• December 22, 2014

The Play Button

Rachel Kaser
  • Rachel Kaser
  • Blogger
  • News, reviews and commentary on video games.
Friday 12/19/2014
Last-Minute Holiday Gifts for the Gamer in Your Life

Did the holiday season creep up on anyone else or is it just me? I'm on record as being rather jaded about the modern winter holiday season and its fetish for ostentation. So I don't await it with the same breathless enthusiasm as I used to. But at least I can look forward to a slew of gaming-related gifts. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for the gamers in your life if, like me, you've left off shopping until the last minute.

 

Individual games are always a good way to go, presuming you have some insight into your giftee's collection. Some gamers are more interested in FPSes, some are indie gamers, and some enjoy RPGs. Rare is the gamer who has an appetite for everything. If you aren't sure what your gamer(s) would like, ask for a list of ideas. This will cut down on the possibility that you will get Call of Duty for a gamer who prefers Dragon Age.

 

I still think gift cards are a great way to go if you don't know what your gamer already has. Depending upon the holiday sales, the savvy gamer can make a gift card stretch a long way (I'm waiting for the Steam sales as we speak). And gift cards are available for any system and console. On the other hand, I'm still dubious about the prospect of giving consoles as gifts. While they will be great gifts to the gamer who wants them (again, gift lists come in handy here), to a gamer who does not they won’t do much good.

 

Okay, it's time for more specific recommendations, isn't it? Truth be told, it's difficult to think of a good list of potential games for two reasons. First, I don't want to spoil my Best of 2014 list; and second, this year has been so bizarrely middle-of-the-road that I can't think of any standouts that everyone must own. Most of the must-haves are last year's best, like Grand Theft Auto V. Super Smash Bros for Wii U/3DS is a very popular game among all gamers, even if I haven't had the chance to play it myself. Destiny and The Crew won't make it onto my best list, but I still think they're good buys for the right gamers.

 

Speaking of Smash Bros, if you do have a Nintendo nut in your circle, then amiibos will make great gifts. Amiibos are small figurines of the Smash fighters which can be used with the Wii U to customize the characters and crossover between the games, as well as gain bonuses for doing so. The uses are a bit obscure to me since, as stated, I've not played the new Smash, but I know that the Smashers I know are all eager to get their hands on them.

 

Happy holidays, everyone! May you get every kind of electronic doo-dad your hearts desire while simultaneously enjoying an overabundance of family time and rich food. 

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Friday, December 19, 2014 2:35 am. Updated: 2:35 am. Comments (0)

Tuesday 12/16/2014
Should You Buy? The Crew

I feel as though this game crept up on me. I've known The Crew was coming for quite some time, but it somehow managed to slip in under my radar while I was still playing some of the November releases. I admit I was fatigued when I began, and the game didn't really do much to wake me up.

As a pure sight-seeing tour, The Crew is superb. Driving around the country was like a great road trip and catching a landmark a small thrill. The driving itself is actually quite functional. There is a difference in car specs and it takes skill and hand-eye coordination to master the handling. I don't think the cars in The Crew will impress an actual gearhead the way they did a poseur like me. Still, I quite enjoyed getting my hands on the models, upgrading them and making my own fleet of machines.

The story is laughably bad. I understand that we need something, anything to explain why every problem can be solved by driving a certain distance, but attempting to make me care about generic wronged white man #459 (yes, voiced by Troy Baker) and his quest for vengeance is so futile it makes me physically cringe.

For an MMO, the game isn't terribly big on community. I was perfectly capable of soloing lots of the early missions, and frequently I would go a whole session without interaction, even on a packed server. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but the game is called “The Crew.” Still, when solo or not, the game rewarded me for diligence with some pretty nice upgrades, especially towards the final parts.

BUT…the gameplay has enormous clunk problems. By “clunk” I mean small design flaws that don't seem like they'd be that big of a deal, but add up to massive amounts of frustration. Things like start points: In missions you have to come to a stop on top of the start points and hit a button to begin; but in skill challenges, you can breeze right over the start points and inadvertently start a jump challenge when you're just trying to drive down the street. And that's just the start.

For example, I frequently had to retry missions because I have a tendency to oversteer and the game's difficulty is merciless. But every time you restart a story mission, the game loads for a rather long time, then tries to make you sit through the opening cutscene again. Sure, you can skip it, but it's still very annoying to have to hit the circle button twice in order to do so. Repeat seven or eight times, and you have me howling at the game to just let me get back to the race already.

Overall, I liked The Crew a bit, but it didn't exactly hold my attention or wow me to any great degree. It's a solid overall game, with the exception of the narrative, but not terribly noteworthy. 

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 1:40 am. Updated: 1:40 am. Comments (0)

Friday 12/12/2014
I Now Own a PlayStation 4

So, remember a few months ago when I did a sarcastic “review” of Infamous: Second Son? The one in which I claimed that, until I saw better exclusives available, I would not dip my toe in the pool of new-gen consoles. Well, bless me Father, for I may have committed the sin of hypocrisy. I now own a shiny new PlayStation 4.

In my own defense, it was a gift from my parents. Up until now, I've been playing every game on my laptop. It's been sturdy enough to handle the burden, but recently it's been struggling to make the newest shiny polished games run. It makes sense: After all, it's a few years old. However, the time and money required to build my own computer was not something I wanted to do. I suspect my parents noticed my near-weekly panic and made an executive decision on my behalf.

This sort-of crisis began when I realized that none of the new releases for November, with the possible exception of Dragon Age: Inquisition would run well, if at all, on my laptop. Even DA: I would have to be run on the very lowest settings. The real graphical hog was Assassin's Creed: Unity, which would have been impossible for me to play no matter what tricks I tried.

That would have been a disappointment because, as I've stated multiple times, I'm a huge AC fan. My mother even prefaced the gift with, “Besides, you can't NOT play Assassin's Creed. You love Assassin's Creed.” (Of course, we all know how this year's AC turned out, but I'm still happy to have had the chance to try it out.)

Am I a hypocrite? Maybe I am, but I stand by one fact: If it weren't my job to review games, I wouldn't have a next-gen console, AC or no AC. In fact, I might be in a better position than ever to call the console a disappointment: As the holiday season approaches, I've been trying to put together my gift lists. I tried listing games for my relatives to buy that I could play on my new console. I think I managed to come up with a grand total of five games.

This self-important rant really only effects readers in one way: I will no longer be able to refuse to review next-generation games due to a lack of resources. If I refuse from this point on, it'll be due to principle or simple distaste. So, in other words…I won't refuse at all.

But to the Second Son fans I may have annoyed with my mock review, I'll make a promise: If I get the game as a gift over the holidays (I've put the exclusives on my list, because I might as well get as much out of this black box as I can), I will give it a full, straight-faced review. I can't guarantee it'll be favorable, but it'll be a touch more professional this time.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, December 12, 2014 9:40 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 12/04/2014
First Impressions of Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series

Like almost everyone else on the internet, I love Game of Thrones and I’m suffering from withdrawals. So, when I saw that Telltale had released the first episode of their GoT game, I thought I’d give it a go. The moment I heard that theme song and saw a digital version of the opening map scroll, I knew HBO made the right choice when they put this in Telltale’s hands.

See, here’s what we all like about Telltale: Their primary talents are A) developing characters to which we can get genuinely attached, and B) putting us into situations where there is no way we can walk out happy. This being Game of Thrones, there is a lot of B. One of the very first things you do in the game, outside of conversation, is make a snap decision that will decide the fate of another character.

Another Telltale signature is the establishing shot within the first five minutes, a single action which shows us just what kind of world we’re in. In Game of Thrones, this is achieved by panning up from the singing, inebriated crowd of Northerners to a shot of The Twins with the subtitle telling us that it is the eve of the Red Wedding.

By the way, if you aren’t a GoT fan, then sorry, but you won’t be able to enjoy your latest serving of Telltale. This game is very much a companion to the show. They even bring in the actors to voice the characters which have been modeled after them. By the way, the shoddy lip-synching and slightly off-model animation is kind of a disappointment.

In the first episode, and presumably in the rest of the game as well, you take control of various members of House Forrester. My recall of the house names from A Song of Ice and Fire is spotty at best; but then I checked the wiki and, outside an offhand mention, they’d never heard of it either. So kudos to Telltale for being eagle-eyed, I suppose. It gives them license to create new characters.

The Forresters are a vassal house of the Starks, and they are keepers of a vast forest of trees that supplies the Seven Kingdoms’ shields, ships, etc, making them strategically important. You play as three different characters: Forrester squire Gared Tuttle, sole survivor of the Red Wedding; Ethan Forrester, a teenage boy who becomes lord after his father’s death at same, and Mira Forrester, who is in King’s Landing as a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell.

As with all Telltale games, the first episode promises much. From a technical standpoint, the game is less than impressive, but they get points for capturing the exact atmosphere of Game of Thrones itself. I’ve never felt tenser than when I was playing as Mira and being interrogated about my allegiances by Cersei Lannister herself. Time will tell if Telltale can deliver us an interactive version of the same experience we get watching a season of the show. If the ending of the first episode is any indication, they’re off to a good start. Valar morghulis, indeed.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, December 4, 2014 9:02 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 11/30/2014
You Should Be Playing: Far Cry 4

Okay, maybe this is me being a complete Far Cry neophyte, but I just didn't get this one. Nothing happens in this game! The setting was pretty, and the main villain interesting, but it ended so quickly! The game told me to sit still, and I did, and then the next thing I know Pagan Min is taking me to my objective and the credits are rolling! If this was some kind of indie game I’d give it a pass, but for a Triple-A Ubisoft release, it’s a little…

Alright, alright, I’m just messing with you. I’m referring to the secret ending of the game, which you can get by doing what the crazy dictator tells you to do (like an actual human with self-preservation instincts) and not moving for a few minutes at the very beginning of the game. Honestly, I wonder if that’s the only happy ending this story could have.

The main character is Ajay Ghale, an American-raised son of the fictional Himalayan kingdom of Kyrat. He returns to Kyrat to dispose of his mother’s ashes according to her wishes. But literally within an hour of arriving, he’s been press-ganged into joining the local freedom fighters. He proceeds to wreck the delicate political balance with the alacrity of a charging elephant. It’s actually kind of painful to play. Ajay, you can wait until the country isn't in civil war to scatter the ashes. Not to be insensitive, but your mother isn't going anywhere.

Mechanically, the game runs along very typical FPS lines. You get a variety of arms, from bows to assault rifles to grenade launchers. Ajay can also craft needed items, like weapon holsters, from the skins of dead animals; though how an American kid knows how to do this goes unanswered. I kind of wish the game didn't automatically craft healing items from herbs, as it can be hard to keep track of what I have.

I did have a horrible time steering the vehicles, and I either got hung up on trees or went soaring over cliffs every other minute. Luckily, there are a myriad of other ways to get around, from wingsuits to gyrocopters to riding on elephants, all of which is just as much of a blast as it sounds. It certainly beat trying to go anywhere on foot, as the fauna of Kyrat is quick to attack Ajay and tough to kill. Unfortunately the missions, especially the liberation missions, are rather same-y and don’t provide nearly the same level of enjoyment.

Overall, I wasn't impressed or disappointed. The game was a fun, open-world experience, but the story made me feel reluctant to play, and even when I did, it felt like function over form. Still, it could be my November burnout talking, and I don’t want to dismiss a solid game after the mixed bag of a month I've had. If you like FPSs and want to play a single-player open-world game, Far Cry 4 is the game to ask for this Christmas.

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, November 30, 2014 10:35 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 11/28/2014
Going Casual: Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove, Sacred Grove

Did you think I would abandon you during the month of the AAA-deluge, casual gaming fans? Never! Especially not when the newest entry in my favorite hidden-object series is out. Also, I need a little more time to form an opinion on Far Cry 4. I swear, open-world games will be the death of my attempts at scheduling.

I reviewed Dire Grove back in the day. Sacred Grove takes place in the same town, and apparently Dire Grove can’t avoid snowy destruction at the hands of vengeful spirits, because it’s happening again and for entirely different reasons this time. The local forest spirit is wreaking havoc, and the few remaining residents and the local clan of druidic Mistwalkers are each claiming the other is responsible for its anger.

I feel an opportunity was missed to tie the story more closely to its predecessor. Are the Mistwalkers the same clan that sacrificed the girl who became the banshee in the first game? Where were they when she was turning the world into Noveria? If it was them, were they sacrificing her to the same spirit who causes the snow in this game?                                         

 

Mechanically, almost everything is the same and is as fun as it’s always been. The hidden-object scenes are broken up with complex puzzles, though I think the latter are a bit too needlessly complex at times. There are new, more challenging difficulty settings, which encourage you to replay the game and scale up each time. The story is good for what it is, and I found the character design on the Mistwalkers to be very appealing.

I really didn't like that the Master Detective suddenly has a voice. Being able to choose gender didn't bother me. It’s just the dialogue trees that got to me. We can see the text onscreen in dialogue and in the MD’s internal monologues, so the voice adds nothing. If anything, it decreases my ability to really get into the game.

The inclusion of a “deduction board” sounds like it would make sense, considering you’re the Master Detective, but you don’t get to do any deducting on it. You gather clues, press a button, and the MD explains the conclusions like Captain Obvious giving testimony. In trade, they've eliminated the MD’s personal journal. I really missed that journal, as the MD’s world-weary commentary in it made everything feel more fleshed-out.

Overall, this Mystery Case Files takes away a little too much, and leaves just enough of the usual behind. I love MCF, and Sacred Grove didn't change that. There are just a few bells and whistles that didn't feel as though it fit within the game’s series. I will keep playing the games no matter what they do, and I can’t say I really blame Big Fish for attempting to innovate with their flagship series. I just don’t think everything they threw at the wall here stuck. We’ll see what they come up with next.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, November 28, 2014 11:10 pm. Comments (0)

Tuesday 11/25/2014
You Should Be Playing: Dragon Age: Inquisition

The easiest way to sum up Dragon Age: Inquisition is to say that it is a blend of both of the previous games in the series, with elements from Mass Effect and Star Wars: The Old Republic thrown in. Whether you will enjoy that depends entirely on how much you like Bioware, because this game is very much a product of its studio.

 

The player character is the perfect example of what the game takes from its series predecessors. Like the Warden, they are customizable down to race. Like Hawke, they are fully voiced. Like both the Hero of Ferelden and the Champion of Kirkwall, they were nobodies who, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, got drawn into the miseries of the terminally ill-fated world of Thedas.

 

The peace accord between the warring mages and templars has been decimated by a cataclysmic event, of which the player character is the sole survivor. They discover that they now have the power to seal rifts in the Veil, and now must travel from Orlais to the Hinterlands in order to build an army and . . .

 

If you didn't understand any of that, you’re out of luck. If you haven’t played the previous games and all of the DLC, this game’s story is going to be confusing. But if you DO know the characters and HAVE played the other games, then Inquisition repays your devotion with interest. This game takes place across all of Thedas, including places we've only heard about before, such as Orlais. We get to see characters we haven’t seen since Origins, and the story is built upon the several sequel hooks presented earlier in the series.

 

There are almost as many new gameplay mechanics as there are old ones. Combat is essentially the same as it was in Origins. The upgrade trees have fewer options than I’d like, but there is a proficient armor- and weapon-crafting system. There are more MMORPG-style “find amount X of product Y” quests, which might get tiresome for some people. You now have the ability to jump, which introduces more vertical exploration options, even if it did lead to me getting stuck trying to jump onto rocks once or twice.

 

There was only one new gameplay/art change that infuriated me. As in past games, you press a button and everything touchable is outlined in bright yellow. However, with the color palette in this game being sunlight and shades of green, yellow doesn't contrast enough. Frequently I’d press the button then run in a circle trying to find the highlighted objects.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition perfectly fits the mold of a typical Bioware game. It has the squad of colorful companions with detailed backstories; it has the long conversations; it has the epic, world-spanning conflicts. If that’s not your thing, I don’t think you’ll get much out of the game. But if you've enjoyed Bioware games, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect or KotOR, then you’ll probably enjoy Inquisition very much.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, November 25, 2014 10:05 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 11/20/2014
Assassins Creed Unity: …and The Ugly

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but Unity’s story is so unusually bad for the Assassin’s Creed series that I get the impression no one actually wanted to write it. “Oh, you wanted the series to go back to the assassination spectacle it was to begin with? You wanted a setting with some intrigue beyond ‘When will the hero realize his wife back home has probably expired?’ Well fine, but don’t expect us to get excited about it.”

Our hero is Arno Dorian, the son of an Assassin who was killed by Shay from Rogue. Arno was adopted by a Templar grandmaster, and grew up to fall in love with his foster sister Elise de la Serre. Arno was unaware of his heritage and grew up to be a rather idle man who nevertheless free-runs like a champ. He only discovers the truth when he’s accused of his foster father’s murder and thrown into the same Bastille cell as an Assassin who knew his father.

This all happens exceedingly fast, too. Arno’s the complete opposite of Edward Kenway, who only came around several years after the Assassins initially approached him. Arno not only accepts his cellmate’s blunt declaration, “Your father was an Assassin,” without question, but also seems to instantly understand that Elise, the love of his life and heir to the Templar throne, is now one of his mortal enemies.

More strangely, the game doesn’t seem interested in showing us the Revolution itself. Arno doesn’t seem to particularly care about the whole conflict. There’s certainly no sharing a horse with Paul Revere this time around, and that’s not bad. But at least Connor was allowed to debate with the Founding Fathers, allowing for something like a revisionist take on the American Revolution.

I said in my preview that the French Revolution is such a confusing and chaotic time in history that we needed some clear delineation of where the Assassins and Templars stood within it just to make sense of it all. We needed a smart, sympathetic hero and an enjoyable villain.

We got neither. Arno and Elise are bland and wishy-washy, and the Assassins and Templars might as well be chess pieces for all the conviction they show. Arno’s stated purpose to avenge his foster father’s death at the hands of fellow Templars is the closest we get to motivation, and I don’t know why the Assassins would even care if the Templars are killing each other.

Don’t get me wrong; I still liked Arno for his puckishness. He could have been a very likeable protagonist, had he been given a better script. His relationship with Elise could have thrown the usual Assassin/Templar dynamic for a loop, had it been handled correctly. I suppose that’s the big disappointment about Unity: It had so much potential, and most of it was wasted. It’s not a copy-paste job like Rogue was, but that just makes the let-down of it sting so much more.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, November 20, 2014 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Assassins Creed Unity: The Good, The Bad . . .

This might be the most asterisk-heavy recommendation I ever give, so to everyone reading this, make free with your grain of salt. In my Rogue review, I said that I prefer Unity, despite its faults, because it’s different. That’s still true; but just because I prefer the broken game over the lazy one does mean I don’t recognize the broken game’s flaws.

First, I have a few good things to say about the game’s mechanics, even if most of the good things are coupled with bad things. I liked Arno Dorian’s controls more than I thought I would. His movements feel more kinetic than Edward Kenway’s and the free-running feels more like free-running. The “free run down” control is welcome as well, as up to this point the only way to get down from heights quickly was to take a wild jump and hope it didn't kill you. The whole city felt like my playground, a feeling I've not had since AC2.

This more-fluid movement makes it all the more amusing when Arno makes an impossible leap and magically warps across the gap, flailing his arms, to land safely on the other side. This happened so often I came to rely upon it, making jumps I’d never have dared to in other games because I knew Arno’s grasshopper abilities would save me.

Speaking of which, by now I’m sure everyone’s heard of the infamous buggy launch. Even if I never had a game crash, I will admit that there were times when NPCs would glitch through each other. Sometimes their collision detection never triggered and Arno would run right through them, which I found funny. Not so much the framerate issues, which I even got on a console. I remember thinking that, had they spent more time doing QA testing and a little less time making Arno’s incredibly tight trousers crease around his sculpted backside as he …sorry, lost my train of thought.

I did like the assassination missions. In several, you have the option of completing reconnaissance objectives in order to make the actual killing easier, or to get more information. Usually the AC games are holding your hand right up until the moment you shank the target, and we haven’t done real recon since AC1. Still, you’ll want to opt for stealth because the combat has gotten even worse. Guards pick on Arno for no obvious reason and can then run him through with an epee with no option to parry. It’s kind of a mess.

One thing I loathed was the fact that Eagle Vision, a special ability which AC protagonists have had since the beginning with no restrictions, suddenly operates on a timer that recharges. The first time my meter ran out, I threw a fit. Ubisoft, you cannot arbitrarily decide, after six games and who-knows-how-many side projects, to put limits on your characters’ superpower just because you've realized it makes the game just a touch too easy.

Now we’re done talking about the mechanical side of things. Let’s talk about the story…

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, November 20, 2014 12:05 am. Comments (0)

Tuesday 11/18/2014
Should You Buy? Assassins Creed: Rogue

Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed…whatever am I going to do with you? I've mentioned numerous times that I’m a huge AC fan, and I have been since the beginning. I even played those horrible mobile games with Altair and Ezio. I make an effort to enjoy every AC game, so when I find as much to dislike in one as I did in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, there’s a real problem.

 

My initial impression of Rogue (and Unity, to a lesser extent) was that Ubisoft drastically overestimated audience dislike for poor Connor. They've now made games about his grandfather, his grandfather’s mates, the Templar butcher who befriended his father, and finally the ineffectual, foppish French Assassin who succeeded him. Yet they refuse to acknowledge Connor’s existence, even though he had a more tangible effect on the Assassin/Templar conflict and world politics than anyone else in that time period.

 

The underlying conflict of the whole series is the Assassins’ peace through freedom ideals vs the Templars’ peace through order. Up until this point, we've only seen it from the perspective of the Assassins. Occasionally the Templars are shown to be sympathetic, but this game marks the first time one is allowed to tell their side of the story. Shay Cormac is even a former Assassin, so this should be a watershed moment for the series’ story, right?

 

Wrong. I get the impression that Ubisoft had no idea how to give the Templar ideals any credence without turning the Assassins into cartoon villains and making them completely disregard their own beliefs and Creed. Here’s an example:

 

Shay is told to retrieve an ancient artifact, but in doing so he inadvertently starts the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, killing many innocent people in the process. His Mentor knew the dangers, but didn't warn Shay, which violates the first tenet of the Creed, “Never harm an innocent person.” They try to murder the recalcitrant Shay, violating tenet three, “Do not compromise the Brotherhood.”

 

It would be easy for a well-written Assassin defector to take exception to the Creed, especially the first tenet; the Assassins spare innocents, but kill people who disagree with them? But neither Shay nor the Assassins have the benefit of good writing, and all the Templars have to do to entice Shay is be civil.

 

This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the game was fun to play, but it isn't. The environments are copied from 3 and 4, with the exception of the truly spectacular Lisbon setpiece. Shay has the same moves as Edward Kenway, and he even has the same shipboard shouts. While this old stuff does work, it sadly comes with the same shoddy controls and is generally banal.

 

AC: Unity gave me a lot of rope with which to hang it, but glorified AC4 DLC Rogue was even worse. No matter how much I criticize Unity, I will take a broken new game over a functional but boring recycled game any day.

 

Oh and Unity? You’re next.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, November 18, 2014 3:35 am. Comments (0)

Friday 11/14/2014
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Multiplayer Experience)

I don’t think I’m really cut out for war games. I stopped playing the Advanced Warfare multiplayer because I wanted to spare everyone else the experience of playing with me. So the complaints I have could be put down to ineptitude on my part, and I wouldn't deny it. Still, I have the feeling that even some veterans will be able to relate to these criticisms.

When I finished the campaign, I remember thinking that the multiplayer just had to be better. It doesn't have that awful story, for one. Also, I’d have the chance to use the fun stuff freely. The magnet gloves, the variable grenades, that grappling hook that the game selfishly snatched out of my hands after just five minutes…even I, an admitted FPS imbecile, was excited to leap into it.

But Call of Duty knows one thing better than I do: Multiplayer maps are the bread-and-butter, and you change them at your own peril. With toys like those, you’d think the best sort of playground would be a vertical one. We could chase each other up the sides of buildings and hover-boost from level to level while lobbing ordinance everywhere.

But the game’s multiplayer maps are not (and possibly never could be) terribly creative. This isn't Titanfall, after all. So, in lieu of a good playground, the game withholds the toys. No magnet gloves, no grappling hooks; just guns, grenades and a few Exo abilities.

The player customization is pretty expansive. A Pick-13 system allows you to put together a hefty loadout. Even the neophyte going into their first match will be able to survive against experienced players, with some perks and scorestreak bonuses available right at the outset to help even the odds. The Exo abilities are perhaps the one toy the game doesn't skimp on, letting you get speed boosts, cloaks, and shields.

The maps are a fairly large. When I played, I found almost everyone brawling in one part of the map, like the hedge area in the Greenband map. Some of the gameplay modes offer a welcome variety. There’s a Combat Readiness Program for beginners, but I’m nothing if not enthusiastic and went right for the Free-For-All. This was after I wasted lots of time in the shooting gallery, playing with all the new guns.

About those guns: They aren't great. I had the same problem I had in the campaign: The guns are not really that different from each other, and the ones that are different aren't all that useful. The futuristic weapons aren't nearly as effective as the old reliables, and some of the special weapons are almost useless outside of their single-player context.

I guess the phrase I’d use to describe Advanced Warfare overall is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This whole game is like a store-bought cake mix; not bad, per se, but formulaic and notable only for reliability. All of the pretensions to near-future science fiction turn out to be a bit of window dressing and little else. I’m disappointed, but not surprised.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, November 14, 2014 8:29 am. Comments (0)

Wednesday 11/05/2014
Should You Buy? Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Single-Player Experience)
Honestly, I'm not sure why I even bother at this point. CoD’s single-player campaign exists solely as an extended tutorial for the toys we get to truly enjoy in multiplayer. I know that, and I wouldn't bother to give the campaign its own review ordinarily. But they got Kevin Spacey –Kevin Spacey!—to play a major character. If that’s not the new devs begging to be taken seriously, then I don’t know what is.
 
The problem is that, were I to review AW’s story with the any discernment, I think I’d start laughing and never stop. It is so unaware of its own idiocy; it’s like a big dog knocking your legs out from under you, and then cocking its head as if to ask why you’re on the floor. Here’s a *SPOILER* example: After the protagonist, who works for Spacey’s PMC, kills the terrorist he's been hunting the whole game, the terrorist hands him a computer chip and tells him Spacey's character knows more than he's saying. The chip does indeed contain the proverbial smoking gun, which begs the question: How did the terrorist, First-World Enemy Number One, get hold of it?
 
CoD’s linearity is practically a trademark, and it did not disappoint. The game penalizes even the smallest attempt to deviate from the script. For example, my partner Gideon and I jump onto the back of a bus to chase a terrorist down a Nigerian highway (no explanation as to why the bus speeds up when we jump aboard, but whatever). I end up hanging by one hand from the side of the bus. To progress, you have to shoot the two goons in a car. I thought, “I'll activate my bullet time ability and get some headshots!” But for some reason I suddenly couldn't. The game killed me multiple times for trying.
 
Protagonist Jack Mitchell is mocapped by Troy Baker. But we only get to hear Baker’s dulcet voice on a handful of occasions. I think that one was my fault. Way back when Ghosts came out, I decried the silence of protagonist-whose-name-I-forget and asked why he couldn’t at least narrate the between-mission cutscenes. In AW, the protagonist speaks in those cutscenes and nowhere else. They force the poor man to zip it during gameplay, even when it’d be logical or downright necessary for him to speak. Way to take me at my word, Sledgehammer.
 
The much-ballyhooed mocapping and facial tech that allowed Kevin Spacey to grace us with his presence is impressive, to be sure, but either everyone was on some serious drugs or they haven’t perfected the animation of eyes, because every character looked like a doll. It also calls attention to just how stiff and unreal everyone looks outside of cutscenes. Gideon especially walks carrying his arms a foot to either side so they won’t clip through his bulky suit.
 
So that’s how it feels to play the campaign of Advanced Warfare. I’ll have forgotten everything about it by tomorrow. I’ll do a rundown of the multiplayer gameplay next.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 11:25 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/31/2014
You Should Be Playing: Alien Isolation

Happy Halloween! In honor of America’s holiday of fear, I give you the only purchase you need for your video game scares this year: Alien: Isolation.

Yes, this game is scary. The first time you see the Alien about thirty minutes into the game, it drops out of the ceiling without so much as a hiss or a saliva drip to alert you to its presence and heroine Amanda Ripley throws herself under a desk one half-second before it can see her. From that moment on, you are totally vulnerable. The Alien could be around any corner, in any open vent, in any dark hallway.

 

As stated, you play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley who never saw her again after she departed on the Nostromo. The game is set fifteen years after the first film, and Amanda is now working for Weyland-Yutani in deep space in the hopes of finding her mother. She finally gets a break when the Nostromo’s black box is found and she’s invited to accompany two W-Y execs for the retrieval. However, when they arrive at the location, a distant port called Sevastopol Station, it is abandoned except for a few survivors trying wildly to fend off a “monster.”

 

The visual aesthetic of this game is intended to be seventies cyberpunk. It looks dated now, but it imitates the technology shown in the original film. Every bit of technology you come across is meant to invoke those days of CRT monitors and green monochrome displays. The tools you come across are massive relative to what they do; the motion tracker is roughly twice the size of a barcode scanner and certainly bigger than your pistol. I found the style refreshing!

 

Sevastopol Station itself feels labyrinthine and confusing, like it was cobbled together from bigger stations with no thought given to the occupants who have to try and wind their way through the dark corridors. I admit though, it did feel deliberately padded in some places. The architecture sometimes makes no sense except to provide a place for the Alien to patrol and savage you. This, combined with the lackluster pacing of the ending, makes the game run out of steam in the final third.

 

I didn't really care for the android enemies that show up a bit later in the game. They weren't as scary as the Alien itself and were more annoying than anything else, pawing at my throat when they caught me and earning a swift bop on the nose for their troubles. But perhaps that’s because their smooth, inhuman visages didn't trigger a fear reaction in me. It’s not easy playing second fiddle to H.R. Giger’s nightmares.

 

I quite liked this game, and I relished every scare. Still, it’s a touch on the tedious side, especially towards the end. But that doesn't make the game’s beginnings and excellent atmosphere any less frightening, and I still think it’s worth playing on a dark, lonely night.

 

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 31, 2014 1:00 am. Comments (0)

Thursday 10/30/2014
Coming Soon: Far Cry 4

Oh yes, November is going to be very busy. I’m going to do my best to get to all of the big games. If I can pull it off, I hope it’ll be as fun for you to read as it will be for me to play. I’ve got Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and finally Far Cry 4. I’m probably going to get to them in that order, too.

I never actually played Far Cry 3. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about it, and I’ve watched others play it. It looks like a romp, and I hope to get around to it someday. But since I never actually got around to playing it, I suppose I’m coming into this experience relatively fresh. I mean, I’m familiar with some things from that game, including the infamous primary villain, but I’m not going to be able to gauge how it lives up to its predecessor.

 

Far Cry 4 takes place in a fictional Himalayan kingdom called Kyrat. You play Ajay Ghale (I’ve heard varying reports on how that’s pronounced), the son of expatriates who has returned to Kyrat to honor his dead mother’s desire to be disposed of in her home country. I don’t really know much else about the story. I want to go in as a true neophyte. If I’m free of series prejudice, so I’ll try to go in without hype prejudice as well.

 

I did get some idea of what the villain is about. Maybe this is Far Cry’s signature hype method, showing off the colorful psychopaths that oppose their straight man heroes. My familiarity with Far Cry 3 is admittedly marginal, and even I’ve heard Vaas’ “definition of insanity” speech. Similarly, I’m not sure of the plot of the game, yet I’ve seen the pink-clad, blonde villain voiced by Troy Baker. Hopefully this Pagan Min is going to be the show-stealer Ubisoft seems to think he’ll be, because at this point I can’t expect any less.

 

Even if the story turns out to be a complete wash, the fast-paced gameplay might make up for it. I’ve seen Ajay fire an automatic crossbow, leap dramatically from car to car, and ride an elephant into an enemy outpost. The roaming wildlife also includes rhinos, leopards, and even honey badgers. That’s going to be a treat. Also I don’t care so much about how a game looks, but I do like the scenery on display in this one. The Himalayan Mountains look lovely and verdant, if a bit treacherous.

 

So Far Cry 4 looks like it’s going to be a barrel of fun. At least, I hope that’s what they were going for. I hope the devs aren’t going for a sober, topical look at small-scale tyrannical regimes. If you give me the ability to ride a rampaging elephant around, I will not be receptive to subtle storytelling.

 

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, October 30, 2014 12:00 am. Comments (0)

Tuesday 10/28/2014
Coming Soon: Assassin's Creed: Unity

I’m a big Assassin’s Creed fan, and, as with all things I enjoy, I've been very patient with this series. But I’m starting to get a little frustrated. Specifically, I’m frustrated with the way Ubisoft is spinning their wheels, hyping historical fiction and new mechanics as opposed to the actual assassin part of their game. With that in mind, let’s look at the latest in the series: Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

I’m on record recommending Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. But both it and its predecessor shared one common trait for which I did not care: The main character was an outsider looking in at the central conflict with a sneer; Connor to the Revolution in 3, Edward to the Assassins in 4. But Unity is set in the French Revolution. That’s not going to cut it this time. This time period demands a main character invested in the conflict and willing to die for it.

The last two games were sold on what one might call the “star power” of the historical characters. In AC3, it was “Pal around with the Founding Fathers, who were significantly less heroic than American revisionist historians would like you to believe” (the game’s explicit spin on it, not mine). In AC4, it was “Pal around with legendary pirates, who were significantly more ordinary than pretty much all of fiction since Treasure Island would like you to believe” (again, the game’s words, not mine).

“Star power” isn't going to work in the French Revolution. I’d wager that the average consumer of AAA games will not really be familiar with Revolutionary figures outside of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Napoleon without a long trip down Wikipedia lane. It’s just not an event that most people who are not French-educated have more than a passing familiarity with, at least in my opinion.

So, to compensate, they've added the asinine co-op mode, where, instead of distinct characters, the player will always see their character as hero Arno and the rest as his sidekicks. Ubisoft, we don’t need four generic Assassin drones to pilot. We need a main character who is a North Star by which to understand the Revolution and how the Assassins and Templars align within it.

As for the gameplay they've shown, I really have nothing new to say. They seem to be trying to reassure everyone that they've not abandoned the core mechanics. The trouble being they never perfected them to begin with. Altair’s dreadful combat was not much more fun when Edward was doing it, and the plurality of bells and whistles has made that fact infinitely more galling.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m not looking forward to the new AC game. I am! Like I said, I get particularly impatient with Assassin’s Creed specifically because I’m so fond of the series and I want it to improve. Funny how the series that fostered my early interest in AAA games is now the series to which I play fussy mother.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 5:30 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/24/2014
Should You Buy? Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments

Sometimes, such as with the Metal Gear franchise, I’m the newcomer at a disadvantage who has to tread lightly lest I criticize something that fans love. Other times, as with Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series, I’m in the fan position. I've been playing the Holmes games since Mystery of the Mummy and I've been a Holmesian since childhood. I give Crimes and Punishments my seal of approval, with some reservations.

I think they've captured Holmes almost perfectly. He’s extremely intelligent and witty, a gentleman always with the occasional bit of sarcasm; in other words, a great representation of the Holmes I remember (still no Jeremy Brett, but no one is). It’s a bit jarring to see inside the head of Holmes, a peek behind the veil almost. I recall Holmes himself saying that, were Watson able to follow the train of deduction as Holmes does, he’d find the whole thing rather prosaic. I like the new take on the formula, and being able to follow the deduction doesn't make Holmes seem any less genius.

The game is by far the most graphically advanced in the series, though I still had the occasional problem with texture pop-in. There were a few glitches, such as icons in the mini-games hovering in the air after the games were finished and layered over the environment in my periphery. But other than that, the sumptuous environments were a treat to explore, and I frequently imitated Holmes’ tendency to go over every inch of the scene.

Far be it for me to criticize any game for its puzzles, but I feel there are a number of them which are just busy work and are not based in cleverness or solving ability at all. One involves using a pencil to reveal the word impressions under a torn-out page in a notebook, and I almost gave myself carpal tunnel trying to run that tiny stub over the page.

I have one primary complaint. Everything else can be put down to nitpicking, but one thing just broke the game for me: The cases are inconsistent and just plain not mysterious. The best of them, by far, is “Blood Baths,” which involves a classic “locked-door” murder in a Roman bath as well as London’s origins as a Roman colony, and it could have easily been a full game onto itself.

 

It’s followed by a straight adaptation of “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” the solution of which you know already if you've read the story. That one would have been better as the first case; the story’s familiarity will be comforting to fans, while players become familiar with the mechanics via the simple forensics and moral conundrum at the end.

 

In summary, I like Crimes and Punishments, even if I don’t find it as fulfilling as Nemesis or Jack the Ripper. It’s a good game, if not precisely a good mystery, and I’m glad I played it. However, if you have a low tolerance for adventure game pacing or puzzle minigames, C&P won’t change your mind.

 

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 24, 2014 9:40 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/17/2014
Who Is the Wraith in Shadow of Mordor, and Why Is He So Awesome?

I've never read any of J. R. R. Tolkien’s extended Middle-earth writings. When I was younger, someone who had read The Silmarillion said “It’s not so bad once you get past the first hundred pages,” which didn't do much to sell it for me. Okay, okay that’s my self-defense by way of philistine grousing. I’m done now.

Still, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor does do an admirable job of convincing me to read the books. The game is relatively clear where it falls on the timeline of the Ring saga. And it contains certain connections to Middle-earth history that are intriguing and invite me to learn more about the series’ complex and, up to this point, impenetrable history.

Okay, here come the *SPOILERS*: You know that Wraith I mentioned in the review and wasn't able to name? That’s because the revelation of his identity about a quarter of the way into the game is the connection to the rest of Tolkien’s canon. He is the spirit of Celebrimbor, the elven smith who made the Rings of Power at the request of Sauron in disguise. The Rings of Power are those rings mentioned in the first few minutes of the Fellowship film, for my fellow Philistines – the ones which the One Ring is supposedly capable of controlling, though I don’t really remember anything else.

That moment, when I discovered who Celebrimbor was and his part in the greater LotR saga, gave me pause. Speaking as someone who never made it far enough to understand the history of the Rings of Power, finding out that the Wraith was the person who made them left me curious. The main trilogy doesn't bother to go into detail about the Rings. Even the Peter Jackson films are strangely lean on information about what they actually do. It made me think, “You know, the question of where this super-jewelry came from had been curiously deflected up to this point. Now I must know more.”

Making Celebrimbor, essentially the Archduke Ferdinand of Middle-earth, the deuteragonist of Shadow of Mordor is an excellent move which will placate series’ fans without alienating the uninitiated. He is not a central character with a set backstory and a depiction that is burned into the collective imagination, like Bilbo or Aragorn. I think the part about his wife and child being slain is new, but that serves as an easy way to tie him to Talion’s more conventional protag motivations. There has to be a reason for the two to put up with each other, given how different they are.

Whatever judgments I made about the game itself, it’s clear to me that it was made by people who truly enjoy the source material. Digging up a character who is so important to the overall story of the saga and yet utterly unknown to anyone who hasn’t read the more obscure writings gives the game a bona fide authenticity it might otherwise lack. So good job, Monolith. You got this part right.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 17, 2014 11:20 pm. Comments (1)

Tuesday 10/14/2014
Coming Soon: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Like everything else Bioware has made in the last few years, the Dragon Age series is a pretty mixed bag. Dragon Age: Origins was a fantasy RPG I enjoyed so much that I’m not sure I can adequately convey it. Dragon Age 2…not so much. But we’ll get to that.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is (presumably) the final entry, and it’s coming out next month. I know there are a lot of other things coming out that I must preview and review. The reason I’m singling out DA:I is because I suspect Dragon Age: Keep will soon be available. Keep will allow us to import our game decisions to Inquisition, ensuring the world we made in the previous games will be the one we enter now.

 

So, in the spirit of Keep, here’s a quick review of our two previous entries. What should Inquisition take from both?

 

Dragon Age: Origins was a classic fantasy RPG with a story that was a slightly more whimsical and self-aware version of Game of Thrones. To this day, it remains one of my best experiences with roleplaying, second perhaps only to Mass Effect. The gameplay, story, and overall experience worked for me, though I can understand if the game’s wordiness wore thin for some. I give it a solid recommendation even five years later.

However, I can’t really give the same praise to Dragon Age 2. Better critics than I have taken this game apart and explained how it wasn’t as good as its predecessor. So I’ll confine myself to saying this: I liked the depiction of the world after the averted apocalypse and the expansive look at the troubled land of Thedas that Origins only hinted at. However, the multitudinous problems with the gameplay and the lack of depth to pseudo-Shepard protagonist Hawke kept me from really getting into it.

 

The only thing they really need to get right is the companions. The party from Origins was a well-written bunch, each character coming with a set of flaws and hang-ups they were all too conscious of. I never warmed to the posse from 2 mostly because they didn’t seem terribly self-aware, but I liked Varric and Isabella for their sense of humor. I’m avoiding pre-release info if I can, because forming your own relationship with your party is part of the DA experience.

 

I’ll be happy if the new Dragon Age takes the story pacing from Origins, if nothing else. What I loved most about that game was the sense that you are moving inexorably towards an endgame that would make every other battle look like a scuffle. They pulled no punches; you were pitted against a literal tainted god in the form of a dragon. I want to do that again, albeit in a different way if possible. I also want it to take Dragon Age 2’s sense of moral ambiguity and backstory depth. Make it an epic I’ll be proud to have spent my time on, and I’ll be happy!

 

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 3:40 am. Comments (0)

Friday 10/10/2014
Should You Buy? Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Okay, I’ve admitted to not being a Tolkien fan. I’ve never made it all the way through his big three, let alone The Silmarillion. I probably wouldn’t have given Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor a second glance if I didn’t have to. But here a game has done the near-impossible: It made me want to read the books.

 

It’s the start of Sauron’s rise to power. We begin the game on the Black Gate, the border between Gondor and Mordor that’s tended by the Rangers. Protagonist Talion lives there along with his wife and son. A mysterious enemy called The Black Hand wipes out the Rangers and ritually slaughters Talion and his family in order to summon a Wraith.

 

Talion is not allowed to die, though. He and the Wraith, a centuries-old elven ghost with no memories, have been bound to each other. According to the Wraith, neither of them will be able to move on unless they defeat the Black Hand and find peace. Thus we are introduced to the game’s central mechanic: Talion and the Wraith share a body and switch out their two sets of skills as needed.

 

The gameplay is a very proficient combination of Assassin’s Creed free-running and Arkham Asylum free-flowing combat. Talion is a swordsman and dispatches the enemies up close, while the Wraith uses a bow for long-range. The longer they are bound together, the more abilities they unlock; including teleportation, mind control, and lethal finishing moves.

 

The combat is the best part of the game. It was incredibly easy for me to switch from the Wraith’s bow to CQC with Talion. The horde of Mordor frequently promotes individuals to higher ranks, meaning the enemies become powerful enough that the game was hard in spite of my spectral superpowers. My favorite move was countering two attacking enemies at once, which causes Talion and the Wraith to briefly separate and ruin enemies back-to-back.

 

I wouldn’t know if the story adheres to Tolkien canon, but I like it for what it is. The cutscenes showing Talion’s backstory are stringently economical, but it works. He and his new, Wraith-y better half take to each other surprisingly well, with only the occasional friction played for drama or very light humor. Gollum’s inclusion feels a bit token and out-of-place, but luckily it’s not a gamebreaker.

 

It wasn’t perfect, though. Some of the ability upgrades went entirely unused and felt unnecessary. Talion’s rather clunky free-running never seemed to improve. Also, while it is fun to slice through the legions of Mordor, we never really do anything else. Even the side missions to level up the weapons are only slight variations on “kill X amount of baddies.”

 

I want to write another column about the story and its literary origins. But taken on its own, the game’s quite fun and easy to enjoy. Wait until they knock twenty bucks off the release price and check it out!

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 10, 2014 12:25 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 10/06/2014
Nancy Drew: Labyrinth of Lies

Here we are again, in the shoes of everyone’s favorite girl sleuth, and I’m so happy to be back! The story this time around is one of the better ones I’ve seen recently. A small museum in Greece is preparing to open a new exhibit alongside the premiere of a new play at their revamped amphitheater. When some artifacts go missing, Nancy is brought in to investigate. The only other people around are the actors staging the play, and Nancy has to help them with their staging while also investigating them for possible involvement.

 

The story is equal parts familiar and refreshing. Greek myth was one of my favorite topics when I was in grade school, so wrapping myself up in it again is very comforting. On the other hand, the mystery itself has a noir-ish feel. No spoilers, but Nancy feels like the wrench thrown into the works of a much larger, well-organized crime, which is relatively rare for the ND series.

 

Some parts of the story don’t make any sense. For instance, it’s never explained how this tiny amphitheater can support extremely elaborate stages of the various parts of the Underworld nor how they can fit underneath the theater and yet are able to be raised to the stage. The sets include a coin-operated Charon and a model of Hades’ throne room which apparently includes real lava. If you’re going to include these things, I feel they’d make more sense as part of the museum exhibit, a la Secret of the Scarlet Hand.

 

My favorite thing about this game, aside from the setting, is the music. From plucky little lyre tunes as Nancy strolls through the exhibits to a somber vocal tone as she wanders the Underworld set, this soundtrack is by far the best one of the recent games. I should also mention that the environment and character design is gorgeous, even if I do wonder why the actors spend the entire day leading up to the show in full costume. The puzzles are also excellent and numerous. I have about six pages filled with notes I used to solve the puzzles, the most since Shadow at the Water’s Edge.

 

One thing that confounded me was the lack of phone connections. You can talk to Frank and Joe Hardy as well as Melina, your contact at the museum, but that’s it. Am I the only one who misses being able to call up Nancy’s friends and chitchat? Hearing Nancy give her opinion about the various details and suspects helps to flesh out the case. Bess and George’s exclusion is particularly bizarre, since they played such a large role in the last game.

 

Overall, the word for this game is “refreshing.” It feels like a new entry in this series and doesn’t rely on old or overused tropes. While some parts of it don’t quite satisfy, I had enough fun with it to play it twice. I call that an all-around good case!

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, October 6, 2014 12:01 am. Comments (0)

Monday 09/29/2014
Going Casual: The Sims 4

I’m not old enough to remember the reactions to The Sims, but someone had to have thought it was a joke at first. A game about life? Human life? Who on Earth would buy that when you can just live your own human life? But it’s a simple, brilliant premise for one reason: You’re not playing a human, you’re playing a god.

 

I only played the Create-A-Sim demo for Sims 4 because I’m not going to take that expensive, Origin-exclusive bullet if I don’t have to. I apologize, but in my defense, I don’t think I would have played Sims 4 for even half a minute outside of a review, and I’d like to hang on to those sixty dollars. The November release glut is getting closer.

 

Kind of a funny thing: I never play any Sims game for very long. I’m not really interested in playing an omnipotent figure unless the creatures I’m tending are zoo animals. But whenever I go through the character creator, I’ve always created the same family, if only because coming up with a new one would take slightly longer.

 

Over time, I’ve become attached to them. The two are Keegan and Kimberly Kane, who feel like the only sane, happy Sims in whatever demented neighborhood I put them in. I project heavily onto them, though even that has not stopped me from abandoning them the instant I inevitably got bored with the game.

 

I have a pretty clear idea of what these two look like. And, thanks to the huge wardrobe at the disposal of the Sims in the previous games, I’ve been able to give them the particular style that fits them. Not so with Sims 4. I’m choosing to take the demo as a microcosm of the game in general, which is probably unfair of me, but I had a number of frustrations with it that would keep me from buying the game even if I were a regular customer.

 

First of all, the way to adjust your Sim’s body is to click and drag a particular body part until it either shrinks in or balloons out. While this sounds simple, I got frustrated with it very easily. The drag only seems to work in a very particular direction, which means Keegan got eyeballs almost as far out as his ears when I tried to make them bigger. Also, the wardrobe initially available is paltry. I went through the handful of everyday dresses muttering to myself, “Kimberly would never wear any of these.”

 

So that’s my problem with Sims 4, or at least the demo I played. While supposedly upgraded from Sims 3, it’s actually quite unintuitive. While supposedly bigger and better, the choices are actually quite limited. I’m not a veteran Simmer, but I wonder if veteran Simmers would be as dissatisfied with Sims 4 character creation as I was.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, September 29, 2014 9:15 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 09/27/2014
Minecraft, Twitch and Big Money: A Buyer's Guide

It’s the month of acquisitions and big money… very, very big money! Here are the two big ones that affect the larger gaming community, and how they can be good things.

 

First, it turns out I was a bit premature when I said that Google was buying live-streaming site Twitch. Because now the skinny is that Amazon is buying Twitch instead after negotiations with Google fell through. The oft-quoted price I've seen is $970 million.

 

While I’ve already said my piece about Twitch, I’ll add this: I see the streaming service as a high-tech version of something that has always been a part of gaming: Watching others play. Until I started playing them personally, my only familiarity with most games came from watching my friends play. While the person playing the game on Twitch is on the other side of a screen, the experience is the same. And were I not professionally obligated to play new games myself, Twitch is probably where I’d see most of them.

 

Here’s my advice to Amazon: Twitch needs support. The service works, for the most part, but it could certainly use some help. Twitch is expanding rapidly, maybe faster than their infrastructure can stand. Give them what they need to grow. I fully expect Amazon to turn a tidy profit as the streaming trend continues to grow.

 

Second, Microsoft has bought Minecraft for an alleged $2.5 billion. Or, more accurately, they've purchased the game’s developer Mojang for $2.5 billion in cash. While there is universal woe at the departure of creator Markus “Notch” Persson, fans are otherwise split on the purchase.

 

If you have been living in a sealed cocoon for the past five years, Minecraft is a mind-bogglingly enormous sandbox game where everything, including your avatar, is made of textured cubes. You build stuff, and a lot of it. I don’t really play it, I admit, but I do think very highly of it. It’s the epitome of what games are intended to be, in their basest form: A way for ordinary humans to do what they would never be able to do in reality.

 

While Minecraft has never been my métier, it most certainly is for many people. According to Mojang’s data analysts, as of June 2014, Minecraft has sold about 54 million copies across all available platforms. I dare not even guess what that number is now. So this news affects quite a large amount of people. And some of them are afraid Microsoft will meddle with a game that does not need to be meddled with.

 

Here’s my advice to Microsoft: Be gentle with the reins. Don’t be completely hands-off, as some would advise you to be. Perhaps offer some item packs here and there. Beef up the tutorial. But Minecraft as it stands does not really need significant additions.

 

Happy spending, everyone! Oh, and good luck, Notch!

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, September 27, 2014 6:01 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 09/18/2014
My Date with Destiny, Part 3

The writing in Destiny is inconsistent and boring. Your Ghost does most of the talking, and yet the game can’t seem to decide if he’s a colorless drone or a quirky sidekick. If you hire Peter Dinklage to provide you with a voice, you had better use that voice to the fullest. Having him read the dumbest lines with the audible equivalent of a straight face is a monumental waste.

 

Quite besides the fact that most of the story is stuck on those damnable Grimoire cards, there’s a lack of detail that keeps me from getting fully immersed. The first time you fly up to the moon, you can see a giant gouge in the side. It doesn’t look like a bomb blast or an impact crater. How did that get there? Who did it? Good luck trying to find out. Maybe it’s hidden in the Grimoire cards. I wouldn’t know.

 

My breaking point came during the Sword of Crota mission on the Moon. After shooting your way into the interior of the Hive stronghold, you are instructed to grab the Sword, a relic that has been used to kill lots of Guardians. When you do, the perspective suddenly shifts to the third-person state usually reserved for the Tower, and you proceed to massacre the Hive foot soldiers with Dynasty Warriors­-style blade swings. The whole way through, I was screaming for joy, the monotony finally broken.

 

But this hurts the game in two ways: First, the sudden burst of gleeful awesome reminds you of just how dull the game truly is when you’re doing the FPS thing. Second, it’s not really in tone with the rest of the script. It’s the inconsistency thing again: This isn’t Saints Row, devs. You can’t just switch genres when it suits you. You just look ridiculous, like a businessman who showed up at work one day wearing naught but a loincloth.

 

Again, the biggest impression of the game is disappointment. Is this really it? After all the hype and build-up? Before I played it, I believed Activision wanted to make sure everyone could see the quality of their new IP and would therefore be convinced to take a chance on it. Having now sunk several hours into this pretty but rather empty shooter, I can’t help but wonder if the ads are where all the money went.

 

I know that I gave Watch_Dogs a pass even though it didn’t really deliver. In retrospect, I think I was wrong to do so, and I only did because I didn’t personally buy into that game’s hype. I wanted Destiny to wow me, and I think I now understand that disappointment because it didn’t wow me at all. Considering the price of the game itself and the comparative dearth of content you get in the base game, not to mention the lack of variety in missions and activities, this game is just not as good or revolutionary as was advertised.

 

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, September 18, 2014 8:15 pm. Comments (0)

My Date with Destiny, Part 2

I've come a ways in Destiny, and I think I have enough experience with it under my belt to give my thoughts on it. I’m going to have to spread this review out over two columns. But, for openers, I can condense all of my thoughts into one line: “Is that it?”

First, I will give Destiny some credit: Having everyone exist in the same world serves the central conflict excellently. Going out into the warzone and seeing bands of my fellow Guardians flushing out the enemy or teaming up to take down some big public event baddies lends weight to the notion that this is a big conflict with lots of major players. The war feels real.

The gameplay mechanics are all solid. The guns are all proficient instruments, and every kind of gun feels different. You won’t be using a fusion rifle from a distance, but it decimates enemies up close. Trying to use a sniper rifle at close range is suicide, but using it to pick off the aliens from afar works well. Grenades and melee attacks are useful in equal measure, and the super-charged attack is so satisfying to use.

Also, and this is faint praise as far as I’m concerned but praise just the same: The game is pretty. The art and style are gorgeous, and the accompanying soundtrack sets the tone for a wistfully nostalgic, almost vintage science fiction adventure.

That’s the good. Now for the bad.

I've just described the surface of the game, and surface is all there is. So much is missing from this game that ought to be here. The Tower is beautiful, but it’s a lot of wasted space. The guns are all nice, but you’re going to be using them on the same three enemies. The sandbox is fun to roam, until you realize that these maps are the only places you can go. For the hype, this game should have come packaged with a lot more than it has.

I’m not sure who Bungie thinks they’re fooling with the “shared-world shooter” conceit. The classes are roughly analogous to Warrior/Rogue/Mage, and the whole upgrade system smacks of atavistic elements from when this was a pure MMORPG. The trouble is that these leftovers are all there is of it, to the point that you can’t even name your character. You have to go by your gamer handle. The simplistic anemia of it makes any effort you put into your character feel wasted.

There really isn't a social element to the games, either. I don’t know why, but the game just assumes that you have a group of friends ready to form your fireteam. There is no way to initiate contact with players you don’t know. You can’t team up on the field, clan recruitment is almost nonexistent, and there’s no local chat in the Tower at all. I’m hoping Bungie includes chatting in the next update, preferably binding it to the button that is currently wasted on that “point” action.

Finale coming in Part 3…


 

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, September 18, 2014 3:00 am. Comments (0)

Friday 09/12/2014
My Date with Destiny, Part 1

I have to abandon my usual format here, because I’m still in the middle of my Destiny playthrough and I don’t want to give you a concrete “Should You Buy?” yet. Still, since it’s the only thing I’ve played or been able to talk about lately, I wanted to give you something in the way of first impressions.

 

I will say one thing for Destiny. I thought it was going to be bland and derivative. In the strictest sense, I was wrong. Yet I still have trouble thinking of it as “original.” The best way to encapsulate this conundrum is to try and describe Destiny using one game as a succinct point of reference.

 

Destiny is a science fiction first-person shooter.”

“Oh, so it’s like Halo?”

“…not exactly.”

 

 “It’s a shared-world game where you and a fire team take down bosses with progressively sexier guns for loot.”

“Oh, so it’s like Borderlands.”

“…not exactly.”

 

“It’s a story in which the budding human race, which has advanced rapidly across the stars with the help of alien tech, is threatened by the enemies of said aliens characterized as encroaching darkness.”

“Oh, so it’s like Mass Effect?”

“…not exactly.”

 

My character is currently a level 7 Awoken Warlock. I’ll try to make Titan and Hunter characters later. I don’t feel comfortable giving a full opinion until I finish the story or at least breach level 15 and get more Crucible time under my belt.

 

So far, the game is functionally well-done. The controls are intuitive and comfortable, which is good for me because I’m dreadful with console shooters. The graphics are stunning and the design, especially in the Tower, is beautiful. The missions and loot have been good for me, and my interactions with other Guardians have been cordial, with occasional dancing.

 

Still, the story, what there is of one, could really use some more fleshing out. I know, I’m just starting, and maybe the story will become less obscure as time goes on. But for the initial getting-to-know-you period of the game, I have barely a grasp of who I am. Most of the exposition is relegated to grimoire cards viewable on the Bungie website, and even then much is left unexplained.

 

I realize this is not a story-heavy space opera, but I’d appreciate even a little bit of basic info. How can I wield these weird, dark powers as a Warlock? Why is no one studying the Ghosts to better understand their abilities, which include being able to revive the long-dead? Why did we rebuild our decimated society in an ostentatious city directly beneath the Traveler as opposed to anywhere else? Is the answer to all these questions “Because Traveler?” I keep getting the feeling that a magnificent Isaac Asimov story is happening somewhere within this universe, and I have nothing to do with it.

 

Do I have a strong opinion yet? …not exactly. What I’ve seen so far is good, but not that great, and I don’t like that. Despite my tepid predictions, I really want to like this game. It has all the tools and polish to be a magnificent science fiction game. I’m going to keep playing, and I’m giving Destiny as big a chance as I possibly can.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, September 12, 2014 11:41 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 09/07/2014
Coming Soon: Destiny

When I say “Coming Soon,” I mean that Destiny is NIGH. The hype for this game has been pouring in since E3. I’ve been bracing for the release like I would brace for the birth of my child, if only for the fact that it is literally the only game in town. It’s the big release for the month. I don’t know about all of you, but I know it’s going to have to hold me until Alien: Isolation or thereabouts.

 

Destiny is set after the fall of humanity’s golden age. After building a space empire with the assistance of an alien sphere known as The Traveler, humans were nearly wiped out by Traveler’s enemies, the Darkness. Now what’s left of our race hides in a city directly underneath Traveler (which seems counterintuitive, but we’ll go with it). Guardians are humans or allied aliens who wield the power of Traveler to defend the city and strike back at the alien races that are ravaging Earth and the nearby planets.

 

My first thoughts when I saw the early footage in which a first-person protagonist shoots at malicious aliens is “Well doesn’t this look an awful lot like Halo?” That thought wasn’t fair. “Aliens invade and wipe out humanity” is an exceptionally common plot. Still, if what I’ve heard about the development of Destiny holds any weight, that feeling of déjà vu might be prescient.

 

According to Reuters, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick named the figure $500 million as the amount spent on developing the Destiny franchise. The same article quoted analysts who estimated that the company would have to sell about 15 million units just to break even. That number makes me cringe. This is a risk the likes of which I’ve never seen in the video game industry. And I can’t help but wonder if the gameplay and story are going to suffer as a result.

 

To give you some perspective, the only games I can think of from the last generation that have sold that well fall into two categories: They are either 1) family-friendly games like Wii Sports, or 2) part of an established franchise like GTA 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops, or Skyrim. The only outlier I can think of is Minecraft.

 

This game is going to have to appeal to a lot of people in order to sell as many copies as it must. Even moderate success will be a loss for Activision. So that means this new IP will not take a lot of risks in the story or gameplay department. I have the awful feeling it’s going to both look and feel like a lot of games we’ve seen before, just because those things we’ve seen before happened to sell well.

 

I won’t judge until I’ve gotten the game and played my fair share. If this succeeds, we’ll have a fun, beautiful MMO that promises to be around for years. Good luck, Activision. You’re going to need it.

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, September 7, 2014 3:10 am. Comments (0)

Monday 09/01/2014
Top 5 Saddest Deaths I've Seen in Games (SPOILERS)

Obviously, *SPOILERS*

 

5. Sarah, The Last of Us

Poor Sarah. She shoulders the burden of being the source of main character Joel’s tragic flaws. Not to mention we all knew she was going to die the moment we saw her. But still, seeing her die crying, in horrible pain while her father holds her and has a complete breakdown over her body…that’s sad on a primal level. It’s hard to resist the sadness, even if you’re actively trying.

 

4. The Joker, Batman: Arkham City

The death of a main character or loved one is an easy sell. The death of a villain? Still not too difficult…there are lots of sympathetic villains out there. But the death of the Joker? Making me upset about that has to be an act of genius on the part of the game writers. Maybe it’s the fact that it was easily avoidable, and Batman finds it deeply troubling. This game marks the first occasion where I understood Batman’s self-imposed directive against killing.

 

3. Wander, Shadow of the Colossus

I’m not entirely sure if Wander “dies” in the strictest sense of the term, but the ending where he has to fight against a strong current to get to Mono, the girl he felled sixteen colossi to save, was tragic. Not to mention the whole story has seen the poor boy descend to the point where he could legitimately be called the villain of the world. He was only trying to save the girl, and in the end, he doesn’t even get to see if his efforts worked.

 

2. Admiral Anderson, Mass Effect 3

Okay, I have my issues with Mass Effect 3, but it did one thing right: It used our attachment to established characters to drive the story. Inevitably, this meant some characters were going to die. The death of Admiral Anderson hit me the hardest. There’s no way to prevent it, and it happens so close to the end. Anderson is the only person in the series who acts as a mentor to galactic messiah Shepard, and hearing him praise Shepard affectionately one last time was one of the saddest and most human moments I’ve experienced in a game.

 

1. Lee Everett, The Walking Dead

 

The Walking Dead’s main character is Clementine. Even when we play as Lee, she’s the main focus and our primary concern. That’s what made the final episode of Season One, where she either has to shoot Lee or leave him behind to zombify, such a heartbreaker. It’s one thing to see a child die. It’s another order entirely to see a girl barely bigger than the gun she’s holding have to shoot the only person she has left in the world. Not only did we have to see Lee die, we knew he was distraught about leaving Clem alone and unprotected. My only consolation was getting to play as her myself the next season.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, September 1, 2014 11:45 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 08/25/2014
P.T.: Great Game, But Is It Actually Marketing?

If you haven’t heard of it by now, a mysterious new horror I.P. showed up at Gamescom 2014. It bore the nondescript title “P.T.” and was made by “7780s Studio.” Horror games are still in the Amnesia/Slender renaissance, so it’s no surprise that it drew attention. When people played the PS4 exclusive demo, they were struck by how scary and well-made this demo was, and how hard it was to finish.

The demo takes place entirely within a hallway and a few different rooms, an economical setup if nothing else. Without giving away too many of the jumps, the demo requires you to wander the same hallway on an endless loop, while subtle clues and changes to the environment suggest a larger story. It’s surprisingly difficult, and scarier than I can give it credit for in writing.

Now…*SPOILERS*

When you finally “solve” the demo (which seems to be almost luck-based), a cinematic trailer begins to play. As a man walks down a deserted and misty street, the names “Hideo Kojima,” “Guillermo del Toro” and “Norman Reedus” flash across the screen. As the camera pulls away from Reedus’s digitalized face and back into the fog, Akira Yamaoka’s signature sound starts. The title “Silent Hills” flashes up on screen, and it all becomes clear. You’ve been playing a Playable Teaser for the next entry in the legendary Silent Hill series.

P.T. isn’t actually related to the final product which will be Silent Hills, and high graphical quality was deliberately avoided. They were trying their hardest to make you think that it was something put together by a new indie developer with a minimum of resources. Nobody who has beaten the demo has any idea how they did it, and nobody can find a reliable method of doing it. Considering that the combined power of the internet and the gaming community has been working on it for a while now, that’s pretty impressive.

So is this perhaps a good example of the video game hype machine. It was all a trick designed to get us all excited about a teaser for Silent Hills. Would the trailer have raised even half the stir that it did if it had just been released in a straightforward manner at Gamescom? Would it have felt so satisfying if it had not been made a reward for braving the haunted hallway of P.T.?

It’s a very good way to get us to talk about a new game, but let me raise one point: We’re not talking about Silent Hills. We’re all still talking about P.T. P.T. was a great game, but Hideo Kojima has confirmed that it doesn’t have anything to do with Silent Hills. I’m excited for any new Silent Hill game, especially one with such a dream team behind it. But still, we’ve seen the consequences of hard hype with Watch_Dogs, and Silent Hills is taking it one step further by advertising a game with a different game entirely. And the sheer difficulty of P.T. means that anyone who finishes it will hold it in high esteem just for the sense of achievement it gives them.

Let’s just hope that Kojima and company can replicate in macro what they showed us they could achieve in micro.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, August 25, 2014 12:00 am. Comments (0)

Friday 08/22/2014
Coming Soon: Madden NFL 15

How bizarre that the first game to break my summer slump is the newest entry in the vaunted Madden franchise. I’m not really a Madden fan. I do love football, though, so I feel that I meet the entry requirements.

 

I didn’t play Madden 25, but I heard complaints that the game did not live up to the next-gen technology it could have used. Graphics and textures were better, but not so very much more than Madden 13. The sidelines and crowds were not as animated as the game’s pre-rendered footage had led the fans to believe. In short, from what I’ve heard, it was good but not precisely the next-gen Madden which fans had been promised.

 

The Madden series is currently the only game in town for gamers who are also football fans, since Electronic Arts has the exclusive license to NFL games. There is a devoted audience for this series, and they are the ones EA is endeavoring to please. That means there is a very particular kind of gameplay and mechanics the audience is expecting which can be improved upon.

 

Upgrading the defense seems to be the primary development from the preview installments. There is a defensive player-lock camera, with a tackling reticle to improve defensive tackles. You can lock right onto the quarterback as a defensive player and move to intercept him when he’s making the big play. That being said, I question the wisdom of making defensive motions hinge on quicktime-style button presses. Hopefully it’s more intuitive than it looks.

 

Another complaint I’ve heard about Madden 25 was that the celebratory gestures were overly-scripted and repetitive. I’ve heard that the devs have tried to overhaul that, claiming dynamic celebrations this time. I don’t know that I believe that: This is a video game, so everything is scripted to a certain degree. But we’ve also been promised half-time shows and in-depth first-half recaps.

 

So it’s glossy, it’s new, it’s updated…it’s also not completely next-gen. The game will be released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in addition to the new PS4 and Xbox One. I think that’s a good strategy on the part of EA: Sometimes those of us who are in the midst of the new console fervor forget that not everyone can afford them right now. EA wants to move as many copies as they can, and since this game will appeal to multiple kinds of people, it’s important to try and keep it as inclusive as possible.

 

I know that, regardless of what I say, the Madden series will be able to move a lot of copies. It’s a licensed franchise that has been heavily promoted by the NFL itself, and I can see the appeal for football fans. EA has made a good choice by releasing the game for PS3 and Xbox 360. Have fun and play hard, everyone!

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, August 22, 2014 9:40 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 08/18/2014
The Semi-Complete Guide to the Smash Bros 2014 Character Stable: Part 3

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game, and my familiarity with them is marginal at best. I don’t think I’m the only one: I’ve met a lot of people who had no idea who Ike and Marth were before playing Smash Bros. So forgive me if I slip up on a fact regarding the next two characters.

 

8. Robin

This character is the default version of the customizable player character in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Since their debut trailer featured male Robin, I’m just going to assume, as with the Trainer and Villager, the gender shown will be the default, with the other as an alternate. Robin is a swordsman and magic-user, and his primary attacks seem to involve elemental magic. The trick with Robin is that his sword and magic spells can only be used at certain times before he has to fall back on his underpowered back-ups. Using him means knowing when to attack and when to save your specials for later.

 

9. Lucina

A warrior princess from an alternate timeline, Lucina was introduced losing to Captain Falcon. Despite this inauspicious start, she quickly joins Robin in the fight. Scuttlebutt has it that she’ll essentially be a clone of Marth, whom she disguised herself as in her home game. Her sword abilities will be like his without being distance-sensitive (Marth was best if you hit enemies a particular distance with the end of the sword). She should prove to be an easier character to use, but time will tell if that’s enough to distinguish her.

 

10, 11, &12: Sheik, Zero Suit Samus, and Charizard

One of the downsides to this new game is that characters cannot transform on stage anymore, so no longer will you have the Pokémon Trainer able to switch between three Pokémon. This also robs Samus and Zelda of some of their unique abilities. I’ll reserve judgment on whether or not these deconstructed characters will be good additions to the roster. I hope, in the case of Sheik and Zero Suit Samus, that neither they nor the characters they evolved from will be lesser by the separation.

 

13. You (or, rather, Mii)

I’ve saved the most dubious for last. You can now enter the stage alongside your favorite video character in the form of your Mii avatar. That is, you can in offline mode or local multiplayer. I’m guessing this is so we don’t have any offensive Miis running around the Smash competitive circles. But I think, in the limited capacity they’ll be available; they should be a fun addition to the roster. They can be Gunners, ranged fighters with high-tech weaponry; Swordfighters, who combine throwing weapons with their sword for close combat; and Brawlers, who prefer a short-range melee approach. Whatever their benefits or shortcomings, the Miis look like the greatest individual source of fun in the new Smash Bros.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, August 18, 2014 10:35 pm. Comments (0)