Thursday, December 22, 2011

GotY on hold . . .

I was going to start prepping my Game of the Year post and had my choices more of less worked out, but I just purchased Bastion on the 50% off 12 Days of Xmas sale and I definitely want to play it before I make any final decisions.  It is a title that always intrigued me and I have been meaning to play it all year.  I mean, it is not like I am playing 6 other games right now right?  Ugh!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Arkham City

It took almost 2 months, but I finally started playing (and beat actually) my most anticipated game of this year, Batman: Arkham City.  Arkham Asylum was my GotY when it came out 2 years ago so this game had a lot to live up to.  It does live up them.  It may no longer feel as fresh and unexpected as the original (how could it), but it is more of what made the first one great.  Just bigger.  A lot bigger. 


Maybe too big?  While the first game had a very focused narrative and you progressed through it in a pretty linear way, learning new abilities and unlocking gadgets along the way, Arkham City basically starts you off with most of your toys from the first game intact.  And while the main storyline will give you focus, it is very hard to keep that focus with all the side missions that pop up as you are making your way to your destination.  This introduces a problem with a lot of open world games in that you are often forced to break "character", but veering off the main story which oftentimes is time sensitive, to go off and do other things.  I won't spoil anything for those that haven't played it, but there is a pretty big incentive for Batman to hastily advance the main story for most of the game, yet the "gamer" in you wants to waste time collecting Riddler trophies or pursuing other side missions.


As far as game mechanics, the game plays just like Arkham City.  Meaning, very, very well.  Locomotion in this game is a total blast and traversing Arkham City with all your gadgets and abilities is just fantastic.  You feel like Batman as you zip around, chaining together moves into a graceful dance through the rooftops.


Combat remains the same as well, which is a good thing since the first game's unique combat  mechanic was one of its best features.  It may seem simple at first, one attack button and a counter, but it is actually extremely deep and complicated and practically overwhelming.  The number of moves you can unlock and techniques you can use is vast and certain enemies require different tactics.  Chaining together a perfect combo while surrounded by 10 enemies of various types requires an amazing amount of concentration, timing and precision.  Anyone that dismissing the combat as a "button masher" hasn't even scratched the surface of the nuances in the combat.


Now that I have beaten the main storyline, I am tying up all the side missions I am finding some annoyances.  Many of the side-missions do not let you advance them yourself.  You happen to come across a clue, investigate it, and need to find additional clues to continue the mission.  However, you do not know where that next clue will be.  You don't even get the general direction or area it may be located in.  You basically just have to keep exploring the entire city in hopes of getting close enough to the area to trigger the next part of the mission.  I find this poorly done and a bit annoying.  Traversing aimless through the city with no real direction hoping to trigger a mission is all kinds of "not fun".  Not sure what Rocksteady was going for here.  Encouraging exploration?  That is what the Riddler trophies are for, not side missions.


Speaking of Riddler trophies, some of them are very creative and fun to find.  However, I do think they went a little overboard and just put too many of them this time around.  400 trophies?  Ouch.  Sounds like fun on paper, but again, trying to find all these things can become pretty dull after a while.  But hey, your results may vary.


I don't want to end this post on a negative note, because the game really is great.  I haven't even mentioned the Catwoman sections (which I actually enjoyed quite a bit), or all the great bonus content and Challenge Rooms.  You definitely get your money's worth.  I only hope they release extra side-missions as DLC, instead of just these characters which can only be used in the Challenge Room stuff.  Being able to play as Robin in the main game on a few missions as a DLC pack is something I would definitely buy.  Or even just some more Batman side-missions.  Arkham City itself is too cool a place to not take advantage of.  Come on Rocksteady!!!


Friday, December 9, 2011

Rayman: Origins

Rayman: Origins is an odd game for me.  It is the first Rayman game I have ever played (I may have played demos of some of the other titles, or tried them out on an in-store kiosk), yet, I really want this game to do well and sell a ton of copies.


Unfortunately, Ubisoft seems hell bent on making sure this game fails miserably.  They released it in the middle of the fall game onslaught.  A death sentence for the majority of titles not currently tied to a AAA franchise.  Hell, they even release it on the very same day as another Ubisoft title, Assassin's Creed!  Talk about cannibalizing your own title! Throw in the fact that the title was originally planned as a downloadable, episodic game and it is now being released at full retail price with little fanfare or marketing and it seems they want it to fail.


Did I mention it is a cartoony 2D platformer?  Yeah, the cards didn't exactly line up for this one to succeed.


But this game is my biggest surprise of the year.


First of all, the most striking thing about it are the visuals.  Yes, the game is all hand drawn 2D art.  Sounds old school.  But it is the most visually impressive game I have played this year.  It is absolutely vibrant, colorful, with fantastic art design and the entire thing runs as a silky smooth 60 frames per second.  Not a single pixel in sight!  Watching this game running in high-definition is a real visual treat.  I cannot give enough accolades to the Ubisoft team.  I hope many, many titles are released using this game engine (UbiArt Framework I believe it is called), because the results are amazing and I wouldn't mind an explosion in 2D games.  Especially when they look, control, and run this good.


Not only does it look gorgeous, but once you begin to play it you realize that it plays fantastically as well.  The controls just feel right.  The character's momentum, jumping and "feel" is spot on, as is necessary in any great 2D platformer.


Gameplay follows by mixing things up occasionally and giving you enough variation to always be entertained.  You learn new moves and abilities and some levels have you traverse them different. There is plenty of variety here and it borrows gameplay elements from many of the great platformers from the past.


The music is also extremely well done and whimsical.  I dare you not to smile when the underwater music kicks in the first time you learn the ability to swim under the surface.


And that is my favorite aspect of the game.  It is extremely charming.  All the tiny details come together perfectly.  Tiny nuances in character animation, sounds effects, music, gameplay.  I find myself playing with a smile all the time.


The game can also be very challenging if you are a completionist.  Getting through the stages themselves is not too difficult.  But if you are trying to get all the collectables and unlockables in every stage prepare for a challenge!  The "chase-the-treasure-chest" stages are especially challenging, bordering on frustrating at times.  But they are very thrilling and encourage memorization and practice.


If you haven't tried this game out, at the very least download the demo.  But preferable, just go out and buy it!


Thursday, December 1, 2011


So instead of doing the smart thing and leaving Skyrim – a game that I know I will be playing for 100+ hours - as the last game I purchase this holiday season, I went ahead and picked it up on 11/11/11.  Because that is just how I roll.  Long list of must-have games be damned!


My experience with The Elder Scrolls series dates back only to Morrowind, a game which took me a long time to "get", but once hooked I was blown away.  I sunk in well over 100 hours into Oblivion and I never even completed the main quest.  After Fallout 3, which I also enjoyed for the most part but never completed, I began to get a little tired of the Bethesda "formula" (now that I think about it, looks like I have never completed a single Bethesda game).


Their games are huge.  Offer a great level of freedom.  A rich history.  Great ideas.  Plenty of bugs.  Weird design choices.  And are hit in miss with a lot of what is going on.  NPC characters can show intelligence by going about their day, having routines and giving off a real world feel.  Yet you can place a bucket over their heads and rob them blind, or walk into their homes at night and wake them up from their slumber to ask them what they have to sell and they behave as if that is a perfectly normal thing to do.  Like I said, it is a give and take.


But one thing I will give their games is that they are extremely addicting.  The type of game where once you complete a dungeon or quest, you tell yourself you will just check out that one landmark off in the horizon, or do one more thing before you stop playing, and next thing you know another 2 hours have passed.  You get addicted not so much to leveling or finding gear as you do in other RPGs, but in exploration and discovery.  I have my issues with some of the design and play mechanics, but they work well enough to keep me plowing ahead.


I am not sure how much time I have devoted to Skyrim, but I'd estimate about 15 - 20 hours or so.  Some random thoughts and observations:


- Textures can be pretty awful (360 version).  Yes, I did install it onto the HDD, but I tested it out without the install and they were still pretty bad in spots.


- That being said, when the visuals align at the right moment, they can be very effective and atmospheric.  Still not as big a leap as I was hoping from Oblivion, but massive open world games like these will always have to compromise in the visuals somehow.


- God I hate having to go through load screens whenever you are entering/leaving buildings.  Technical limitations of the hardware, I know, but still very annoying.


- I have discovered that I have a very distinct play-style that I gravitate towards in all Bethesda games.  The stealthy long-range fighter/magic user.  I just love sneak attacks with the bow and then going off to hide.  Sure, it probably takes me three times as long to complete dungeons this way, but I find the stealthy approach very satisfying.


- Bears should not be this difficult to take down!  A bear should not require 10 arrows to the face and 5 or 6 fireballs to take down!!  These things are monstrous!  WTF?!  It is a bear, not a furry tank!


- I do love the dragons.  I love how they show up randomly patrolling the skies and the audio cues you get when they are near.  It is really damn cool.  And scary if you are in a spot with no cover, because going toe-to-toe with a dragon (at least when you are a stealthy archer) without a place to hide is a death wish!


- I do love all the random events that seem to occur based on the game's rules, like coming across a bandit camp that just happens to be getting attack by a pack of wolves, or leading a dragon to a populated area and having guards come to defend the town (aiding you in the process).


- I really like that the "main" quest does not seem to be as urgent as in Oblivion, allowing me to veer off and explore and do side-quests without breaking character.  Seriously, it felt really odd ignoring the main quest in Oblivion to help someone deliver a message, giving the urgency of that storyline.  In an open world game like this, with so many options, you want to let the player feel like they can explore without breaking the immersion of the world and storyline.  Something that happened in Oblivion to me by me choosing to gather herbs instead of, you know, saving the world!  Felt guilty about that.


I'll continue to sink most of my free time into Skyrim.  Believe it or not, I still dabble in some Dark Souls every now and then.  I also caved and ordered Rayman: Originas and Batman: Arkham City from Amazon during the Black Friday deals, so I should have those in my possession very soon.  Yup, gaming overdose indeed.