Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ah, the classics.

New Until Dawn trailer.

Wow this looks awful after seeing the Outlast trailer.

Skip to 0:53 and watch this. Happy Halloween.

No wayyyy.  No way those hand animations are procedural.

'Course... this is from an indie team with talent from franchises like Uncharted, Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed...  Those guys do know animation...

Seems to be a PC exclusive.  A pretty good-lookin' one, too.

Disgaea D2 screenshots.

See, now this is what Disgaea 3 should have looked like.  Disgaea D2 is a PS3-exclusive direct sequel to the first Disgaea, featuring the return of Leharl and Etna.

I know the characters were always this naked, but damn - they sure look naked-er in HD.

Click to embiggen.

The Puppeteer Halloween trailer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Darksiders III isn't looking very likely.

According to, Darksiders II has thus far failed to breach 2,000,000 units sold - the title's break-even mark.  With publisher THQ falling on some very hard times this year, the odds of getting a threequel to the best Zelda-like property since Okami are looking rather slim.

Okami HD drops today!

Also some Assassin game, I dunno'.

...but the PS Store hasn't updated yet and I can't buy youuu.  Oh, the agony.

Also, the Abyssal Forge DLC for Darksiders II dropped and Vita action-RPG Ragnarok Odyssey - which I'm terribly curious about but shan't be trying because who has the time?

Perhaps Assassin's Creed III, Okami HD and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation will do, for one day's purchases.  ...even if Lib's reviews are all over the place.

Dead Island: Riptide drops April 24, 2013.

Official box art!

The press release details two versions of the game for preorder.  The Pre-order Edition (?) gets "an exclusive pack of weapon mods," while the Special Retailers Edition gets alternate cover art, an undescribed character skin you can't get anywhere else, and is only available at select retailers who will be "announced soon."

Pfft.  I've had my preorder in for months.

Rockstar confirms spring launch for GTA V...

...with a big blond in a bikini.

Kinda' makes you miss the six-fingered hooker.

Disney's buying Lucasfilm.

What does this mean?  It means Star Wars Episode VII is now slated for a 2015 release.

For serious.  Now we just have to cross our fingers that Lucas won't be directing.

Cliff Blezinski has an offer for Capcom.


REVIEW - The Unfinished Swan.

The Unfinished Swan is quite certain that it's very clever and very deep.  There's a semi-touching storybook narrative involving an orphan and the hundreds of unfinished paintings his mother made, but it never really resonates or comes to what feels like an emotionally honest conclusion.

It has one brilliant idea.  The game begins with a pure white screen, blank save for a targeting reticle in the center.  There is no tutorial, there are no instructions, so you fiddle with your dualshock until you tap R1 and fling a blob of black ink into the empty space.  It splatters across the floor, and suddenly you can perceive space and distance and depth.

This is a genius moment, and Act I of The Unfinished Swan sees you using the mechanic to find your way through a pure-white world, dashing its architecture with darkness to make your way forward.

Occasionally, you turn around and look back.  If there is anything to see, it's because you painted it.  If it's beautiful, it's only beautiful because you just so happened to throw your ink blobs in just such a way to create it.

Frickin' awesome.  I particularly loved the trees.  Throwing ink up into tree trunks is delightful.  It feels so organic and magical and mysterious and genius, you start wondering how the devs can maintain this remarkable sense of whimsy and creativity.

Turns out they can't.

The final two-thirds of the game simply see you exploring a gently shaded world and solving jumping puzzles.  That's it.

After the remarkable opening, The Unfinished Swan trips over its own genius and falls flat on its face, unable to offer any mechanics or experiences that compare to its first act.  The story comes to a limp, uninspired end, and one starts to wonder if the entire exercise would have been more memorable, more perfect if you'd never progressed beyond the pure-white world.

The independent developer space is hugely important to the creative ecosystem of modern game development - it allows us remarkable experiences like the first twenty minutes of The Unfinished Swan - but that one gleaming facet isn't enough to give the title a recommendation.

It's a bit like Julie & Julia - no, it's not the best movie in the world and God I wish Amy Adams' character (I love Amy Adams, for the record) would just shut the hell up - but it's worth experiencing for Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child alone.  The Unfinished Swan is worth experiencing for its opening, but then - just like I do when I watch Julie & Julia - I'll skip over the Amy Adams story and just enjoy the part that's fantastic.

The rest I can do without.

Game Diary.

Between XCOM and Dishonored, lately, no matter what the activity is, I'd rather be playing video games.

It's not common for a single game to possess me to such a degree, but two at once is unheard of. A game like Dark Souls requiring fifty to sixty hours in order to come to a firm conclusion isn't all that freakish - and wanting to play through, say, BioShock 2 or Max Payne 3 a few times to come to a deeper understanding of its narrative or mechanics isn't unusual - but this is getting a bit silly.

I'm on my third Dishonored playthrough, and I''m currently working on two separate XCOM saves - one on normal difficulty, and one on "classic."

I'll be honest, I really don't "get" XCOM's classic difficulty.  It's just obscenely hard and more than a bit silly when your four-man squad each miss a 75% chance to hit, and are steamrolled by a pair of sectoids.

And as much as I love the game on normal - and I do - I have difficulty reconciling the game's quality on normal with classic.  And the thing is, as I paw through the internet and see all these 9/10s, I'm quite sure those folks threw down with the game on classic and still declared it a masterpiece.

I'm not sure what's wrong with me, but classic difficulty just feels like "stupid-hard" difficulty.  It doesn't feel fair or fun, and I have no idea why everyone else is cool with it.  Perhaps it is balanced and a groovy challenge, but man, I don't see it.  ...yet.

I shudder at the thought, but I may need yet more time with XCOM.

Meanwhile, I'm still in love with Dishonored.  I decided to do a playthrough where I'm never seen and never harm anyone - (I killed like, ten people on my first playthrough) and while I do so regularly missing the flashy action of Corvo's lethal options, it's still amazing and endearing to see how the entire game is built to accommodate each playstyle.

I feel the need to do a short series on Dishonored, talking about one aspect or another. I want to compare the non-lethal options with Thief's.  I want to compare the world-building to Thief and the narrative to BioShock 2 - which somehow made far greater impact by not telling you what it was up to, whereas Dishonored's feels very forced.

And then there's The Unfinished Swan... which doesn't actually require a great deal of time to explain fully.  In fact, let's do up a review...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

GTA V to drop this spring?

According to some promo materials that leaked...

Also, the ESRB has rated San Andreas and Vice City for PS3, so there may be a whole heap of Grand Theft Auto goodness headed our way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Want to watch the first ten minutes of ACIII:Liberation?

Shot via shaky-cam?  In espaƱol?

Ugggh 3 and Lib drop on Tuesday... I have got to go throw down with XCOM and get that review done...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault announcements.

Here's all you need to know:

  • November 27th. 
  • PSN and retail release. 
  • $19.99
  • Cross-buy: if you get the PS3 version, you get a download of the Vita version free. 

Press release!
"We’re happy to announce Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault will be available on November 27th on the PlayStation Store and at retail. That’s right, you asked and we listened: Full Frontal Assault will be available as a retail copy for those of you who love physical copies of your games! Both the download and retail versions support cross-buy as well, so your purchase gets you both the game on PS3 and a digital copy for PlayStation Vita.  
The other big question we’ve gotten a lot is “How much will the game cost?” As you know, Full Frontal Assault is a “fun-size” project that’s similar in scope to Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty. But Full Frontal is actually bigger than Booty, as we’ve added tons of new features, including the new base assault and defense elements. An even bigger addition to Full Frontal Assault is the replay value we packed in with online / split-screen co-op, and online competitive modes. Most importantly, while the experience itself may be more condensed, the game quality is bursting at the seams. We’re very proud of what we’ve created.  
As such, we’re especially excited to announce that Full Frontal Assault is launching for just $19.99. Considering you get a brand-new Ratchet & Clank game for your PS3 and PS Vita, with cross-save and cross-play support for the game’s co-op and competitive multiplayer, it’s a deal that’s hard to refuse."
Day one, baby - at retail.  I always felt very wrong about the fact that I don't have a disc copy of Quest for Booty - but that's what happens when you make it Europe-exclusive.

Hitman Absolution cinematic trailer.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

A shorter REVIEW - Dishonored.

If you, like me, fell in love with Thief (1998) and its sequels, you will love Dishonored.  It's as simple as that.  Go buy it.

Still reading?  Didn't play Thief? 

If the mention of Thief does not thrum deep, baritone chords of pleasure in the recesses in your soul, the experience may be harder to explain.  How to put it...

You can summon rats.  That's pretty boss.

There is a unique and resonant sensation, deep in one's innards, that can only be stirred by exposure to the finest of first-person stealth mechanics.  The feel of genuine control over yourself and your abilities, which demand and allow that you wait... wait... wait... and strike, perfectly.  Strike beautifully. With intention and foresight and art.

That's important.  That's of paramount import, and Dishonored nails it.  If there's one thing a stealth game from devs behind Thief requires, it's the indescribable, exquisite feel that Thief granted ohhh almost fifteen years ago, and was only ever really replicated by its sequels.

The power and grace one feels when leaning out, reaching through a grated window and gently lifting a key from the belt of a distracted guardsman, which unlocks the side door at a mansion hosting a party you already have an invitation to.  And then disappearing. That alone is enough to flutter my heartstrings, as such mechanics' kinetic, expressive feel... have been sorely missed.

And, well, here it is.

The breezy controls, the ingrained understanding of line-of-sight and shadow and sound and searching every nook and cranny of every room, nodding with grim satisfaction when tearing a three-hundred-coin painting from the wall, but still enjoying a rush of glee at spotting a single, gleaming coin behind a chaise lounge or plague victim.

Samuel just drives the boat.  We love him.

It also does combat way, way better than any other dedicated stealth title I can think of.  It feels like someone looked at the mechanics of Dead Island last year and extrapolated that sense of enemy control and power, as you blink into one enemy from twenty yards away to cut his throat, slip a crossbow bolt into the gut of the next to put him off-balance for a fatal strike before finally spining aside to riposte a third.  It's a beautiful moment, when your sword slips under his and you fling it aside.  He staggers back, flailing and stumbling on the cobbles.  Open for a fleeting, gorgeous instant.


This comes at a cost, it seems - if you want to rip through Dishonored while killing everything you see, the game will certainly allow and encourage it - but it doesn't provide you with equally compelling abilities to see yourself through its challenges non-lethally.

Oh some of it's clever, to be sure - but the variety isn't there.

It likes to think of itself as a game where this is a hard choice - whether to cut a throat or choke it - but the hardest part of Dishonored is easily trying to complete the title without spilling any blood.  That is, one should note, as it should be - the game's greatest challenge should be the moral high ground - but it'd be nice if the moral high ground were also as fun as it is down on the killing floor.

Once you see the the first-person kill animations, you have to describe it to someone.

Turns out it's impossible to do so without being profoundly creepy.

It's deeply imperfect, here and there.  The game is far too visually bright for a title that apes Thief and BioShock (particularly BioShock 2), and while its muted art and soaring architecture are gorgeous, it fails to inspire the same sense of place and atmosphere as those titles.  Also, Arkane, if you're reading this - almost any stealth game is built on trying to do a thing perfectly, failing, and trying again (unless you're prepared to be seen and kill everyone).  You need shorter load times between those tries.  The story and world aren't as well-realized as they were in Thief, the narrative payoff for your choices is a blatant, lazily-executed rip of the exact same thing in BioShock 2, but...

But here's the thing - and here's why this is A shorter Review and not an epic one; I can't stop playing it.  I'm nowhere near done playing, enjoying, and reflecting on this game.

There's nothing quite like a seriously good first-person stealth game.  And it's nice when BioShock gives you a bit of a stealth spec and it's nice to try your hand at it in Deus Ex: Human Revolution - but no one in the past fifteen years has ever done it like the folks behind Thief did.

'Till now.

I've read a lot of reviews that point out that Dishonored is excellent in terms of design and gameplay, but "isn't a classic" - and maybe that's true.  I know that, as much as I love it, its pretty-but-bright atmosphere and iffy narrative will disallow the game from being as meaningful to me as Thief was, but here's the second thing...

I can guarantee you.  I promise you.  There's a kid out there who never played Thief, who will pick up Dishonored and discover an experience unlike anything they've ever played.  That kid will fall straightaway in love, and one day, years from now, they'll tell their friends how the latest first-person stealth game is nowhere near as good as Dishonored was, back in 2012.

Weird music!

So I was tracking down the song from the latest BioShock Infinite trailer when I ended up combing through a bunch of music from SXSW.  The most unusual stuff I have no taste for - settling instead on interesting/strange/nice-sounding music that I can dig.  For example, this lady's from like, Europe or somethin'.

This one starts off feeling very much like Teardrop from Massive Attack, and then becomes this strange, wavy, uplifting thing.

This one is performed by the alter-ego of comic Chip Pope.  Its the tale of a traveling Englishman who finds himself repeatedly seduced by the beguiling charms of cross-dressing Asians.

This is Daphne Willis and Co - but I can't find their studio version.  For shame!

This one is worth posting if only for the title - You Won't Sass Me Like That When I Can Summon Wolves by Dirty Heads.

Finally, I find myself still listening to stuff I tracked down via the Sleeping Dogs soundtrack - I don't think I've shared this one yet, so check out What It Look Like (Todd Edward Remix) from Spank Rock.

[/update] Pfft - I totally did in the last music post, so...

Here's Sit Down I Love You by Buffalo Springfield.  [/update]

Yeah.  Classicy.

Far Cry 3 - The Tyrant: Hoyt trailer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Assassin's Creed III launch trailer.


...oh, that's sexy.

Well, crap, now I have to start caring about The Unfinished Swan.

It's on PSN right now for $14.99... I can swing the cash - but can I swing the time?

XCOM's first DLC announced.

The Slingshot DLC - which has no price or date, yet - is a "story-driven" mini-campaign of three missions.  Word is you can't access the campaign mid-game - you have to restart a game to experience it.
"In a set of three linked missions, players move through a mini storyline taking place on new maps with new gameplay. The Slingshot DLC also adds a new, unique squad member, with a different backstory, voice, and customization options. After completing the DLC, players can take their rewards and new squad member back into the "core" game."
I'm still waiting of writing the XCOM review, but - imperfect though it may be - I'm probably going to day-one this and any other DLC that becomes available for it.  And then buy the "complete" edition, whenever that happens.

The Iron Man 3 trailer.

Is Jon Favreau directing again..?  Ah - no - it's Shane Black.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hm. There's gonna' be a multiplayer beta for God of War: Ascension.

If you're a PlayStation Plus member.  And this may look like a proper trailer for the next God of War, but it's pretty much just talking about how you get to use lightning powers if you align yourself with Zeus in the multiplayer.


PSASBR commercial is kinda' funny.

Ish.  I like the idea of Cole and Drake throwin' down.

Joe Mad has left Vigil.

First Cliffy B, and now this?  The world's gone crazy!

Joe Madureira was a very successful comic book artist until he started up Vigil Games at THQ.  After Darksiders became a surprise hit, the publisher threw a lot of money at its ambitious but imperfect sequel.  I don't doubt we'll be getting a Darksiders III, but it will be a lesser game for his absence.

Good luck, Joe Mad - you gave us one of the great games of this generation.

A twenty-minute Fuse dev diary.

It's called a "progress update" video - but a better title might be "the most we've heard about the game since it announced."  It's lost about a hundred per cent of the charm it had when it was called Overstrike - but we all love Insomniac, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

For now.

Well now I wish I hadn't bought The Walking Dead episode 3.

Due out on some undisclosed date in December, Telltale's The Walking Dead adventure game serial will get a full disc release with all episodes on a single disc for thirty bucks.  If you want to delve a little deeper into the whole Walking Dead thing, you can drop seventy dollars for the Collector's Edition - which seems to feature only the game and The Walking Dead Compendium One, a collection of the first forty-eight issues of the series.

That's not a particularly impressive deal, when you consider the book is $35 on Amazon at the moment - but I'm sure their heart was in the right place.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I had totally forgotten about Cyberpunk 2077.

But it suddenly seems all sexy and cool now, doesn't it?  It's a wallpaper.  Click to embiggen.

The BioShock Infinite Ultimate Edition is getting a preorder.

For $149.99 - a hundred and fifty bucks(!) - you can get the above Ultimate Edition, which contains

  • a 3-inch baby version keychain of the Murder of Crows vigor bottle replicas (if you ever watch video webcasts, you'll see the original replica bottles on the desks of Jerry Holkins from Penny Arcade, or Michael Pachter on GameTrailers). 
  • a 5x7-inch lithograph (Pfft.  The BioShock 2 special edition had three lithos.)
  • A 25-millimeter, resin-cast Handyman miniature from the upcoming BioShock Infinite board game (?)
  • A mini art book "with a hand-distressed cover"
  • "various digital goodies" like exclusive in-game gear, a digitial soundtrack and platform-specific DLC (themes for PC & PS3, avatars for 360)

Plus some sort of video game, and a 9.5-inch statue of the Songbird, BioShock Infinite's biggest baddie and tormentor/protector of Elisabeth. Says Irrational Games' Ken Levine...
"Imagine you get to work with Robb Waters, the concept artist who visualized the cover of System Shock. The Trickster in Thief. Man-Bot in Freedom Force. BioShock's Little Sisters. Sander Cohen. And BioShock Infinite's Songbird.  
Now imagine you can get him to personally conceive and oversee the production of the coolest statue in the world.  
Then imagine we put that huge sucker in a period-style box, with custom artwork by Robb and Irrational concept artist Jorge Lacera. And that box went IN the collector's edition box so you could leave that guy unpunched in his original packaging while you tear happily into the rest of the goodies.  
Now imagine that 9-and-a-half-inch statue looked like this…"
"Of course, all of the above is also included in the Ultimate Songbird Edition. And for the true nerds in the audience, the Songbird statue, the Murder of Crows keychain, and the Handyman all come in separate custom packaging.  
Both Collector's Editions will be available in limited quantities, so yadda yadda, sign your life away right now!  
You owe it to yourself (and to poor, sad Ken Levine, who can always be spotted by his tiny crutch that sits forlornly by the Christmas dinner table) to check the thing out in this lovely display made by our amazing web team. I like it. My mother likes it. So it must be good."
-Ken Levine

So, basically, are you willing to bet seventy bucks that the above statue will be worth seventy bucks?  'Cause for $79.99, you get everything but the statue.  And c'mon, how many of the statues we get in special editions are actually worth even twenty?

Not many.  Or any.  Well, no.  I'd pay $20 for my Max Payne statue, even if the paint on his eyes is kinda' wonky.

Is it terrible that the single thing I'm most interested in here is that Murder of Crows keychain?

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation story trailer.

Alright!  Alright, fine.  I want it, okay?

I want to play Liberation.  I want to play it more than I want to play Assassin's Creed III.

There, I said it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A short Game Diary.

The other day a fellow came up to me at work and asked if I'd heard about this game he'd seen commercials for on TV called Dishonored

"Yeah," I nodded. 

"What kind of game is it?"

And as I told him, his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped at the mere thought of it

Not everyone will fully appreciate the gravity of this statement, but for those that will:

Dishonored is the love child of Thief and BioShock.

This isn't a hopeful statement, like those made prior to the game's release.  This isn't merely a game that could be a modern return to a world defined by exploration, freedom of choice and zippy, tactile action a'la Thief, BioShock and Deus Ex.  This is a game that is.

It's what we'd hoped.

Now, that being said, I'm not yet as wholly seduced by the game's atmosphere as I was with Thief or BioShock - and atmosphere was a major factor in the sensation and success of both those titles, as it may-or-may-not be here - but as I worm my way towards my first assassination target, I can feel it growing on me.

I get the sense that, by the end of my time with it, I may feel as strongly positive about Dishonored's world as I do Thief's - and that's a delightful prospect. I'll finish up the first mission tonight, and then go where my heart takes me...

...which will likely be back to XCOM.  I'm working on a second playthrough.  Well, technically a third playthrough - I decided to play "classic" style without the Classic difficulty, as Classic difficulty will tell you four soldiers have a 50% chance to hit a target, 100% of those soldiers will miss, and the one weakling Sectoid they're shooting at will then score a critical facemelter from across the map on your best unit.

It feels, frankly, unfair at those harder difficulties.  I don't mind challenge, but when I get the sense that a game is fucking with its own tenets of fair play, it's hard not to be frustrated.

So I went back to normal difficulty and decided I would let the chips fall where they may - saving sporadically, making hard calls, and slowly putting together a reasonable strike team.  Now, admittedly, the above paragraph shits on one of the top-rated games of the year, so let me make one point very clear:

I love this game.

I love it.  If you're a PS3 stalwart who, like me, championed Valkyria Chronicles back in the day, you have got to pick this game up.

Then, as now, it feels wholesome and satisfying and just gritty enough.  The antithesis of the instant risk-reward of Dishonored, XCOM is a game to be played at a leisurely pace with a focused mind.  It will be abhorred by folks who are unable to jack in to its style of play - so far removed from the instant gratification of this year's other triple-A titles - but for those who have no choice but to become absorbed in the intricacies of its planning and the depth of its strategic combat, XCOM...

XCOM could be the only game they buy this year, and they will be thrilled with it.  There's a part of me that honestly feels that, if I were fifteen years old, and could only afford a single video game to purchase and play in 2012, I would be quite happy to have it be XCOM.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A great day for pickups.

I picked up my Doom 3: BFG Edition preorder today and stared at it, longingly, all night at work.  I poured countless hours into Doom 3 back in 2004 - on a PC that wasn't anywhere near the title's recommended settings - and experienced a slow-burn, wholesome love untainted by its mixed reviews and bitchy "fans."

What you've gotta' remember is that, in 2004, Doom 3 was our Crysis. The computer that could run Doom 3 at its max settings hadn't been invented yet - it wasn't just cutting-edge technology, that edge was bleeding.

Eight years later, Doom 3 is not... the belle of the ball.  Not when compared to any triple-A title of the past three years - these textures, those models! - to the point that I have little doubt teenagers are snapping up the low-low-price package of Doom, Doom II, Doom 3 and its expansions and feeling ripped right off by this "sub-par" game.

But I didn't buy it because I thought it would show these modern FPSs who's boss - I bought it because I loved Doom when I was thirteen years old, I loved Doom II years later, and I have nothing but love for Doom 3.  It's entirely a nostalgia trip - but it's a wonderfully realized nostalgia trip.  All three games on one disc, classic 3:4 format for Doom and Doom II, with Doom 3 running at max settings with 60 frames per second.

And they kept the theme song.  I doubt kids today will appreciate it, but man - I can dig it.

And speaking of terror from beyond the stars, there's a big Halloween sale going on at the PlayStation Network store - huge update, today - the first such season sale I can remember that didn't feature a temporary price cut for Siren: Blood Curse.

Most notable (to me) is that you can now buy a digital copy of Dead Space 2 for a mere $13.99, or a flat $9.99 if your a PS+ member.  That is tantamount to EA inflicting highway robbery on themselves, given that Dead Space 2 is some seriously hot shit, and one of the best games of 2011.

If you don't own Dead Space 2 yet, and refuse to buy it at such a price, you and I are on two different wavelengths.  Finally, there's a public beta out for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale for PS3 and Vita, if that's your thing, it'll be worth keeping an eye out for reviews of Silent Hill: Book of Memories and...

Dokuro dropped on PSN today for Vita. Or at least, it's listed as having released - but I can't seem to locate it on the Vita's store.

At $20 - and given that I still have another playthrough of XCOM to finish, and have barely scratched the surfaces of Dishonored and Resident Evil 6 - I just can't jump on Dokuro, despite having a pronounced yearning to do so.

God help me.  For the moment, I actually feel as if I have enough video games.

Doom 3 BFG Edition launch trailer.


Also, Kotaku's got like three minutes of almost pure combat from Tokitowa - that's pretty sweet.  I can't remember the last time I was so hopeful a game would be good while being warily certain that it'll suck.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

REVIEW - Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2 is an open-world first-person shooter co-op RPG.  It's built from the ground up as a multiplayer experience - and I, weirdly, never felt a pressing need to get a co-op game going.  I like exploring and observing and reflecting at my own pace, so this is a review of Borderlands 2 from the perspective of someone who soloed it.  Which seems insane.  That said, I've heard nothing but good things about what happens to the game when you play it with other people, so you can just take this review and tack on the concept that "it gets even better with co-op!"

It's a beautiful idea - a wonderful idea - but there is a fundamental problem in the RPG+FPS hybrid equation.

RPGs are designed, in nearly all ways, to comfortably straddle the random number generators that lie at their core.  To drip-feed you items and enemies and challenges that are strictly reasonable or comfortably challenging at your current level, allowing you to continue having fun and progress through the story. To constantly warble along a path of under- or over-powered player characters, while still managing to feel engaging and fun through tactics and world-building.

First-person shooters, on the other hand, don't take kindly to random anything.  A really good first person shooter's rules are so comfortable and so infallible that you can find yourself leading a target, close your eyes and let a single bullet off the chain, and not have to look to see whether or not you hit anything.

You know you hit it, because its rules never change.  The combination of these two genres - a seemingly simple concept - is distressed, at its core.  To be looty RPG, you have to constantly drip-feed your players a series of weapons with a vast variety of attributes.  Meanwhile, in really great first-person shooter, there can be no question as to what happens when your reticle glides over an enemy's face and you pull the trigger.

Asking for a great FPS with random loot is like asking for a vegan sandwich with bacon.

Still, you have to hand it to Gearbox.  Borderlands 2, as a first-person shooter, feels much more comfortable and reasonable than its predecessor did.  That's not to say the crucial feel of a great FPS is a constant companion - merely that Borderlands 2 snaps in to that sensation with greater regularity than the original game did in 2009.

It doesn't - or, perhaps, can't - maintain it.  If a quest you really want to finish is five levels beneath you, you'll yawn your way through it, randomly spraying your bullets into the squishy torsos of your targets with little fear for your own safety.  If the best gun in your arsenal happens to be a bit long in the tooth though, you'll find even "normal" difficulty quests near-impossible to tolerate as you empty clips into undying foes.

It can be very boring and very frustrating - but still, it's less often boring and less regularly frustrating that Borderlands was three years ago.

So, kudos, Gearbox.  You're not there yet, but you're far closer than you were.

Beyond this troubled core conceit, there are a few nits to pick.  Borderlands 2 is useless at tracking multiple quests, comparing items and weapons isn't nearly as intuitive as it should be for a game with "bazillions of guns," the menus for keeping track of all your look are pretty terrible, and the driving still sucks.  All that being said... there's a ton to love, here.

While Borderlands' striking, cartoony/cell shaded aesthetic was added midway through development, in Borderlands 2 it really shows that this was the destination from the outset.  Everything looks crisper, bolder and - joyously - more colorful as you explore fifteen or twenty vastly different environments, from futuristic ultracities to poisonous swamps.

Pandora's rogues' gallery has also seen an upgrade with new enemy types - but it's near-impossible for familiarity not to set in after thirty or more hours with the title.  At the same time, each encounter distinguishes itself from the last via the different attributes each enemy can have - shielded, armored and fleshy foes each whispering for the use of particular weapons to drop their shields, corrode their armor or scorch their skin.

This is a blessing and a curse when things get really crazy (as things regularly do, in Borderlands 2), as you're perpetually opening menus to switch out your old-standby weapon for specific guns with the damage type you need.

I love the presentation.  Any game that begins with a track from The Heavy gets points, in my book, but Borderlands 2 ends up feeling like less and more than your run-of-the-mill big-budget action game thanks to its cheeky, winking attitude.

Where your Call of Duties, your Dragon Ages, your Halos are replete with soaring orchestral scores, super-serious, stalwart heroes handling super-serious emergencies, Borderlands 2 has the spirit of smaller, tongue-in-cheek games like Ratchet & Clank, WET, Lollipop Chainsaw or (cough) Duke Nukem.

When the next step in a quest chain is to slap a foul-mouthed thirteen year old's mortal enemy, or high-fiving an insanely cheerful robot, it's hard not to chuckle a bit.

Replete with gaming references and the infectious feeling that you and the developers are all in on the same joke, there's a kernel of lets-just-have-a-good-time joy at the center of the game, like the loading screen tip which reminds you "The Gunzerker's Sexual Tyrannosaurus skill heals you whenever you take damage, but hopefully you just saw the name and were like "I want that.""

This is at odds with the standard ambition of any first-person experience - immersion - but, counter-intuitively, it's not uncommon for the game to slip into That Perfect Place from time to time.  When you're vaguely aware of the reason for creeping into this dungeon, but your senses are honed to the point of your aiming reticle.  When the lovely cell-shading/comic aesthetic bleeds away and all you're seeing is a collection of potential threats, their weaknesses and the tactics that will win the day.

And that's where Borderlands achieves its ambition.  When you're dashing through a raider camp, throwing super-heated lead in all directions, dodging grenades, swapping out weapons to deliver a perfect smack to a psychopath's forehead, getting shot down, crawling along in Fight For Your Life mode (which is genius, by the way), pelting out a score of buckshot to rise from your grave and switch on your tide-turning action skill...  it nails it.

Sometimes, it nails it.  When you breathlessly fight tooth-and-nail through a grueling but balanced sequence and find yourself nudging the leftover loot with the toe of your boot, mentally comparing this gun to the standards in your inventory - like any gun-toting mercenary from beyond the stars would.

That idea - a sprawling, exploratory RPG viewed over the barrel of a slick, effective weapon - is a wonderful idea.  When it works - which isn't always, but more often than not - it's a wonderful thing.

DOOM married to an epic-length RPG.  That sounds scrumptious.

By halfway to the level cap you'll feel like a much more potent killing machine, replete with strategies and options, but each level gained is less about unlocking life-altering new skills than a zero-point-eight per cent increase in one stat or another.  Like the difference between Borderlands 2 and its predecessor, it's a success measured in inches - a teensy bit of a better story here, a wash of interesting, beautiful new locales there.

At its core there remains this frayed, distressed concept of marrying random loot with comfortable FPS mechanics, but all the aspects of the game surrounding that core have been refined and improved - even if it's not quite enough, here and there.

It's far from perfect, but it's still an open-world co-op loot-crazy first-person shooter RPG - and that's a helluva lot better than the one we didn't have before Borderlands came along.

  • an open-world co-op loot-crazy first-person shooter RPG  
  • a bazillion guns (but only about fifty you'll actually want to use)
  • Lots of character, from the NPCs to the player classes and
  • a cheeky, winking sense of humor that feels fresh and energetic.
  • space western!
  • overall presentation is significantly improved
  • I love Fight For Your Life mode
  • a huge world to explore with tons of environmental variety
  • tons of different enemies with their own AI and necessary strategies
  • what feels like around 100 quests
  • when it works it feels amazing - and a huge open-world FPS is a beautiful thing
  • it begins and ends with tracks from The Heavy and I frickin' love The Heavy
  • The whole random-loot RPG and FPS thing don't exactly mesh all the time.  I'd say about 45% of the time, on my playthrough - but friends have reported much less than that. 
  • In a game with a "bazillion" guns, you really need a better system for comparing them.
  • While I love most of the characters (particularly the guy who sells the deck upgrades, for some reason), and while the writing is worlds better than its predecessor, the story still feels profoundly meh.
  • The quest system kinda' sucks. 
  • No one likes your driving, Borderlands.
  • Pretty much the whole time I was playing it, I was thinking about how much better the presentation and gameplay were in Rage - which is a somewhat different genre, I know, but still.
  • I honestly can't tell if I actually warmed up to it, or if most of my good points are merely the result of Stockholm syndrome after thirty hours with the game.

Borderlands 2 is far from perfect, but an open-world space western lootfest RPG/FPS is still a beautiful thing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hey, Canada.

Lollipop Chainsaw - AKA the year's best B-quality game - is $19.99 at Best Buy, right now.  You can also get Dead Island, the Journey collection, the Ratchet & Clank collection, Little Big Planet 2, Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City Stories and Red Dead Redemption: Game of the Year Edition for the same low price.

Additionally... Max Fucking Payne 3.

If you are lacking these two instant classics, I heartily endorse obtaining forty-four dollars and forty cents, and heading down to Best Buy (or wielding its weekly flyer under the noses of the good folks at Wal-Mart or Future Shop), and snapping these two up.

Also, if you don't own Dead Island yet, you really should. It was one of the best games of last year.