Friday, November 26, 2010

Now Playing: Games Of The Fall

Aah, Thanksgiving break. The turkey's been eaten, the stuffing is in the fridge, and all of the holiday games have finally been released. I thought I'd take a break from my meat-hangover to share some random thoughts on the games I've been playing lately.

I kind of been futzing around with most of these, so I have no final opinions to offer. I seem to find myself picking at a game for a while, then switching to another one, then switching back, then taking a break for a day or two. Only rarely am I able to pursue a single title for a significant amount of time.

Maybe it's the fact that every game I'm playing feels just like a game I've already played... and as so many reviews are quick to point out, that's not a bad thing per se, but I can't help but wonder if it's contributing to my lack of focus. After I've finished these games and had a little time to digest them, I'll hopefully have a chance to explore these a bit more in subsequent, more-focused posts.

So heat up some leftovers and grab a comfy chair, cuz here we go.
My experience has been mainly with the Single player campaign, and it's been mixed. For the first few hours I found the game to be engaging, at least as these things go—put some historical fiction into my action gaming and I'll be a happy camper. But with respect to those who believe it to be a quantum storytelling leap over its predecessors... I just don't really see it. It's the same hodgepodge of unrelated setpieces as before, it's just that Treyarch figured out a clever way to frame it all and give it the appearance of narrative consistency. But come on; some guy wants to kill some other guys, and there's an attack planned on the US, and there are some numbers, and then there's an evil second-in-command dude, and a team of soldiers, some of whom die, some of whom betray you... okay, whatever. I don't really care about about it, but it's still not good storytelling.

More problematic for me is the Black Ops's rigidity. It's pretty intense—feels like control is ripped away from me every five seconds, even for things that I could've done or at least approximated with the controller. The game is constantly telling me where to go, what to do, whom to follow—and when I do it wrong I die. Checkpointing is kind of a bitch, too.

So yeah, I dunno, the game is fine enough... and it's certainly better than Modern Warfare 2. But it's too rigid and frantically paced to compare with a single-player ride like Uncharted 2 and the multiplayer isn't as fun as...
This was the year that I finally realized that in the console FPS wars (Halo = Jacob, COD = Edward), I come down pretty firmly for Team Halo. The games' stories are cheesy, the voice-acting is leaden and the gameplay has remained fundamentally unchanged since 2001 but all the same... Halo rules. And Reach is easily the best Halo game I've ever played. The campaign is a kick and multiplayer is genuinely fun; I haven't played a ton or anything, but I'm having a much better time with it than I have with any competitive multiplayer since the first Halo.

When I think about Reach's open-battlefield firefights, frantically ditching a smoking ghost as a rain of colorful fire arcs overhead, I realize that it's no wonder Black Ops's close-quarters trench-runs feel so constricting.
This game really took its time getting going for me, but I'm suitably invested at this point. I never really understood why Fallout 3 started off with the player-character's birth, other than to set up the game's clever character-building segment. So it's kind of a relief that New Vegas starts off so much more unassumingly. Too unassumingly, almost—for the first couple hours of the game, I was totally bored to tears; I felt like I had just started playing Fallout 3 again, only we'd jumped straight through the tutorial to a new, less-interesting wasteland. But now that I've made it to the strip, the game has opened up in a way that Fallout 3 never did, mainly due to the various competing factions. New Vegas hasn't set my world on fire and I don't expect that it will, but I'll most likely enjoy chipping away at it over the next few months.

I must mention The Bugs, however. I'm not sure I'm ready to write a "There are too many bugs in games" post about it, but damned if they don't seriously hurt the experience. It's to the point that I could actually see returning the game to the store as a defective product. There's a baseline level of trust that I want to feel between for a game's designers and New Vegas falls short of it. I don't demand a flawless experience, but I do expect that I won't have to devote 15% of my brainspace to remembering to save my game every five minutes because of regular crashes. And I'll even suck it up if a game is compelling enough (though a quicksave in the main menu would've been nice), but once a game crashes and corrupts my most recent save, I have a much harder time talking myself into sticking with it. I wish the bugs weren't such a defining part of the New Vegas experience, but there ya go.

Last thing: Bethesda, could you please take a note from Rockstar and triple or quadruple the amount of licensed music you've got in your games? I understand that there was a nuclear event, but it seems unlikely that if humanity was really only left with a handful of working cassettes, that they'd just cue 'em up on repeat and blast them over the radio...forever. I thought "Ain't That A Kick In The Head" was annoying before I was forced to listen to it fifty times in the same weekend.
Fuckin' awesome. Blah-blah-blah there are too many zombie add-ons these days blah... whatever. This DLC is fuckin awesome. It's like the whole cast of RDR decided to get together and make a horror movie, and they had a total blast doing it. Haven't finished it yet, but I plan to soon—I kinda can't believe this was only 800 MS points. Get it.

Well, that one was easy. Moving along to...

I've yet to become Queen of Albion, so I suppose that's not a surprise that I've yet to arrive at a solid conclusion on this game. I will say that Fable III boasts what pretty much has to be the most star-studded voice cast ever assembled for a game... it's borderline ridiculous, but totally welcome.

Combat is still a cinch (I haven't died a single time so far). If anything, Fable III is even easier than the already cinch-y Fable II. But still—challenging combat has never been the main focus of these games, and I enjoy it well enough I suppose. My main gripe at the moment is navigability, or, the utter lack thereof. The lack of a workable map and the return of the accursed loading screens means that I still rarely have a sense of where I am in relation to anything else, and even basic navigation feels much more confusing and disorienting than it needs to be. Couldn't all games just include a tiny, unobtrusive compass in the corner?

Anyway. Stop telling me to go to the shop, John Cleese. I ain't buying that downloadable shit and no matter how many times you tell me to go there, I never will. Take a hint, dude.
Definitely the game I've been enjoying the most. Which is mainly because I just really like Assassin's Creed games—the look, the vibe, the narrative setup, the historical angle, the gameplay, the platforming, the music, the terrible Italian accents... all of it really. And every way that Ubisoft tweaked ACII's formula serves to make the game more fun, save one that I'm not quite as sold on—the Facebook shit.

I'm not ready to say that the assignable side-missions aren't a worthwhile addition to a game, since mixing social-game stuff into a hardcore open-world adventure game is an interesting idea, and changes things up enough to feel like a good addition. But every time I click a button, wait a few mintues, and then get a reward, my Farmville-alert goes off. Especially after visiting that Ubisoft press event and hearing their representative carry on about how amazing it'll be once they've fully integrated Facebook into their games... I dunno. I get why they've added it, but I'm not sure yet how I feel about it. It might be the way of the future, and it might be a clumsy fad. It doesn't actively detract from the game, but I'm not certain I want what it adds.

But anyway, good game. Great game, even. The new platforming segments are really good, and it's nice to see that Ubisoft is taking cues from Naughty Dog not just in the increased focus on action setpieces but also in the way that they place the camera during platforming.

The game's new musical score is probably the biggest change for me, if only because they've ditched some of the more soaring, driving melodies from the last game and replaced them with groaning organs and this terrifying, hissing voice that seems to start up whenever I'm inside a building. I actually dig most of the new music, especially the full-on Metal Gear shit that starts up when Ezio enters a restricted area, but I was surprised to find how much I missed the 4-note main theme from Assassin's Creed II. Pretty!

See what I mean about the sequelitis? All of those games but Fable III contain a colon in the title, for crying out loud. But while I do feel like I'm simply re-experiencing more polished versions of games I've already played, most of them were worthwhile experiences, so I'm happy enough to get to go through them again, earning different achievements while doing so.

I know a bunch of y'all are playing at least a few of these games, so I throw it to you—what do you think?
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