Tagged in: video games

2011: The Games I Have Played

The Grey Warden Kicks Ass

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…

I am the Night.

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.

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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

The Passion of the Dom

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.

Cyberpunk as Fuck

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.

Poet and a Prophet.

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.

Soooo sneaky....

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.

The Courier True Identity Revealed!

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.

Oh, Wheatley, you lovable scamp.

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.

In the Grim Darkness of the Future…

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.

warhammer 40k space marine cover is for the weak

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.

warhammer 40k space marine captain titus killing orks

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.

Eat that, Greenskin.

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.

Alex Mason, Master Chief, and the Unsatisfying Futility of War

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.

Post-Apocalyptica: Fallout 3 Review

Of late you may have noticed that Semantic Drift, which is only sporadically updated even when I’m at my most prolific, has slowed to a crawl. Partially this stems from a phenomenon I’ve noticed whereby the amount of free time I have to update my blog is inversely proportional to the amount of interesting things that happen to me and my ability to summon the will to write about them. For example, when my finals are looming or I am in the midst of some serious vagabonding I have nothing but great ideas and witty turns of phrase that only my hectic schedule can slow down my enthusiasm; a million interesting things, and no time to blog them. But lately I’ve been experiencing the opposite. My days are long and empty, with ample room to sit my ass down and write. A slight lull between the end of my semester in Australia and the beginning of my return to San Francisco has left me with literally nothing to do for a month or so. You’d think that means I would be stoked about finally having enough time to do some serious writing (and other things that have nothing to do with law school), but as the binary tumbleweeds drifting through the vacant blog attest this has not happened.

Another factor has been the birthday present perfect for the man with more leisure time than he knows what to do with:  Fallout 3.

fallout3 Brotherhood of Steel

I tend to straddle a strange line between casual and hardcore gaming. Months will pass where I don’t so much as touch a controller, and my console acts as a very expensive dust collector or piece of modern art. But every once in a while a game comes out that totally grabs my attention and I become a prisoner, shackled to my Playstation 3 or X Box 360 for hours at a time pressing buttons in the flickering dark. I am a binge gamer.

It doesn’t happen much. Frequently, the games that grab me are the latest entries in series that I’ve been playing for quite some time. Earlier this year Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots sucked up all my time. Less often, I will fixate on a new game that demands my attention and I usually play with the full knowledge that I am signing myself up for further obsessions down the line. Bioshock was enough to get me onboard for any future installments.

And so was Fallout 3.

While the numerical qualifier obviously means that Fallout 3 is not a brand new game, it is new to me and that is all that counts. I’m sure there were a few jokes and references I missed that tickled devotees of the series, but if so they were integrated into a package that was friendly to newcomers. I never played Fallout 1 or 2, but the story and game world felt accessible and nothing seemed to fly over my head. And what a bleak world it is. The game takes place in the year 2277, over a hundred years after nuclear war has turned the world to hardscrabble desert.

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You play as a denizen of Vault 101, an underground shelter where pockets of humanity have survived the devastation. When your scientist father flees the Vault under mysterious circumstances, you follow in his footsteps. Or not. The game world is invitingly open. Your quest to find your father makes up the central narrative of Fallout 3, but the game lets you pursue it at a leisurely pace with as many side quests and digressions as you feel like. If you want to eschew the central narrative altogether and concentrate on other matters, Fallout 3 has something for you. You can be a freelance assassin or spend your time patching up the leaky pipes in a large settlement. You can become a scourge of humanity and put whole towns to the gun, or an avenging angel of righteousness who travels the land righting wrongs.

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Aside from the way certain non-player characters react to you, the game does not seem to care what sort of person you decide to be.

It is an open world in the same way that Grand Theft Auto is. Fallout 3 provides a sandbox and you decide how to play with it. But this proves to be something of an illusory freedom. There are in truth a limited variety of different tasks to perform. Like any good role playing game, every new location is stocked with characters eager for you to perform actions for them, whether it is recovering a lost violin from a hive of Feral Ghouls or clearing a train station of mutated fire ants for an overeager scientist

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After a while they all seem to blur together and I found myself driven back to the central arc of the main quest which is probably just what Bethesda Softworks had in mind when they designed Fallout 3.

The most obvious antecedent for Fallout 3 is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which was designed by the same company. The engine that runs the game and the basic structure of the game echo the previous effort. Dialogue options and navigation operate basically the same way, but I enjoyed Fallout 3 because of two key differences that propel it to far greater heights than Oblivion:

1. The Setting. This might be a personal thing, but I have never been member of the Tolkien set. Oblivion was a sword-and-sorcery romp, with elves and other fantastical frippery. Fallout 3 is leaner and meaner, a tale of brutal loners struggling for survival in a future post-apocalyptic wasteland full of monsters and the worst humanity has to offer. The austere Mad Max-ian landscape is full of small settlements and pockets of survivors making the most of the remnants of Washington D.C. The post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 is full of intangible but persistent signs of its sensibility.You can see it in the little things, like the design of your in game P.D.A, the the Pip Boy 3000:

pipboystatus

In the game’s history the Cold War never ended and neither did the 1950s Leave it to Beaver style of culture. There are wandering malfunctioning robots, but they all look like rejects from Lost in Space, with tentacled pincers and cylindrical torsos. The streets are clogged with the bombed out remains of high-finned Cadillacs and old-timey vending machines dispense soda pop. This Gee-Whiz retrofuture clashes nicely with the utter desolation and crumbling remnants of D.C. landmarks.

2. The Controls. On the surface, Fallout 3 plays just like Oblivion. At least until your first fight. Fallout 3 is a hybrid of first person shooter and turn-based strategy. Its up to you whether you want to proceed in real time or use V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) to pause the action and tactically target your oppent’s critical areas. While it can break up the frenetic action of a heavy firefight, V.A.T.S. provides a more strategic dimension to combat.

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Also time slows down into a gloriously gory slo-mo explosion of a bloody pink mist that makes the act of unloading a shotgun into the face of an attacking Supermutant infinitely more satisfying than launching a Wand of Wattoomb at a goblin. I literally never got tired of that. Your mileage may vary.

    But after your character reaches level 20, you stop advancing. You no longer earn experience points for slaughtering your enemies and completing quests. You can still earn good karma and material rewards, but you lose the tell-tale ka-ching! noise that accompanied each fallen foe for most of the game. I found it hard to care about completing the side quests after I had maxed out. Level 20 seems an arbitrary cut-off point, and this is basically the only real criticism I have with the game. I had managed to max out my skills fairly well, but if I knew ahead of time that I could advance no further, I would have allocated my XP differently. Perhaps I would not have allowed my lockpicking skills to moulder and played the game differently.

    On a related note, more enemies would be nice. Your opponents fall into three or four basically similar categories, and after a day or two or playing you will probably have traded bullets with the entire bestiary.

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    Despite that, the sheer depth of the Fallout 3 environment provided with me hours and hours of entertainment and I really loved it. Any game that can make me wear new butt-grooves into the sofa and go days without showering and barely eating is worthy of attention. Fallout 3 is the game I would like to have with me in my fallout shelter as the air raid sirens blared and the bombs started to fall. A game this immersive deserves serious attention. On my newly created rating system, Fallout 3 earns Five Bored Girlfriends (Out of Five):

    Bored Girlfriend