Far Cry 3
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (December 4, 2012)
Genre: Open-world first-person shooter
Official Website: http://far-cry.ubi.com/fc-portal/en-us/home/index.aspx
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
David Wolinsky, Primal Crier: I’m not really sure where to start here, and that’s not because I’m indecisive, but because there’s a metric ton going on in Far Cry 3. Many moons ago I slogged through a good portion of Far Cry 2, which I didn’t really like, and obviously the first thing that grabs anyone with eyes is how gorgeous FC3 is. The island looks and feels real. Night becomes day. There are weather patterns. It’d almost be like being on vacation were it not for the fact that everyone and everything is trying to kill you.
Since you’re flung out into a tropical paradise that’s also a bit of a nightmare: you have to contend with predatorial wildlife and the crazed terrorist guy with a mohawk who’s kidnapped you and your friends. That means gun-toting freaks are just as dangerous as lions, although, in my experience it’s the creatures that are better at catching you.
This would all be sublime if everything worked in congress, but there are some critical elements misfiring that break not so much the game, but the fun. Badly. For example, some of the core mechanics, like holding X to reload or loot or Y to heal work unpredictably. Sometimes you have to be prompted to heal, which is frustrating when you’re fighting for survival. And there were weird bugs I encountered. Weird, weird bugs. Here’s one memorable one: when embarking on a racing mission, instead of hopping into the car when I was supposed to, I was instead unceremoniously crushed by another car, the screen went black, it came back, I dropped my gun, it went black again, and I was informed I had lost the race.
FC3 is like a very pretty girl who, as you get to know her a bit better, actually turns out to be kinda insane. No amount of makeup can fix the problems FC3 has.
Eric Neigher, Xwing @ Aliciousness: I will say this: FC3’s introductory sequence is so good, so well-written, acted, and integrated with the game — especially the main character’s own voice, that once I start actually playing the game, I couldn’t help but be let down. FC3’s world is impressive, but ultimately, I agree — it is repetitive. That is the sad nature of procedurally generated missions (or a reasonable approximation of that with scripting), as we saw in Skyrim, for example, which quickly became more repetitive than the one-note samba played on an infinite loop on a broken record on Groundhog Day. For me, I actually kind of enjoy grinding my character’s stats up and getting new items and such, but FC3 decides you need to be ambushed constantly by enemies, bestial and human, as if a steady stream of bullets flying and teeth chomping will add to the excitement. It doesn’t. A game needs to have both up moments (like FC3’s awesome introductory sequence) and down moments (like absolutely nothing in FC3 at all).
The PC version is pretty stable, but the graphics leave much to be desired. It’s a huge resource hog, so even on my badass setup, I had to turn down some of the settings to get the sound to sync with people’s mouths. Controls are sharp, and the game does you the favor of at least asking if you’d prefer to play on a gamepad (why?) or with your mouse and keyboard. I managed to play a little co-op on PC, as well, which, like nearly all co-op, is highly dependent on getting good, friendly people to play with in order to actually be fun. When you’re with the right folks, FC3’s open-world, fast-paced shooter action works really well. When you’re with griefers or morons, it sucks.
On a sort-of-related note, I know you’re a big fan of Red Dead Redemption, and FC3 shares a lot with that game, at least on paper: open world, random attacks by bad guys at random moments, an interesting main character in a strong story, and lots of animal skinning. Am I crazy, or is there some similarity between the two games? If not, maybe third-person makes all the difference?
David: I didn’t find Jason to be that interesting of a character at all. There are some similarities, here, though with the skinning animals and using that as a sort of barter system with the game’s mechanics. But that’s where the similarities start and end. (Although I will say I enjoyed early sections, where you get to kill and skin so many dogs. I just found it fascinating, in all honesty. I can’t think of another game that encourages you to slaughter wild dogs.) There are also similarities, I felt, with Just Cause 2 and, of course, Skyrim. Are we running out of ways to be creative in open-world games? Is there really that little we can do with an open world? It isn’t FC3’s fault that it runs into the same small-mindedness of other open-world games, but it is FC3’s fault for not trying to shove more beyond that mentality. Ascending the radio towers reminded me of climbing to eagle’s nests in Assassin’s Creed II. The variety of vehicles reminded me of GTA. Etc., etc. I’m not saying any of the forebears in this tradition of open-world games were blazing trails, but so much emphasis in FC3 is placed on the world. It is spectacular and huge and FC3 wants you to experience it. That much is clear.
And yet, by the same token, you’re often treated as though you shouldn’t explore that much. I enjoy level-grinding as much as the next gamer, and as in most RPGs, as soon as I got my freedom, I tried to upgrade my stats and inventory as much as possible. For the reader’s benefit: You can kill a bunch of animals to craft a larger wallet (apparently Jason has no pockets?) or you can find radio towers, which make certain items in stores free that otherwise you’d have to save a lifetime for. There’s a later level later where you need to torch a couple of drug fields, and although I had the flamethrower for quite a while, the game acted as if it was this newfangled toy. It was like Huey Lewis and yesterday’s news for me. So am I supposed to forge out into this tropical island, or only do so as Far Cry metes it out?
But yes. Repetition. I think there’s something very strange going on with triple-A games here, Eric, and maybe I’m imagining things, but it was noticeable in Hitman: Absolution and very evident here: Far Cry 3 is a bit like a very, very polished iPhone game on a much grander scale. I am not saying FC3 is simplistic at all — quite the opposite — but rather it expands its scope by having you do the same things over and over again, only with different rewards (unlocking new skills, crafting new items) and locales (underwater against sharks, on land against huge birds).
I feel like we’ve really piled on this game a lot, so, Eric, I’m curious to hear what you thought was really cool or successful about it — and I’d love to hear more about multiplayer, too, and how that works?
Eric: To be honest, I think FC3 is a good game, but like so many we’ve reviewed before it (ahem, Assassin’s Creed 3), it feels like it would’ve been better had it not come after so many other games like it.
I enjoy being in FC3’s world, its newness is great, but after that wears off, it’s more slogging through skinning animals and getting tattoos and stuff, which is why I didn’t play Red Dead Redemption for more than about 10 hours.
As for the multiplayer, other than a few co-op matches I’d been getting into, I haven’t had any luck finding any people to play the darn game with. Either the matchmaking service sucks, or there’s just nobody playing this game multiplayer.
In the end, I have enjoyed my time in the world of FC3 so far — but I doubt I’ll end up finishing the game, let alone getting 100 percent of everything done. As it stands now? It’s reaching the overly-chewed-gum stage all too quickly.
FINAL SCORE: 665 out of 950 dog-skin wallets you can totally buy on Skymall.
Developer: IO Interactive
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (November 20, 2012)
Official Website: http://hitman.com/
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Motor City Cobra: I’ve been a fan of the Hitman series before it was produced by Square Enix, and the developers have really gotten the stealth-killing thing down to a science now. As far as Absolution goes, I feel like the game has lost a little bit of the free-form goodness of old, pre-metagaming Hitman titles. Here, you’re always made aware that doing things this way yields this score multiplier, whereas killing this guy has incurred this score penalty, etc. It takes you out of the game and puts you in a game about a guy playing a game the right way, instead of about just killin’ folks.
What are your thoughts on the structure and storyline? Do you feel like Absolution does a good job of sucking you in? And how do you feel about the fact that the prologue takes place in your hometown?
David Wolinsky, Smooth Criminal: Here’s where we diverge, I suppose, in that I couldn’t get behind previous Hitman games. I always thought it was a cool concept, but the execution felt clunky and strange. I also have been stoked for this Hitman since E3 last year, which baffled me because I had given up on the series and figured it just wasn’t for me. Absolution is.
As far as the whole “it lost a little bit of the free-form goodness,” foo, I say. Foo! It’s a series that’s changing and trying new things. What’s the alternative? Square could go the Nintendo route and give us New Hitman: The Bald Adventures, not really changing much but slapping a new label on it. I’m aware it’s a different type of game bearing the same name — and this is one that got its hooks into me right away. What difficulty are you playing on, Eric? Because I assume those prompts don’t flash at you all the time on the higher ones. I’m playing on normal, which is pretty brutal. There’s a routine that sets in in each level (remain undetected, infiltrate, make the kill, escape), which on the surface might seem repetitive but, then again, the game is called “Hitman.” That’s what hitmen, do, right?
It’s a punishing game, but one that lays out the rules and obstacles for you plainly. You have to hone your skills to get better at it, and the better you do, the more abilities you unlock or enhance. But before I delve in deeper, yeah, a good chunk of the game takes place in Chicago. My knowledge came in handy, really, because on the fourth level I took a detour en route to the Terminus Hotel and laid low at the great vegan restaurant on North Broadway near the Binny’s, didn’t murder anyone, and just ate spring rolls. My score multiplier on them were off the charts. And no gluten, bitches!
So, as a series fan, do you feel all these changes are so heretical it’s a turnoff?
Eric: I’m playing on the first of the professional difficulty levels, so I don’t get those helpful hints. You make a great point that the game can really be tailored to conform to a variety of different play styles and gamer preferences. I’m just a major “completionist” in games like this, so I like to try new things and have them work, rather than be told: unnecessary! That’s just me, though.
I don’t feel the series will be a turnoff to longtime fans, inasmuch as the changes to how the game is played are concerned. They aren’t major, and as you pointed out, you can customize them to a large degree. The story, however, may be a different… story. You start out as your usual, badass, amoral self, and then the game quickly transmogrified into a pastiche of Leon (a.k.a. The Professional) and Sucker Punch, only the former of which is at all worth pastiche-ifying in any way. Sure, you still get to kill people in interesting ways, and the game works hard to make sure that the people you kill “deserve” it so you don’t feel like a total tool, but the whole moral quandary thing that the story presents you with diverges from the core Hitman ideology of just being an efficient killer and nothing else.
I know you’re playing on console and I’m playing on PC (as usual), so I don’t know if you’re aware of the myriad graphical options and control schemes you can customize on PC, but I’m wondering: how does the game look and how does it work with a controller? Is there intrusive auto-aim, does movement flow well, do you feel part of the action?
David: Big props to you for playing on a harder difficulty. All I know is the guys doing the guided demos at E3 last year were very, very good at it. It’s cool to know it’s up to me to get better at this game, and I want to — in fits and starts. Much as I love the game, and there is depth there, I find there’s built-in, limited shelf life. Each level is essentially the same thing, as I said, and it makes sense, but either you’re in the mood for it or you’re not. I don’t want to spoil too much, but some of my favorite levels were the hospital, the gun range, and the gee-shucks ‘50s-feeling city block. Although Hitman nobly varies the environs, it is very much the same thing again and again. I happened to enjoy that particular thing, so it’s cool for me, but even then I didn’t want to gorge on it like a wee one on double-chocolate birthday pie.
I think the game’s tone also deserves a nod, because it manages to tweak schlocky action tropes (“one last score…”), inject a good amount of dark humor (murdering as a hot-sauce mascot beaver seems like something out of Death to Smoochy), and still manage to make you feel like a badass when you’re excelling at the challenges laid out before you. I also like how many different ways you can accomplish the same hits, although I still to this day don’t get how to use the piano on an apartment floor to murder anyone, do you?
There was no intrusive auto-aim in my experience, and I wonder if that’s some sort of hand-holding option? Given how there’s a mode that arms you with a crosshair and nothing else, I’m assuming you can switch it off. It works perfectly on a controller, although sometimes I wish there was an ability to dive out of the way when you’re almost spotted. Instead I almost always find myself trying to creep away very, very slowly and backwards — and there’s nothing more suspicious than that, save for being a hulking bald dude in a black suit and red tie wielding a wrench in a library.
Anyway, it’s a highly customizable game, and that comes to bear strongest, perhaps, on Contracts mode, which I really like as well. It’s a vertical slice of the game completely independent of the main campaign. You can play levels made by the developer (I’d recommend this) or ones made by other players (these aren’t quite as up to par yet, which makes sense) — they take place in the same levels but have different requirements, like, say, “Kill the Chinatown chef using garrote wire, dump the body, and you can only do it dressed as a Chicago cop.” It’s cool and intuitive because you have to play the mission you want to create — meaning no one can create something impossible — but, again, it’s more of the same. And, again, I mean that in a good way.
The contracts mode has tons of potential, but the community hasn’t yet created a ton of content. And what’s there isn’t incredibly compelling just yet. But, hey, that’s just me. Eric, what do you think? And any final thoughts on the game overall?
Eric: I think the contracts mode is a clever way to infuse an indirect multiplayer option into the Hitman milieu, and that’s a very welcome addition across the board. I agree with you that the killing can get repetitive — most levels give you mutually exclusive bonuses to encourage replay (a bonus for using all the disguises and one for using no disguises, for example), something that feels like the game is just trying to pad the playtime. Contracts mode helps ameliorate this to some degree, as you said, by forcing you to use only certain disguises or weapons, etc., to get the full bonus.
All in all, I’ve really enjoyed Hitman: Absolution, and I think it’s done just about everything right. I wish the story were a little more original, but if you enjoy sneaking around and killing people, Hitman’s free-but-guided philosophy strikes the perfect balance between open-world and linear.
FINAL SCORE: 3,995 out of 4,700 red neckties custom-made by Tommy the tailor (a.k.a. Tom “the tool-man” Tailor)
Assassin’s Creed III
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (October 30, 2012), Wii U (November 13, 2012), PC (November 20, 2012)
Genre: Stealth action-adventure
Official Website: Assassin’s Creed @ Ubi.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Midnight Rider: So, in Assassin’s Creed III, much like every other Assassin’s Creed, you go around in a cowl, chop bad guys down with a knife or tomahawk, and generally just be a badass. In this one, you can jump around on trees, which is cool — and you get to kill British people, which is… actually kind of guilt-inducing, but still cool.
But one thing I’ve had an issue with as I’ve been playing is that every time the historical setting, Colonial America, gets to an apex, you’re pulled out of it to the game’s familiar frame story, about a dorky guy named Desmond living in some city in the future. The narrative, to me, is greatly harmed by this device. What are your thoughts?
David Wolinsky, Paperback Writher: Well, hold up. I think it’s great that the game is set in the colonial era. I am predisposed to love it; I mean, I’m a guy who, in high school, wrote and recorded a comedy hip-hop album about Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin battle-rapping against George Washington and Thomas Edison. (Yes, really. Really.) I’m not bragging about that, but just saying: I really, really love this time period. So, a game that takes place in it? I’m down.
That said, I’m shocked at how much Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t really deliver. It’s very slow to take full advantage of everything the setting offers. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, where you think you’ll be riding with Paul Revere and teabagging George Washington (seriously, screw that guy)… and instead, it starts off with Desmond per usual, and then you ride a boat to America. It takes about an hour or two before you even hit the colonies.
I don’t know. I feel like Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed is firmly in the “smell the farts” phase of its success. Ubisoft’s paid its dues and built a legitimately huge series, but I think the developers are getting lazy. I mean, its awfully telling that we’re — how many games into the AC series now? — and none of the fighting systems work decently. They still aren’t intuitive, they still don’t feel natural, and combat in a game like this is something you should be excited about, not suffer through. It should have been fixed in Assassin’s Creed II, but niggling frustrations like that still remain in 2012. But, hey, do you want cut-scenes bursting with melodrama set in not just one, but two different time periods? Because AC3 has plenty of that.
But, Eric, once you’re past all the initial tutorial stuff, how do you feel about the game’s flow? Is this a better game? Is it a necessary sequel? What works for you? What doesn’t?
Eric: I agree 100% about the fighting system. Just rip off Arkham Asylum already, jeez. Sleeping Dogs did that, and that game was really fun. I feel like you just use the same moves over and over on the guards/redcoats/whoever, and all the other key presses become irrelevant fodder.
Whether AC3 is necessary is a complex question. I guess we should take this time to remind ourselves that video games are a business, and that Ubisoft has a valuable property that it wants to exploit, so why not just throw up whatever it can and then cash in? OK, that’s harsh — this game does feel lazy, but not to the point that it feels like a craven cash-grab. It just feels… like a retread. I’m really beginning to hate Desmond and his stupid cadre of idiots that he uses as sounding boards for exposition, too.
As for the ship-to-ship combat, it’s definitely an interesting addition… but I feel like we’ve gotten so far from Assassin’s Creed’s original core that we might as well be playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! The ship fighting is fun and epic and whatever, but it’s not always very “assassin-y.” It’s also not very realistic for a game that pays a lot of lip service to realism — billing how you kill all targets at the real time and location of their actual deaths, for example.
Regardless, without its core, what remains in AC3 is a hodgepodge of different game types now: third-person naval action, Final Fantasy-esque cut-scene drama, tons of minigames for no reason, big epic wargame-ish battles — oh, and Assassin’s Creed is in there somewhere, too.
What did you think of the historical setting? Did you feel that it does right by the American Revolution, the political situation, and the whole thing with the Indian protagonist? Or did the story fall flat for you?
David: I dunno, man. Yes, much of the game falls incredibly flat — it’s almost like AC3 gets far too caught up in creating the world, rather than making it fun. I found myself frustrated and bored, and I suspect it’s because the series is finally falling prey to the same downfalls that plague so many open-world games: too much to do and a lack of any real depth. And we have a triple-whammy here, as the AC hallmarks are just getting old. I mean, what is this series really about? Answer: climbing and killing. Ubisoft’s wrung a lot of mileage out of these two key ideas, but they’ve lost their luster. Even with Ben Franklin in the game extolling the many virtues of bedding elderly women, I didn’t find it too entertaining.
Eric: In keeping with my usual practice of not playing one second of a game before I review it, and making many factual mistakes in my reviews, I would like to say that I’m glad Assassin’s Creed finally has a zombies mode. That was the most fun part of this game for me. That, and the title screen that I looked at for exactly eight seconds before writing this.
Anyway, I should be clear: Assassin’s Creed III is a good game on its own merits. If this had been the first game in the series, it would be really cool and interesting. But because it comes at the tail end of multiple similar games, what we really get here is a skin with some new minigames. The skin is pretty; it has put the lotion on itself. Between the new bells and whistles, the upgraded setting, and the generally competent execution, Assassin’s Creed III might be enough to completely satisfy some folks. But then, I know not what others might say. As for me: Give me originality, or give me the uninstall icon.
FINAL SCORE: 1,404 out of 2,160 cracks in the Liberty Bell
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Official Website: XCOM.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and Ryan Scott
Eric Neigher, Samurai Delicatessen: Look, I usually like to hide the ball a bit with my reviews — let the reader think I might go one way, head-fake his ass Kobe style, switch hands… and then, ONLY then, actually disclose my opinion. But dude, XCOM: Enemy Unknown might be the best game I’ve played all year. This thing is so addictive, cleverly balanced, cool-looking, and nostalgic, that I don’t know much else that we can say about it that hasn’t already been said about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs. But maybe you feel differently (i.e., are wrong).
Ryan Scott, On the Jazz: So, I’m a big XCOM noob. I never played much of the original game, though I’ve got a pretty clear idea of what it is. That said, I too am thoroughly pleased with this updated sequel/reboot/remake/reimagining/re-whatever. I tend to prefer turn-based strategy games to real-time ones (unless we’re talking about something like League of Legends), and Enemy Unknown definitely plays to my preferences here. I especially like the way that it eases you into all the mechanics, which wind up getting quite a bit more complex and granular than they appear at first. Plus, I get to name a bunch of guys after the A-Team and shoot aliens. Since you’re an O.G. XCOM fan (from back when it had a dash in the title), what are you going particularly ga-ga about here?
Eric: You can rename your guys? Dammit, I wish I would’ve known that. It would’ve been nice to have killed the final bosses with a sniper shot by J.C. Chasez. At any rate, I love some of the differences between this version and the original, and I miss other things.
Things I love: It obviously looks much better, the controls are streamlined, and it’s easier to figure out what does what. Alien A.I. is (mostly) improved, and the sense of urgency is hugely heightened both by the storyline and the changes made to the way your little cadre of ass-kickers gets funded. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it’s a much more difficult task (especially at higher difficulty settings) to keep the world’s nations happy (and, thus, funding your efforts). Inevitably, some start to become dissatisfied and cancel funding — at which point it becomes even harder to please the remaining countries, and so on. Plate-spinning to please faceless bureaucrats is all about what working for the government is, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown does that really well.
What I miss about the original X-COM: UFO Defense, though, is the sense of “anything can happen” in a battle. In that game, your guys (and the aliens) could pick up stuff they found in the environment, or on dead bodies, and try to use it — with unpredictable results. Shots wouldn’t just miss; they would miss and continue on their line of fire, potentially hitting friendlies or destroying structures. And UFO Defense’s levels were procedurally generated in a semi-random fashion, whereas in Enemy Unknown, you get one of about six or seven dozen pre-fab levels every time you deploy. It’s not a huge issue, but it makes things more predictable with every match you play.
As a newbie to the series, did you feel like you were able to pick Enemy Unknown up and get into it right away? How was the learning curve? And has it held your interest?
Ryan: I’ve definitely also noticed the same repetitive handful of maps, and I’m not even all that far into the game (yet). Sounds like this thing pulled a Diablo III, eh? But as far as the learning curve goes, I think Enemy Unknown eases you into things nicely. The trickiest part, to me, is making sure I’m constantly looking at things from every angle. Too often, I’ll send one of my squad members into what I believe is a pretty safe spot with decent cover, and I’ll get blindsided by hostiles from a location I really wasn’t expecting. This game punishes mistakes rather harshly, too — if you screw up and wander into the line of fire, you’re only a couple of shots away from death. That tends to drive me a little bit nuts, since I’m a “no man left behind” kinda guy when I play games like this, and I don’t like anyone to die (especially my A-Team). So, from that perspective, I imagine my progress has been a bit slower (and more irritation-riddled) than the average player’s. The one area where I wish the game was a bit more clear was with base upgrades, and what your various purchases actually do for you. I feel like the game doesn’t present that information as concretely as it could.
Eric: You might be surprised with your “no man left behind” strategy and how common it is. When you finish the game, your stats are compared to the global stats — and the average death rate is something like 2.6 guys. Considering you MUST lose 2 guys during the tutorial (well, unless you disable it, which the majority of players probably didn’t), that’s a pretty high rate of no-man-left-behind-ism.
This leads to an interesting issue, though — squad size has been greatly reduced in Enemy Unknown. You start out with only four soldiers, and you can maximize your squad to six. Sure, you usually have to fight fewer aliens (I never encountered more than 18 on a mission) than in UFO Defense, but in that game, you could have upwards of 20 guys on a mission. With just six, the options for squad-based tactics are limited to fire-team style stuff (like run and cover), rather than honest-to-goodness flanking maneuvers, feints, and frontal assaults. I would say that’s one of Enemy Unknown’s biggest foibles: Everything is reduced in scope.
You’re right, though, that your guys aren’t very survivable. Even later in the game, with really powerful armor and weapons, your team gets cut down like tall grass in an instant if you don’t proceed cautiously. That’s especially true in Iron Man mode, where you can’t reload your game — this makes playing through a match of Enemy Unknown a white-knuckle affair, and gives you a real reason to celebrate your victories. And that, to me, is part of what makes this game so compelling. I do wish it had included more technologies to research, though, especially ones that didn’t seem extraneous (like just about everything you can research at the Foundry).
Ryan: Well, as a new XCOM convert, I’ve gotta say I’m pretty happy with this game overall, and it’s definitely on my list of best games for 2012. I know gamers have been pining for an honest-to-goodness XCOM redux for years now, and it seems like Enemy Unknown really fits the bill. Maybe if I manage to get through my normal, pansy-ass save-scummed game without letting Hannibal or Murdock croak, I’ll try your crazy roguelike Iron Man mode. Until then, Enemy Unknown is giving me plenty of tactical decisions to carefully consider, and I’d take this over StarCraft II any day.
FINAL SCORE: 162 out of 180 vaporized alien corpses (AKA the kind you can’t salvage research materials from)
Retro City Rampage
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Open-world action
Official Website: RetroCityRampage.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Jocko Homo: So, I just spent a couple of hours in Retro City Rampage shooting pixelated people in the face with other pixels, and I’m still not sure what they did to deserve it. I just tell myself they were Grateful Dead fans, and that comforts me to some extent. One thing I like about this game a lot is your ability to just not give a crap about what you’re doing. Your character, “Player,” just kind of goes around and randomly runs into pop-culture references and other video game stuff, and it really doesn’t seem to matter what you do or how you play. RCR’s gameplay has a weird, “maximalist Zen” quality to it, where you just kind of roll along and the game almost seems to play itself. I’m not sure if I like it, or if I find it shallow. I know you’ve played in more depth than I have; what are your thoughts?
David Wolinsky, Whipper Of It: I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve been waiting for RCR for years, and even though its prologue is a super-fun roller coaster of nostalgic game references and movie parodies, I began to realize that’s just the track RCR runs on. Eventually, it begins to feel like autopilot. It is, basically, what Grand Theft Auto would have been like, had it come out on the NES — it’s novel and cute, but not enough to support an entire game, because it is pretty blatantly dishing out stuff we’ve all seen and played before. It’s a lot like eating a Nestle Crunch bar with a new wrapper: It might look different on the outside, but we all know what to expect. It’s fun, but I also felt that it wore thin pretty quickly: The missions are repetitive, the references have all been made before, and it has all the same pitfalls that open-world games tend to have. But I don’t hate the Player, I hate the game. Well, not hate… but I’m just pretty bored with it overall. But, hey, let’s shift gears and discuss what we thought worked. What did you enjoy about the game?
Eric: Yes, but what if you eat the Nestle Crunch AND the new wrapper? Ha ha! I have you there, sirrah! I agree with you about the repetitiveness, but that kind of puts in perspective the fact that when you first start playing RCR, it’s really quite fun, and I think that says a lot about the underlying idea here being a good one. It’s the execution that falls flat, or maybe the idea runs out of steam. Speaking of Steam, I really appreciate RCR’s PC controls, which are nice and tight and customizable. I also like the variety of decorative skins you can put the game window in, to further enhance the retro feel.
But I digress; that’s all not-very-important good stuff, right? Lessee, I like how easy it is to just jump into the game and start playing. Leaving aside the various set pieces in the game (most of which ape other classic video games, like The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear), RCR does a good job of just giving you a big sandbox filled with people to kill. And who doesn’t love killin’? Also, I appreciate some of the pop-culture and inside game references, although many are either too obvious or too weeaboo-ish to appeal to someone who’s just looking to have fun with a game on its own terms. I guess that’s a good thing to ask you: Was there anything in RCR (aside from the repetitiveness of the gameplay itself) that outright surprised you? Anything that you weren’t expecting? Or did it end up being as predictable as a college student’s thoughts on economics?
David: You liked how you could customize the controls and how easily you could pop in or out to play. and I enjoyed some of the references — but these are all peripheral things to the game experience itself. I’m surprised that after all this time, RCR wound up underwhelming me. It’s fun at first, but only at first… and I get a bit of cognitive dissonance from the perspective. I am by no means am a Grand Theft Auto junkie, but the series’ earlier games utilized a bird’s eye view. Do you remember that? Like those games, RCR puts you in the position of an observer instead of making you feel like you’re part of the action — that you’re the one causing all this chaos. It distances you from the game itself somewhat, and that’s probably why Rockstar never returned to that POV. On the other hand, maybe this whole type of game is just getting played out, and dishing it out as an 8-bit homage (albeit a very clever one) isn’t enough to jumpstart the old girl. Eric, I wanted to like this game, I really did. But, at best, I’m merely amused… and only for a little while.
I’ll let you take it to the hoop, my good sir. What are your final thoughts on RCR? I’m also curious to hear what you think would have improved this game; I feel like we’re both reacting to the lack of something here, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it. Maybe you can?
Eric: Yeah, you make a really good point. Sometimes a game just lacks that je ne sais quois, and it’s impossible to know exactly why. If it were up to me, I would’ve added some more character customization options to the game — not graphically, necessarily, but RPG-like elements that let me experience the wide-open game world in different ways. If you look at some of the best open-world titles of recent days, especially Sleeping Dogs, you’ll see that they allow you to unlock new abilities (and therefore new ways to experience the game world), as you play. It gives it a kind of Legend of Zelda-esque aspect that makes old areas feel new again. RCR largely (although not entirely) lacks that aspect. I also feel like the game is trying too damn hard sometimes. Like a stand-up comedian at a Star Trek convention, it just keeps hammering on the inside material over and over, until you start to hate gamers, gaming, and, ultimately yourself. Or maybe that’s just me.
FINAL SCORE: 11,437,188 out of 28,592,970 pixelated rounds of ammunition
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Stealth action
Official Website: Dishonored.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Savage Gypsy Lover: Despite my strong connection to Klingon value systems, I still spent some time playing Dishonored this weekend. One thing I liked about it is that the title really describes what the core of the plot is about. One thing I didn’t like about it was that the plot is pretty dumb, otherwise. What pros and/or cons jumped out to you right away, David?
David Wolinsky, Putting The “Ass In” In “Assassin”: I like how your opening paragraph reads like a third grader wrote it, Eric. It’s a nice change of pace from your usual Dennis Miller-ish obscure references and Latin expressions. All teasing aside, I am largely underwhelmed. I get the sense that a ton of time went into the world and mythology, instead of making a great and polished game. It’s akin to fussing over the perfect font to use for your screenplay… and then slapping the whole story together during your flight into Hollywood to “make it.” Only here, the reverse is true.
No amount of narrative tap-dancing can hide the fact that this is another generic first-person shooter with so-called moral choices, the decision to play stealthily or violently, and blah blah blah. We’ve seen this before. This is Assassin’s Creed as an FPS, only without the Animus, without the parkour, and without the learning.
I wish Dishonored were more successful at the things it tried to do, and followed those sketched-out thoughts and turned them into complete sentences. The interesting stuff, to me, is how your choices affect the world in a slightly more sophisticated way than what we saw in games like Infamous: If you kill a lot of people here, it ripples out: The more you murder, the more the rats pile up, the more the plague spreads, and the less help you get from non-player characters and such. Or at least, I would imagine.
So where did you find Dishonored to be honorable in its execution?
Eric: Well, I agree on the retread part. Dishonored feels like a mishmash of other games reshuffled into something that Gamers-Will-Love (TM). I also really don’t care for the art — particularly the character models. They all have extremely elongated arms and fingers, and tiny lower bodies. If you want a game to convey a sense of gritty realism (as Dishonored clearly attempts to do), don’t give me characters that look like Gargamel had Gumby’s baby. Actually, is Gumby a guy or a girl?
Anyway, the mechanics are heavily reminiscent of the old Thief series. Those games, too, were first-person, took place in a similar sort of Steampunk-ish world, and gave players a variety of lethal and non-lethal paths to accomplish their goals. It also had a lot of back story — but unlike Dishonored, it didn’t go the clumsy Elder Scrolls route of just throwing in tons of text in the form of in-game books. Developers have no excuse for making us put up with boring blocks of text in a game: if they wanted to disclose lore, they should have done it through implication, dialogue, or at least voiceover narration of text. Hell, games like Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus hardly say anything to you at all, but convey a sense of storyline through little snippets of dialogue, graphical cues, and item descriptions. Dishonored just makes you read a lot.
OK, I know — I was supposed to talk about how the game is “honorable.” That would require a discussion of what it means to be honorable, which is a big deal and more than you or I or this little review can handle. I will say that I greatly appreciate Dishonorable’s many PC-friendly options. You can tweak the graphics for much more than mere brightness: field of view range, anti-aliasing, and even whether or not the rats should have shadows, are all highly customizable. You can easily remap the controls, and with a few tweaks to .ini files, you can delve even deeper. I appreciate developer Arkane Studios giving PC gamers more than a crappy barebones port, unlike many of its competitors.
David: Well, these guys aren’t the only ones guilty of making players read a ton — Bionic Commando’s reboot did this as well. And don’t even get me started on Reading for Dummies: The Game. Anyway. I basically embarked upon the path of being a murderer, because I misunderstood something in the tutorial and figured, hey, let’s just see where this goes. I usually opt to play the “good guy” in these games, but because I opted for the harder difficulty, it was tough going. You’re very vulnerable to damage, and although the enemies do the usual “Fisher, where are you? I just heard something over here. I bet it’s Fisher!” thing straight out of Splinter Cell, they have the uncanny ability to just zero in on you no matter where you are.
In all, I think Dishonored is just another game that tries way too many things and pulls in too many directions. A lot of games do this now, and it’s become something of a trend, but here’s what it all boils down to: Was it fun? Did the act of stalking on your prey feel exciting? I could take it or leave it on the whole. It’s somewhat interesting, but ultimately I’m nonplussed (and it plays just fine on the Xbox 360, thanks for asking).
Eric: Yeah, I’m playing on wussy normal difficulty, so I feel like a big man, but I agree — it’s really hard to avoid killing people (also, because I’m a murderous psychopath in real life). I wouldn’t say Dishonored isn’t fun; it has its moments, and the approach to wide-open puzzle solving in fixed areas is kinda like taking Portal to its umpteenth level of complexity, so that’s nice. But because the story fails to compel you, and because so many of the aspects feel so derivative, the game falls pretty flat, in my view. As you said, not bad… but I’m not going to sacrifice too much Borderlands 2 or XCOM: Enemy Unknown time to see how this one ends.
FINAL SCORE: 559 out of 860 disease-infested rats
I’m happy to announce that we’re gonna start doing some game reviews on the website here and there, in a two-man conversational format that basically repurposes some of the coverage I used to do back at GameSpy. It’s a fun, casual format that my pals and I are fond of, and I’m hoping you all might enjoy the occasional review. For this first review, two of my longtime writers and former Geekbox podcast guest-stars, Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky, tackle the fan-made Half-Life remake, Black Mesa. Let us know what you think in the comments or on the forums; I’d love to get some feedback on the format and the overall idea of having written content on the site.
Publisher: Black Mesa Modification Team and Valve Corporation (via Steam Greenlight)
Developer: Black Mesa Modification Team
Platforms: PC (September 14, 2012)
Genre: First-person shooter
Official Website: BlackMesaSource.com
Reviewed By: Eric Neigher and David Wolinsky
Eric Neigher, Pimp Daddy: I’ll just say it: Half-Life hasn’t aged well. Ironically, this might be because other first-person shooters have since done to death the things that Valve’s original magnum opus originated: killer A.I. soldiers, secret weapons and technology, combat suits, zombies, and all the rest. Because so many others have perfected Half-Life’s individual aspects, if you’re coming at crowbar-toting scientist Gordon Freeman’s adventure for the first time with the loving Black Mesa fan remake (by way of the Steam Greenlight project), it’s gonna feel pretty dull. David, I know you’re not really much of a shooter guy yourself, but do you think that’s what you’re feeling when you play? Or do you just not like the game, period?
David Wolinsky, Master Chief: I am not making the comparison at all, but the phrase “Duke Nukem Forever” entered my mind a few times as I played Black Mesa. I don’t want to fall into a debate about whether fan-made projects themselves merit existing; let’s just zero in on Black Mesa itself. The fact is, the creators spent years remaking it in Valve’s Source engine, and it should stand on its own. So: Does it?
I used to be a huge shooter guy — and if I want to go and experience Half-Life, I will go and play the original game that Valve made back in the ’90s. I feel like I’m in an old house with a new coat of paint. The A.I. scientists and other folks you run into might look better, but they still act like vacant-eyed robots. This is more like a half-measure — why stop short of tweaking everything and updating it, if they spent this long on it?
But to answer your question, it’s not that I dislike it… I just don’t really like it. It’s pretty middle-of-the-road. I’m also just less inclined to like it anyway; I’d rather see new ideas done, not remakes of old ideas that were fine the first time around. Am I just an old coot who should go back to prison, or do you agree at all? Did you find yourself liking it more than the original? How did you find the experience to be different and/or better?
Eric: I wouldn’t say I liked it more, but I appreciated it more. It’s nostalgic to go back and play this, and it’s gratifying, in a way, if you’re a big fan of the game or series, to know that others out there are just as interested in keeping the flame alive. I guess the real question for this one, then, is: How much do you like Half-Life? If you’re a big fan, I think you’ll dig Black Mesa a lot. It’s a hell of a feat for some guys with a level editor and some graphical tools, and that’s great. Then again, just because it was hard to make doesn’t mean it has any value. It might be hard for me to make a life-size sculpture of Barack Obama out of belly-button lint and then launch it into space to declare his supremacy as the one and only master of America, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to fund the project. I know, because I applied for grants. It’s a very complex process, really, and I feel I deserved the money more than the guy who wanted to invent steaks made of chicken… but, hey, to each his own.
The point of all this is, Black Mesa is more an exercise in nostalgia than standalone gaming. We’ve seen plenty of other such exercises: remakes of Ultima V and VI by way of the Dungeon Siege engine, a completely new fan campaign for Wing Commander made with the FreeSpace engine, even a remake of Street Fighter with the Jean-Claude Van Damme engine. So it’s not like this is an uncommon phenomenon. But what does it tap into? Why, David — WHY!?
David: What does it tap into? That same sense of wonder and excitement we felt as kids when we’d have our court-appointed guardian or wolf read us same story over and over again. Humans love repetition, and — as a collective culture — we have a tough time with just letting stuff go. We’re terrified of death and don’t even want to discuss it openly at funerals, wakes, or brisses (brie?). Remakes are nothing new, and they’re becoming more and more common in games — it’s just that we usually tend to call them “reboots” now. Black Mesa is pretty much a 1:1 high-definition remake of Half-Life. So. I don’t think this is going to convert anyone who doesn’t already love the game or the series. I also don’t think it’s designed to. I also don’t really care how anyone else is going to receive it. My opinion? It’s fine. What are your final thoughts on it?
Eric: Yeah, I’m with you. It’s nothing earth-shattering (or even earth slight-crack-in-the-paint-jobbing), but it serves its purpose: keeping us connected to our gaming past, and maybe, just maybe bringing in some youngsters to the games we loved without having to lock them in a room with an old 486 PC and lying to them about communism actually still working as a viable economic system somewhere in the world.
FINAL SCORE: 756 out of 1260 crowbars to the face