The Borderlands Franchise Review: How Torgue Saved The World

October 14th is nearly upon us, and release-date delivery from Amazon means the new Borderlands will be waiting in my mailbox. This franchise is very near to my heart, since splitscreen co-op is standard. Things eventually got a little too tough for me to do on my own, and I’m not a huge fan of joining a game with random internet strangers unless I already know those random internet strangers. Convinced the game would stagnate on a shelf, I begged my fiancée to play with me. She agreed almost immediately, on the condition that we start from the beginning. She hadn’t played many shooters before, but she picked it up quickly, and we’ve been playing Borderlands and its sequel together ever since.

So, on this, the eve of new Borderlands, I feel like it’s time we take a minute to talk about Fallout 3.

I mean, really. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? We loved Bethesda’s huge games for so long. We bought millions upon millions of copies of Morrowind and Oblivion. Stepping out into one of their huge, open worlds and slowly realizing the scale of it was a formative moment for a lot of people. But, while playing Oblivion in 2006, I started to wish that Bethesda would make a shooter set in one of these ridiculous worlds. It was already dual analog and I could shoot fireballs, so guns would have to be easy to put in!

Well, turns out, it really wouldn’t be that hard. There were rumblings in the game world when Interplay closed down, and we knew that Bethesda had gotten the rights to Fallout 3. At first glance, it seemed like everything we wanted. In 2007 the first trailer got us hyped beyond reason, and in 2008, Todd Howard smugly played it on stage at E3 and we all salivated on our couches. That October, we finally had it in our hands, and it was even better than we thought it would be.

The old, isometric Fallout games were some of the best of their kind. They were also formative games for many, with their free-form story, open gameplay, and bonkers sense of humor. They were dark and hilarious, and we loved them for that. We wanted Bethesda to do justice to one of our favorite franchises to ever be brought back from the dead, but we also wanted an Elder Scrolls game with guns.

We actually got both. Fallout 3 was a pretty damn great homage.

It was huge, and you hardly had to touch the vast majority of it if you didn’t want to. It supported multiple options for every quest and side-quest, it was disturbing and funny the whole way through, it was blatantly offensive in its unflinching portrayal of mankind, and it… IT WAS AN ELDER SCROLLS GAME WITH GUNS! Faithfulness to the source material aside, it was exactly what many of us had asked for.

But, when given exactly what we want, we tend to want more. Fallout 3 was great, but it got a little lonely in the Capital Wasteland, and that loneliness was the biggest detriment to replayability. If only there was a version of Fallout that let us play with our friends. Then, we’d pretty much just play that all the time.

Enter: Borderlands. You see, as a game, Borderlands doesn’t have to stand on its own merits. There was a niche, and this game filled it. It provided us with something we asked for. It gave us large, open maps to explore, and it let us do it with up to three other people, one of whom could be sitting in the same room as you. There was demand for exactly this, and they supplied it before Bethesda could. It could have been terrible and we still would have played it, because games are fun in a group. Knowing full well that the game could be mediocre and we’d forgive it, we all went out and bought it.

Turns out, even if it didn’t need to stand on its own merits, it could.

Gearbox knew we wanted post-apocalyptic shooting in a group, so they gave us that. That, alone, would have been enough, but they went a step further and gave us customizable characters, shitloads of loot, and a sense of humor that rivaled even Fallout. I will never forget the first time I heard Scooter yell “Four wheels is better’n… zero… I reckon…” or Tannis’s journals about her attempts to not vomit while speaking to other humans. The writing wasn’t perfect, but the personality was.

My fiancée and I played this game several times through, and we loved it. It never occurred to us that it could get better than it was. We were wrong.

Let’s take a moment to talk about DLC. Love it or hate it, downloadable content for games isn’t going anywhere. We already missed our opportunity to tell game developers that it’s no good, because we’ve given them loads of money for DLC in the last few years. We used our wallets to say “Yes, this is an acceptable thing to do.” There are arguments for or against, but the point is moot. DLC is the future. The debate, now, is how to do it right. And Gearbox is one company who I feel does it right.

The first modern DLC for a game was part of a deal between Bethesda (full circle!) and Microsoft. Both companies wanted to figure out how to make it work in a way that made consumers like it. They knew from MMOs that people would become quite angry if what they were buying was “pay-to-win,” so they wanted to avoid DLC that would involve using money to bypass gameplay. Naturally, they figured that cosmetic items were best. That worked for MMOs, so it must work in other games, right?

Wrong. Cosmetic items are popular in MMOs because the escalating nature of gear in these games means that many pieces of gear will be considered to be must-have items. When everyone has the same armor, things start to look boring. So, in this instance, cosmetic armor makes sense; you want to make your character stand out. It does not make sense in an Elder Scrolls game. Oblivion’s Horse Armor was an instant lesson for both companies involved. Cosmetic gear means next to nothing in a single-player game. Bethesda took this to heart, and started making small add-ons that added locations and gameplay to Oblivion. These add-ons were more popular, but still not really anything to write home about. Knights of the Nine was an interesting bit of DLC that expanded on the lore of the series, but, again, it didn’t really wow us.

Then, came The Shivering Isles. Sheogorath, the Daedric Lord of Madness, was already the most popular “god” in the series, so further exposure to him was a natural thing for Bethesda to give us. And, unlike previous expansions in games, we didn’t have to buy a whole new game to play it. We downloaded it, and received a huge addition to the map that didn’t require an extra disc.

It was revolutionary without doing much new. Blizzard was already fond of making expansions for their games, but they had never done it like this. We were convinced. The Shivering Isles sold an obnoxious number of downloads, and DLC was cemented into our lives.

Fallout 3 was the next game to really blow us away with DLC, and they did so in such a thorough manner that it made Oblivion’s DLC look like bullshit. Operation Anchorage was pretty meh, but it added interesting new guns, so I can kind of forgive its blandness. That was the last time Bethesda gave us DLC that was uninteresting. Broken Steel, The Pitt, Mothership Zeta, and Point Lookout all added Shivering-Isles-level amounts of content. 4 sets of DLC, each bigger than most entire games. The golden age of DLC was here, and we loved it.

No one would argue that Fallout 3 was too short. It was massive. Yet, Bethesda knew we wanted to have even more adventures in the Capital Wasteland, so they gave it to us. Each one was so different from the rest of the game, it actually felt like DLC should. We would have been much happier, obviously, if these adventures had been included in the base game, but they were so grand in scale that it felt fair to pay extra. This is how DLC should be handled.

Borderlands handled DLC in a very similar way. The first one, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, did something I like to refer to as “shoving a concept up its own asshole.” It took characters we knew from the base game, changed them slightly, and created a whole new storyline set in a completely new area, just like the Fallout DLC. Zombies might be a tired-out old concept, but they handled it in a way that made it feel new. This DLC set the tone for the future of the Borderlands series. It was still in the same universe as the main game, but the characters really started to develop here. Most importantly, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned took itself even less seriously than the game it added on to. The subsequent DLC, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot also didn’t take itself very seriously, but it added very little to the game, and was pretty disappointing as a result.

The next DLC did not disappoint. The Secret Armory of General Knoxx was huge and hilarious. We got to see Scooter get pretty flushed out as a character, and new weapons fell like rain. The level cap increased to let us combine skills in even more ridiculous ways, and we got to put these skills to the test against Crawmerax, the first “raid boss” in the series. General Knoxx himself was an incredible character to square off against, and started the trend of memorable enemies in the series, a trend which gave us Handsome Jack, the most killable main villain since Gruntilda in Banjo-Kazooie.

By the time my fiancée and I were ready to start Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, though, Borderlands 2 had come out, and killing Jack was all we could think about. Let me make this clear: I am not exaggerating about how absolutely driving the desire to kill Jack is. Borderlands figured out the best way to make players want to kill the main villain: you give him the player’s phone number. Within minutes of beginning the game, he is calling you to brag about how rich he is and how much he wants you dead. He’s a gigantic douche, and it is highly motivating. There is no way to block these calls. Anthony Burch did a phenomenal job writing the script for this game, so the calls are consistently entertaining, but condescending and annoying enough that you can’t wait to shove an assault rifle down his throat. Also, without spoiling anything, I can assure you that, if you play Borderlands 2, you will get to kill Jack. No bullshit Vault Monster ending like the first one. Satisfaction will be yours.

It’s a nice touch that is sadly missing from most games. For whatever reason, so many modern games go the route of Final Fantasy 8, and have you fight some enemy in the end who you feel no connection to. Someone just up and tells you that the enemy you’ve been trying to find for the last 30 hours was a red herring, and you have to go kill the real bad guy. Why? Why would we want to do that? In the case of Final Fantasy 8 (in my opinion, a fantastic game until the last disc), we were chasing a time-traveling witch from the future who is possessing girls in the present. Esoteric, yes, but we knew what we were doing and why. We had never seen the witch in question, but we’d seen her effects. Then, right at the end, we find out that another time-traveling witch from an even more distant future is possessing the witch we’ve been chasing, and this witch is the one we need to kill. Ultimecia, she is called, and her name isn’t mentioned until the last hour or two of the adventure. The fourth disc is like a completely different game from the previous three discs.

Borderlands 2 maintains one contiguous goal from the beginning of the game: Kill Jack. Even if you forget, Jack will remind you, by being an asshole at you. This creates flow that games like Final Fantasy 8 lack. You are given a goal, and are gently guided to that goal at whatever pace you choose. And, just in case you develop some sympathy toward Jack, Anthony made sure to write in some truly despicable acts, so you can really work up the hate. Trust me, by the time you pull the trigger, your desire to kill Jack has become a need.

If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you’re probably wondering why I am saying so much about the story in a shooter. For the most part, I’m willing to ignore sub-par stories, particularly in action games. Well, the story in Borderlands 2 is that good. The first game had an alright story, supplemented by fantastic gameplay. Borderlands 2 streamlined the gameplay, expanded its scope, and gave us a story to tie it all together. Every bullet fired, every piece of loot acquired, every map traversed is a step in your journey, and the end is established from the very beginning. I simply cannot stress enough how important this is. Making the goal synonymous with the intermediate steps makes games better. No one is going back and playing the old Borderlands much these days, myself included, and the improved story is a big motivator.

The Pre-Sequel launches in a matter of days, and it is already working from a slight disadvantage. Since it is a prequel to Borderlands 2, the story is filling chunks of backstory, which carries the possibility of being awful. I have faith in Anthony’s writing prowess, so I am not too worried, but the possibility is there. If nothing else, it is not likely to be as driving as the previous game’s story, which could create the illusion of lackluster gameplay. Mel and I will be playing this the instant it comes out, though. If our previous experiences with Gearbox’s flagship series are any indicator, it won’t take us terribly long to finish it. As with all games I am interested in playing, I am running under a self-imposed media blackout, so rest assured, my perception of this game will be as untarnished by preconceived notions as possible. All I know, so far, is that there are low-gravity environments, there is a mechanic that utilizes oxygen tanks, and there is something happening called the “Butt-Bomb,” which sounds stupid. My media blackout has been so thorough that I honestly don’t even know who the characters are.

These games aren’t really games. They’re group adventures. And, while I usually only have a party of two, we will be going on this adventure together. Because the gameplay and the story don’t really matter in a game like this. What matters is what we make of it. I don’t want every game to be like this, but I really hope that Borderlands stays the way it is. There are enough games out there trying to make their mark by doing things we’ve never seen before. Borderlands, you just keep on perfecting the Diablo formula. You’re clearly good at it.

I can’t score the first Borderlands in good conscience, since it is overshadowed by its offspring, but Borderlands 2 is a solid 9/10, in my book. Hopefully, The Pre-Sequel knocks it down a peg or two.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag Review: The Game I Never Wanted To Play

I have preconceived notions about Assassin’s Creed. My friends all went crazy about the first game when it came out, and I couldn’t see it as anything other than a more disappointing Prince of Persia. Everything about it was worse, from the combat, to the platforming, to the level design. Where the Prince of Persia games were meticulously crafted games with precise controls, Assassin’s Creed felt like GTA with parkour. It was sloppy and controlled like a drunk rhesus monkey, and the map was basically just a real world map from another time period that I traversed by simply holding down two buttons and pointing at things. But, now that my favorite time-traveling, wall-running, trying-a-hundred-times-to-beat-this-part franchise seems to have gone the way of the buffalo, I guess those of us holding out hope for a true successor to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within have to give up and find something new.

I am definitely not the right person for the job.

I knew, even before I started, that I would try to quit if I was given an eavesdropping mission. You can tell me all you want that it’s been improved since the first game, but a mini-game where I have to keep someone with such a complicated walk animation the exact right distance from a moving target is not fun. It’s a chore. Just like Operation. No one actually likes playing Operation, they just like watching their friends stress out over it.

For me, the most stressful part of Assassin’s Creed was the pathing. For those of you who don’t know what this term refers to, imagine the game as a piece of graph paper. Any game, really. In the olden days, only the lines on the graph could be followed, which helped games control well. You had, in essence, one choice: forward or backward. Maybe a bit of z-axis involvement. Total, you had four directions you could move in, which made games very simple to play and develop. With the dawn of 3D and analog sticks, we were allowed to move diagonally, as well, from corner to corner on the graph paper. When the technology got better, games were still built on the graph paper, but we gained the ability to go wherever we wanted. You can see this when wandering around the streets or on a large rooftop in Assassin’s Creed. You can walk anywhere, right until you hit a vertical edge. Once your travel becomes vertical, you are rigidly held to the points on the graph paper, again. Push the correct direction to continue along the pre-determined path, push any other direction to do nothing or fall to your death.

This has always been an issue with the Assassin’s Creed games, but particularly in the first one. I didn’t realize this was the biggest turn-off for me. I called it imprecise controls. But, when the only thing that changes with the controls is which direction you press the stick, there aren’t actually any controls to be imprecise. The issue is the pathing. The developers, in these situations, have to go through every single location where you can hold down the buttons to freerun, and manually configure paths to follow. Since this is a much more hands-on approach to coding than what they do to the streets and rooftops, there is a lot of room for error. And who can fault them for it? We forgive Bethesda, the kings of hands-on development, every time an enemy tornadoes away into the sky for no good reason in The Elder Scrolls, and we should extend the same courtesy to Ubisoft. It’s only fair. The difference, though, is how it affects the player. Bethesda’s glitches break our immersion, sure, but they’re kind of funny, and they don’t generally affect gameplay. A glitchy ledge in an Assassin’s Creed game will sometimes cause us to repeatedly fail missions, though, and having to repeat ourselves makes us angry. It’s human nature.

Snap decisions are also human nature, and I made one based on my initial impression of the first Assassin’s Creed. I wanted Prince of Persia and didn’t get it. That, alone, was forgivable, but everything about it bored me. The pathing bothered me, the controls were overly-simple, and none of the locations truly wowed me with their design. So, several hours into it, I put it down, never to play it again.

It seemed almost rude to jump into a review of the new one without at least trying one of the intermediate ones, since the internet has been a-twitter for years about the improvements that each new game has brought to the table. I knew the general premise of the series from my brief foray with the first game, and the internet filled me in on what I didn’t know. It was mostly osmosis, really. I never sought out knowledge of the plot, but details come. I’d played as Desmond for a bit before, and I’ve already had the big finale of the third game spoiled, so I didn’t want to play that one. Luckily, Microsoft was kind enough to give me a free download of Assassin’s Creed 2 a while back, so I loaded it up and gave it a shot.

The segment with Desmond in the beginning almost lost me. I’m just not that big a fan of this kind of story device. I am giving you money for an experience. For something I can play. I’m here for the gameplay. Unless your story is really incredible and persistent, like Bioshock or Half-Life, I’m not terribly interested. The story that Desmond experiences are just a series of small reveals, vignettes occasionally splashed with blood for shock value. But, none of his story affects the gameplay. No matter what happens to Desmond, I know that in three to four minutes I will be scampering up buildings as some human-monkey hybrid who has no idea that Desmond will ever exist. There is such a disparity in the Desmond-to-Assassin story ratio that caring about Desmond’s story feels like getting really excited about the wrapper on your candy bar. Gameplay helps drive story home. Even though most argue that the modern-day story in Assassin’s Creed is better than the historical fiction, its impact is so small in the sea of gameplay and story that makes up the bulk of the game.

But, I powered through, and ran away from, then beat up, a whole bunch of guards as magical, shining, invincible, Messiah Desmond, and I made my way to the “hub” of the game. It’s very cliché, from the old, dirty warehouse windows to the bank of TVs hanging in the middle of the room displaying pointless maps of the world to the corkboard wall covered in papers and strings. It is a resistance headquarters. I would get that even without being told, because it looks exactly like every resistance headquarters ever. Also, it is riddled with computers, so you know it’s important.

Seriously, the computers in Assassin’s Creed 2 are hilarious. Every single one, and even every piece of each computer, is covered in lights. They spin around and flash like they were designed by someone who really wanted everything to look “futuristic.” Stuff like this is necessary, though, to make retro-futurism as funny as it needs to be, and it makes me want to play Fallout, which is probably not the goal.

Eventually, I sat down in the magic chair, and got to meet Ezio, the character so great they made two more games starring him. My initial impressions of him were… not so great. I don’t understand what Ezio’s appeal is. Maybe he grows as the story progresses (and I have to assume that he does), but everything I’ve seen of him makes him seem like a caricature of what Americans think of Italians. He talks about nothing except vaginas until his family is murdered, at which point he immediately changes his personality to become the responsible son he needs to be. It’s an abrupt change, but he’s just that kind of guy, apparently.

Within minutes of his story beginning, Ezio confessed he had spent all of his money on whores, would like to get some more whores, and that he totes knows this smokin’ hot lady who he is going to go visit instead of doing his duty for his family. And he does. He goes to her place, yells at her window, and climbs into her bedroom, at which point a quicktime event began that I was not remotely prepared for. Suddenly, the game told me to press Y while he was leaning toward her, and I did, and he proceeded to make out with her. The thought that I had actually done that through gameplay was so funny to me that I missed the subsequent two quicktime prompts in a fit of laughter, so sweet Christina or whatever her name was ended up quite dissatisfied with Ezio’s skill as a lover. I get that this game came out in 2009, and quicktime events had only recently transcended to the rank of Universally Reviled, but at no point could anyone have a quicktime event say “YO, DAWG. PRESS Y TO TOTALLY MACK ON THAT BITCH,” without consequence.

I’ve already stated that, since the story isn’t mind-blowing, it’s tertiary to me, so I’ll skip past all of the other story elements I didn’t like. It did the only things right that matter: it took it easy on me long enough for me to learn the systems, then escalated in a parallel trajectory to the gameplay, and it gave me a reason to kill an awful lot of dudes. That’s why I’m here. To kill dudes. To avenge a murder. To play a game.

All around, I have to say it was already a step up, for me. The improved stealth mechanics were great, and the pathing, while still kinda wiggy in the corners, was much better than before. The combat was fun, but not incredible, and there was an awful lot to do. The invisible walls that didn’t even have the courtesy to be invisible really pissed me off. My hackles raise every time a game puts up huge glowing walls to block me from areas, instead of naturally limiting where I go through harder enemies and clever use of story, but I figured they kind of had a canonical reason for it, so I grumbled and overlooked it.

The notoriety system in Assassin’s Creed 2 is crap. There are wanted posters with Ezio’s face on them scattered around that you are encouraged to tear down in order to lower his notoriety, but they are all located in exceedingly remote locations. How am I to believe that the removal of a poster on the sliver of wall over an old lady’s awning has a noticeable impact on the guards spotting me? One of them was in a particularly impossible to reach spot, and I had to climb around the building and come at it from the opposite side to try to get there. In doing so, I had to drop down several ledges. I pressed B a few times, and he dropped down a ledge at a time like normal, until he let go of the building entirely, fell away from the wall, and leap-of-faithed backwards into a pile of hay. Why, Ezio? Neither you, nor me, nor Desmond knew the hay was there. Why would you do that?

Trying to justify a character’s actions in a video game this meta gets strange. I’m technically playing as Desmond with my knowledge of the game added to his, who is, in turn, playing as Ezio in his own game with all of his own knowledge and mine. Things get a little existential, but in a pretty dumb way. No amount of meta-gaming can ever explain Ezio’s actions, unless we assume it’s all a big game of telephone. I point the sick right at the wall I want to run across, which tells Desmond to tell Ezio to jump onto that wall and run across it, and Ezio instead decides to leap 90 degrees to the left into the wide open plaza filled with guards, land flat on his feet, and shout his own name at the top of his lungs, all while his shattered shin bones spin holes through his legs from the inside. Solid call, Ezio.

Seriously, for an assassin, Ezio spends an awful lot of time shouting his own names at the top of his lungs, and he especially loves to do this at the scene of a crime while holding the bloody murder weapon. That’s another odd choice, Ezio.

About halfway through the second act, I put the game down. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday, but it’s not why I’m here. It’s just context for the real meat in the sandwich, and that meat is pirates.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I bought it on a whim after a number of my friends kept telling me it was “so much better” than the old ones. It sat on my shelf for a long time, but its time has come.

First impression: Edward is a pretty cool guy. He is absolutely pathological, and I love it. He is a fun character to play as. The game even encourages you to role-play as him, instigating crime with on-screen prompts and mission objectives. One mission has Edward bluffing his way into a high-level meeting of the global elite, and the game pops up an optional objective during the meeting that eggs you on to pickpocket all three of the other men in the room. Obviously, I did it. Because that is an awesome thing to do. And, when I was done pilfering their cash, I stood there, staring at the documents on the table, contributing absolutely nothing to the conversation, a wolf in a slightly more sophisticated and ruthless wolf’s clothing.

I like the pirate story a bit more than the Italian story, if only because it gives me cause to do much more awesome things. Blowing up boats will always be more fun than watching Da Vinci decode something. Simple fact. There isn’t much to the story, other than justification for doing increasingly more ridiculous tasks, but I’m also not very far into the story. At the point I’ve reached, a couple dozen hours in, I think I’m still basically still in the tutorial. I just learned about the Mayan statues for the first time, if that helps you place it. But, even if I’d just bombed through the main story as hard as I could, I feel like I’d be maybe five hours in when I hit this point. That’s a pretty long tutorial, man.

Yes, you read that correctly. I have stretched the first five hours of Black Flag’s story into 20-30 hours of play. There is just so much to do, and most of it is surprisingly fun. You see a treasure chest on your map and you go for it, but the building it’s in is heavily guarded. So, you climb up to the roof, murder everyone in sight, then take the chest. There are large, old forts in many of the cities, and just getting into them without raising an alarm is practically a whole game in and of itself. This is where Black Flag starts to really feel like Prince of Persia. The forts are carefully-modeled, with very strict paths you need to find and reason out before trying to climb, much like the game’s Persian predecessor. They are a joy to figure out and climb, and they’re generally big enough that you can raise an alert running up to it, swing and clamber around the outside to find your way, and the alert level will fade before you even reach the top. Of course, you could just murder the guards at the gate and storm the front door, but that would be dumb, and not that much fun. If taking outposts in Far Cry brought light into your life, you’ll get just as big a hard-on from taking a fort in Black Flag.

The game is still riddled with pathing issues, but only in town, really. Freerunning through the rigging of a ship feels tight and much more safe than freerunning on buildings, which is a laugh, considering the first ship I could climb was exponentially taller than any building I’d seen up to that point. Even though I did experience pathing issues, they were nowhere near as prevalent as in either of the previous games I’d played, so I have to give Ubisoft Montreal props on that. Their debugging and playtesting must have been pretty solid, this time around.

The stealth and the combat are meshed perfectly, by now. Enemies are observant, but not too observant, and “stealth points” (which most of us call “bushes”) are plentiful without being too plentiful. Enemies take just long enough to notice you that you can be a little more ballsy than you’re probably used to in a stealth game, but not so much that it feels over the top. The window of opportunity for a stealth kill gives you enough time to sprint at someone from nearly any distance and pull it off. They notice the bodies of their brethren if they can see them, but you’re George of the Jungle, and a top-down approach works like a charm in taking nearly any structure, since the men below will never find the bodies above them. In the assassination missions, your stealth bonus only requires you to remain stealthy until the target is dead, so you can drop out of the sky onto him, collect a huge reward, then fight your way out. The team making these games has clearly been paying attention to the Far Cry franchise, and it has evolved more into that than Prince of Persia. Was it what I wanted? No. Am I okay with it? Yeah, I think I am.

You could pick a much worse franchise to emulate. And, since it’s Ubisoft Montreal’s own franchise, it doesn’t feel like plagiarism; it feels like they’re learning from their mistakes. It’s the growth of a studio. It’s a magical thing to watch. From what I’ve gathered, it seems like the third entry also might have been like this one, albeit on a smaller scale. I might check it out at some point. I haven’t decided, yet. You have to remember, I hated this franchise about three days ago. I have some stuff to work out before I try another one.

Some of my favorite things about the game so far are the little details. I love having an entire armory of flintlock pistols slung about my person that I fire in sequence. I love that Ubisoft has bucked tradition and allows me to sprint endlessly, instead of forcing me to deal with a stamina gauge. I love how chaotic the ship-to-ship combat is while still remaining elegant enough that I’ve only beached my own ship in combat once, so far.

One feature I find hilarious is the “skip” option on the already quite bloodless animal skinning cutscene. The ability to skip cutscenes is either absent or completely unadvertised with other cutscenes, so it is obviously included for the faint of heart, which is a nice thing to do, I guess. It amuses me to imagine someone so squeamish that he or she wrestles with the notion of even pressing B to skin a critter in the first place, then breathing a sigh of relief because he is able to skip it. Imagine how angry he’d be when he eventually forgot to skip it and realized that it shows absolutely nothing. I would like to point out that, in a strange turn of events and an equally strange design decision, every animal’s bloody carcass, in a hilarious amount of decay, is left on display as soon as the skinning is done. I cannot even fathom why this would be the case. Far Cry 3 had extremely bloody, unskippable animal-skinning cutscenes, but no animal was shown during or after. The grinning corpse of a wild boar in Black Flag was a little creepy to even me, and I love eating animals.

The ship to ship combat is the big addition to this game. I understand it happened a few times in Assassin’s Creed 3, but Black Flag puts you at the helm of the Jackdaw an awful lot. It’s nice, though. It plays out like a cross between Windwaker and an Elder Scrolls game, and it helps break the game up and provide structure at the same time. You have to sail to a location the first time you go, but you can then fast-travel to the location once you’ve explored it a bit and synchronized at least once. The game strongly encourages you to keep sailing, though, as you will need the materials to upgrade your boat so you can sail more so you can get more materials, etc. It’s cyclical, in a way, but it’s not annoying. Sailing opens up many other opportunities, such as exploring deserted islands and finding aquatic creatures to harpoon. The harpooning mini-game is fun enough in and of itself, but it also provides materials needed to upgrade the various parts of your outfit, like ammo pouches and pistol holsters. Had the boat only existed to upgrade itself, I would have been upset, but Ubisoft was quite careful to ensure that everything had enough variety to keep things interesting, and that the different gameplay sections benefits each other. It’s balanced pretty well.

I never felt like I was wasting my time while playing Black Flag. I’m not entirely clear on what the “Animus Fragments” do for me, but they’re in crazy enough spots that I enjoy trying to find them. Same with the chests scattered about. 300 bucks isn’t much in Black Flag, which is roughly the max you can get from one of them, but, like the Animus Fragments, a significant portion are placed in locations that are entertaining enough to reach. I spent my entire last play session just running around a few of the cities to find numerous chests and such, and it was honestly pretty fun. I might even pick up this game again at a later date to play some more for my own enjoyment, which was something I was not expecting when I decided to review it.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was pleasantly surprised by Black Flag. I likely would not have enjoyed it if I had just jumped straight in, so I recommend it to those of us who wrote it off immediately with one important caveat: play one of the intermediate games, first, even if it’s just for a little while. The slow progression becomes more tolerable in small doses, and seeing that progression was, for me, at least, necessary to really enjoy Black Flag. It hasn’t revolutionized anything, but it has improved on its own formula enough to merit a second look.

Score? I say 7 out of 10. If the pathing is more thoroughly tested in the nest iteration, it could score higher, but glitches still mar the gameplay, which isn’t quite as thoroughly entertaining as it could be. On the whole, a pretty good game that just about anyone can enjoy. If they can manage to make an entire game as tactical and fun as taking over a fort, I’ll poop myself.

Skyward Sword Review: Skyword Words

Right now, I’d like to focus my efforts on Nintendo. For better or worse, the rise of the Wii put them back in a situation to determine the future of the industry. What sucks for you, as the sort of person who would read something on the internet about games instead of just playing them very occasionally when someone reminds you that they exist, is that you no longer dictate what is and isn’t successful. Through their attempts to make games more accessible to, well, old people and “filthy casuals,” The majority of consoles owners these days are the casuals you so fear. They haven’t even heard of Penny Arcade. Scary, isn’t it?

So, a couple years back, Nintendo released a game that scored bafflingly high on nearly every review site, despite being easily the worst of its series that I have ever played, and I have to assume (since I am unwilling to be the one who cries bribe) that this is because of the influx of casual gamers in the mid 2000s. This game was The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I think it’s time we talked about it without the six-year drought between games clouding our judgment.

Nintendo, we love Zelda. All of us. You have to know it. You see the game sales and the merchandise sales and the fanart and the… well, the piracy. You can see, every day, how much we want to play the games. What can be more difficult to see is who is paying you and why. The who, if the loud voices of the interweb are to be believed, is mostly guys like me. Males, roughly around 30, who were the right age to get in on the ground floor. For us, The Legend of Zelda was our first glimpse at what video games could be.

We had played as somewhat relatable characters (meaning something that looked human, not a dot or a wedge or a vehicle) in games before, but always running left to right, or around one single screen. Stuff like Pitfall and Mario was cool and all, but we were all getting a little tired of the ol’ left to right. With Zelda, we were playing a relatable character in a huge continuous world. Sure, it was set up as single-screen encounters, but they all connected seamlessly with each other, and created a magnificent illusion. It seemed like it went on forever! There was no way we could see it all!

 

As if this wasn’t enough, to have this seemingly never-ending game, it played so well. Everything worked exactly the way you expected it to. It had consistent, fluid animations, heck, even the screen changes when going to another area were beautiful, how they slid smoothly into place based on the direction you were going. It was, for its time, absolutely stunning to look at.

And the combat was glorious. Not just that, but it merged seamlessly with the exploration. You walked into a different area and were almost always immediately threatened by, like, land octopi that shot rocks at you, and these creepy, spinning things that beat the crap out of you while they flew around and you could only hurt them when they occasionally landed, and this ugly mermaid thing that, I think spits at you? It’s fire spit, though, so it’s not weird. One type of enemy were these blue pig-goblin guys who I, honest to God, called “spear chuckers,” because I thought that was they were doing. I was a little kid, I didn’t know it was anything offensive; I was just describing what they did (except it turns out they were probably arrows). When people dug down deep into their reserves of racism and pulled out that old chestnut, I thought they were talking about the guys from Zelda, and I totally agreed with what they were saying. Those guys were the worst. They would show up in the middle of like seven other dudes who protected him from you, and you had to fight so much harder when that one guy could hurl death at you from across the screen.

When combat got tough, you turned to the items you slowly amassed. Arrows and bombs, mostly, but everything you had also helped you explore the map. Fight, explore, fight, explore. It was thrilling. You retrieved most of the items from the dungeons scattered throughout the game. Their entrances took up next to no space on the map, but they spread under the ground like ancient roots. So, you got to explore around those, too. There was so much exploring to do, you felt like you could never see it all. For most of us, it was probably true. But the puzzles, the exploring, and the combat all pulled from the same pool of resources. They were all solved by objects you could find and harness, and most items got a decent amount of use.

When we played it for the first time, there was a large, collective paradigm shift. We wanted to feel like that again. We wanted more games to do this. And they did, to an extent. The genre of light-action, open-world RPGs took off from this point. Not many really captured the scale of it, though, or the balance. The second Zelda game, Adventure of Link, tried to fuse the original game with the left-to-right runners that were dominating the market, but the feeling wasn’t even close to the same.

They took the lesson to heart, they figured out what we’d liked about The Legend of Zelda, and when they made their entry for the Super Nintendo, they gave us exactly what we wanted: more of the same.

And it was good! It was! No one would argue that. A Link to the Past was the perfect next progression for the series, I suppose. They had the technology to do so much more with the style, though, and they kind of got… carried away at times. Where the first Zelda had been lonely and chaotic, Link to the Past was absolutely filled with characters, and progression became very rigid. The first Zelda let us wander wherever we wanted, regardless of whether or not we could handle the enemies there, but Link to the Past forced us to talk to every single villager any time we wanted to keep, you know, exploring. That was the whole reason we came. To explore. And when it did let us explore, it was a pretty limited area. It practically had bumpers attached to it. But, it was so pretty to look at and so very fun to play, that we didn’t really notice how limited we were. We were just happy to be playing another Zelda, throwing bombs everywhere to find caves and cutting grass to survive. It was a Zelda game! And it was exactly what we asked for! Sure, it had taken 4 years, but it was a real sequel to the game we had all fallen in love with.

But, after Link to the Past, there was silence for a while. Link’s Awakening came out, but it was a Gameboy game, and took a step backward to a more NES kind of look. Also, it was weird. I liked it, but it was not a normal game. I think it’s been long enough that we can all admit that. It was a port of Link to the Past turned spin-off that was handed off to/taken over by a few members of the staff from Link to the Past. There’s a giant egg, and a chain chomp from Mario, and the beginnings of the franchise’s new focus on music. We didn’t know it, but pretty much every new Zelda after this would have us playing songs at birds, and at little girls, and at some rocks, and like a million walls, and even the sun.

But finally, seven years after its last true predecessor, Ocarina of Time arrived. What The Legend of Zelda did for 2D gaming, Ocarina did it again for 3D. It was even the same sort of situation as before. Most 3D gaming had been small, disconnected instances, maybe connected by an overworld if we were lucky enough to avoid selecting missions from a menu. And, just like the first time, Nintendo creatively strung maps together in a way that made it feel almost seamless, even though it was basically doing exactly the same thing that Super Mario 64 did with its crazy jumble of maps. The only real difference was that you constantly moved back and forth between maps that connected with no fanfare. You didn’t press A on a sign or picture to open a menu to warp to another world, you just went through a door or walked into that forest you saw from a ways away. Everything you could see, you could go to. Sure, it was a completely different map, but it felt like a single, cohesive world.

I loved it so much, I could have cried. There was so much story happening. Even more than Link to the Past. The world felt so alive! At least, it felt alive in the first few areas that were accessible. Most of the game is completely locked off to you until you accomplish very specific tasks in very specific orders. It’s generally pretty clear what you need to do to progress, but it breaks up the exploration into bite-sized chunks. The areas you access later in the game are desolate wastelands, and they’d have to be, wouldn’t they? I am clearly the only person alive who managed to find the bombs required to clear the rocks I just blew up, so anyone on the other side was just trapped there until I showed up, right? Probably everyone else who lived by the lake died of starvation.

It was exactly the same as Link to the Past. It was the most samey Zelda that had ever been made. It made everything in the franchise fit into one game, and it did a damn good job of it. It quite literally changed the game. It challenged the industry to make something bigger and better, and that was a very good thing. Story in games was still in its infancy, so I can hardly fault them for making it progress the way it did. Even now, most open-world games have pretty forgettable stories. The only obvious exception I can come up with is Grand Theft Auto 5, but even there, the story is fairly bland, and it is instead the script that is fantastic.

What I’m trying to say is there’s not just nostalgia at work when a new Zelda game comes out. There is also an unspoken expectation that this game is going to change the world in some way. No real change happened for a while after Ocarina of Time. They had sold more copies of that game than anything else they’d ever made, and they stuck to the formula that had evolved quite rigidly. This was a great business decision. I can’t refute that, and I respect it in its way. Keeping your company alive is a good thing. So, there was no real innovation to be had from the franchise for a very long time. Just game after game that was really very good, but didn’t move the franchise forward. People began to fear that it was stagnating, and called Twilight princess names, even though it was really quite good considering Nintendo insisted on following the same formula as before.

Maybe it just looks good, now, in retrospect. Because Nintendo, as they did with Link to the Past, listened to our ideas and our concerns, and, when they were developing Skyward Sword, they made great strides forward to really evolve the franchise.

They turned it into what they’d been fighting the whole time.

Skyward Sword is the most locked-down Zelda game you will ever play. Case in point: it has six entirely separate areas that lead to the entrances of the dungeons. Three of them don’t exist at all in the beginning of the game, because they’re the same areas as the first three with slight tweaks so you have to navigate them, differently.

There is no world map. There is, however, a cloudy overworld that contains the three portals that just drop you off in three vastly different parts of whatever world is supposed to be beneath the clouds. You get to watch a fun cutscene of Link skydiving into the portal every time you hop off your flying Pokemon. That is what it looks like, okay? It looks like a Pokemon, it doesn’t seem to exist unless I’m riding it, and I can jump off a cliff, call it, and it catches me before I hit the ground. It’s a Pokemon.

This switch from an open map to instanced dungeons changes the entire feel of the game. I’m no longer on an adventure, I’m running errands. In fact, there is a new form of currency that can only be earned by actually running errands and solving the various problems of the citizens of the overworld. This is the dumbest part of the Zelda formula that has been contrived over the years: friendhip. These are, at their core, games about a kid who murders things. The single most recognizable item from the series is a sword, for fuck’s sake. That’s about as violent as you can get. The game before Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess, was even rated T for Teen, yet we still somehow progressed to a game that revolves around making friends.

Isolated pieces of this game are fun. The motion controls muck up almost everything good about it, but there are fun pieces. The swimming would be interesting, if the controls weren’t so terrible. Same with the flying. And the fighting. You know what’s worse than making Link right-handed? Making him waggle his sword around like an idiot every time I move the Wiimote even a little.

The first boss fight is downright exhausting. My right arm was so sore, I briefly considered switching the Wiimote to my left hand, but I felt like that was somehow what Nintendo wanted me to do, and that doing so would be admitting weakness, and somewhere in Japan, an alarm would sound on Shigeru Miyamoto’s wristwatch to inform him that some out-of-shape nerd’s motion controls had gotten very sloppy all of a sudden, indicating the nerd had switched away from his dominant hand, and Miyamoto would laugh long and loud, then blow his nose with the sixty bucks I gave him for the game.

Also, while I’m on the subject of the boss, why are all main Zelda enemies slowly becoming evil drag queens? Ghirahim is the main bad guy (I think? Might not be a guy, considering how androgynous he/she/it is) in Skyward sword, and he is your first, third, fourth, and seventh boss fight, I think, probably. I know I fought him a lot. I would be fine with fighting the same guy over and over again if he wasn’t so insanely rambly and feminine. Zant from Twilight Princess was also feminine, but he was mostly just kind of weird. He threw tantrums, stomped around, and made very odd noises. I didn’t like him much, but Ghirahim’s little hair flip every time he talks makes Zant look about as feminine as Van Damme, in comparison. It didn’t make me want to kill him at all, in fact, it almost made it feel like killing him would be a hate crime. What it did make me want to do was look away. Every interaction with him was weird and uncomfortable, not because he was feminine, but because I didn’t really understand why he was feminine. Zant was a very sympathetic character in the end, and you understood why he was so strange, but Ghirahim was just a preening, monologuing, lady-boy.

In addition, he’s not a threatening enemy at all. Fights with him aren’t hard. His attacks are telegraphed well in advance and are easy to avoid. Several normal enemies encountered in the first desert dungeon did more damage to me than Ghirahim did in all of my fights with him combined. What made it “difficult” was how long it took. He defends almost flawlessly, and you have to trick him into defending one way, then switch and attack him a different way. If the motion controls did what you wanted, the fight would be laughably easy. All of the challenge is really just frustration. You use neither wits nor brawn to fight him but, rather, patience.

Which brings us to the real problem. I’ve skirted it before, with the locked-off nature of the maps. The Zelda franchise, since the move to 3D, has become a franchise in which you stand around and do nothing. I would like to go back and replay Ocarina of Time, now that I see the patterns, but the idea of watching King Zora take four hours to move out of my way so that I can progress makes me want to slit my wrists. Every single cutscene in Ocarina of Time takes a preternaturally long time. Look at this one, which happens when you piss off a Cuckoo (Just watch the first 30 seconds or so. It will be apparent when the cutscene is over):

 

What? Why? Why is there such a long video for this? And it happens every time. And it’s not just this. So many actions in Zelda games, but Ocarina of Time in particular, trigger ten second cutscenes of a door opening, or a switch flipping, or water stopping or starting. I like to think that this was a technical limitation, at the time, but it still somehow became tradition. If I stop playing Skyward Sword, then play it again the next day, I get to watch an unskippable text box pop up every time I pick up a new type of rupee that explains to me what money is. “You got a green rupee! It is- “I KNOW, OKAY? I PICKED UP ABOUT A THOUSAND GREEN RUPEES YESTERDAY, ALONE.

The over-explaining in Zelda games hit a fever-pitch with Skyward Sword. It started getting popular in most internet circles to make fun of Navi, the fairy from Ocarina of Time who, every time we were starting to figure things out on our own, yelled at us to explain exactly what we had just figured out. Nintendo took our mockery to mean that we missed her. No. No, we did not. But, regardless of our feelings, in Skyward Sword we got Fi, a ghost-robot-ballerina that lives in a sword. One more time, in case someone missed it: she is a ghost-robot-ballerina who lives in a sword.

Fi is a walk-through, plain and simple. She controls your progress through the world by both limiting where you are able to go, and by pointing you in exactly the right direction. “It seems like you want to save Zelda. Would you like help with that?” No, Fi, I would not. “Good, because there is a 73% chance that she is in that building right there.”

I get that she’s a robot, so it’s… I guess… funny that she speaks in percentages? But, it’s also never actually a percentage of a chance, which sort of ruins the joke. If Fi tells you something might be where she’s pointing, it is. One hundred percent of the time. She never gives you information that’s partly incorrect so you have to work for it, she is always 100% correct. There’s no challenge in it, which leads to boredom, and, if you’re bored while playing a video game, there is a problem. Worst of all, this problem isn’t limited to Fi. There is an entire button that only functions as a “Here’s where you go next” button. Twilight Princess had a similar function, but it was much more limited in scope, and it worked within the theme. You were a wolf a good portion of the time, so you would smell something that belonged to someone, like a scarf or a doll (Or a keychain? Pretty sure it was a keychain.), so that you could track them. This made sense. It was uninspired, but it fit. Why the fuck does my sword have the ability to smell things!? And why is it called dowsing? Like a dowsing rod, yeah, I get it.

You know what I really liked about Skyward Sword? The maps. They were great! They had tons of detail crammed into a relatively large space and super creative puzzles that forced you to really evaluate your surroundings to solve them. The maps were incredible, but not for a Zelda game! I didn’t stumble across the volcano on my journey, a fucking Pokemon dropped me off at the start of the trail up. I didn’t see the big tree from a distance and decide I wanted to go to it, I parachuted to THE ENTRANCE OF THE FOREST LEVEL and a spooky robot lady told me that there was a BAZILLION PERCENT CHANCE that there was something interesting at the top of the tree. Oh, really Fi? Do you think? I mean, I mostly play video games to look at boring things and follow directions, so preparing my taxes would really be the best thing to – NO! I play video games to go on adventures! You don’t have to tell me how to go on an adventure. If you show me something that looks cool, I will want to explore it. I won’t have to be told. You did the exact opposite. You dropped me into a bush so I couldn’t see any of my surroundings, and you told me to just figure out how to get to an arbitrary location of your choosing. No matter how cool it looks, I’m not going to appreciate it unless I chose to go there. You can’t just point at something. You have to design the game in a way that facilitates discovery. You have to make the tree line break just enough to let me catch a glimpse of the temple beyond. Make me feel like I found it myself, even though you placed it right where I was going, anyway.

Then, once I’d conquered the levels, what did you do? You made me do it again. You put a little more lava in the fire area, we got to see slightly more of the desert, and you turned the forest into the water level. And you threw in a couple little bonus areas as on-ramps to boss fights that made it feel like I was running to Bowser. It’s funny, because I can see a lot of the same design sentiment in the newer Super Mario 3D World, and it’s all stuff that I love. Skyward Sword’s weird minigames and concept-driven vertical environment puzzles would make a great Mario game. You innovated so hard, it became a completely different genre of game. You gave us what essentially ended up being a platformer where I couldn’t jump at will.

I guess… it’s not bad. It isn’t. If I was playing as a bear with a backpack or a vertically-challenged plumber or a foul-mouthed squirrel, it might have been really enjoyable. But, I didn’t buy a quirky platforming game, I bought a Zelda game.

Now, you guys have recently said things about your new Zelda game that gives me hope. You say it’s going to be an open-world game in which I can explore at will wherever I see fit. And, as I’m sure you can tell, because this all sounds like a letter to an ex-lover and because I pretty much just said so earlier, I will be purchasing this game. So far, you’ve only made one game that has burned me, which means I still feel comfortable giving you my hard-earned money. And, you’ve called it just “The Legend of Zelda,” which makes me think you really may have committed to, in essence, starting over and trying to capture that feeling again. If this is the case, you will reaffirm the hopes of millions and commit them to your franchise all over again. If you don’t, you will confirm all of our worst fears, and Navi and Fi will escort this franchise into an era without the audience that gave it life.

[RR1]Theming is important for paragraphs. Segregate and rearrange!

I hope P.T. was a tech demo

I don’t have a PS3 or PS4. As such, I haven’t had to listen to Hideo Kojima’s rambling in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first Metal Gear Solid. Well, the first one in 3D. I was unaware of the earlier entries until much later in my life, and I don’t really feel bad about it.

That first foray into his world was glorious. No stealth game had ever given me so much freedom, and plot in games was still in its infancy, so any dialogue at all was welcome. I felt like it was a little too preachy toward the end, with the 45 minutes of rambling about freedom and America, but I rolled with it, because I was so grateful for something that wasn’t Spyro on my Playstation.

It was incredible. Memorable characters, tight stealth gameplay, and punishing game mechanics combined to make a challenging game that compelled me to finish sections just to find out what happened next.

Then, MGS2 happened. More specifically, Raiden happened. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to listen past his whining, and the franchise lost its luster for me. Entry after entry, Kojima kept talking more and more about what he thought of freedom and America, and I couldn’t make myself care. I tried so hard to enjoy MGS 3, since it was one of the first games that went for a hardcore survival theme and I am all about that, but the characters just do not shut up. Listening Snake explain his fear of vampires in MGS 3 isn’t fun, and neither is listening to Raiden being all conflicted about his work girlfriend in MGS 2. I have a fiancée I work with, now, and don’t need to watch someone else wonder if that’s his work or home girlfriend talking. Even at the time, being a single man, I didn’t enjoy it. I grew out of whiny protagonists right around the time I figured out to stop whining in real life.

Years passed, and entry number four in the series came out. Months before the release, I read a report that the ending cutscene would be NINTEY MINUTES LONG. As I have said to many friends on many occasions before today, that is not a cutscene. It is a feature-length film. No game I’d ever played at that point would allow me to stop a game in the middle of a cutscene and resume it later, and no one came forward to inform me of MGS 4 being any different, so I didn’t even try the game. Maybe it did have some form of interface for navigating the long-ass cutscenes, but I never found out, and don’t currently care. I am too blinded by just the thought of having the power cut off 80 minutes through a 90 minute cutscene to even want to learn about it, now.

Fast-forward to 2014. Kojima and Guillermo del Toro have announced their intent to make a game so scary it will “make you shit yourself.” Direct quote. They have named it “Silent Hills,” either to emphasize that this is a reboot, or because they want to win Worst Title Ever at E3 this year. I was intrigued by this, but skeptical. These are two men who I consider to be long-winded, which is a quality I do not enjoy in a game. But, I am also quite fond of products they have both released. So, when Kojima’s mysterious P.T. released, I buckled and forced someone to let me play the demo.

The first several minutes are like hell on earth, in all the right ways.

Let’s go back for a minute, and look at what epitomized the fear we have felt in games. Disempowerment is key. You have to make the players themselves feel powerless. This seems to be an easy concept, but it directly contradicts the way that so many companies develop games. You have to make the player interact with the game in some way. I mean, that is literally the definition of a video game. Player interaction. And, apart from a small handful of genres, most of that interaction comes in the form of combat. Interface and style and presentation aside, the huge majority of video games are about murder. Being someone capable of killing hundreds, thousands, and especially millions of enemies instantly prevents you from being disempowered. Even though this is arguably the most important element of fear, most horror games fail at disempowerment, apart from isolated, yet memorably terrifying moments of surprise. Halo did this very well. The Flood make you feel powerless. For the first several minutes of the encounter, you don’t even know if you’re accomplishing anything by throwing all your ammo at them. Halo isn’t even a horror game, but this section of it is horror at its finest.

The next most important element of horror is uncertainty. There is very little we humans fear more than the unknown, not knowing what comes next. This is another thing that games can tend to ignore, though not as thoroughly as disempowerment. It’s not easy to subtly guide players through a game, so we tend to rely on lengthy tutorials and bright, shining beacons to tell players where to go and what to do, next. I can’t be afraid of the evil necrowhatever when my sidekick tells me that I need to go to the evil tower and face the sorcerer in honorable single combat. I already know he’s there. He now has to try an awful lot harder to surprise me. Some notable exceptions occur, like the older Silent Hill games hinting at their most terrifying locations from the beginning of the game, but these outliers do this with style, and make the foreshadowing just specific enough to increase your dread at the thought of going there. Resident Evil 4 did a great job of this in first hour or so. You go from the village, full of definitely not zombies, with no indication of whether or not you are making a dent in the enemy forces, to the lake, where you watch something obscure and large breach the surface long enough for you to know that you have no idea what it is. They obscured your objective without obscuring the direction you need to go. You know you need to cross the lake and get through the village, but you have no idea what will happen when you do. Great design.

The last element of horror I’ll mention is what I like to call psychological claustrophobia. That feeling of being trapped. Obviously, the player is very rarely trapped in most games, since that would kind of defeat the purpose, but the feeling of it, especially when combined with the previous two, is terrifying. Fear has to come from inside. You have to make me, as the player, afraid. Since I probably won’t be physically harmed by the game, this sort of mental trick is key. If you can make me feel trapped when I am not, I will make up all kinds of things to be afraid of. Silent Hill 2 did this very well by accident. The fog we have come to accept as a normal Silent Hill thing was a technical limitation of the hardware. It was added merely to cover up the very low render distance. Yet, it creates a constant feeling of being trapped that very few games since have replicated.

Some games succeed on all fronts. The first Amnesia was brilliant, disempowering, disorienting, and trapping players while they cowered in corners. Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube did this, too. Even Dark Souls, which isn’t generally classified as a horror game, manages to pull off all of these elements to some extent, and creates real fear.

P.T. does all of this, and it does it really well. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it really does.

If you haven’t played through it, do yourself and favor and do that, now. I’m pretty sure it’s still free on PSN, so download it or bully a friend into letting you use their PS3 or put an ad on craigslist for a friend so you can go to their house, download P.T., and play at least the first 15-20 minutes. Now.

Welcome back! TERRIFYING, right? The instant you load in, you press all the buttons, and don’t do anything. You can only walk around and look with the analog sticks. There is absolutely no combat in P.T. for the entire duration. You just walk around and look, mostly at a snail’s pace around the only corner. It doesn’t sound terrifying, but it is.

It plays like a dream, in a literal sense. You walk through a door into a normal looking hallway that isn’t quite familiar, and walk toward the only thing in sight, a little shelf with some personal things on it. A few pictures, normal stuff, whatever. None of the doors open. Typical dream. You make your way down the hall, which is L-shaped, except for a short branch after the turn that leads to what appears to be the front door of the house. You start at the bottom right of the L, and walk through the only unlocked door at the top. You walk down a short flight of stairs, open the door at the end, and walk into the exact same hallway as before.

It’s wasn’t exactly what you were expecting, but it wasn’t very scary, so you go a little faster this time. You walk up the L past the clock at 11:59, and the pictures on the shelf, and the locked doors, and the radio in the hall, trying every door to no avail, until you walk down the stairs, go through the door, and start all over.

See what I’m saying? A dream. I have had this dream several times. The clock doesn’t advance, nothing really seems to happen. You become calm, complacent, even. Not really afraid, at all. Until something happens.

After several more times running through what seems to be exactly the same hallway and stairwell, you come around the corner and hear a baby crying, seemingly from another room. “Oh,” you think. “Do I have a baby?” THAT’S A VERY GOOD QUESTION. As with a dream, you’re not really sure if you have a baby or not. You kind of remember a vague woman-like shape in some of the pictures, but nothing really screamed “baby” at you.

Nothing seems to be trying to kill you, so you turn to glance over the pictures behind you one more time, but they’re intentionally vague. After a moment, you give up. The baby was sort of creepy, but that was half a minute ago, and it hasn’t happened again.

What you don’t notice is that you are now saying things like this to yourself to downplay your fear. This scenario resonates universally, so it’s already inside your head. And you’re basically just thinking about anything except the fact that none of the buttons seem like they’d save you if there was something after you. The tension is already increasing, because the feeling of powerlessness is being subtly driven home.

So, you do it a few more times. The scenario escalates. You’re still walking down the same hall, it’s still 11:59, but small things keep happening. The baby cries out more frequently as time goes on. On one pass through, the radio blares at you as you walk by, and you don’t even have the power to turn it off. Or, if you did, I couldn’t make it happen. Powerless in the face of even household electronics.

About 5 minutes in, one of the doors that has been locked every time makes a small sound as you walk by. You turn to look, and the knob jiggles. It’s chilling, yet simple. Nothing happens, but the tension is now through the roof. Your insides are roiling as you try to master your fear. THIS IS WELL-MADE HORROR.

You can’t even call it survival horror, because, so far, you don’t know if things even can hurt you. You haven’t seen anyone else, there is no visible UI, and no helpful hints. Just you and an endless nightmare. After the knob jiggling incident, anything could set you off.

Good thing they went for it as hard as they could.

I’d wager, in the moments following this, a few people actually did shit their pants. If not then, maybe a few moments after that. I don’t want to spoil much, since it needs to be experienced, rather than read about. I haven’t experienced another game that even comes close to the first half of this demo.

There is a moment most of the way through where you are shown something absolutely terrifying that is the most threatening image you’ve seen so far. You see it just for an instant, long enough to see how tall and broad the figure is and the size of his weapon, before he is plunged into supernatural darkness that light can’t penetrate. You can’t see him even a little, but, JUST LIKE YOUR NIGHTMARES, you know he is still there. You run away, but none of the doors open, so you have to go through that darkness to progress.

I have to give them credit, most of this demo is taking something innocuous, a boring hallway, and forcing you to walk down it through some fears you’d swear were ripped from your own head. And, for 20-30 minutes, that was really scary to me.

Unfortunately, it gets boring, and by the time the truly horrifying things were happening, I had pretty much checked out. I don’t need to figure out your whole backstory, particularly in a roughly 45-minute-long demo. I don’t have the time. And I enjoyed how vague I made it, anyway. Keeps the mystery alive. There is a “true” ending you can find, in classic Silent Hill style, and someone found it within something like 36 hours of being released. She wasn’t even trying to find it, so it can’t be that hard. If I was interested, I could probably suss it out myself, but I’m not. I experienced nothing that could harm me, and I saw that damn hallway so many times I actually got bored. There is one moment in particular that I’m sure seriously affected a few players, but I couldn’t work up any more anxiety. For me, P.T. jumped the shark with the figure shrouded in darkness. You made me conquer my fear, guys, when you should have let it conquer me.

P.T., despite being just a teaser of the finished product, succeeds, at least to some extent, in all three of the areas we discussed earlier. You are fully disempowered from the get-go. No combat, no items to turn into explosives, nothing. They take something familiar, then twist it into something unknown, hitting the second requirement of uncertaintly. Most importantly, though, at least for the format chosen, they created the illusion of entrapment. Everything seems as though it is aligned in such a way as to never let you leave that hallway.

Where it eventually fails is the unknown, and it fails more in this regard the longer you play. You no longer question your lack of a health bar because nothing has attacked you. You don’t question what’s going to happen next, since you know you’ll end up in the same hallway again and something a little weirder than last time will probably happen.

If P.T. is the beginning of the game, you can count me out. I can’t imagine the scenario ending in any way that excites me, even if I did get to leave the hallway. My suspicion, though, is that it is more of a tech demo combined with a pledge to make something unlike anything we’ve seen before. If it is, I’m intrigued. This looks very much like something I could get really into, after the disappointment that has been basically every horror game since Resident Evil 3, but my expectations are so high. Horror has always been one of my favorite genres, but I got into these games at a time in my life where I scared more easily. I have never been afraid again like I was while running away from Nemesis.

Kojima and del Toro, I really feel like you’re on the right track, which I applaud you for. If I could recommend anything, it would be to have the courage to shorten it if you need to. Do it like the trailer: short and sweet. Give me eight to ten hours of unforgettable terror that I can relive with slight changes based on how well I understand the story as I repeat it. Hell, make it five hours long, if that’s all you can do and have it be truly scary. If you’re making it horrifying enough, we’ll elongate the experience ourselves. It takes time to wash the shit out of our pants.

Hyrule Warriors Review: Parts Make Sums

When I was a kid, I played games that made me feel things. Final Fantasy, Banjo Kazooie, Ocarina of Time, Silent Hill; these games evoked strong emotions that ran from face-melting awe to never-sleeping-again fear. I’m looking at you, Banjo Kazooie. Between Clanker and Snacker the Shark, I was well into my twenties before I slept a full night again. Through these games, I felt things I never could have dreamed of, before, as a kid living in the suburbs.

Hyrule Warriors doesn’t make me feel anything. That’s pretty cool, too.

Well, maybe that’s stretching it a bit. I didn’t feel nothing. The first time you let loose with a new combo, there is one feeling. Hilarity, as you watch dozens, sometimes hundreds, of enemies pinwheeling away from the crater you just blasted in the floor of the realm’s most sacred temple.

Ridiculous is what it is. Ridiculous in every way, really, which kind of contradicts its roots. It is a fusion of two very serious franchises: Zelda, which has always thought very highly of itself, an elderly poodle of a franchise, running about in circles in its same sailor costume as always; and Dynasty Warriors, whose True Tales of Feudal China are the perfect recipe for me to pass right out in the middle of a monologue. How did these games fuse into something that I would call “ridiculous?”

There’s a third agent at work, here. A catalyst, if you will. Team Ninja.

If you’ve played Dead or Alive, you know how downright brutal a virtual blow can feel, and Ninja Gaiden has showcased Team Ninja’s acumen in 3D, too. Dead or Alive 4 is nearly ten years old, yet I still wince when I think about some of Lisa’s particularly heavy hits, and I will never forget chaining together orbs with the Dabilahro to murder everything as quickly as possible and hopefully make it to the final boss in Ninja Gaiden. No moment in Hyrule Warriors ever quite surpasses the “true” Team Ninja games, and very few even come close, but the feeling is there. The sounds, the visuals, everything about the combat says to your enemies, “This is going to really hurt, man.”

The story is crap. Zelda disappears, Link is probably not that chosen one we heard about in the stories, but he might be a chosen one, friendships are made, bad guys are punched in the junk, same old story as every time since Link to the Past. If you don’t know what a Zelda story is going to be before going into it, you are not the target audience. You might still enjoy it, if you have any idea what the Zelda franchise is at all, or if you only played one or two of the games, but nostalgia is the real selling point, here. Until Nintendo has a serious paradigm shift regarding this franchise (and it is my sincere belief that they are slowly making their way toward it), you are not going to be wowed by the story of a Zelda game. I still stubbornly cling to the franchise and throw my money at it, but I am starting to miss the days when the story of a Zelda game was, “There’s guys out there, here, have a sword before you leave.”

The gameplay is pretty much Dynasty Warriors. If you haven’t played one before, imagine Starcraft with constantly-evolving objectives, but you only control one character instead of satisfying your God complex, you weird sicko. In the main story mode, or “Legendary Mode,” if you can bear to say that to your friends and family, you watch a cutscene explaining why everyone is wherever they are, you fight a large-scale battle on a sizable map, then you watch another cutscene telling you how awesome you were when you murdered those thousands and thousands of enemy troops.

If you’ve played a Dynasty Warriors game in the past, even once, you know exactly how this is going to play out. The first few missions do a great job of teaching you how to use the existing and new mechanics, so no one should have too much trouble figuring out how it works, whether they’ve played a Warriors game before or not. Within an hour, you’ll feel like a professional ethnic cleanser.

This is not exaggeration, in case you aren’t aware. Ethnic cleansing is the name of the game. The battles in this game involve thousands of participants on both sides. There is a counter for kills that only shows itself when you hit multiples of 50. There is that much killing. It’s not gory at all, but if you are such a delicate creature that a bloodless death in a video game bothers you, this one might actually kill you. Battles take about fifteen minutes, for the most part, and you can generally rack up the 1,000 kills you need to unlock the skill on your new sword in that time.

Concerning levels, there are 18 in the main story. Four of these are trips back to places you’ve already been, so we’ll call it 14. These levels appear every so often in the other modes, as well, but not often enough to be annoying, and there are several other smaller maps that I can’t just choose to play from a list, so they’re harder to quantify. I don’t find myself needing any more maps to stay engaged, though. I see them infrequently enough that I still have to navigate mostly with the minimap, and it always feels kind of fresh. Prolonged play would demand additional maps, but this is mostly a game I would play no more than once a week once the initial luster wears off, anyway. Future DLC will expand this stock a bit, but the true draw of the downloadable content for me is the promise of extra game modes and characters.

Ah, the characters. This far in, and this is the first time I mention them. This is because every other facet of the game is just passable. The maps look like Zelda on-screen, but Dynasty Warriors on the minimap. The upgrades are pretty much the same for every character, but you’ll get to grind out the materials thirteen times! Oh, Boy! The weapons are cool to look at, but miserable to farm up. The characters, though? Frickin’ art.

Most of the interaction you’ll have with a character before unlocking them is a little picture of them with text next to it telling you where to go, next. It seems aggravating, at first. They are one-dimensional and boring. But, it’s not called Hyrule Flawed Yet Strong Scholars, it’s called Hyrule Warriors. These characters didn’t come here to learn things about themselves so they can grow as people, they came here to join the army and murder everyone who opposes their nation. The only development they experience is the length of their combo. And hot damn, does it develop.

Combat is the character, here. This video shows something that words just can’t capture:

In case you are at work, or in a waiting room, or are a blind person who for whatever reason likes to have a machine read game reviews to them, this is Lana. She is a sorceress, and was created entirely for Hyrule Warriors. She fights using a… book? She doesn’t hit things with it, though, she’s a sorceress. What Lana does is summon walls. She has a couple combos that have her force-pushing a wall or two through her enemies, but they mostly just stand there. Her strong attack is this weird kick/dash thing, though, that, when aimed at one of her summoned walls, causes her to backflip impossibly high into the air, then blast the wall into shrapnel with her mind powers. No other character I’ve ever played as feels like this. Bayonetta comes close, or maybe using the nunchaku in Ninja Gaiden 2, but neither is quite as bonkers as summoning a cube to balance on top of so you can careen about drunkenly on top of it and roll it all over your foes until you blow it up like everything else you create.

Or, take Princess Ruto, for example. If you aren’t familiar with her character, she’s the Zelda franchise’s resident sexy fish lady. Traditionally, she swims around, looks like a fish person, and makes you feel really weird in a way you aren’t used to. That’s her character. Swimming and unwelcome sexual advances. In Hyrule Warriors, though, she is so much more. She is a dimension-trotting champion diver, using her power to slaughter hordes of enemy soldiers. She’s the sphere from Sphere, a firehose, and a wavepool all rolled into one. She, like all of the other characters, speaks to us with the elegance of her combat.

I’m not kidding. She actually uses portals that go, presumably, to her private diving pool, so she can dive down, leap out somewhere else, and repeat well past the point where a normal person would be sick. It’s absolutely incredible. Watch it:

The fighting in this game feels great. It’s pure, undiluted empowerment. If you only like games that make you earn your power through hours of suffering, keep moving. Or, lighten up. If you don’t you certainly won’t enjoy this one. Fighters begin overpowered, and just creep closer and closer to becoming Greek gods. Team Ninja has a tendency to swing pretty high on the empowerment scale, and Dynasty Warriors is possibly the most empowering action franchise of all time. Put it all together, and you get some of the coolest-looking, hardest-hitting, most fun-to-play combat I’ve seen in a while.

The fanservice in this game runs rampant, but it honestly improved the gameplay in a lot of ways. I had the controls set to “Zelda” mode, which approximates the controls of modern Zelda games, and puts most of the common actions on the same buttons as the main franchise. One of these buttons is a dedicated “item” button, which controls the many items you can cycle through in battle. These are all nods to the Zelda franchise, and they not only reference the franchise in obvious ways, they also add some more unique flair to the combat. The hookshot lets you zip around the battlefield and pull pesky fliers out of the sky, bows shoot arrows at things, like most bows do, and bombs blow up the rocks that hide items while launching baddies into the air. The story is clearly nothing but fanservice, but we already agreed that we would just kind of ignore the story.

Once you complete the main game, it is made abundantly clear to you, if you hadn’t gathered already, that there are four more characters to unlock. These are all found in adventure mode. This mode lays out the map from the first Legend of Zelda and has you slowly open it by completing challenges in the same engine as the story. These play out similarly to the missions in the main game, but with much simpler objectives that are less prone to changing throughout the quest. Some of them place restrictions or buffs on you, like the challenge in which all hits deal exponentially more damage than normal, both yours and the enemies’.

The game also sports a challenge mode, which has missions more comparable in length to the main story, but with the weirdness of the adventure maps. All modes are multiplayer capable, which is nice, but it has no online component, which is not nice. The couch multiplayer puts the player 1 screen on the WiiU’s gamepad, and player 2 gets the TV. The resolution drops for this to be possible, and framerate issues start to pop up, especially on the TV, but the setup is kind of a breath of fresh air. I threw away dozens of hours with a friend in the first weekend, talking smack into the wee hours while trying to rack up the higher kill count. It is purely co-operative gameplay, but a score counter like Super Mario 3D World would have been a welcome addition for the multiplayer, even if all I got was bragging rights. Half the fun of the first Super Smash Bros was trying to set new records for dozens of pointless stats, like top speed (you know, being bludgeoned through the air faster than your friends), most damage without dying, and fastest pitch (of the unfortunate friend who got the prize in being bludgeoned). These did nothing for the game, yet so much for the people playing it. We like numbers. We like it more when we have the biggest numbers. This is science.

All in all, this game fills a niche very close to my heart: bad day stress relief. Like Borderlands and Diablo, it’s hours of gleeful slaughter punctuated with fairly steady upgrades. Level up, upgrade skills, get better clubs to bludgeon bigger things. This one has a little more fanservice than most, but it’s lovingly-crafted fan service that never gets in the way of the gameplay. If anything, the nods to the Zelda franchise’s signature items have spiced up the old Warriors formula, and having Team Ninja around to spice up your combat never hurts, I suppose.

If you aren’t a Zelda fan, you might not enjoy Hyrule Warriors as much as someone like me, but it would still be fun to play for a while. Maybe play it at a friend’s place some night, if you’re really curious. I can, though, recommend it for just about anyone who enjoys Zelda and action games with light combat elements, even if you think you don’t like Dynasty Warriors games. It isn’t redefining genres or changing my worldview, but this Warriors game is just different enough that I don’t find it annoying. There, I said it. Score: “Not annoying” out of 10. If you know me at all, that’s about as glowing as I get.

Fine, 7.5/10. Thumbs up for combat, nostalgia, heart, and friendship, D- for innovation and story (story would have scored even lower if I hadn’t expected to be bored with it). Still better than Skyward Sword, though.