The will likely be spoilers, but should I talk about something super new I'll warn ya. But consider this a pre-emptive warning! You're WARNED!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Let Us Now Praise Pixelated Men

Despite the overwhelming amount of accolades Grand Theft Auto V received upon its release, I wasn't much interested. While I played the hell out of GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas back in the day, GTA IV left me cold. I was tired of the formula, tired of the series' problematic treatment of female characters, tired of being forced to play as a dude. Whatever my gaming life lacked by skipping the newest title was supplanted nicely by the Saints Row series, which is goofier and funnier than the GTA series and...GASP...even allows me to play as a woman.

And then I caved.

What tipped me over the edge? Something I surely never saw coming: the creativity of the fanbase. The amount of freedom one has in the world of GTA V–not to mention the enormity and detail of that world–has given rise to short films, nature documentaries, and much more. Specifically it was this, a reimagining of the trailer for the 1977 film The Car, that led me to pick up a copy of the game a few days later.

I want to make shit like that! The possibilities seem nearly endless...and with the full suite of in-game movie making tools coming soon to PS4 and Xbox One, I'm excited to see what I can come up with.

As for the game proper, I'm currently having fun in GTA Online. I can play as a lady! It is open world and open-ended enough that it almost feels like a crime-flavored RPG. You start out as a penniless, homeless thug and progress from there, taking on tougher and tougher missions and accumulating wealth, strength, and all the material items you can. Or you don't have to do any of that. You can do whatever you want! And when my character isn't holding up convenience stores, stealing cars, running from the cops, acting as a drug mule, or getting killed incessantly by high-level griefers, she walks the streets indulging in her secret passion: photography. She wouldn't dare tell any of her criminal pals about her desire to be Los Santos's answer to Mary Ellen Mark or Walker Evans, but her camera is always at the ready.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Until Dawn (2015)

It can be a hard knock life out there for a console-tied horror lovin' gamer like me. Sure, there are classics like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but there is room in my heart for more. However, in recent years horror games have generally morphed into action games with a horror skin; while scaring the player still figures into the equation, newer titles tend to be fast-paced and combat heavy instead of atmosphere-laden mood and exploration pieces. (One need only look at the evolution of the Resident Evil games to get the gist–it's hard to believe that Resident Evil and Resident Evil 5 are in the same series.) Don't get me wrong, there are still flashes of brilliance–P.T. terrorized me more than anything else in my life ever has, Alien: Isolation is a fantastic fright fest, and even the lo-fi aesthetics of games like Home and Lone Survivor can belie some gripping experiences. But by and large, I'm always thirsty for new horror games that don't solely revolve around shooting monsters.

You can imagine, then, that I was really fucking excited for Until Dawn, a survival/adventure horror game that emphasizes story, character interaction, exploration, and decision making.

The plot features a setup that's straight from the early '80s heyday of the slasher flick: Ten friends spend the weekend at a remote mountain lodge, but after a prank goes awry, two of the party members end up missing and presumed dead. A year later, the remaining eight friends return to the lodge for another weekend, but guess what? They're not alone. Yep, it seems there's a masked killer on the loose. Go figure!

When dawn finally comes, the number of survivors remaining is up to the player. You're frequently faced with choices, from seemingly insignificant ones (do you give a sincere or a snarky response to an innocuous question?) to ones that can immediately result in life or death for a character (the killer is chasing you, do you run or hide?). Anyone who's ever yelled at the screen during a horror movie will delight in taking control of characters normally deemed moronic...and they'll find out how damn difficult it is to make a split-second decisions when you're in a panic.

Once the game gets rolling, it doesn't stop. The train is inexorable, and it chugs along...until dawn. There is no going back if you make a wrong choice or if you miss a clue whilst exploring, and you can only live (or not live, as the case may be) with your decisions. While some mistakes are obvious, the game will tell you what "butterfly effect" an earlier action has had. You know, like maybe that snarky response of yours hours earlier means that someone isn't exactly rushing to come to your aid now.

The characters, as you might expect, are also straight out of early '80s horror: there's the jock, the jokester, the mean girl, the probably final girl, the horny couple, etc. Before the action begins, you've got to wade through some dopey dialogue, and I admit I found myself saying "I don't care if any of these assholes makes it through the night." After all, most of the victims in a generic slasher flick are just there to be killed. If you can tolerate them before that, great...but chances are there are some you can't wait to see die just so they'll shut up.

But I'll be damned if everyone didn't grow on me during Until Dawn. I'm not saying the characters end up more than the archetypes they start out as, or that they ever have, you know, depth. But listen: when you are tasked with seeing a character through a particularly grueling sequence of events, you become very invested in their survival. I was shocked when I realized that the character I liked the least ended up being the one I was rooting for the most. Seriously, early on I was thinking that I'd try to get her killed intentionally I hated her so much. Her personality never really underwent a change, but damn, she endured so much that I wanted her to live. Ultimately, she didn't make it and it was sort of devastating, for the interactive nature of the game had us buddied up. I fucked up, and she died. As active participants, players bear a responsibility in Until Dawn that they don't in passive entertainment such as Friday the 13th. For a lifelong horror fan, it's a unique, terrific experience.

Gameplay is accessible even to those new to video games. Yeah sure, you need to have fast reactions much of the time, but it's generally little more than matching onscreen button prompts, moving a stick in one direction or another, or–in the most nerve-wracking sequences–not moving the controller at all because doing so will give away your location.

Until Dawn is frequently beautiful to look at, and also frequently very strange to look at. The odd mix of motion capture and animation often dips low into uncanny valley, leaving characters looking more like creepy robots than actual people. (It doesn't help when characters are made to resemble their real-life counterparts, such as actors Peter Stormare and Hayden Panettiere.) More often than not, however, your mouth will be agape at the visuals in, like, a good way. And also because of the gore. Oh yes, there's enough blood and gore here to do Tom Savini proud.

The story twists and turns, touching on plenty of beloved genre tropes and touchstones, and the horror pedigree of co-writer Larry Fessenden is readily apparent. (Do you love Larry Fessenden? I do. I don't love everything he does, but he's a cool cat and it seems like he loves horror as much as you or I.) If you like horror movies and video games, Until Dawn is absolutely a no-brainer.

My first playthrough saw only two of the eight characters survive. Can you believe that? I thought for sure I'd make only the right decisions and everyone would waltz out of that lodge alive and happy in the light of a new day. I mean, I have a horror blog. You don't get more expert than that!

Until Dawn is a PlayStation 4 exclusive.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

DESTINY: Fleece me once...

Pull up your pants, I'm about to say a lot!

I've never had as torrid an affair with a game as the one I've had with Destiny. Sure, I've loved plenty of games. Sometimes when I love a game so very much, the game alone isn't enough–I'll read crappy tie-in novels, soak up all the lore I can, make fan art, wear a t-shirt, whatever. I've bought some games that have stunk, but that's becoming increasingly rare thanks to the internet; with very few exceptions, I wait for reviews and/or price drops before committing. I've also played games that were perfectly enjoyable during the time I spent with them, but once they're over my brain somehow purges specific information like, you know, plot. All I'm left with is "That was a good game!" and that's enough.

And then there's Maude Destiny.

Last July, I voraciously consumed the Beta version of this first-person space shooter. I loved it so much that I felt no qualms about buying a deluxe edition of the game that included a pass for the first two expansions as well. I knew I'd play it, so why not save a little money up front?

Since Destiny released in September, my feelings have vacillated back and forth between love and hate so often that I'm not even sure what a feeling is anymore. I am a hollow shell of a person now, and so very tired.

Destiny is often mislabeled as an MMO. It's not an MMO at all–it's an online shooter with very limited story-based content and some PvP options. The key phrase here is "limited story-based content": developer Bungie and publisher Activision want you to keep playing, but after you complete the main story your only choice is to replay content again and again and again–in gamer parlance, to "grind"–in the hopes of acquiring better gear.

In order to keep you playing, there are roadblocks on your path to that better gear. Some daily and weekly activities drop loot, but they are not repeatable until the game world "refreshes" on Tuesdays. Some activities drop loot every time you play them, but only some players in your group will be rewarded. You might get something! And it might be great! Or it might be crap. Play the content again for another chance! It's a slot machine that doesn't take your quarters, it takes your time.

You can also buy gear from vendors with a currency called "marks". These are accrued in both the daily/weekly activities and PvP. But there are roadblocks here as well: you want that gun that costs 150 marks? Well, save up because you can only earn a maximum of 100 marks per week. Want that gun and a helmet that costs 75 marks? Well, you can't buy them both at once because you can only hold 200 marks at a time. It's a nefarious way to keep you coming back for more, even though that "more" is the same limited content you've been playing for months.

Sounds like a kick in the teeth, doesn't it? People who don't play Destiny don't understand why anyone would keep doing it. Heck, some people who do play Destiny don't understand why anyone would do it. The short answer is, the game is fucking fun. Even if you're re-doing a mission for the thousandth time, the gameplay is still solid. Anyone who's played a Halo game knows that Bungie can craft a shooter. (I fully admit: faith in Bungie is what had me fully onboard even after some doubts during the Beta. I count Halo: Reach amongst my very favorite games, and so I was excited to see what they could do with an entirely new universe.) Destiny simply plays really, really well...and my goodness is it pretty to look at. If you're a space nerd like me, it's a dream come true to run around Venus, Mars, all of it.

The limitations on content–whether it's weekly limits or the random number generator (RNG) of loot drops–keep people coming back like addicts constantly searching for that next high. Maybe you'll snap out of it, maybe you won't. Personally, I hit a wall about a month in. I realized that the limited content meant one thing: I was grinding for better I could be better at grinding. What was I going to use that exotic pulse rifle on, except the same story missions or PvP maps yet again? I found myself irritated with the lack of content. I found myself irritated that what story there was simply wasn't very good–and to actually get it all and understand it all, you had to collect "grimoire cards" that are unlocked at random locations and times, or hidden around the game maps. To read them, you have to visit Bungie's website. Yup, the story and lore and context is mostly told bit by bit through digital trading cards you might find that can only be accessed outside the game.

My feelings were definitely on the "hate" end of the spectrum at this point, but I was already signed up for the expansions so I knew there was more on the way. I had hopes it would get better.

The first expansion, The Dark Below, hit and I was eager to jump back in.

I finished all the story missions–which re-used areas I'd already played through–in 15 minutes.

I didn't bother with any of the new PvP maps, or the new strikes (specialized missions requiring a fireteam). I shut the game off and didn't touch it again until the second expansion (House of Wolves) dropped.

With good reason, I wasn't expecting much. But my heart still had hope in it because, as I said, the game is fun. I like playing it, and I want it to be good. I know it can be! The potential is there! WHY WON'T THE GAME JUST BE BETTER?

Well, House of Wolves is much much better. The story, though still short (and still based largely in areas already used), is the best in the game so far. It is coherent! It is lively!

There is also a new arena/horde mode, some new PvP options, new strikes...House of Wolves feels worth the $20 it cost, whereas The Dark Below felt like a total and complete rip-off at the same price.

In fact, House of Wolves put me right back in those September feelings: I was addicted again! I was grinding again, yes, but I was having fun!

At E3 earlier this month, Bungie announced The Taken King, a bigger, better expansion due in September at a bigger, better price of $40. Finally, we'd see some new areas! Our characters would get a new subclass of skills! There's more, more, more...and I was in. House of Wolves felt like Bungie was really moving in the right direction, and though $40 is not nothin', it doesn't seem egregious for the amount of content on the way.

Then they announced all of the Destiny packages available at different prices.

Now, let me say up front: I generally don't have a problem with DLC. As An Old, I realize that the price of games has not gone up since the days of the Atari 2600. Accounting for inflation, prices have actually dropped despite the fact that game budgets have gone up and up. If DLC gives me more of a game I'm enjoying and the price is right, sign me up.

Also, as any gamer knows, prices drop over time. A year after release, a $60 game might be available for $40 or even $20. Eventually, games that have a lot of DLC might get a "Game of the Year" edition, which includes all of the DLC at a bargain.

None of this makes what Bungie is doing with The Taken King sting any less. Look out, here come some numbers!

For $85, I got Destiny and the two expansions. As the expansions are $20 each, I saved a whopping five dollars by buying the package.

Now to get The Taken King, I am to spend an additional $40. So we're at $125 for a Day One veteran. Yikes! But not so yikes. I don't buy a lot of games new or at full price, and for the number of hours I've gotten/hope to get this isn't such a bad deal. However.

Bungie will be selling a new edition of Destiny that includes the game, the first two expansions, and The Taken King for $60. Again, see above: I get price drops. But by the time The Taken King arrives, House of Wolves will only have been out for about four months. So all of the Year One content–what I paid $85 for–is only worth $20? What a fucking deal for newcomers!

But Bungie wasn't done there! They're releasing a Collector's Edition with some real-life goodies and some in-game goodies for $80. The digital version–where you don't get the real-life goodies–costs the same. So if a Day One veteran player wanted those goodies, they'd have to fork out money for content they already own in addition to The Taken King, which would bring their total so far to (at least) $165.

As you might imagine, people were upset.

Last night, Bungie responded. They heard the complaints, and wanted players to know that the complaints were valid...that to get the goodies, you shouldn't have to re-purchase the vanilla game and the two expansions. In response, veteran players can buy the digital goodies (which totals nine cosmetic items) for $20.

$20 for nine cosmetic items. That is the price of–no, that's more than I paid for each expansion.

So for $60, a new player will get Destiny, The Dark Below, House of Wolves, and The Taken King.

For $60, I will get The Taken King and nine cosmetic items, six of which are class-based so they can't be used by all your characters.

As you might imagine, people are still upset. But wait, there's more!

Bungie also announced a promotional partnership with Red Bull. In July, some specially marked cans of Red Bull will have codes to unlock some story content in The Taken King when it launches in September.

Content that will unlock for everyone in January.

That means when you drop $40 on The Taken King, you will be paying for content you can't access until January...unless you drop some more money on Red Bull to access it early. But wait, there's more!

Even the stores where these Red Bulls will be sold are under timed exclusives: they'll be at 7-11 in July, and other stores in August.

I have been very forgiving with Destiny. Never a strict apologist, because I know how flawed the game is. I understand why people gave up on it in September, or any time since then. But because I like playing the game and I remember Bungie's past efforts, I was willing to overlook many of the problems. I was willing to hang on in the hopes that the game would get better. I was willing to open my wallet to support the gameworld and the developer.

But this? This is a developer and publisher blatantly taking financial advantage of players. It reeks of the worst that video games has to offer: the cash grab. It's disgusting, and I just can't support it or make any excuses any longer. It sucks, because I fucking love Destiny. I can always play what I've already got (it's all digital, so I can't sell any of it), but it won't feel the same. But for new content, I'm tapping out. Fleece me once, shame on me. Try to fleece me again, go fuck yourself.

I'll always remember our time on Venus. And that other time on Venus. And those other million times on Venus because holy shit, Destiny could also be called Groundhog Day because I just played the same shit over and over. Why am I sad again?

But it's so pretty...

See? It's a torrid affair!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tamriel with Friends

After a year of existence–and fair-to-middling reviews–in the realm of "personal" "computers", The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has arrived on consoles. I consider myself to be a pretty big Elder Scrolls nerd (well, as big a nerd as one can be when one discovered the Elder Scrolls with Oblivion, anyway) and I was so excited I pre-ordered and pre-loaded that shit. Mind, when the game launched at midnight on June 9th, the servers were so flooded I couldn't play. In fact I couldn't play until sometime the next evening and that was super frustrating but it's fine now so let's not dredge up bad memories, hmm?

I've played a shit ton–nay, a metric fuck ton–of Oblivion and Skyrim. I am a total sucker for open world gaming, and there's not much that pleases me more than exploration. Wandering a world, discovering landmarks, descending into caves, solving mysteries...I cannot get enough. I cannot! The structure in Elder Scrolls games is loose; sure, there's a main quest line, but you don't have to actually do it. These are role-playing games in the truest sense, because you can basically do whatever the hell you want.

I made one of my characters a total "tomb raider". She lived to uncover the hidden places, to find untold treasure and learn about the past. I enforced plenty of restrictions in that playthrough:

  • she couldn't join any guilds or follow the main story at all
  • she couldn't fast travel (that is, she couldn't warp from one place to another...instead, she had to walk or hire a carriage)
  • she had to adhere to a somewhat normal schedule–this meant finding an inn or campsite and sleeping at night, as well as eating regular meals
  • for maximum nerdery, I only used the fold-out paper map that came with the game–no fancy in-game maps for this character so cool, I know
  • no magic use allowed–bows and daggers or swords only
Another character could only use magic. She was an evil outcast full of nothing but rage, a lust for power, and murderous thoughts. She helped very few people on her journeys, and when she did, she bilked them for all they were worth. Her only goal was to rise to the top of both the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood (the assassins guild), and to incessantly harass a shopkeeper who sassed her. Every night, I would sneak into the bunkhouse where the shopkeeper slept. I'd pick her pockets clean, then go rob her shop. Every night. 

For all of my playthroughs, I turn off the game's music and turn up the sound effects. The crunch of my footfalls on dirt...the different crunch of my footfalls on snow...the patter of raindrops on leaves...wind howling through a bend in a long-forgotten crypt...the conversation between two bandits somewhere further on in a cave...all of it added to the immersion, the feeling that my characters were truly inhabiting a living, breathing world.

So along comes Elder Scrolls Online and it's time to dive back into Tamriel. As I said, I was wicked excited and my nerd senses were a-tinglin'. I thought long and hard about what kind of character I would make, which of the game's three Alliances I would join. I love sneaking, busting out my bow, and eliminating threats before those threats even know I'm there, so I created a wood elf and joined the Aldmeri Dominion, which unites Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. I was ready!

Or, I thought I was. Duh fucking DUH, Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO. It's online. It's right there in the title! I got that because, like, I know how to read. What I didn't get was how much it would change the Elder Scrolls as I know it. 

Basically there are a zillion other folks running around with you–other Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. And Orcs. And Nords, and Dunmer, and Bretons, get the idea. So what does this do to your game?

Well, let's say you're tasked with entering a cave, collecting ten samples of Whatever, and killing the Head Necromancer in Charge. Cool! Standard RPG stuff. So you get in the cave, ready to sneak on through and–oh. Someone runs by you and engages the enemy you were going to quietly assassinate. Okay. That someone–you see their screen name emblazoned over their head, so let's call them MuffDiver69, because that's the kind of user name you'll see, which is great for immersion–kills the enemy, nabbing all the XP that comes with victory. Then they nab the Whatever that drops, so you need to wait for the enemy to respawn and hope that you get the goods this time.

You make your way to the boss's chamber, and five people–MuffDiver69, I_Teabagged_UR_Mom, whofarted, 420blazeit, and xxxDeAtHdEaLeR666xxx–have almost killed the Head Necromancer in Charge. You get a snippet of dialogue from the big bad so you kind of know what's going on. Now you have to wait for the Head Necromancer in Charge to respawn, and you notice that bodies don't fade. This means that there are three dead Head Necromancers in Charge on the ground as the one you need to kill reappears in front of you. 

And so on. That's the way it goes. It's an MMO.

While that makes the idea of immersion a joke and leads to a lot of oh my fucking god will you please get out of my way "I_Pooped" and let me do this thing I need to do, it also leads to stuff like this, the appeal of which cannot be denied.

I mean, you just don't get impromptu underwear dance parties with strangers in Skyrim, you know? Not to mention the background chaos: people riding horses through town, running around, shooting fireballs, being chased by their pet panthers. This encapsulates ESO pretty perfectly, which is to say your Elder Scrolls expectations need to be tempered. Your enjoyment of the game will likely be equivalent with how okay you are with this sort of thing.

So if you're totally okay with it, what of the gameplay itself? What is there to do? Holy shit, there is so much to do. The quests aren't always particularly deep–you'll frequently run into some variety of "Help me, adventurer! Will you gather ten plants/kill the bandits/find my brother?"–you know, fetch quests and the such. However, that doesn't mean they're not often interesting. For example, at the end of one minor quest, my partner and I agonized over a particular decision–whether to kill an NPC or let her go–for a good five minutes. We debated the repercussions of each option, weighed them...and ultimately the result had no bearing on anything beyond that quest. But the discussion it sparked between us made it memorable.

There's also a lot of humor, and most of the billions of NPCs have personalities. Even throwaway moments are well-written, and that can go a long, long way in a game like this.

Many of the standard Elder Scrolls hallmarks are here–crafting, cooking, enchanting, alchemy–and they're all as in-depth than you could hope for, if not more so. There are so many skills, abilities, and perks that it's quite intimidating at first–how can you possibly unlock them all? Then you remember that the game is essentially endless, that if you're in, you're in for the long haul. You can join guilds, team up with others, or play nearly all of the game solo. Or, as solo as you can be in a massively multiplayer experience. There's also the PvP realm that pits the various Alliances against one another. I haven't checked that out yet, and frankly I'm not in any rush to.

I've got too many necromancers to kill, unless of course Missed_Da_Toilet gets there first, or I get distracted by an underwear dance party. Tamriel. It's a living, breathing world!