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Geekbox Reviews: Retro City Rampage

Retro City Rampage
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Open-world action
Official Website:
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

Vote for Us in the 2012 Podcast Awards and Stitcher Awards!

The 2012 Stitcher Awards are accepting votes until November 5, and the 8th Annual Podcast Awards are accepting votes until November 15. We’re nominated for four awards across the two events, and we’d love for you to vote, and get us some sweet prizes and recognition! Here’s what we’re up for:

Good Job, Brain!: Best Games & Hobbies, 2012 Stitcher Awards — vote every day until Nov. 5!
Good Job, Brain!: Best Album Art, 2012 Stitcher Awards — vote every day until Nov. 5!
The Comedy Button: Peoples Choice, 8th Annual Podcast Awards — vote every day until Nov. 15!
The Geekbox: Gaming, 8th Annual Podcast Awards — vote every day until Nov. 15!

You can vote in each category (for both events) once per day. So get to voting, and let’s win some awards this year!

Geekbox Reviews: Dishonored

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (October 9, 2012)
Genre: Stealth action
Official Website:
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

Geekbox Reviews: Black Mesa

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.

Black Mesa
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:
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

The Geekbox: The Web Comic

This is the first in a hopefully somewhat-sort-of-regular-at-some-point web comic series, drawn by Geekbox co-host Ryan Higgins’ awesomely uber-talented girlfriend Leann Hill, and written by the both of them. It’s a bit less timely than it could be (since I’ve been sitting on it for a while), but hopefully you like it. We have at least one more ready to roll out at some point here, and I don’t know what kind of output we’ll have in the near future (since Leann’s currently finishing up her final grueling year in art school), but I mostly just want to know what you guys think of this.

Click the image to maximize it!

A Hole in the World

But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens, how we go through this. I mean — I knew her, and then she’s… there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And… and Xander’s crying and not talking, and… and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, ‘Well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch — ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever,’ and no one will explain to me why.
–Anya Emerson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Episode 5.16, “The Body”)

It’s a weird feeling when someone you know and talk to on a regular basis passes away. It’s like a giant mental disconnect — this weird, surreal blot that your mind can’t fully process. A hole in the world.

It’s even weirder when the person in question dies a tragically young death, as was the case with Rannie Yoo, who passed away last weekend at the age of 33, after an 11-month battle with cancer. I knew Rannie through Triple Point (previously Kohnke Communications), the San Francisco-based gaming PR firm where she worked. Her funeral was today (well, I guess technically yesterday, at this point), and — between her friends, family, and gaming industry buddies — the room overflowed to the point where the crowd spilled out the door and into the hallway. For nearly two hours, a great many of these people took turns coming to the front of the room and relating stories and memories about Rannie, and how she’d touched their lives.


What do you want from your games journalists?

The rabid folks who frequent NeoGAF had some pretty interesting reactions to writer N’Gai Croal’s latest column, which deals with realism in games. Croal’s column is an interesting piece that discusses the contrast between art design choices in a few current-gen games, and I recommend giving it a read.

Some of the NeoGAF community members’ responses have me shaking my head, though.