Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Graduated Gamer's Game of the Year 2013

The end of another year is nearly upon us and like clockwork every gaming site, magazine, and blogger big and small is making a list of their top games of the year. I’ve never really been much of a sucker for this sort of thing, whether it’s done by self-touted experts or fan voting, because as I’ve said numerous times before on this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter, gaming tastes are extremely subjective. Sure, there are some phenomenally rated games every year, but does it mean that they should be considered Game of the Year (GOTY) over lesser-rated games? Does a number truly dictate if a game offers significantly better entertainment value to a gamer?

These matters are what drive websites to more hits, because humans are drawn to interaction and discussion with others, even if it involves nothing more than fanboy arguments and homophobic slurs (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just check out any IGN or YouTube comments section about anything). Still, opinions are like assholes (and even worse, it’s mostly assholes who share their opinions) and every year the voting and conversations about GOTY lead to arguments about games that get the most press because “experts” use their groupthink to give them all near-perfect scores in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the deranged masses. It makes me sad to think that we live in a world where people demand a reviewer be fired for giving GTA 5 less than a perfect score, but alas it’s true.

Well somebody's getting fired!

Regardless, I like to think that there are still sane, reasonable gamers in the world who prefer to think for themselves rather than let the opinions of others sway them. I mean, do you really trust someone who thinks a single sentence and a paragraph can be the same thing?

I know I certainly don’t.

But I digress – I’ve decided to cave this year and tell you all what game I’ve chose as my GOTY. Now I’ll admit right now that about 95% of my gaming is done on the Xbox 360, and I also didn’t start gaming seriously until about halfway through the year. Oh, and one more caveat – I played a lot of retro games and games not from 2013 this year. So essentially, when you boil down my seriously playing time to games from 2013, you get Grand Theft Auto V and Dynasty Warriors 8. And this is where most of you should stop reading, because I’m about to name a personal GOTY based on non-empirical and highly subjective data from a severely limited pool of games from this past year on one console (are you beginning to see yet why I hate GOTY awards?).

If you’re still reading, I apologize, but I’ll just get to it. The winner of the inaugural Graduated Gamer Game of the Year Award (henceforth known as GGGOTY) is Grand Theft Auto V. This should come as no shock to my followers and readers, as I spent an unacceptable amount of time playing this came when it released. For one, I was at the midnight release which I’ve never done before for a video game, and I played it for almost 8 hours straight that first night before going to bed for a few hours to promptly wake up and play it the entire next day.

Rockstar, you're a bunch of mad geniuses.

Now amount of playing time doesn’t necessarily make this a great game, but the reason why I was so enthralled does. For one, the story is at least engaging, which is a plus for a GTA game. After the now-understood abomination of a game in Grand Theft Auto IV gave us not only a boring story but uninteresting characters with no emotional attachment, the geniuses at Rockstar seemed to realize their mistake and put a lot of effort into the design of the characters and their respective story-arcs. I was extremely engaged and invested in these characters, and even more so I found myself laughing out loud at the in-game and cut scene dialogue. If the game wasn’t so absolutely gorgeous to look at, I’d say that the writing was the best thing about this game.

But alas, the graphics are phenomenal, and as someone who always stays away from the argument of “game X will be amazing because the graphics are great”, this pains me to say. But I can’t deny a game so beautiful that I actually spent moments in the game taking in-game pictures of scenery and just moving the camera around to catch the perfect shot of a sunset over a mountain. For a world this large with various ecosystems and a large city to explore, the textures are well-done (even if it does take them a few seconds to fully realize when you’re moving across the map) and I found myself just staring in awe at how well-designed every detail was. You could certainly tell that the makers of this game took pride in what they were doing, and I have to appreciate this.

Gorgeous mountain views await you in Los Santos!

Lastly, the gameplay is a blast. The GTA series has always done a good job (understatement) of adding new and revolutionary ways to play in their wide open worlds, and they certainly set the bar pretty high in their latest installment. Almost everything you see in the game can be driven and/or explored and/or stolen and/or reached and/or destroyed and/or killed. The amount of freedom you are given in this game is impressive, and the nice little touches to crimes you can commit and missions you can complete make all the difference between a great game and my GGGOTY. Store clerks shooting at you after you rob them isn’t a necessary touch, but it adds a small detail that will make you stand up and slow-clap…once you get the hell out of there and evade the cops that is.

I could continue to drone on and on about how Grand Theft Auto V is my GGGOTY, and I haven’t even gotten into the online portion of the game (which, depending on your viewpoint and experience, could make or break my argument for this game being the best of 2013), but I don’t want to bore everyone to sleep. Besides, as I said earlier this is all subjective garbage that most of you will disagree with, and frankly I want you too. My experience is extremely limited with games from 2013, and sticking to only the Xbox 360 this past year I’ve missed out on amazing titles like The Last of Us, Diablo III (PC), and Gone Home.

So please, disagree with me, and take everything you read from so-called experts with a grain of salt – the truth of the matter is, your opinion is just as valuable and chances are more informed than those who write for the likes of IGN and Game Informer. Happy New Year everyone – here’s to an amazing 2014 filled with great gaming and fewer fanboy fights about XB1 and PS4. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Top 10 Role-Playing Games

Well, I finally cracked and made it: my list of top 10 RPGs. This was extremely difficult seeing as how I’ve played dozens over the course of my life, but after some forceful encouragement from my girlfriend I was able to narrow it to 10 games. Some people will obviously think my list is crazy, and that there are some true classics missing. To this I say, I was born in 1986 and was therefore too young to play some of the truly old-school, original RPGs. Plus, I like to think that I grew up in the golden age of RPG rejuvenation of the mid-90s, and since all I had was a paper route it was quite hard to afford all the games I wanted to play. I was also a console gamer for the vast majority of my gaming life (including today), so that alone limits my potential library of RPGs quite a bit. Still, as my very wise friend Casey told me, “you played what you liked – no shame in making that list dude.” So, without further ado (and despite any fear of reader backlash), I give you my, Graduated Gamer’s, undisputed* list of the top 10 RPGs of all time!

10) Mass Effect 2

Oh Shepard, my Shepard!
With sexy alien lovin’, a rugged rogue hero, and humanity in danger of extinction, the Mass Effect series had everything a sci-fi fan could want. This may not be a traditional RPG, but the ability to build and level a party of players with different strengths and weaknesses from across the galaxy it still counts in my book. Plus, you’re basically on a one-man mission to save the universe as we know it from certain doom, and it doesn’t get much more RPG than that. The first Mass Effect was great as an intro, but the second installment had better characters (including cameos from the first game) and even better choices that affected the way you played makes the second installment trump the original. Oh, and the Geth Pulse Rifle is possibly the best weapon in a modern RPG I’ve ever seen.

9) Dark Cloud 2

Bringing a wrench to a sword fight is a bad idea.
Dark Cloud is an easily overlooked series from the PS2 era, but any fan of RPGs would be remiss to pass up a gem like this. The cell-shaded look made this game a beauty to look at and play, and still holds up well even to this day (and I’d love to see what an HD remake would look like). The true star of this game was the mix of two classes that are classic staples of the genre: inventor and warrior. One character is all toughness and is your go-to for up-close-and-personal encounters, whereas the other uses ranged weapons like guns and other clever “toys” to get by. Mix in the use of randomly generated dungeons and an original and touching story and you’ve got a classic RPG for the generation.

8) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

If you played Skyrim, you likely died a lot and saw this screen too much.
“Let me guess: someone stole your sweetroll?” This game…seriously man, this game. I hadn’t sunk 100+ hours into a single playthrough of a game since Final Fantasy VII, but Skyrim easily stole 120+ hours of my life and I don’t think I even bat an eyelash when I found out. If there’s one thing that RPGs love to do, it’s send you on side quests to either distract you from the main story or give you more background to why you do what you do. Skyrim did an amazing job with the balance of the side quests and especially with the way they made you realize just how alive the world was around you while you were off gallivanting around as the Dragonborn. The specialty/trait trees added a nice spin to traditional leveling up and did a great job of getting you to think critically about the choices you made in the game and when assigning your next attribute. I’m actually afraid to pick it back up for another go around, it’s that addicting.

7) Final Fantasy VII

Iconic image is iconic.
Now before you jump down my throat about what many people consider the “best RPG of all time” only being #7 on my list, hear me out. Yes, this game essentially single-handedly brought the genre back to the forefront of gamers’ minds, and yes it was visually stunning (well, the CGI was at least), and yes it had an amazing hero-villain duo, and yes Aerith’s death was heart-wrenching. And yes, when I list all those things out and paired with the fact I’ve played it through 100% on three separate occasions makes me doubt its low position on the list. However, it’s more a gut feeling for me rather than the game’s influence on the industry. I tend to be a very emotional player and tend to connect more with a game via my heart than my head, and looking back I liked a lot of the characters, and thought they were all cool and badass; but I only loved a few of them. If you asked me 15 years ago, this game would be tops, but alas I grew up, and so did my tastes.

6) Final Fantasy Tactics

Dear Square(soft..er Enix): never stop making beautiful cover art.
If it not for a very unfortunate series of events, this game could very well be higher on my list. About 9 years ago, I played the hell out of this game. I think an entire summer was spent either playing SOCOM with my dad, or playing Final Fantasy Tactics late into the night. I lost many hours of sleep getting lost into a truly fantastical world of chivalry, knights, ladies, might, magic, and other wondrous things that little boys grow up dreaming about while building their LEGO Castle sets. I was so close to beating the game, and one night I saved before the final battle so I could tackle it when fresh from a full night’s rest. However, I was also going up north for vacation the next day with my parents, and in the process of packing I somehow lost my memory card. It was never seen again and to this day I’ve never actually beat Final Fantasy Tactics. Still, because the game was so memorable and the story so deep, it haunts me to this day as one of my biggest gaming regrets. [Also, go easy on me and avoid spoilers if you can.]

5) Fallout 3

"I don't want to set the world on fire."
This game was my introduction into western RPGs, and I don’t think I could have picked a better game. I never played the original PC Fallout games, but I did my research beforehand and realized I was in for a treat…and Fallout 3 did not disappoint. One of the best gaming moments for me ever was when I first stepped outside after escaping Vault 101 and blinking off the sun’s harsh light stared amazed at the harsh wasteland before me. From that point every quest, every pocket picked, every mole rat squashed was a lesson in what the western world could and should do with role-playing games. Despite the glitches (to be expected with a game of this size), I’ve never had so much fun exploring a desolate wasteland before, and I’m eagerly awaiting Fallout 4 (understatement).

4) Pokémon Red/Blue

Pokemon Rap Battle...GO!
What can I say about the games that started it all that hasn’t already been said? Not only was this game filled with 151 adorable creatures to catch and collect obsessively like a hoarder, but underneath the cutesy façade lied a complex game that relied as much on strategy and a little bit of luck as much as it did on grinding. For those of us lucky enough to experience this game when it released in the 90s, we’ll never forget the memorable moments that blew away our conventions of what an RPG should be, especially on a handheld. Whether it was sitting under tress during recess with cables running between bulky green-screen GameBoys, or running home after school to battle the next gym leader, my time spent with the first versions of Game Freak and Nintendo’s series about pocket monsters that became a massive hit will always be remembered fondly.

3) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Peach obviously isn't happy about placing third..
Seriously, you know you’ve got a winning combination when Nintendo pairs with Squaresoft to make a JRPG starring everyone’s favorite mustachioed plumber. What made this game so fantastic was it took Mario out of his platforming safe-zone and dropped him smack dab into a world filled with magical star powers, evil wedding cakes, and, of course, hit points. The 3D look of this SNES game was gorgeous to behold in its time. To me though, the characters in this amazing mash-up are the reason the game shines. Princess Peach is no longer the helpless victim and instead busts heads with an iron skillet and a parasol (I’ll admit, it’s a bit sexist); newcomers Mallow and Geno are two of the best one-time characters of any RPG with their mix of heart-warmingly epic and tragic tales; and Bowser is seen in a new light as vulnerable when he’s kicked form his own castle, and even shows us his talent as a wordsmith when he waxes poetic to the gamer (hands-down the best representation of Bowser ever). For a game that seems to not take itself too seriously it is amazing difficult, even requiring gamers to grind intensely in the first hour of the game just to beat earlier mini-bosses. But if you move past the early frustrations, you’ll be treated to one of the best games the genre has ever offered. A must-play for any fan.

2) Final Fantasy IX

*gets misty eyed* ...IT'S DUSTY IN HERE! I'M CUTTING ONIONS!
The Final Fantasy series is filled with so many amazing games, and I truly believe that it’s hard to pick the best one without inserting so much subjectivity. With that in mind, here we go. Final Fantasy IX is, in my opinion, the best game of the series that I’ve played. I will admit that I only got part-way through Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VIII, and I haven’t played a game in the series since Final Fantasy X-2 (yes I played it, and I enjoyed it judgers!), but to this day, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII, nothing will ever compete with the whimsical world of Final Fantasy IX. Over the course of my life I’ve played hundreds of games, and I can easily count on one hand the number of games that caused my emotions to stir so much that it brought tears to my eyes, and this is one of them (to this day, “Melodies of Life” still gives me goosebumps). The love story of Zidane and Dagger is enough to make even a 6’4” bearded man quiver a lip, and the completely tragic existence of my all-time favorite FF character, Vivi, made the 12 year old me search his soul about the meaning of his own existence. Of course there are some flaws with the game, especially the ending where things become a bit confusing and convoluted, but as I said earlier I play more with my heart and when a game still gives you pause over a decade later, you know you’ve got a winner. To not have this in my RPG collection would be a mortal sin.

1) Earthbound

If this is what you think the game looks like, you're gonna be very confused.
And here we are: my #1 RPG of all time. I can’t accurately tell you when my love affair with this game began, but it was a long time ago. I’m talking a time where I had to beg my mom to take me to Blockbuster to rent a game once a week. A time where Funcoland was the big dog in the second-hand video game industry. A time where innocence reigned in my life and the goofy troubles and pressures of a boy named Ness spoke to the childhood version of me more than it ever could with each passing year. The issue with Earthbound is that it isn’t meant to be played by hardcore RPG gamers. It’s meant to be played by casual gamers, especially if they’re younger, because the game, while difficult at times, is light-hearted and speaks to the innocence of youth but the inherent pressures on that same generation of youngsters to one day “save the world”. I may have been an outlier by playing and beating it as a 9 year old, but the game was a dream to me and I felt like I was in a fantasy every time I booted it up. Even the soundtrack is trippy as all hell, but it works with the ever-quirky nature of the game. The humor is top notch, causing numerous laugh-out-loud moments. The writers for Earthbound should be on the staff of every game not trying to be a soap opera (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear 5). Also, the developers clearly had an appreciation for American culture (or a healthy sense of humor about it), because for a JRPG it has a decent amount of western themes (prayer, father-son issues) and references (Blues Brothers, fast food). The game can certainly give hardcore fans of the genre something to remember, as Earthbound is not only a length RPG but also a difficult one to boot. However, unless you played it in its prime during the glory days of the SNES, and unless you’ve retained a decent amount of youthful innocence, a lot of what makes this game #1 in my mind might just go right over your head….but you should still play it because it’s amazing!

[*Actually, it’s okay to dispute this list if you want.]

Making this list was a pain, mostly because there are so many games that are worthy of high praise as RPGs. Therefore, I decided to recognize those that were in the mix but didn't make the final cut to the top 10. Basically, this is just another chance for everyone to disagree with me, but I'm cool with that.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Dragon Quest VIII
  • Paper Mario 
  • Mass Effect 
  • Final Fantasy X 
  • Chrono Trigger 
  • Fallout: New Vegas

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Paying Homage to Role-Playing Games

The other day I decided to create my list of top 10 role-playing games (RPGs), seeing as how it's my favorite and possibly most-played genre in gaming. I was ready to post it today, but decided that that just wouldn't do the genre justice. So, before I share my list with you all, I want to pay homage to the RPG, in my opinion, the greatest genre in gaming, not only currently but across the history of gaming. 

It very plausible that, in essence, without RPGs we wouldn't have video games at all. Some of the earliest games drew inspiration from pen and paper RPGs, and in turn those gaming forefathers inspired future generations of developers to craft even more complex ways to play as mystical sorcerers, hulking warriors, and shadowy thieves. Decades later, games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Fallout revolutionized the way players could dive into the shoes of a hero(ine) of their choosing to save the world from some evil force (or in some cases seek to rule the world with an iron fist). Nowadays we’re lucky enough to have western RPGs that draw inspiration from JRPGs without all that “tedious” and “useless” grinding, as some might put it. However, JRPGs are still going strong with new and familiar faces across the landscape, and right now there is plenty to be happy about if you’re a fan of RPGs – I know I certainly am.

Respect your elders.

If there is one genre I recall from my earlier gaming days having a huge impact on why and how I play games, it’s most certainly RPGs. I played a lot of Mario and Sonic growing up, but when I sit and think about the games that constantly bring a smile to my face, titles like Earthbound and Pokémon always come to the forefront of my mind. To me, gaming was more about being immersed in a story, becoming part of a living, breathing world that your actions directly affected for better or for worse.

Growing up as an only child, I wasn't afforded the luxury of a sibling to play multiplayer with, and my game collection expanded maybe 2-3 games a year based on what Santa brought me under the Christmas tree. Therefore, I found RPGs to be the best bang for my buck as a solo gamer. I was able to get lost in a brand new world for 70+ hours each time, and I truly felt for the people in each one as if they were real. Perhaps being an only child and not having someone around during the summers led me to treat these sprites and pixels as my friends.

So many roles, so much time!

Whatever the reason, RPGs were and continue to be close to my heart, and because they spent so much time with me over the years, I've always come back to them time and again, like an old friend does. Sure we might not speak for a year or two, but it doesn't matter because once I fire up another, all is forgiven and we’re right back where we left off. So here’s the immortal RPGs of gaming past, present, and future – thank you for your countless hours of entertainment, sometimes grueling grinding, and amazing stories that let us live out fantasies of saving the world one summon, one limit break, one battle at a time.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Graduated Gamer Gave Minecraft A Chance

Everybody loves Minecraft, right? I mean, it’s just such an amazing game that feeds off of people’s creativity to make a truly unique experience every time and depending on who is playing. It’s crisp, easy to pick up, hard to master, and has endless replay value. It’s essentially everything that gamers could possibly want in a game. I certainly love it, and combined with my girlfriend we’ve poured over 200 hours into the Xbox 360 edition. However, I almost didn’t even give this revolutionary game a chance.

Years ago, I recall learning about the beta release of Minecraft. I stumbled upon the game after perusing some gaming site, and I’ll admit that my curiosity was piqued. I was in a transition phase from PC and console gaming to strictly console gaming, so I was still interested in a PC-only game, even if a bulk of my time was spent on the PS2 (it took me a while to switch to the next gen of consoles, judge away).

I gave the game a fair shake in my opinion – or at least as big a one you can give a game without actually playing it. Videos were viewed, previews were read, and purchases were considered. However, this was a much different time in my life than where I’m at now. This was a time when JRPGs and FPS dominated my gaming time – if you couldn’t summon or pull a trigger, I wasn’t interested. I was also a very shallow gamer and looked mainly towards a game’s graphics and pedigree as reasons to either play it or not. But most of all, the game seemed based on a player’s creativity to drive the play and the experience, and the Not-Yet-Graduated Gamer did not consider himself to be a creative person at all.

So, rather than keep it on my radar for later or give the beta a try, I gave it a pass and moved on to the next shooter that was in my library. Years passed and I made the transition to strictly playing consoles. I upgraded from the PS2 to the Wii…which I promptly sold and bought an Xbox 360 (a story for another day, I guess) and life was grand. I eventually became a Graduated Gamer and got a big boy job, which soon sucked out my soul and humanity, prompting me to pursue other careers – this included consideration of dream jobs.

If you want me to play it, you should probably release it on these.

A friend recommended looking into Rooster Teeth, the folks behind Red vs. Blue, as a company to explore for ideas on a future career. I took his advice and start watched a bunch of the Achievement Hunter video series. My girlfriend found the Minecraft series particularly entertaining and encouraged me to consider buying the game. I had to admit that the gameplay looked fun, and the graphics weren’t as bad as I remembered. But the biggest selling point for me was that there was now a 360 edition. Now that I was able to play the game on my medium of choice, there really wasn’t an excuse to try it, especially at only $20. So I took the plunge, found the game fascinating and addictive, and the rest is history.

It’s funny what can influence a gamer’s decisions on what to try, what to buy, and what to ignore completely. Mojang obviously didn’t have to come out with a 360 edition of their award-winning and record-smashing game, what with their huge PC following, but they must have known that there was an untapped market of holdouts like me. I’m certainly glad they did, and also glad that my tastes in video games had matured to a point where I was at least willing to reach outside of my comfort zone and try new genres. Of course, I had known about Minecraft’s popularity, read rave reviews, and heard about friend’s amazing creations in the game, so there was plenty of evidence that this wouldn’t be a wasted purchase.

Regardless, I soon found myself immersed in a truly unique gaming experience. At first I was a bit frustrated with the survival aspect of the game and died quite a few times at the hands of zombies before I was able to get a sufficiently sturdy edifice erected. Still, with a little practice, the game soon opened up and I was able to build insane railways, Sims-esque houses complete with furnishings, and my very own castle with hidden rooms and wolves a la Game of Thrones. I also found that my reservations about my creativity were not a limiting factor in my ability to have fun in the game. In fact, the game could be played with meticulous planning and trial-and-error just as well as it could with spontaneous imagination. My experience was also heightened by playing with my girlfriend on split-screen, because she’s the artistic one in the relationship and I could help her build her amazing creations. It was a match made in gaming heaven, and I was hooked.

Our castle is better than this...no it isn't.

I consider this a learning lesson for the way I view games now and in the future. I’ve learned over the years that gaming tastes are extremely subjective, from the passing fanboy to the most “expert” of reviews; it all really boils to opinion. Many people stay away from games with “low” scores or that don’t fit into their personal favorite genres. However, I believe that gamers should at least create informed opinions about the games they choose to ignore, otherwise we’re (almost) no better than all the fanboys out there. I’m certainly glad that I gave Minecraft a chance, because it not only expanded my gaming horizons, but it helped me realize that my skills and tastes in gaming were not just relegated to my old pre-conceived notions. Over a year and 200+ hours of gameplay later, it’s one of the best $20 purchases I’ve ever made.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

GTA Online's Superfluous Bad Sport System

Once in a while a game will do something that absolutely pisses me off. I tend to be a pretty easy-going guy, so this happens pretty infrequently. However, there are times when a gaming company, a video game itself, gaming fans, or the industry as a whole throws something out there that gives me a truly “WTF” moment. This time, the offender is none other than Rockstar Games for a recent game you may have heard about – GTA V.

Okay, so it’s not actually GTA V but rather GTA Online, but that’s splitting hairs. The odd thing is, my “WTF” moment  had nothing to do with something Rockstar did in their newest blockbuster game that I felt was too violent or obscene – you know, the usual suspects. No, I’m talking about the implementation of the “Bad Sport system” that is used online. For those of you who aren't familiar with this, if you are deemed a “Good Sport” in GTA Online, you are rewarded with $1000 every few days or so. However, if you are tagged as a “Bad Sport” you are banned from “Good Sport” servers, are unable to game with friends (even in private sessions), forced to wear a dunce hat, and must remain in this mode for 48 hours real-time.

I'll go to the time-out corner, but I'm not gonna be silent or calm about it.

It sounds a bit harsh, but obviously this is a way for Rockstar to keep the game playable and make sure people aren't being complete and utter dicks, right? Well, let’s take a look at the ways you can be labeled a “Bad Sport” in online mode:

1) Quitting a job before it’s finished.
2) Reported and kicked numerous times from servers by your fellow gamers.
3) Destroying another gamer’s personal vehicle.

The first two seem to be aimed at people who I traditionally have a problem with online. I hate when people bail on a session because it’s not going their way, leaving me high and dry to try and beat it alone, others are so obnoxious with their mic that I have to go through the arduous process to mute and report them in the menus. No, those seem legit reasons for pushing people out of “Good Sport” servers. It’s the last reason, destroying a player’s personal vehicle, which to me makes absolutely no sense.

Can't touch this!

Before we dive too deep into my full rant, let’s observe for a moment what the Grand Theft Auto series is all about. It’s an open world sandbox game that allows you to do essentially anything you want. And this isn’t just some gimmick or sideshow in gaming; Rockstar prides itself on this gaming innovation that they popularized with GTA III when it essentially revolutionized the way we play video games today. Want to blow up a garbage truck? Go ahead, here’s a grenade! Want to beat a pedestrian to death with a golf club for petty cash (or no reason at all)? Sure thing, do you want to work on your long game or your short game? Care to break into a military base and go for a joy ride in a jet? Don’t forget your air-sick bag! Literally all of those things are possible and much more, yet Rockstar will not allow you to blow up another gamer’s personal care without consequences.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yea GG, but it must be hard to replace a car in online mode, or really expensive. Rockstar wouldn't just do this for no valid reason.” Well, I thought about that myself, but after having my personal car blown up numerous times in the game, I learned that getting your car back was as simple as calling the in-game insurance company, paying a deductible, and picking it up in the city. That’s it – and you’ll have a brand new, shiny ride ready to tear it up across Los Santos. So what I've got here is Rockstar telling me that after hours upon hours and game after game of playing like a crazed-one-man-army-sociopath that now I can’t even blow up cars to kill players in GTA Online, even though you can insure cars and get them back with a phone call? I’m not too sure they thought this one through thoroughly enough.

"I was going to blow up your car, but this seemed more acceptable."

For instance, one might say that it’s unfair to charge another player to replace their car when you’re at fault. That’s a fair argument, but here’s the deal – the person who destroyed the vehicle also gets charged a fee regardless of whether the other player replaces their car or not. I think this is fair, but Rockstar should’ve taken it further and charged the offender more money, and not charged the owner of the vehicle anything. Some cars can be expensive to replace, and if you’re a lower level player with a small bank roll, you’ll learn really quick not to blow up somebody’s supped up sports car. It seems like Rockstar missed a prime opportunity to implement negative reinforcement without ruining one of the aspects that makes the GTA universe so much fun (i.e. – utter chaos).

Perhaps Rockstar intended to curb trolling or griefing behavior with this system. However, there are two flaws with it that anyone who’s played GTA Online will immediately recognize. One is that you can create a private session to roam around Los Santos with friends away from the general population. Here you can feel safe and secure from those mean people who do drive-bys, plant bombs on cars, and try to experience the open-ended gameplay of GTA Online to its fullest potential. The other is that griefers are now protected if within the confines of their personal vehicles. Granted, I've been sniped dead while driving my car around, so no griefer is 100% safe; however, if someone wanted to constantly run down other players they are now essentially safe from the easiest method of ending their reign of terror – a well-placed sticky bomb or grenade and blowing them to hell! But nope, can’t touch that almighty personal (and fully insured) vehicle or you’ll be put in video game timeout.

The system is broke, yo!

Now why exactly does this make me so hot under the collar? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, I know how harsh the penalty is first-hand, and I don’t think it fits the crime. A buddy and I were rolling around Los Santos last week in his personal vehicle having a good time getting high wanted levels and going on grand cop chases. Once in a while another player would get in our way and suffer consequences, but we generally kept to ourselves on our merry chases. I would ride shotgun and try to keep the fuzz off our tails and once in a while I’d employ the use of grenades and sticky bombs.

Well as anyone who’s played GTA before can tell you, explosives are very much a double edged sword and can cause massive chain reactions when cars are close together. On few occasions I detonated a bomb that eventually and accidentally destroyed me, my friend, and his vehicle. Apparently Rockstar gives you only 3 strikes and you’re out, because after the third botched explosives attempt, I was informed that I was now a “Bad Sport” and I was banished to the lower servers for 48 hours. I was unable to play with my friends, I had to wear a stupid dunce hat, and worst of all, it ruined 2 full days of gaming online for me. Blowing up 3 personal vehicles does not seem to warrant 48 hours of what is essentially being sent to the corner to think about what I’d done.

With this, you are your own worst enemy...and for only $500 a piece!

I eventually served my time, but it was miserable. The “Bad Sport” servers are not much for doing missions since everyone is running around blowing things up, likely because they realize that this is the place with true freedom in the game. Also, I’d heard that any other “Bad Sport” behavior would add to the time I would have to spend there, so rather than risk it I sat in my online apartment and watched the chaos on TV, or simply played something else entirely.

Still, the lack of balance between crime and punishment isn't the biggest reason why this irks me – Rockstar is basically telling people that they cannot play the way they have trained us to play the rest of their games. After playing over 50 hours in the single player mode, I was used to rolling around the map raising all sorts of hell. Blowing up vehicles was a normalcy after playing for so long, but that all changed with the release of GTA Online. Sure you can blow up all sorts of non-personal vehicles in the online mode, but they often look the same as personal vehicles if a player hasn't given them a flashy paint job, and personal vehicles aren't marked in any way on the map. This means that a player could just as easily be driving a personal vehicle as they could a random one off the street, and there’s no way to know. Therefore, good-bye fun explosions, and hello nanny state gaming.

One of these is a Personal Vehicle: can you guess which one?

I will say this – GTA Online is still a blast to play, and one doesn't have to blow up vehicles to have a good time. I’m not saying that the game is ruined by the advent of a “Bad Sport” system. What I am saying is that it’s absurd and frankly hypocritical of Rockstar to punish players for playing a game as they wish it to be played, which is free and open like intended. Sure, it sucks having your vehicle blown up, but if you don’t like it then stick to missions and private sessions with buddies. Besides, complaining about somebody blowing up your stuff in GTA is akin to bitching about getting shot too much in a game like Call of Duty. If that’s you’re beef then I think you've picked the wrong game to play anyways.

I’m not a huge fan of trolling and griefing, especially when it makes a game unplayable, but in the end,  if I had my way I’d rather have a game where it’s allowed but I also had the freedom to play it the way I wanted to. Honestly, I think that a game series like GTA is truly revolutionary and a gift to the gaming world. They've fought through a lot of crap to finally give gamers the freedom to do anything they want, an experience many of us will never forget. However, it appears they’re willing to sacrifice truly free gameplay to accommodate the loud complainers of online communities about how unfair it is for people to blow their stuff up. Those who want to sacrifice gaming liberty for a little bit of security can get the hell out of my servers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Tiny Death Star (Android)

Oh Star Wars – no matter how much I bitch about anything not related to the original trilogy, I still love you so much. There’s so much to love, from the iconic music scores to the lovable characters to the universal and relatable themes throughout, that when you apply it to other media outside of film it’s almost a guaranteed win. The Star Wars franchise is certainly no stranger to this with its numerous best-selling novels, popular TV series, and of course highly-rated video games. With the wildly successful Angry Birds-Star Wars crossover for iOS and Android I guess it was simply a matter of time before another crossover happened – this time with the addictive Tiny Towers series.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tiny Towers, it’s a sickeningly adorable game where you create a skyscraper floor by floor with businesses and residential areas, and then move in tenants (aka – Bitizens) and employ them in those businesses to fund further construction. Overall, it’s hugely addictive and therefore wildly successful. With the Star Wars theme in play, you take over as Darth Vader who is tasked by the Emperor to fund and build the Death Star through the exact same gameplay as the original Tiny Towers game: by building new floors and selling products. However, when done through the lens of the greatest space opera franchise of all time, you get an experience that would make any fanboy or girl giddy.

Search your wallet, you know it to be empty.
As I stated earlier, the game is highly addictive. As soon as you build your first floor and you see some Bitizens move in and get jobs in your new businesses, you don’t want to stop. This is heightened by the fact that the floor’s theme is unknown until it’s ready to hire Bitizens. Sure, you know it’ll be a restaurant, but will it be an Ewok Sweets, or a Mos Espa Café? You get a rush each time a new floor’s theme is announced, and it feels oh so good.

I didn't know the Empire had such a lax dress code...I'm looking at you, Sunglasses!
Oh, and if you’re looking for something adorable, then the Tiny Towers series has got you covered. The Bitizens themselves are cute little pixels with gaping mouths and sometimes idiotic looking faces, but they’re so lovable  This is amplified when they decide to “voice” themselves on the Death Star’s version of Twitter, the Holonet. Some of them are just canned messages about the floor’s new stock or a business closing for the day, but then there are truly clever and chuckle-worthy posts that show a light-hearted nature.

Is this the definition of meta? Don't care, it's adorably funny.
But where the game truly shines is of course in the Star Wars theme. The Tiny Towers addiction is rocketed into the stratosphere when you add in collecting Bitizens from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. The game has Rebel and Empire Bitizens, neutral Bitizens, alien Bitizens, Bounty Hunter Bitizens – if it’s seen in any of the 6 Star Wars movies chances are you’ll see it in this game (yes, even Gungans). As mentioned earlier there are themed floors, and if you’re lucky to have a special Bitizen reach the right floor, you’ll unlock a special event. Most of these reenact a scene from one of the movies. They’re very rare, especially given the rarity of special characters and the high price of buying floors in later stages, but when they happen they’re quite a treat.

Leia with Cupcake Dog Eyes?
Still, if you want to collect all the themed stores, Bitizens, residences, and unlock all the secret events, you’ll have to either be extremely patient or shell out some real-world money to expedite the process. This, just like with the original Tiny Towers, is the one key flaw in this amazingly fun game. The game is slow-paced after about the 6th floor or so, and this is obviously a way to entice you to buy more coins and Imperial Bux to move the game along. I personally am not one to give in to such business tactics (hell, I rarely buy DLC for console games), but if you’re okay with that you’re going to find a lot to enjoy by pitching in some extra moo-la. And if you’re more like me and feel patience is a virtue, this game can entertain for hours, provided you last through the rough grinding sessions.

Gaping Mouth = Standard Bitizen Look
However, despite this flaw the game is sure to delight any fan of the original Tiny Towers game and especially Star Wars fans everywhere. You’ll constantly be saying to yourself “just one more minute” or “I need to stock this one item then I’ll quit”, and before you know it you’ll be grinding away trying to build that next service floor, unlock new species, or capture those pesky Rebel spies. Oh, and did I mention it’s free? That’s enough to make even the most dedicated Jedi turn to the dark side. Give in to your temptations – you know you want to.

The Emperor not sure if adorable or cute as a button.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Silent Hill (PSX)

To say my experience with the horror genre of games is lacking would be an understatement. I've made that clear in a previous post about my relationship with games intended to scare the crap out of you. Still, it’s Halloween and ‘tis the season for games like Dead Space, Amnesia, and Resident Evil. However, I thought that starting my foray into the horror/survival genre with something modern like Outlast would be a bit unfair to some of the classics. Since I had a PSX and N64 on hand I thought of maybe starting with a game from that generation. After putting it to a vote on my blog between Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Nightmare Creatures, the readers chose the original Silent Hill.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed (sorry readers!), mainly because I've always heard such amazing things about the Resident Evil franchise; plus it did release before Silent Hill making it sort of the “father” of modern survival horror. But what to do, the people have spoken and I’m not one to disappoint. However, to say that I was excited to play this game would be an outright lie – in fact, I was terrified.

And that fear turned out to be justified. One of the first things Silent Hill did was get under my skin. Every step I took in the first hour was torturous because I knew it brought me closer to some sort of danger. Every creak made my skin crawl, even though I hadn't encountered a single enemy yet! Now obviously this is the purpose of horror games – to make you squirm – and I’m definitely not the pinnacle of bravery when it comes to this genre, but I have to give credit where credit is due. The thing about Silent Hill is that it doesn't rely so much on jump scares and the feeling of complete helplessness like many games today. You’re almost immediately equipped with a weapon and the game usually gives you fair warning when danger is nearby. No, Silent Hill does a great job of just being plain old creepy. It makes you feel uncomfortable about where you are: every corner, every door (whether locked or not), and every room becomes a battle of sheer will to continue, because you never know what awaits you.

Trust me, mailboxes and fire hydrants can be friggin' scary.

And what’s awaiting you isn't always a monster or trap. Sometimes it’s the empty spaces that mess with your mind the most. There were plenty of hallways and rooms that contained nothing, yet they made me uneasy. Some of those rooms would give me a scare with a random noise that sent me running for the door as quick as I could, but most of them were completely and I left them unscathed, but not unnerved. For a game made almost 15 years ago to effortlessly get me off guard – even with the extremely poor graphics compared to the modern games – is quite a feat in my opinion, and shows that the creators of Silent Hill knew their craft.

Okay, so now you know that Silent Hill is scary (yea, I know – duh), but what about the controls? Well I have to admit that I hated them at first. I honestly almost gave up completely on any hope of finishing the game because of the awkward way you control your character, Harry Mason. You use the thumbstick to turn your character and then press up on that same thumbstick to move Harry forward in whatever direction he happens to be facing. It’s very awkward and if this is your first experience with the game you’ll likely run into a few walls like I did. However, two things happened fairly quickly: I got the hang of the controls and I realized that they were a part of the horror experience. It would be very easy for the developers to program the character’s movement in any direction as effortless and turning corners a cinch; however, this would have eliminated any feeling of vulnerability in the game.

Just because you have a gun doesn't mean you’re always safe and it’s easy to fend off enemies. There are times when I had to back away from some demonic being or put some distance between me and monster in order to effectively kill them without sustaining damage. The reason this is important is due to the lack of first aid kits and health drinks around the town. If you’re careless and run towards danger with an itchy trigger finger, you’ll likely still take out any and all enemies, but you’ll also take unnecessary damage that can quickly drain your reserves. So in a way, the confusing controls aren't so much a frustrating lapse in game design, but rather an ingenious way to keep the game from becoming a FPS and too easy. Truly brilliant work by Konami.

Hey buddy...WHACK!

Now, a game can have good scares and creative controls to add to the horror/survival feel, but there’s always one very important thing I look for in games outside of the FPS genre if they’re to become memorable – story. It’s the reason why games like Final Fantasy VII and Mass Effect sit so high in my personal gaming echelon, and I can be quite harsh on a damn great game if it relegates story and plot to the backseat. Therefore, I was curious to know what my incentive was if I was going to risk my sanity to help Harry Mason through so many horrifying trials. Well, it’s a pretty standard motivational tool to use the threat of harm against a loved one, especially if it’s your daughter, and this is exactly what drives Harry to fall deeper and deeper into the twisted world of Silent Hill. But the story gets even more intricate from there, with some exceptionally eerie, dark arts at work, and somehow Harry seems to be the key to it all. I’m not going to give away too much because I hate spoilers no matter how small, but it’s safe to say that once I was pulled into this twisted world I actually wanted to keep going further down the rabbit hole.

Most of the motivation came from the desire to see how far I could go, this being my first trip through a horror game, but there were other factors that made the experience enjoyable. One of those factors was the almost open world feel of the game. Furthermore, as not to misconstrue the game at all, Silent Hill is purely linear; doing a good job of pointing out destinations and, using roadblocks of sorts, cleverly guiding Harry to the next area to explore. Still, I thought it was great that I was allowed the opportunity to run around town a bit exploring alleyways and looking for hidden health packs or potential weapons to give me an edge in my next dark quest. You eventually end up in the same places, but the journey can take as long as you want should you choose to explore.

All in all, I think it’s the various characters you encounter throughout Silent Hill that make the experience memorable and actually enjoyable. Perhaps it was because these NPCs made it feel as if I wasn't truly alone in the world, dealing with all the creepiness lurking in the darkness me as I looked for Harry’s daughter, but I soon found each scene with these characters not only distracting but enjoyable. Sure the voice acting is sub-par at best, but their presence was truly comforting. Eventually, I started to eagerly await these moments of bliss, and at certain parts would get excited if a loading screen took a little extra time because it meant that I would soon experience a cut scene with a new or old companion to share my misery with. Sure, I treated these random citizens from Silent Hill as security blankets of sorts, but they also helped drive the story forward, by adding a little bit of context to the twisted situations I found myself in.

She's 10 years younger and 100% more badass than Harry. Hold me, Cybil!

I wish at this point that I could say more about this game, but in all honesty it’s hard to wrap my head around. I've been so used to playing RPGs and action/adventure games over the last two decades that my first experience with a horror/survival game was mainly a research study in how well I respond to being scared and having to carry on. That being said, I was more than happy to find myself enjoying the game despite the scares. I initially took it upon myself to “nut up” and continue forward, even during the times when all I wanted to do was run to the nearest save point and call it a night. But the further I got in the game, the more I found myself actually enjoying the experience, even the parts where I got a mild form of Tourette’s due to an unexpected scare. I think at the end of the day, the true success of a survival horror game like Silent Hill is whether or not they can scare you but also keep you engaged before, during, and after the scares. A game purely meant to scare would be no fun for me; but if combined with a good story, a spine-chilling ambiance and imaginative controls that actually added to ones engagement with the game, then you've got a winning combination that would keep even the biggest pansy in horror video games for entertained for hours.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Hate-Hate Relationship with Horror Games

October is well under way, and if you’re like me and live in the Midwest United States, this means a number of things: leaves changing colors, apple cider & donuts, and of course, Halloween (okay, that one isn't exactly Midwest-specific). For one of the most beautiful times of the year, October has the (mis?)fortune of being mostly associated with the grim and the grisly.

As a result, everything that happens during the month of October is tied to some horror theme or another. You've got your monster movie marathons, new scary releases in everything from movies to books to theatrical performances, and of course, there are your survival/horror video games. If I were to pick a genre that I liked the least and played the least, it would be this one. I can’t exactly pinpoint why this came to be, but when everyone was “enjoying” being scared to death by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I was content playing Harvest Moon 64 or Final Fantasy IX.

Do you like scary video games? My answer is always "no".

Still, it is intriguing that I've nearly avoided an entire genre of games over 20+ years of gaming. When I think about it, I can only name a few titles that I've played that might be considered a part of the survival and/or horror genre: Friday the 13th, Devil May Cry, and Bioshock. Even those are a stretch, especially when there are truly terrifying games out there, from the critically acclaimed Dead Space, to the indie and just as chilling One Late Night. While I proclaim my inexperience with the horror genre with a small amount of pride, I’m also aware that to truly be a gamer, I should probably experience all types of games, at least to give them a fair shake.

But seriously, why don’t I like survival/horror games? It’s a good question, and I don’t have a straight answer, only a few theories. Growing up I had a very bad experience with the horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was 12 when I saw the movie for the first time, and it scared me so much that I had trouble sleeping for weeks. I was convinced that Freddy Krueger was going to kill me in my dreams and as a result became quite gun-shy (no-pun intended) around horror flicks. While I soon got over this fear and now thoroughly enjoy horror movies, I still find the idea of playing games in the same vein a little too much to handle.

I do have an idea that for me, my fear comes down to an emotional attachment in gaming. While watching a movie, I’m okay with some people dying – hell, if the victim is a total idiot I can claim that they “deserve it” and even root for the killer. They’re actors on a screen and I have no control over their fates whatsoever; for me it’s a completely bystander experience where I feel safely removed from whatever terror is plaguing the screen. However, when I’m gaming I actually control what happens on the screen. My actions have a direct effect on a character’s fate, whether good or bad. This creates an emotional attachment, and the character becomes somewhat of an avatar. It’s this connection that is possibly why I have a tough time playing scary games. I know they’re meant to make players jump and I know that I’m not in any physical danger, but it still feels all too real to me. It’s more personal and I even find myself getting goosebumps and chills just thinking about playing games like Outlast <shudder>.

This is me after playing horror games for any amount of time.

However, being a gamer at heart and now a writer/blogger in the gaming community, the time was bound to come when I would have to succumb to the pressures of October’s theme and delve into a genre I've done well to avoid. For the month of October, I’m going to finally immerse myself into the horror/survival genre. I plan on reviewing at least two games before the end of the month: Silent Hill and Maere - When Lights Die. The first will be tough enough to deal with, but the second may just be the end of me, as there’s a good possibility that I’ll be playing it with the Oculus Rift system (I’ll likely be updating my living will just in case thing go terribly wrong). Until then, I’ll just continue to mentally prepare myself for the most terrifying gaming experience of my life. What in the hell have I gotten myself into?