Thursday, December 31, 2015

Five Games From 2015 I Friggin' Loved

Welp, it's the end of the year.  Time to look back and reflect over the events and happenings of the previous 365 days.  Or, if you're the owner of a dusty, neglected old blog with nothing better to do today, time to write a list of video games you most enjoyed.

So, let's do that.

#5: Metal Gear Solid 5

So, I'm not a huge Metal Gear fan.  I played the hell out of MGS 1 as a kid, sure, and I suffered through the Raiden bait-and-switch of MGS 2, but I lost interest about halfway through 3 and never had any real interest in picking up any of the following prequels and spinoffs.  Hideo Kojima is certainly the definition of an auteur--one can immediately recognize his distinct vision and touch on a game--but his particular brand of quirkiness never really lined up with mine.  This is as true as ever of Metal Gear Solid 5.  The writing's awful, the characters are unlikable dicks who do stupid things and get angry for juvenile reasons, and the whole virus plot makes no goddamn sense.

And then there's Quiet.  Jesus Christ, Quiet.

Yet despite that, the actual gameplay if MGS 5 was pure fun.  I put dozens of hours into it, even after finishing the main story, just screwing around and looting resources for Mother Base.  I don't know how many times I raided that airport in Africa, but it never got old.  The sheer variety in ways you can approach the same objective kept it entertaining every single time.  Charge in guns blazing, executing guards as you go?  Sure. Sneak in, with Quiet sending down a barrage of tranquilized sniper rounds?  Abduct away!  Have your AI-equipped armored walker create a distraction in the middle of a parking lot while you swipe a few crates of precious metals?  That's good, too.

MGS 5 would probably be a lot closer to the top if it had come with a less Kojima story... but then, would the actual game still have been as good without him?  Who knows?  Well, we might eventually find out when and if Konami takes a break from making branded pachinko machines to crank out a Kojima-less Metal Gear sequel.  Time will tell.

#4: Pillars of Eternity

Once, when I was a little kid--maybe seven or eight--I ate a bowl of homemade potato soup at a friend's house.  It was amazing.  When I close my eyes, I can still think about how good that soup tasted, how it warmed my chest like a snug blanket of deliciousness, the combination of flavors and textures and just general amazingness.  In the two and a half decades since, I've searched high and low to find that potato soup's equal.  I've found plenty of very good ones, a few very bad ones, but none have been able to capture that absolute perfection--and perhaps none ever can.  Perhaps it wasn't actually as good as I think, and my memories are tainted by nostalgia and the naivete of youth.

If the original Baldur's Gate games are that potato soup, Pillars of Eternity is the closest I've ever come to recapturing it.  In many ways, the soup is even better than the one I remember, even if it's still not quite the same.  But that's fine.  Because goddamn it, I've got some amazing potato soup here, and whether it's an exact duplicate or not, it's still really freaking good.

That said, as much as I adored the game during the month I spent playing it... I can't remember much of the story.  It was really, really good.  The plot was compelling and well-written, the characters were (mostly) interesting and endearing, the sidequests avoided being filler fetch quests or grinds.  It's an Obsidian game.  Obsidian does game writing better than anyone in the business.  And yet, outside of a few specific story beats, I couldn't really give you much more than a general overview of the central plot.  I'd probably even get some stuff wrong.

And that's why the potato soup isn't higher on the list.

#3: Tales From the Borderlands

Hey, have you played Tales From the Borderlands?



Unlike every other game on my list here, Tales isn't a grand epic that requires dozens of hours to get through.  It'll take you perhaps eight, tops.  And they will be eight of the best hours you ever spend.

Telltale Games created a brilliant template with The Walking Dead, a choose-your-own-adventure sort of game where you guided a guy named Lee and a little girl named Clementine through the perils and horrors of a zombie apocalypse.  They expanded the template with A Wolf Among Us (based on  Bill Willingham's brilliant and amazing Fables comic books) and A Game of Thrones, but with Tales, they may have hit their high water mark.  Everything about this game--the voice acting, the art style, the sharp writing and frequently hilarious dialogue--is heads and shoulders above Telltale's other work.  (Well, okay, except perhaps for the end of TWD.)

Seriously, even if you have no experience with the original Borderlands games (think Diablo as a first person shooter and a healthy splash of Mad Max), you should play this.  Now.  Literally right now.  Don't even finish this list.

Then come back and play the next two games, too.

#2: Fallout 4

I haven't been this hooked on a game since Bethesda's last game.

Look, don't get me wrong.  Bethesda's still not very good at writing.  The Institution's motivations and treatment of Synths make no sense.  It makes even less sense that people living on the Northeastern coast of the United States haven't figured out how to build walls without gaping holes in them.  The ending(s) are ludicrously railroaded (no pun intended) and universally disappointing.

But man, what this game does right, it does right.  While Bethesda may be garbage at actual writing, nobody does environmental storytelling better.  You'll constantly be wondering about the stories behind, say, the rotten skeleton trapped in a hole with nothing but a teddy bear, or why this particular vault dweller decided to barricade himself in his room and starve to death.  And the companions!  Nick Valentine, Hancock, Curie, even the formerly-awful and equally unkillable mayor of Little Lamplight, MacCready, are all engaging, entertaining, and well-crafted.  (Admittedly, I'm a huge sucker for noir, meaning Nick was always going to be my best friend by default.)

Crafting systems in games are always a huge draw for me, as well, and God knows I spent enough time modding weapons and building settlements in the dozens of hours I've spent with this game so far.  While perhaps not quite as deep as I'd hoped--most weapon mods are straight upgrades, rather than offering customization options to tailor a gun to your particular needs or tastes--it provides a great excuse to revisit explored areas in search of respawned caches of aluminum, adhesive, or ceramics.

Of course, the fact that areas respawn makes no freaking sense.  Nor does it make sense that bandits and raiders could outnumber normal civilians getting by on subsistence farming by a huge ratio, especially considering they're competing with roided-out super mutants for the same prey.  Or that a kid can survive in the fridge 30 feet off the road for two centuries without food and water, ghoul or not.  Or that people are still using bottlecaps as currency after two friggin' centuries.  Or that Jet, which was created some hundred and change years after the Great War in New Reno, can be found in pre-war ruins on the East Coast.  Or that... well.  You get the idea.

Basically, Fallout 4 is super fun... as long as you avoid the main plot and don't think about how little sense anything makes.  But man, if you can turn those parts of your brain off, it will take a month or more of your life away before you can blink.

#1: The Witcher 3

Welp.  I honestly don't know where to start.  No game I've ever seen has had the scope, the grandeur, and the beauty of The Witcher 3.  None have had characters as complex and likable and compelling as Geralt of Rivia.   None have built a world I, as a player, could simply enjoy inhabiting so much.  My favorite memories of The Witcher 3 aren't in cutscenes or battles, but in simply exploring, in cresting a hill while a gentle breeze rustles the grass around me, of tracking a dangerous monster through a grim and ominous swamp, of seeing a massive whale rise out of the waves close enough by to rock my little boat.

I don't know if I can arrange words in such a way as to adequately convey how blown away I was by this game.  The art is amazing--not just the graphics, but the character and creature designs, the architecture, the handcrafted scenery.  You want to see what lies beyond every hill, in the depths of every valley.  You want to search every ruin, explore every town.  There are hundred of map markers for each a area Geralt visits in the game, and finding them isn't a chore, it's a pleasure.

And then there's Gwent.  I'm on record as a guy who hates collectible card games being shoved into non-collectible card games, but I recant those views in regards to Gwent.  To my chagrin, I ignored the game for most of my journey--it wasn't until I was nearly through that I finally gave it a fair shot and realized how gorram fun it is.  And then I spent a dozen or so hours tracking down every last card I could still get.

And the writing?  Brilliant.  The characters are great--even Yennefer, who I initially viewed as the Veronica to Triss' Betty, grew on me by the end--and the themes of political intrigue and espionage interwoven through the narrative have more than a few shades of George R.R. Martin to them.

It didn't take much debate for me to place Geralt's final adventure at the top of my list.  If you only play one game on this list (and, you know, you actually have the ability to invest dozens of hours into an open-world RPG), make it The Witcher 3.  It's so good, it'll make you wear your girlfriend's pants and prank call a confused wizard.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts on Season 3 of Arrow

It seems like the better The Flash got, the worse Arrow became.

Wait, let me back up here.  Hi.  I haven't written anything in awhile.  I'm Ed.  I'm a geek.  Sometimes, far too rarely, I feel compelled to write things down.  So let's talk about Arrow.

I only sat down to give The CW's Arrow a real shot (ha) about a month and a half ago.  I'd heard good things from friends and fellow geeks, but I've been very, very wary about anything coming out of DC Comics for the last several years.  I was born and raised a DC fan, coming into my geekiness around the same time that Knights were Falling and Doomsday and Clark Kent were punching each other so hard that buildings were shaking around them.  My dad, though not a particularly nerdy soul himself, had fond memories of his own childhood comic book days and encouraged my interest.  He'd return home from garage sales (this being the rural Midwest) with boxes full of old comics and trade paperbacks, almost always published by DC or Archie--and my deep-seated love of Archie is a whole 'nother subject--and I'd delve into this strange, colorful, violent, and often inexplicable world of superheroes and villains punching each other in dramatic fashion.

Around the same time, Batman: The Animated Series was kicking off.  B:TAS begot Superman: The Animated Series, Supes begot Justice League, and basically, throughout my childhood and into my burgeoning adult years, I had Bruce Timm's legendary version of the DC Universe keeping me company.  I also began to discover DC-oriented comics blogs like Dave's Long Box, the Absorbascon, and Chris Sims' Invincible Super-Blog.  These helped me finally understand some of the stories I'd been confused by in my youth and connect to aspects, characters, and bits of DC apocrypha I'd otherwise never have been exposed to.  I grew from a guy who liked comic books and superheroes to a dyed-in-the-wool DC Fanboy.

And then Christopher Nolan happened.  I enjoyed Batman: Begins quite a bit; I loved The Dark Knight and lauded Heath Ledger's performance (even if he still wasn't as good a Joker as Mark Hamill).  But by the time The Dark Knight Rises hit, DC's editorial staff seemed to have succumbed to the exact same madness that had, thirty years earlier, caused every comics writer in the industry to take a shot at recreating Alan Moore's Watchmen.  On the film side, it was obvious; Man of Steel's promotion (and eventual execution--no pun) made it clear that whoever was in charge of making these movies thought anything from DC that hit the silver screen needed to be dour, grim, dark, gritty, and absolutely humorless.  Sure, Green Lantern looked like it might be kind of fun (I won't lie, I had high hopes for Ryan Reynold's Kyle-Rayner-disguised-as-Hal-Jordan film), but its box office demise apparently sealed the deal at Warner Brothers: DC movies are totally serious business, man.