Self Similar self similar’s personal gaming nonsense blog

8Jan/180

Tales Have Been Told

I’ve written about playing each entry of Telltale’s series of The Walking Dead adventure games here and, for the most part, really enjoyed all of them. I’ve been meaning to go back and play some of their other, similar titles for a while now, and thanks to a nice sale on the Xbox Store and a little bit of luck, I ended up playing three of them more or less back to back.

Our two main characters, Clem and Javi.
"Our two main characters, Clem and Javi."

Since we are basically hooked on the series, my girlfriend and I made plans to dive into the latest installment of The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, as soon as we found out the release date for it. We picked it up on the Xbox One and, like The Walking Dead: Michonne before it, we decided to play each episode as it was released.

The first thing I need to mention, especially after how my game log entry about it devolved into a bit of a rant, is that this version of this particular game (yay, qualifiers!) has none of the horrendously unacceptable, bullshit performance issues and other bugs that plagued us on the Xbox 360 version of The Walking Dead: Michonne. Telltale apparently put a lot of work into their engine in advance of Batman: The Telltale Series, work which carried on to A New Frontier. At fucking last, Telltale! No more issues of the engine constantly interrupting my enjoyment of the game; it ran silky smooth.

More thrilling dialog choices...
"More thrilling dialog choices..."

With the engine upgrade also comes an upgrade to graphical capability, and with it, a big shift in art style. The TWD games have been stylized to look like the comic books the franchise is based on since the beginning but A New Frontier does something totally new by filling in the space between the ink brush strokes with some real time lighting applied to its 3D models. No longer do characters look flat, but instead look just a tiny step closer to realistic. While this change is subtle at first glance, in direct comparison the change of art style is actually pretty massive. It’s a little odd upon closer inspection, mixing two completely different, opposing even, styles of shading, but it somehow works and most of the time I think A New Fonrtier looks spectacular.

Onto the story. Notably, you don’t play as Clementine too much this time around. In fact, she’s much more of a side character, which I’m sure will disappoint a lot of series fans, and results in the game feeling a bit more like a side story, ala TWD: Michonne or the 400 Days episode. Perhaps this was intended, I mean, this isn’t called "The Walking Dead: Season 3" after all. Nonetheless, I found cocky and/or warmhearted Javier “Javi” García to be quite a fun character to play. Javi is dealing with a constant, morally difficult conflict between devotion to family, a family which is, in itself, full of its own, similar conflict, and more selfish pursuits, which feel equally justifiable. In either case, Javi’s motives are relatable, which makes the dramatic choices you have to make all that much more nail-biting.

Well, I didn't say they were BFFs...
"Well, I didn't say they were BFFs..."

Besides less of a focus on Clem, another big complaint leveled against A New Frontier seems to be what people feel is a decreased sense of player agency. From misleading choices, to those choices not really impacting the overall narrative as one might expect. Given that most of these complaints are from fans of the previous games, it shouldn’t be necessary to go into the way that practically all of these Telltale adventure games since the first season of TWD lack any major "branching", or how the effects of most of your decisions are, in fact, only clever tricks to make you feel like you’re having a huge impact on the course of the story. Instead, I believe the intended effect is exactly what happened to me with A New Frontier: I didn’t really notice. Instead, I enjoyed the effect I had on how my character behaved, and how his behaviors were perceived and impacted the behaviors of the characters around him in the moment, regardless of whether decision A moved to the story in a different direction than decision B. To put it another way, these games are about characterization, not consequence.

All in all, we really enjoyed A New Frontier. While it didn’t impact me quite as much as any of the other games in the series, immediately after finishing it, I’d easily hold it up alongside Season 1 and Season 2. Now that some time has passed, it really feels a bit more like a side story, as mentioned, and that has me curious about how Telltale plans to follow this up. Most likely, we’ll see an actual third season that more closely follows Clementine, with the events of A New Frontier having little impact on its story.

Our titular hero, Bigby Wolf.
"Our titular hero, Bigby Wolf."

Jonesing for more during the agonizingly long the waits between episodes of A New Frontier, we finally played through the much lauded The Wolf Among Us. The Wolf Among Us came out right after the highly successful season 1 of The Walking Dead, and, to Telltale’s credit, was well regarded as a follow-up. In fact, judging from time spent scouring various forum topics, ranking videos, etc., it remains a lot of people’s all time favorite Telltale game. It was only after that very positive reception was firmly in-place that I decided I wanted to play it. The main reason I had held off for so long was that the whole concept of playing some sort of gritty, realistic portrayal of fairy tale characters seemed utterly ridiculous to me. I mean, you play as a dude named “Bigby Wolf” who is, in fact, the big bad wolf? Come on!

The truth is, between the art, which is similar to TWD’s take on translating traditional, still comic book imagery into textures on 3D polygons, but so much more colorful and vibrant, the amazing gritty 1980s New York City atmospheric, the synth-laden soundtrack, and the whole film noir, detective trying to piece together a mystery vibe of the basic plot, TWAU was actually a very easy game for me to get into. The whole fairy-tale meets gritty reality premise is introduced slowly and enough of the details are left vague that rather than feeling to forced and silly it actually manages to feel come across as intriguing. Once you start to learn more about them, the characters are also quite interesting, which is kind important for a Telltale adventure game.

One of the few graphical adventure game throwback exploration sections.
"One of the few graphical adventure game throwback exploration sections."

Specific criticisms? Well, first, unlike A New Frontier's updated engine that I just complimented Telltale on, I was surprised to find out just how badly the Xbox One version of TWAU, using this much older version of the engine, suffered from poor performance. It wasn’t nearly as bad as my experience with TWD: Michonne on Xbox 360, but it was still damn frustrating at times and unquestionably hampered my enjoyment of the game. The main issues that I found absolutely unacceptable were occasional moments when dialog was cut short, or even muted entirely. That’s a big problem on such a dialog driven, narrative heavy game. This type of shit really should have never made it past QA.

I also take some issue with the story itself, and I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers. It might have related to the choices we made during our particular playthrough, and maybe my own perception of my character and the plot as it developed, but the way the main plot wrapped up felt a little rushed. Specifically, during the trial and how I chose to handle it, it felt more like Bigby was on trial than defendant, and various important aspects of the crimes our antagonist was being condemned for, and even additional crimes, weren’t even brought up, which might have affected that. Then, the scene just sort of... ended. I also wasn’t a big fan of the very end, which I honestly didn’t get at first. It was only after scratching my head and doing a little reading online that I figured out what they were attempting to convey, which of course makes the whole thing feel more hamfisted than clever in its execution. It also felt strange that there wasn't a more solid sense of closure between Bigby and Snow, when there definitely should have been.

Some people just need a beat down.
"Some people just need a beat down."

Oh, and the incredibly one dimensional character of Bloody Mary, with her silly comic book villain dialog, when compared to the texture of the other characters and the overall tone of the game, came across as exceedingly out of place to me. Maybe she’s as equally boring and boilerplate in the comics, I don’t know, but it took me out of the game just a little every time she made another lame appearance.

It doesn’t sound like it, but I really liked the game, and probably wouldn’t be so critical of it if I hadn’t gone into it with extremely inflated expectations. Bloody Mary aside, I think many of my misgivings about the plot could be easily smoothed over by some proper treatment in a sequel. Hell, I might have a more positive impression of it just by replaying it and making some different choices, for that matter.

Finally, after completing TWD: A New Frontier and The Wolf Among Us, spurred on by both my enjoyment of those two games and of the completion of season 7 of the wildly popular HBO series, I decided to finally cross Game of Thrones off of my backlog. We had both separately completed the demo of the first episode of Game of Thrones on the Xbox 360 around the time it was originally released, but she didn’t really get into it very much, and while I wanted to play more, I couldn’t quite work it into my schedule at the time.

Back to the wall... hey wait, is that Jon Snow?!
"Back to the wall... hey wait, is that Jon Snow?!"

Game of Thrones came right after TWD Season 2 as well as the fan favorite Tales of the Borderlands, which in turn were right on the heels of the first season of The Walking Dead and the aforementioned The Wolf Among Us. With that in mind, I didn’t know how much of an enjoyable experience this would be, engine-wise. Thankfully, some odd glitches and slow loading times aside, the engine used in the Game of Thrones seemed to run pretty decently on my Xbox One. Definitely not the shit-show that TWAU was, at least.

The art style takes an odd turn from the two other games. Models still have a similar, cartoony stylization to the TWD and TWAU, it completely eschews the comic book styled textures and shading of those games. Instead, it attempts to look more like it was hand painted by applying some sort of a filter over everything. Sometimes it looks great, but for the most part it really didn’t seem to achieve the effect I imagine they were going for. Odder still, the slightly more realistic approach to the graphics goes off the rails when introducing characters that we’re familiar with from the Game of Thrones HBO series, fully modeling the characters after their actors, and at times, producing an unsettling “uncanny valley” effect. They may not look bad in the screenshots here, but in motion? Ick.

Besides their likenesses, a lot of the actors from the series also lend their considerable acting talents to help voice their characters. This is, by far, one of the more enjoyable parts of the game for big Game of Thrones fans. Then again, the soundtrack, inspired by the music of the series, is also excellent, and there is a lot more fan service where those things came from; innumerable references to both the HBO series AND George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series abound. This game really is a treat for fans, and goes quite deep into immersing the player into the setting. Perhaps too far...

FUCK this fucking guy.
"FUCK this fucking guy."

You see, this game is one of the most vicious video games I’ve ever played. It’s true to the setting and the tone of the source material, no doubt, but playing as characters in the world, and characters who aren’t exactly being dealt a lot of winning hands to boot, is incredibly oppressive. From the very first episode, House Forrester suffers terrible turn after terrible turn, and every decision you make is met with another terrible outcome. After 6 episodes, it almost starts to feel like some sort of abusive relationship. It’s a common complaint about the game, with some people even claiming they couldn’t make it through to the end because of how harsh it felt, like you were being constantly kicked around by everybody, at every turn.

On top of that, a lot of people complained that they didn’t feel like they possessed the agency to get themselves out of those terrible situations. Always on the defensive, your characters are constantly having to decide between trying to stand up for their family and their honor, or submitting in service of possibly keeping the situation from somehow getting even worse. The decisions in this game are definitely extremely difficult, and just like other Telltale games, there isn’t necessary a correct choice, as there are bleak consequences no matter how you choose to play. This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the game, however, as like I said in regards to A New Frontier, Telltale’s games are more about experiencing the characterization of and resulting from your choices, not so much the direct consequences of those actions on the overall story.

Caught between Cersei and Margaery, of course you should lie.
"Caught between Cersei and Margaery, of course you should lie."

Speaking of characterization, one thing that did bother me a little was the fact that, as I alluded to, you play multiple characters. Just like the books and the HBO series, the game constantly has you hopping around between different major characters. It definitely keeps things interesting, exposing you to a lot more variety in scenarios and settings, but playing so many different characters also takes a little away from really getting to know your character, and sometimes interrupts flow of the story. By the time you make it to the end of the last episode this issue has mostly gone away, but it was still notable to me, particularly since I initially went into the game with a vague plan of how I’d try to roleplay my (single) character. Oops.

Another common complaint and one that stuck out to me as well, is that the noble house you play as, House Forrester, closely parallels House Stark, the primary characters of the books and HBO series. Not only are the Forresters another northern house who suffers from similar circumstances as the Starks, but individually, they each align with the Starks just a little too well, with the biggest departure being the character of Asher Forrester, who really doesn't have an analog. This is only the smallest of complaints, and the characters do mostly come into their own as the game progresses, but probably not coincidentally, Asher was my favorite character to play as.

Asher Forrester and Beskha.
"Asher Forrester and Beskha."

While I did agree with most of those complaints, overall I liked the game. Its brutality left me with many of the same type of “ohhhhh shit!” moments as the source material, which is ultimately a good thing. As the credits rolled on the final episode, I found myself thinking a lot about how they could possibly have a sequel to Game of Thrones, considering that House Forrester was almost entirely decimated, and so many important characters were killed or otherwise completely screwed over. Alas, it didn’t seem worth dwelling on given that Game of Thrones seemed to have been relatively unpopular, and a sequel seemed doubtful.

Well, much to my surprise Telltale announced that we’d be getting “The Final Season” of it’s Walking Dead game series, and a second season of The Wolf Among Us in 2018, and yes, we’d even be getting a season 2 of Game of Thrones in 2019. What?! I can't let myself get too excited, since Telltale has probably cancelled almost as many games as it has released, but I'm definitely looking forward to learning more. Game of Thrones season 2 intrigues me the most. Surely it will involve the remaining Forresters somehow seeking retribution for the events of the first game, but I can think of quite a few interesting ways they could execute on that, so who knows. In any case, expect to read a lot more thoughts about Telltale games here in the next couple of years. Oh, and I just scored Back to the Future and Borderlands for free from that Xbox Store, so... 🙂

3May/160

Fear of the Dead

Somehow I never played Monolith’s F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon despite being super into PC games, especially online first person shooters, right around the time it came out. In fact I specifically remember a couple of my old Planetside clanmates playing the online only “F.E.A.R. Combat” pretty hardcore for a time. I suppose I was too into military and sci-fi shooters and snubbed F.E.A.R. for it’s whole supernatural/horror angle, which is odd since F.E.A.R. has arguably more in common with military and sci-fi shooters than most games, but I honestly don’t recall my exact rationale at the time.

Fast forward to 2009 when F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released and somehow it really caught my attention. Some of my friends evidently picked up on that and got me a copy for the Xbox 360 version for my birthday after it had very quickly hit the bargain bins despite generally favorable reviews. You guys know me and my massive backlog by now though, right? Yeah, I never played it though it has been in my “play this” stack since then. Several years later I was aimlessly wandering around in a random consignment store when I happened across a lone copy of the first F.E.A.R. game for Xbox 360 still shrinkwrapped for under 10 bucks. I hadn’t really planned on playing it on the 360 since I was more familiar with it as a PC game, but I figured what the hell and picked it up.

John Woo'ing out with a slow-mo powered firefight.
"John Woo'ing out with a slow-mo powered firefight."

Given that F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2 are both relatively short single player experiences and, apart from a few excursions into some really old games it feels like it has been ages since I played a traditional-ish first person shooter, I decided to bump them up on my backlog.

F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon (ugh, that acronym!) has you cast as the newest member of a secret special operations group tasked with confronting supernatural threats. Imagine if Fox Mulder had his own, dedicated SEAL Team at his disposal and you’re not too far off. As the newbie to the squad you’re of course assigned to be the point man, you know, the guy who gets to scout ahead in front of the rest of the team by himself. I like to imagine that this is some sort of elaborate vetting process by which only the very strongest new F.E.A.R. recruits survive being pelted with anvils by angry poltergeists over and over again to be promoted to full-time members of the team. I mean, none of the other characters in the game seem to think there’s anything all too unusual about sending “the new guy” out to investigate a small army of heavily armed clone soldiers and mech suits lead by a physic cannibal, armed only with a submachine gun and an inability to speak. I digress...

Remember back when nail guns were a thing in games?
"Remember back when nail guns were a thing in games?"

While F.E.A.R.’s mechanics feel more than a little aged to me, remembering 2005 rather fondly it’s easy for me to imagine how this game’s take on Rainbow 6 like semi-realistic first person tactics coupled with a unique enemy AI was actually probably a small but important stepping stone in the evolution of the FPS genre. The noticeably not-completely-linear design of the levels and the occasional focus on gimmicky feeling Half Life 2 style physics puzzles and scripted events were a little jarring to me. Being able to slow down time is neat though, and the Monolith guys went kind of crazy with the destructible objects and particle effects to make an already cool looking effect look totally fucking awesome. From what I’ve seen these effects are a little more subdued in the Xbox 360 version I played, but even there they were eye catching and intense at times, especially against the often incredibly dark spaces in the game. Seriously, this has to be one of the darkest games I’ve played since Doom 3 or perhaps Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Unfortunately the rest of the presentation is a little lacking - environments are mostly empty with far too little variation over the course of the campaign. It feels like I spent half of the damn game in the same office building but come to think of it, maybe I did?

So you’re exploring these extremely dark, often repeated factory corridors, office spaces, and warehouses taking out these clone soldiers who do all kinds of wacky flanking and just generally don’t seem to behave like most FPS foes, when all of the sudden the face of a mutilated corpse flashes on your screen and all of the shit on the shelf you just looted for ammo comes flying off behind you. *gulp* Then you walk a little bit further when all of the sudden you swear you just saw a creepy ghost child in the corner of the room as you swept your flashlight across it, but now your flashlight’s batteries are drained. It’s not until after you empty your entire magazine into said corner that your flashlight is finally charged up again and you can verify that you were, in fact, just shooting at nothing like a total idiot. Ahh, that’s where the horror stuff comes in! Neat.

Alma fucking with me... again.
"Alma fucking with me... again."

Honestly, while at first I was a little anxious as I made my way through the levels I suppose I got so used to that tension that I found myself pretty much unphased by the vast majority of the jump scares and other horror elements the game threw at me. It wasn’t until the very last chapter that I felt truly creeped out and even that probably had more to do with the fact that I knew the plot reaching its climax than all of the freaky ghost shit that was going down. One nod I’ll gladly give the game in regards to creating an atmosphere of “horror” though, is to the soundtrack. Wow, what a fucking soundtrack! Dark, foreboding, atmospheric? Its rare that a game soundtrack stands out to me while I’m playing it but this one certainly made an impression.

So did I like it? Eh, yes. Probably not nearly as much as I would have liked it back in 2005, but like I implied, it at least feels like a relic of its time that, along with something like Half Life 2, can easily be enjoyed in a vacuum for what it is. The good parts of the game (the sometimes frantic, sometimes almost tactical gunplay against interesting enemy AIs, the dark, spooky soundtrack, and the other weird horror stuff, mostly) didn’t elevate it beyond that for me, but they do have me very curious to finally play F.E.A.R. 2 next.

Oh hey, speaking of short single player experiences! I also noticed that Telltale released The Walking Dead: Michonne and I immediately hopped on that, and I just wrapped up the third and final episode. This is probably the first time I’ve ever played a Telltale game’s episodes as they were released and while I probably still prefer playing them back to back, overall it was a cool way to digest a campaign.

Remembering the not-so-good old days.
"Remembering the not-so-good old days."

Now, I liked The Walking Dead quite a bit, and The Walking Dead Season 2 maybe even more so, and by and large this Michonne centered spin-off is largely the same quality. Good writing, a cool graphic novel inspired aesthetic, excellent voice acting, and interesting choices. It was short and didn’t necessarily go anywhere too interesting, especially considering how little time we’re given to invest anything in most of the new characters we meet in the game, but it was still a fun little side-story and shed some interesting light on Michonne’s past. It almost felt like an expanded take on the style of side stories we got with the 400 Days bonus episode from the first season in that respect.

That said, I have to say ONCE AGAIN, that Telltale REALLY needs to scrap their aging engine. Maybe this has to do with playing the Xbox 360 build of the game rather than a version for a more modern platform, but this has to be the jankiest of Telltale’s games yet: freezing, major hitching, audio desynchronization and muting... bah! The otherwise polished presentation of the game was utterly let down by this piece of shit engine, especially as action heavy as the Walking Dead games can sometimes be. Again, I’m sure playing this on the now positively ancient Xbox 360 probably didn’t help, but I’ve played much better looking games that ran silky smooth so I can’t really excuse it. I mean, if they didn’t want to put the time into making the game AT LEAST reasonably presentable on the system then they shouldn’t have bothered releasing it on it at all. I’m hoping when I go back and play The Wolf Amongst Us and the Game of Thrones game soon they won’t have quite the same level of problems as this poor game has.

If you’re playing it on one of the current consoles or, better yet, PC, and liked the previous Telltale Walking Dead games I’d say it's an easy recommendation.

Now, time for some F.E.A.R. 2...

4Oct/150

Dead Presidentes

I haven’t been doing a lot of gaming lately, period, due to work and other responsibilities taking up most of my time, and most of my tiny bits of game time have been spent with some retro titles I hope to review soon. That said, I have found a little time to play some new things.

After enjoying random bouts of trading off the controller for games she’s been playing, like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Grand Theft Auto V, my girlfriend and I decided to try finding something we could play together. I suggested she play through Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and that I’d be happy to hang out and watch since I loved the game and had only played it one time, and was curious to see how it might play out differently for her. Long story short, she had a great time and was interested in playing other Telltale games in the future.

Clem is still in panic inducing constant danger.
"Clem is still in panic inducing constant danger."

The Walking Dead: Season Two was an obvious choice for the next game. We decided to take turns playing the chapters while the other watched which worked out quite well. All in all, the game is more of the same as the first season. Not much in the way of pixel hunting and inventory puzzles, with dialog choices being the player’s main input into the game, plus the addition of occasional action (often quick time event based) sequences. As with the first game, where it really shined was with the story and character development. In fact, I have quite a hard time deciding which game I liked best – a problem I honestly didn’t expect to have.

Lee was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the first game, and likewise Clementine’s struggles are almost equally, if not equally, compelling. Season Two seems to be a little bit more willing to shock the player with unexpected plot twists and the occasional tragic death or random gory moment. While the first game had me invested in Lee and he and Clementine’s fates, the second one had me deeply invested in the story itself – I constantly found myself pining to find out how a foreshadowed event was going to play out, what the next twist would be, and eventually, how the game could possibly wrap up to a nice conclusion with the desperate situation the party eventually finds themselves in.

Well, a wordy reply isn't always required...
"Well, a wordy reply isn't always required..."

I also felt like the fact that, unlike the first game, Season Two ACTUALLY effectively branches out into various different endings, was much more interesting and satisfying. The first was satisfying in its own way, don’t get me wrong, but overall the second season left me feeling unusually satisfied with my experience. The characters and story are well developed and the switch of lead protagonists to Clementine avoids feeling like it's just a gimmicky cash grab after the somewhat unexpected success of the first game. Not at all. Awesome! While there doesn’t need to be a season 3, if there is they’ll have to make it look pretty disappointing to not have my interest.

For our next game I decided to pick up the console version of Diablo IIIDiablo, you may remember, is a game series that I like a lot, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about the console ports of Diablo III, especially when it comes to same screen cooperative play. Unfortunately we haven’t had much time to try to play through it since we first picked it up so more on that one later, but at the same time we also randomly picked up a copy of Tropico 4 for the Xbox 360.

Political prisoners in training.
"Political prisoners in training."

Tropico is a series I’ve had my eye one since the very first game was released. The concept is excellent – a SimCity like city builder game focused a little more on the social and political side of building and running a city, with the tongue in cheek twist that you’re the dictator of a tiny island nation very obviously inspired by Cuba. All the stereotypes are there – does El Presidente try to appease the USSR or the USA? Does he (or she) set up democratic elections, SET UP democratic elections, or simply assassinate any political opponents that come his way? Oh yeah, and let’s not forget rum and coffee exports.

This introduces all kinds of new challenges – since you’re an actual island NATION, not just a city, resource gathering and production are highly important, as are keeping the local political hopefuls and dissidents in check, and keeping the geopolitical powers happy with you too. Managing imports and exports, as well as immigrants and tourists, all while growing you country and your city. This lets the developers add all sort of systems into the game that can allow for some fun and challenging scenarios as you might easily imagine.

Viva la stable economy!
"Viva la stable economy!"

The port is surprisingly well down for a PC centric strategy game ported to a console with a great adaption of the interface and controls to the Xbox 360 controller, and despite mostly just playing with the sandbox mode so far, both of us have sunk plenty of time into the game and enjoyed it immensely so far. The campaign offers the same gameplay but with a combination of specific goals and artificial adjustments of factions, events, etc. to mix things up a bit. I’ll probably end up picking this (and some of the other titles in the series) up on Steam at some point and playing it the way it’s meant to be played, but this has been a great purchase for something we just happened to pick up on a whim.

More soon!

Screenshots stolen from random filthy capitalist pigs!