The Tribulations of a Gaming Junkie

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Spec Ops: The Line

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Think war is fun? Multiplayer games like Battlefield and Modern Warfare have pretty much trained gamers to kill more, faster, and be rewarded for it all. Spec Ops: The Line (the single player campaign at least) is a game that will teach you that it’s quite the opposite: every kill is grueling and war really is hell.

In Spec Ops, you play as Captain Walker leading a three man reconnaissance mission in a post-catastrophe Dubai that’s been racked by an impossibly devastating sandstorm. What starts off as a short mission to check if anyone is even alive in the deserted city takes a dark turn when they are attacked by survivors and you discover that Konrad, Walker’s old commanding officer may still be alive.

america

But before we go any further, it’s important to note that this is another retelling of Conrad Verner’s “Heart of Darkness” novel, which has been previously adapted into film as “Apocalypse Now.” So there are a number of expectations that this Konrad ia another a war-hero or prestigious authority figure that has been driven mad by his circumstances or the classic politically incorrect savagery of the natives.

Spec Ops definitely delivers on this storyline, but interestingly enough Walker is the one that’s actually driven into madness. The game sort of uses a gamer’s propensity to never give up (unlimited continues FTW) and instills that quality into Walker’s undying determination to save the city.

dubai

But as you fight on through the city you find yourself embroiled in a four way war between yourselves, Konrad’s forces, the coup d’etat forces working against Konrad, and the CIA who has been rounding up insurgents to fight everyone else. The combat becomes more chaotic every time and eventually you (and your AI squad mates) begin to question if you are actually doing any good here. Unlike every shooter that has you shooting though hordes of enemies because fuck-em’, this is one game that stops to ask you “what are you even doing here anymore”?

That’s not even the boldest move this game makes. Most multiplayer shooters let you take control of a missile armed drone or “chopper gunner” to mow down dozens of enemies that are simply marked as electronic red boxes. It’s the sort of remote warfare that completely dehumanizes the enemy and makes war seem like…well a game.

fatigue

There’s a particular segment that makes you take control of a mortar gun that launches white phosphorus into an enemy military camp. This part is designed just like a Call of Duty killstreak that gives players the same empowered but completely detached feeling of war though a computer monitor. The significant difference here is that you actually have to face the consequences of your actions.

Spoilers Beyond this Point!!!

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Asura’s Wrath

It’s incredibly hard to classify Asura’s Wrath as a game because honestly the best way to describe it would be as an interactive anime. Despite that Asura’s Wrath plays out in more quicktime cutscenes than actual gameplay, it is one of the craziest and most impactful games I have played recently.

There’s no way of avoiding the fact that most of this game boils down to cutscenes packed with quicktime-events that require you to only press a button every so often. That said the game has the most outlandish, insane cutscenes ever seen concocted even when compared to the most shonen (male-skewed cartoonish, superhero action) of animes.

Merely a flesh wound

The story is about Asura, a deity derived from some twisted Buddhist and Hindu origins, who is branded as a traitor and murder of the Emperor by his other seven-demigod compadres. If that was not enough to make angry they’ve also killed his wife and taken his daughter away as some super weapon. Obviously Asura is quite ticked and his rage fuels his return and revenge killing the other demi-gods—stop me if played God of War already.

Story originality aside, the difference is that Kratos uses most of his rage to yell and Asura just shut’s people up so he can pull of the craziest feats because he is a seemingly undefeatable demi-god. At the beginning of the game Asura fights off thousands of guards despite being run though with a dozen spears. Among the few things you do early on in the game, you will have already defeated a gigantic boss twice the size the planet who crushes you with a single finger. After which you then immediately fight another demi-god using only your legs, because all of your six-arms were destroyed in the pervious fight—and that’s only in the first third part of the game.

The thing that really sells these cutscenes is the incredible quality and scale of them.The game is always showing that Asura and the other demi-gods are powerful enough to effect the world on a planetary—or in most cases galactic scale. Each chapter of the game plays out entirely like an anime episode previously on, lots of action, intermission frames in the middle of the episode and a great cliffhanger that makes you want to play more. At the end of each chapter there’s even a preview teaser for the next episode of Asura’s Wrath.

I was completely hooked by the games delivery.  I always wanted to see how the story turned out despite of what little there was and of course what incredible feat of raging power Asura would do next.

Right, now the game portion.

The gameplay of Asura’s Wrath always boils down to pressing button prompts for the game’s innumerable QTE strings. There’s also a good section of the game that deals in serviceable 3D-brawler action in completely locked off arena areas. Another part of the game utilizes lock-on shooter sections a la Star Fox and Panzer Dragoon. But the point of all of these “controllable” sections of the game is  to build up your burst meter, which (quite literally) triggers the next set of cutscenes and QTE segment of the game.

It might seem like I’m complaining that this game is mostly all about button prompts whether it be the QTEs themselves, countering, or pulling off the stylish heavy moves—but this game really integrates them into action. The QTEs blend into the cutscenes by bringing up a button prompt just as Asura’s fist is about to connect with a hit. So every punch feels like it has more weight especially if you time your button presses perfectly. At other points when the game tells you to mash a button, Asura is usually pummeling the enemy at the same time so it makes you feel like you actually a part of the fight.

It’s extremely hard to say that this game is worth the full $60 but this is one of those games you just have to play.

Darkness II

I played the first Darkness game recently after hearing that despite all its flaws it was a pretty good game. I can certainly agree that the game had some fairly flawed shooting mechanics that were only redeemed by its refreshingly dark—but extremely grating—storyline. The best part of the game was it had a really different feel to any shooter in that it essentially made you a god, or monster depending on your perspective, with darkness tentacles to rip and tear your enemies apart, and four kinds of minions to sic on your enemies.

The Darkness II is a much better shooter that still makes you feel like an absolute terror, while peeling back some of the corny deadly New York and Italian mafiosi hash. Quad-wielding is the new highlight to the Darkness II’s combat in which you are using two guns in sync with one demon arm for grabbing and another for slashing.

You are an absolute tornado of death that can throw your enemies in the air, grab them, and rip their body in half like a wishbone. Or slicing their heads off. Or sucking them up into a black hole. Or sending forth a wave of poison gas. Or just dumping into them with a pair of UZIs.

The action in The Darkness II is always visceral and hectic—especially towards the end when the game just throws two of every elite enemy type along with a handful of grunts. You are constantly juggling your enemies, your powers, taking out lights, managing your health, and grabbing every environmental objects to slice and impale everyone in your way.

All of this carnage pays back into the game’s leveling system that let’s you upgrade and unlock more abilities. While this game is a huge step forward in terms of combat, it has also lost a bit of its real world feel. In the last game you roamed around a dark gritty and unforgiving New York. This gave you a clear picture that the world in The Darkness was terrible place without a single ray of hope or goodness except for Jackie’s girlfriend—who is promptly killed. The game instead is set up in a linear set of chapters but this allows the game to explore a broader range of levels like a abandoned amusement park in addition to the heavily repeated subways and other industrial spaces.

Like the last game there are also downtime moments in between the levels where you are talking to your crew or Jackie is making a monologue inside of the darkness. The most annoying part of the last game was the ridiculous dialogue that never went anywhere; it was always something about being in the maffia you always whack so-and-so or riding a NY subway is the most dangerous thing in the world.

The writers at Digital Extremes make the story much more sentimental with Jackie still dealing with his girlfriend’s death and holding the darkness inside of him. Its a much more personal tragedy story that is not weighed down by all the hammed up gangsta New York crap that Starbreeze did previously.

To the Moon

Oh hai. I’m back again from a little self-imposed hiatus/break with the fall crush of big games week after week. But I’m back now and I’m here to share a great little game called To the Moon.

First off I should say that To the Moon is not a game about getting the max score, defeating your enemies, or even really about “beating the game.” It’s more about the experience that’s part RPG, movie, machinima creation, and visual novel; all blended together to deliver a story. It’s actually a whole new unidentified genre that takes a bunch of techniques from every type of media for its story telling.

Telling a story is really To the Moon’s strong point or only point for existing. You follow two company scientists who use technology to dive into people’s memories and implant desires into their very young state to create a new memories and life for that person. You could say it’s a blend of ideas from “Inception” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

As you go through the game, you learn more about the patient, Johnny’s life from his most recent memories to when he is the youngest. It starts off very mysterious, and honestly a little eerie, because things are being explained to you at their conclusion with no context. Eventually things begin to unravel as you travel though Johnny’s past of a bitter sweet love story with his wife and his own dreams.

The story is not breaking any new ground but it’s delivery is damn near perfect. It has a perfect narrative arc that builds up with mystery and revelations. All the while it’s entertaining with some humor and keeps you involved with a point-and-click adventure and puzzles.When the climax rolled around, I was fully engrossed with the story and felt a connection with all the characters. The game becomes a little bit more high stakes with a sort of combat section, and I totally fell for it. I felt like I had to win, to make sure that I saved everyone and the story that I had invested in. Which ultimately made the resolution pay off so much more.

Another thing I loved is that every time you jump from memory to older memory, you have to travel by using a memento that existed at both points of that persons life. When the game changes scenes it uses a match frame flim trick that focuses on one object that allow scenes to bleed into one another. It also uses a gamey trope of locking you out from progressing in the story until you have explored and seen all the story elements in the environment. So the experience is essentially on rails and trigger based, but you never notice it because you are always given a great degree of movement.

But the thing I loved the most was that the game goes over some really mature and human—with fallible characters—themes and it can convey as much emotion as a dialogue less Pixar scene, like the intro from “UP,” and it does all of this only using some 16-bit Super Nintendo graphics, text boxes, and basic sprite animations. It’s mind blowing how this game can convey so much story with so little.

Forza Motorsport 4

Well I tried everything to find another racing series to love but Gran Turismo 5 turned out to be quite a turd and Need for Speed Shift 2 just did not have enough legs on it. So I guess I’ll go back to this great racing game with all the cars and easy accessibility—but wait this new version is just better all around.

While a lot has changed in Forza 4, there’s is really is nothing revolutionary. Instead Turn 1o has fine tunned the series with a boatload of evolutionary changes that make the Forza experience even more inviting.

First  off just look at the car models. They are fucking gorgeous! The new lighting model makes the cars and all the environments more natural and super bright. It is not just looks either, the cars actually turn when you want them to. The driving model for the cars has been seriously refined. Turning sensitivity is not just more lively, it’s actually there for when you try to take some of the trickest turns at Circuit de Catalunya. Turn 10 made a big note that they got some new tire physics model from Pirelli and it definitely shows when you try to take a turn at 80+ mph and your tires actually lose grip and slide if you don’t apply enough torque to correct them.

Another one of the bigger improvement is that the opponents are actually challenging. This time around the AI drivers are more agressive and will try to bump you off the road. They can also upgrade their own cars to match up to your or even excel your performance index, so you’ll have to win with skill and not by just having a faster car.

Towards the end of the Forza 3 campaign races got terribly dull because it would be a set of four races using the same car or 15 two-minute laps means a half-hour of racing with a single car. So far in Forza 4, I have not driven the same car in back-to-back races—every event in the world tour is a single race or at most two heats at different times of the day—and the most laps I’ve had in a singel race is five.

The single greatest improvement since Forza 3 is you don’t level up cars any more, you level up car manufacturers affinity. Once you rank up an afinity level of 4 with Ford or Nissan you get free upgrades for everything (including wheels, brakes, weight, roll bars, and everything in your engine) on any car from that manufacturer. Which means you can do ridiculous thing like tune up your Ford Fiesta to match speed with a Bugatti Veyron for absolutely nothing. Of course that also means you can use all that money you are saving on upgrades to buy more cars and anything off of the community marketplace.

The only real disappointment is Forza 4 is basically the same exact tracks and cars from Forza 3. I was really disappointed to see that the roster of cars is essentially the same as everything from Forza 3 and its DLC. There are plenty of mssing cars including the 2011 Dodge Charger, Lamborghini Aventador, and the Pagani Huayra. What is new is a helluva lot of american muscle cars from the 70s-80s, but I want modern cars.

Unfortunately the tracks seem to be even more of the same with the Indianapolis race track and the Nürburgring Grand Prix as the only new notable stand ins. Meanwhile it seems like they took out the New York fantasy track, which was the only track with hammerheads. If anything I would love Turn 10 to do more fantasy tracks like the Bernese Alps or even implement a community sourced track editor.

So far I’m having a lot of fun in Forza 4 but I can’t shake the feeling that this is the game that Forza 3 should have been.

Batman: Arkham City

I’m Batman.

Being the super Batman fan I am I knew I had to get the second installment of the best comic book character game ever made. Two years ago I was blown away by how good Asylum. This time around Batman is setup in a bigger open-world environment, with deadlier enemies, more gadgets, and an overall experience that makes you feel like you really are Batman.

I really though Asylum was great but halfway through the game, the experience devolved into me experimenting with the AI and how much I could screw around with the enemies. There would always be one room filled with gargoyle perches that I would swing between and use to subdue all the enemies.

Well the perches are just about gone now and when you do come across one, they are basically completely useless. Instead you have to take out armed thugs by looking at your situation and figuring out how to best approach it whether it be smoke bombs, dive bombing, or one of your many stunning gadgets before you go in for the takedown. The gameplay is more tense because you can only take out a max of two enemies simultaneously before the armed reinforcements know something is up and they come to investigate. So you’re constantly going through a methodical pattern of watching, attacking, and then disappearing before going in for another strike. Just the sort of smart combat Batman would do.

The enemies this time around are more numerous and better armed so you have to be very tactical about how you take on enemies because Batman can die very quickly. But at the same time Batman is better armed too with more gadgets, all of which can be quick fired at any point, and combat maneuvers that it makes the free-flow combat feel more like a puzzle. On top of being perfect with your strikes and counters you better keep track of what kind of enemies you are fighting, because some require a beat down or an aerial strike to make them vulnerable.

Besides combat there is a lot to do in Arkham City. There are “political prisoners” to save from the fury of the real prisoners, cases to solve, forensics to be run, Riddler trophies to collect, riddles to solve, and oh you can patrol the entire city by gliding and using your grapnel everywhere. Like I said this game makes you Batman.

I’ve always loved anything in the Batman series because it’s always had a psychological and extremely human stories. Arkham City’s story is no different with every named villan, anti-hero and ally worth naming making a cameo. Although it won’t be canon for a few key events, at the end of City you will see Batman pushed to his physical and psychological edge leaving you to wonder if he really saved the day.

Also, I’m Batman.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

AMERICA! Whoa, it’s been a while since a game has made me feel this patriotic.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is game all about America! Fuck Yeah! air superiority in a arcade flight combat. You’ll be painting a dozen targets at a time from an AC-130, just spraying the shit out of heavy armor with a black hawk’s vulcan, and flying the badest-ass American fighters—F-22 Lighting II, F-35 Raptor, a Warthog, and Danger Zone inducing Super Tomcats.

 

A lot of Ace Combat purists might call the Dogfight Mode a travesty bringing rail shooting to their straight up flight simulator. I say why not because the alternative is you fly around waiting for a lock on to fire long range missiles that may or (usually) may not actually make their way to the target. But with the dog fighting, the combat is just more fun, a tenser one-on-one affair, and helluva lot faster.

Assault Horizon is definitely more arcadey than its previous installments but you won’t bother to complain about that when you just destroy three planes in a row in an assault chain, completely reverse an dog fight in a single maneuver, or do back-to-back barrel rolls in an Apache Longbow. The dog fight mode also makes some of the most epic experiences of flying ridiculously close to the ground and between buildings firing your machine guns. All the while there are explosions everywhere and rubbles constantly pelting you from above—which by the way is when the game looks its best.

The game however does have its fair share of bullshit moments like anytime you have only one pass to kill everything in an bombing run. The most notable one for me was escorting a flight transport which I had to intercept, immediately turn around because the enemy fighters were also coming at me at 800-mph, and then spam missiles until they were all dead—and all of this happening within 30-seconds. I also have to say that the game was stretching out a few levels with five waves of reinforcements but at least the combat made it fun.

It’s been a long while since I played any flight combat game (Rouge Squadron II on the GameCube was the last one I remembered) but I’m glad to see Project Aces found a way to reinvigorate the Ace Combat series and the flight combat genre.

Also, AMERICA!

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