Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Plowing my way through the backlog

Well, there's a lot going on in my life. Namely, I'm packing up my possessions and heading West, all the way to Portland, Oregon. Nicole is headed to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu and I'm trailing behind. Thankfully, I found out tonight that I'll have a position waiting for me at a GameStop in Portland, so my job is secure and now we're officially moving in about 24 or so days.

The biggest challenge so far has been dealing with our abundance of stuff. Combined, we have hundreds of books and movies and CDs that we just can't possibly bring along. We don't really want to store them either because most of it is old textbooks, movies we bought once and were done with, CDs that we just don't listen to anymore. So we're selling some stuff, to our friends and people online. Our friends have been very generous and we've sold quite a bit online, too.

We're primarily using Glyde for selling off my old games and our movies and Amazon for a lot of the books. Each service has pitfalls. Glyde provides us with envelopes and pays the shipping, which certainly makes things easier, but they also take a healthy cut. Amazon gives us a little more, but they take a generous cut of things as well and they're holding our proceeds until a month has passed. That said, our old junk has brought us a couple of hundred bucks and will certainly help us along.

My games have been selling well, but one problem I'm having is that I have lots of games that will net me some serious cash that I haven't yet finished and don't want to part with. So, this has given me a reason to ignore some of the bigger releases, which will sadly likely include Halo: Reach next week, in favor of finishing up games like Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption. Right now, I'm about two-thirds of the way through Alan Wake's forth chapter. Once I finish up with Alan, I'll make my way through Red Dead Redemption. After that, I have some other, lesser titles to finish up.

I'm going to try to update this more, at the very least for the time period surrounding our big move.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Just finished Mass Effect 2

Somewhat literally. I stopped playing about four minutes ago and came straight here. Then I disappeared for two months and found this today and posted it.

I waited a while to get into the original Mass Effect. I was worried it would be a little too heavy on role-playing elements. I don't play a whole lot of RPGs these days. I think the mechanics and design are outdated and that the storytelling hasn't improved to help mitigate the pain of sitting through turn-based battles and fumbling through crummy menus. But I decided to give Mass Effect a chance when I heard it was more shooter oriented, with real-time combat. Unlike most RPGs, you don't stand around waiting for your turn to attack. The game played more like a third-person shooter with some behind-the-scenes role-playing mechanics that didn't get in the way and, if anything, made the experience a lot better. Mass Effect wasn't perfect (I reviewed it for Thunderbolt and gave it a very good 8, but definitely had some complaints).

If I were to review Mass Effect 2 (I won't be because Bart Robson and Richard Wakeling already have for our site), it's definitely up to a 9 for me. It's one of the first games in a while that I've wanted to start a new game of moments after playing through (update - didn't do this), though I think I'm going to stick around and finish up some sidequests and exploration missions first (update - did all of this). Everything has been improved this time around. When I spoke with Bioware founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk at E3 last year, they told me that they thought of Mass Effect 2 "as a shooter RPG, so [they were focusing on] amping up the intensity of the combat, focusing on the frame rate, making sure the precision of the controls is there, heavy weapons, AI on the enemies, really detailed animation systems, and trying to make it a really smooth experience."

On all accounts, they succeeded. The combat is much better this time around, playing more like a third-person shooter than the RPG that it allegedly is. Perhaps the most noticeable adjustment is the inventory, which was pretty difficult to manage before. Fortunately, the whole process has been streamlined: you keep the same guns throughout the game and just upgrade them over the course of your adventure, keeping you from the tedious inventory management that marred the first one.

The experience is definitely more linear than the first game, but probably for the better. While players are given less control, we're given a better story with much smoother development. The cutscenes are much less awkward and the cinematic touches - camera angels, lighting - those have all been substantially improved. This keeps the player much more engaged in the narrative, which was captivating without being overbearing. Though the player is given some choices, you're really given very little control over the direction of the plot, but you never, ever feel as boxed in as you do in JRPGs like Final Fantasy.

Probably the only area where they really failed was in "ramping up enemy AI," which didn't seem much better than in the first. I'd go as far as to say I felt the first game was actually harder, even if the AI has been updated for this installment. That said, I suffered few (what I interpret as) cheap deaths and didn't get particularly frustrated at any point, which are probably good things. I do wish the developers would have offered a little more exploration, beyond just scanning worlds, but I enjoyed hunting for particular resources for most of the game. Resource-hunting is a major part, requiring you to scan planets for mineral deposits that you can then probe to use for weapon upgrades. It does get a little boring after a while, particularly when you're looking for one particular rare resource, but it's manageable and I choose to view it as a representation of the more mundane aspects of space travel.

In the end, I'm really excited for Mass Effect 3, the final entry in this trilogy. It's always a positive sign if a player wants to play more of a game after spending at least 25 hours of my life in it (my Raptr account says 107 hours, but I definitely left the game running for a long time).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A passion for games

I know only a few things about myself that are "for sures" at this point in my life. One of those is that I will likely enjoy Coca Cola for the rest of my life. I've been drinking it for years and it is just delicious. I also love turkey sandwiches. If I were on death row, you can be sure a turkey sandwich would be part of my final meal. Another is that Anthony Karge will probably be my best friend until I expire, death row or not. Outside of food, few things are certain. But one thing that is becoming increasingly certain is that I will play video games until I die. I was pretty sure of that fact when I was younger, but it was only recently that I came back to the conclusion.

Since I started working, after I graduated college, the amount of gaming that I've done has steadily declined. Where I reviewed 26 games in 2008, I reviewed 8 in 2009. I hardly played a thing in over a year and it didn't feel good. For the better part of the last year, I've felt kind of bored and disinterested. I didn't have any passion for anything. But in the last few weeks, since I started working at GameStop again, I realized what it was that I like about gaming so much: being a gamer. Being in. Knowing what's happening in the industry. Following it. Living it. Playing everything. And being proud of it.

I love video games. Unabashedly. I used to try to cover it up. All the long, somewhat ashamed, feeling that my knowledge of gaming was a useless and dorky waste of time. I covered it up and somewhat hid it. I acted embarrassed when my girlfriend Nicole found out about Thunderbolt, the Web site that I have been deputy editor of for years, despite the fact that as an accomplishment, it is something I'm most proud of.

When I was a kid, I remember getting my gaming magazines in the mail and going crazy over E3 coverage. I remember wishing I could go to E3. Because of the seriousness with which I've treated games, I've been able to go twice. I'm probably going again this year. Both shows were awesome experiences. I wrote over 20 previews for games I got to play before anyone else and got to talk with game creators that I spent my childhood idolizing. I've been flown to New York and San Francisco to chat about games with legendary designers. I got to live the dreams I had as a I kid. I've been blessed.

I don't want it to end. There's a big part of me write now that wants to really strongly pursue a career in this industry. Even if I just climb the GameStop corporate ladder for a while, I think I'll be pretty content. I've been playing games like crazy lately, devouring them voraciously in a way I haven't since I was younger. I'm eating up games and I'm the happiest I've been in a long time. There's just something about this hobby that I find absolutely fascinating. I've witnessed over the course of my short lifetime an immense amount of progression and development. Over 20 years, I've played nearly every significant video game released and many lesser titles. I am a lexicon of knowledge, for better or worse, on the universe of video games.

I've decided in the last few weeks that I'm going to dedicate myself to this again. I had the best time of my life when I was doing this really actively - busting on Thunderbolt, talking to PR people, playing games by the boatload - and I want to keep doing that. It keeps me happy. I'm filled with excitement playing them, reading about them, thinking about playing them. I love them. I always will love them. Video games are my passion and I'm happy about that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Small worlds

I've play a lot of video games over the course of a year, but the number of games per year has declined with age. I think I reached my peak in about sophomore year of college, before I started working and school got serious. I still play a lot of games, a lot more than the general population, but I tend to stick with the same game for a longer period instead of moving on to the next one. Most recently, I spent about 50-60 hours playing through Mass Effect 2 over the course of about 6 weeks.

The thing about Mass Effect 2 that kept my playing is that you're given literally the entire Milky Way galaxy to explore. You play as the commander of a spaceship and you're tasked with leading a team to save humanity. Along the way, you get to visit lots of different locations. One minute, you might be in a sprawling city where you'll uncover a clue that will sends you across the galaxy to an eerie tropical planet filled with tortured inhabitants that behave more like animals than sentient beings. All in a days work.

While I really liked being able to cross the whole galaxy, I couldn't help but feel that the whole thing was a bit superficial. Don't get me wrong, Mass Effect 2 stands out as one of the very best games that I have ever played. The storytelling, gameplay, direction, art style, voice acting in this game are beyond almost any other game that I've ever experienced. It's a truly phenomenal game. But though you can trample across the Milky Way, visiting dozens of star systems which then reveal hundreds of planetary systems, there isn't a whole lot of life to it all.

Most of the cities that you visit are filled with lots of aliens, but they tend to stand in the same spots. No one is simply out conducting their business, bustling around - the non-player characters are where they are for your benefit, your immersion, not their own. One of the earliest missions in the game tasks you with going to a nightclub to gain some information from the boss running the city. When you go back to the same city later in the game, you'll see the same goons waiting to get into the nightclub, despite the fact that nearly 50 hours have gone by. The cities are full of life, but they're lifeless. The same can be said for most of the planets you encounter. Only a few actually let you land and when you do, you're only allowed to explore a very tiny sliver. You'll walk on a very linear path toward whatever goal you're to find, and then it's over.

This phenomena isn't just a problem for Mass Effect 2; it plagues most "open world" games. But I hadn't really noticed what was being sacrificed in open world games like these until just the other day when I booted up Heavy Rain. A lot of people had been talking about how unique this game is and I didn't think much of it until I actually sat down and played it. I'm blown away. It is like nothing I've ever played and however I describe it, I won't be able to do it justice. The game opens with you assuming control of a sleeping male character. You pull him out of bed, walk him to the shower, shave his face, get him dressed, and wait for your wife to get home. Along the way, you explore this man's house (there's no narrative to open it up), interacting in fairly natural ways with the world around you as you wait for something to happen. It plays out much more like a movie opening than a tutorial introducing players to the mechanics of the game.

But what has amazed me most about Heavy Rain so far is that, despite the fact that you never leave Ethan's house in this short opening sequence, there's so much depth here. Instead of struggling to fit "the entire galaxy on one disc" as Bioware's Ray Muzyka described the process of developing the original Mass Effect in a conversation I had with him last summer, the developers of Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream built tiny environments and made them as believable as possible. Interaction with objects is highlighted and the player will have to do such mundane things as shake a carton of orange juice before taking a gulp or carefully setting plates on a kitchen table so they don't break.

It may seem silly, but this simple environment seemed more real to me than any I've ever played before. What's perhaps even more promising about this approach to level design is that I as the player remember the experience much more clearly than nearly any individual area in Mass Effect 2. While Mass Effect 2 was certainly a great game and there were a lot of memorable moments, the environmental design felt more like if the developers viewed the environments as a bridge between plot segments rather than integrating the characteristics of the environment into the plot itself. When you're wandering a crowded mall in Heavy Rain, the chaos of homogenized shopping centers loaded with aimless people milling about worked in perfect compliment with the how the story unfolded during that scene. The environments in Heavy Rain are integral, not just diversions to be quickly worked through between two plot points.

Quantic Dreams' Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit for those across the pond) was similar in design but failed to have a substantial impact on gaming, perhaps due to being underplayed because of some clunky mechanics and market forces. Fortunately, Heavy Rain is getting a lot more attention than their previous effort and they seem poised to become a big time developer after this showing. Hopefully their emphasis on smaller, more organic environments like what we saw here will help mark a general trend toward designing levels that are more integrated into the narrative instead of serving as simple arenas to house frenzied killing as they are in so many other games. Video games have a long way to go before their storytelling can match Hollywood, but Heavy Rain is a very good example of where this medium is headed in the future.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Talking trash

My mind has been focused recently on trash.

Trash is an interesting phenomena. Archeologists uncovering the lost histories of ancient civilizations are doing little more than digging through the trash of our ancestors, no disrespect meant. If one thing binds all humans, it is that we consume and leave behind what we can't. Even the famed Native Americans who allegedly used every part of an animal still left behind structures and tools that we can now discover, particularly in my area of upstate New York, a hot-bed for Native American activity in the past.

The other weekend, I went to a concert with Anthony Karge (check out his actively-updated blog here) in New York City. I had a phenomenal time, but like most of my trips to New York City, my attention was drawn to the city's problems more than the parts that tourists are so entranced by (this may be because I've been to NYC more times than I can count and rarely travel the tourist's path). On this particular trip, I couldn't help but notice the obscene amount of trash that was found on every street. I think it must have been garbage day because Anthony and I walked past small mountains of black trash bags on every block.

While recognizing the tremendous environmental impact that this type of trash has, trash on the street annoys me far more. I do not understand the mentality behind littering. I don't litter, period. If I have trash, dirty tissues or gum wrappers or empty plastic bottles, I simply hold on to them until I have an appropriate receptacle to place them in. Other people, a substantial portion of the population apparently, do not follow this general rule that I live by. Across the streets of New York, tangled in temporary orange fencing, drowning in puddles, was trash. Plastic soda bottle wrappers, packaging, bottle caps, cigarette butts - trash, trash, trash, all over the streets. The worst part was, in some cases, many of the public garbage cans were overflowing. People wanting to dispose of their garbage properly were forced to try to tuck it precariously into heaps of garbage, hoping that a sudden gust of wind didn't send it flying into the street.

The worst part was the train ride home from New York City to Poughkeepsie, NY. I decided, both rides, to sit on the side that doesn't look out on the water, which is a beautiful view. Instead, I took breaks from my school books to look out the window at all of the litter that forms the bulk of that view. There was one stretch of woods just littered with tires. Hundreds of tires. For an area that freaks out over West Nile Virus, as the downstate area has in recent years, you think they'd be a little more conscious of facilitating mosquito breeding by allowing this mess to continue sitting there. I saw one business in one of the nameless small towns along the ride that seemed to be dumping huge piles of metal and other garbage behind their property without any consideration for appropriate long-term disposal. The garbage was just errantly tossed into the environment, out of their sight, into mine.

Trash isn't something that we can get rid of. It's a part of humanity and particularly, American consumer culture. I don't care if you generate trash - I know I do, though I have tried to cut back on just how much waste I am responsible for. But please, please, please - don't litter. There's no good explanation for doing it other than you're just a shithead. There's no defensible position on littering other than being an ignorant, inconsiderate cunt.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Welcome to the mountain

I received Shaun White Snowboarding from Ubisoft last Wednesday for review. There aren't a lot of reviews up on the Internet yet, so I figured I'd use this space to give some brief thoughts on the game before the review appears officially on Thunderbolt.

The verdict? Meh. It's OK. It could be a lot better, but there are a few things that I really like. While the controls are kind of terrible (it seems way too difficult to jump from rail-to-rail), the mountains in the game are really awesome. I'm really enjoying exploring the mountains, and having five of them (a fifth is included with the Target special edition) means you're given a lot of variety. As a skier, I really appreciate the open design. I could never really get into the SSX or Cool Boarders games because they felt too confined. You just raced down a set path and never were able to explore. The Amped games on the Xbox were an improvement in that they let you move freely around the mountain, but that wasn't great either. Like Shaun White Snowboarding, I couldn't get comfortable with the controls in Amped either. They just don't really respond well.

It's also a little too hard to get to specific challenges. Though you can drop markers and return to that spot with the press of a couple of buttons, getting to actual challenges requires that you ride all the way over to the starting point. Why can I warp to the top of lifts and warp to marker spots, but not challenges? And while I'm at it, couldn't the company have done a better job organizing the store? In it's current form, you need to scroll through the boards individually. If you want a specific type of board, like a park board instead of a freestyle board, you have to scroll through a horizontal list that displays them one at a time. How come there's not a submenu with the various types of boards and, once you select the type of board you want, you can then scroll through them individually?

I will say, the graphics and the music are really good. The sun shines off the brilliant white snow, which cracks as you carve as your make way down the hill. The inclusion of avalanches is a nice touch. I love trying to race away from them and seeing how big of an avalanche I can create. I just wish they didn't stop randomly. I want to take the avalanche with me all the way down the mountain! I really like the rock soundtrack, which includes stuff from Modest Mouse, Incubus, Jefferson Airplane, Heart and tons of other artists.

But like everything else in the game, neither work perfectly. There's a bit too much clipping for comfort and there were times where I'd hear the one song two or three times in a twenty minute period of time. Kind of irritating.

I'll link to the full review on Thunderbolt when it gets posted. Hoping to have it written by the end of tonight and posted Monday.