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Greatest gaming center ever.
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lazytigerbones: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle
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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.
I used to work on a blog called LegalGeekery. Here are links to some of the articles I wrote for that site:
1. Thor smashed me pleasantly in the face with the mighty hammer of its polished superhero/mythological/space fantasy mashup. Thor has never been my favorite character, either in comics or in Norse mythology, but this movie was the real deal. My biggest concern going in was that the Asgardian fantasy trappings would look inherently goofy captured in the real world. Thor works pretty well for me when he’s running around punching frost giants and cracking trolls in the jaw with his hammer. Walking down the streets of NYC, the whole thing can fall on the wrong side of goofy. Kenneth Branagh largely avoids this problem by keeping the Godly sections of the movie distinct from the mortal, except for a few scenes where the Warriors Three strut down the street in full-on medieval garb, but that’s mostly played for laughs. I also loved how much of a Bro they made Thor as he learned his humility. The S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff took up a good chunk of time, but didn’t feel too shoe-horned in. I am salivating for Captain America and the Avengers will be awesome.
2. The Hot Sauce Committee (Part Two) by the Beastie Boys has been at the top of my most anticipated albums list. It rocks. I had kind of forgotten how many sucka MCs are out there, so I’m glad the Firm of Horovitz, Yauch, and Diamond is back to school them all with their blistering similes.
3. Archer is the funniest show on television. I’ve been catching up with the last season on Hulu, and the show is really coming into it’s own. What started as a take on the more self-centered and misogynistic aspects of a James Bond-style superspy has developed into a workplace comedy with just a hint of surrealism. The episode “Placebo Effect” had the eponymous secret agent search out the criminal mastermind who had been selling counterfeit cancer medication (sugar pills and Zima). He insists on a “rampage” of revenge, and ends up interrogating the Irish mobsters behind the scheme while physically falling apart from the real meds he finds and engaging in an elaborate Family Feud homage. Hilarious.
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!