Monday, December 31, 2012

Assassin's Excess

When I've been playing games over the last couple of weeks, it's been mostly Assassin's Creed III. I've put in nearly 50 hours according to Steam, with some of that spent AFK. I have played a lot of this game, and I'm here with some more thoughts.

I finished up the main story stuff yesterday after mostly taking it on at a leisurely pace. I like to wander around and see what there is in the world and try all the various things at least once or twice. I also have a compulsion to collect every collectable and see every little bit of content, no matter how slight. There's a hell of a lot of that stuff in every Assassin's Creed game, but they've really gone overboard with III.

On the one hand, I want to applaud Ubisoft for packing a game so full of stuff to do, but on the other I think they really need to sit down and have a think about just how much goes into one of these mammoth titles, and see if maybe they can't pare it down to just the great stuff. Then maybe they could use the extra resources to tighten up the core gameplay, which has a lot of rumpled, saggy bits to it.

Jumping back into the game after finishing it last night, I stumbled upon some interesting post-game stuff that serves as a slight hint at the future direction of the series while also giving you the keys to hack the animus, activating cheats to let you go wild in the open world. These are neat features, as are the myriad of little vignette missions you can do around your homestead in the game, as are the very well done naval missions, et cetera.

Not all of the side stuff is of the shallow collect-athon mold, but much of it is, unfortunately. Some seems to serve no purpose whatsoever--what are the underground tunnel networks all about? They're completely redundant because the game lets you fast travel to and from enough locations on the maps that it would take tens of times longer to go through the tunnels, and there's nothing down there anyway! Near as I can tell, all they do is link one spot in the city to another. There are a couple of missions in the game where you go through them, but that's no reason to actually build out and include the whole network, is it?

I know these games sell a whole lot, but I can't help but think even so there is a lot of wasted time and energy going into them. I love that Ubisoft is throwing incredible amounts of time and money at them, but maybe that's not really all that necessary. With some logistical optimization during development, I think we could all see a much leaner, meaner, Assassin's Creed, and maybe even free up some people to finally get Beyond Good & Evil 2 out the door, huh?

That rant out of the way, I just want to say that I love this game. I'm a big fan of the series, but it has never looked this good or had anything like the rugged nature of the homestead or frontier areas III does. The naval stuff has been a huge surprise. Hearing about its inclusion, I groaned on the inside thinking it would be just more tacked-on bloat, but it is really well done and pretty exciting, if simplistic. I wouldn't mind seeing it fleshed out into its own game about naval warfare and ships-o-the-line. The Revolutionary America setting doesn't really do any more or less for me than prior settings in terms of historical happenings, but I do really like the countryside, as I mentioned, and it is cool to play as a Native American and at least see some mind paid to what they went through during the period. The game's inverse Raiden, a chap by the name of Haytham Kenway, is actually a more interesting character than Connor himself, and really benefits the story when he's around during the latter parts of the story, as well.

All in all, I've been pretty happy with Assassin's Creed III. It is certainly not the disappointment to me that it seems to have been to some. With the audience this series has, though, there's no hope for pleasing everybody. It's had a rough time in the gaming scene partially, I think, due to it being the fifth game in the series, and fourth in four years. If you're a person who keeps current with games, that's a hell of a lot of this formula in a short amount of time. We're due for a break, whether its just so they can make the game for next-gen consoles, or so that they can go back to the drawing board for whatever's next. I fear there will be no break, though, and we'll be right back here next year, like we were last year.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cloud Atlas, Pariah

I finally finished up David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas the other day. You might know it as the basis for a movie that recently came out. It's fairly interesting and unique as far as non-genre fiction goes. The book tells six stories of six sets of characters in six timelines in a Russian nesting doll fashion. The first tale set in the late 1800's in the South Pacific is interrupted midway through by the second, which is interrupted midway through by the third, and so on, until the middle of the book, where the sixth story is told in its entirety, and then all the others are closed out in reverse order, as well. The stories are linked in various ways, and the idea is that there is one soul consistent in each time period, being reincarnated time and again.

I think my favorite aspect of the book was just how completely different each story section was from the last, in terms of prose style, genre,  and setting, especially. The overall themes of each story are consistent, though, and basically boil down to the fact that people are bad and tend to hurt one another. There's a glimmer of hope in each scenario for the future, but by and large the central idea seems to be that life is suffering. I guess that's literature for you.

I'm on to something a little more fun, if not much more hopeful, in Dan Abnett's newest Warhammer 40,000 novel about the Inquisition, which happens to be the first book in the last of a trilogy of trilogies, called Pariah. The main character is known to readers of the Eisenhorn trilogy as Alizabeth Bequin. It opens with her being raised in a special school for a special type of person in a city called Queen Mab. It's intriguing, so far. Abnett is a great writer, and Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop, who makes the Warhammer 40,000 games and curates the license, is lucky to have him enriching their fantasy universes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Quick And The Dead

You want reflexes like a jackrabbit and aim like a NASA engineer launching a Mars rover if you're going to be playing either Counter-Strike or Hotline Miami.

I bought into the newest iteration of Valve's classic competitive shooter, CS GO, because it's a simple, quick, no-frills affair that is easy to jump in and out of whenever the mood for a bit of tactical combat strikes. It was also on sale for $7.50, and I couldn't pass that up. I've only played a few short hours of CS: Source, but that along with my brief time with the CS GO beta let me know I'd have fun with the game. And fun it is, if a bit bewildering at times. There are people playing who are amazingly good at the game and will just dominate any match they play. I am not one of those people. I am usually last or second to last in the score rankings.

The Arms Race (AKA Gun Game) mode is the definition of a light-hearted romp in a FPS setting, and classic Counter-Strike modes like Demolition are also here with their discrete rounds. What I like about CS is that it is so immediate. I enjoy Battlefield, but sometimes I want to just jump right into the action without having to find it or find transportation to it, or even deal with vehicles even being a part of the equation. CS is great for a quick 15 or 20 minute hit of FPS play.

Hotline Miami is something else, entirely, if its demands for speed and precision are much like CS's. People make the comparison to the first few GTA games, before that series went 3D, but a bigger point of reference to me is the NES Mission Impossible. That game had the same top-down perspective, and much like Hotline Miami, was incredibly difficult. That said, the game is pretty fun, and I suspect has some surprises in store further in. Some kind of trippy plot is developing between my contract-killer's murderous jobs. It is kind of reminiscent of Drive, though even more sinister, and with an even nastier soundtrack. I like it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Now Is The Winter of Our Downloadable Content

A glance at my Steam profile confirms that most of my game time over the past couple of weeks has been split between Assassin's Creed III and STALKER: Clear Sky.

AC3 is good, though all of the usual nitpicks apply. As always, it is supremely ambitious, at times seeming to bite off more than it can competently chew. As has been the norm, though, I still enjoy playing it, warts and all. I've been taking this one at a slower, steadier pace than I did the Ezio trilogy. As I recall, I played the first game in the series in a similar fashion; coming to it here and there, I let the plot points and setting changes the series is so fond of percolate for a bit before moving on. Even with the dreaded 12/21/12 approaching both in-world and IRL, I feel no rush to blitz through this iteration. I'd rather hit it leisurely and not stress the well-worn mechanics so hard. I wonder what Ubisoft's future plans are for the series, and whether they're going to continue putting them out at the breakneck pace they have been. It seems riskier and riskier every time, and at least with media types, they seem to have come very close to disaster this year. For what it's worth, I think the series ambition and devotion to offering unique and interesting settings and conflicts are more than worth overlooking some sloppiness, provided they don't let it get too out of hand.

Speaking of games released in a bit of a sloppy state that hide unique and compelling qualities, I've been playing more S.T.A.L.K.E.R.!

Clear Sky is the second in the trilogy, and widely regarded as the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. At release there were a number of issues with the game causing it to be excruciatingly difficult or even outright unfair, to hear it told by game reviewers. That, dear reader, is why you should be glad that we live in a world where enterprising fans have taken it upon themselves to compile the series of Complete mods for the Stalker series. Don't enter the Zone without them! In addition to fixing bugs and altering mechanics to make the games more firm-but-fair than outright broken, they also implement a number of graphical enhancements and in places even restore content cut from the original releases.  I played Shadow of Chernobyl with the Complete mod from the word go, and I'm doing the same with Clear Sky, and I'm happy to report that I'm having nothing but a great time in the bleak, desolate, and unwelcoming Chernobyl exclusion zone.

There is simply no other series that does what the Stalker games do. The closest analogues I can think of would be Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 (and perhaps their sequels), though neither of those could really be considered similar beyond superficial features. The Stalker series offers up an engaging mix of survivalist scavenging, treasure hunting, FPS action, faction-based warfare, mysterious supernatural phenomena, and horror in a world that is at once more hostile and vital than any other in gaming.

In Clear Sky, you play a stalker called Scar who, after surviving an unprecedented blast of energy out of nowhere, wakes up in the care of a faction of stalkers called Clear Sky, who are devoted to the careful scientific study of the supernatural happenings in the Zone. You know only that you need to track down a group of other stalkers who are rumored to have made their way to the center of the Zone, and who are probably at the heart of why it has been acting so erratic lately. If that sounds like personification of the Zone, that is because that is precisely what is going on, here. The men of Clear Sky think that the Zone is acting, through seemingly random emissions of power capable of frying anyone else, to protect whatever is at its core.  And off you go.

If you've played the first game, you know who it was that made it to the center of the Zone, and what they found there. Clear Sky is actually a prequel to the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, and runs concurrent to Strelok and his group's trip past the Brain Scorcher that leads into the first game.

I'm about 10 hours in, as of this writing, hot on the trail of a stalker called Fang, one of Strelok's group, looking for answers. I can hardly wait to play more. So far I've seen a lot of the same areas of the Zone as in the first game, with the exception of the starting area, the swamps. From there the game moves on to the cordon, the garbage, and the dark valley. I think there are a couple of other new areas later on, too.

Clear Sky introduces a faction warfare system, so now you can join the groups of stalkers like Duty, Freedom, Clear Sky, and others, though I haven't really been compelled to do so, just yet. I've fought alongside a couple of them, but only to my own ends, thus far. This game also introduces a weapon upgrade system, which is cool, but sadly takes away the global stalker rating system SoC had. In that game, a list was kept of every stalker NPC in the game, and your stats, as you played, measured up against them. It was artificial, but cool nonetheless.

Monday, December 3, 2012


I've been a reader as long as I've been a gamer. I picked up both habits right around the same time, as a matter of fact. These days, I'm sad to say, I don't make as much time for reading as I'd like to. As you might guess from reading this blog, the majority of my leisure time is spent gaming. This, combined with a thirst for fiction almost as great as my thirst for games, has over the last few years resulted in a backlog of books (both fiction and non-fiction) that, while not nearly as extensive as my gaming backlog, still represents a titanic amount of time to tackle. That is why I have decided to begin tracking my book backlog on this blog in tandem with my gaming.

Considering the name of this blog is a reference to a book and not a game, I'm not sure why the thought hasn't occurred to me until just now, but there you have it. I'm going to reward myself with a completion token (for use in buying more games, naturally) every time I finish a book. I don't feel the need to spend tokens when I buy books, because a) I don't buy them that often, b) I'm worried about neither the money spent on books, nor the amount of them lying around untouched, and c) I think reading is a wonderful thing, and should never be discouraged in any form or fashion, nor should enthusiasm relating to it (i.e., the purchase of books).

Right now I'm slogging (more as a function of how rarely I sit down to read than a commentary on the quality of the book) through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It's good! I need to finish it; I've been reading it for a couple of months now, probably, and I want to move on to something else. When I do, I'll write something up about it. For now, I'm going to add a list to the sidebar here of books on my Booklog, and then go read for a while (before coming back to the computer to play a game, no doubt, before the night is out).