages–supposedly–cause more trouble, but I’ve never had an animal break out of its fence, even when I had the T-rex in minimum security pens.

Nausea mode: where the camera jiggles, and the vomiting player simulates shooting dinosaurs on the ground below.

Nausea mode: where the camera jiggles, and the vomiting player simulates shooting dinosaurs on the ground below.

The game also offers a mission mode, with some alternative gameplay. The first mission asked me to drive a jeep around an island, photographing various species to prove to investors that the park really did clone dinosaurs–or knows how to use Photoshop. The second mission put me in a helicopter, gunning down rampaging carnivores.  The game lost me on that one–for a vehicle designed with the ability to hover, it handled like a gift shop balloon in a strong breeze.  Again, if they intended to nauseate their players, mission accomplished, but I just couldn’t live up to the task of operating a helicopter, machine gun, and vomit bucket at the same time. The reward for completing ten missions  lets you release all your dinosaurs onto an island without disease or people and just watch. No thank you.

You know what I’d rather do? Go read the damn book.

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.

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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