Friday, December 31, 2010

Screenshot Friday - 2011 Edition

Let's all raise our glasses to a fine 2010, and cross our fingers that the games I am looking forward to in 2011 actually 2011.

And, just maybe...3?

...and to many, many more. Happy New Year, Everyone!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Was it Love at First Sight?

When I thought about how I would present my list of favorite games played in the last year, I considered doing the reveal followed by the list of appealing characteristics that are usually employed in this kind of endeavour. But to be honest, I already did that with my previous post, Fallen Soldiers-explaining the reasoning behind why I left them behind using language that described the mechanics or narrative disappointments. For the best ones, however, the ones I treasured dearly, I will instead describe to you the moment during play where I knew I was enraptured.

A few of these were released prior to 2010, and they are in order of when I played them.

  • Bayonetta - After a striptease introduction in a graveyard that at best can be called coy, and at worst, overtly hyper-sexual, I was hesitant to join Bayonetta on her journey. But it was in a garden courtyard with a bubbling fountain centerpiece, when our heroine jumped into the air and her shadow glided carefully back to the ground using a set of sweeping butterfly wings, gracefully reconnecting with her ass-kicking, gun enhanced stiletto boots that I knew I was in for the entire ride. And when the moon lent a hand to assist Bayonetta’s graceful movements, I reached the point of no return.

  • Bioshock 2 - Although I adored being back in Rapture, now fighting for something more tangible than just my own life and the urgent need to escape, it wasn’t until a point near the end of the game that I experienced something more profound-seeing the world of Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister. Instead of broken pieces of water-soaked furniture and mutated corpses, our ADAM addicted innocents see the rooms draped in white satin, with red plush floors and ornate urns with live plants spilling over the sides curved against each sloping staircase. The rooms are covered in rose petals and the bodies on the floor merely sleeping angels. This is a Rapture where the windows never crack, the people still laugh, and the propaganda posters are still fresh from the press. Nothing about the series felt more poignantly horrifying than toddling through the rooms and seeing the facade crack in flashes of despair, the real world infesting Ryan’s Utopian vision.
  • Heavy Rain - Despite the gaping plotholes and some terrible dialogue, no one will deny that the Oragami Killer changed the world of video games. But the moment I was most impacted by the narrative wasn’t when Jason died or when I had to contemplate cutting off Ethan’s finger. Absolutely, those scenes were emotionally wretched and shocking in terms how we normally interact with games, but it wasn’t until Ethan was attempting to escape the police on top of the hotel roof where I really felt the weight of the game fall on top of me. You see, Ethan was incredibly hurt, covered in bandages and limping. There was no way he could escape because of me. My choices were displayed right in front of me in the form of a beaten and bruised protagonist, who held his hand against his side in a gesture of unspeakable pain during each step he took. These were my consequences, and I was deeply moved.
  • Dragon Age - I was overwhelmed by Dragon Age. Playing it taught me a lot about how I have changed as a player since my formative years, when JRPGs were the will and the way. I knew I was in for a long ride, however, when the loading screen informed me that I had been playing for a total of 25 hours. Normally I am fairly aware of how much time I am investing into a particular game, but DA sucked me into a time vortex as only great games can. And it was during a lengthy series of Q & A with Alistair, when he shyly declared his love for me and nervously asked if I loved him in return that my heart was sold. And, oh wow, did I ever.

  • Alan Wake - Playing Alan Wake taught me that sometimes the magic is in the details. Although I thoroughly-nay, ridiculously-enjoyed playing Alan’s waking nightmare (despite the questionable abstract narrative), I was won over completely by Night Springs. The first time I came across a television set sitting innocuously on a desk in a disturbing lumberyard within a shadowy forest, I shrugged. And then I walked over and turned it on and found Night Springs, a sort of meta-show about the goings on inside Bright Falls INSIDE Alan’s head. Combined with the collection of foreshadowing manuscript pages & the addition of contemporary music between episodes and trickling out of radios, I couldn’t get enough. My iPod is full of music I found specifically while playing Alan Wake. More, please.

  • Limbo - At first glance, I found the grey scale art style of Limbo understated and beautiful, but it wasn’t until our little glow-eyed boy stops just short of a kneeling girl fussing in the grass, a stark white light illuminating her from above, that my eyes were filled with real emotion. This picture of innocence became worth saving, no matter the cost.

  • Portal - After two years of wondering, I finally saw the clean white lines of the laboratory fall away to reveal the shabbiness of the prison wardened by a maniacal representation of digital loneliness.

  • Costume Quest - From previous posts I have written, it is clear that almost everything about Double Fine’s little holiday adventure charmed its way into my Halloween enamoured heart. But it was the trick-or-treating that first made my hands clap in childlike glee. The heart stopping anticipation of knocking and wondering what would be waiting on the other side struck me as so reminiscent of what it is like to still believe in the magic of the unknown. And to recreate that feeling in one small moment was remarkable.

  • Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood - Call me overly sentimental, but if I ponder on all of the ways the third installment grabbed me and held on tight, I keep coming back to one moment, which I believe encapsulates all of the romance of the lead characters and the time periods in which the game are set. In the third of the “Cristina Missions” Ezio returns to find his youthful love promised to another man. But this man is a bit of a scoundrel, and Cristina asks Ezio to find him and save him from a consequence of one of his mistakes. Which he does. But he also insists that this man swear an oath that he will be the best husband to Cristina, using Ezio's usual showy and aggressive persuasion tactics. In the next moment we see Cristina, distraught over the events, running towards the bridge in which the altercation took place. In one swift motion Ezio grabs Cristina mid step and pushes her up against a wall hidden to the bridge, kissing her passionately, knowing this is goodbye. So many things about ACB met me squarely in the place where all of my favorite emotions, perspectives and romantic ideals reside, so it was fairly obvious from the beginning that I was going to continue loving the overall world in which the game was set. This flashback mission merely fanned the flames of my overall commitment to the series. And I am fairly unapologetic about how clearly my femaleness is showing right now.

In the past year I have played so many great games that it was hard not to mention more. My hope for the future is that we receive more games like Alan Wake, Bayonetta or Costume Quest. These games were innovative and had something new to offer, whereas so much of the hype and money spending goes towards sure bets in the form of sequels made quickly in order to feed the masses. Even though I am eager for some of these more well-established titles to continue, looking forward to titles such as Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite and Portal 2, I find it’s incredibly important to recognize the rewards that creativity and new environments can bring, despite the risks involved financially. And I am excited to hear more about what 2011 will bring...

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Fallen Soldiers of 2010

Let me first say that I am not a gaming for gaming’s sake kind of player. I am a fairly busy person and therefore have to pick and choose what I play carefully in order to maximize the enjoyment while engaging in my chosen hobby. I don’t really play iPhone games (even though I have one and love it unconditionally), I am hard-pressed to find a game on the Wii that I am just dying to try and I absolutely prefer to interact with my Xbox far and above any other console. So, while collecting the data necessary for writing a summary of 2010, I can see clearly all of the games that, if I were a real game journalist or reviewer, I would regret not trying out strictly for evaluation. But I am neither of those things; I am merely a player who happens to enjoy writing about my experiences, and I don’t quite have the largest pool to choose from in regards to cross-platform familiarity. This doesn’t mean anything, really, other than when I write about 2010 I am coming from a very specific place-a place that doesn’t include some of the games you or your friend or that guy at Kotaku would consider highlights, such as Call of Duty, Fallout New Vegas, Gran Turismo 5 and/or anything having to do with Microsoft’s newest peripheral, Kinect. I never tried Sony’s Move and I don’t have an account on Steam. I am what I am, and since you are reading this, you must think that what I have to say is meaningful enough. This week I am going to summarize my first year as a video game blogger in three separate posts: one about the games that I started but didn’t finish, one devoted to my favorite player experiences this year and one about what I am looking forward to in 2011.

I am a completionist in every sense of the word. Unlike a few people I follow who wrote about all of the reasons they are averse to concluding some of their favorite video game experiences, I find a lot of pride and accomplishment in finding every collectible, exploring all corners of the map and seeing the credits roll after finishing the last task, whether it be a boss fight or that one quest that you failed to finish and went back to long after seeing the end. But that doesn’t mean I complete every game I begin. Sure, I start every game with the intention of finishing, but sometimes circumstances just don’t warrant continuation. Here are my fallen soldiers of 2010, and why I failed to fully actualize their potential:

  • Splinter Cell: Conviction – I rented this game last spring and intended it to be my first full Tom Clancy experience. After playing so much Assassin’s Creed, I assumed that another Ubisoft stealth game would be easy peasy. I was wrong. I made it about an hour in before it became obvious that my hanging-out-the window/shooting skills were rudimentary at best, and that I wasn’t having any fun. I am not the biggest fan of the big crime/vengeance environment unless it’s set in the Renaissance or has dragons in it. Approximately 1.5 hours were spent with Sam before I gave up the ghost.
  • Final Fantasy XIII – I tried so hard to love this game. I played the linear story until I reached the Steppe, forcing myself to adore the paradigm system and trying to piece together the narrative by listening carefully and re-reading the explanations in the menu, but in truth my motivations for playing were less for the actual events in FFXIII but for the feeling of nostalgia I hoped would swirl around me, reminding me of the countless hours I spent playing FFVI & FFVII while I was a teenager. I failed. I got to a pipeline just off the Steppe, was properly defeated by a monster several levels ahead of me and gave up. The idea of grinding held no appeal. My Xbox was dying at the time and would freeze during graphically noisy fight sequences. My teenage love affair with JRPGs is over. Approximately 25-30 hours were spent with Snow & the gang before I threw in the towel. 
  • Red Dead Redemption – Okay, so let me first talk about my relationship with Rock Star sandbox games in general. I like them fine, but only if the environment is appealing. Bully remains one of my favorite gaming experiences of all time, and I enjoyed cruising around GTA: Vice City because it was so deliciously 80s and had a killer soundtrack. I would never play GTA IV because the world doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I didn’t feel this way about RDR, necessarily, because I am mildly interested in the Wild Wild West, but after about 5-6 hours riding my horse, chatting with people, riding my horse, chasing bandits, picking flowers, riding my horse & finally, riding my horse, I failed to engage. And I know this is my own and not the game’s fault, because it truly is a beautiful rendition of the Old West. If I could name any reason for my disinterest in continuing not long after starting it would be the g-d wolves. I got mauled by at least a dozen wild packs of them. Approximately 5-6 hours were spent riding alongside John before I wandered off into the sunset without him.
  • Left 4 Dead – One word: anxiety. I get enough of that in real life, thanks. 
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – This was another one I desperately wanted to like and complete, but unfortunately, it got too difficult for me to continue. I made it through the first of the Titan battles after a LOT of swearing and couch beating, but the second one did me in. And although the overall narrative and setting were okay, I also failed to fully invest enough to want to keep going. Sadly, my Castlevania count remains at zero, but I understand that the franchise is amazing and hope one day to find one that hooks me.
  • Rock of the Dead – This game was bad. Really bad. Matt and I tried to find the fun in its zombie killing musicstravaganza, but it was so bad.
  • Nier – Nier was a quiet little RPG slash Action Adventure game that had some serious potential. The narrative was interesting in the big picture sense, and the spell casting was imaginative. But sadly, it was also really, really boring. The RPG elements involved a lot of running back and forth between two areas or two buildings and the load times were fairly epic-even when merely entering and leaving the town library. I liked the collecting/gathering/errand running aspects combined with the real time fighting, but overall it was just too understated and monotonous to keep my attention. I got the feeling that a playthrough in Nier would take up a huge chunk of time and I wasn’t interested enough to make that kind of commitment. I imagine if I would have had lots of idle time it would have been easier to continue playing, but after approximately 6-7 hours I left Nier and his sick daughter behind to battle the shadows without me.
  • The Sims 3 – I tried really hard to like being back in the nonsensical life simulator that is The Sims, acquiring the console version from Gamefly sometime before Thanksgiving and giving up right before Christmas, but ultimately let it go for the same reason I have abandoned Sims games in the past-they are so ridiculously uninteresting. I began the game as a single lady, hell bent on writing a novel and succeeding in her journalism career, and left as an old lady saddled with three children and no money to pay for their care. I know I could’ve taken a different route, but ultimately it was the silly challenge list and sense of urgency the game employs to keep you going that frustrated me to the point of forsaking it completely. I mean, how the heck am I supposed to write a novel, throw a party, buy books on sale, paint a masterpiece, raise a child, earn skills points and maintain a career in the time allotted me before I am considered ‘elderly’ and sent out to pasture? I am letting this one go for good this time. Approximately 15-20 compulsive, unhappy hours were spent trying to seduce a guy name Louis before a fire broke out in my house and I stopped caring forever.

There are a few more that I could add to this list, but they were let go due to apathy and I am also uninterested in discussing them further. But now let me mention a few that I let go of for one reason or another, but wish to continue. I call these games my ‘in need of resuscitation’ and hope I can pick them up again sometime in the future:

  • Mass Effect – Despite the dozen or so hours I have spent playing Mass Effect, the story has yet to grab me. I loved Dragon Age a lot, so I know that investing in a Bioware environment has it’s payoffs, but I am starting to understand myself a little more here: I love Tolkien fantasy more than space fantasy. Nevertheless, I hope that after spending just a litte more time with Commander Shepard that I will find the love that everyone else professes to feel.
  • Brutal Legend – This one became a victim of neglect when I put it down to play something else and never picked it up again. In other words, it’s not you, Brutal Legend, it’s me.
  • Singularity – I got caught in my own little lock up in this one. I really liked it, despite the obvious similarities to Bioshock, and intended to keep going until I ran into a room without enough bullets to take out everyone inside. Once again, the game was forsaken in order to play something else, but I would really love to dive back in at some point and try again.

A toast to all those that went unplayed, and to those I left behind. I will definitely be playing some of the 2010 releases in 2011, but I will write more as I play them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Among the Assassins

After months and months of writing concerning my apprehension about Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer and the effects it would have on the story mode, I am here to confess that I have converted-but with some reservations. Besides the few games of Scene It? I played online with poor sports who would drop out after it became clear I was about to cream them into bits, I have generally avoided the entire online scene. And not for the normal ‘girl gamer’ reasons such as poor male behavior or aggression-I rarely put a headset on, so I leave that whole experience out of my online interactions. I usually don’t even stick around for long, finding that by the time I enter the arena everyone around me has already been playing a particular game for ages and the environment is no longer very conducive for new players without feeling either a sense of urgent competitiveness (I need to be better than all of them!) or a serious soul crushing (why bother continuing?). But I am finding the world of Brotherhood multiplayer to be generally accepting and the playing grounds fairly even-handed and inviting for people who are usually not community gamers. I know that after a handful of rounds in Wanted Mode and a couple of matches in Manhunt Mode playing alongside some fellow PAXers I have found joy in the multiplayer realm for the first time. And it’s quite fitting and probably not a coincidence that I am finding it within my favorite franchise.

One of the biggest reasons I have stayed away from playing online is that in general, I am not very good at quick maneuvering in video games. I tend to be a little slow and deliberate and this characteristic doesn’t usually lead to great competitive game playing. But that’s kind of the best thing about Assassin’s Creed-all of the skills you learned while playing Altair’s and Ezio’s stories become an incredible asset in multiplayer (I imagine this is true about most games). And since I have been a staunch devotee of the series for so long, I have learned some mad stealth skills along the way, such as the ability to be slow and deliberate on purpose. Instead of making quick decisions and reacting accordingly, a huge piece of being successful in Wanted mode is to completely blend in with the surroundings. Part of being totally in love with a game means learning how to use the controls gracefully and effectively in order to achieve your objectives. And although this didn’t help me much in the Bioshock multi, I am being rewarded generously in Brotherhood. There certainly have been matches where I haven’t scored very well, but I also didn’t get assassinated by other players more than a couple of times, either. So whereas I am doing it half right, it’s also interesting that the half right part is learning to be completely invisible to my opponents because I am normally the clumsiest one in the field. And you know what? I’m pretty darn good at the other half as well-you know, the stabbing part.

So here I am once again eating my previous words about the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed. Whereas before I was name calling and throwing rotten fruit at Ubisoft in the months leading up to its release, now not only am I drooling over the Story Mode in Brotherhood but also grinning stupidly at how much fun I am having tucked into Ranked Matches, repeatedly stabbing people in Wanted Mode. But I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t start whining about something when it comes to Assassin’s Creed, right? You wouldn’t think I liked the series at all, let alone loved it more than peppermint ice cream and fireworks, but truly, I do. This game series has moved me more than most of my favorite book or movie choices-which is pretty huge in my world o’ media. Okay, so now my reservations…The newest DLC chapter, the Animus Project 1.0, released last week with some new multiplayer maps, and Animus 2.0 is set to release in January with more. Umm…what about the Story Mode DLC? Lots and lots of chatter about a new Assassin’s Creed project releasing in 2011, but that’s pretty soon for a fully fleshed out new environment and a new Assassino…is the Story Mode going to be stuck with Ezio forever? Well, the enigmatic ending of Brotherhood’s Story Mode pretty much leaves that out of the equation, considering a few of the past factors were relevant in the future resolutions. So can the team develop a new DNA sequence starring a new incarnation of Desmond in such a short time period and make it viable? Or will they pour the heftiest amount of love, time and attention into an extension of multiplayer because it has been so successful?

Oh, and the above, poorly lit screenshot is documented proof that I am awesome...Level 7 playing with a bunch of level 14-16 players and I still managed to be ranked 1st. And yes, I am bragging, but humbly, considering this has never happened to me before and is unlikely to happen again.

Monday, December 20, 2010

DLC Mania-My Grumpy Fable 3 Chapter

I feel sad admitting this, but after a couple months of reflecting on the experience, I have to say that Fable 3 isn’t a great game. Nestled in the moment I felt as though it was a passable and amusing experience, with a lot of meaningful choices and relationship elements to hold it up over the brilliance that was the second, but in reality those aspects couldn’t hide the blandness of the narrative and its unoriginal mechanics and repetitive ambiance recycled from its predecessor. And nothing made this more apparent than playing the first chapter of the DLC, the Understone Quest Pack. If I could take my 1.5 hours back and choose not to play it, I would. The Quest Pack gives you three new interactive elements: a Quest, the Shooting Range, and the ability to play Reaver’s Wheel of Misfortune again (aka, the Arena/Colosseum). After experiencing an amazing five-six hours or so playing through the DLC for Fable 2, Knothole Island and See the Future, I was expecting so much more than the 1.5 hours I got in Understone playing the Quest portion. And the game locked up at a point near the end and I had to start all over from the beginning about 30 minutes in. But it was while I was running through the cave system below Bowerstone Industrial, following the glittering line before me into the depths where skeletal wolves and Hobbes lurked around every corner that I began to realize the extent of my boredom. And while visiting the shooting range to see how it worked, I literally fell asleep with my controller in my hand (needless to say, my score was terrible). Granted, I had just consumed a delicious mixture of hot cocoa and Irish Cream (definitely a sleeping draught), but I am pretty sure I’ve never fallen asleep in the middle of a game before now. Understone = Underwhelming.

The main quest of Understone takes you first to the factory in Bowerstone Industrial where the foreman is annoyed by a ‘Voice’ coming from somewhere below the building. They play it off like a haunting, but it’s pretty obvious it’s coming from a mechanical speaker (much less interesting). He requests you discover the source of the “Voice”, which takes you into the caves below the city via a door conveniently located right there. Yep, right over there-no plundering into the sewers to find the entrance to this lost place, it’s right there in the main room. After descending a few miles or so into the catacombs (so to speak) you find an entire city full of people living uncomfortably under the rule of a man named Montague Hummes. He has saved them from the Spire-related chaos in Fable 2 by bringing them down to live below the surface like moles and spouts out motivational “you’re safe here, don’t ever leave” jargon from loudspeakers located all around town. There is a pervasive sense of evil overlord here (think the Preacher in Poltergeist 2), but it doesn’t really pan out that way. I thought the mini-narrative would branch out more than it did and was highly disappointed by the ho-hum conclusion. Some of the side quests in the main game were longer and more emotionally viable. I guess I should not have been expecting Knothole Island when I initially downloaded the Understone chapter (mostly because it’s only $5), but once inside it’s hard not to compare it to the depth and breadth of that particular DLC. But beyond all of the length disappointments, is it fun? Not really. Unless you are the person who thinks that the highlights of the Fable franchise are running and fighting skeletal Hobbes for about 45 minutes-if so, then this is Lionhead’s Christmas present just for you.

All of Fable 3’s disappointing qualities shine brightly in Understone. The Wheel of Misfortune and shooting gallery additions pale in comparison to the ones in Fable 2. The mindless running and fighting mechanics that accompanied an interesting mission in the main game become obviously unappealing when the quest can’t hold up the motivation for doing so. When the anticipation of the end result falls flat and into tatters on the cavern floor, it becomes clear that the entire game was filled with these nonsensical and monotonous elements, with bright patterns and sequins sewn over the top to hide the shabbiness. And this is really, really depressing. Fable 2 was one of the best games I played in 2008, but while I am contemplating my list for 2010, Fable 3 isn’t even a contender. I actually surprised myself when I forgot to add it to my list of potential games of the year. Yes, I said forgot. It’s really difficult to reconcile the idea that I could talk so much about Fable 3 and then overlook it completely less than two months later. Like I said before, if I could take it back and not play the DLC, I would, because although I did have some fun playing the main game, moving through Understone was a depressing reminder of why Fable 3 can’t hold up to the fabulousness that was Fable 2. It's possible that the next round of DLC will be longer and contain more depth, but my advice? Recall your Fable 3 playthrough fondly and put it to bed for good.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DLC Mania-Costume Quest Edition

In my everyday life I do the normal work-home-work-home-weekend thing. I spend a lot of time during the ‘home’ periods playing various video and board games in true lazy nerd fashion. Lately, however, we have been doing the whole Christmas thing-attending holiday parties, visiting family, baking cookies, crafting, etc. during our free time. Last year we decided to make gifts instead of purchase them, and although our masterpieces slightly resembled sixth grade art projects (only without the glitter and macaroni), we were quite satisfied with the results and our friends & families were happy, so this year we are crafting again. So in between all of the festivities I have only been able to play a few games here and there and I won’t lie, it’s mostly Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood multiplayer. But before you groan and turn back to your game of Bejeweled 3, let me assure you that unlike the last few weeks, this post has nothing to do with ACB. It’s about Costume Quest! The greatest holiday game ever! Okay, so maybe that holiday is Halloween, but don’t fret, the newest DLC, Grubbins on Ice, is sort of Christmas themed. Well…there’s snow and um, festive string lights…

Choosing my favorite downloadable for 2010 has been tough. On one hand, Limbo was the most beautiful and eerie platformer I have ever played-and incredibly poignant to boot, even though the narrative was painted in suggestion alone. And Deathspank made me laugh and fight for underpants, creating a great experience even if there were no real investment factors beyond the usual RPG XP and weaponry climb. But after a lot of contemplation, I would have to say that Costume Quest comes out high and above all of the other small titles I played in 2010. I wrote all about it last October, so I won’t reiterate all of the reasons I loved it so much, but let me just say that if Double Fine wants to release a chapter for all of the upcoming holidays and still have the main characters carry little pumpkin pails to collect the relevant candy I would be perfectly satisfied.

The newest DLC, Grubbins on Ice, takes our little heroes to Repugnia, the land where the monstrous villains escaped from in the original game, via an ominous portal that has popped up on a snowy playground in Auburn Heights. Instead of fighting the monsters from the first game, however, the kids are fighting a new breed of bad that has kidnapped their friend, Lucy. A revolution is brewing amongst the Grubbins, and Wren, Reynold & Everett use their trick-or-treating skills to help recruit new members to the cause. Although I am currently having some difficulties finding the right combination of costumes and battle stamps to beat the Big Boss, I am no less enamored of the DLC than I was with the original. And even though the intensity of the Halloween theme has been appropriately dimmed, the collecting and exploring fun remains the same. Three new costumes are acquired, the pirate, the Yeti and the eyeball-I am QUITE fond of the pirate and his special move, “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, where the cut scene animation shows pieces of gold, parrots, crowns and cannons all within a five second time period. What’s not to like? The Yeti builds a mighty shield and the eyeball…well, it was gross so I never wore it during battle. Um…I will try it tonight, I swear.

So was it very Christmasy? Nah. And I don't believe it was intended to be. But it does create a winter atmosphere that is just as pervasive as the autumn one in the original, with blankets of snow covering everything and icy caves to explore. Snow…dinosaurs (?) line some of the paths and give up candy after a swift smack from a pumpkin pail. Some of the Grubbin homes have blue and white twinkly lights draped over their doorways and wide Santa belts around their middles. Turning on the incredibly bright blue and white LED string lights in my dining room prior to starting certainly added some solstice/winter ambiance as well. A systematic and repetitive quest pattern is still very evident in Grubbins, with three different tiers of land divided by doorways that only open once a series of tasks has been completed. It warms my completionist heart to fully explore every corner of a landscape and be rewarded for it. For a game that was designed around a specific holiday, it could have faltered under the weight of its niche, but I thought they balanced the innocent, childlike spirit of the game in a new environment quite successfully. Grubbins on Ice is a couple of hours long, which is roughly half of the time I spent playing Costume Quest, so a 50% increase in game via an inexpensive DLC ($5) is definitely worth it in my book.

On a side note, the gentlemen over at Silicon Sasquatch have performed an incredible feat and bound the first year (or so) of their fantastic blog in book form over at with all proceeds going to Child’s Play Charity. While it may be too late to give the book to your favorite gamer as a Christmas gift, it’s never too late to support community blogging and Child’s Play!

Friday, December 10, 2010

In the News...

When I think of all of the game genres I enjoy, sports games are nestled deep down at the bottom of the list, so far down in fact that I can’t think of any that I enjoy or look forward to at all…except for one, SSX. And it isn’t because I love snowboarding-I only tried it once and ended up with a giant bruise on my upper thigh and many mugs of hot chocolate after I retired to the lodge minutes later. It is because of the greatest of all snowboarding games, SSX Tricky. Tricky became the ultimate drunken party game for my brother & me and our combined friends for about six months when I was in college. Some of my greatest video game memories come from this time period, when our social lives were still more important than our professional ones, giving us the freedom to enjoy our youth without much responsibility but also without the shackles of still living at home. And in that place we imbued various spirits and played SSX Tricky. So much Tricky.

For us it was never about maximizing the medals in each level, it was about achieving the highest score. I played with Mac, the DJ, because he was the smallest and most agile of the group without being totally obnoxious (like Kaori). Garibaldi was our chosen playground. We studied it so extensively as we played that each run turned an intricate math equation-if you veered even slightly from a predetermined move a restart was required. House rules said you could only restart at the top of the hill if you missed your first jump, however. Anything beyond that was recovery dependent. My brother was the Tricky master. He could handle the controller with the stillness and control you only see in the most focused and dedicated. His scores became the watershed to beat-which I could never do. I remember clearly the night I finally broke a million points on Garibaldi. I was at my brother’s house with at least three Jager shots swirling my vision, and I unexpectedly experienced a moment of eerie clarity-everything around me became blurry and I was able to pull off my predetermined choreography with exquisite precision, never missing an opportunity to jump ridiculously high above the run or combine several tricks in a row while skidding effortlessly off the sides of the slope.

And of course, no one else was watching. Luckily it held the score in a leaderboard after the run, so I ran screaming and hollering from the living room, calling the group in to see my high score (which I never beat). It looked so beautiful through my licorice tinted eyes to see Mac holding his snowboard victoriously, a gold medal waiting for me on the other side of a button push. We played over and over again for months, creating many great friendship bonding moments and memories in doing so.

Now we are hearing some whispers and confirmations of EA developing a new SSX, which I find I am really excited about. I never played the SSX on the Wii, Blur, leaving my snowboarding days behind me after SSX3, so it will be a delight to head back to the slopes for some nostalgic score battles between friends.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grande Finale Screenshot

After forty intense hours, I finally finished the Brotherhood Story Mode last night. I am going to take some time to sort out the experience before continuing to write about it, but I'm sure you already know just how much I loved it from previous posts.

Next week (after a long weekend in Las Vegas, hooray!), I will venture into Multiplayer, where I am sure to be stabbed repeatedly by online villains until I start sobbing and cower in haystacks until time runs out.

Happy December, everyone-it's time to hang up twinkling lights and bake lots of sweets!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Top Five Ways to Be a Perfect Assassin

There is little doubt that as a franchise, Assassin’s Creed is here to stay for awhile. If you have read anything I have written in the past nine months you will know that I am a staunch supporter of the single player experience and felt extremely wary about the new component. Whether the Story Mode will survive its new big brother, multiplayer, is anyone’s guess at this point. Because of the complexity of the narrative and the obvious care that went into Ezio’s Roman chapter, I am going to assume that the story of the assassin’s will continue, which makes me incredibly happy. I am completely enraptured by Brotherhood-truly like no other game before. Last year when I played AC2 I declared it to be the best game I had ever played. Well, even though the bulk of ACB lacks the narrative scope and scale that AC2 managed to pack into such a short time, the Borgia story has an intimacy that greatly appeals to my more girly side. The emotional investment combined with all of the new interactive elements have taken the blossom of AC2 and turned it into a full bloom. It truly is a phenomenal game.

If you have played the franchise since the first Assassin’s Creed you will know that it can be played using melee tactics-a lot of fighting techniques involve attacks or counters and are quite bloody and brutal. But if you choose to play the Assassino, hiding in the shadows, the game transforms from an action game into a beautiful and utterly graceful stealth experience. I find the most satisfaction in playing ‘the long game’, which may involve hiding or waiting patiently for minutes at a time. I’ve butchered enough people in my video game life, so quiet assassination suits my tastes perfectly. On that note, I’ve come up with a brief list of ways to be a perfect assassin. Your methods may be far different from mine, but I find that using the full range of choices available makes for a thorough and satisfying experience. (Note: I haven't tried the multiplayer yet, so these are all observations from playing Story Mode.)

1. Use Your Surroundings: Part of the beauty of game design (I imagine) is deliberately creating a setting so fluid that even players don’t understand that each window or beam is intentional. We just use them because they are there. But it becomes obvious if you stop and see all of the ways your surroundings can be used to set the scene for a perfect assassination. That ledge over there? Ideal for perching without the guard on the opposite roof detecting you. Hanging from a ledge where a guard lurks is a great way to use your secret blade to pull them down. That bench in the courtyard? It lets you see all of the movements while hidden between two other seemingly casual people watchers. And killing a target while sitting on a bench is quick, clean and quiet. No alarms are raised, no one chases-you merely walk away. If you see water, dive in-this is especially necessary if you are running along rooftops and find that a Leap of Faith isn’t available. My favorite hiding spots for quick assassinations are the haystacks. Not only can you conceal yourself amongst the straw and strike, you can also hide bodies to keep the alarms from being raised.

2. Ranged Attacks: I was the queen of throwing knives in the original Assassin’s Creed . Climbing up onto a rooftop with a blade in hand and dispatching the enemy all in one movement was the only way I could take out a mark without getting into a brawl and having the guards chase me endlessly around Jerusalem. Granted, I wasn’t as good of a player then as I am now, and the controls in the first game were far from as good as they have evolved to today. But it did teach me a valuable lesson that Brotherhood expands upon with the addition of the crossbow-the ranged attack is effective. Most of the time, unless there are other guards lurking nearby that you failed to see on your radar, it is swift and doesn’t alert the cavalry. Throwing knives and the gun both give you the advantage when you are near an enemy but not within reach, whereas the crossbow is perfect for more long-range attacks. If you can target him, you can kill him.

3. Utilize Others: Whereas being the lone assassin seems ideal, there is definitely no shame in hiring others to do your dirty work for you. I personally like hiring the courtesans because they distract the guards by making them happy (lusty) as opposed to the mercenaries who will dispatch the group of guards by sword and make any townspeople nearby run and shriek in terror. You can also hire thieves to divert attention from what you are doing (probably slashing someone behind the wall with a hidden blade…or just looting a chest, whatever). The most effective tool you have now, thanks to ACB, is a team of assassin’s in training, or I as I like to call them, my babies. As in, “My babies came out of nowhere and took out that entire team of papal guards! I am so proud.” You can train up to twelve men and women to assist you with most of the missions, and when they do, they gain rank until they become Assassino’s themselves. I accidentally sent six of my babies into a Borgia Tower before they were a high enough level to, well, not die, and had to start over by recruiting new ones. It was a hard lesson. Hiring others who are willing to help not only allows you to interact with your environment more often, but also eases the difficultly in many combat situations.

4. Blend In: When looking at a critical situation from above, it may seem as though you will have to take out a huge faction of guards by all of the red dots milling about on your mini-map, but look again. Are there any groups of courtesans or mercenaries to hire? Do you see a large group of townspeople striding down the road towards your intended location? Blend! I didn’t use the blending technique enough in the first two games, and in hindsight I realize that I got myself in a lot of sticky situations that could have been avoided had I done so. This time around I always looked for ways to blend in with the crowd. Once my notoriety level turns yellow or white I now run for the nearest group of hireables and discreetly duck my head. It’s amazing how quickly the guards will forget that they were chasing you after a few moments of concealment. You are then free to move on silently, strolling with the pace of the crowd, already contemplating your next target. Blending in is a great way to gain access to otherwise inaccessible places due to guard patrol.

5. Be Patient: This rule encompasses almost every maneuver in Assassin’s Creed. I find that as a gamer I am conditioned to take action or move forward at all times. But being patient will pay off tenfold in AC. Sometimes this means perching on a rooftop and making calculated decisions that may take long periods of time where Ezio is merely observing the scene. If you make hasty decisions you will be detected by guards and mayhem ensues. In some cases, being seen by guards causes you to ‘desynchronize’ or lose the mission. Even the act of running makes the guards suspicious, so slowly walking through crowded areas is essential. Sometimes watching the movement of the guards on the mini-map can be Zen-like as you analyze your surroundings and decide upon the method of attack. There is definitely an art form in taking down a quest using stealth alone. Patience is not only a virtue in Assassin's Creed, but also a necessity.

I am sure everyone has developed their own techniques for being the perfect killer in Assassin’s Creed. These are a few of my favorites, as they allow me to really feel the environment as opposed to just passing through it. And although it sounds a little corny, a sense of connectedness occurs when I follow these steps during play. As opposed to being the puppet master for a third person character, I almost feel as though I am a part of his vision, making deliberate decisions in order to achieve the highest level of synchronization. Like I said earlier, I’ve certainly done my share of hacking and slashing in video games, so it’s just lovely when one forces the player to stop and breathe a bit before taking action.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Screenshot Friday!

I hope that one of the games in the Assassin's Creed franchise will feature Desmond as the main character. I mean, I know he is truly the lead in the 'big picture' narrative, but will the game ever feature just him? And not one of his ancestors and him?

Back to Monteriggioni. The sun's coming up and Lucy's calling.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some Holiday Gratitude

Due to the craziness that is the beginning of the holiday season, I have been incredibly distracted and neglecting my poor blog. If you didn't hear, Seattle had a pretty epic snowstorm on Monday that turned the city into a giant game of bumper cars on ice. We were caught in it a bit, which was terrifying and beautiful as only Mother Nature can be. I've been spending all of my game time in Rome assisting Ezio on his campaign to rid the city of Borgia influence. And when I say 'all of my game time' I mean that I am seriously squeezing every breath out of Brotherhood. To put it in perspective, I just finished Sequence 4 this morning and am currently clocked in at around 20 hours. And this doesn't count any of the arena trials. If you are curious about how the journey is going, I am posting my thought bubbles rather obnoxiously on Twitter (@Masquerade78). I don't anticipate finishing anytime soon and am utterly devoted to it, so there may be a stretch of time between posts in the near future.

An infinite number of thanks to all of my friends, family, and the strangers who read what I write and don't post troll-like comments. I am thankful that I get to write in such a casual way and not get flamed on a regular basis by pretentious teenagers (I am pretty sure I am flying under their radar at the moment). I am thankful for all of the people I have met since starting it all Started with Chrono Trigger, including the folks at The Modern Day Pirates who are an incredibly supportive and creative bunch. Hugs and love to everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Back to Rome. The liberation has begun!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Screenshot Friday!

Dear Ubisoft,

When you were out hyping the multiplayer aspect in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, spending all of your time and money trying to reach out to the online crowd in a blatant attempt to make gobs of money, you also should have been showcasing the gorgeous and incredibly engaging new single player story. The former is getting decent reviews while the latter is receiving glowing accolades. You made me doubt you, and that made me very apprehensive. Now that I am about eight hours into ACB and have spent about five of those in Sequence Three (basking in all of the new choices I can make while repairing shops in Rome and lighting viewpoint towers on fire), I have realized just how wrong I was not to trust that you wouldn’t let me, the devoted single player, be disappointed in a new chapter of my favorite franchise. Please understand my position here. I want more Desmond, I want more conspiracy and I want a new assassin-in other words, I still want Assassin's Creed 3. But I am utterly delighted by Ezio's Roman chapter and the improvements you have made in Brotherhood. Especially the combat. Finally, the Counter Attack works as it should-instant and flawless.

All I ask is that you consider the players who are already committed to the story of the Assassins and the captivating narrative that has driven us thus far and spotlight the single player alongside or even above the marketing of the multi. You’ve done admirably well with Altair, Ezio and Desmond’s story and I humbly apologize for all of the apprehension that I have vocalized. But you have to understand that you didn’t give me much warning that Ezio’s continuation would be anything more than a subplot to your larger intention to create a multiplayer environment from what, so far, has been an intimate player-character experience. I am still a bit wary about the future of the franchise considering Patrice Desilets’s departure for THQ, but I will try to withhold judgment if you really do decide to release another Assassin’s Creed next year, going against the wishes of the creative team who would like to give the series a bit of a breather until 2012 or so.

I was wrong. So far, the Story Mode of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is fantastic. And Cluster 5 was a total nightmare to solve-which I actually appreciate, because using subversive media to solve incredibly challenging visual puzzles warms my heart.


Desmond, are you sychronizing a viewpoint? Hmmmm...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on Rock Band 3

Last Friday we looked into the media basket on top of our entertainment center and saw a lone red Netflix envelope taking up the space where a handful of white and orange Gamefly sleeves and green Xbox shells are normally stacked. We looked at each other in disbelief. ‘Do we have any games to play?’ Matt asked me. ‘Nope,’ I replied, ‘we sent them all back last week and I finished Fable 3 and put it in the bookshelf.’ No games to play? In our house? That just wouldn’t do. We decided that this would be a great time to finally buy Rock Band 3. Late on Saturday night we ambled over to our local Fred Meyer and purchased the disc (sans keyboard) and a bunch of juice to mix with the giant bottle of vodka currently chilling in our freezer. Rock Band and alcohol are pretty much synonymous in our household. If you ask, Matt will be happy to tell you about a night long ago where we got a little tipsy and I ended up singing War Pigs at the top of my lungs at 3 am. It’s a ritual.

Starting a new Rock Band game is also sort of ritualistic. First, a character is acquired. Then you can mold said character into someone who either looks vaguely like you, only with much different footwear, or style them after your fantasy self. I always go for fantasy self. And she always looks the same-like a gothic princess. I am a big fan of the ‘Lolita’ hairstyle, the frilly shirt, the layered crinoline skirt and the witch boots. I dye everything black and dark red, including the spiral tattoo on her chest. And after some careful facial tweaks she always looks my character from the previous Rock Band, only a little bit better-as though the artist designing her has graduated from high school and is now taking college courses on rocker personalities. With my friend and I back together again, I am ready to play.

I am the singer in our band, which can be fantastic or terrible depending on the mode of play. My customized setlists are usually full of Bon Jovi, Freezepop, some Journey, Kansas and Europe-my Final Countdown is EPIC. When starting a new game of Rock Band, however, our tendency is to begin with the ‘game’ portion where your little band starts by dinking around in local clubs and ends up in world stadiums. This is like Russian roulette vocals for the poor singer (me) in the band. On Medium I can sing just about anything you put in front of me…until Lego Rock Band did something terrible and innocently plunked the Jackson 5 and James Brown in the setlist. Harmonix, do you know how hard it is to sing a song where even the original singer didn’t perform the songs the same way twice? It was bad enough to stick David Bowie into every game. And The Beach Boys Good Vibrations in RB3? Following along after one person is hard enough, but trying to sing the parts of more than three people is ridiculous. It was a TRAIN WRECK. Granted, I never tried it in Harmony mode so I may have to retract my previous statement, but sometimes I think the game expects their singers to be superheroes of octave and pitch. Thank holy of holies for the new Pitch Correction. And I adore the new keyboard friendly list of 80s songs. Give me Roxette, Tears for Fears, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Cure any day. Oh, and John Lennon's Imagine, too?! I'm a little misty-eyed. As a singer, I am feeling the love.

Although we are big fans of the Rock Band series we weren’t as eager to run out and buy it as we were with RB2. Matt and I were out of town at the time and stopped by a local Best Buy to grab it because we wanted to be able to play the game as soon as we got home from our road trip. This time around we knew we would get it, but it wasn't as much of a priority. When I was standing in Line A for the Gamestop midnight release of Fable 3 last October there was only a handful of people standing in Line B to pick up RB3. I even noted on Twitter that I was surprised by the contrasting turnouts. Compared to the gobs of people there to get F3, RB3 had less than ten. And now that Viacom is eager to sell Harmonix I am a little curious about the future of plastic instruments in gaming. Is this a fad that is about to see a fade out? Will the keyboard and the Pro versions of RB3 keep the franchise alive? Will Guitar Hero survive Warriors of Rock? Where do they go from here?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fable 3 Diary Three: Overall Fun Factors

In my first diary installment I talked a lot about how disenchanted I was about Fable 3 during the first few hours of play. But I also hinted that several hours in I overcame these disappointments and started to have a lot of fun. So instead of continuing to give you the impression that I am a big bummer, I will tell you about how enjoyable my thirty-five hour traipse through Albion became after the game shook off its predecessor and became its own.

Instead of having a menu system, F3 has “The Sanctuary”, a giant closet where your entire inventory is held. Pretty brilliant, actually, as it solves the age old question of where the hell your character puts all of the unused stuff in their inventory without being thwarted by the laws of physics. I loved The Sanctuary for its convenience-you could try on clothes to see how they look, twirl around, dye them and then ultimately restore them when you decide they look like crap, going back to the corset and black striped tights you saved from playing a mercenary in Brightwall. The only dumb factor of The Sanctuary is that the “shop” is located behind door number four and the in house butler is always reminding you of the new items you should buy-we’re talking DLC here, people, not in game shops. The best part about The Sanctuary, however, is the map. Located in the center of the main room, a big magnifying glass peers over a topographical table map and allows you to see your Quest List, fast travel to any location and purchase and repair real estate by zooming in on each zone. What a relief! Once you get the hang of the map mechanics, moving around and locating current quests is a breeze.

The variety of quests available also kept the game interesting and allowed you to pace it according to your whims. I had a system going that allowed me to finish almost everything prior to the final boss fight (which I actually wouldn’t recommend, but I didn’t know any better at the time). After getting out of Brightwall and starting the methodical scour of every zone now available, I would do a main story quest, complete whatever missions that came along with it and then roam the countryside looking for additional errands to run and try to pick up as many of the collectibles in the trips around each zone. With the exception of the Relationship Quests, I found all of the additional errand missions added depth to the story tenfold. For example, there is a request for a donation in Millfields to build a bridge to Driftwood. The gentleman requests you ‘come back later’ (either let time pass naturally or go to sleep to push time forward) to see the finished project. After awhile you will find a bridge to an island paradise called Driftwood, where after a series of additional missions you are rewarded by seeing your contributions turn a paltry beachside caravan party into a brightly lit archipelago full of grateful people. Without the simple hand off of a few bucks to the original quest handler Driftwood wouldn’t have existed. And this isn’t in the main quest, either, just added fun for those willing to be thorough. These were the best kind of quests because you never knew what to expect.

Exploration is incredibly rewarding as well. Because of sheer determination and an unwillingness to let any stone go unturned I found the Sunset House, a creepy ghost mansion that is transparent at night and in shambles during the day. A gazebo full of ghostly statues lurks nearby, begging you to uncover the secret. Most of Mourningwood was ripe for investigation, considering my undying love for the spooky and ghostly setting. And F3 is just as bursting with collectibles as F2. Instead of gargoyles taunting you from archways and eaves, F3 now has gnomes (who have been possessed by an errant gargoyle from F2, just to tie it all together) who bad mouth you along the way. Near the end of the game I had 49/50 of these little monsters and couldn’t locate the final one for a really long time-what a delight it was to shoot the little bugger in his smug face after finally discovering the third entrance to Chillbreath Caverns in Mistpeak Valley. After an exhaustive search (and a little help from the internet) I found all of the silver and gold keys, all of the flowers and all of the books for the Academy. My final action was accepting a silver key in the Shifting Sands. I know that most people might think this is one of the more monotonous aspects of the game, but I am just OCD enough to love finding all of the collectible items. It definitely adds to my completionist sense of accomplishment.

It was about the time the story changed gears that I really started to love Fable 3. The narrative was broken into two different parts-starting a revolution and then ruling a nation. Starting the revolution was the basic introduction to the game, giving the player the kind of missions that aid in generally orienting themselves with the environment. Becoming the monarch opens everything up to player decision-will you be a benevolent ruler? Oops, you may end up killing everyone. Will you be a tyrant? Dang, everyone hates you, why did you even overthrow the last king? It’s a pretty awesome struggle to keep a kingdom in balance, and I loved the thought process behind each decision. I played most of my game during the revolution, not wanting to count on the second chapter being as time forgiving as the first, but I really wish I would have completed the bulk of the additional quests during my reign of Albion. Plus my crown looked fantastic, jauntily perched on my head, matching the corset and striped tights from Brightwall.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fable 3 Diary Two: Relationships

Whether I am playing out a predetermined narrative in a Final Fantasy game or building a rapport with a chosen character in Dragon Age, I find character relationships one of the most compelling aspects of RPGs. I would actually say that romancing Alistair in DA and all of the drama and intrigue that came along with it was one of the driving reasons that I continued playing. When I decided to flirt with the dark side and take Zevron as a secret lover I felt a little scummy. But investing in characters is something we do all of the time. Especially if we are jumping into a character that evolves based on player choices. Heavy Rain is a great example of intense emotional involvement since the player choices inflict visual wounds on the protagonist. I felt terrible when I flubbed a few QTE’s and Ethan bore the weight of my mistake. What is great about Fable’s network of character connectedness is how it turns these serious, consequence heavy relationships on their head, encouraging the player to live a sort of hedonistic and carefree lifestyle instead. Sure, there are consequences for the more banal choices you make, but nothing too serious. And instead of feeling guilt, you want to giggle and tell your co-players about it. How many STD’s did you get in your game? Me, 3-but in my defense I thought the blacksmith in Brightwall was kind of sexy with his walrus moustache and heavy black apron and had no idea he would be afflicted with some sort of pox.

One of Fable’s best elements is its open-world relationship abilities. You can nurture a relationship with almost everyone in Albion. In the beginning of the game all of the villagers feel “Neutral” about you, so if you want to take it to the next level (Friends), you have to perform a series of expressions for them. In F3 you have to work a little bit harder to prove your devotion than you did in F2 by going on “Courier” or “Fetch” missions to other zones for them. This was really entertaining at first because I thought it created an almost infinite element to the game. With all of the millions of people living in Albion (6.5 million to be exact), you could use this mechanic to play forever. After a few missions, however, it becomes obvious that the NPC’s are requesting you do the same things over and over again-even to the same place in the zone every time. For example, if a man in Brightwall requests you deliver a package to a woman in Mistpeak you will be couriering it to the same exact location as the last time you performed the task-to the lakeside near the Monorail Station. After about ten of these missions I stopped doing them altogether as it was extremely tedious. Occasionally, the game would completely lose track of someone and start sending you back and forth along a road into infinity until the person finally showed up on the map again. So unless I focused on one individual because I had something in mind for them (boy-toy) I usually ignored the Relationship Quests in my list.

If you did decide to perform the mundane task for a chosen someone you would then get bumped to “Friends” and they would request you take them on a date. This was really fun until all of my dates started getting eaten by balverines (as I wrote about in a previous blog). But for those who managed to survive the trek to another zone without letting go of my hand and running to their doom, a lovely scene would take place where he/she would declare their love and a marriage could take place. I did this exactly 13 times. What can I say, I love presents. And unlike the situation in Dragon Age, I didn’t feel guilty for taking so many vows. Fable is different because it never really invests in your in-game lovers. They remain NPC’s even after the ceremony, merely residing in a house of your choosing and occasionally requesting some ‘alone time’ (re: sex) while showering you with gifts. So why not collect them? One in every town. The game even keeps a count for you in the loading screen, comparing you with your real world friends as though you are competing for total spouses. I have no idea whether a higher or lower number is ideal; I just know that seeing the numbers was entertaining. I always made sure they were in different towns, however. This is important in F3 more than it ever was in F2. In F2 I married the blacksmith in Bowerstone, and then when I transitioned from female to male I married the furniture store owner. When I encountered both of them while passing through the village they would bicker about me in the streets and leave it at that. What happened in F3 was quite different, however, and I was both stunned and delighted by the depth of understanding the game had about my character's relationships.

The first thing Matt & I did in my game was marry and have a baby, Celia. When I started playing solo, however, I decided to marry again in the Drifter Camp to the Tattooist, Sarn. We had a baby named Dean. Everything was fine until Matt jumped back into my game and we ended up in the Drifter Camp. Just to razz me, Matt used his character to threaten and humiliate my ‘other’ husband and we giggled about it. Apparently, Sarn wasn’t laughing. After he demanded an explanation and his relationship level went straight from Love to Hate, the game informed me that Sarn had divorced me, sent Dean to the orphanage, sold our love wagon and left town forever. I was so surprised and stricken by the idea that my Drifter child was now in an orphanage somewhere that Matt actually apologized to me. Since I hadn’t really explored Bowerstone Industrial, I had no idea where the orphanage was located and ran to the internet to find out. Luckily, it was an easy fix and my child was restored to me after a quick adoption-Matt even offered to let little Dean live with Celia in our house in Brightwall. This experience was MUCH different than the one in F2 and I was quite impressed.

All in all, even if the relationships in Fable are not quite as serious as those in other games the emotional investment remains the same. By marrying a whole slew of gentlemen and having 20 children (mix of biological and adopted), I felt more like I was creating a distinctly unique experience. In my game I had a variety of relationships that led to an army of children following me around Brightwall demanding toys and a late husband in Millfields-what about you? How did your relationship choices affect the ambiance of each town? Did you play online? How did you identify with other players? I know that having my real world fiancée as an in-game husband was delightful. I felt bad when my Drifter Camp husband left town and orphaned our child but it gave me a new and completely unexpected goal outside of the main quest. I married a mercenary in the camp specifically to kill him later for an achievement. In this, Fable’s ability to construct a variety of relationships in order to tailor it specifically for the player is a completely successful aspect of the game.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fable 3 Diary One: First Impressions

Now that I have officially completed Fable III, I find that I have so many bisecting thoughts about the experience that I am having a hard time writing about it. In some places there are definite improvements over the second (I haven't played the first Fable, so my comparisons are based solely on the sequel), in others sections nothing has changed, and in a few areas the game is significantly worse. Instead of trying to sum up various impressions I thought I would try to piece them out into different chapters to try to parse out exactly how I felt about the game, because right now everything is kind of a jumble. I’ll start with my first impressions and try to outline some semblance of an orderly experience from there.

My first few hours of the game were spent as player two in same screen cooperative, so in all fairness I was placing myself in the position of a backseat player-not necessary the best first impression of any game that is intended to be a single player experience. Both Matt & I are fans of the franchise and were eager to try out the same screen co-op version to determine whether we could venture through it together. Well, you could, but player two serves as merely a tagalong, so there are no interactions between player two and other characters unless initialized by P2. I wasn’t a big fan of being the tagalong, but it did give us a chance to see where the strengths and weaknesses of co-op were compared to the F2. In F2 you could be the support player but it was very generic. You weren’t playing with your actual character, even though you had access to your own bank account. And being the second player was a lagging, camera confused mess if you were on the same screen. So I was quite pleased at my first impressions of the ease of cooperative in F3. This time you did have your own character at your disposal, and could even visit your own “Sanctuary” (the new interactive menu system) to modify your outfit or weaponry at any time. Entering into partnerships yielded both players the ability to earn money from real estate and jobs, and Matt & I instantly discovered that our characters could marry and have babies in each other’s games as well. The overlaps are really well done-in my game we are married and have a home, and in his game we are married and have another home, but both count in both games. So for example, if I am married three times, two are in my own game and one is in his. I found this new cooperative aspect a LOT of fun, even if the same screen element still trudged a bit-not the games fault, really, more just a specific minded player fail. The two players can’t move too far apart from one another without stalling out one character, so you have to stick together. And since player one is driving the quests, player two ideally should stay nearby and try to be as helpful as possible, which was hard for me and my controlling, first time playing mind since I was dying to peek under every bush and in every corner. I later played online cooperative with a friend of mine and although the connection lag was cumbersome (epic load times), the two player interaction was much better since you could move fairly far apart without much restriction.

Realizing that I wanted to be more in control, and being an incredibly supportive and generous fiancée, Matt graciously agreed to switch places. Being player one allowed me to start exploring Albion as I do-thoroughly. Since the narrative is set several generations ahead of when we last saved the land (jeez, Albion, get some kingdom insurance already), the landscape should have changed...except it hadn’t. It wasn't until we got to Bowerstone and saw the effects of the Industrial Revolution that I noticed any significant environmental changes. Although there was a certain crispness of the trees and grass that was lacking in F2, the two games could have been set one on top of the other. Even the overworld music was the same. On one hand, this is a good thing, as familiar environments serve the same purpose as pulling out the fuzzy and familiar winter blanket you packed away for the summer. But I guess I wanted to be wowed with this new environment and just wasn’t. It seemed almost lazy. I wanted a completely new experience, not a semi-reiteration of a past one. Maybe add a techno beat to the music or something (O_o!). This was probably the biggest contributing factor to my lack of investment in the first few hours of my own game-the familiar. I wasn’t learning anything new; I was merely continuing the same motions as the hero in my second game. I was running along a sparkling trail, I was conversing, I was expressing, my dog was demanding a digging. And the one new thing I was eagerly anticipating from the pre-release screenshots and videos didn’t happen until the end of the game (I will leave the spoiler out here). Although I adored F2 I didn’t realize I was venturing into F2.5 and was a little disenchanted. And although this feeling faded after about five or six hours, I definitely headed into the game with more of a shrug than a hug.

The narrative started with a kick-I liked the 'tyrant brother king that needs to be overthrown' theme. Logan was a delightful villain who you can either choose to off or save based on what kind of moral standing you would like to achieve. His little pointed chin and arching eyebrows effectively painted him as the typical evil dude. Apparently his heavy handed and greedy rule has affected everyone in Albion, and he needed to be ousted…except in the second town you encounter everyone seems to be getting along just fine. This is one of those elements of some RPGs that makes me shake my head-the inconsistencies between the main narrative and the NPCs. If Logan were such a wicked ruler, then why are most of the kingdom's citizens living in apparent comfort and/or luxury? Brightwall was full of flush faced, glowing carbon copy villagers with lovely homes and a bubbling fountain right from the beginning. I could understand the opulence of Millfields still remaining vibrant through Logan’s rule-the wealthy tend to donate heavily to keep their way of life, but the standard villager should have been struggling under the weight of tyranny, not milling about in their brightly colored clothing muttering about overthrowing Logan. I would have liked to have seen more environmental evidence of how bad it was to live under the reign of King Logan, where the villagers are paupers and their houses are falling apart in the beginning and depending upon your ethical choices change or don’t change over time. Maybe I am being idealistic here, but a visual representation of the state of the nation would have driven home the urgency of the mission right from the beginning.

On a more positive note, I really loved the Road to Rule as it slowed the player options down significantly. Although opening up the entire world map and all of the game devices in one swoop can be more fun for the player, I think pacing is meaningful and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the beginning you are allowed to purchase residential property but not shops or stalls, you have to earn enough “Guild Seals” to accomplish certain tasks. Your expressions are limited to the fun and friendly variety (or naughty and teasing, depending on which moral stance you take) and you have to earn GS to learn new ones. This system is much more logical than the system in F2 because it never gets confusing. I remember a lot of book repeats in F2 and wasn’t ever quite sure what I still needed versus what I already had in my equipment. Plus, ransacking bookshelves for hours was extremely tedious. The Road to Rule adds a systematic feeling of accomplishment as opposed to randomness.

All in all, it’s pretty obvious that my first impressions of Fable 3 weren’t terribly positive. If I sound super analytical or nitpicky, I will agree that I am being a little hard on the game. It’s never good to create lofty expectations of a game based solely on its predecessors, and I was probably gazing up at Fable 2 on its pedestal for far too long. Thankfully, it was probably right around hour seven or eight that I finally was able to invest. Not to the extent that I was drawn into F2, but I think that largely has to do with the fact that I felt like I was playing F2 and my investment was already secure. None of these impressions deterred me from continuing forward, however, I was still captivated enough to keep going…and going…and going…

More to come.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dangerous Business

Explaning my absurd difficulty in securing lasting relationships in Fable 3 to Matt (GT: Dobervich) made me laugh. I thought I would share:

Me: I am trying to acquire an achievement for getting married six times and killing two of your spouses (Henry VIII) in Fable III, but it's more difficult than it sounds. Right now almost ALL of the more rural areas have been taken over by balverines. So when I ‘court’ someone they almost always ask to go on dates by scenic areas, such as the lake or the mountains, where he or she gets eaten by balverines. I try to fight them off, but those werewolves are quick! In Millfields I married this ridiculous fop of a dude and after the wedding grabbed his hand to run around the lake to our new family home, but balverines were RIGHT IN THE CITY and ate him. The only way around this is to marry in Bowerstone so the dates always end up in one of the market or old quarters, which are generally safe from beasts, but if my various spouses get wind of one another they divorce me, leave town and orphan our children. Once I took a lady on date near the city and bandits shot her.

Matt: Thank you for making me feel like I'm not missing anything-except getting my dates eaten. Strangely, that sounds funny.

Me: The first time it happened with a saucy lady from Bowerstone Industrial, I was shocked. I had invested two 'relationship' courier missions into her and we were heading for the garden near Millfields on our first date and then BAM, she was dead. I even courted the blacksmith in Silverpines, because that’s how I roll, but when I let go of his hand to kill the balverines on the path ahead he took it upon himself to RUN towards them and die. Apparently, our love was toxic and he considered suicide his only option. The blacksmith in Brightwall knew his place-he stood still while I hacked at balverines and didn’t get eaten TWICE, so I rewarded him with a lovely house in Brightwall (on the other side of town from my other family homes filled with adopted children) and now he takes care of our infant son, Dean.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween-The Big Prank

I know a lot of us have movies or television specials we watch during a particular time of year to help spice up the season, but what about video games? With a lot of companies releasing new content geared towards Halloween for games that I don't play (TF2, Minecraft, RDR), I had to dig a little deeper to find one that I could delve into that would bring the spooky holiday and gaming together. And then I remembered something...a small but pretty significant sequence called The Big Prank in Bully: The Scholarship Edition.

Bully is one of my all time favorites. I am not usually too big on the sandbox genre, as I find the world of GTA and its newer carnations, such as Mafia or Godfather, a little monotonous. But Bully truly captured my heart. The juvenile wink at its adult predecessors was masterful. And the Halloween mission, The Big Prank, visualizes the awkward time as a teenager when you become a bit too old for trick-or-treating and turn to naughty but harmless pranks in order to celebrate the holiday. The mission is available fairly soon in the game so you don't have to play very long to activate it. And the rolling tips on the loading screens warn you that The Big Prank is coming up and that it's possible to sleep through it if the player isn't careful-and it's the only mission in the game that you can't repeat.

The Big Prank teams you up with Gary, another bully on the Bulworth campus. Whereas Jimmy's bully status comes from a refusal to become part of the hierarchy of underlings at school, Gary is a little more conniving and manipulative with his bullying. Jimmy is more muscle, where Gary is more brains. Even Jimmy falls prey to Gary's coercion tactics when Gary convinces him that on Halloween night they should play a wicked little trick on the gym teacher. The boys sneak out of their dorm room in costume (skeleton outfit acquired), rough up a prep, bag up some dog poo and head to Mr. Burton's house to leave him a surprise. Being a rebellious teenager has never looked so fun.

Whether it's killing zombie cowboys in RDR or trick-or-treating in Costume Quest, I wish everyone a spooktacular and safe holiday this year. Happy Halloween!