Sleeping Dogs

 

The main problem with Sleeping Dogs is that it’s not Saints Row: The Third.

That might seem like a pretty unfair comparison — there are, after all, a truly unfortunate number of games out there this year that aren’t Saints Row — but in a lot of ways Dogs is a game that invites it, partly because it’s a game that doesn’t really have much of an identity of its own. I know that it was originally planned as the next installment of the True Crime series before being shuffled over to Square Enix, but in practice, it really just takes a bunch of elements from similar games and throws them in a blender. The influence of Grand Theft Auto is obvious, both in the open-world steal-a-car-and-shoot-some-dudes structure and in the plot’s aspirations of being a playable movie, but there are others in there too, like Saints Row’s clothing system and how it affects your respect/”face”/whatever ranking and a melee combat system that draws pretty heavily on Arkham Asylum. My favorite, though, and probably the most hilarious, is that it does its damnedest to lift the parkour from Assassin’s Creed, to the point where the white cloths that mark the start of free-running lines have just been swapped out for green tarps.

The one thing that it really brings to the table — and the element that puts it into direct conflict with Saints Row — comes from the idea that you are Wei Shen, a loose cannon working undercover with the Hong Kong Police Department to bring down the triads and settle a score, making it an open-world crime game where you’re actually playing as one of the cops for a change. It’s an interesting setup, but it’s also one that led to a lot of frustration while I was playing. The game levels you up along two different paths (three if you count the martial arts skills that you learn by finding jade statues, which I’ll get back to in a second), one of which represents your Triad Skills and one that reflects your Cop Skills. They’re both affected by what you do on a given mission, and the way it’s done is really clever: The Cop Skills start off full and deduct whenever you violate the law, and the Triad skills start out empty and fill whenever you do something… well, something cool, I guess. Beating the living crap out of dudes seems to be the best way to raise it up.

The frustrating thing comes from how it’s possible, and encouraged, to max out both at once, and how they’re done in three sections. Because Wei is only pretending to be a rampaging murderer, the game often penalizes you for acting outside of what it expects you to do as a policeman, to the point where accidentally running over a parking meter during a frantic chase scene can knock off a full third of your cop experience for a given level. I’m perfectly fine with the game knocking off points, but dropping down to 60% seems a little harsh. Especially when you compare it toSaints Row.

The great thing about Saints Row — besides everything about Saints Row — is that it didn’t have any pretensions of cinema. It told a story, and I’d say it told that story pretty well, but everything about it was geared towards having fun. That opening sequence, in which the characters in the game are dressing up in double-sized football mascot-style costumes of themselves. Right away, you know that things are going to be over the top, and the game follows that up by constantly providing you with new and interesting situations, and rewarding you for doing the kind of fun stuff that open-world games lend themselves best to. Afterthat, a game that punishes you for careening into a bank of parked cars or getting up onto the sidewalk before you leap from one car to the other doesn’t feel like it’s providing a challenge of skill, it feels like it’s offering up a set of shackles.

There are a few other interesting quirks, too. Rather than loading you down with an arsenal, the game has a focus on melee combat, and that’s really fun. The animations are great, and the different ways that Wei can break faces and disarm enemies are a real strong point. But at the same time, much like the “Action Hijack” mechanic, it’s a signature element that doesn’t actually come up all that often in the game. Whenever it comes time to advance the plot, you’re given a gun and dropped right back into a GTA-style shooter, which is even more perplexing because the game seems dead set against letting you have a gun in any other situation. Seriously, you can find one or two laying around over the course of the game, but even then it’ll occasionally decide to take it away from you during a cutscene. For those big missions, Sleeping Dogs is essentially asking you to use skills that you developed in other games, rather than the ones that make it unique.

But the thing is, even underneath all that, Sleeping Dogs is a pretty solid game. It’s a little rough around quite a few edges — during one segment, there was actually a broken IMG SRC tag in a menu, and seriously, is that how you make video games these days? In basic HTML? Because that is surprising — but it’s pretty enjoyable, with more than a couple sections that are actually great. The last mission where it suddenly turns into Die Hard is awesome, and about the perfect way to end the game. There’s just not enough. Even though it’s done its best to lift the most fun parts of other great games, and does them reasonably well, the sum isn’t greater than the parts. More often than not, it’s just reminding you of how fun those other games are.

I talked to Matt Wilson, who picked it up at around the same time as I did, and he described it as a “this will do while I wait for the really exciting games” game. I don’t think either one of us regrets picking it up from Amazon at $35, but that really sums it up. Sleeping Dogs: Because Assassin’s Creed III Isn’t Out Yet.

That new Halloween DLC where Wei fights Chinese Hopping Vampires that want to drag his girlfriend to Hell, though… that has potential.

Driver: San Francisco

 

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you may already know that my enjoyment of a video game is often largely dependent on how much Tokyo Drifting one is allowed to do in it. Up to now, the reigning champion in that regard has been EA’s Burnout Paradise, and while there’s plenty of sideways driving fun to be had there, it’s a little lacking in one of my other favorite elements, a truly insane storyline. Fortunately, Ubisoft’s Driver: San Francisco has stepped up to take its place.

I never played any of the previous Driver games, but a reader suggested this one to me (and bought it as a gift!), telling me I’d probably get a kick out of the storyline. He was absolutely correct on that front, and I ended up having so much fun going into it completely cold that I almost don’t want to spoil it for anyone and take that experience away. But at the same time, the plot of this game and the mechanics that come out of it are too darn weird and amazing to not talk about.

In terms of the basic gameplay structure, it actually is a lot like Burnout Paradise. The free-roaming city is there (no prizes will be awarded for guessing which Driver‘s is based on), and there’s the same general mechanic of having races and events tied to particular points on the map, although not to the extent of Burnout having one at every single intersection. The controls are the same, and both games feature a pretty impressive roster of cars, about a dozen of which are actually useful in the game. But while Burnout is completely devoid of a story — unless you buy into the theory that DJ Atomika is fighting a one-man war against a post-apocalyptic world of sentient cars through the medium of radio sarcasm — Driver has one that’s not only hilariously bizarre and engaging, but actually adds a really interesting element to the gameplay.

The plot is as follows: You are the generically named and generically handsome John Tanner, a loose cannon cop with an awesome 1970 Dodge Challenger and an equally awesome set of driving skills. Your nemesis, the cartoonishly evil Jericho, has been convicted for his crimes, but on his way to prison, he stages a daring escape and a car chase ensues. Surprisingly, it doesn’t end well for Tanner. He gets t-boned by an 18-wheeler, but then wakes up with the ability to astrally project himself into the body of anyone driving a car in the city of San Francisco.

Seriously: That is this racing game’s core mechanic. Astral projection. Oh, and the whole game may or may not be taking place inside Tanner’s head while he’s in a coma.

It’s honestly a pretty brilliant gameplay mechanic. Beyond just the appealing quirkiness, it’s a really great way to match that open-world setting by giving you the ability to jump into any of the 120+ different cars that the game’s stocked with to try them all out. Even more than that, though, it adds an interesting technique for all the game’s challenges. Races, for instance, can be contested the old fashioned way, but if you find yourself lagging behind, you can pop out of your body, zoom down the highway,  possess the driver of an oncoming truck and ram head-on into cars ahead of you, ruining their day and giving you a quick win once all the other racers are “retired.” That’s actually the goal of a lot of levels, in fact, with the hilarious reasoning being that ramming into street racers at 130 miles per hour is a better solution than just letting them have a five-minute checkpoint race.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that for all its car-crash fetishization (another element it shares with Burnout), Driver: SF is almost completely devoid of actual violence or bloodshed. Everyone stays belted right into their seats with mildly annoyed expressions when their cars careen headlong into each other, and the good people of San Francisco are an incredibly nimble bunch that can make ten-foot broad jumps at the drop of a hat whenever you veer onto the sidewalk.

The body-hopping mechanic is one of those rare perfect elements that adds to both the gameplay and the story in equal measure. You’re often directed to possess a member of Jericho’s organization in order to get information on him, and even when you’re just free-roaming around, you’ll occasionally drop into a car with a passenger and show up in mid-conversation with Tanner trying to fill in the gaps. It’s actually pretty solidly plotted, with some genuinely great voice work by Demetri Goritsas, and best of all, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While a lot of games skew to the overly self-important style of cinema, Driver is content to liken itself to a TV show, opening up each chapter with a montage of past cutscenes and the honest-to-God intro, “Previously, on Driver: San Francisco…”

The only real problem with the plot is, as I hinted above, that it turns out that it actually is all just a weird dream that Tanner’s experiencing in his coma, and that 95% of the game doesn’t “really” happen. That does a lot to undermine the illusion that what you’re doing is important — which you may remember as huge complaints from my reviews of Skyrim and LA Noire — but it’s pulled off in  a way that’s clever enough that I don’t really mind. It’s actually pretty interesting, since Jericho’s Sinister Plot continues even through Tanner’s “victories” in the dream, allowing the story to progress in a way that frustrates the characters without doing so for the player. The one major flaw is that so many of the missions are built around helping people rather than advancing the main plot, and while it’s never addressed, the subtext is that all those people were pretty much screwed without Tanner around. There’s one ongoing storyline about two brothers who get involved in street racing that has a really nice arc, but it’s never revealed what “really” happened to them, or if they were just figments of Tanner’s imagination rather than pieces of the real world that were bleeding through to his dream.

On the other hand, the fact that it is all a dream goes a long way to explaining why Tanner will occasionally find himself re-enacting the chase scenes from famous ’70s and ’80s car movies like Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds and, in the most welcome surprise, The Blues Brothers. And if you want to, you can even use Tanner’s skewed, concussed POV to explain the peculiarities of the licensing deal. Otherwise, Ubisoft is asking me to believe that a major American city has a truly ridiculous amount of Alfa Romeos driving around, and absolutely zero Toyotas.

Either way, it’s a great game, and they really did go all-out in getting all the cool, distinctive muscle cars that a movie fan like me wants to see in a game like that — I went ahead and stopped buying new cars once I’d unlocked the Mustang Mach 1, the Duke boys’ ’69 Charger and the Shelby Cobra GT, because really, why would I drive anything else?  It’s a game so solid that I didn’t mind when I accidentally erased my save file halfway through and had to play the start again, and since it’s been out since last year, it’s dropped down to a ridiculously low price. It’s definitely worth picking up.

Breaking Down the Subtle Themes of Lollipop Chainsaw (Really)

 

 

Believe it or not, Grantland has decided to have me back for a second column. This time, I’m breaking down the gender role examination of Suda51 and James Gunn’s Lollipop Chainsaw, and its function as both exploitation and commentary.

It might seem like I’m reading a whole lot into a pretty simple concept, but as I mention in the article, sexuality and gender roles are a recurring theme in Suda51′s work. No More Heroes for example may look like a game about a guy with a lightsaber doing suplexes on enemy assassins (which is, after all, why I bought it), but it’s also about a guy who lives in a video game trying to prove his worth as a sexual being through violence. There’s a lot going on, and LPC follows naturally from that point with an awful lot of symbolism. Gunn’s English translation even gives Juliet and her sisters Shakespearean names, and if there’s a more obvious code for “pay attention to this” in the Writer’s Handbook, I haven’t found it.

Enjoy!

“What is unacceptable about that? There’s nothing unacceptable about that.”

Quote 1:

Rea: Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?

Bakhtanians: You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community

Quote 2:

Rea: When I go to SoCal regionals and I see a Phoenix [from Marvel vs. Capcom 3] on main stage getting blown up and there’s some dude in the audience just yelling “Bitch! Bitch!” every time she gets hit and then she killed and goes “Yeah, rape that bitch!” Yeah, that’s totally acceptable! Really? Really? You’re going to tell me that’s acceptable?

Bakhtanians: Look, man. What is unacceptable about that? There’s nothing unacceptable about that. These are people, we’re in America, man, this isn’t North Korea. We can say what we want. People get emotional.

If you ever wonder why I’m a raging egomaniac with a superiority complex, it’s because I’ve been seeing people say stupid things like that online every day for the past 15 years.

In case you missed it, the quotes above come from a piece on Giant Bomb about a few things competitive fighting game player Aris Bakhtanians had to say about sexual harassment within his community, and it’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.

I like fighting games. I like ‘em a lot, actually, but despite being right in the sweet spot of being 9 years old with a local arcade when Street Fighter II came out, I’ve never really been all that good at playing them. As a result, I’ve never been a part of any kind of fighting game community. But I see this argument all the time in other places. I see it once a week just in the world of comics, and I’m a guy who tries to stay as far away from comment threads as possible before the morbid curiosity finally overwhelms me. It happens all the time.

And it bugs me each and every time, because it’s such a fundamental act of reveling in hate and refusing to admit that anyone else deserves to be treated like a human being.

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that I don’t have to elaborate on why this is a bad thing, but apparently nobody ever sat Bakhtanians down to explain it, and as frustrated as that makes me, I’ll admit that there’s a level where I sympathize. I feel bad for the guy, not because he’s not wrong — he is — but because I’ve been there.

I grew up saying that stuff I didn’t like was gay, and that things I thought were dumb were retarded, and to this day, I have an attachment to those words as… well, as words. The way you hit that second syllable in “retarded” has such a perfect rhythm to it that works so well, especially for someone who’s completely in love with the sound of his own voice. I still have trouble trying not to let it slip out in conversation, and if you dig back through the archives of the ISB (which I don’t recommend you do), you’ll probably find me using it to refer to something dumb that happened in a comic book, or a word that’s just as bad or offensive. I know there are a couple in there.

But the thing is, I hit a point where I realized that those weren’t just words I like to use. They’re not just some collection of sounds that I can plug into a sentence to make it sound right when I read it out loud. It’s something that has a meaning beyond the way I use it.

Maybe Bakhtanians hasn’t hit that point yet. I’ll admit that for me, it took it being pointed out by friends — and again, I’ve done this shit before, and I’ll most likely do it again. But once you hit that point, once you know you’re doing something wrong, the only course of action that makes sense is to stop. It’s to try and change the way you’re acting, because if you don’t, then you’re just being a jerk for absolutely no reason. You’re making someone else’s life worse because you don’t want to make the smallest change to your own.

So I try to do better. I screw up, but I try to make sure I get it right next time. Story of my life, right? Probably yours too. Probably everybody’s, at least in my hand-wringing liberal optimist view of the world.

I make fun of things all the time. I make fun of people all the time, but at the very least, I try not to be a monster about it.

And the more I look at those quotes, the less I sympathize. The idea that someone could honestly not understand that there would be something unacceptable about shouting “rape that bitch!”, that he wouldn’t even admit that there was the slightest thing wrong that maybe we could address and tone down, that he wouldn’t even express the smallest possible amount of empathy for another human being, it’s infuriating. And then he gets to this:

“We’re in America, man, this isn’t North Korea.”

This is another one that I see all the time in comics, and it never fails to completely miss the point. Yes, we’re in America. Yes, we have the Freedom of Speech, and it’s the single most important right we have. But it doesn’t mean that you have to be an asshole.

In America, you’ve got the freedom to believe whatever you want. There are viewpoints I consider to be stupid and hateful and that I despise with a passion and I’d like nothing better than to see them completely excised from the collective human mindset, but they exist there, and we don’t have morals and ethics and Constitutional rights for when things are easy. We have them for when things are difficult, so we all just have to grit our teeth and allow people to go on believing these stupid, hateful things and expressing them the way they see fit.

Just like I have to grit my teeth and agree that yes: It is not technically illegal for you to be openly hostile to women and to claim that in doing so, you are in fact being an asset to this community you seem so proud of.

But you know what? It’s pretty fucking inconsiderate, and when you start putting your own selfish desires above the fact that you are reveling in propping up institutional hatred for another group within your community, then you’re every bit as bad as all the other awful people that we have to deal with because we value the fact that it’s legal to speak your mind.

The Giant Bomb article also gets to a point where it somehow manages to be even more depressing, when it turns to one of the other competitors, Miranda Pakozdi:

Day six of Cross Assault took place yesterday. Pakozdi played, but if you start watching around eight hours and 32 minutes into the stream, where she’s playing as Balrog, she doesn’t even attack. She just pushes forward on the stick. This continues in the next matches, where she plays as Ken using the same “strategy.”

Essentially, she’s given up.

I would too. Because there’s no point in continuing, in suffering through someone doing their level best to ruin something you love because they just don’t have a concept of the fact that other people are actually people.

If sexual harassment is such an intrinsic part of your community that it can’t be taken out without “turning it into something that it’s not,” then just as a rule of thumb, it probably should be turned into something that it’s not.

If your community can’t introduce a baseline of respect for another human being without being destroyed, then your community should probably be burned to the ground and have salt spread on the ashes so that it’ll never come back.

The Trouble With Skyrim

 

 

Like pretty much everyone else who owns an XBox, I got The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim around Christmas and was immediately swept up in it. After all, it’s an easy game to get swept up in, with a huge world to roam around and a seemingly endless array of quests to keep you occupied. It’s that massive scope that’s the game’s major selling point, overwhelming you with the possibility of what you can do in this world where it seems like everyone needs your help to survive.

Unfortunately, it’s also the thing that led me to save my game a month ago and turn it off so I could go play something else.

Admittedly, I haven’t finished it, but I did put a pretty respectable 50 hours into it, and that fact alone should tell you two things. First, that Skyrim is far from what I’d call a bad game. The gameplay is fun and intuitive, and I even like the way your skills advance. Getting better at something by doing it is a pretty nifty mechanic, and the fact that you can tailor your character exactly the way you want her is probably the best thing about this game. I went with a sniper type of character that emphasized sneaking and archery, and it’s a blast playing through dungeons where I creep through, silently eliminating my targets with a cold fury.

It really lets you build your own story in your head and define who you are in the game, which is something Bethesda seems pretty keen on — though to be honest, you’re far from the only one person in Skyrim that needs to have a personality invented for them by the player, but I’ll get around to the negatives in a second. It’s just another way that they draw you in, appealing to the players that really get into this sort of thing. For instance, I decided my sniper was also a shockingly murderous rare book collector the moment I saw that you could actually fill up bookshelves in your house.

Even the goofy eccentricities of the game are fun, like the fact that I can put an arrow directly into someone’s face from a few hundred yards away and only keep their attention for thirty seconds before they shrug and decide that it was a particularly vindictive gust of wind trying to give them a frontal lobotomy.

I wouldn’t have put fifty hours into this game if I wasn’t having fun doing it. But the flipside to that fact is that even after I put fifty hours into this game, it still couldn’t hold keep my attention, and the simple reason for that is that it didn’t feel like anything I did mattered.

A few of those hours were spent exploring, just wandering from place to place to see what the game was about, and again, that’s one of its strong points. As Ken Lowery said, it was up there with Red Dead Redemption in terms of capturing the beauty and danger of untamed wilderness, and the first time that a bear comes roaring out of the trees and takes a swipe at you is a genuine thrill. But the vast majority of that time was spent doing quests, talking to NPCs, hunting down better weapons, and otherwise playing the game.

And yet, even after fifty hours, I not only had no idea how close to the end of the game I was, I wasn’t even really clear on what the hell I was supposed to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong: I get that there’s some time traveling death dragon resurrecting dragons and that this is a Bad Thing that Only I Can Stop, but to be honest, I’m not even really sure why that’s the case. I mean, the very first thing that happens in the game is that a dragon showed up and kept me from getting my head cut off, so as far as I’m concerned, me and dragons are 100% cool with each other.

But even if you go along with it, it’s the basis for what seems like a tiny, tiny fraction of the quests you’re given. The rest of it is that time-honored RPG standard of just people walking up to you and complaining about their problems until you agree to fix them, which in most cases is stuff like someone who literally has an army asking you to go kill something, or in one case some batty old broad asking the prophesized Hero Of Legend who Speaks With The Voice of Dragons to go find a spoon she lost. Seriously, that happened.

And you do go along with it, because you don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. This is the game you’re given, and for a game that prides itself on letting you make the choices, those choices don’t seem to do a whole hell of a lot.

For example, let’s talk about the the first choice you’re given after you create your character. If you haven’t played it, here’s the setup: You’ve been captured by the Imperials along with a bunch of Rebels (bonus points there for originality) and even though your crime is unspecified and you’re not on the list of people that are set for a decapitation, they’re going to chop your head off anyway just to be thorough about it. Charming folks, those Imperials.

Then the dragon shows up and interrupts the head-choppings, and you’re given a choice of who you want to run away with: The Imperials, who just tried to cut off your head, or the Rebels, who — and this is key here — did not.

I have no idea why anyone in their right mind would choose to go with the Imperials, but the first time I played it, I lost track of where the Rebel guy was and ended up tagging along with the Imperial, ending up being taken to his family in a nearby village called Riverwood and then sent to the big city of Whiterun. But since I’d started that game at 2 AM after finishing Saints Row the Third — setting up a pretty jarring comparison in my head that I haven’t been able to shake since — I decided the next day to start over, and ended up going with the Rebel instead.

The end result? We went to his family in the nearby village of Riverwood and then to the big city of Whiterun. Even the motions of the initial battle are exactly the same, and it doesn’t even have an effect on which faction you get offers to join (you get both either way). The total difference in what should by all rights be a choice that defines your character for the rest of the game, which I originally assumed would determine whether you were an outlaw and who you’d be able to go to for help, is this:

If you follow the Imperial, you stop at the house on the left side of the street in Riverwood before heading on to Whiterun. If you go with the Rebel, you stop at the house on the right.

And from there, it goes on. Fifty hours, dozens of quests, and I didn’t notice anything that I’d done having an actual effect on the world around me. The more I played, the less it felt like I was accomplishing, and once that feeling started creeping in, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing felt pointless. It was like homework.

You might say part of that was my fault for choosing to do the side quests rather than sticking with the main plot, but again, that’s not how the game is built. If there are people talking to me and asking me to go wander into caves or kill the local troublemaking giant or whatever, then it’s assumed that this is something the game wants you to do. And when you get right down to it, there are some really fun pieces in there — the fantasy hero version of The Hangover was a hoot, and Matt Wilson brought up the “let’s go find a demon in this haunted house” side-quest. But in a game that’s built on overwhelming you with content, those high points are few and far between, and the vast spaces between are filled up with the standard-issue “go here and kill this” that are slightly less thought out than walking in circles in tall grass to level up your Pokemon.

And then there are the other options you can take with your character that are just pointless. Skyrim is a game where you can train to build your own weapons and armor, but in order to do so, you have to use a forge, which is almost always attached to the building where you can buy weapons and armor. So why bother? It’s not like money’s in short supply — I got 900 gold once for bringing someone a book that they lost, presumably taking my cut of the library late fee — so what’s the point? Why should you learn to brew your own potions when you can find them laying on the ground? It’s a game that gives you a thousand choices, but only three matter.

What it comes down to for me is that the biggest problem is a lack of focus. Nothing you do matters, because there’s only a tiny sliver of it that’s related to the actual storyline of the game. In the name of providing players with a vast world of endless choices, they made those choices pointless.

By comparison, let’s look at one of the games I started and finished during my increasingly extended “break” from Skyrim: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Aside from the framing sequences that bookend the story, this a game so tightly focused that virtually everything Ezio Auditore does is built around one goal: Bringing down the Borgais.

It’s not just the main missions, it’s the side quests too. Helping out the Courtesans? They give you information you can use to bring down the Borgias. Founding and training your eponymous brotherhood of Assassins? You’re actually raising army to use against the Borgias. The Leonardo Da Vinci missions where you have to go blow up his war machines? You’re blowing them up so that the Borgias don’t have them. Even the little hidden items you’re supposed to collect are literally Borgia flags that you’re tearing down as you go.

The theming in that game is so strong (and wrapped around a game that’s so much fun to play) that for me, it’s ten times more engaging than Skyrim, even though it’s a story that starts with the aliens underneath the Vatican yelling at you 500 years in the future.

But maybe that’s not a fair comparison. After all, Assassin’s Creed is a completely different type of game than Skyrim, with completely different goals in what kind of experience it gives the player. So how about a game that’s so close to Skyrim that it’s virtually the same in terms of gameplay, and was even made by the same publisher, but still manages to build everything around a single focused theme?

What about Fallout 3?

To be fair, Fallout 3 cheats. It’s built around imagery like this…

 

 

…and that’s the sort of thing specifically geared to elicit an emotional reaction from the player. It’s visual shorthand that plays on your emotions; you can’t help but be grabbed by the images of national landmarks in ruins.

But while the imagery might be a trick, the game built around it isn’t. It takes the idea in those pictures, the idea that something you knew is now gone, changed forever into something unfamiliar and terrifying, and ties that into every aspect of the game. On paper, that main storyline is surprisingly simple. It’s a short series of simple “go here, talk to him” missions and fetch quests, padded out with a bunch of side missions.

The difference is that it’s all part of one theme: The world has been pushed over the edge of destruction, and you have to drag it back, piece by piece, inch by inch, no matter the cost. In that context, everything in the game has meaning. Every time you’re wandering around and you get attacked by a Radscorpion or a Super Mutant, you’re seeing how the world has changed into an environment of toxic hostility. Every time the word “SLAVER” shows up in your target, you’re seeing how far society has crumbled. And every time you take one down, you’re taking a little piece back.

This is a game where there’s a side mission where you have to clear a gang of slavers out of the Lincoln Memorial. That might be a no brainer in terms of, but it’s so evocative, so much of a perversion of what these things stood for that doing that mission armed with Lincoln’s own rifle was probably my favorite video game moment of the past few years. And once it was over, the Memorial became a home for ex-slaves. That’s seeing your actions reflected in the environment.

And one of the very first choices you make in Fallout 3? Whether to completely destroy a major town. There are consequences.

That is, incidentally, one of the reasons why New Vegas is an inferior game. Aside from the odd Caesar’s Legion raid, things out West seem to be doing okay with or without you. You feel less necessary, though still far more vital than Skyrim‘s Dragonborn.

Again, Fallout 3 cheats. It has that existing framework to work from, while Skyrim was crafted out of whole cloth. Generic fantasy setting cloth, yes, but at least they didn’t have history doing the work for them. But the point is that they built a theme that was reflected in what you did, and that made that game revolve around you. I never felt that my actions were insignificant in Fallout 3, because of that theming.

So what’s the theme in Skyrim? It’s not “Choice,” because your choices don’t really matter, and other than having one group try to cut off my head, the game didn’t make me care enough about the Imperials or the Stormcloaks enough to feel like I should make a choice. It’s tempting to say “exploration” or “discovery,” but no matter where you go, there are already people there, and no matter how many Shouts you unearth from zombie-filled tombs, there’s a whole damn cult of monks on a mountaintop who already know them all and for some reason won’t just tell you even though you’re trying to save the world. And even if that is the theme, then how does it relate to finding spoons or going and killing bandits for people who command their own armies?

Again: It’s not a bad game, and it’s not even that it’s not fun to play. It’s fun enough I intend to go back and finish it — although most of my motivation comes from just wanting to be done with it — so maybe I’ll get back to the main story and be absolutely blown away by it, and have to write another five thousand words about how I was wrong. If nothing else, I respect it for its ambition. I just don’t understand why they made the vastness of it the selling point when it a smaller, but deeper game would’ve been better.

What’s the point of making a giant open world full of people, when they all have the same three voices? What’s the point of letting me choose if I want to be a mercenary or a thief, when the only result is which line of incidental dialogue those voices mangle when I walk by? What’s the point of giving you an overwhelming amount of content when none of it matters?

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Now In Convenient Novel Form!

 

 

Back in December, when I was looking around for those Jem “Find Your Fate” books, I found out that there was a novelization of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Long-time ISB readers will recall that I hate Simon’s Quest with the kind of burning passion that most people reserve for, you know, actual Nazis, so this was something I had to get. I knocked it out over dinner, and I’m not even kidding when I say that it is one of the greatest books I have ever read.

Thus, I have reviewed the kookiness over at ComicsAlliance, and it’s a good one. But one of the things that I didn’t get to in the review is that this game includes helpful tips! Like this one:

 

 

Ah yes. Ride the tornado. Why didn’t I think of that.