Category Archives: games
1. XCOM Enemy Unknown
This game dug it’s hooks into me in a way that few games in recent memory have. I’m talking “stay up until 5:00 am because I need to play just one more mission and then I’m back at base and maybe I should just finish researching that one weapon tech, but oh no the global satellite alert just kicked in and sectoids are attacking Sao Paolo so maybe I should just real quick play that one too, only I have to restart that mission because my support dude from South Africa walked face first into a thin man ambush….” The turn-based nature of the game makes you feel like a tactical genius as you lay your forces out in an unstoppable line of crossfires and over-watching ambushers. That feeling lasts about as long as you go without encountering the enemy, as the game is intensely punishing at the harder difficulties and losing even one man can make it impossible to finish the mission. Things spiral out of control quickly and the wrong placement of a heavy gunner can mean the difference between victory and six dead dudes. That’s not even getting into the long term strategy of building out your base, researching alien technology, and training soldiers. You have a finite amount of resources and failure to use them wisely means that the countries that bankroll your alien-fighting unit will pull their funding. Launch more satellites!
2. Cloud Atlas
This movie is an adaptation of an unadaptable book. Love it or hate it, you have to admire the sheer craft that went in to creating such a dense narrative that interweaves six completely different narratives. The result is something that you can definitely see the seams on, but the fact that it holds together at all is amazing. From the creepy buck-toothed grin of Tom Hanks’ 18th-Century poisoner to the just-a-little-too-much patois of his post-apocalyptic shepherd every inch of the film is imbued with a stark attention to detail that honors David Mitchell’s novel even while it completely reworks the structure. Clocking in at three hours, the film does challenge you to keep all the separate threads straight but it is worth the effort.
3. The U.S. Presidential Election
It’s been a long, long, long slog to the finish line and it is finally over. Whether the outcome had you dancing in the streets with joy at the thought of four more years of glorious progressivism or rending your garments and gnashing your teeth as you booked your flight to Canada to avoid the soul-crushing slide into a socialist hell, I think we can all agree that we are glad to be off the electoral roller coaster at long last. People who paid attention to the raw numbers weren’t terribly surprised by the re-election of President Obama, but election night was still a fun chance to watch CNN’s Minority Report-esque holographic projections and touchscreen number crunching. Donald Trump’s massive meltdown on twitter following the election results was my personal highlight but the best thing about the election is that (after about 3-4 days to let the anger and resentment bubble out) it will be safe to go on Facebook again.
I’m coming in for a landing on Skyrim, and it is a truly masterful game. The sheer quantity of stuff to do boggles the mind. Wanna be a mercenary? A thief? An assassin? A chef? A bard? You can do any of these things. More confusingly, you can do all of these things. Skyrim is more about texture and immersion than narrative. The cast of characters you encounter are actually pretty one dimensional. Most of the quests you undertake have little bearing on the world around you. People you extort and steal from happily turn and engage you in some cheery conversation before selling you health potions. You have to create your own narrative, and reconciling the full and complete player experience of running all over Skyrim doing different jobs with the overall storyline of a prophesied warrior taking up arms against ancient dragons is tricky business. Here is my attempt:
After his exile down south, Orren the Red wasn’t back in his Nordic homeland for more than an hour before he found himself bound and sentenced to death for reasons he still isn’t clear on. The damned imperials would have been the end of him had it not been for the timely intervention of a beast from out of forgotten legends. The dragons were coming back to the land of Skyrim.
A rebel leader helped Orren escape amidst the confusion and tried to draft him into the Stormcloak underground, but Orren was a young man more eager to learn to fight than get involved in politics. He set out to join the Companions of Whiterun and became a mighty warrior during his adventures with the group. A mysterious encounter with another dragon awoke something strange and ancient in Orren, but he did his best to ignore the strange powers he was developing and refused to answer the mysterious call of the ancient Greybeards.
He threw himself into his adventures with the companions, but after they inducted him into their inner circle he became horrified at the truth: they were werewolves and they had infected him with their lycanthropic blood.
Orren fled the Companions in fear. After some random wandering, he found himself on the streets of Riften, stealing to survive. The Thieves Guild soon recruited him and he rose through its ranks with surpassing swiftness, first entering the elite order of Nightingales and eventually becoming the Guild Master in a ceremony beneath the streets of the city. Orren had more money than he had ever dreamed of, but nothing could stop his hunger for blood. He had a tendency to end a job with a high body count no matter how careful he was. And still, he could hear the mysterious voices calling him from their mountain top.
It was while working for the Guild that he first came across the Daedric Princes. They frightened him almost as much as his own nature.
While in Windhelm on a job for the Guild, Orren came to attention of The Dark Brotherhood. He had grown weary of the burglary and petty pickpocketing jobs that seemed beneath his station as Master of the Thieves Guild and he saw the shadowy organization of assassins as a way to put his stealth skills to work while indulging the Beast within. It wasn’t long before Orren took over the Dark Brotherhood, mainly through an inexplicable connection to their dark spiritual patron. In time their zealotry and blithe disregard for human life disgusted even Orren. He was ready to seek something purer. And still, he could hear the mysterious voices calling him from their mountain top.
Orren made his way the Mage’s College in Winterhold, hoping that the wizards there could cure his wolfen nature. Instead, he discovered that the scholarly mages had killing of their own that needed doing. Orren spent many years at the College, slowly uncovering the mystery of the Eye of Magnus. Although his duties as Arch-Mage were surprisingly sparse, Orren soon felt the wanderlust returning. By then, he had learned a great deal more about the demonic evil of the Deadra and their totems. There were fifteen objects in the world, tainted by the Daedric influence and Orren set about to collect and contain the items. Eventually, he found them all. He knew they could never be destroyed, so he sank them to the bottom of the Sea of Ghosts. And still, he could hear the mysterious voices calling him from their mountain top.
After a short stint as a bard in Solitude, Orren returned to the Companions of his youth. He finally came to terms with his inner wolf and returned to the companions just in time to put the spirit of his old mentor Kodlak to rest and restore the lost power of the Skyforge. He also rekindled his romance with Aela the Huntress, and the two were wed in a secret ceremony: packmates for life.
By this time, the political unrest between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials was bubbling over. Tensions between the ruling elite and the rebel forces had been high, but the increased presence of the dragons was making the populace paranoid. The entire hold of Whiterun was a powder keg.
Orren had no love for the single-minded racism of the Stormcloaks, but he had never forgotten that the Imperials had tried to kill him. Their iron rule was destroying everything that made Skyrim a free land. On top of that, Orren had a personal vendetta against the Thalmor after some business with the Battle-Born clan had gone bad and he knew they were the true puppetmasters behind the Empire. Reluctantly, Orren swore fealty to Ulfric and entered the civil war on the side of the rebels. The war was brief but bloody and when it was over, far too many Nords lay dead but those that remained had a new High King.
By now, Orren had matured. He knew that the strange voices he heard were calling him to a greater destiny. He had slain several dragons and each time he had stood over them he felt a surge of otherworldly power. As he climbed the steps to High Hrothgar he knew in his heart that he would finally learn what it meant when they called him Dragonborn…
Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. I started with the much reviled second entry into Bioware’s sword and sorcery franchise. When it first came out I made a good faith attempt to play the original, but I failed to get into the game and decided to cut bait after about three hours. Something about the mechanics of the game just didn’t click with me and I had trouble effectively controlling my party. But after playing my way through the sequel, I decided to give Origins another go-round and this time it all made sense. I purchased the Ultimate Edition with all the DLC included so I went dead to the world for a significant portion of the summer while I quested my Grey Warden from one end of Thedas to the other. That was after I lead my dapper rogue through a tumultuous decade of running around Kirkwall and bedding pirate queens in part 2. Although the recycled level in part two did get old, I loved the setting and characters. This whole series has restarted my long dormant love of the fantasy genre. Thanks so much Dragon Age. I thought I was done with barbarians wielding swords…
Batman: Arkham City. The purest Batman experience is sadly the closest I will ever come to swinging down from a gargoyle and straight up punching a criminal in the face. The open world mechanic worked like a charm and the voice acting was top-notch. The plot was convoluted and some of the action setpieces didn’t quite work out as well as they were intended to, but overall Rocksteady knocked it out of the park with this one.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Not much to add beyond what I’ve already said, but this game was not without it’s charm and suffered from the inevitable comparisons to
Gear of War 3. So the saga of Marcus Fenix and his human meat tank bros finally came to an end this year. I have only played the campaigns for the three games in the Gears of War series, and I found the story of an earth-like world rocking from cataclysm after cataclysm strangely compelling. The background story plays out like the hopelessness of early Battlestar Galactica crossed with the macho posturing and general brotasticity of Predator. The gameplay was hectic and the fine folks at Epic Games know how to put together excellent firefights on a massive scale. The third installment tied up most of the loose ends and while the game failed to achieve anything approaching real pathos, the narrative never shied away from taking risks.
Call of Duty: BlackOps. Another game which I have already spoken about at length.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This was easily my most anticipated game of 2011. I absolutely adored the original and its sequel, and I was totally looking forward to immersing myself in the cyberpunk noir future where human augmentation had run amok and tranhumanist philosophy had created a race of nano-enhanced supermen. Human Revolution delivered the goods. The game wasn’t perfect. The boss fights felt tacked on and went against the grain of everything the game’s structure had been pushing toward and the ending(s) left a great deal to be desired but this game had texture, man. There was a grit and a lived-in feeling that permeated every aspect of the game’s world of 2027, from Jensen’s apartment to the neon fever dream that was Hengsha. This game was awesome.
Crysis 2. I did not play the first Crysis, so I am unable to assess its merits in contrast to the first version of the game. I can tell you that this version was a better than average shooter whose sci-fi aliens invading New York city narrative was almost done in by some shoddy A.I. and less than thrilling enemy design. I liked the convoluted plot and the gameplay variations that you get from your nanomachine super-suit, like invisibility, invincibility, and speed but the experience never really gelled for me.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Another sequel that I dove into the deep end without starting at the dawn of the franchise. This version was the first Assassin’s Creed game I ever played, and I enjoyed the crap out of it. The narrative was gibberish, but the stealth and planning elements to each hit were fun. My main criticism came when I realized that it was nearly impossible to actually die. Ezio’s health regenerates just a little that makes it difficult for even a swarm of Borgia goons to actually kill the player character. The challenge, then, comes from the mission parameters and whether you are able to sneak and stealth your way through your objectives without being seen.
Fallout: New Vegas. This one almost didn’t make the list because I couldn’t make it to completion. After around thirty hours of roaming the wastes with my trusty supermutant companion helping out survivors of the last great war and personally assassinating Caesar this broken, buggy, unfinished game went crashed on me and I was unable to load any of my save games. I enjoyed the experience before it came to a crashing halt, but I didn’t have the patience at the time to retrace my steps in the game so I stopped playing. I plan on buying the ultimate edition later this year, which will include all the downloadable content and hopefully a stable version of the game itself. I will give that version another try, but I am worried because war never changes.
Portal 2. Easily the funniest and most well-constructed game of last year, Portal 2 was short, sweet, and to the point. It was funny and I don’t have a single bad thing to say about it.
The Semantic Drift Game of the Year: I played some excellent games this past year. Skyrim kicks so much ass, but I am still neck deep in the Stormcloak rebellion and I don’t want it to end ever. Since I haven’t completed the game and will be slaying dragons for at least the first few months of 2012, the game is exempt. That leaves Batman: Arkham City as the greatest game of 2011.
Set 38,000 years in humanity’s future, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine tells the story of Captain Titus and three of his battle bros as they try to hold off an invasion of space orks intent on occupying an imperial weapons factory that takes up a whole world and is key to the continuing perpetual war effort. Warhammer is grim, with the universe caught up in eternal war with several different alien races in addition to demonic forces. With their fanatical devotion to the God Emperor who rules the billion worlds of the Imperium of Man and their (admittedly justified) rampant hatred of every other race in the universe it’s hard not to feel a little conflicted getting behind the protagonists. But their sense of honor and duty are the only things that can get them through the grim darkness of their grim, dark future. Did I mention it’s grim? And dark? Also, there is only war.
It’s impossible to talk about Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine without mentioning Gears of War. The instinct to dismiss this game as a Gears of War 3 clone is strong, and not entirely incorrect. There are many game play elements that Relic (the game developer) lifted whole cloth from Gears, including a class of enemy suspiciously similar to the explosion-prone living land mines known as Tickers and special finishing moves involving chainsaw-equipped weapons. There are also strong similarities in the overall aesthetic as both games involve steering bulky heavily-armored human tanks through a slightly gothic otherworldly landscape in a constant war against monstrous opponents. Warhammer 40,000, as a tabeltop wargame, predates Gears of War by decades so it is easy to argue that Epic Games used the Space Marine look and feel as a source of inspiration. Indeed, my first few forays into the Gears universe strongly reminded me of the Warhammer milieu, especially the heavy ferocity of Marcus Fenix.
But those similar elements can obscure the very different playstyles of the two games. Gears pioneered the heavily tactical, cover-based shooting system (or at least perfected it). Space Marine is designed primarily as a melee game where you wade into a massive crowd of enemies. There is no cover mechanic beyond standing behind something bigger than you. As a genetically altered and Ultramarine with heavier armor than an m1 Abrams, you eschew cover entirely as a tactic for lesser men. Most battles begin by hurriedly taking out enemy gunners so that the field is clear to whip out your power axe or chainsword and start stomping through the enemy. The only way to regain health is through melee combat ending in a finishing move, so the game is constantly pushing you to engage directly with the orks whenever possible. This focus on shifting ranges is immensely satisfying and made the frenetic close quarters combat keep from getting old much longer than it should have. There is a variety of weapons and frequent opportunities to switch between them, changing combat up just enough to keep it fresh.
The fact that I have read a few novels in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and am generally familiar with the setting made the game that much more pleasurable for me. Die hard Warhammer fans probably orgasmed quietly the first time a Chaos Marine lumbered on to the screen, trailing Warp energy behind him. I’m not that into the grim darkness of the far future, but I did get a few thrills at playing through the wartorn landscape. Without that added bonus, the game ranks somewhere in the B+ range. It was fun to play but I doubt I will remember it at all this time next year. There is a multiplayer component to the game, but the smaller number of enemies per map takes away the visceral thrill of the melee combat against hordes of opponents, hamstringing the game by making the unflattering comparison to Gears that much more apparent.
Portal 2. This game makes my head hurt. In a good way. I’m still puzzling my way through the single player campaign, but I can already tell that Valve have hit this one out of the park. I’m almost completely desensitized to the simulated sensations of video games. Rarely do I get a visceral thrill. But the dizzying possibilities set up by the simple mechanic of creating a portal between two points in space often leaves me feeling slightly breathless. The voice acting is great as well. I could listen to Steven Merchant read the phone book, but the voice of the robot Wheatley is hilarious.
The Economist. I am a long time subscriber to the best weekly magazine in the history of the printed word, and their recent release of the iPad app has opened the magazine up for me in new and more convenient ways. My chief issue with the paper is the sheer deluge of information it rains down on my every week. Classically liberal, but intensely focused on taking the long view of the weeks news stories The Economist delves deeper and takes a wider scope than any other paper. This week’s edition goes deep into the dysfunctional workings of Californian politics with a special report on the failings of “extreme democracy”. It’s more riveting than it sounds. Plus, infographics!
Alex Mason has problems. That much is clear from the start. Restrained, drugged, and under interrogation by mysterious inquisitors, the main character in Call of Duty: Black Ops begins the game from a compromised position. In the dark, the voices demand that he reveals what he knows about the missions he undertook as a special forces operative during the Cold War. From this framing device, the game takes the player on several individual missions that range from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to escaping a Soviet Prison, to invading an enemy warship. Along the way, Mason flashes back to moments of betrayal and paranoia worthy of the most frantic conspiracy theory. Alex eventually takes his quest for revenge and clarity to the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia.
I have a hard time wrapping my head around the game mechanics at the heart of the Call of Duty games. I prefer to enter a room filled with X number of bad guys, slay them all (preferably by hiding behind something and taking a series of measured headshots, although I’m not opposed to bumrushing the bastards and circle strafing until I’m alone), and then leisurely search for treasure, ammo, and health. I feel a sense of pride when I clear a room of enemies, especially when I do so swiftly and with the efficiency of a special forces bad-ass. The best games impart a sense of identification with the gun-wielding avatar, such that when Master Chief finishes off his last brute and takes a minute to survey the carnage in Halo, the player basks in the reflected glory of the hero. In that moment, he has vanquished all foes.
The Call of Duty series asks me to eschew this slow, thoughtful approach to combat in favor of a more aggressive berserker style. In Call of Duty: Black Ops, the methodical sniping of far away enemies is stripped of any sense of satisfaction because they’ll just keep respawning until you cross a certain checkpoint. No matter how many times you kill the enemy, he is instantly replaced by an identical doppelganger who doesn’t seem to learn anything from his predecessor’s mistakes.
This “clown car” approach to combat often leads me into an existential crisis. What’s the point of shooting an enemy when another one will just take his place? My virtual warrior’s battle grinds to a halt as he ponders the futility of war. Gone is the quiet thrill of the headshot that reduces the machine-gunner who was blocking the hallways into pixellated pink mist, thus opening the way for me to slowly search the room. Instead, I find myself turning CoD campaign sessions into all-out sprints from checkpoint to checkpoint. Like WOPR in WarGames, my tactical assessment of the combat in Black Ops is “the only winning move is not to play.” Instead of working out optimal paths through enemy-occupied territory where I cautiously crouch, hide, shoot my way to that victorious moment, I guide my character Alex Mason to run like a madman from one invisible checkpoint to another. Taking a few shots only bloodies up your screen, and if you find the best way to run forward you can complete stages without firing a single shot. I find this sort of victory hollow, yet the mechanics of the game force me into it every time. It doesn’t ruin the game, and the thrilling set-pieces more than make up for it. The entire rooftop chase sequence in the Hong Kong level is a master class in level design and the developer Treyarch just plain brings the fun. It plays like a living John Woo movie.
I don’t know if I can really call my feelings criticism in any real sense, because the Call of Duty approach to combat has proven to be vastly successful for the franchise. Despite my enjoyment of Black Ops I am not a convert to the approach and I don’t think I’ll be playing many other Call of Duty games.
1. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA is probably my all-time favorite beer. I’ve been on a serious IPA kick for the last four years or so, and the hoppy goodness (90 IBU) that the fine folks at Dogfish Head consistently deliver in every bottle tickles my nose most pleasantly. The high alcohol content (9%) means that I can’t drink as many as I would like in any one sitting without starting to talk kinda loud and possibly riding the wrong bus about five miles in the wrong direction. Still, it’s a wonderful beer. I continually monitor their website in case they post a job opening for in-house counsel, but until they do I’ll keep drinking it.
2. The Strokes are a band that I’ve followed since they first broke onto the scene during my first year in undergrad.
Julian Casablancas and company have delivered album after album of kick-ass songs. Maybe the didn’t turn out to be the Indie Messiahs who would change the Face of Modern Rock; as some of the more ardent critics proclaimed them after Is This It? but I have enjoyed the slow progression of their sound all the way down to Angles It’s been on daily rotation since I downloaded it from Amazon for $3.99 in one of the best daily deals Amazon has yet put out there. This album has a slightly 80s vibe to it, but in a good way.
3. Dragon Age II is my first real exposure to the series.
I did try to get into Origins but I was stymied by the difficulty level. I ended up not having fun because even when I micromanaged my party to within an inch of their lives, I still got schooled by nearly every Darkspawn we ran across. I was a big fan of Mass Effect games, so getting reacquainted with the BioWare approach to role playing wasn’t that hard. Dragon Age 2 is easier than its predecessor, in that it is actually possible for your followers to make rational decisions for themselves, such as drinking a health potion after they get knocked on their ass by orc-blades or not jumping in front of the toughest bad guy in the room when they are out of stamina. I also like the self-contained nature of the smaller scale adventure. Your hero basically just hangs out in the city and the setting changes temporally instead of spatially. That being said, I do wish that the you could check out more areas in the city and run through the same damn dungeon ten times. Nothing is more fun than setting up a cross class combo and having your rogue disorient an enemy just long enough for your spellcaster to bring the mystical pain. I also enjoy the way you go into conversational cut-scenes covered head to to in the gory ichor of your foes and just start chuckling with your buddies like it’s the end of Scooby Doo.