Friday, August 21, 2015

What I've Been Playing.


Hello, dear reader.  It’s been too long. 

In the past few weeks, I have blitzed several games, and barely breathed a word about it.  Not sure why.  Stressful job?  Sure, let’s go with that. 

Let’s go chronological.  Batman: Arkham Knight


Where Asylum and City was an honor and homage to Batman’s history and mythos as rendered by other famous creators, resonating powerfully with our expectations of and affection for the character, Knight singularly celebrates (developer) Rocksteady’s own contributions to Batman’s canon and style – which is a blessing in some places and a curse elsewhere – particularly as it applies to its female cast.  Elsewhere, it moves away from part of what makes Rocksteady’s previous games so special in pursuit of a grander world. Asylum was an intimate – and thus engaging, affecting, immersive – affair with its tight interior level designs and rich details, and City blended generous open-world exploration and thrilling batsuit flight with repeated incursions into supervillain bases that echoed the fine-grit, personal touches of Asylum.  Comparatively,Arkham Knight feels very distant – nearly all of it taking place in the overworld, with brief, occasional (high-quality) punctuations of interiors.


It’s good.  It’s solid, but apart from the one spoiler-rific thing no reviewer will spoil for you (which is spectacular, pays huge dividends and makes up for a very uneven story) and gliding over a much larger swath of Gotham – the glittery towers of Founders Island reflecting the lights of the city below – it’s not memorable.  It has its moments.  It has some beautiful moments that, at one point, made me want to proclaim that Arkham Knight does for action-adventures what BioShock did for first-person shooters – but no, this game is not that special. 

It’s solid.  It’s good.  It’s not up there with the best of 2015, in competition for Game of the Year, but it sits comfortably at the same quality level of City and Asylum – albeit with some different weaknesses and strengths.  I give it seven out of ten.  Eight, with its excellent presentation.


I finally played Rocketbirds.  I tried out the demo, years ago, enjoyed its presentation and loved its music, but it never whittled down to a price point I was prepared to go for.  The gameplay just seemed a bit... flat. 

Well, I had a big chunk of PSN money burning a hole in my PSN pants, so I fired it at Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken before The Swindle dropped, and played through it in a day and a half.  The presentation remains excellent – the flash-animation cutscenes blow Galak-Z’s flash-animated cutscenes out of the water, for example - and its soundtrack is still excellent.  There’s a lot of flavor – and who doesn’t love chicken?  No one, that’s who.  Here, put on some headphones and watch this.  This is the game’s opening.


...and that story presentation was enough to propel me through the game’s rather tepid action, which allows the player almost zero strategy or expression in how they take out foes.  You wander through a (stylish, lovely) 2D military base, and when you step into a screen with an enemy on it, you either shoot first or they do.  If you shoot first, they’re blown off their feet and susceptible to follow-up shots.  If there are two of them, things get dicey – as the one in front will absorb shots will the other fires at you – and if there are two on either side of you, you need to get comfortable with the timing of shooting, turning, shooting, turning back and shooting again before the first guy gets up.  Also there’s jetpack stuff that’s kinda’ fun – but equally shallow.

Nice presentation and inoffensive, ineffectual gameplay.  Not bad.  Five out of ten.  Six, with that sweet soundtrack and presentation.  Personality goes a long way.


The Swindle is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the summer, thus far.

Its missteps are those of any young indie studio – one gets the sense it wasn’t heavily playtested, as its tutorial is essentially nonexistent.  I’d be more comfortable with that, were it a Roguelike in any real sense beyond the procedurally-generated levels, but it’s not.  It’s a straight 2D stealth-action-platformer-RPG with a timer, and the player really needs to know that the Bug tool is more important than Queen Important of Significantland, and central to one’s ability to enjoy the title and reap its greatest pleasures.  And its pleasures are great – and worth the frustration one experiences before a kindly Internet-dwelling benefactor gently guides them towards the Bug.

Once you’ve got the Bug and a working understanding of the game, it’s lovely.  Since Mark of the Ninja, there’s been no shortage of discussion on what makes a great stealth game – most of it focusing on how the developer can communicate to the player what this enemy’s area of perception is and how much of an impact one’s next move will have on their artificial intelligence – and while The Swindle is no slouch there, it’s how well the game covers the Three Moments of Stealth that really steals my heart.


Those moments are beautiful, when they work well.  Moment 1: the observation.  Clinging to a wall high above a room filled with clockwork guards, spotlights and deadly traps, planning your attack – or choosing to avoid it entirely and find a different path.  Moment 2: the execution – pulling the trigger on your tools, disrupting enemies, blowing generators and explosives, and dropping down to dash forward with nothing but a blackjack and some skill.  Moment 3: the satisfaction of pulling it off, and bopping down the next hallway, in pursuit of the next Moment 1. 

The Swindle pulls this off.  Its platforming isn’t as smooth and sweet as MotN, its framerate can falter occasionally on Vita, but it’s...

...it’s easily the best stealth game on the Vita.  Better than Stealth Inc (and its sequel), better than Shinobido 2.  Absolutely check out The Swindle.  Very nice presentation and art direction.  Decent soundtrack.  Great sound effects for when you bop a robot on the head with your blackjack (it’s a sharp, hollow bok! sound), and wonderful satisfaction when you slip out of a bank with six figures in your pocket.  Eight out of ten. 


Fallout Shelter now takes up eighty per cent of my time spent with my cell phone.  I check twitter and gaming news sites as an afterthought, because you have to tap your dwellers who’ve leveled up (which earns you caps), or they’ll just sit there, not levelling up, and you have to move the lady dweller out of the residence after your dude with the best stats knocks her up to make room for the next lady who needs to get knocked up.  (Protip: put her in lingere, which raises her charisma stat, and she’ll get knocked up faster!  Then send her back to the kitchen.  Oh, how far we’ve come.)
I never played Farmville, but I imagine it’s something like this.  Something you can’t just sit there and play, but you must play once an hour, or once every half-hour or so in order to keep your facility running at peak productivity.

It has microtransactions.  I can imagine a vault layout, and the very, very patient player who might be able to level up their dwellers’ S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skills to the point that they can survive a day or two in the wasteland, but I’m not that patient and my vault doesn’t have that layout.  I don’t want to calculate how much I’ve spent on this free game, but I think it’s safe to say I could have paid off my preorder on Fallout 4 with the amount it’s siphoned off my credit card. 

It is addictive.  It is satisfying when a herd of deathclaws busts into my vault, rampages into the power room on the first floor and six power armor-sporting, mini-nuke packing badasses turn around and wipe the floor with them, and I’m slowly levelling up the stats of a woman I’ve named Alice – just Alice – after Milla Jovovich’s character in the Resident Evil films.

My plan is to max her on almost everything, weigh her down with sixty stimpacks and just see how long she can survive out there.

Maybe if she goes three or four days without coming home, she’ll actually start collecting good weapons.  Like chainguns and such.

Or maybe the only way to get them is to give Bethesda money.  In which case fuck you Bethesda.
Four out of ten for the gott-damned micro-transactions. Six for being so gott-damned addictive that I actually used them.

(Kayla’s obsessed with it too – nearly quit when deathclaws killed almost half of her vault, but couldn’t stay away for long.  She bought the 40-pack – which, at only twenty-five dollars, is a fifty per cent savings on precious lunchboxes!)


This week, I pulled the trigger on two more Vita games which couldn’t be more different.  Resident Evil Revelations 2 is... well, I’m not quite sure I’ve played enough of it to sound off, yet.  It seems a solid reminder of what Resident Evil used to reliably deliver, and the pleasures thereof – but man I miss manual saving.  Oh, and there was this one part where a garbage-crushing thing activates while you’re inside it and you have to climb on top you get out, and while the walls were closing in the framerate dropped to single digits.

That sucked.  Six out of ten, so far. It’s pushing my Resident Evil 4 nostalgia buttons.


The other game is Curses N’ Chaos, the single-screen brawler Tribute Games (Mercenary Kings, Wizorb) have been working on instead of putting Mercenary Kings on Vita like they promised
I like it.  I like it a lot, in fact.  It doesn’t really soothe the sting of not having Mercenary Kings on there, but it’s a very pure experience – very simple, very challenging – with a mere four attacks at your disposal, a litany of randomized tools to unleash on your enemies that drop from defeated foes and a satisfying alchemy system to create new tools. 

Like Revelations, it’s still too early to really sound off on it – I still haven’t beaten the second stage!  But I’m stillthinking about it.  Its eight-bit sprites are tiny, but its animations are so expressive.  Its music is wonderful.  Its action is frantic, vicious and satisfying, and gosh I wonder what happens if I build a power ring and take that into the level with me..?

I shall have to find out.   Interim score, seven out of ten.  Eight for the wonderful animations.  Seven-point five for using eight-bit sprites instead of sixteen.

Oh.  Also.  Galak-Z


 Galak-Z will get a proper review.  Its locomotion mechanics are good enough to place the game among platforming luminaries like Super Mario World, inFamous 2 and Mark of the Ninja.  Just moving in this game is beautiful, elegant, expressive fun.  Its teeth-gritting challenge, vicious foes and highly interactive worlds – densely populated with strategic opportunities as they are – ensure its minute-to-minute, second-to-second gameplay is more orgasmically pleasurable than any other game mentioned in this post.  Pulling off crazy stuff in Galak-Z is some of the most satisfying action gaming of the past few years.  It is fun, fun, fun, fun.  Constantly and consistently.

It is the Game of the Summer, no doubt, and in direct competition with Dying Light and Bloodborne for Game of the Year 2015.  Ten out of ten.  Nine-point five for the awful cutscene animation – which 17-Bit insists is intentional, but is just off-putting.

Still.  9.5. 

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