Brace yourself for another shocking tale of my crippling case of backlogitis...
I pre-ordered XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC back in 2012, anticipating the ever-loving fuck out of it after not having a turned based tactics game come close to the experience I had with the original X-COM back in the 90s, and here I am, finally playing the goddamn thing just after the release of its expansion pack over a year later... and I'm playing the Xbox 360 version to add insult to injury. I'm goddamn despicable.
The decision to go with the console release of XCOM: Enemy Within came about because I had never purchased the game on console and had heard repeatedly from various sources that playing with the controller was fine. Not only fine, but a lot of people preferred it to keyboard and mouse. Yes, even PC gamers. At first I found this unfathomable but I eventually accepted that it might just be true. This is 2014 after all. When Enemy Within was announced I figured it was my opportunity to pick up the complete "commander edition" version of the game in one package and play from the luxurious comfort of my couch. My only disappoint with this decision is that now I'm sure I'll play through this game several more times in the future and when I do it'll be on PC, so I'll need to pick up another copy of the Enemy Within expansion pack regardless. Ah well.
"MEC troopers, never leave home without 'em!"
So yeah, I'm not going to go into why I loved the original X-COM: UFO Defense because I plan on putting together a retro review of it sometime in the next 20 years. Let's just say that several aspects of the game struck me as more or less perfect and I wanted another experience that recaptured its glory. I watched all of the discussion regarding the various spiritual successors but always passed, played some other games inspired by its mechanics (such as Silent Storm, another game I need to revisit and review) but never got too far into any of them, and when I heard about X-COM finally picking up a biggish budget sequel I was thrilled. Finally, when the Firaxis game was announced and the first details were released I was quite hopeful that they'd finally put together a worthy sequel.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn't really a sequel or a spiritual successor, but a full on, faithful re-imagining of the original game, updated with modern mechanics and presentation. While that sounds like a description for any update of an old game, it's really quite literal with XCOM. It's like they made a check list of everything that made X-COM X-COM and put it into this new version, only changing and (usually somewhat modernizing) the systems underneath to make the still very customizable, and still very brutal game more accessible in today's market. To put it another way, it is almost as if the 2012 development team took the original design documents and concept art and made a new game without much knowledge of the previous one. Sure, a lot of the little details about how the mechanics work and whatnot are all quite different but on the surface it's the same damn game. At the risk of losing some friends here, I'd even dare say that this new imagining of XCOM might even be better than the original in many aspects. It's just that goddamn good! Awesome, dynamic squad based tactics, persistence through leveling soldiers, strategy via managing the XCOM program and researching technology trees on the geoscape. It's all here!
"Despite what the suits back at base say, sometimes you just HAVE to use high explosives."
I played through the entire long campaign with the worthy additions of Enemy Within and the other DLC, and despite only playing on normal difficulty I still found the game to be challenging at times and damn rewarding to boot. I tried to avoid "save scumming" but there were a few times where I reloaded to avoid losing senior soldiers... oh, and I abused the hell out of it to beat that damn whale mission. The Xbox 360 build had a couple of hard locks and other odd bugs but nothing to ruin to overall experience. I could go on and on about this game, and if I had written about it while playing I probably would have, but for now that is all I want to gush about it. Perhaps more the next time I decide to play through?
To cross another one off of my pile of shame, I finally played through the first of Telltale's The Walking Dead seasons. Being both a fan of the show and of adventure games in general, I've been wanting to play this game since I first heard about it and since then I've only heard more and more good things. Are they true? Yes, mostly...
"I wanted to post an example of TWD's excellent, well written dialog system. So, yeah..."
The Walking Dead is a classic adventure game in most respects. Sure, the UI is stripped down and most of the puzzles probably barely qualify as being such in the traditional sense, but at its core it still plays unmistakably like the graphical adventure games of old. While there is still a lot of environmental exploration and "pixel hunting" for items the items mostly serve to move conversations forward and add the occasional context sensitive action - there's no tedious inventory management and item combination voodoo to deal with at all. The core of the gameplay instead focuses around the conversation choices you make and how those choices affect your story - who is in your group and how they feel about you, which in the end largely comes down to differences in dialog. That sounds a little simple but it works surprisingly well and while the ultimate outcome is more or less the same, your choices at least feel like they carry some real weight.
Not everything works well though. The action sequences are pretty much all god awful. I was almost shocked to even see them here at all - people have been complaining about crappy action and arcade sequences in adventure games since the 1980s. While there's some variety there, mostly my problem with them has to do with my second complaint: the engine is pretty bad. There's all kinds of issues: long loads, flickering, clipping, and general bugginess. It just generally feels clunky. This only really started to affect my enjoyment of the game when it came to those action sequences, especially when they resulted in a sudden death or fail condition. That leads directly to the final point, one I really wasn't expecting, but instant deaths/fails galore! Really? I'll fully admit that I'm Sierra apologist but I thought the dudes at Tell Tale were big LucasArts fans. I figured they would detest this kind of thing. Ah well, at least they're generous enough to automatically restart the gameplay right at whatever sequence killed you.
Home improvement time!"
Anyway, back to the good. The hand drawn, graphic novel inspired art style is good (sometimes even strikingly beautiful) even if the engine and some of the animation lets it down a bit. The voice acting is mostly fucking brilliant with the main cast being among the best I've heard in a game. Telltale absolutely nailed the desolation, the desperation, and the overall feel of The Walking Dead setting too. Finally, the writing is great. I quickly found myself caring about the characters and, probably more telling, when I think back on my jaunt through zombie infested Georgia, I remember it more like I had read a novel or watched a good movie than I had played through it in a game. The more I ponder it, I'd have to chalk it up to a tricky combination of the basic setting and plot, the character development, and the agency the player is given behind how the story appears to unfold. It's not just an infatuation with the excellent Lee and Clementine either, even the tiny stories from the 400 Days episode made an impact.
If you're a fan of the Walking Dead show and/or comics and don't completely detest graphical adventure games please do yourself a favor and put this on your wishlist if you haven't already played it. It's brilliant. I played through the aforementioned "400 Days" extra episode and can't wait to play through Season 2 when it is finished being deployed later this year.
Screenshots are PC not Xbox 360, as I swiped from the Steam Community. Thanks, glorious PC gaming master race!
Excuse my absence, and welcome to 2014! Despite the lack of updates I have, in fact, continued slowly slogging through my Xbox 360 backlog.
First, I was feeling like revisiting the World War II theater (most certainly inspired by recently watching HBO’s excellent mini-series “The Pacific”) and had a few selections in my backlog to choose from. I decided to finally check out Call of Duty: World at War’s single player campaign. I knew this was a risky move given my numerous issues with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s campaigns but I remembered it looking really cool when it came out and hey, this was Treyarch this time, not Infinity Ward, so I thought maybe they’d handle things a bit better. I thought wrong.
"It's pretty, I'll give it that much..."
As usual this is another Call of Duty campaign filled with insanely annoying “meat grinder” choke-points, infinitely spawning enemies, and less than seamless trigger points. I’d so much prefer to be able to have some freedom to flank around my enemies and use whatever tactics I can come up with to progress through the battlefield but that simply isn't what Treyarch was going for here. I mentioned this in both my posts about CoD4 and CoD:MW2 and I don’t feel any different about it in WaW.
"The PBY mission was a little different, even if it was on rails."
This may be my last Call of Duty campaign. In the aforementioned games I generally felt like it was the level structure that was bolted on to the otherwise great game systems (that work so well in multiplayer) that was the problem. This time I didn’t even enjoy the underlying systems. They just DO NOT work in single player with the insanity of the infinite enemies and the rest of the chaos going on. It’s always been pretty clear to me that the chaos of large scale battles is part of what they were trying to pull off with all of this scripted tomfoolery but I simply don’t find it fun or otherwise particularly gratifying. It's cool to see the first few times, sure, but once you've seen behind that curtain all of the awe of these big set pieces fades away and you're just left with trying to muddle your way through the remaining annoyances that make it all tick.
Oh, and I know people bitched about grenades in CoD4 but… what the fuck Treyarch? In many of the missions in this game I felt like the village idiot being pelted by frag grenades from every direction instead of rotten vegetables, and I must have looked like one too as I frantically ran back and forth trying get out of their blast radius or throw them back away like some kind of wildly incompetent juggler chasing his balls across the stage. Seriously, who thought this was fun?
"Nazi zombie invasion!"
I never played any of the multiplayer modes in WaW but they sounded like an odd (read: bad) re-skin of the same systems from CoD4. Dogs instead of helicopters? Okay then. Still, might be fun? The one thing I did do, which is also the most celebrated new thing WaW introduced to the franchise, was “Nazi Zombies” mode with some friends via split screen a couple of years back. Sure, it is a simple take on the now almost ubiquitous Horde/survival mode that was all the rage for a few years there, but it was one of the first ones I know of to introduce some new persistent wave to wave systems to spice up the gameplay. Boarding up windows and managing your weapons as your area of responsibility expanded was pretty compelling gameplay, especially when played cooperatively as intended. Of course this mode was expanded on greatly in later Treyarch CoD games so checking it out now is almost purely for the curious.
Onto bigger and better things, I finally got around to playing through Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum despite first playing (and enjoying) the demo way back before the game was released. What can I say? I’m slow. You guys should be used to this by now…
"This game could have ended so much more quickly."
Arkham Asylum is, foremost, the best realized Batman video game ever. I say this for two particular reasons: Despite coming out at around the same time as Batman Begins, Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is unique, taking bits and pieces from all kinds of previous works and compiling them into something that really feels like the Batman that comic, cartoon, and movie fans love. The other is the gameplay, which is at last a good representation of what the character of Batman does. Sure, we've had plenty of fist fighting and grappling before, and even a little zip lining here and there, but Arkham Asylum combines fun fighting mechanics with a little stealth, a twist of vertical platforming, and a splash of puzzle solving detective work, all with an appropriate layer of super-inventor gadgetry item use.
While I didn't grow to love the combat system as much as I suspected I might it’s definitely fun to dive into a huge group of thugs and tear them apart. I also really don’t think of this as much of a “stealth game” despite seeing a lot of people refer to it as one. That's totally fine, Batman isn't a ninja after all. He will, on the other hand, stalk you from the shadows until he has the perfect opportunity to suddenly hang your ass from the rafters to turn you into an example to the rest of your gang, and Arkham Asylum definitely delivers there. I wouldn't have minded seeing a bit more puzzle solving and storytelling blended into the mix but I admit that's a bit more subjective.
"Detective mode + gargoyles. The native habitat of the batmen."
I was a little surprised at how blatantly “metro-vania” structured the game was, with the old “slowly gaining unlocks that allow access to previously inaccessible areas that you need to go back to paced out throughout the game” mechanic out in full effect. Thankfully most of the more tedious backtracking is allocated to the multiple item collection tasks in the game. These are completely optional and I chose not to go out of my way to participate in them this time though I definitely think I would have tried to 100% the game if I had played it back at release. That said, while I often really like metro-vania style games I think I’ll prefer the more open-world style of the later “Arkham” games when I eventually get around to playing them.
Overall, the triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it manages to make the player feel like they’re stepping into Batman’s shoes for a little while. It’s empowering and somewhat unique, but most importantly it’s damn cool. I'll definitely be putting Arkham City on my shopping list!
As usual, Xbox 360 screenshots are stolen from people much cooler than me. Honestly, even if I had an HD capture unit I can't imagine going through all of that work just for a few shitty screenshots.
You know, like a lot of kids when I was young Halloween was easily one of my favorite times of year. Insane amounts of delicious, horrible candy, cool macabre decorations everywhere, and of course the costumes… oh the costumes! As an adult I still enjoy all of these things, plus we get the addition of drunken Halloween bashes and the seemingly ubiquitous “sexy” adult costumes to boot. Upgrade!
Still, for me Halloween as an adult has been largely a bust. This year wasn't going any different so I decided to try to head it off at the pass a little bit and get back in the spirit of the holiday – watch a couple of horror movies and, hey, why not play something Halloween themed too? I could have gone with one of the numerous horror or zombie themed games out there these days but instead If decided to cross Double Fine’s Costume Quest off of my XBLA backlog. I've been wanting to play it since the first reviews of it rolled in and what a better time than the week of Halloween itself?
Costume Quest isn't a horror game. It isn't even a scary game. It is, on the other hand, Halloween... as... fuck! It’s about a pair of siblings going out trick or treating when one of them gets kidnapped by a group of monsters that seem to be in the process of a massive candy heist. The theme of Halloween night and the childhood tradition of getting really hyped about getting dressed up and scoring mountains of candy is pulled off incredibly well. Even better perhaps is the relationship your character has with their sibling – the sometimes apathetic, sometimes love/hate relationship they have with each other really adds an authenticity to the experience. After all, if you had siblings you were sharing your holidays with them, for better or for worse. The writing is great and while I suppose it is kid friendly, this is clearly a game written by adults, for adults, and it’s hilarious.
"Spying on some grubbin scum."
The game itself is a sort of simplified take on the classic JRPG. Your party roams around in a top down “overworld” perspective talking to NPCs, collecting and searching for candy, trick or treating (of course) and doing various, simple quests along the way, all with a fun, highly stylized and cartoony presentation. The combat is fittingly styled after traditional turn based party battles, with different costumes (which are collected throughout the course of the game) granting different powers and abilities. When the fight mode kicks in the graphics amusingly shift into a more realistic, gritty style giving the player a glimpse of what the world apparently looks like in the imaginations of our protagonists. Excellent!
Costume Quest has an overall high quality, nicely polished feel to it, which is what I’d expect from Double Fine. Maybe my only complaint here would be the lack of any voiced dialog but honestly I think I’d rather read text than have these snarky kids represented poorly by horrible adult attempts at child voice acting. It’s also a nice, short game clocking in at maybe 8 hours tops which I appreciate as the JRPG mechanics would probably overstay their welcome with me otherwise. There is an expansion, Grubbins on Ice, but it didn't really sound like it offered enough to justify extending the experience any further so I opted to skip it for now.
"You bet your ass I used the Macross inspired robot costume!"
With what little I've written here I hope you can pretty clearly see the appeal of the game. Literally every one of my friends that I've described it to since I started playing thought it sounded awesome and I definitely enjoyed my romp through it. Perhaps some of the best praise I can give it is that it succeeded in helping remind me of what I loved so much about Halloween as a kid and rekindle a little of that Halloween spirit. Of course, all of this delicious candy I'm stuffing my face with doesn't hurt either...
As usual, these console screenshots were stolen from elsewhere...