Monday, December 06, 2010

My First XBox Year

I remember not only that it was George Carlin, but the exact joke, that first taught me the potential of comedy ("They're thinking about banning toy guns...AND THEY'RE GONNA KEEP THE FUCKIN' REAL ONES!!!"). I remember it was Peter David's writing on Incredible Hulk that first taught me that comic books could be true art. And I remember it was Final Fantasy VII that taught me the potential of video games.

Back in Tampa, this game made me miss class, and I liked class. I wasn't just addicted to this game. I cared about this game. I cared about its characters and its (insanely convoluted) story. It was emotional and uplifting and I never wanted it to end.

The game begins in a city run by the crooked corporation Shin-Ra, and your time in the city feels like an entire video game unto itself. It takes a LONG time. Unless you sit in front of your console for hours and hours and hours at a time, it will probably take you days. Maybe a week. Probably at least a week.

Then you leave the city. And you find out the city is maybe, what...1/10th of the game? Maybe less?

I'm not a macho guy. I will admit to things making me cry. The last story of Lone Wolf and Cub made me cry. To my neverending shame, Moulin Rouge made me cry. Hell, the end of Bubba Ho-Tep made me cry a little.

A video game has never made me cry. But if a video game ever does make me cry, it will be Final Fantasy VII.

When I nudged my lovely Maryann to get me an XBox 360 last September for my birthday, it was at least in part to recapture this wonderful feeling of surrendering to the immersive wonder of Final Fantasy VII. It hadn't felt like a video game. It felt like an interactive movie. It felt like a brand new way of experiencing stories.

Another factor, to be honest, was the drool that soaked our apartment's carpet the first time I saw a commercial for Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Below, I list the 10 best of the games I've played since getting the XBox 360 last year. Please know that you won't be reading comprehensive reviews of a hardcore gamer, but the reflections of someone still finding his way in the video game world. Particularly to non-gamers, that may sound a little flighty for video games, but I don't take it back. If you read my top 10 list, you may notice some repetition in my favorite aspects of these games. It made writing this tougher than I imagined. In particular, most of the games offer a degree of freedom and choice unheard of in earlier video games and quite a few are open-world or "sandbox" games. These are games where, usually with some exception, you are given a virtual world to play with and do with as you may. The games I've played this last year - these sandbox games in particular - have me wondering about the potential of video games. I have no coherent, organized thoughts on this, but just a sense that there is something important going on in them in terms of communication and storytelling. The idea of writing for video games has crossed my mind, but I don't have the foggiest idea of how I would do it, how to break into it, or how much knowledge on the technical side of game-making I would need to possess to do it. It's just something rattling around in the back of my mind.


(in order of title, not preference)

Batman: Arkham Asylum: I almost never buy games when they first come out. Sixty bucks is just too much. If you wait long enough, even the best and most popular games drop down to $20 or even lower. Arkham Asylum, however, was the game that first made me want an XBox, and it had only been out a few days when I got the console, so I wasn't willing to wait. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed. I wrote about Arkham Asylum at length last September, so if you want a more complete review, go ahead and click on the link. But here's a truncated version: It's one of the best video games I've ever played, it absolutely feels like an Honest-to-Hulk Batman story, the game is filled with details that any Batman fans will love, the Scarecrow sequences are horrifying and awesome, and don't worry. No Robin.

BioShock: If there's no other proof that video game storytelling has advanced in recent years, the fact that game developers are taking inspiration from Ayn Rand should really be enough.

BioShock is a First Person Shooter that takes place in the undersea city Rapture, a steampunk-driven metropolis forged at the bottom of the ocean by Andrew Ryan. Ryan is dissatisfied with society and believes in the power of the free market over all other considerations. He built Rapture as a haven and somehow recruited plenty of folks to follow him. Your character is a plane crash survivor whose connection to Rapture is initially a mystery. A civil war has left Rapture in ruins by the time your character arrives. Narcotics that both warp citizens' minds and grant them super-powers have turned most of the survivors into drug-addled psychotics called Splicers. The only things the Splicers fear are the massive,diving-suit-clad brutes known as Big Daddys who guard over Little Sisters - young girls with glowing eyes that gather a substance called Adam from Rapture's corpses (voiced by Juliet Landau - best known as Drusilla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel).

BioShock is scary, suspenseful, and has one of the best stories I've encountered in video games. There is a wonderful post-apocalyptic mood to it. You rifle through the remains of a dead city, with the ocean always glaring back at you through the windows. It's set in 1960 and is filled with music from previous decades, when the city was supposed to have been settled. Littered throughout the city are audio diaries from different citizens, with which you can chronicle the birth, the heyday, and the violent death of Rapture. Your character's decisions make a fairly big difference in the outcome of the story. Without spoiling too much, or frankly getting into an element of the game that takes a little while to explain, the Little Sisters become very important to your quest to escape Rapture. You are repeatedly given the choice to either save or kill them, and what you choose will help to determine how difficult the game will be.

Borderlands: Borderlands is a First Person Shooter and an RPG; a combination which seems strange to me no matter how many of them I've played, but still works.

Borderlands is a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max-y game set in a desert populated by bandits, mutated animals, and the occasional robot. Your character - and you have 3 or 4 to choose from - is searching for legendary riches in a place called The Vault. You have to complete numerous quests to find The Vault, and along the way there are tons of other optional quests.

I honestly can't say too much about Borderlands because I haven't finished it. I borrowed it from a friend and gave it back because there was another game I wanted to spend some time with. But it was fun, bloody, darkly humorous, and I hope to get back to it eventually.

My single complaint is with respawned bad guys. There are certain spots on the map where you will always be attacked by bad guys, no matter how many times you've killed them and no matter how many levels below you they are. It isn't difficult as much as just plain annoying.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy is actually for the original XBox, not the 360, but it's still a lot of fun. The story is set sometime around the series' second season and a lot of the show's regular cast members do voice work for the game (Gellar is absent but her replacement does a fine impersonation). It feels a lot like a Buffy episode (but longer), complete with the one-liners and bad puns your avatar belts out while dusting vamps. You can interact with items like torches, shovels, rakes, chairs, and even wooden crates to help fight vampires and the other monsters you face in the game.

Like Borderlands, I haven't finished Buffy yet, but for different reasons. While it's an older game, its graphics are really pretty damn good and the gameplay is pretty smooth, but I think I'm a little spoiled by the current generation of games. There's no real open-world or free-roaming aspect to Buffy, and it frustrated me when certain things happened that have rarely happened to me while playing 360 games; e.g. dying and being sent back to the very beginning of a level and so having to redo ten minutes worth of traveling and killing just to get back to the point where I bit the dust, and probably just biting the dust again. The current generation of games seem more merciful to their dead. It's still an awesome game though, and I'll finish it eventually. I'll finish it before Gellar agrees to another Buffy project at least.

Fable II: A fantasy game that's all about decision from beginning to end. When the game starts, you are only a child and even the choices you make as a little boy or girl have a significant impact on the game world. For example, depending on a choice you make as a child, about half of the game world's largest city is either a quiet urban neighborhood or an absolute hellhole populated by thieves and whores.

A faithful dog accompanies you on your journeys, and both you and the mutt physically change based on your decisions. If you are good, a halo appears over your head. If you're evil, horns eventually sprout from your forehead. If you're corrupt, flies spin around you like a corpse. Your canine companion might look like a friendly, prize-winning dog or a dark-furred, growling, spike-collared hellhound. Townspeople might flock around you with praise as you enter populated areas or they might attack you on sight. Depending on which fighting style you choose to put most of your points into, you might look like a barrel-chested warrior, a lean sharpshooter, or a wizard with glowing, veiny lines running through your skin. You can buy houses and businesses, you can marry more women/men than a cult leader and have annoying, whining litters of children with them. In fact, as a woman or a man you can marry and/or have sex with both women and men, and somehow you can have children with your spouses whether you make up a single sex couple or not (to clarify, this is not commentary on my part about whether or not single sex couples should be allowed to have children or their worth as parents - I'm just fascinated by the magnificent adoption opportunities in a fantasy setting that doesn't even have electricity yet). The more you marry and the closer the different spouses live to one another, the more likely they are to find out and divorce you.

In fact, you can keep playing the game long after you've finished the main story, but eventually you'll conquer every dungeon, win every epic weapon, buy every business and dwelling, and at that point there will really be nothing left to do but push the limits of how many spouses you can have at once. But, you know what? You'll do it. For a long time. It's kind of disturbing, really.

Fallout 3: Fallout is the game I'm currently playing and I'm not in any hurry. It's set in a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. Your character grows up in Vault 101, safe from the radiation, raiders, cannibals, mutated animals, and Super Mutants of the surface. When your father (voiced by Liam Neeson) escapes Vault 101, you follow him into a much more desperate world where giant scorpions fight crazed robots, different factions of the former US military fight for dominance of civilization's technological scraps, bottle caps are the currency, and just about everything you eat and drink could kill you.

Like in Fable II, BioShock, and at least two of the other games I'll be mentioning, while in Fallout 3 you can do just about anything, there are consequences to your moral choices. With very few exceptions, you can go wherever you want whenever you want, provided your character can survive what's in his or her way. If you feel like it, you can walk into a town and slaughter everyone in it. In fact, in the case of the town Paradise Falls - a bombed-out shopping mall fortified by slave traders - doing so boosts your moral standing (there aren't many towns where that's the case though).

Fallout 3 is perfectly indicative of exactly what I was looking for when I lobbied Maryann for an XBox 360. It's an open-world, free-roaming adventure. There's a big goal to accomplish of the good vs. evil variety, but I'm not in any hurry to finish it. I'll often just pick a direction and walk. I'll find a bombed out home with nothing left but computer diaries of its final inhabitants, a wrecked church with a merciless sniper waiting in the rafters to take me out, an abandoned army truck filled with ammunition and rations, or a pair of hulking mutants picking the bones of an overturned train. And none of it has to do with the main storyline, it's just there to make game world a more tangible, real place.

Incredible Hulk: This was one of the first games Maryann bought me as a present to go along with the XBox 360. At first, I had to feign a little enthusiasm. Yes, it's a Hulk game, but it's a Hulk game that was developed to go along with a movie. Superhero games in general do not have a great track record among gamers, and superhero games based on superhero movies tend to be the worst of the worst. The Iron Man game looks like it was slapped together in five minutes and from what I hear the Iron Man 2 game isn't much better

I was very pleasantly surprised. Incredible Hulk takes place in New York City and you can wander around the city as much as you want without taking part in the actual story of the game (though eventually the game spawns a constant stream of military units who will follow you). You can, after causing enough damage, knock down any building in New York City, including numerous Marvel Comics landmarks. As the Hulk, I've destroyed the Daily Bugle building, the Baxter Building (HQ of the Fantastic Four), Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, the Law Offices of Murdock & Nelson (Daredevil's day job), the Latverian Embassy (the country Dr. Doom rules), and Iron Man's Stark Tower. You can even destroy the Marvel Comics office, though it would've been more fitting if the game gave you the chance to destroy the DC Comics office instead. I did feel a little guilty knocking down the Apollo Theatre, but otherwise destroying buildings as the Hulk is a great stress reliever. I've never finished the game and I probably never will. Just breaking stuff is fun enough.

Mass Effect: Mass Effect is a huge space RPG. Like a lot of the other games I've mentioned on this list, there's a lot of freedom and your choices impact the game's outcome. Mass Effect is different from a lot of the games I've mentioned in a couple of ways, though. First, Mass Effect just has so many more choices to be made, and they're much more drastic. For example, in a few cases you have to choose whether or not to let one of your comrades die, and in at least one case you don't get to choose if, but who. As an officer commanding a powerful space vessel, your services are in high demand and the folks demanding aren't always orphans and nuns. Smugglers, mobsters and corrupt interstellar corporations all want you on their side and your reactions to them can alter the course of the game. Second, unlike games like Fallout 3, while there are plenty of choices of where to go and what to do that fall outside the main storyline, there isn't a lot of wandering to be had. There tons of different star systems to explore, each with planets you can land on, and when you do land you get a map with specific points of interest (and sometimes those points of interest are giant freaking worm things that break out of the ground and melt your face), but it isn't like Fallout 3 or Red Dead Redemption where you can just point yourself in one direction and head that way until you stumble upon something interesting.

Red Dead Redemption: A lot of gamers refer to Red Dead Redemption as "Grand Theft Horse," referencing the fact that it was developed by the same folks who did the infamous Grand Theft Auto series. I've never played any of the GTA games, knowing it only by reputation, and because of that reputation I was pleasantly surprised with Red Dead Redemption. I expected Red Dead to be a violent, open-world game, but I was stunned with the care and beauty taken in crafting the game environment. As your avatar walks through fields, you can literally see every blade of grass move in response. It feels just like you're Clint Eastwood in an old western, and I have to admit there are a lot of times I find myself just klop-klopping along on my horse, wandering, trying to convince myself that I'm actually heading somewhere and really I'm just enjoying the view.

Red Dead Redemption also has a ton of mini-games that go along with the western movie feel. There's horse taming, arm wrestling, dice, poker, blackjack, and duels with other cowboys. I don't like wandering around the wild at night both because it's tougher to see and because some of the more dangerous animals are active in the dark, and a lot of times I'll just park my guy in a saloon and play Liar's Dice until the sun comes up.

I actually haven't finished Red Dead and it's been a while since I last played. I may actually have grown unfamiliar enough with the controls to warrant starting over again. And I honestly wouldn't mind that much.

Red Faction: Guerrilla: I had no idea what Red Faction was when I rented it from GameFly and was not expecting much. You see, unlike Netflix, GameFly doesn't automatically have games available when they come up in your queue. The newer and more popular the games, the longer you'll have to wait to get them. Each game has a viewable Availability rating on the site. If the next game in your queue isn't immediately available, they send you the first one that is. What this means is that - depending on how badly you want to rent newer games - it's actually a bad idea to keep a long queue if you use GameFly, because you'll almost always end up getting the older and/or crappier games first. If you really want a game that's new and/or popular, the best thing to do is to put nothing but that game in your queue. Then GameFly is forced to send you the new one as soon as they can. If they can send you an older one instead, they will.

But I didn't know that when I first started using GameFly, and Red Faction: Guerrilla was something I threw in my queue as kind of a sure-why-not choice. But when I got it, I wasn't expecting it. I had about a half-dozen games I wanted to try more than Red Faction, and when it arrived instead of them, I threw it in the console feeling very ho-hum.

Red Faction turned out to be one of my most played games and the first (and so far only) of the games I just paid to keep rather than send it back to GameFly. In it, you play a freedom fighter trying to liberate Mars from the Earth Defense Force or EDF. There's a main storyline, but also dozens and dozens of targets for you to take out to weaken the EDF's control over the different areas of Mars. Like Red Dead Redemption, there are a bunch of mini-games, though rather than taming mounts or playing cards, you do things like try to blow up buildings in 30 seconds or less. My favorite series of mini-games are the Jenkins games. A crazy resistance member named Jenkins drives around the Mars zones, and you ride on the back, firing missiles at EDF buildings and vehicles. For each Jenkins mini-game there's a minimum monetary amount of damage you have to do to win the game. Not only is it just plain fun to blow stuff up, but since you find yourself driving a lot in Red Faction, having someone else drive while you just destroy stuff is more than a little refreshing.

Sequels: Anyone reading this who is already an experienced gamer knows a lot of the games listed here already have sequels released and some have sequels on the way. Just in case you're curious about my thoughts...

--When I first saw the teaser for Batman: Arkham City, I was psyched both for the simple fact that there would be an Arkham Asylum sequel and because the trailer implied the sequel would take place in Gotham proper rather than Arkham Asylum. And that meant we might be getting something I was thinking would be awesome the entire time I was playing Arkham Asylum - an open-world Gotham City.

Since I've heard more about the game, I've grown less confident. According to the wikipedia entry, former Arkham Warden Quincy Sharp becomes mayor of Gotham and buys a section of Gotham's slums to house Arkham's patients. First, this means in most likelihood there won't be an open-world Gotham, second if you completed the extra quests in the first game then you know that Quincy Sharp is a goddamn maniac and if Batman knew that why the hell didn't he expose him, and third the idea that Sharp's plan to house patients in the city would be accepted by anyone is moronic. One of the great things about the first game is that the story made at least as much sense as your average Batman story. But this makes no damn sense. This would be like the mayor of Metropolis announcing he was going to put kryptonite kites on top of all of the city's skyscrapers. Unless Superman was having a storyline involving the people of Metropolis being afraid of Superman, no one would let it happen. While I suppose it's too early to judge the game's story since it's at least a year until it will be released (probably more - it's scheduled to be released in Fall 2011 but from what little I know of the video game industry, official release dates are about as trustworthy as Marvel or DC editors saying "Oh no, we intend to keep that character dead FOR GOOD), I have a hard time believing - unless every single citizen of Gotham has spontaneously become suicidal - that the people of Gotham, and Batman in particular, would allow Sharp to go through with his plan.

--BioShock 2 was good, though really just more of the same. I think more than anything I was just thrilled that there was a ranged hacking function. BioShock Infinite, on the other hand, looks amazing. It's strange, but I do feel torn. I think it looks incredible and on one hand I'm glad they're getting out of Rapture, but on the other hand part of me feels nostalgic for the place.

--I have yet to play Fable III, Fallout: New Vegas, or Mass Effect 2, though of course I hope to eventually play all 3.

--Unfortunately, I'm not looking forward to Red Faction: Armageddon precisely because they've jettisoned the open-world aspect of the game. I think they're making a big mistake. Not that there aren't other fun aspects of the game, but the open world was a big part of it. Who knows? Maybe I'll be surprised again. But I'm definitely renting first.


Anonymous said...

All good choices here, and still more fun to be had. Now that you are finally online you can enjoy the wonders of Xbox Live Arcade!

Unknown said...

I can strongly relate, since Final Fantasy VII was the first story-based game I really loved. Though I bought a PS3 instead of an XBox 360 ( so I could play Metal Gear Solid 4, mainly ), these all sound like good games, and I look forward to playing Batman: Arkham Asylum.

And yes, BioShock was awesome.

Mick Martin said...

Anonymous (who I'm guessing is my buddy Matt), yeah I'm hoping to check that out soon.

Nitz, I originally wanted a PS3 because I wanted to play some old PS1 and PS2 games, but then I did some research and was disappointed to learn they stopped making PS3s compatible with the older games a couple of years ago. One of these days when I get a little extra dough, I need to get myself a PS2.

And you will freaking LOVE Arkham Asylum. An awesome game overall, possibly the most impressive superhero game ever and definitely the best Batman video game, period.