I’ve been busy enough to keep me from posting much, so get rid for a bit of a purge here…
2016, Arkane Studios
I can’t even tell you how much I look forward to the September issue of PC Gamer Magazine each year. Why, you ask? Because the September issue brings with it the magazine’s annual Top 100 list. It’s a totally arbitrary and unscientific list that changes from year to year like a girl changes clothes in a Katy Perry song. And for whatever reason I decided like three years ago that whenever I’m sort of between games and not sure what to play next, I’ll just play the next game on PCG’s current list and see what I think of it.
This experiment has been awesome and horrible. For every epiphany I’ve encountered like Spelunky or Rocket League or Overwatch or Skyrim there’s also been games I just couldn’t stand like Deus Ex or Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
I played the first Dishonored last year because of this list and my reaction to it fell somewhere in the middle of the two extremes listed above. I could totally see why people would enjoy Dishonored. The art was nice; the setting was interesting. For those into it, it had that whole approach-the-game-however-you-want thing going for it. But all I could feel was that I should be good at stealth to like Dishonored. And I am NOT good at stealth.
So I was a little bummed when the new PC Gamer hit my mailbox this past week and as I went down the list I realized that the first entry that I’ve not recently played and written about here was… Dishonored 2. Ugh. But I like to keep an open mind. I like to be optimistic. I also like to be cheap, so I spent a few days in search of the cheapest way to play this thing. I eventually landed on an Xbox One copy for $15 from Game Fly, which meant I’d be shooting myself in the foot and playing with a controller. Oh well. At least I knew that I could re-sell the damn thing if I didn’t like it (and the chance was better than 50% that I wouldn’t, right?).
I feel no shame in telling you that I started the game on Easy mode. I don’t care. I’m not good at stealth. I’m not good at Dishonored. I’m not good at “immersive sims.” So I don’t care. I just want to give this thing a fair chance and spend enough time with it to either see what it is that I’m missing so that I can form a solid opinion from first hand experience, or become a converted fan. My money is riding on the former.
So now I’m Corvo’s daughter. Which is cool. I like when games have the balls to mix things up like that. The game starts with you locked up. Of course there are open windows so it’s not exactly high security. I make my way downstairs, peep out the bad guy target. I have the option to kill him, hurt him or sneak by him. I’m not good at stealth, though remember? So first he sees me and his guards kill me. So I try again. I hide behind something for a while and then he sees me so I kill him and then his guards. I make my way outside.
My next goal is to make it to a boat. So I try my best to take things slow. I’m creeping as best I can on rooftops and high up stuff so guards won’t notice me as I go down the street. But nope, I get spotted. So I have to take out more guards. I’m too crap with the swords so I just start shooting dudes in the face. Three in one building. Then a couple more in the middle of the road. I realize I’m out of bullets so I just start hauling ass as fast as I can. I run until I see water and make a jump towards the boat. I swim out there - staying under water so guards don’t try to snipe me. I climb up the side of the boat and trigger a cut-scene ending the chapter.
Well, that wasn’t so bad. If the rest of the chapters are this condensed then I could possibly really enjoy this. But I doubt it. I’ll plan to give it at least a week before trading this game in.
For a moment there I was almost feeling excited about this game. Like “hey! Maybe I CAN enjoy an immersive sim!” But that feeling seemingly washed away in but a moment.
I start up the next chapter and it’s that same thing from the first game - a weird otherplace with a watcher being giving me gnarly powers. The powers are fine. Well, I mean the heart thing was always kind of tedious to me. But the thing that lets me jump great heights? I love that thing. That was definitely the fun part of the first game for me. So okay, maybe I can have fun with it again for a while.
Next I’m waking up in that big boat I had escaped to. I stumble around the ship for a while and burst through a door and - wait! Who’s that! Oh… I just killed the woman who gives me missions. Game over, then. I’m just too jumpy. I feel like games like this where I get anxious because of the stealth stuff, it means I end up with an itchy trigger finger. Alright, so apparently this boat is the new central hub then. I see.
Alright then. We get on a little boat and she brings me over to land to start a mission. Just like in the first game. The city looks just like the first game as well. I start walking toward the right and am told that it’s a dangerous area because there’s some like… wall… thing. I think it’s some kind of surveillance system that I have to take out or get around or whatever. I didn’t really read the explanation, I just turned and went the other way instead.
I meet a woman who says she can help me get to where I need to go but I’ll need to do her a favor. She wants me to go sneak into a certain building and find a corpse and bring it back to her. Sigh. Basically, this early in the game she’s asking me to do the exact kind of crap that I hate doing in these games. She’s basically reminding me WHY I hate these games. I don’t want to sneak into a building. I don’t want to sneak back carrying a corpse that’s basically a sign that says “Hey! Look at me! I’m bad at stealth!”
I quit the game. Xbox says I’ve played one hour of Dishonored 2. One hour.
It took seven seasons but we finally get to see who the “slutty pumpkin” was at that Halloween party. And it was Katie Holmes! That was a great surprise. I’ve been a fan of her since I was in high school. Actually, she and Sarah Michelle Gellar were my two big high school crushes. Anyway, it was a fun little cameo.
To put it another way: every night this week I’ve considered actually firing up Dishonored 2 and giving it another chance, but doing so is just so unappealing to me. I’m actually dreading it. It’s possible that I’d be more open to really trying if it weren’t so recently that I played the first game. It’s as if the wounds or too fresh. I know that this is more of the same, and I’m just not interested in more of the same.
So instead of been watching old episodes of How I Met Your Mother. I’m pretty sure I’m going to sell this damn game.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
I was about twenty hours into Breath Of The Wild when its freedom really struck me as being real. I was in a shrine (dungeon) that involved a puzzle that had to do with electricity. The goal was to extend a bit of electricity at one end of the shrine all the way to the other by using bits of metal objects (barrels and boxes) scattered around the shrine to complete a circuit. I tried using the metal barrels and boxes in various configurations but couldn’t quite get it to work. And I remember literally thinking to myself, “damn, if only I had just one more metal object to work with.”
That’s when it hit me. I DID have more metal objects. I had a whole cache of weapons and shields actually. So I equipped a sword that I didn’t really need and threw it down. The electricity jumped through the sword, completing the circuit. I had solved the shrine by thinking outside the box. Metal conducts electricity, and that applies to the entire game. The point is that you can solve problems in this game by coming up with a solution; it’s not all about finding the one arbitrary solution that the game designers want you to find.
Solving puzzles in this manner - that is pulling off a bit of a MacGyver - is beyond satisfying. In an open world game like BOTW, it seems almost necessary to create a world in which hurdles can be overcome by thinking on your feet; by making due with what you’ve got. And when everything in the game can be approached differently by each player and based on not only their individual equipment, but also how they think and approach a problem, then you’ve got a game capable of endless stories.
This is not quite the Zelda I grew up with. It’s not even the Zelda I fell in love with. Those Zelda games all had a pretty set order in which the world was opened up to you. Those Zeldas had “right” ways to do things. But not so here. After a brief opening section where you are confined to a plateau just long enough to learn some basic skills, the entirety of the map is available to you. Every single area, shrine, weapon, and enemy are reachable from the get go. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s advisable to attempt certain areas right away. But this is a game where many players are happily chugging along after a hundred hours - and yet speedrunners can knock it out in under one. Breath Of The Wild simply says to the player, “here you are in Hyrule. Now what will you do next?”
There is no hand-holding here. In fact the game is quite challenging. You will see the game over screen many times. In fact even the lowest of enemies are actual threats, forcing you to really think about how you approach each one. In this respect it feels as close to a true RPG as say, The Adventures Of Link. Grinding - at least for hearts or weapons - is totally a thing here. And some of the challenge will attach itself to mechanics that I’m not entirely crazy about. Crafting or cooking recipes come to mind; the necessity to monitor the temperature as well; or perhaps my least favorite: the fact that weapons and shields will eventually break.
I’ve now spent many hours opening up the map; and I haven’t even beaten one of the four major bosses yet. But that’s okay. Breath Of The Wild as now put itself in a certain pantheon of games. It will rest right alongside Skryim for me. That is, it’s a game with a world that I really love, and am willing to leave and come back to over time. I don’t feel an urge to rush through it. Instead, I’d probably be content if I never even finished this game but rather just had it as a world I can come visit again whenever I need to. And I will.
While I don’t instantly love everything Sonic just because of Sonic, I have certainly been a longtime Sonic-apologist. It’s perhaps something deeply rooted in me. I have fell hard for Sega’s marketing in the early 90’s. All that talk of arcade ports and blast processing and all that; Sega really made it feel like their competitor’s (you-know-who) console was for kids. Sonic had 'tude. And he was fast! And I bought into it all big time. I went back and explored the Master System library thanks to the toy stores clearance bin. I replaced my Game Boy with a Game Gear. I upgraded the Genesis with the Sega CD.
Those early Sonic games were huge for me. I still have a picture of me and my siblings crowded around a TV - Sonic The Hedgehog on screen - on Christmas morning back then. I’ll forever equate the bonus stage music with the holidays. And Sonic 2 was the first game I ever pre-ordered (well, my parents did for me anyway). I remember wearing my “Sonic 2sday” t-shirt to school the next day. And Sonic CD was even more insane to me with its anime opening and redbook quality music.
So maybe I’m prone to cut Sonic some extra slack. Maybe that’s true of me and Sega in general. But it is what it is. I certainly played lots of video games on lots of systems over the years, but I truly cut my teeth on Sega. There’s so many important memories attached there. You could say that my first rogue-likes were Fatal Labyrinth and Toejam & Earl. There was the shock-factor of Mortal Kombat’s blood code or the existence of Night Trap. There were those many Friday nights I spent watching late night shows tethered to a wall so to not waste AA batteries whilst playing Mortal Kombat II and NBA Jam on a Game Gear. I mean if you really wanna see me get wistfully nostalgic about video games, you just need to bring up Sega.
I tell you all this for full disclosure. I’ll go on and on about how I prefer Sonic Adventure to Mario 64. Or how Sonic All-Star Racing is one of the best kart racers ever. Or how even 2006’s Sonic remake and Sonic The Hedgehog 4 had some pretty good ideas. But I tell you this knowing that I’m in a minority. I want you to know that anything positive I say about Sonic Mania is just really positive. I’m not saying it with a “but” attached.
And now ironically I’m playing a new Sonic game on a Nintendo console. Yeah, I picked up a Nintendo Switch recently. For all the criticism I toss at Nintendo, I’ve got to admit that this new hardware is pretty amazing. It’s a console, but it’s also a handheld. I can play a game on a TV co-op with my wife, or I can play it as a portable by myself. There’s something brilliantly simple there. Something I’ve been trying to find an analog in the PC world - be it one of Nvidia’s Shield devices or a Windows tablet, but nothing seems quite as elegant a solution.
Sonic Mania is easy to love. While I think that whole “love letter” descriptor is rather trite when talking about new-old games nowadays, it really does apply here. And much of that is thanks to Christian Whitehead, a guy who was such a fan of getting Sonic games right that Sega went ahead and hired him to do so. I mean let’s be real: at their most base, 2D Sonic games are going to live and die by their physics. If you can’t get the speed right; if you can’t get the bounce-back or weight of Sonic right; if you can’t get the spindash right, then your 2D Sonic game is going to be a failure before the end of stage one. Whitehead knows what he’s doing here. And I applaud Sega for realizing that someone so passionate about fangames or Android ports should be helming proper Sonic installments now. As such, everything here is authentic. The look, the feel, THE MUSIC!
Sonic Mania isn’t entirely new. But it’s not entirely a re-shash either. Instead it’s some kind of mish-mosh of Sonic elements. Classic stages rub elbows with new, yet vaguely familiar ones. Old mechanics are revisited and feel perfectly natural next to new ones. The game looks 16-bit but then something like the switching between foreground and deep background or allowing pollution to cloud the screen make it obviously more technologically advanced. And through the whole thing you can almost picture Whitehead gleefully smirking as he throws something (old or new) at a player. One minute your revisiting Green Hill Zone, the next it’s Sonic Spinball or Mean Bean Machine. You never really have a moment to catch your breath, let alone get bored.
There are plenty of Zones but none of them wear out their welcome. Each Zone consists of two levels and then a boss. This constant variety is what makes the ongoing introduction of new mechanics so easy. The speed at which you’re seeing something new is parallel to the speed at which you’ll keep Sonic running. And this is one of the 2D Sonic games that really gets that right. I’ve long talked about how the original Sonic was actually a much slower and more intricate platformer than the commercial or its reputation gave it credit for. But by contrast, Sonic Mania is all balls-to-the-walls.
My only personal plight comes way at the end of the game. Basically, I hated the very last zone. Or rather an important mechanic of that zone. There’s this globe things that you spin around and use them to rocket you to higher points. I’m just trash when it comes to timing these things and as such, I have actually lost numerous lives due to a time limit. This is a rather jarring juxtaposition from earlier in the game when I was coasting right along without a problem. I mean, even realizing there’s a time limit in a song game is a weird thing to me. I tend to play the first Sonic pretty slowly and patiently. But this last zone in Mania finds me rushing so as not to time-out, but ultimately beefing it. I have made it to the boss only to lose, and find myself having to start the whole zone (both levels) over again. It’s not a happy feeling.
So basically I hate the end of the game, but I loved everything that came before it. That’s fine with me. It’s a small percentage of the game, and it’s not even the game’s fault that I’m trash at this mechanic. There’s plenty of reason for me to come back to Mania anyway. Playing as Tales or Knuckles is a good incentive to start with.