Replay Values: Arkham City

Hello, folks. I know it’s been a while since my last post, but you know how life goes. Between a month-long holiday back home (where I volunteered for the Video X Games), new projects at work, and new projects outside of work, it’s been by far the craziest summer of life. Now that the wind and rains have descended upon The Netherlands, I’ve got some time to update this blog, just in time for First Look 2013, the next-gen console launch and what seems like a bazillion game launches.

Touch new stuff before it’s out…go on…touch it.

And what better game launch to prep for than the highly anticipated Batman: Arkham Origins? And what better way to prepare for that title than by playing through Batman: Arkham City? I couldn’t think of anything either. I started running through Arkham City over the weekend which, by the way, was peppered with Gotham-like stormy weather. As is usually our custom, my sister and I split the cost of a new copy 50/50 upon its release, and we bargained that she would get the Catwoman code. Luckily for me, she now lives with me, so this was my first play-through with Miss Kyle.

Admit it. She filled out the suit well.

Admit it. She filled out the suit well.

What I loved about Arkham City were the improvements made to the combat system from Arkham Asylum, which was already pretty cool to begin with. Everything in Batman: AC however, just seemed crisper and newer than Asylum, while essentially staying the same. The set piece of Arkham City itself was impressive all on its own; the grit and grime almost palpable as you soar overhead or creep along in the shadows to your target(s). The grapple system was an epic lifesaver through all this, and the potential for exploration and discovery makes Arkham City one of my favourite replay games.

However, even on this second play-through, I was still frustrated by the increased difficulty in obtaining the Riddler trophies. I know it’s maybe silly to gripe about a collectible game within the game, but I can’t help but feel that a player should be challenged, but not utterly frustrated, by the puzzles they face. There was one trophy, for example, where I angrily cursed Batman’s cape because it let me float down gently when I really needed to just dive bomb onto the target. The timer of 9 seconds from point-of-activation didn’t help. The fact that the Riddler trophies and riddles were bound so tightly to the Riddler Hostage side mission only made it more frustrating, as I could never quite progress far enough in the secrets pursuit to move the side mission forward. So, scratch that one for me. However, the other side missions, in addition to the main mission, were so enjoyable that they negated the frustration of the Riddler’s.

You can’t talk about Batman and not mention the incredible voice acting. You know who I’m talking about; Mark freaking Hamill. I know, he’s been the voice of the Joker for years,  but it never ceases to amaze me how absolutely psychotic he sounds and how vividly he brings the character to life. Always hilarious to me is Nolan North as Penguin; of course we all know North from Uncharted, but you know how you never really put a face to a name until you see them in something else? Yeah. Pretty Little Liars is my guilty pleasure, and Mr, North plays Peter Hastings. It’s clear to see that vocal acting is his clear calling though. No offense Nolan! You’re my home boy!

"I'm just saying, Batman could probably kick Nathan Drake's ass."

“I’m just saying, Batman could probably kick Nathan Drake’s ass.”

Notice how I don’t even mention Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne. That’s because Kevin Conroy is so awesome, he just exists and does not require mention.

All in all, Arkham City offers pretty good replay value for your buck (or euro). It was a well thought-out campaign story that linked the events of Arkham Asylum with current events. The chatter among the thugs was a nice touch as well; they were dropping name references (Black Mask) and other comments about Asylum moments (Bane getting hit with the Batmobile) as you navigate the Arkham City set piece. It helps to flesh out the story, and sometimes you even get an extra hint towards solving a Riddle. Playing Batman: AC for the second time has certainly got the excitement going for Batman Arkham Origins. I’ve pre-ordered the Collector’s Edition, so I might do an unboxing and upload it to YouTube, if enough people bug me to do so.

If you’re in The Netherlands and you’re interested in previewing games, consoles and other goodies before their release, check out First Look 2013 in Utrecht. I’m heading up on October 6, and with all the next-gen everything coming out, it’s bound to be an exciting event!

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Replay Values: Mass Effect 1 & 2

It’s been a good minute since my last post and I’ve a good reason for it: Life.

Yes, between the flu, a four-day migraine, a console issue, and work, I had zero time to dedicate to writing. However, health issues are now non-existent, the console issue is worked out and work…is still work. In any event, while I was hacking up a lung, I did manage to run through Mass Effect 1 and 2 again, this time helping my poor sister up her gamerscore by dropping some games she’d never touched before onto her account. I know right…how could my sister, basically an extension of my own awesomeness, not have played Mass Effect? I honestly don’t know what to tell you.

Too right.

Too right.

So I set about creating her very own FemShep, complete with icy blue eyes and regulation bun. I’d only played Mass Effect as a biotic once, so I decided that my sister’s Shepard would go through the entire series as a Vanguard. Needless to say, it’s a ton of fun, though I love my guns and soldier Shep forever. Since the only relationship that ever actually made sense and had some actual chemistry to me was Liara, my sister’s Shepard would also be romancing the feminine asari, despite the fact that she (my sister) is in fact straight. I couldn’t stand Kaidan, and I just didn’t want to ruin the awesome bromance that FemShep has with Garrus. Anyway, without further adieu, let’s get to this Replay Values.

I received Mass Effect as a very belated birthday gift (or an early Christmas gift, depending on how you look at it). The individual who gave me the game knew that I loved to write and that I appreciated a great story in any form. At the time, my personal life was pretty crazy so Mass Effect sat on my TV stand for a few weeks before I actually got around to playing it…oddly enough, I picked it up when I had the flu. Bioware knows what it’s doing, folks. I knew that they were the makers of KOTOR, and I loved that game like no other, so I was excited to see what they had to offer with Mass Effect, especially since your character now had a voice. The muteness of your character/Revan in KOTOR was disconcerting to me, since I’m an auditory and visual person, so I work better with sounds. If you didn’t know by now, I ended up falling in love with Mass Effect. I ran two profiles at the time, MShep and FemShep. You might wonder why I did that. Well, I like hearing what each voice actor does with the words they’re given. I’m a dynamic reader; when I read aloud, I go all out, I change my voice, my tone, everything, just to reflect what the character on the page is feeling. Bedtime stories with me are epic. Nothing grates on my nerves more than when someone is a static reader, just monotonous and making it sound like a chore or job. When this happens in a video game, it’s even more irritating, and so if there is an option for a different main character, I’ll tend to play both until I decide to stick with the one that’s most engaging and draws me into the story. As I started my sister’s game, it made me think back to hearing Male Shepard for the first time and practically falling asleep. Male Commander Shepard was voiced by Mark Meer; no offense, Mr. Meer, but your Shisk and vorcha voices in Mass Effect 2 were actually better than your Shepard in…all of them. I stopped playing that profile after finding Tali and switched over to start FemShep. And Jennifer Hale. And what a freaking difference. Anyway, on this play-through for my sister, Jennifer Hale’s passionate and intense Commander Shepard was as great as she was the first time around, but there were so many things that made me laugh…and made me curse.

Many people had complaints about the complete erasure of the inventory system for Mass Effect 3, something I never quite cared about until this replay of ME 1. Now I think they’re completely justified. I think my crazy hyper excitement levels for ME 3 blocked out all the wrong (besides the ending…nothing could block that out) and so I didn’t pay attention to the missing inventory system until now. It’s funny to admit that when, while playing Mass Effect for the first time all those years ago, I distinctly remember yelling “I have too much stuff!” at my XBox, as if it was the reason I couldn’t cycle through my ammo upgrades fast enough. For the record, I’m a bulk seller, in that I will accumulate the maximum amount of stuff before unloading it all on some unsuspecting salarian merchant. As I said before, I’d decided to romance Liara while playing my sister’s character. Everyone remembers the fuss made about the love scene in Mass Effect; it almost broke the Internet, after all. And really, for what? Because two feminine characters were doing the horizontal polka. Now, two games later, we have male Commander Shepard romancing Esteban and unless I was living under a rock, there was little to no outcry. You see? It really does get better. That’s the power of visibility and some serious growth, not just as a company (on the part of Bioware) but as a community (on the part of gamers). There are still the usual trolls who don’t seem to realize that it’s not a forced romance option, but it’s easy to ignore them when there’s more positive than negative swirling around. This is what it’s all about.

For real.

For real.

So my sister’s Mass Effect legacy reads like this:

  1. Made sure Wrex survived Virmire.
  2. Left Kaidan behind because really, that guy’s annoying.
  3. Romanced Liara, because love is love, ya’ll.
  4. Saved the council, because sometimes diplomacy rules above all.
  5. Convinced Saren to shoot himself, and then disposed of his resurrected form

Now it was onto Mass Effect 2, or as I affectionately refer to it: Mass Instances of Skantily Clad Women Surviving Uncountable Injuries. There were some great strides made in Mass Effect 2, functionality being one of them. Shepard stopped doing this odd tick where one of her eyes looked to be closed half the time, a buggy little twitch that I’m glad got sorted out. The doors actually opened when I wanted to and hallelujah, elevator rides did not go on forever like those awkward ones in a hotel where you’re not quite sure what you smelled. We don’t even have to discuss the aesthetics of the characters themselves; I’m lookin’ at you, Miranda Lawson.

G'day indeed.

G’day indeed.

You know how usually, the second movie in a trilogy is just this weird trip to Awkwardland, where you know it was made just to bridge the gap between the WTF moments in the first one and the WTF moments in the last? This works pretty much the same way with games. Like, I remember one vivid moment from say, Gears of War 2, but beyond that I can’t quite wax philosophical about it. Gears of War 3 now, well…I don’t think anything beyond “WTF” actually left my mouth. For me at least, Mass Effect 2 was the exception to that rule. Even though it was a continuation of Shepard’s story with the Reapers, it felt brand new when I first played it and that in essence is what drew me in, starting with the first 8 minutes of the damn game. The Collectors, Cerberus, Liara’s transformation from sweet and innocent archaeologist to flat-out sadistic information broker..everything combined to drive a new story that was really the continuation of the old story, thus making it feel like an almost completely new story. Playing it with a completely new character this time around made it seem even more refreshing and engaging, and so not like a sequel.

So you can understand what I mean when I say that playing these two games back to back on my sister’s account just made me even angrier at Mass Effect 3’s ending. -_-

Replay Values: Age of Empires 3

I know right? Surprise! A PC game. How random is that?

I run most of my PC games on a company laptop that limps along much like an injured gazelle on the African plains. It’s no wonder that I thus have to take my time and enjoy one in its entirety before having to uninstall and try out another. One day, I swear to Zeus, that gaming desktop will be mine!

 

Preciouss.....

Preciouss…..

 

This weekend was pretty relaxed so I set aside some time to indulge in one of my favourite PC games to date, Age of Empires 3. I remember receiving a copy of the first game not long after its launch from a friend who knew that I was into games, regardless of genre, and thought I’d get a kick out of it. As a history lover, I enjoyed Rise of Rome’s blend of historical fact and fictional storyline, tied into ancient Roman and Greek missions, and appreciated the strategic thinking necessary to make sure you could actually maintain a heavy fleet of triremes. For its time, the graphics weren’t that bad and good enough job was done on the score and other musical accompaniments. Granted there were no female villagers and even my young mind wondered just how other villagers were created, but I assume I wasn’t the only one going “Huh?” since AoE II had female villagers.

 

Before I moved to The Netherlands, I did actually have an awesome desktop that allowed me to put Age of Empires through its paces, so I’m well aware of just how detailed the that game was. Funnily enough, unlike with my previous Replay Values title, Assassin’s Creed, I didn’t find myself lamenting the fact that my characters sometimes had no faces or that a unit got stuck in a really inconvenient spot. I actually appreciate AoE (and AoE II) more than I do AoE III. Interestingly enough, the reason for this ties into an issue that many critics have stated exists with Assassin’s Creed 3. Can you tell that I’m still digesting that game, because I don’t really believe in rushing a play-through just to throw a review up. I thoroughly enjoy my games, like a great steak paired with an awesome wine. Much like the main storyline in AC3 is overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of what was happening in the fledgling USA at that time, AoE III suffers from the fact that the main story doesn’t quite attract me as much as the potential for engaging in other nation-building activities. The home-city aspect was nice, but there was no real motivation to obtain new cards because there was no interaction with whatever you purchased. The lack of additional campaign stories, beyond the structured one involving the Black Family, made it kind of linear. There were other civilizations available, but to what end?

 

AoE II had a few paths you could take regarding a campaign (William Wallace, anyone?), and it would have been pretty awesome to see AoE III go the same way. The Black Family campaign was at times repetitive and boring, so exploring another civilization’s development would have been a welcome addition. Maybe the majority of the budget went to the pretty naval vessels?  It goes to show you that sometimes, a new game doesn’t always mean a better game, in terms of its engagement potential for old and new players.  This is something to keep in mind for both developers and gamers alike, because lately there’s been a lot of hemming and hawing about new installments, new consoles, etc. Sometimes you can’t rush or gloss up the creative process too much…you might end up with a product that is less than your previous iterations.

Replay Values: Assassin’s Creed

Hope everyone had a happy Christmas!

I had a pretty decent gaming haul: Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution. I’ve no idea when I’m going to find the time to play through these titles, but I’m happy to have received them nonetheless. But that’s not what this post is about! No, it’s about something that occurred to me after reading a post in an XBox gaming group I’m a member of on Google+. Someone asked if anyone could recommend some older games that he could get and start playing, while saving up for the abundant selection of recent and upcoming releases on XBox 360. I thought that was pretty cool and thus, Replay Values was born in my overactive brain, a blog series about picking up old games and hugging them like the cousin you haven’t seen in ten years, and then either recalling your love for them or realizing that you still haven’t forgiven them for stepping on and subsequently breaking your collector’s edition Final Fantasy figurine. Ahem.

I love replaying older games; it takes a lot for me to sell a game that I’ve played already, especially if I get all attached to the characters (like I did with the Mass Effect series). One such game for me was Assassin’s Creed. I loved Altair, from his annoyingly cocky swagger to his cool outfit. I mean, come on. Look at this guy.

Bad-assery. A word invented for him.

When I moved to The Netherlands, I had to get rid of all my games, since they would not be region compatible with the new XBox I was buying here in the land of everlasting rain. So I was really happy to get my hands on a copy of the original Assassin’s Creed game last month, and I set about reliving all my Altair memories. I even downloaded map copies to find all those dog-gone flags…you remember…the two billion you had to find, scattered randomly throughout each city. I figured since I was not achievement hunting or playing it for the first time, I could have a lazy play-through. And man…

The game is so much slower and less entertaining than I remembered. All I’ve been doing since loading a new game is comparing it to Assassin’s Creed 2. This is both good and bad. Bad in the sense that it’s incredibly distracting and my Altair has died more often this time around than the first. Good in the sense that it’s wonderful to see, just by playing an older game, just how much Ubisoft has grown and matured as a developer and publisher. When I first saw the renderings of ancient Acre and Jerusalem in Assassin’s Creed, I was impressed. Seeing them again, particularly after the spectacular representations of Venice in AC-II, was not as overwhelming. But this is, in my opinion, what ‘Replay Values’ is all about. Playing an older game, particularly if it’s from a developer you run into often, should be all about seeing them grow and get better with age, like a fine wine.

By getting better I mean on a whole, and not just on one level, such as graphics or gameplay mechanics. Repeating a play-through of AC-I has made me appreciate Ubisoft’s personal and professional growth in AC-II. From what I’ve played of AC-III so far, I’d say they’ve kept going in that same vein. This doesn’t always happen though. I’ve played games that had me wondering what the developer was smoking, and in their second trot around the paddock, they make the same mistakes and seem to have learned nothing about listening to constructive feedback (note how I said, constructive) and learning from the replay value of their earlier attempts.

I hope this first edition of Replay Values was enjoyable! I love comments. Some might say, I’m a comment-digger. That may be so, but feedback is what helps us all get better in the end, wouldn’t you say? So go on…write something…you know you want to. And if you have any old games you think I should play and then see if I want to A) hug the developer or B) beat them with a copy of their own game, then post it and I’ll get my hands on a copy and have at it.

Until next time.