Monday, December 17, 2012

Hitman: Absolution

I’m pretty new to Hitman.  A long time ago, I saw a lengthy gameplay walkthrough for Absolution, which honestly made the game look pretty damn rad.  So, partially out of interest in the series and partly out of interest in Absolution, I picked up Blood Money during Steam’s Summer Sale.  It’s a great game, though flawed in minor ways.  There’s something really satisfying about the open nature of Blood Money, where you’re spawned in a level and asked to seek out and kill one or more NPCs however you see fit and make it out alive.  Hitman games challenge you to be more than a simple mercenary though, gunning your way to your query.  They encourage subtlety, making your kills discreet or even look like complete accidents.  As they describe the game’s highest score ranking, Silent Assassin, the best Hitman is one who leaves no effect on the world around him.

Hitman: Absolution is not like Blood Money.  And from what I’ve seen of previous Hitman games, it’s not like Hitman in general.

Just as in all previous games, in Absolution you play as Agent 47, a top tier hitman employed with The Agency, some sort of paramilitary organization that contracts hits on the scum of the world.  47’s been tasked with killing Diana Burnwood, who has betrayed the Agency by making off with one of the organization’s vital assets: a young girl.  The problem is that Diana was 47’s former handler, and the closest thing to a friend he’s ever had.  As someone who was also raised in a lab, the normally all-business hitman takes pity on the girl.  Swayed by Diana’s attempt to save the girl from a similar upbringing, 47 goes rogue, taking her with him to safeguard her from the Agency.  Seeking to find out precisely what it is that makes the girl so important, he soon finds himself in trouble with the law and chased by a sinister industry magnate who also wants her.  What results is essentially an international manhunt, where everybody wants both the girl and 47’s head.

But let’s face it: the plot of Absolution isn’t really that good or interesting.  It does a great job stringing together gameplay segments, but you’ll never find yourself expecting much more than that.  Instead, Absolution’s narrative strength resides in its presentation.  The game takes place in a serious world filled with dark themes, touching on corruption of the law, drugs, and the seedy underbelly of industries and corporations.  This is not a cheerful setting in the slightest, and yet there is an element of mature humor that constantly permeates the game experience.  You meet a corrupt sheriff who spends his free time on the receiving end of a whip from his dominatrix, for example.  One of your targets—due to an unfortunate childhood experience—hates pigs, and has taken to doing his job testing landmines by releasing a herd of pigs to run across a fake setup and get blown to bits.

This humor is more evident than ever in the many NPC conversations you’ll overhear.  The very first one you hear is from a guard talking on the phone, overjoyed to hear from his doctor that he does not in fact have prostate cancer.  He happily claims that nothing can ruin this day before you pull him out of a window, sending him careening into the rocks below.  While on the lam, you might overhear a cop making a vain attempt to question a mentally retarded hobo about your whereabouts.  Midway through the game you’ll encounter a wrestler who fervently believes that his stuffed teddy bear is a lucky charm, and will whine and complain to his coach and managers if you steal it.

Absolution’s presentation extends to its visuals, which are phenomenal.  There is an ever so slight filter applied to the graphics that gives the world a constant and subtly oppressive look.  On PC, the game does lighting and depth of field like no other game I’ve ever seen.  When you open a door from a deserted alley and find yourself facing a hugely crowded plaza, it feels just like it would to have all this new information suddenly flooding your eyes.  There is a moment midway through the game where you find yourself emerging from a desert cave in broad daylight, and as you pass through the cave’s mouth, you’re temporarily blinded by all the light hitting your face.  Textures are also detailed and the modeling work is very good.  The only facet that is weak in comparison is the animation, which is good but not exceptional like the lighting.  It is overall a very good looking game, however.

The core of Absolution—the gameplay—doesn’t shine as brightly as its exterior elements, however.  To begin with, Absolution is structured differently from its predecessors.  Whereas in past entries you had the entire level open to you, and your only goal was to accomplish your objective and take the designated exit before moving on to the next level, Absolution is generally more linear.  Levels are fragmented, and there are plenty of gameplay segments where your objective is simply to get to the end of the level alive (and ideally without being seen).  Furthermore, levels vary wildly in their construction.  There are some levels that could have been plucked right out of Blood Money, so similar are they in structure to Absolution’s predecessors.  Some gameplay segments task you with killing someone, but many do not.  In many segments you’re simply passing by, or trying to accomplish something else, like disabling security measures or evading law officers.  This gives the game a feeling of inconsistency; like they knew what direction they wanted to go in with the series but didn’t go all the way through it.  It should be noted that I’m not really saying that the levels themselves are bad.  In fact there are some that are downright brilliant, such as one that has you hunting three targets across an entire neighborhood, or another that has you stalking targets in tall corn fields under a clear starry night.  It’s the overall structure of the game that comes off as feeling slapdash to me, not its components.

This issue is nonexistent in the game’s Contracts mode, however.  Separate from the main campaign, in Contracts all of the game’s environments and scenarios are available to play through individually.  The difference is that here you can play through them however you like.  You kill whoever you want, using whatever tools and disguises you want.  These parameters (who you killed, what you used to kill them, etc.) are then used to set up a custom mission, or contract that other players can then go through, attempting to one-up your score in the process.  It’s basically a combination of a level editor and H-O-R-S-E.  Not only is Contracts a brilliant twist on the concept of creating and sharing your own levels, by focusing on individual levels it escapes the inconsistency present in the story mode.

The game’s structure isn’t the only thing that’s changed.  The core gameplay has been refined in some ways and revamped in others.  For the most part, I like what they’ve done.  Absolution controls better than any other Hitman, for one thing.  The series has always had trouble wrapping its gameplay mechanics around a decent control map, but I think with Absolution they’ve managed to change that, and largely without relying on QTEs, which is admirable.

Furthermore, as a stealth game Absolution does a good job of keeping you informed about your situation.  UI elements like an arrow indicating NPCs that are onto you are standard, but you also have a minimap that color codes each NPC by their level of suspicion, so you know at a glance how information about you might be spreading.  You’re able to summon tooltips telling you things like the current capacity of storage containers (they’re able to hold two bodies now), the access level for areas you’re looking at (in case you’re about to cross an invisible line), and even what a disguise is, before putting it on.  The new Instinct mode—not unlike Detective Vision in the recent Batman games—allows you to see enemies through walls, and will even trace the path an NPC is walking, allowing you to immediately predict their route.  The Instinct mode also allows you to use Point Shooting, which is a feature lifted straight out of games like Splinter Cell Conviction and Red Dead Redemption, allowing you to mark and execute targets with increased precision.  Finally, Instinct mode makes you immune to having your disguise detected; causing 47 to discreetly pull down his hat or hunch his shoulders, deflecting suspicion.  This last bit is pushing suspension of belief, but alas, videogames.

Instinct mode sounds like and often is a crutch, but its use is limited.  How limited depends on what difficulty you’re playing on, but in general you’ll find the ability to use Point Shooting and hide your disguise limited by a meter, which depletes during use and is regenerated mainly by accomplishing objectives.  However, the higher you go in difficulty, the more restrictions you’ll find placed on not only Instinct mode, but the play experience in general.  The highest difficulty—Purist—does away with both Instinct mode and the UI (only the crosshair is spared), in addition to boasting the most enemies and the fastest detection rates.

Hitman has always been about a different sort of stealth than most in the genre.  Whereas series such as Metal Gear and Splinter Cell required you to hide in the shadows and duck behind walls and around corners to stay undetected, Hitman’s is more of a social brand of stealth; being invisible in plain sight.  To this end, disguises have always been an integral part of gameplay.  In past games it was pretty difficult to get far without a disguise of some sort.

The disguise system has been changed in Absolution.  You can still knock out dudes and take their clothes, letting you pose as them, but rules governing how NPCs detect you are different.  Now, only NPCs wearing the same clothes (and thus likely of the same profession) will be able to see through your disguise.  All others will be none the wiser.  As GameTrailers’ review succinctly puts it, it makes sense…except for when it doesn’t.  For example, it makes sense that, while infiltrating a laboratory using a scientist disguise, only fellow scientists would be able to see through my disguise.  It doesn’t make sense however, that a street vendor would be able to see through a street vendor disguise, does it?  Especially not when his stall is on the opposite side of a crowded plaza from my stall.  Furthermore, NPCs are able to see through your disguise from unbelievable distances.  Essentially, establishing line of sight tends to be all you need to be in danger of having your cover blown, even if someone is standing on the other side of a street.  I found that all of these changes discouraged me from using the disguise system at all.  It doesn’t help that it’s not often you encounter an area where it’s particularly difficult to just sneak through the old fashioned way.

Ultimately, I found it difficult to play Hitman: Absolution entirely like a Hitman game.  The moment I stopped trying to use disguises and just played Absolution like a straightforward stealth game was when I immediately found the game to be more enjoyable.  And frankly, as a straightforward stealth game it’s pretty great.  But the problem is that’s not how you should have to play a Hitman game.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

I wish I could make a separate page just for blog posts.

This sounds silly, but I don't really like doing a whole bunch of what are essentially diary entries in between actual game posts.  But I also don't like there being whole months where I don't post anything.

This wasn't an issue when I was back in high school and had all the time in the world to sit around playing games and writing, but that's not how it is any more; it's tough to dedicate an entire evening to sitting down and writing a decent post.  Moreover, part of why I made this blog was to express thoughts on games and the industry as they came to me, which is more difficult when I'm limiting myself to big writeups.

So in short, everything is 'effed I guess.

Anyway.  Due to bandwidth constraints I'm abstaining from anime until early next year.  I'm finished with Nichijou and Amagami, just about done with Hyouka, and powering through Star Driver when I can.  They're all great shows.

Nichijou is not only just simply entertaining, but it's well-produced.  The animation is great, the music is generally good, and the voice acting really delivers.  I suppose it's a good example of where the resources can go when they're not being put towards making any sort of long-running narrative (though the anime is an adaptation, so that might be a moot point anyway).

Solid gold, baby!

Amagami SS+ is more Amagami.  I really really enjoyed Amagami SS, and Amagami+ is basically an epilogue for each route.  Since they've already established a relationship between Junichi and the girl, there's no pressure to have any development and they can instead just focus on how their relationship has panned out.  I'm undecided on who had the best story.  It was great to see Rihoko finally get her due, since she got the short end of the stick in by a long shot in the main series (she's the only one who fails to end up going steady with Junichi by the end of her arc).  There's also another Miya arc, but it's not so much a Miya arc as it is a girls-only fanservice episode.  But yeah, Amagami SS+ is great if you're down for more Amagami.  I really wish they had released Amagami (the visual novel) on PC.  I would have thought having two anime series would have gotten them enough publicity to consider re-releasing the game (as VNs get re-released quite often, especially higher profile ones), but alas the game remains PS2-only.  I don't even need it to get translated; I'd be willing to work through it as an exercise in polishing my Japanese.  But currently the only way to play it for me is to emulate the PS2 version, which seems like jumping through a lot of hoops.

Best girl.
Hyouka is...weird.  If nothing else, it's incredibly well-produced, like Nichijou (Kyoto Animation really does seem to take pride in their releases).  It's extremely well animated, with surprisingly good cinematography for an animated TV show and expressive movement.  The dialogue is consistently engaging and the show is decently paced, which is more than I can say for most anime that I've seen in the past couple years.  It's a textbook example of how to make an anime that just glimmers with production value.

The odd thing though is that it's not some sort of high-action plot.  It's basically a slice of life show with a bit of light mystery here and there.  Almost none of the mysteries are really that compelling, but I sometimes wonder if that's the point.  The mysteries are usually very mundane in nature, typically based off of everyday mysteries that we all encounter and typically dismiss.  Like one mystery is why some library book has, over the past five consecutive weeks, been checked out on Friday but promptly returned by the end of the day.  Another one has the main character theorizing on the story behind an announcement made over the intercom at school summoning someone to the principal's office.  It's a peculiar show that would not have worked if it wasn't so well executed.  But it's interesting to watch, nonetheless.

Anyone whose seen Star Driver would understand when I say that there's really only one word to describe it, and that is "fabulous."  The show is silly, yet it takes itself just seriously enough to make you wonder if it isn't somehow a commentary on the medium.  I don't think I'm going to give it that much credit, but it is a very interesting show.  The reason why I find this show so...curious, begins with its protagonist Takuto, otherwise known as the "Ginga Bishounen"......or "Galactic Pretty Boy."  Yes, that is what they call him.  Let that sink in for a moment.

There's just so much about this show that is just so odd and wacky, but at the same time, not only do they take it seriously, but they use this backdrop as a vehicle for some legitimate themes, like cheating in relationships and family strife.  And it doesn't hurt that the actual mech battles are usually fantastic, albeit brief.  Like Gurren Lagann, Star Driver kind of feels like a super robot show for the modern era.

So that's what I've been watching.  I've already got my next shows lined up.  I'm gonna see about starting MS Gundam Zeta (either that Victory), and I'm also probably going to blow through Gunsmith Cats and Ano Natsu de Matteru.  For romance, probably Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate.  It looks mediocre to be totally honest, but I'll give it a shot.  The real star for me though, will be Binbougami Ga!  Fuck, that show looks hilarious.  I can't wait.  If it's as awesome as it looks, hell I'll start reading the manga.

I was actually going to talk about what games I've been playing, but then this turned into a huge anime post.  Oh well.

There's a review for Hitman Absolution coming...sometime later.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

New Rating System.

I mentioned implementing a new rating system a while back.  Well, it's partially in effect now, starting with the XCOM review.

I don't like using a 10 scale very much, because it's heavily weighted towards the upper 5 points.  After all, when games are coming out with a typical MSRP of $60, who cares whether a game gets a 2 or a 4?  Ultimately, they both spell the same message:  Don't buy the game.

So, because I think the lower half is unnecessary, I decided to remove it and just go from 10 to 4.5.  Let's be clear: this is basically the upper half a 10-point scale cut down a few notches.  So, 6 stars is a 10.  5 stars is a 9.  3.5 stars is a 7.5.

What this means is that unless a game gets 1 star or less, I expect there will always be plenty of people out there who love the game regardless of what I score.  After all, you see plenty of games with 6.5's garner cult followings.

So, the Rating Scale has been updated.  The next step is to adapt the Ratings Index.  I haven't decided if I'm going to go back and retroactively convert each review score though.

Monday, December 3, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

A city terrorized by aliens.  The report came in while I was in the middle of some important research.  I’d have preferred to ignore it, but you don’t get to choose when duty calls.  The team I deployed was a bit unfamiliar.  Lion and Buster were in Psi training, so I took to the opportunity to give some new recruits a shot, including a promising Support gal the team had nicknamed “Mother Bird” for her handy use of Medikits, and the new Hover S.H.I.V. heavy weapons platform the engineering guys had cooked up.  Sheriff would head the team, just as she always did.

It was a civilian evacuation mission; things went well at first.  A two-story building, looked like most of the action would take place inside.  Mother Bird would head around back with the S.H.I.V., scooping up any civilians they came across.  Sheriff and Ace would go right for the front doors; Sheriff in particular always had a tendency to jump into the frying pan.

We cleared the first floor with little incident.  I should have regrouped before storming the second floor, but I was confident from the mission’s progress so far.  Mother Bird and the S.H.I.V. climbed the stairwell and ran right into a squad of Mutons and Berserkers.  It would be a couple turns before the others were in a position to assist.  By then, the S.H.I.V. had been smashed to pieces, and a Berserker had shattered clipped Mother Bird’s wings.  That evening I lost a great soldier, and it was entirely my fault.

Despite the presence of an overarching plot, it’s personal narratives like these that form the heart of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Aliens have invaded Earth.  People are being slaughtered or worse, abducted.  You are the commander of XCOM, an international coalition formed to combat the alien threat.  To do this, you’ll need to hire, train and maintain a diverse contingent of troops and regularly deploy them to various locations across the world to complete missions, while simultaneously developing your facilities to keep pace with the growing threat, upgrading your equipment, and researching alien artifacts.

Gameplay in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is comprised mainly of two aspects.  When you’re not on missions, you’ll spend your time overviewing XCOM headquarters.  From here you can conduct most of your business as commander of the base.  You can research everything alien—from artifacts and technology recovered on the field, to corpses and any aliens you manage to capture alive—in the research lab.  Research works very much like it does in the Civilization franchise, where you assign one thing for the lab to work on, and wait for it to complete before assigning another.  The fruits of your research come to life in the engineering section, which is where you’ll build and upgrade all of your equipment—including guns, armor, ships, and satellites—and your base facilities.

Your soldiers reside in the barracks.  Here you can view each of your soldiers individually, as well as customize everything from their looks and name to their equipment load out.  Disappointingly however, the ability to change your soldier’s armor colors is relegated to DLC.  Soldiers come in four classes: Sniper, Heavy, Assault, and Support.  Snipers utilize sniper rifles to strike from far away.  Heavies use a combination of a light machine guns and rocket launchers to keep enemies suppressed and at bay.  Assaults are designed to jump directly into the fray with their shotguns.  Supports specialize in field assistance with smoke grenades, enhanced Overwatch, and better, more efficient Medikits. 

The more you use your soldiers, the more you’ll find them carving out individual reputations for themselves.  New recruits will be classless, but after a mission or two you’ll discover their aptitude for one class or another.  From there, each class has a tree of perks that you’re able to progress through as that soldier gains promotions through experience in the field.  Soon enough they’ll have their own nicknames, and you’ll find yourself building a narrative and backstory for each soldier.  They become more than just units to command; they become characters in your story.  Sharon “Sheriff” Roberts wasn’t just any Canadian soldier.  She was a badass; someone the others could look up to on the battlefield.  She would leap into every battle and laugh in the face of danger.  Luck was always on her side.  Joan “Lion” McIntosh started as Kitty, but when we saw how sharp her claws really were, she was renamed “Lion”.  Everyone knew that someday she could be the next Sheriff.  Soon enough, my soldiers became more integral to the plot than any of the other characters that would appear in XCOM’s occasional cut scenes, and that’s something I really came to admire the game for.

You can view your current progress and objectives in the Situation Room.  Here, you have a world map and a listing of every country enrolled in the XCOM program.  As you neglect countries, their panic level rises.  If a country is allowed to reach maximum panic, they will withdraw from the program, taking their financial support with them.  The Situation Room also allows you to launch any available satellites at your disposal to monitor a country.  Having a satellite over a country not only increases the amount of money and resources that country gives you each month, but it also decreases its panic level.

Satellites also often pick up flying UFOs, in which case you have the option of launching interceptors to try and shoot down the UFO.  If they succeed, the UFO is downed and you can proceed to send in a team of soldiers to sweep the area.  I’ve found this metagame to be the challenging aspect of the game, however.  Just as the enemies grow in power and number as you progress through a campaign, so too do the UFOs you encounter.  Developing and maintaining an air fleet that is both large and powerful enough to consistently deal with any detected UFOs is extremely costly and time consuming, and whether or not it pays off in the long run is questionable.  I’ve had to ignore a number of UFOs, simply because I knew that my planes wouldn’t be able to down them.

Nearly everything in XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes time.  It takes time to research things, it takes time for wounded soldiers to heal and for new recruits to arrive, and it takes time to build and launch satellites, among many other things.  It even takes time to swap the weapons on your interceptors.  You’ll have to pass the time in Mission Control, scanning for alien activity.  Every few days you get an alert.  Sometimes it's a bomb that needs to be disposed of, or a VIP that needs to be evacuated; other times it's a UFO picked up by a satellite.  Whatever it is, if you’re lucky it will be only one instance.  But more often than not, it will be multiple simultaneous abductions occurring in different parts of the world.  You can only deal with one, and the countries you ignore will have their panic level rise.  Whatever you choose (unless it’s to ignore the contact entirely), you’ll then pick your squad and their loadout, and deploy to the area in question.

Combat in XCOM is a turn-based strategy affair.  Each soldier has two movements they can use per turn.  Once you’ve moved all of your soldiers, your turn ends, and the aliens have their turn, and so on.  Though you’ll most frequently just be using your movements on moving and firing, units have a variety of actions they can use; many are class-specific, others much more general.  All units are able to use an ability called Overwatch, which sacrifices your remaining actions for the ability to automatically shoot at any enemy that moves within a unit’s sight range, albeit with lessened accuracy.  Heavies and Supports can use Suppression, which pins an enemy down, lowering their accuracy and also grants the soldier suppressing a free Overwatch shot if the enemy moves.  Snipers can use Headshot, which is a normal shot with a substantially higher chance of critical damage.

Let’s get this out of the way:  XCOM is a difficult game.  You’re given all the control you’d expect from being commander, but also all of the weight and responsibility.  If you make a mistake, however slight, those are consequences that you’ll have to deal with.  Even something as seemingly minor as a soldier advancing just one tile farther than he/she should have can lead to disastrous situations.  Soldiers that you’ve grown to like and invest in can die, and at some point almost certainly will.  Missions with everything banking on them can be failed.  The game will move on.  A string of bad decisions can lead to outright failure in XCOM; the aliens will have won, and it will have been entirely your fault.

You’re frequently both outgunned and outnumbered in XCOM, which means that every move you make has to be thought out.  Every option must be weighed before taking action, lest that action be the last one that soldier ever makes.  This is a strategy game; if you don’t think strategically, you will lose.  Even if you do think strategically, sometimes you’ll still lose.  Even the best-laid plans can fail, after all.

For an internationally funded paramilitary organization, XCOM is tragically under-supported, which means this element of pressure and responsibility permeates the entire game experience, not just combat.  Though you’ll pick up some extra bits of pocket change doing missions and selling spare alien artifacts, your main source of income arrives on a monthly basis, when all of the countries still enrolled in the program chip in to send you more staff and money.  But it’s never enough.  The battlefield isn’t the only place you’re constantly forced to make hard decisions in XCOM.  Hard choices await you in the research lab, in Mission Control, and perhaps most tragically, in the ledger.  All the time you’ll find yourself presented with a choice between things to buy; things to invest in.  You need all of these things if you want to keep up with the alien threat.  But too often, you can only afford one of them.  Every decision requires you to consider the cost of each option and weigh it against how long it will take to bear fruit.  For example, it’s absolutely crucial that you regularly buy more satellites, as that increases the amount of money you get.  But satellites take almost a month to build, and still more time before they’re operational (and that’s assuming you have the facilities to maintain more satellites in the first place).  You’re throwing money at something that you won’t see the benefits from for a very long time; money that could be better used to build things with more immediate utility, like better equipment for troops, or a new upgrade that would be invaluable on the field, like larger weapon cartridges or increased squad sizes.

Despite being a game that demands a tactical, systematic approach to succeed, there is a large element of randomness to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  Though you can customize them later on, new recruits’ names, nationality, and appearance are all random, as are their nicknames.  Mission encounters are largely random, as are the maps and their layouts.  Missions and campaigns never go quite the same way.  All it takes is a stray explosive to blow up a new path and totally change the way you progress through a map, for example.  This has the effect of keeping the experience fresh, but it also introduces a tangible element of fortune and chaos to the gameplay.  Sometimes this element works in your favor, like when you nail a shot that only had a 35% chance of hitting.  More often than not however, it tends to feel like its working against you, when Heavy's light machine gun not only misses, but the stray fire destroys the cover of one his colleagues, leaving him/her totally exposed.  It's times like that where I felt like the game was bending me over the barrel.

XCOM is, overall a pretty looking game.  Everything from character animation to object modeling is above average, and the game features surprisingly robust environmental destruction.  It runs on Unreal Engine 3, which is evident enough in its slightly oversaturated effects.  The missions start feeling a bit recycled towards the end of a campaign, but it’s mostly a non-issue.

What was an issue for me were the bugs.  I’ve had the game freeze on me, and clipping issues weren’t uncommon.  I’ve also had enemies literally spawn right in the middle of my soldier’s ranks, as well as have enemies disappear right before my eyes, ending the mission early.  Most of the time these bugs are either comical or minor, but still prevalent enough to scare me away from trying the game’s Ironman mode, which prevents you from saving.  It’s one thing, after all to fail a mission due to my own incompetence, and quite another to fail because the game crashed on me.

Playing XCOM—whether on the field blasting aliens or at base conducting regular business—often feels like balancing a series of spinning plates on your arms and head, where it only takes one movement to cause everything to come tumbling down.  Yes, XCOM is a difficult game.  If you’re not careful, you will fail at it.  You might fail at it even if you ARE careful.  But it’s also one of the most rewarding games you’ll play this year.  When you make the right decisions, and those decisions pay off, it’s a real feeling of triumph; a victory you achieved all by yourself, without anyone holding your hand.

*Note - I did not try the multiplayer, but the singleplayer alone was enough to earn the game its score.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Being lazy

The XCOM review is done and has been done for over a week.  I'm just too lazy to proof it.

I've been trying out Hawken, during the latest closed beta.  That game is really cool.  Again, I'm not normally big on online games, especially shooters, but I'm alright with keeping a trio of Hawken, Tribes and Guild Wars 2.

Hawken is great because it nails the feeling of being inside a mech.  It's difficult to describe in words because there's so many touches here and there that go towards the experience as a whole.  You have actual gauges in the UI for your boost fuel and armor level and such.  Every step you take, hell every action you take, the screen moves.  It bobs up and down, to and fro.  When you take hits, your sensors and screens fizzle up and eventually crack.  It's very stressful, just as it should be; you're inside a metal box that is about to become your coffin, after all.  There's even a boot sequence for some gametypes.  When you first spawn, your mech takes several seconds to start up.  And you can see and experience its various subsystems booting, one by one, from your movement to your weapons.  The sound design is excellent too.  You can feel every step you take, and the sounds outside your mech are all muffled.

So, Hawken is already excellent on account of its amazing user experience.  But the gameplay is actually solid, too.  The reason I'm not a fan of multiplayer shooters is because in the case of many of them, encounters end as quickly as they start.  It's all about who sees who first.  In Hawken, there are actual battles, because even the lightest mechs can take some punishment.  I got into a pitched gunbattle with a mech twice my size the other day.  It was scary as hell, but the encounter wasn't immediately decided by our loadouts and location relative to each other.  It was decided (mostly) by skill.  Outmaneuvering him, ducking from cover to cover I was able to keep up pressure and eventually take the big guy down.  It was awesome, until he immediately came back to that exact spot while I was repairing and got his revenge.

I also kind of got back into the Sims 3, mainly for Seasons.  I'm hesitant to call it 'comfort food', but I always return to the Sims sooner or later, only to get bored of it after a week or two of intensive play.

I started Zone of the Enders yesterday as part of the HD Collection.  I forgot that it came with the Metal Gear Rising demo.  I tried that as well.  MGR seems pretty cool.  I like how fragile you are.  In actuality, Raiden can only take a few hits before he's in the red zone, so every encounter feels like it has weight, and you're encouraged to learn how to parry and dodge as quickly as possible.  It's actually kind of like Metroid Other M in this way.  The basic combat is fun enough, but the zandatsu--being able to slice and dice however you like--stuff was hit or miss for me.  The concept itself is great, but the controls are just hard to work with in the fast-paced scenarios you get in this game (and any Platinum game, really).  You have to hold L1 to enter blade mode, and then hold and release the right stick in the direction you want to cut.  It sounds alright on paper, but more often than not either I don't do well making it a definitive release as opposed to simply easing off of the stick, or the game doesn't do well discerning a release from an attempt to cancel a slice, which at best ends in a combo pretty much fizzling out, and at worse the enemy basically gets a free potshot while you're fumbling with the stick trying to aim the slice.  And that's just with one slice, don't get me started on all that rapid filleting you see in the trailers.  The final boss of the demo basically says "think fast!" and gives you a chance to go to town on the boss with blade mode.  It was just as the opportunity closed that I realized what the game wanted me to do.

It might be something I just need more practice with, though.  I really really like the concept though, and when it works, it works pretty damn well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Well, that didn't go so well.

So, today it came to my attention that I have failed spectacularly to accomplish one of my goals for this year, which was to not buy anywhere near as many games as I bought last year.

Last year was crazy.  It was absurd.  I bought so many games.  The fact that I was settling into the swing of things with PC gaming (and by extension, Steam), combined with the fact that 2011 was an unreasonably good year for games meant I bought far more games last year than I did any other year of my life.  It got to the point where it was starting to feel like irresponsible use of my money.  I bought Dark Souls when it came out, but didn’t even take the shrink wrap off until a month later.  Ultimately, the 2011 total for “games bought” is at 37, and that’s counting the bundles as individual listings.

Today I pre-ordered Hitman: Absolution, bringing the 2012 count to 37.  Whelp.

Anyway, I’m not a fan of the new PlayStation Store.  It might just be that I don't feel like having to get used to something new, but it doesn't really feel like an improvement to me, functionally or aesthetically.  Apparently people thought the previous storefront was really ugly, which I disagree with, but that's neither here nor there.  At least it was organized, which is more than I can say for this one so far.  When you have two different categories named "Hot titles" and "Top titles", there might be something wrong.

I got Assassin’s Creed III in (hence my having to deal with the new PS Store, as there was a bunch of DLC to download), and so far I’ve played through about 75% of the main story.  It’s really good.  It’s ridiculously big, for one thing.  Not just in terms of its sandbox, but in terms of gameplay variety.  There is so much to do.  So, so much.  But it has…issues.  There are places where Assassin’s Creed III is pretty much bursting at the seams.

Because it’s so damn huge of a game, I’m also having trouble approaching the review.  There are so many facets to discuss.  So much stuff that I’m going to have to just outright not even mention if I want to keep the review size reasonable, even if it’s stuff I really want to call to attention or give or dock Ubisoft credit on.  Just sorting out all my thoughts on the game thus far is difficult, so expansive is the Assassin’s Creed III experience.

But before that, XCOM.  The XCOM review is a little over halfway done.  The main thing is the combat, which I haven’t written about yet.  I’m still thinking about exactly what it is I want to say about the combat, and how I can effectively put it to words.  If you had asked me what my GOTY would likely be maybe three weeks ago, I would have said Assassin’s Creed III.  Today, my answer is still….Assassin’s Creed III.  But as I continue to sort out my thoughts on AC3, if there’s one game that can contest it for GOTY, it’s XCOM.

Or Hitman.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Assassin's Creed III time.

Right now I'm mainly playing XCOM and Hitman: Blood Money.  On Tuesday, Assassin's Creed 3 comes out.  I preordered it from Amazon however, so it could be a few days before I have my copy.  Until then, I intend to try and stay off the Internet as much as possible, and use that time to finish XCOM and Hitman, and maybe hunker down and play some more of my PS3 games or make some progress on anime.

XCOM is excellent.  Expect a review soon.  Hopefully before my copy of Assassin's Creed 3 comes.  So far I think it ought to be in the top 3 for this year.  Hitman is also excellent.  I would like to write about it but I'm not sure I'll  have time.  I've never played Hitman before, but after playing Blood Money, I'm a lot more interested in Absolution.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Up and running again

So, I decided to start playing Bastion.  I didn't play it when everyone was raving about it, and it's been leering at me from my Steam library for quite some time now.  What made me decide to play it was that I figured I could blow through it easily enough before Assassin's Creed 3 dropped.

It seems I was right.  On Saturday I put in the game for the first time, and by the end of the day I had already restored all of the Bastion.  Not sure how long this game is, but I feel like I'm already more than halfway done.

I fear all the praise it's gotten may have crept up on me, though.  It's a great game, but I'm slightly befuddled by all the universal acclaim it got last year.  Only slightly, though.

In other news, I've decided to switch back to Snow Leopard from Mountain Lion.  I really don't like Mountain Lion that much (I only like Mission Control).  The problem is that ML appears to have corrupted my laptop all the way down the motherboard (it changes the firmware), so my Time Machine backups aren't functioning properly.  Gonna have to do a full wipe I guess.  In the meantime, my laptop is out of action.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I've hit a snag.

I keep looking at my Steam library, and my ever-increasing stable of PS3 games.  Time whiles away, but I don't actually put anything in, or launch anything.

Sure, I'm playing some stuff.  I just started NG+ in Tales of Graces f.  This going to be my completion run; I intend to get every skit, every subevent, and open every chest and talk to every person, at the least.  All while grabbing up as many titles as I can.  Mainly the arte usages one that I didn't quite achieve in my first playthrough (some of the arte master titles require insane amounts of usage, as in "use this arte 800 times if you want the title").  I also finished Lineage and Legacies, which was excellent.  Lineage and Legacies takes place half a year after the end of the main game, and serves as a several hour epilogue.  The arc is highly character driven, and in many ways was actually more entertaining than the main arc's plot.  It's also positively stuffed with easter eggs, from high level weapons that directly reference past games, to a secret Mystic Arte you can perform on the final boss.

I've also been playing Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3.  Mainly because I finally figured out how to unlock Rank 2-4 mobile suits, so now I'm just kind of blasting through every map.  It's awesome.  When I bought DWG3, I kind of expected it to be useful as one of those games I could pop in and play for brief periods.  But it didn't end up being that kind of game.  To my surprise, it has that "one more mission" feel to it that I often only associate with games like Total War and Civilization.  I'm driven to complete mission after mission, farming money so I can develop a better, more badass suit that I can complete even MORE missions with.

I was playing Borderlands, but I'm not sure I want to finish the game.  On one hand, I kind of want to finish it for the trophies, and so I can say I finished it.  On the other, it's just not a very enjoyable game.  Even as I think about it, the premise of Borderlands is extremely appealing to me.  I always think "man, what a fun game Borderlands is, I can't remember why I only gave it a 7," and then I sit down to play it, and I immediately remember why.  It's just not that fun.  Playing Borderlands almost feels like a chore.  The mission objectives are always so far away that you ultimately spend more time traveling--whether by car or on foot--then you do actually shooting things and grabbing loot.  The process of comparing loot is cumbersome, and the guns often don't have that kick to them that you expect.  Most of the environments are also bland and uninspired.

Sonic Generations is proving to be not as fun as I remember it to be.  The Modern levels are great for the most part, but I've decided that I despise the Classic levels.

So yeah, I'm playing stuff.  But I'm not actually really playing stuff.  Most of the games I'm playing, I'm just doing cleanup work.  I'm not actively playing through them because they're new and interesting, but because there are things keeping me from simply putting them aside; lingering things that I want to accomplish.  I did buy Resident Evil 6, and seem to be one of the few that actually likes it, but I've decided to limit myself to only playing it with my sister, because that's how we played through 5.

So in the meantime, I continue to peruse my library, looking for a new and interesting game to start fresh.  I haven't played Bastion yet.  I kind of want to try Serious Sam 3.  Maybe Hitman: Blood Money?  There's also Kingdoms of Amalur...

Though truth be told, none of this will matter in a couple of weeks.  Because I have Assassin's Creed 3 and the Zone of Enders Collection pre-ordered.

......I guess I could just resume playing The Last Story, like I keep meaning to.  Damn it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hand's On: Razer Orochi

A while back I decided to get myself the Razer Orochi mouse for use with my Macbook Pro.  Generally speaking I love the MBPro’s trackpad, and the smooth integration and wide host of gestures make for a dynamic duo.  But for those times when I am sitting at a desk for extended periods of time and doing a lot of work on the computer, even the trackpad gets uncomfortable, and I longed for a mouse.  Is this a suitable replacement?  Let’s see.

As with most (or all, really) Razer products, the Orochi is geared towards a gaming audience.  Thus, even as a mobile mouse it’s surprisingly feature rich.  You have the standard stuff like high, customizable DPI (the max is 4,000 I think) for adapting to various environments and situations.  For those who don’t know, DPI basically adjusts how sensitive the mouse is to movement.  The higher the DPI, the more sensitive it is.  In a gaming context, this is good if you’re running indoors in a first person shooter and need to be able to react quickly to whatever danger lies behind each door or corner, or maybe when playing a real-time strategy game.  On the hand, any time you’re handling sniper rifles, you would want lower DPI.

In addition to the left and right click buttons, the Orochi features four programmable buttons, and a clickable scroll wheel.  The scroll wheel doesn’t tilt, but feels sturdier as a result.  It’s actually one of the better scroll wheels I’ve ever used, with an excellent tactile response.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the mouse, which feels somewhat flimsy, not to such an extent that I constantly worry it’ll break or something.  The mouse comes in two versions; chrome and matte.  I only bought the chrome version because at the time it was about five dollars cheaper.  In retrospect, if they had been the same price I would have gone for the matte version, because the one I have is extremely glossy, and attracts smudges and fingerprints like nothing I’ve ever seen.  It’s not as big a deal because it is jet black, but if you have the choice I’d probably recommend the matte one.

The mouse is also a little bit smaller than I thought it would be, but that’s because I’ve never had a mobile mouse before.  I have pretty long fingers, so for me using this thing is definitely not as comfortable as a full-size mouse.  But I suppose the tradeoff is worth it for the mobility.

The Orochi is completely ambidextrous in its design.  The four programmable buttons are paired up symmetrically, two to each side.  Looking through the mapping, you get the feeling that Razer only expects you to use one side or the other (not both) ingame, depending on which hand you use your mouse with.  Still all four buttons are programmable.

The real reason I picked up the Orochi however was because of its dual connectivity.  It’s able to connect over Bluetooth and USB, which was very attractive to me.  In both modes, the mouse is pretty much plug and play, at least with Mac OS X.  You can get it up and running either over Bluetooth using the Bluetooth Setup Assistant built into OS X, or instantly by plugging it in, and you can even adjust a few options like sensitivity in System Preferences.  However, to access to mouse’s fancier features like DPI customization, macros and button mapping, you’ll need to download Razer’s drivers and install them.  It’s a brief download, only about 2mb.  In OS X, the drivers are installed as another pane in System Preferences.

 Naturally, the drivers make the mouse a far more robust product.  You can remap literally every single button the controller—assigning macros to them, keyboard buttons, etc.—and change what the scroll wheel does.  You can also make macros, and generate separate profiles, if for some reason multiple people use the same mouse.  The drivers are also where you can set the DPI.  You can even change how the LEDs behave on the mouse.

As the picture demonstrates however, you can only use the drivers with the mouse when it’s connected over USB.  Connected via Bluetooth, you cannot configure the mouse at all using the drivers.  The maximum DPI is lowered, as well, probably to conserve power.  The mouse comes with a high quality threaded micro-USB cable (yes, it is long enough to comfortably use even if you’re a right handed person having to connect to the MBPro’s left ports), a pair of AA batteries, and a cushiony carrying pouch that will store both it and the cable, and probably an extra set of batteries to boot.  Incidentally, I tested the mouse and drivers in OS X 10.6 and 10.8, and it worked flawlessly in both versions.

So is the mouse a suitable replacement for the trackpad?  Yes and no.  Trackpad gestures are so intrinsically tied into OS X at this point there are some areas, like general file system navigation, where you’ll probably want to just use the trackpad.  OS X’s hot corners feature goes a long way to compensate, however.

Overall, I like this mouse a lot; it feels versatile.  For $60, it's not exactly an amazing value, but I hardly feel cheated.