Monday, December 28, 2009

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection: My Top Ten Games of 2009

The best games of 2009, for me, were marked not by innovation, but rather by doing the very same things that games have been doing for a long time, but doing them better than they've ever been done before. (That's not to say that this was a year without innovation. On the contrary, GameSpot's pick for Game of the Year, Demon's Souls, is boldly innovative and utterly uncompromising, and I respect the hell out of it. I just didn't personally enjoy it all that much.) The two best games of the year for me were particularly exceptional in this regard. Forza Motorsport 3 and Street Fighter IV are like well-oiled, nearly flawless high-performance machines in their respective genres.

Forza 3 is a game of such elegance that I feel like I should be eating excellent French cheeses and sipping fine wine whenever I play it. But not in a stuffy, oppressive way. No, it's an elegance that's perfectly befitting of the beautiful, fine-tuned automobiles it celebrates. And the experience of playing it is about as close as a game has ever gotten for me to being transportive. The handling, the sounds, the visuals are all so convincing that I could almost swear I can feel my car soaring down the Sebring Raceway. I'm such a devoted fan of over-the-top arcade racers over simulation racers that I often catch myself wanting to press A to trigger a vehicle boost, Burnout-style. But where so many other simulation racers have left me cold, Forza 3 is one I can't stop admiring. In addition to the absolutely top-notch driving, the way the game rewards you for each victory, constantly opening up new cars, new events, and new benefits as you earn experience makes playing "just one more race" nearly irresistible.

What Forza 3 is for driving games, Street Fighter IV is for fighters. It hits the sweet spot between pick-up-and-play accessibility and tremendous depth. The incredibly tight controls and exceptionally balanced combat ensure that fights are always exciting and intense for me, and even losses feel rewarding as a chance to observe the techniques of more skillful players and very slowly get better. And the better I get, the more I appreciate how incredible this game is, as I slowly come to grips with things like the focus attack system that adds layers of depth onto the core, tried-and-true Street Fighter II model. If I could stop time for a while and spend unlimited hours playing any one game from this year, this is the one I'd play, because as much as I enjoy it now, I know that being a truly competitive, outstanding player would only deepen my appreciation and enjoyment of it still more.

The quest to capture big, Hollywood-style adventure movie thrills in game form is certainly nothing new. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 pulls it off more effectively than any game has before. Expertly paced, with one terrific setpiece moment after another, and an excellent cast of characters whose relationships make you feel invested in the story.

Modern Warfare 2 was far and away the year's best shooter for me. Sure, you can rightly criticize the brevity of its campaign, but its whirlwind globehopping adventure packs more terrific locations and more memorable moments into its five hours than most games four times as long can manage. Add in the exciting and challenging cooperative Spec Ops missions and the highly addictive competitive multiplayer and you've got a well-rounded and consistently outstanding shooter.

While I have a soft spot for the moody Burton-influenced visuals and catchy tunes of Sunsoft's excellent 1989 NES game based on the first Michael Keaton Batman film, I have to admit that Arkham Asylum represents far and away the most compelling and effective representation of the Caped Crusader in a game. Everything you love about Batman--his gadgets, his detective skills, his use of stealth and shadow, his scarred psyche--is manifested here to terrific effect. It's so effective, in fact, that even if you go into the game not knowing or caring much about Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the other characters who populate Gotham City, you'll probably come away from it with a real appreciation for what Rocksteady has done with them here.

There was very little doubt that The Beatles: Rock Band was going to be good, but I was nonetheless surprised at just how superb it turned out. Harmonix could have taken the lazy route with this one and still sold a bazillion copies on the strength of the Fab Four's catalog of timeless and incredible songs. But instead, they went all-out, creating a rich Beatles experience jam-packed with the kinds of little details that imbue the game with the warmth and reverence the material deserves. Time spent playing this with friends was perhaps the greatest source of pure joy I got from any game this year.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was perhaps the biggest WOW of the year for me. No other game revealed previously untapped potential in a platform as dramatically as Chinatown Wars did with the DS. No compromises here, this is GTA reimagined from the ground up for Nintendo's handheld, and it is fantastic.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the latest and greatest entry in AlphaDream's consistently excellent series of RPGs starring the Brothers Mario. Endlessly inventive, irresistibly charming and completely hilarious.

I'm still inching my way through Assassin's Creed II, one kill at a time. While I find the gameplay a smidge too easy to be completely gripping, the varied, richly detailed and atmospheric cities make this breezy ride a very enjoyable one, and pulling off a stealthy kill in broad daylight, then walking away and leaving no one the wiser is immensely satisfying. I recall the negative reactions of some to the concept of the animus when the first game was released, but here, I find that all the crazy conspiracy theory elements woven into the game make it feel all the more epic and compelling, creating a sense of high stakes and of an age-old conflict that extends far beyond Altair, Ezio or Desmond as individuals.

What Borderlands lacks in story, it more than makes up for in sheer addictive playability. It brilliantly merges the loot-finding and character-building that makes games like Diablo II so habit-forming, with...guns.

An honorable mention goes to Dragon Age: Origins, another title I haven't found the time to conclude yet. In fact, I've still got a long way to go on this epic journey. The pace lagged for me in the early stages, but now that I'm starting to make some serious progress on the main quest, I'm finding myself becoming more absorbed in the fully realized fantasy realm of Ferelden. Bioware's signature talents for creating richly detailed worlds and compelling moral dilemmas are in full effect here, and I'm determined to see this quest through to its blood-spattery end.

In my opinion, the year's best downloadable content was The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar continues to challenge notions of who and what games can be about. Terrific nightclub atmosphere brings a previously unseen side of Liberty City to life, and the outrageous missions help bring GTA IV to an explosive conclusion.

And since I'm listening to it right now, I'll add that my favorite original soundtrack this year belongs to Shatter. It's a catchy and gorgeous collection of electronic compositions that are as incredible on their own as they are in the game.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Going BIG: My favorite games of the decade

This is a quick personal reflection on the ten games (well, nine games and one series of games) I found the most meaningful and memorable over the past ten years.

SSX: I start here not because this is the least of all the games on this list, but because it's the first. It was very early indeed in this decade when I stepped into a may even have still been a Software Etc...and saw a PS2 demo kiosk showing off SSX. I was sold. With one glance, it seemed clear that the power of the PlayStation 2 was going to enable games to deliver bigger thrills than any console before it. How apt that the development studio for this game was called EA Sports BIG. The PS2 was the first new console of the decade, and SSX was its glorious herald, a speedy, stylish, adrenaline-drenched snowboarding game for the new era. It's certainly true that SSX 2 and 3 improved on the original in some respects, but when I think of SSX, it's that first glimpse of Snowdream that I remember most, the voice of Rahzel mocking and praising me as I boosted my way down the slopes.

Halo: Some of the very best gaming moments I had this decade were spent with friends crowded around my modest television, the screen split four ways as we assault-rifled and pistol-sniped each other endlessly. Halo 2 and 3 took the multiplayer online in a big way, but the best Halo times of all for me were those early days on Hang 'em High.

Burnout 3: What an exciting innovation this game was, building on existing arcade racing game conventions but making crashing and running your competitors off the road a spectacular, visceral part of the gameplay. I consider this the original Xbox's ultimate Xbox Live title. For several months, some friends and I ritually played this on an almost-daily basis,while games these days are unlikely to see consistent online play from us for more than a few weeks. It was also, for me, the first game in which custom soundtracks were an essential feature. I still can't hear certain Death Cab for Cutie songs without them conjuring up images of Burnout 3's environments.

Ninja Gaiden (Black): My favorite skill-based, challenging action game of the decade. When Ninja Gaiden first came out, I rented it and found it difficult to a fault. It was frustrating, not fun. Then the bargain-priced Black came out and I decided to give it another chance. I hit the same wall I had before but kept pressing on and somehow, at a certain point, something clicked, and I just naturally found myself getting better at the game. That sense of just feeling my skills improve, and the results of it--being able to effortlessly slice enemies to pieces (and look awesome doing it) who had previously made mincemeat out of me--was incredibly rewarding.

Metal Gear Solid 4: It's goofy and messy and totally absurd, and I admire the hell out of it. I think it's an inspired conclusion to this totally crazy series, and for all its flaws, I love the fact that it is so clearly Kojima's uncompromised vision. He may be the first auteur of games, and I think the series would have been far less interesting if it was made by committee and some of Kojima's crazier, more self-indulgent impulses had been reined in. It somehow creates a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that ties up all the loose ends, and it unforgettably pits the hero and villain against each other in a climactic fistfight that's also a brilliant summation of the entire series. Masterful.

Grand Theft Auto IV: I Heart Liberty City. Moral choice was a fun gimmick in a lot of games over the past ten years, but many of those games presented those choices in such extreme black and white terms. Grand Theft Auto IV was the first game in which I felt legitimately troubled by some of the choices I had to make, the first game in which pulling a trigger and taking a life often felt impactful and irrevocable. The writing is far superior to what you find in most games, with complex, damaged characters who, for all their flaws, are often trying their best to make a go of it in this ugly world. The cutscenes feature terrific subtlety and are willing to take their time to just observe the characters. For me, its themes of culture, cIass and consequences really work. It ain't The Wire, but for my money it's far and away the best crime story, and the best story of any kind, I've encountered in a game. The downloadable stories released this year, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, have kept the party going in style, adding exciting new gameplay elements and continuing to challenge our notions of who and what a game can be about. The Ballad of Gay Tony also features the most gorgeous menu music I've ever heard in a game.

"I keep on walkin'..."

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door: Mario has starred in many exceptional RPGs throughout the past ten years. This is the absolute best of the bunch. It's charming, inventive, humorous, and even oddly poignant. I don't mind telling you that I got a bit choked up at the end of this tale of goombas and koopas. An absolute delight from start to finish.

The Rock Band series: When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic air guitarist, desk drummer, and sing-along-er. But these are all private, slightly embarrassing expressions of the emotions a song might conjure up in me. One of the biggest, most important innovations in games of this decade is the way that the music peripheral games have taken those private expressions and made them a shared experience. Performing songs with friends in a game like this is an absolute joy, and a totally valid and new way for people to experience music together. In the Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero battle, the Rock Band games are the clear winner for me. The atmosphere and the song lists deliver just want I want in my fantasy fulfillment, and the Guitar Hero games feel a bit crass and soulless by comparison.

And now, my two favorite games of the decade. I can't choose between them.

Super Mario Galaxy and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Super Mario Galaxy is as close as any game has come to perfection for me this decade. It's an absolutely incredible achievement, feeling both like a natural extension of the series' roots, and a totally fresh, at times exhilaratingly innovative experience. The level designs are nothing short of brilliant, and the music, visuals and gameplay frequently combined to foster a sense of ebullient joy in me akin to what I might feel at the most inspired moments of a great Pixar or Miyazaki film.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by contrast, does not quite approach perfection. Instead, it's a sprawling, audacious, flawed but utterly incredible game. The story is not the serious tale of revenge or forgiveness that you find in GTA IV, but a fever dream of West Coast culture and styIe. The plot lacks focus, but the cast of characters is memorable, and the outstanding voice work (JAMES WOODS!) helps tremendously. And while the story is messy, the setting is unforgettable. I love it all, from the ghetto where CJ begins to the mansions in the hills. I love the small towns and the beaches. I love the huge bridges and the airplane graveyards. It understands Los Angeles hip-hop culture in the mid-90s, and its climax rings true in echoing some of the rage that fueled the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

I can't separate the fact that I've lived in LA for many years from my feelings for this game. Standing in the cul-de-sac where CJ's house is located, I can almost feel the warm Santa Ana winds. But the reason I rank it above GTA IV as one of the absolute best of the decade is not just that its setting is more personally resonant for me. It's also that I simply think it's a bit more fun. For me, this is the best entry overall in what I consider the definitive game series of the decade.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Natural Police and Other Characters--My Favorite TV of the 2000s

I suppose strong arguments could be made either that this was the best decade of television, with cable TV coming into its own and providing us with richer, more complex dramas than anything we'd seen in the past, or that it was the worst, with reality TV's rise to popularity signifying a low point in our culture. Well, I actually happen to think there's such a thing as good “reality TV,” but for now, as the decade comes to a close, I want to take a moment to focus on the earlier argument and look back on what were the standouts for me in TV drama in the 2000s.

  1. The Wire—Quite possibly the best television show of all time. This is the poetry of real life in America in the early 21st century. Over the course of five seasons, it turned its piercing gaze on the drug war, labor unions, big city politics, public schools, and the print media, opening our eyes to the world we live in. At the same time, it's a riveting and powerful human drama, with complex characters on both sides of the law that we come to love and to despise, to root for and to fear.

  1. The Shield—If The Wire is the television equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Shield is like a modern-day, extended take on a Shakespearian tragedy, about the way one man's gargantuan ambitions can inhale and destroy the lives of many. For my money, it's pound-for-pound the most exciting drama of the decade, rarely taking a false step from its shocking first episode until its pitch-perfect, devastating finale. Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about The Shield is the way it so often made me feel so conflicted. Vic Mackey is absolutely, unquestionably immoral, and yet I often found myself cheering him on as he brought his own brand of justice to the criminals of LA's fictional (but thoroughly believable) Farmington district. Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis) pulls focus with his massive persona and his shiny bald head, but this is absolutely an ensemble show, and although I have much love for Vincent D'Onofrio's enigmatic and disturbed detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, my favorite TV detective is The Shield's slightly awkward, dogged, brilliant Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach.

    Watching this montage from The Shield finale still gives me goosebumps. If you haven't watched the show, this won't spoil anything. The snippets are too brief to give anything away. But to me and fans of the show, they speak volumes.

  2. Six Feet Under—Forget Touched by an Angel. This is deeply spiritual television, at least for this agnostic.

  3. The West Wing (The Sorkin Years)--I stopped watching when Sorkin was dropped, but in those early years of the Bush presidency, when it all still felt like some sort of bad dream, I know I wasn't alone in taking solace and inspiration in the imaginary presidency of Jed Bartlet. Sorkin's excellent “let's-have-snappy-conversations-while-walking-briskly-down-hallways” writing style and the top-notch work by Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and others made this show a delightful entertainment. (Yes, I know, it actually started airing in the final months of the 90s. Sue me.)

  4. Law & Order—Because after 20 years, there are still few things on TV as reliably satisfying as an episode of Law & Order.

In a category of its own:

24--While The Wire is the show people in the future should look at if they want to understand what our world was actually like in this decade, the show they should look at if they want to psychoanalyze us is 24. The pilot was actually delayed and edited because of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, but the entire show almost feels like a reaction to that day. Jack Bauer is absolutely a hero our society gravitated to in the wake of that attack. Like its hero, the show is ruthless and exceptionally effective. It's also the most video-game-like show ever (though the actual 24 game is pretty lousy), and I'm convinced that it has heavily influenced the outstanding campaigns of the Modern Warfare games, which do things with game narrative that previously just weren't done.

Honorable mentions:

Deadwood—Gorgeously vulgar dialogue and towering performances by a great cast.

Battlestar Galactica—I found the last set of episodes deeply disappointing. Still, it had a lot of great moments, and was the best sci-fi that TV of the 00's had to offer.

Dexter—Wickedly entertaining. Dexter (the show and the character) is still a work in progress, but it may deserve a place on a list like this in ten years' time.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent—Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren is what has made this show so watchable, though it achieved heights with regularity in the earlier seasons that it has rarely been able to recapture in more recent ones, and I was crushed when Goren's rivalry with archnemesis Nicole Wallace, which was the source of some of the show's best moments, was brought to an end last season in the most unsatisfying way possible. Goren and Eames will be leaving the show at the start of next season as it becomes Monk 2: Jeff Goldblum's Kooky Crime-Solving Hour full-time. But I'll still watch it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Russian: Modern Warfare 2 and Games in a Post-24 World (Spoilers)

Much is being said about the campaign for Modern Warfare 2, and in particular, a level called No Russian. Personally, I thought the level was effective and the campaign as a whole was nothing short of spectacular. It's easily earned a place as one of my favorite shooter campaigns of all time.

One of the criticisms I've read levelled at the campaign is that the writing is poor and the story is ludicrous. I agree completely that the story is ludicrous. I think that most video game stories are ludicrous. But so what? The important thing in a game like Modern Warfare 2 is to cram as many intense moments into its five-hour campaign as it can. I can't think of a game that sustained such an unrelenting pace, and since the story does its job of providing a vehicle to string all these things together, in my mind, it's a success. I won't argue that it's great writing for a second. But it's writing with a very specific purpose, and I think it does a great job of accomplishing that purpose.

There may have been a time where I would have enjoyed it less, where I would have spent half my time stepping outside of the absurd action of the story and yelling at the screen, "Oh, come on! That would never happen!" Perhaps it's all that 24 I watched, but at a certain point, my outlook changed, and I realized that I was willing to sacrifice a certain amount of plausibility if, and only if, something succeeds in delivering over-the-top thrills so incredible as to make my suspension of disbelief worthwhile. Most of the time, 24 succeeded here for me. In the end, it's not the overall story of a 24 season that matters, but the moment-to-moment thrills that story allowed the season to deliver, and seriously, if you think Modern Warfare 2 is implausible, watch a season of 24. I don't know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that 24 has been a direct influence on the Modern Warfare games.

24 ushered in an era of television where viewers could no longer be sure, one week to next, that any character (wiith the possible exception of Jack Bauer) was safe. Audience favorites are routinely killed suddenly and unflinchingly. The Modern Warfare games certainly followed in the series' footsteps here. The death of a player character in the first Modern Warfare, like the death of lovable Edgar on 24, was shocking. Perhaps in Modern Warfare 2 they go a tad overboard with this and it starts to lose its impact a bit, but I still found most of the twists and character deaths surprising and impactful.

And then there's No Russian, in which, as an undercover CIA agent embedded in a terrorist cell, you must stand by, or even participate, while your fellow terrorists slaughter hundreds of civilians at an airport. Many of the arguments I've read about this level are rooted in the illusion of choice. There you are, holding a gun, but you must stand idly by as this massacre takes place. You are unable to turn the gun on the terrorists and attempt to stop this atrocity, which is something that any moral person would surely at least consider doing in that situation. Anthony Burch, in this Rev Rant at Destructoid, argues that as the player, your feelings of revulsion about what's happening totally pull you out of the moment. (At least that was what I took away from his argument, but I'm paraphrasing, and I encourage you to watch it for yourself.) And maybe that's true. He contrasts this, though, with the player's relationship with Alyx in Half-Life 2. In Half-Life 2, he says, you like Alyx. Because the game reinforces your positive feelings about the character, Gordon's choice to not just use the gravity gun to fling her into the nearest bunch of headcrabs and run jibes with your own feelings, creating a seamless relationship between you and the character you're playing. But to me, that's an arbitrary distinction. Another player may totally loathe Alyx and actually wish to kill her. In both Modern Warfare 2 and Half-Life 2, you have no choice. Choice is a complete illusion.

Some may feel that games are more enjoyable when we always feel a positive connection with the character we're playing and the actions of that character. I'm fine with that not being the case, with sometimes being cast in an unsavory role. If Modern Warfare 2 were a film, could the actor cast in the role the player plays in the No Russian level say to the director, "You know, if it were really me in this situation, I think I'd say to myself, 'To hell with this undercover thing, I'm turning my gun on these monsters!' So is it okay if I do that in this scene?" Of course not. It's essentially the same thing here. We are cast in this role. We have a part to carry out, and we must carry it out, whether we like it or not. If you're playing Metal Gear Solid, you must stop Liquid Snake. Trying to join forces with him is not an option. If you're playing Ocarina of Time, you cannot shirk your responsibility to defeat Ganon and just go live on a farm somewhere, no matter how much you might rather do that. In games, almost always, choice is an illusion.

The other criticism I've heard about No Russian is that some feel such a horrific scene of violence is inappropriate in something that's essentially just trying to be a piece of pure entertainment, that it's exploitative to use something so terrible in the context of something that, let's face it, doesn't really deal with the consequences in a serious, meaningful way. Maybe I'm just callous, but I didn't mind. Again, perhaps it's all that 24, which doesn't shy away from crashing commuter jets, releasing chemical weapons in hotels, and detonating nukes in densely populated areas, killing anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands at a time. Nor is it reluctant to try to make you feel the loss of a single human life.

And always, not long after one of these moments transpires, Jack Bauer is back to kicking ass and walking away from unsurvivable situations unscathed, all in the name of delivering pure entertainment.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Orson's Game

There's a little burger stand near my place that I positively love. Juiciest burgers I've ever tasted, and I am a fiend for a nice juicy burger.

One day, the owners of the restaurant started telling me about how they get their tomatoes from this wonderful tomato farm. Now, I'm not a huge tomato person. Really, I could take or leave the tomato on my burger. It's just not an important part of the experience for me. But the owner was so excited about this tomato farm that I decided to look it up online, and I was dismayed by what I found out.

Oh, not about the tomatoes they produce. In fact, they do have a reputation for growing some tasty tomatoes.

No. You see, I was dismayed to find that these tomato farmers are white supremacists, and they're quite vocal about it, too. They serve on boards of organizations that seek to oppress minorities and strip them of their rights.

After that, I was really torn about going back to that burger stand. Some other patrons decided that they were going to boycott the stand. When the boycott was announced, the people who grow the lettuce for the stand spoke out, saying, “Hey, we're not white supremacists! In fact, we actively support all kinds of human rights measures. If you boycott the stand, we will suffer, too!” I appreciate the plight of the lettuce farmer. Still, I can respect the position of the boycotters. The restaurateurs didn't publicize the lettuce as being an important part of what makes their burgers so incredible. No, they talked up the tomatoes. Its the tomato farm whose name is now known far and wide in association with those juicy burgers. Not, alas, the lettuce farm.

As for me, I did go back to the stand, and I still enjoyed the burger, though I had to rationalize to myself that it was okay because I don't care for the tomatoes much one way or the other. If the restaurant owners themselves, the people who put all the work into grilling those patties and making those burgers so tasty, the people I actually hand my money over to, were the white supremacists, I never could have gone back.

However, I really wish that they would get their tomatoes from somewhere else. Surely there are excellent tomatoes on the market that aren't grown by vocal white supremacists, and I'm of the mind that the tomato farm of white supremacy does not deserve our support.

None of this is true, of course. (Well, I am a fiend for a nice juicy burger. This cannot be denied.) This is simply my analogy for the controversy around Orson Scott Card's involvement in the new Xbox Live Arcade release, Shadow Complex. Card is a science fiction author and vocal opponent of equal rights for gays and lesbians, who currently serves on the board for the National Organization for Marriage.

The game is set in the “universe” of his Empire series. While playing the game, I didn't feel that his contributions could possibly have had too significant an impact on the overall experience. If I hadn't been aware of the association as a result of publicity given to his involvement, I never would have suspected. The game's setting and plot seem generic enough that I would have just assumed the creators were riffing on Metal Gear Solid.

Some have boycotted Shadow Complex due to Card's involvement. I did not. I purchased the game and I enjoyed it, recognizing that it's the work of a great many people, many of whom don't agree with Card's views. Still, as a member of the queer community and an ardent opponent of discrimination based on sexual orientation, Card's highly publicized involvement in the project doesn't sit well with me, and I really wish that Chair Entertainment had found someone else to get their tomatoes from.

(And I'm fully aware that those who oppose marriage equality will object to being likened to those who discriminate on the basis of race, but I have yet to come across a compelling argument that there is any appreciable difference. Denying someone rights on the basis of sexual orientation is no less reprehensible than doing so on the basis of race or religion. It is a sad commentary on just how far we still have to go with this issue that, while almost all of us are quick to condemn the views of those who discriminate based on race, discrimination against gays and lesbians can still hold such widespread approval.)


On a more uplifting note, check out these awesome Courage Campaign volunteers, including "straight Mormon feminist" Joanna Brooks. They're an inspiration. Please help make marriage equality a reality.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Greetings from Big Surf Island!

I've been off from work this past week, taking a mandatory furlough, like many people are having to do in these harsh economic times. While I am hoping to go on an exciting trip or two in the not-too-distant future, as I wasn't being paid this week, I didn't want to spend too much money, so I stayed in town. That doesn't mean I didn't have a kind of vacation, though. I've visited the following exotic and exciting destinations during my time off:

Big Surf Island: I was absolutely mad about Burnout Paradise when it first came out, and Big Surf Island has gotten me pumped about it all over again. The island is a bit smaller than I imagined it would be, but it's positively packed with outrageous jumps and all the other stuff that makes Paradise such an exhilarating game. The dune buggies you find there are a blast to drive, too, with a great rough-and-ready feel to their handling. I've already completed 40/45 billboards, 13/15 mega jumps and 74/75 smashes. I just know that finding that last one is going to be a real pain. I also have just one event left to complete: a stunt run. Those are the bane of my existence. I'm not generally a completionist, but Paradise compelled me to get 100%, and I know I won't stop until I've jumped every jump, smashed every smash and every billboard, won every event and ruled every road in both the Time Road Rules and Showtime (AKA Katamari CarCrashy AKA Michael Bay Directs a Car Wreck) modes on Big Surf Island. It's good to be back in Paradise.

The Ring: When I was a kid, I could beat Mike Tyson without breaking a sweat. It seems my reflexes aren't what they used to be. My current record in Punch-Out!! is an embarrassing 20-67, and I'm currently facing Don Flamenco in the title defense section of the game. But I don't mind. On the contrary, I'm very pleased that the game is so challenging. It goes easy on you for a while, but once you get to defending your belt, Punch-Out!! is no joke. At this point, the bouts are tough enough to quite literally get my pulse racing, and each victory feels like an accomplishment. It's hard in much the same way that the NES game was hard,but I think it's harder, thanks to more complex attack patterns from your opponents, which you need to learn during the first phase of your career and then completely re-learn during title defense. If the game had ended when I'd won the world championship, I would have felt like I could have better spent that $50, as fun as the experience was up to that point. But this game has proven to have lasting value and to keep the excitement comin'. I'm thrilled to see this franchise get reinvigorated like this.If only the game shouted "BODY BLOW! BODY BLOW!" like the arcade games did, it would be just about perfect.

Unnamed Middle Eastern Country: In the past I've never really been one to spend much time with online shooters, but I've gotten back into Modern Warfare's online multiplayer in a big way this week. I don't consider myself to be all that great at shooters so I generally shy away from exclusively team-based games like Gears of War 2's multiplayer (that way I can't let any other players down) but free-for-all deathmatch in CoD4 is so exceptional, I keep coming back to it again and again.It's easily the online shooter I've enjoyed the most. Here's a question for anyone here who might play this game online: If I play exclusively free-for-all deathmatch, is it worth it for me to spring for the map pack that contains Creek, Broadcast, Chinatown and Killhouse?

Temeria: This compelling land is the setting of The Witcher, which I downloaded off of Steam this week. I'm utterly taken with the setting, which is rather unlike the setting of any other fantasy RPG I've played, It feels rougher, more lived-in and worn, bleaker, and more believable. I haven't yet been able to spend as much time as I would like with the mysterious Geralt of Rivia, but you can bet I'm eager to do so.

The Sprint Studio: Lastly, I've been enjoying the beta season of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox Live. The game itself couldn't be simpler, but I'm excited about the way it's being implemented. I think the opportunity to join a live game that's being played by tens of thousands of other players, that involves answering trivia questions rather than, say, killing orcs and earning loot, is really exciting. (It helps that I am a huge sucker for trivia questions.) I also like the fact that up to four people can play from a single console, as it just feels like a party game that would be way more fun when shared with friend. In fact, I think I'm gonna invite some friends over for some pizza and beer and 1 vs. 100 one of these weekends.

I also want to say just a few things about E3.

When I was a kid, it really bothered me if someone abused a stuffed animal, even though I was well aware that the thing had no feelings of its own. Apparently there's still part of me that harbors that irrational perspective, as the first thing I imagined after seeing the Milo demonstration was thousands of people unleashing verbal abuse at their Milos. It made me sad. Apparently Milo won't respond to abuse, though, so that's good. Maybe if it's utterly pointless, people won't bother to engage in it. Of course, I'm assuming that Milo is actually going to be as amazing as it appeared in the demo, but then, I have no reason to doubt that it will be. After all, it was presented by Peter Molyneux of all people.

There are too many games I'm excited about to mention, but one announcement I'm particularly intrigued by is Metroid Other M. As a huge fan of most of the 2D Metroid games, I always felt that the Metroid Prime games really missed one hugely important aspect of what makes Samus so much fun to play: she's quick and agile. Metroid Other M looks primed to rectify this issue in a big way, so I'll be keeping my eyes on that one.

So, how 'bout you? What are you playin'? Any E3 announcements strike you as particularly promising or exciting?

Friday, March 06, 2009


Watchmen is a very good film, if not an outstanding one. The film adeptly adapts the epic graphic novel into a comprehensible 2-hour-and-40-minute film, and there are enough delightful little touches (Lee Iacocca! Pat Buchanan! Robert Palmer videos!) to make its chilling alternate-reality 1985 feel like a possible extrapolation of our own. Strong casting helps considerably, particularly in the cases of Patrick Wilson, who is so extraordinarily ordinary as Nite Owl, and Jackie Earle Haley as the simmering Rorschach. And perhaps it helps that I'm old enough to remember the Cold War and had, at one point in my childhood, a very real sense of terror about the possibility of global thermonuclear war (Thanks, WarGames!), but the constant sense of dread over the possibility of just such a crisis in the film resonated with me pretty deeply.

There are times where the film, despite all this good stuff, feels constrained. There's a section in the graphic novel that deals not only with the origins of Dr. Manhattan, but also with the unique way in which he perceives time, with every moment existing concurrently. I consider it one of the most remarkable things I've ever read, comic or otherwise. I think much of what helps drive its power and helps the reader relate to and understand Dr. Manhattan's existence is the fact that the panels for each moment do exist concurrently, and so we exist outside of them and can behold several of them simultaneously. The film, of course, is by necessity linear, and so I was a bit disappointed with this aspect, and never felt a very strong connection to the nude blue superdude, though I don't think the film could have possibly measured up to the comic here. On the other hand, the much-ballyhooed change to the story's climax for the film is, I think, an improvement.

Watchmen has moments of inspiration, such as its terrifically theatrical opening credits sequence. On the whole, however, it lacks the spark of passion required to make a cinematic adaptation truly take on a life of its own (I'm thinking particularly of The Lord of the Rings films there), and ends up feeling like more of a companion piece to the graphic novel than something worthy of deep consideration in its own right. But regardless, it's a fascinating, goofy, often thrilling film that's true to the spirit and the ideas of the graphic novel. 8/10

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gamers in a Dangerous Time

One day you're waiting for the sky to fall
And next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
--Bruce Cockburn, Lovers in a Dangerous Time

And make no mistake, these are dangerous times we're living in. Economically, things are already pretty bad. There's a good chance you or someone you know has lost his or her job as a result of cutbacks, and things will, according to many people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do, get worse before they get better. I'm very thankful for my job and fully aware that at any point, someone could decide that my company could save a whole lot of money by paying people in Mexico or India or elsewhere to do my job. This is a time for belt-tightening and saving, not for spending.

Beyond our economic woes, long-simmering tensions in other parts of the world are building up to dangerous levels, and it's possible that the human race may blow itself to hell in the relatively near future. Is ths really a time when we should be playing games?

Heck yeah, it is. Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, and being able to relax and enjoy life is absolutely worth having. Here are the things I'm playing in these precarious days.

Prince of Persia--It's beautiful, I'll give it that. The visual design is striking, evoking ancient Persia not as it ever was but as it is in our imaginations. But the gameplay all feels a bit rote to me, and not very engaging. This one may be on the next GameFlight back home.

Fallout 3--I know I said that these are not times for spending, and GameFly seems like a good way to save money and still play the games I want to play, but after a certain point having a game from GameFly must stop being cost-effective. I think I might be reaching that point with Fallout 3. I play it in fits and starts, and I like it well enough, but more often than not there's something I'd rather be playing. Still, I have to play it through to the end. I think it might just be in very small pieces over the course of the coming months.

Lumines Supernova--Ohh, how I love/hate Lumines! Its design is so flawless, so compelling, and I want so badly to be really good at it. But Lumines greatness eludes me. Still, I keep trying. Maybe someday I'll get past the sixth skin in the basic challenge mode.

LittleBigPlanet--When I wrote up my favorite games of 2008, I called this my odd game out, because the perplexing moderation of so many wonderful user-created levels just seemed to fly in the face of the game's good-natured, Fun shall overcome philosophy. But things seem to have recovered nicely, and I still regularly encounter user-created levels that charm, thrill, and genuinely surprise me with their inventiveness.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts--I spent about an hour and a half playing Nuts & Bolts tonight, and my first impressions of the game are extremely positive. It's very funny in a way that both mocks video game conventions in general and the Banjo-Kazooie games in particular. It's gorgeous. And the gameplay is purely, tremendously fun. I haven't yet had to design any of my own vehicles, which is a good thing. The game has an excellent learning curve that lets you use pre-designed vehicles successfully in many early challenges. And the challenges themselves are varied and fun. I'm already hooked and can't wait to collect more jiggies.

Chrono Trigger--I'd never played Chrono Trigger before. I was in college when it hit the SNES and I didn't make much time for games during those four years. It's probably for the best. Without my degree in Theater with a minor in English, it's doubtful I'd have the lucrative career in tech support and customer service that I have today. But I'm making up for lost time by playing it now.

Life with PlayStation--Folding molecules for the benefit of humankind. Gee, that planet of ours sure is pretty, isn't it?

Yeah, that's the thing, isn't it? Even as things get uncertain and scary, there's still so much to be hopeful for and so much to be thankful for. Play what you love and do what you love, and when things get tough, remember that nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Or, as the late, great Harvey Milk said, "There is hope for a better world. There is hope for a better tomorrow."

Happy 2009, everyone!