Destiny Review: Peter Dinklage, We Hardly Knew Ye

Destiny is a big-ass game. There’s a lot to get through and a lot to say about it. I’ll try not to waste any time, but I kind of have chronic dilly-dallying, so no promises.

Also, right out of the gate, I have to point out that I didn’t want to play Destiny, so I’m sorry in advance if I get a little negative about your favorite game. In fact, let’s make this pre-apology last until the end of time, because I don’t want to play most games, and I’m just kind of negative to begin with.

Here’s what I knew about Destiny ahead of time. It’s an MMO, but it’s not subscription-based, but it came out eight months ago and you have to pay $95 to not experience a castrated game, so it’s still just shy of $15 a month, anyway. Truth be told, I picked it up on a sale, and I haven’t bought the expansions, but the full experience costs about the same as any other MMO. I’m not big on MMOs to begin with, either. I’ve liked a couple and only loved one, Dungeons and Dragons Online. Quick shout-out to Turbine, the studio that created and maintains Dungeons and Dragons Online. I know we’ve had our differences, but you guys have the only MMO that still pulls at me. You fucked with my wings, though, and that gave me the anger I needed to stop playing, and whose fault is that? But, really, I love you guys. My infraction message from Cubethulu is one of my most cherished belongings. If you don’t know what I’m saying, I apologize, but it’s too weird and complicated to explain.

Destiny is an MMO made by Bungie, the studio that made Halo, possibly the most popular game of all time. So, we already have nostalgia and fanboyism playing into opinions on this game. On top of that, Activision, who publishes Call of Duty, which may be the most profitable franchise of all time, published this game, and enough people don’t know the difference between a developer and a publisher that a lot of them will think that this actually has a significant impact on the product. In case you don’t know what publishers do, I’ll give you a hint: They just added “er” to the word that describes what they do. They publish the game. They put it on a disc and put a fancy label on that disc, and then they put that disc in a case and send it to Walmart. Is that an oversimplification? Yes. Is it an egregious oversimplification? Not really. Sure, they can flex their muscles and insist certain things do or don’t happen, but publishers are not generally a driving creative force. Just a driving monetization force.

So, right away, off to a bad start. I have no love for Halo or Call of Duty (or as I like to call it “Getting Gullible People to Spend $100 Per Year on the Same Game as Last Year so They Can Keep Playing Pretty Much the Exact Same Game with All of Their Friends”). More love for Halo than CoD, though, which puts Destiny in a slightly better place. I at least kind of enjoyed my time spent with the first two Halo games, but not enough to go out of my way at all to play any other. The first scene with the Flood, though? Possibly the best moment of gaming in the early 2000s. A+ on that one, Bungie. Solid bit of storytelling, that. Not Half-Life good, but still good.

It’s pivotal to know that I’m just too busy for an MMO. I’ve played MMOs heavily, before, and I know what it generally takes to be able to do well at that. Between work and writing all of this boring shit that you must hate and why are you even still reading this when you hate me so much is it just to watch me fail, I get about two or three hours of free time a night. That’s often one raid, if everything goes swimmingly, and what’s the point of playing MMOs in the high level range other than raiding? Raid Nights are usually several raids long, around five to six hours, for the most part, and the late-night crew will almost always round that up to an even twelve or more. I could maybe do that on a Saturday, if I somehow didn’t have one of the usual obligatory functions and I did all the chores ahead of time and my fiancée was out of town and everyone in the house left me alone. In short, it is highly fucking unlikely. As such, this will be less a review of the game as a whole and more about how it appeals (or fails to appeal) to those who approach it casually. For people like me, who will never join a raiding guild unless it’s somehow in every game and it’s made up of only old MMO friends I like. For people who have a limited amount of free time and would like to play more than one game for the forseeable future. For people with jobs.

Lemme tell ya, it doesn’t start well. Right off the bat, it does a fairly good job of isolating a large part of its audience with a large install downloaded at glacial speeds from a server that really seems like it should be able to do this faster because it’s not launch week, any more. Now that I have played the game, I relize this is because Destiny does not have dedicated servers, and instead uses the default servers provided by whichever console you’re playing on. This is very unusual for an MMO, and while it is more elegant to log in this way, the download speeds for everything suffer.

Once you get past the install, though, I gotta say it’s pretty good. It has its problems, as all MMOs do, but it’s a damn fun shooter. I am wise to most of its tricks, but it still feels compelling enough that I fall for every trick. What sorts of tricks? My favorite (or least favorite, depending on how you look at it) is that, while leveling, all good gear drops at a level above you, which forces you to grind out a bit more experience so you can even equip it. I don’t like being tricked like that, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t better than having loot drop a level below you so it’s already obsolete when you get it.

This is indicative of the entire rest of the experience. Just a whole lot of grinding to get the things you want so that you can grind for slightly better things you want, and this is where discussing Destiny gets a little difficult. You see, there is no feasible way to cut down on the grind, shy of launching an awful lot of extra content. And, even then, it would still have to be a chore to get the good items, or people would get bored and stop playing.

Shit, I’m a thousand words in and we’re already tackling heavy issues regarding the core problems with all MMOs. Okay, I’ll commit and really go at it. Let’s get technical. And Mom, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain some acronyms so you can sort of understand what I’m saying.

MMO is short for MMORPG, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. World of Warcraft is far and away the most popular one, due to a combination of longevity of the game and people saying “I’ve put in too much time to quit, now.” I feel that, guys. Totally been there. When you play a game as much as a full time job and you know that each of those really great items you found took a 40-hour work week to earn, it becomes difficult to let go. We’re gonna try to avoid most of the high-level MMO-talk, since it gets so weird to look at, even for most players, but one concept we will be looking at in detail is the aforementioned “grind.” Simply put, “grinding” is the act of doing the same task over and over again in the hopes of being rewarded. This happens due to everyone’s favorite video game mechanic, the RNG, or Random Number Generator.

In Destiny, any time you accomplish a task or kill an enemy, the Great and Powerful Random Number Generator pops out a number between 1 and something like 216 million. I think. I’m not a Computer Numbers Scientist. With about 80% of the results, nothing happens. The remaining 20% is made up of a large range that awards you money, a small range that gives you guns and clothes, and an even smaller range that rewards you with these magical little boxes called “engrams.” Engrams are (don’t quote me on this) raw matter that hasn’t been told what to be, yet? You take engrams to the Grand Duke of Engramology to be “decoded” and he pops out mostly okay items, and hardly any truly bad ones and a decent number of truly useful collectables. So, that’s one level of grinding. Ideally, this will happen only automatically while accomplishing other tasks with far better rewards, but you have to understand that every single action has at least a small chance of dropping something rather good, forming a sort of light base layer of grinding on this big, grindy cake. Of course, if you do too many of the more exciting things, you will only have this base level of grind left, so it pays to keep it in mind.

On top of this grind is the slightly more meaty grind found in Faction Reputation. Reputation is earned through performing mostly repetitive tasks that tend to follow a “Fight some small guys, then a bigger guy, then a really big guy” formula, but these Strikes are mostly okay. Reputation reliably buys items just below the real top-shelf shit, so it pays to keep a lot around. There is a limit on how much of the currency used to buy these items can be earned in a week, which works well with what I want from this game, which is basically two or three nights a week and 5 or six hours on the weekend.

For the players that are more committed than me, the big, bad raids provide the third major form of grind, but I have my doubts about regularly entering raids in Destiny. A “raid” is an exceptionally hard quest that allows for a larger party. In Destiny, the normal party limit of three is doubled to allow up to six people to team up to tackle it. The very best rewards are found here, but (at least in the case of every raid I know of) the Almighty Random Number Generator still has a hand in this, and rewards are not guaranteed. Thus, you do them over and over again, which is the very definition of “grind.” Raids aren’t exactly my favorite, as they require an awful lot more teamwork and communication than I have energy for after a long day of teamwork and communication at work. I play games to not do that. Sometimes, a well-done cooperative shooter is fun, like Left 4 Dead, or Destiny, or-

Wait. Destiny is a good co-operative shooter? Wow. Yeah, it really kind of is. I’m having a hard time believing it, myself. That’s its saving grace in this ocean of grind. Even when wandering around the worlds with no party or grouped up with total strangers in the Strike Playlist, nearly every cooperative player interaction is a good one. Sure, every once in a while you’ll have the odd silent guy who fucks everything up, then abandons the group after the party wipe he caused, but even most of the silent guys are good at what they’re doing. And it’s easy to get good at what you’re doing, because it’s an awful lot of fun to play. The guns feel great, the jumping feels great, the jumping while shooting feels great, and the ironsights aiming to fall faster feels great. I go weak in the knees for games that bring me joy just walking around, and Destiny’s movement system feels so good it makes me a puddle on the floor. Every movement can be big and flamboyant if you want it to be, but it’s never too flamboyant, and it’s always relatively precise and easy to control. My Warlock has a glide as his main movement power, and it can send you hurtling in a semicircle arc with a 30 foot radius. It’s bananas. But, you retain at least a modicum of control in mid-air, you can hip-fire while you’re up there, and you can aim down the sights to make yourself drop like a rock. These jumps are large enough that you can regenerate your entire health bar in mid-air if you jump the right way. It’s fun. To me, at least. Who knows if I like what you like? Wait, YOU can know! I’m sure there’s a way to just read everything I’ve put up on the site in a row. Go read all of it and get a really great idea of where I’m coming from. I’ll wait.

Good, you’re back! Remember how I didn’t even talk about Mr. Torgue in that Borderlands review that had his name right in the title? What a weird decision! But, I stand by it. Torgue speaks for himself, and he really works best if he isn’t spoiled. Also, I’d nominate him for some kind of “All-Time Best Tertiary Character” award. He’s that good… And, since we’re already here and it has to be done, I’ll make the Borderlands comparison, since Borderlands, with its space theme and co-op and guns, is the closest thing to Destiny that really existed, before. For my money, Borderlands has the far-more-superior-than-anyone-should-be-comfortable-with story, but Destiny blows it away in terms of gunplay. Even the low-gravity shenanigans of the Pre-Sequel, while far more outlandish, pale in comparison to Destiny’s wide array of jumping and shooting.

I wasn’t really exaggerating when comparing the stories of the two games. Borderlands, even at its absolute weakest, has a much stronger story than Destiny. This is because Borderlands refuses to be an MMO, it sticks to more structured dialogue, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Bungie named their game’s primary antagonist “The Darkness” without a hint of irony. And the dialogue…

I don’t want to have the Dinklebot conversation, but we have to have it. I’ll keep it brief, since we’ve all talked this into the ground. In case this is the first time you’re reading anything about Destiny at all, and you’ve never played it, I’ll give you a brief run-down of how the story in Destiny plays out. Every single person who plays Destiny is the main character of his or her own adventure. All of them experience the story as though they are the main character. But, unlike most games that take this route, there is only one storyline and it is terrible. Every epic story trope is there: the aforementioned “The Darkness,” a sleeping guardian, a Queen whose brash head guard is also her brother, an ancient evil waiting at the bottom of a temple built for it, a prison filled with ancient evils… the list goes on. You’ve seen this all before a million times, and you just want to skip it. But, you can’t skip any of the cutscenes. You want to, every time, but Bungie says, “Fuck you, you can’t skip our cutscenes you ungrateful little shit. We paid top-dollar for Peter Fucking Dinklage, and you will listen to every word he says.”

That’s right. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Comedy will never be as funny as real life. Bungie hired Peter Dinklage, of Game of Thrones fame, the world’s most beloved tiny man (sorry, Verne Troyer; and Peter Dinklage, too, since I’ve never been in touch enough to know the right PC words to say, so I just calls ‘em like I sees ‘em and say things like “tiny man”), to play a role in their MMO, which is a style of game designed to expand over time. Not just that, but he voices the player character’s “Ghost,” a sort of digital guardian angel and constant companion. No lie, he is with you exactly one hundred percent of the time. And this seems like a really cool thing, at first! Permanent Peter Dinklage robot! That should be incredible! But, after a time, you come to two distinct realizations. First, you realize that you definitely won’t be getting as much Peter Dinklage dialogue as you want. I mean, he’s a busy guy. He can’t live in Bungie’s studio. There is no way he will be delivering as much dialogue as you’d hope. Second, his performance is… not so great. And I find myself blaming Bungie’s terrible ability to make decisions for this lackluster voice acting. I mean, Dinklage is great. That Drew Barrymore movie where he was a tiny attorney (Penelope, if you’re curious), was maybe not the best movie ever made, but Dinklage’s performance was downright chilling and hilarious. We know he is capable of greatness, so why is nearly every line he delivers in Destiny such utter shit? Well, primarily, the script is shit, and there’s only so much anyone can do with that. Also, I am currently operating under the assumption that Bungie, overwhelmed by his sheer star power, gave him hardly any direction. They must have known he didn’t have much time to record, so they handed him the script, gave him two words of instruction (“bored robot”), then let him do it all in one take. They must have thought we’d just be grateful to have Dinklage involved at all and we wouldn’t complain if the performance was sub-par. They were wrong. Oh, man, were they wrong. The community playing this game doesn’t seem as if they could care any less about Dinklage’s presence, and everyone noticed that Dinklebot keeps oddly silent through a lot of the expansion content, presumably due to the problem I mentioned previously wherein Peter Dinklage is a little too big-time to constantly record dialogue for an MMO. You thought it’d be great, but you were wrong. How very wrong you were, Bungie.

I’ve learned, through playing this game and becoming fairly involved in the community, that Bungie has been wrong about a lot of things, most notably The Taken King, the upcoming “expansion” to Destiny. I put this in quotes because it costs twice as much as any previous expansions, which indicates that it must be substantially different, despite having the same label. I’ll only talk about this vaguely, because it is absolutely dominating the internet right now. Google “Taken King drama” or go to reddit.com/r/destinythegame and spend any amount of time there if you crave more than what I’m giving you. If you’re reading this FROM THE DISTANT FUTURE, you’ll have to filter by date or something, I don’t know, you have more advanced technology than I do, fuckin’ figure it out yourself. This expansion has massively pissed off the community. Again, it costs more than the previous two expansions together and no one has any way of knowing if it is really worth that until it’s released. But, pre-ordering and buying the most expensive version of the game rewards early adopters with some pretty huge bonuses. Bear in mind, this is only the $80 version, which contains the base game and both of the previous expansions. So, the people who have supported Bungie from the beginning have to spend an extra $40 to just get these bonus items. It blew up very publicly, since the internet is a thing, now. This sort of blowup always happens in active gaming communities, and the dissent was so widespread that the game’s lead designer was drilled about it in an interview. Rather than try to minimize the problem or talk around it (or, you know, ideally offer to fix it), he basically held up a giant middle finger to the players that got him there and told them to fuck off and give him their money. It was bad. Apologies have been issued, but a lot of the core Destiny community seems to have checked out and is only sticking around to bask in the drama. I’m gonna try to illustrate a few things I’m not seeing mentioned, much, so bear with me. This is already even longer than normal.

The items that are exclusive to the most expensive version are divided into two camps: pointless bullshit and fucking game-breaking. The only part that Destiny’s lead designer deigned to speak of in the infamous interview was the pointless bullshit. He didn’t feel the need to address the fact that the expensive pre-order gives an effect to an otherwise worthless piece of gear. The Class Emblem gear slot in Destiny is a purely cosmetic item with a different look on each class. Hunters get sweet hoods, Titans get dresses, and my Warlock gets a stupid sweatband thing on his arm. They grant no bonuses. Even the small handful of emblems that do something just allow you to earn reputation at the same speed as normal (read: crazy slow) but for a different faction. No bonus. Just redirection. We’re all a little disappointed that they don’t do anything, but at least we’re all on equal footing. The expensive pre-order version of The Taken King comes with an emblem for each class that doubles experience earned.

Fucking. Doubles it.

You can talk all you want about experience not being overly valuable, but it still levels your new guns and earns Motes of Light even when your classes are maxed out, so it still has value, and allowing people who can justify spending an inordinate amount of money on content they already own to gain this sort of advantage over people who just can’t afford it is not very cool. You’re giving purpose to a piece of gear that never had it. It’s not just a really sweet piece of gear, it’s a bonus that hangs out without taking anything away. If it was a helmet that gave double experience but had terrible bonuses otherwise, that would be one thing, but there’s practically no drawback, here. Oh, you can’t earn reputation for other factions while wearing the double experience emblem? Who cares? The reputation rewards all suck, for the most part. There is practically no downside to wearing these exclusive items, and plenty of upside. THIS is the issue, Bungie. No one gives a shit about the new emotes. Do we want them? Yes. Are we upset about not getting them? Not really. And, we would throw money at the screen for the emblems. We really probably would. But, you insulted all of us in the process of explaining why we should throw money at our screens, and that’s the beginning of the end.

What a side note. Sorry about that. I get mad when people don’t see the problem. Score time? Score time. But, to make the score make sense, I’ll score some other MMOs. World of Warcraft is a 2/10 for me: 4/10 solely based on the amount of content, but 0/10 for how much fun I have playing it. I just hate every single mechanic. City of Heroes was a 4/10 for me, and it’s one of my favorites: A solid 6/10 for the fun-to-play factor, but held back by overall jankiness and the story’s presentation (still a great story and fantastic dialogue at times, but the pre-full-voice-acting days were rough). Dungeons and Dragons Online is a solid 7/10 for me: both story and gameplay sitting at that 7 level.

I call Destiny a 5 or 6/10. But, I quantify that by saying it’s one of the best 5 or 6/10 games I’ve ever played. I rated Assassin’s Creed 4 as a 7.5/10, and I’d rather play Destiny any day. The gameplay is 10/10, and the multiplayer aspects all work great. That damn story and Bungie’s handling of… everything… drags that score down, though. It looks and plays like a dream, but holy hell, I cannot watch any more of those cutscenes. If the game survives long enough to get a decent amount of content, I may revisit this score, but it’d take a miracle.

Pokémon Rumble World Review: I should hope it’s obvious I don’t really work at Nintendo

Hello, everyone. I’m Reece Real-Employee from Nintendo with a very special message for you about Pokémon Rumble World. It’s a brand new game, available right now on the Nintendo 3DS e-Shop, and it has everything you want in a game!

You want bare-bones gameplay? Pokémon Rumble World has that. You want microtransactions? It has those, too. You want cheap, one-hit kills that will force you to pay real-world money to avoid wasting your own time? You better believe it has that. Welcome to the Video Game New World Order, where every game will have a timer on every activity and, for the low, low price of two cents (every time it happens, and it will happen a lot… I mean, like, way more than however much you’re thinking), you can hop right back into the action instead of waiting 2 hours for your turn!

“But, Reece, how are these obviously exciting things possible?” Glad you asked, me. This is possible because of a resource that you can acquire at an agonizingly slow rate in-game called “Poké Diamonds.” We couldn’t be bothered to give them a more interesting name or even think to call them by the same name as an existing resource from the franchise because we were too busy reading this copy of “How To Make a Mobile Game that Looks and Works Exactly Like Every Other Bullshit Free-to-Play Game and Rob a Small Handful of People Who Literally Cannot Help Themselves Blind in the Process!” which we got from the same store that we got “How To Use as Little of the Power at Your Fingertips as Possible When Developing Video Games.” And it worked! This game looks like absolute shit compared to most of the rest of what’s available for the 3DS, and no amount of Poké Diamonds can improve it. Poké Diamonds are used for almost every common action in the game, and drop rates are kept conveniently low so you have more opportunities to buy them at roughly a penny apiece in the e-Shop! It’s a win/win! For us!

Sound appealing? You can show us at Nintendo how much this appeals to you RIGHT NOW by downloading Pokémon Rumble World and spending hundreds of dollars on gems to buy backgrounds that match your shittily-rendered, barely animated Pokémon so you can take EXTREMELY EXCITING pictures of them! Have a Voltorb you particularly like? Spend a dollar on a soccer background so you can pretend you’re kicking the shit out of him! Love Audino, but frustrated that they’re never in Pokémon centers where their healing asses belong? Buy a hospital background and pretend that that’s a solution! With so many Pokémon and classy-ass backgrounds available, the options are nearly limitless.

“But, Reece, it only seems as though there are roughly enough items to buy to add up to about fifteen or twenty dollars, and that seems like just a reasonable price for a download-only 3DS game. Why didn’t you call it good there and charge us twenty dollars so we don’t have to buy everything piecemeal?” Well, Valued Consumer, if we’d done that, then we couldn’t charge you two cents every time you died or, heaven forbid, wanted to actually play the fucking game you paid for. Now, we can view it as still being our game, since you didn’t pay for it, and that makes it easier for us to rationalize charging admission! No, idiot, there is so much more that you will have to pay for in this game. Died? Two cents to pick a new Pokémon and keep going. If you don’t pay, you lose everything and go back to town and you can’t do that level again for two hours. “But, Reece, what if I want to play the level again, now, instead of waiting two hours, because, you know, this is a video game, not a trip to the DMV?” An excellent and on-point question, imaginary audience member, and the answer bolsters my excitement for this game as well as the point I was making, anyway! You can pay another two cents to eliminate the artificial timer and play the game you’ve been trying to play this whole time! CONVENIENT!

Yes, finally, a Pokémon game for people who are too dumb for Pokémon games. Here at Nintendo, we heard what our fans asked for and we gave it to them. Here is list of concerns that we addressed with Pokémon Rumble World:

“Choosing just six Pokémon for my party is too overwhelming!” Here, scroll through a list of hundreds of Pokémon every time one gets low on health! That sounds way easier, right?

“Four moves is confusing. Can you maybe slim it down to just two moves per Pokémon?” Shit, we’ll do you one better and make half of them show up with only one move!

“My Mii is getting pretty lonely. He should be able to stand next to a fucking store and do nothing while weird-looking Pokémon do even more nothing near him.” WE DID EXACTLY THAT, JUST FOR YOU, VALUED CUSTOMER!

“I love making divine entities do embarrassing things, but Pokémon-amie only gives me like seven or eight options for mortifying the Pokémon Gods of space, time, life, death, etc. If only there was a game designed specifically for my stupid face.”

WELL, IDIOT, THERE IS. It’s called Pokémon Rumble Blast, and it has so many pointless animations that you won’t even think about Pokémon-amie any more. Who needs cupcakes when you can watch the world’s shortest game of hide-and-seek any time you want? No one, that’s who. Fuck cupcakes.

We know that you’re already done with Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and hungry for more, but it’s getting harder and harder to write games with negligible stories, so, rather than strain ourselves, we’ve hired a studio called Ambrella to make another game that you’ll play because you’re a weirdly co-dependent dumbass who can’t go more than an hour without taking care of some sort of digital pet. They’re the studio that made “Hey You, Pikachu!” a game about yelling at your Nintendo 64, so this game is guaranteed to be a hit! It’s all the fun and social aspects of Farmville, but with a Pokémon motif instead of something you can play without having to be afraid that hoodlums will view you as the weakest target, as well as resource-management that can be bypassed with your hard-earned money!

We here at Nintendo sincerely believe that you don’t know how to play video games, so we made this game even easier to play than the previous Pokémon Rumble games! Having trouble pushing the A button? Great! This game defaults to a setting called “auto-attack,” which makes your Pokémon attack whatever your palsy-stricken fingers happen to randomly point the analog stick toward all by itself, so you won’t miss out on one second of giving us your money, even if you are differently-abled!

“But, Reece, can I pay real-world money to unlock content that should have been available in the first place?” Of fucking course you can. We only started you off with three levels, so you better believe you can get in on all the content-purchasing action as soon as you load up the game for the first time! We’ll even give you the first gems for free then slowly increase the price over time, to really make it sink in that we are the pusher and you are the addict. Honestly, this moral position is really liberating! As long as we keep thinking of you as dirty fucking addicts, we don’t have to feel bad about these predatory business practices that prey primarily, not on the addicts I mentioned (that’s you, in case you forgot, you fucking addict), but on children, instead. It’s just like the drug war!

I… I mean… Where was I? OH RIGHT, GIVE US YOUR MONEY. I LOVE THIS GAME SO MUCH. ABSOLUTE TEN OUTTA TEN. PUT IT ON YOUR 3DS, THEN BUY EVERYONE ELSE IN YOUR FAMILY A 3DS SO YOU CAN ENGAGE IN ABSOLUTELY NO MULTIPLAYER MODE AT ALL BECAUSE THIS IS A FUCKING FREEMIUM GAME AND WE DON’T HAVE TO TRY TO WIN YOU OVER WITH GOOD MECHANICS OR FUN FEATURES WHEN YOU’LL JUST THROW MONEY AT IT, ANYWAY.

Pokémon MOTHERFUCKING RUMBLE BLAST: Because, here at Nintendo, we think all of our customers are goddamn morons.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, man, I can not keep that up any more, and the sarcasm doesn’t play for what I have to say last, in summation. But, don’t worry, I’m still very fucking angry.

Nintendo, get it together. Sure, it’s cheaper than most games this malicious, but that doesn’t mean there is no malice in its design. You’re robbing people in the present at the expense of your future and you don’t seem to see it. You were supposed to be the good guys. You were supposed to be a bastion of quality standing against a sea of day-one patches and shitty download-only titles. You were supposed to be the ones who didn’t nickel and dime us with paid content like every other fucking developer. You were supposed to be the immovable wall between us and the money-grubbing shovelware enthusiasts at Treyarch and Ubisoft Montreal and DICE, but you’re becoming just like them. Worse, even, you have a full-on freemium game going on, here, and one that uses all of the nastiest tricks in the freemium book to part people with their money.

I did purchase gems from the store, using the two “introductory” packages or whatever they’re called. They are the same as two of the cheapest packs of gems, and they are half-off one time only. I paid less than two dollars, I was able to buy access to about two-thirds of the levels, and I even had about seventy cents worth of normally-priced gems left. But, they didn’t last long. One could try to carefully ration them, but many bosses will leap across stages and do lethal amounts of unexpected damage. Very few people would be able to make the choice to lose everything they’d just earned instead of paying the two cents to keep going. It’s even easier than actually spending two cents, though, because you paid for the gems long before you spent them, ideally. That gap in time creates a sort of disconnect, where the money doesn’t really feel like money, any more. It’s been Poké Diamonds for so long, you’ve forgotten that it was ever money at all, or that this is the twentieth time you’ve paid to stay alive in a game where you already had to pay for the individual fucking levels, and that makes forty cents worth of staying alive, which means that that miserable minute and a half you spent at work getting yelled at by your boss today was a complete waste because you spent that money on dying in a freemium game on your beloved portable gaming system.

There is little to no playing this game without spending money on it. Poké Diamonds are quite rare in the game and the timer on levels means that, if you try to earn them without buying them, you will either be completely enslaved to a schedule revolving around your 3DS, or it will take you months to be able to afford the later levels. This is the worst kind of game, and Nintendo, you should be ashamed to put your name on it. It’s not even trying to pretend to be a real game. It is unabashedly a phone game, and I want my two dollars back.

Zero out of ten. Like, negative twelve hundred out of ten. It’s not fun. It’s hardly even a game. It’s just a gaping hole for you to endlessly throw your money into, two cents at a time.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review: Kitty Cat Battle Royale

The Monster Hunter games are pretty polarizing. I performed an experiment while writing this review, and asked all of my gamer friends what they thought of the franchise. The results were this: everybody hates it (or is indifferent toward, or unaware of, its existence) except for the slim handful who are actually right and love it. No, really. Only the opinions of those select few are right.

Not one person falls in the middle in my circle of friends. No one says, “Yeah, I play it every once in a while;” it’s either all-out, ravenous fandom, or it isn’t on their radar at all. Those who do like it also tend to like Demon’s Souls and its ilk, so there’s an easy correlation. The Souls games are equally as polarizing and difficult to get into. However, I think that Monster Hunter 4 will be the iteration to break the cycle. That’s what we’re focusing on, today. Rather than looking at this game on its own, we’re gonna talk more about what sets it apart from previous entries, and why someone who didn’t like the older games might like this one.

Let’s jump right into it.

Monster Hunter is a game. You hunt monsters. That’s pretty much all there is to it. At least, that’s all there is to it when I have to bottom-line the game. The devil’s in the details, though, and Monster Hunter doesn’t fuck around as far as its details go. You play as a hunter-gatherer in a village whose greatest technological advancement is being able to roast two steaks over a campfire at the same time. Their biggest exports are grass and bugs, and their political system is based entirely around who has the largest animal skull in his or her hut. Impressive stuff, right? This setting provides the context. Sure, you could still set a game about hunting giant monsters in a technologically-advanced world, but you’d have to dig pretty deep in your bag of plot to give me a compelling reason to root around in piles of mushrooms all day.

If this sounds appealing to you, you’re probably correct. This game is all about the survival, and we’ve had a lot of opportunities recently to play games that have taught us just how fun survival can be. Forget to eat, and you won’t have any energy to run around. Forget to pick flowers, and you won’t have enough potions to carry you through the next quest. Every action you take is a small step toward surviving just one more monster. This feeling dissipates as the game progresses and you gain new and interesting ways to acquire materials, but the beginning of the game sets the tone for the rest, and that tone boils down to surviving.

Here is what should interest you if you aren’t compelled, already: Multiplayer, plot, and tutorials.

If you’ve played any Monster Hunter games, you know that multiplayer has always been the primary driving force for the game, and the other two concepts are weirdly missing. We’re gonna take a serious look at these three things to see if maybe you’ll finally try out a Monster Hunter game and pick up 4 Ultimate.

First, multiplayer. Suffice to say that if you have a friend who you regularly play games with and they want you to play it with them, you will probably enjoy it. My fiancée finally started playing with me, and she is clearly getting some kind of emotional high from it. She’ll correct me if I’m wrong once she reads this, but she always has a very strong reaction to seeing a new monster for the first time. That reaction is something like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT HOW DO WE KILL IT OH GOD WE’RE GONNA DIE.” The first few monsters are unnervingly large on their own, but by the time you defeat three or four, the rest are downright terrifying to behold. The Tetsucabra is the first truly large monster you have to face in MH4U, and it is easily five times the size of the next largest monster you’ve gone up against before facing it. The shock factor is very real and it never stops. I’ve gotten through most of the single-player story at this point, and one monster in particular, the Najarala, is so large that I am still afraid of it.

This fear, though, only lasts for so long in multiplayer play. Since the game is split between the single and multiplayer experiences, one player will almost always have more time spent on the game than the others, and it’s difficult to be too terribly afraid of the giant rattlesnake attacking you when your more confident friend is riding its back and stabbing it in the neck. This split in experiences is one of Monster Hunter’s big draws, from my point of view. No village upgrades are gained in multiplayer, which keeps you playing the solo campaign, and all of the biggest fights are missing from the campaign, which keeps you playing multiplayer quests. Each method of play rewards you in different ways. Great design, all around. The long and short of it is that the multiplayer hasn’t changed at all. If you’ve played these games before, you know that’s a good thing, and if you haven’t, take our word for it. Best of all, as has been the case in the past, if you’re really confident in your gear and skills, you can even tackle the multiplayer quests on your own, providing an extra layer of challenge to an already challenging game.

The challenge of the game leads us to my next point: tutorials. Those of you who have played prior Monster Hunter games without playing the new one are probably pretty confused, right now. “Reece,” you’d say, I’m sure, “tutorials have no place in a Monster Hunter game,” and you’d be right. In the past, you had to essentially run your own tutorials and learn how the game worked through trial and error. In Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, though, you can learn so fucking much about the weapons and the world you live in. The first tier of quests is entirely comprised of tutorial quests, from how to make potions, to how to grill steaks, to how each of the weapons work. This is good, because the already complicated combat became even more complicated this time around. I chose the Insect Glaive as my primary weapon, because I heard it allowed one to pole-vault and that sounded pretty awesome. I can now confirm that pole-vaulting is, in fact, extremely awesome, but I couldn’t sort out how to do it on my own right away, and had to resort to playing the Insect Glaive tutorial mission to figure it out. Not only did it teach me the skills needed to effectively use the weapon, it also let me put those skills to the test against a very weak monster, and it didn’t make me fight for a terribly long time once I’d figured it out. Within minutes, it was over, and I was quite grateful for the fast-track book-learnin’ I’d acquired.

So, the multiplayer, the most important part of the game, is intact, and tutorials abound where they did not, before. This is good news, but the biggest complaint I hear from detractors is that Monster Hunter doesn’t do it for them from a story standpoint. And, to be perfectly honest, I can agree with them. Lucky for everyone, then, that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has more story than any previous game in the series. Nearly every other improvement we’ll be talking about falls into this category, so brace yourself for just an absolute shitload of words. We have much to discuss.

Those of us who love this franchise have certain expectations about the dialogue. We expect that it will be well-written, but ultimately needless and forgettable. As with Fantasy Life, which I reviewed, previously, you wouldn’t be missing much if you mashed buttons to skip past the dialogue, but you’d enjoy it if you took the time to read it.

MH4U is still like this to some extent, but after the first several cutscenes, you will actually be interested in what’s happening and invested in your character. Your hunter still has no dialogue at all; spoken lines will be handled by the much more fleshed-out supporting characters in your caravan. However, almost all of the cutscenes are done in the game engine, so it is your hunter who will appear, along with your weapons and armor. This allows for something new, as far as your hunter is concerned: characterization. For the first time, I find myself wondering who my hunter is. Even though the hunter does not speak, you will still get something of a feel for his or her personality. This is primarily communicated non-verbally, obviously, with your hunter’s posture and actions communicating a very capable, yet cautious personality. These characterizing cutscenes primarily occur when encountering a new monster for the first time, and your hunter acts quite rationally. No fear is evident, but you also won’t see him or her blindly running at a monster, sword raised to the heavens. He or she is right in the middle. Your hunter values careful observation over improvisation and courage over heroics. Let’s face it, the Palicoes provide the heroics, here.

I’m gonna piss off a lot of people when I say this, but Palicoes were fucking worthless before this game. I know they were around, before, and they had most of the same function, but holy shit, they function so much better, now. Not only has their AI been improved, there are also so many of them, now, and they have so many fucking outfits. I spend at least 30 minutes playing dress-up with my cats every time I turn the game on, and I love every second of it.

Palicoes are just what they sound like: calico cats that are your pals. They can come along with you on hunts, providing extra damage, healing, support, or all three while you fight, as well as picking up extra loot for you. More importantly, though, they provide the majority of the compelling story. When you reach the third city (yeah, more than one city to live in; I know, it’s a lot to handle), a Palico will approach you and ask for your help in protecting the Palico village. You do so, and gain the ability to hire additional Palicoes who your main Palico can take under his wing and teach the ways of the cat. These kitties live on Sunsnug Isle when they aren’t palling around with you, and Sunsnug Isle is the single most important location in the game.

To illustrate this, I’m gonna take you through my thought process, which means we’re gonna have to look back at another game I’ve reviewed previously with a similar mechanic: Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag. Black Flag has this odd little system tacked on to it in which you build a fleet. You send these ships out to earn resources that can only be used on upgrading these theoretical, only-seen-on-paper ships, so they can be better at going out and earning Paper Ship Dollars, so you can upgrade more ships to go out and earn more Big Ship Bucks to upgrade your ships. I could go on for hours. And so could the armada minigame in Black Flag. And both would have just as much point.

Monster Hunter 4 has a minigame that initially feels similar, called goddamn (no lie) Meownster Hunters. This “minigame” (and I use the term very loosely) allows you to send up to five of your gotta-catch-‘em-all Palicoes on adorable little hunts acted out with adorable little puppets so they can get adorable little loot drops to make adorable little weapons and armor. Initially, this feels a bit like the armada bullshit from Black Flag, since this system is almost entirely self-contained, until you realize that these weapons and armor have stats and they don’t just look adorable (which, let me be clear, they definitely do), they also improve the combat prowess of your furry friends. This is particularly awesome because you can take up to two of the Palicoes with you on quests. If we take this comparison to its logical conclusion, that’s like Black Flag’s Edward taking two pirate ships along with him into the house where his next assassination target waits. The power boost from two well-equipped Palicoes isn’t quite that overwhelming, but it is noticeable. And, in case I haven’t been one hundred percent clear, the Palico weapons and armor are so adorable that you absolutely will baby-talk your 3DS. I’m talkin’ little wizard hats and monster costumes and tiny versions of armor your hunter can wear. Yes, that means you and your cat friends can match. Absoloutely incredible. Kitty-Cat Dress-Up Simulator is worth the forty bucks, alone.

The more cohesive story has also served to give the quests a better flow that draws you through the campaign more thoroughly than before. Each city has its own Big Bad for you to Take Care Of, which clears up the awkward situations we used to have, where we’d find ourselves fighting yet another monster that had supposedly somehow caused all of the village’s problems. In addition, most of the village upgrades have been relocated to side-quests, instead of the resource-burning Villager Requests of yesteryear. The Villager Requests are still around, but they are much fewer and further between and you won’t find them inconveniencing you like they did in the last game. Instead, most requests will be handled by fighting some new monster, and you’ll get to watch one of the stellar cutscenes while you do it, and you’ll feel much more rewarded than if you’d simply walked up and put all of your rarest rocks in a box.

The biggest draw for me is that there seem to be a lot more monsters to fight, this time around. And great strides were taken to ensure that at least the items that every monster drops are in the game. Sadly, many of them (particularly the aquatic monsters of Monster Hunter 3) do not appear in the game, partly because of the lack of underwater segments, but mostly (I assume) because there just isn’t enough damn space on the cartridge. I think everyone is impressed with the way they still managed to make the Plesioth appear, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling it, but if you really want to know, just google the same thing you googled to find this review and click any other link. I’m sure everyone else will tell you about how great the Plesioth is.

In case I glossed over that too much, there is no underwater combat in Monster Hunter 4. The third game was very focused on the underwater fighting, and I liked it a lot, but it has been replaced with real, honest-to-goodness vertical design and movement, and I like that a lot more. Climbing and jumping off things are more fun than they’ve ever been, and combat was smoothed out so that you can attack in midair and continue your combo once you hit the ground. This is the cornerstone of my favorite new mechanic: mounting. Much like Dragon’s Dogma or Shadow of the Colossus, you can climb on enemies and stab them in the back to bring them down. This is accomplished through leaping through the air, hitting the monster while airborne, then playing a very small minigame in which you must balance stabbing them until they fall with hanging on for dear life. If your friends hit you while you do this, they could knock you off the monster’s back, but many of these monsters are large enough that this is not an overly large risk. And the payout for success is staggering. Literally. It has always been possible to knock monsters over in previous games, and it can still be done in Monster Hunter 4 without mounting, but the length of time to beat the downed monster’s ass is significantly increased if you mount it to do so. A new weapon, called the Insect Glaive, was introduced to help facilitate this. If you are unsure which weapon to use when starting, pick this one. The Insect Glaive is a big-ass stick you hit things with and a big-ass bug that rests on your arm until you send him out to attack and buff your character. More importantly, though, the Insect Glaive allows you to pole-vault, which marks the first time that a Monster Hunter game has allowed us to jump at will. Why would you want to do this? To get on the monster’s back, dummy, and then beat them senseless. Even in multiplayer, when you have to announce to the group that you are mounting something so your friends don’t knock you the fuck off, everyone seems to recognize the power increase the glaive provides, and respectfully gives you the room you need to do it. The glaive isn’t entirely needed for this shenanigans, though it is very helpful. If you’re married to a certain type of weapon, you can always climb a wall and jump off to mount monsters, or your hammer-wielding buddy can launch you through the air with his base combo, or you can wait it out and hire a “Launching” Palico later on who will toss you around all you want.

So, that’s it. I could gush for a while about all of the changes I think have really improved the formula, but it wouldn’t serve to convince you, much. I hesitate to score this game, because some people will still have a difficult time figuring out the controls, and if you don’t have friends to play with, it simply won’t be the same. I’m gonna say it in caps, now, too, in case you skipped to the end to see the score, and why would you do that? Go back and read it. I probably said mean things about a game you like, and I’m one of those people who likes to see you squirm. Anyway, what I want to say is:

THIS GAME HAS A SERIOUS LEARNING CURVE. IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO SPEND AN HOUR OR TWO EDUCATING YOURSELF AND PRACTICING THE COMBAT, YOU WILL FAIL AND YOU SHOULD CONSIDER NOT BUYING THIS GAME.

If, however, you’re willing to put up with that, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a solid 9.5/10, in my book. We could still use a little more story, but it’s not an absolute must when the combat and crafting systems are exactly as robust as they’ve always been. This will definitely do, for now.

NHL 15 Review

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the bottom of the 9th and we have a barnburner here at the ballpark! In a tie game, with a runner on 2nd, EA Sports is up to bat. He digs into the box… the pitch…! And it’s a weak ground ball to short and he’s out at first.

In fairness… It wasn’t a strikeout. They at least made contact.

Let’s begin by me asking for forgiveness from my obviously bored readers for a sports analogy from a different game than the topic of the review. I truly have no excuse for my actions.

I’m going to open my discussion on the game with how the game opens to the user. An oddly structured, casserole of a menu is presented that ends up having the same (basic) options that many sports-sims do. Your franchise mode is there, creating a prospective player and, of course, quick play to just play once with a friend and call each other turd-gobblers.

EA did something with this game, at the beginning of the experience, which many of these types of games have failed to do in the past – an actual tutorial walk through of the controls in an in-game fashion. Sure, 2k and other developers have thrown in a warm-up game for you to munch on while the game itself installs but, if we’re honest with each other, how advantageous is that? You’re playing as an entire team is these warm ups. With no real guidance or direction, a mass trial-and-error process ensues. Many of the controls aren’t even going to be messed with in those types of introductions. Ultimately, you know you’re not posting up as Steph Curry, or King James – why even try the shoulder buttons – just pull up for a jumper and kill some time.

What EA does is going to be an underappreciated piece of this game. The first time a user logs into the game (take advantage, it won’t come back) in any mode, you are thrown into a one-man crash course of game mechanics. The nice gentleman comes onto the empty-arena speakers, “Now we’re going to see if you can perform a Slap-shot!” Condescending? Sure. But what do you care?! It’s teaching you how to truly play the game successfully and maximize your experience. It even delves into details that I had forgotten were possible with NHL style games. Shot and even pass placement are major focuses along with developing a feel for how a player moves on the ice. It teaches everything about the game’s wacky controls – which we can talk about later. It may be therapeutic.

Like many people that play sports games with an odd combination of “devoted” and “casually” as I do, the main mode of EA Sports’ new project, NHL 15 is the “Live the Life” mode. Sure, this game (nor any other sports game) will not and likely never will live up to the single player mode of the now legendary MLB The Show.

It does however make a fairly solid attempt at The Show’s model and player creation. A start-as-an-amateur timeline is put into place for your place where you initially choose your junior hockey path of WHL or some other garbage Canadian league. The process is appealing and challenging to build a career and, to some degree, dictate how well you’ll do in the draft.

A situation presents itself to give you no attachment to this team at all. With The Show, success came from the fact that you could be placed at the AA level as a baseball player, and actually care how that team does during the season. Because, hey, who knows how long you’re going to be there? In this bizarre, wildly impersonal situation, you’re put onto a team with 3 games to play in the regular season. Yet, seemingly, the ENTIRE season is based on those 3 games. You decide the fate of the Regina Camel-Toes or whatever the hell team you decide to hitch your wagon to. If (god forbid) you win two or even three of those games, you’ll likely be put into the playoffs for the league you chose – which I guarantee has a playoff trophy named after a Canadian with a goofy name.

That’s neither here nor there. Once you’ve made your way through the handful of games you have for the team you don’t care about, you start the draft process. You’ll do a mock couple of questions for teams where you’re slated and there will be only one good answer of the four choices. Fuck up if you don’t want to play for that team, ultimately.

We can spend some time talking about actual game play as I know most reading have probably been yelling about. If I were asked to sum it up in a word, it would be “eh”. Mostly because of the gameplay itself, but partially as a respectful vernacular not to our Canadian brothers.

Ultimately, the main complaint I have is the lack of control with the user’s skater. Skating is this odd amorphous blob of tough-to-change velocity and direction. In our Live the Life mode, the CPU (at least on the low setting I’m playing on) assists with ice position. An arrow pops up under the user to guide them. If I were to guess.. I’ve been in good position about 4% of the time. So, most of the time I’m skating to wherever the hell I’m supposed to be and over-shoot it due to the lack of control you seem to have.

The basic controls also have a few flaws. Namely, and not to rant, but WHY THE FUCK ISN’T THE A OR X BUTTON DEVOTED TO PASSING!!! This is how sports games have existed since the damn pilgrims landed and Normandy or whatever. Instead, it’s a right shoulder button and doesn’t (initially) mold well with the game. In fairness, I’ve put 10 to 12 hours into the game on an overall level thus far, and I have gotten used to it. When I go back to NBA 2k, I will likely throw a fit. Article forthcoming.

I digress. Back to our “Live the Life” Mode. The menu itself in the mode is somewhat of a confusing hodge-podge. There’s a calendar centered at the top, but only for the coming week. Surrounding it is some stats and reactions to previous performances of your player. The bottom right panel of the menu is the one I want to focus on. This is where you are able to see Fan, Management, Team and Family reaction to recent performances and public interactions made by your player. Sport-sims have done this, or a version of it, forever. You answer a question correctly in an interview, fans and management like you. Perform well on the ice, team likes you. But why is family one of these categories? I haven’t yet reached the sub-game mode where I return home from the arena at night to a house with 3 screaming toddlers and a wife claiming “YOU DON’T DO ANYTHING TO HELP ME WITH THIS!!” But again, I’m only 10 to 12 hours in.

One of the other modes is an interesting idea of playing as a “legend”. This, on the surface, is a decent idea. Let’s allow users to go back and play as players they remember watching or, even, learn about players they have heard other generations talking about. However, there are three… THREE.. players available to play as. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemeux and Cammi Granato. Three. Not thirty. Three. A wise woman once told me, “Hey! Go wake up your grandfather, we’re going to Perkins.” EA Sports should have had someone give them this advice. Not because they necessarily needed delicious pancakes, but because they needed something else to do instead of putting a half-assed effort into what could have been a GREAT game mode.

The final mode I’ll cover briefly is what is traditionally known as franchise mode in other sports-sims. It’s labeled as “Be a GM Mode” in NHL 15. An interesting take on the franchise cookie cutter and more for the veteran players and hard-core hockey fans. It caters to the NHL guru’s who know all 30 rosters and how to build an empire with those pieces. The one (and fairly substantial) problem is the fact that you don’t have the ability to play, or sim, a full NHL length 82 game season. You are able to select 25 games as a maximum length and decrease by incriments of 5 if necessary. This leads me to believe one thing – The game mode wasn’t meant for gameplay at all. It was truly meant to build and sim. Draft and wait. Trade and cross-your-fingers. When you read “Be a GM Mode” on the menu, take the advisement (not good, bad or otherwise) that that’s EXACTLY what you’ll get.

The gameplay along pregame and postgame scenes obviously look stunning. No game that doesn’t even makes it to the shelves these days. But don’t buy it thinking you’re walking into a flawless hockey sim. The game, across most chains and smaller sellers, has lowered from the opening $60 to $50. However, as fun as it is at some points, I’m not putting a stamp of approval down for that price. I, as it should be noted, am a much, MUCH bigger basketball fan than a hockey fan. So, NHL 15 and its intricacies are subject to be lost. But for the common man, wait for one more price drop. Like I said, EA Sports didn’t strike out, but they didn’t knock it out of the park.

Saints Row – Gat out of Hell: There will be no Meatloaf jokes in this review

You guys probably don’t know me well enough to understand what a big day this is for me, but Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is out, and I am typing words that will, hopefully, say something about it.

I love these games. The Boss is right up there among my all-time favorite video game psychopaths, right up there with Brick, Cloud, and Toad (those evil eyes… nothing but pupil). I love Saints Row for so many reasons, from the near-perfect gender equality, to the almost endless character customization, to the absolute disregard for video game norms.

When THQ went under, I thought the 3rd Street Saints were gone forever. I also thought the Darksiders franchise was gone forever, but I didn’t care so much about that. I like War and Death fine enough, but The Boss, Pierce, and Shaundi are practically close, personal friends of mine, where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are more acquaintances. I was particularly sad considering how downright amazing the third Saints Row game had been. None of us had thought that Volition could possibly make a better game than Saints Row 2, and they’d proven us so very wrong.

You see, the primary concept to understand with these games is escalation. Unlike the teams making the games that provided the inspiration for Saints Row (which is pretty much just Grand Theft Auto), the team that makes Saints Row feels the compulsion to make each game more ridiculous and over-the-top than the one before it. GTA does the exact opposite, striving for more and more realism with each iteration. I don’t have a problem with this. In fact, I applaud Rockstar on this effort, if for no other reason than because they actually seem to be succeeding in making their games more realistic. However, I appreciate the absolutely bananas gameplay of Saints Row far more. The sheer complexity of the Chiliad Mystery has kept me fairly interested in GTA V for the last year and a half, but Saints Row has kept me playing their games on a regular basis with nothing more than a giant dildo and The Boss’s all-consuming love for professional wrestling moves.

So, here’s the (bare-bones) story of the 3rd Street Saints, so far. First game, they were nothing. Just a tiny gang that had control of little more than one street. This game followed their rise to power while taking over the city of Stillwater, growing from the smallest gang in town to the biggest. It began with the player character unexpectedly joining the crew and ended with your character becoming The Boss of The Saints. Already, in one game, a distressing amount of escalation has happened. The second game picked up right where the first left off, and chronicled The Saints’ rise to power, again, in Stillwater for reasons that make perfect sense if you’ve played the game and don’t matter if you haven’t. By the end of Saints Row 2, The Saints grow to even more insane levels of power with you, as The Boss, at the helm, and the future is much brighter than at the end of the first game. By the start of Saints Row: The Third, the 3rd Street Saints have, in essence, sold out. They’ve cashed in on their fame as the most badass street gang around and acquired sweet, sweet endorsement cash from energy drinks, clothing lines, and… movie deals? Shit escalates pretty hard. And this other, equally badass gang leader named Killbane calls up The Boss (who is you, by the way) on the phone and says something like, “Maaaaaaaan, you’re a pussy, now; I bet you couldn’t take over a paper bag cuz you’re so full from your fancy movie-food-service-people food,” and The Boss is all, “Nuh-uh,” and he or she and Pierce and Shaundi and Johnny Gat all hop on a plane to go smack some sense into Killbane. The game is spent taking over this man’s city because he called you mean names and you now have the money and resources to basically do whatever the hell you want. The game ends with a tough choice as the ending, and I’m fairly certain that both endings are canon. It ends on a bit more of a down note than Saints Row 2, but the Saints attain a ridiculous amount of fame and wealth. Watching their rampage on TV was the new national pastime, and the movie they filmed, Gangstas in Space, made billions of dollars even though it was godawful. Of course The Boss would win “their” run for president at the start of Saints Row 4, and of course the Earth would get blown up by aliens so you have to take over a city inside an alien simulation, and of course they would still be trying to make movies from their hybrid Matrix/Mass Effect ship. This is a street gang run by complete crazy people, and they survived the end of the world. It’s only natural.

You’re starting to see a trend, here, I hope. Every game escalates pretty hard, in the story department. But, the story is broken up into several familiar parts. First, and most accessible to us, we have the story attached to the gameplay. This is the obligatory “take over a city” part of the story that makes up almost everything you do in the game. It’s the sandbox, and it drives the way you explore the city. It gives you a reason to stop on the way to the next story mission and do a couple side-missions, maybe blow up a few buses, maybe put on a giant, furry mascot costume, maybe fall in front of a few buses to cash in on that insurance money. Every activity you perform earns you Respect, the game’s form of experience points, and most also have a visible impact on taking the city for yourself. Outposts of enemies slowly disappear and are replaced by glorious purple Saints NPCs as you conquer them. Turrets and things stay down, too. Any activity important enough to be on the map is likely to make a permanent change to that area when you complete it. It feels good. It’s rewarding in several ways, which makes it more appealing to do. And it was already pretty appealing to do. My group of friends has a tendency to use the phrase “chaos simulator” when describing GTA and its friends, and any chaos simulator that pays me for doing something I already wanted to do, like shoot something or blow something up or drive something off a cliff, is cool in my book.

The other story that runs beside the obligatory “take over this city because this style of game would make no sense otherwise” is the story of the player character’s personal glory. There are also the other side-stories about the other gangsters’ personal glories, but The Boss is definitely the focus, here. This story is generally conveyed through popularity, which has a tangible manifestation in Respect. Everything The Boss does earns it, and it is reflected in the story. He or she starts off as nothing, and not only becomes the leader of a gang, but also makes that gang the most well-known, far-reaching gang in the known universe. This story can be much more fluid than the story about taking over a city, since it isn’t directly tied to the style of game like the city takeover. There are many different ways to become popular, though, and murder seems to work pretty well. The Boss is about as morally ambivalent as they come, so his or her methods can get highly entertaining.

There is only one character whose story can rival that of The Boss, and that man is Johnny Gat. Johnny Gat is so badass. There is no way to describe Johnny Gat without using the word “badass.” You can’t even say it at a normal volume. It’s like there’s this kid riding a bear that’s pedaling a ten-speed and they all just backflipped over your head, and at the exact instant that the kid passed between you and the sun, he pulled out a bazooka and shot the Turkish drone that was about to take out the mayor, and you felt the words escape your lips in a whisper, “badass.” That’s the sort of shit Johnny Gat does. All you can do sometimes is whisper “badass.” And Mom, I know you hate gratuitous swearing, but I don’t know another word for the emotion that is evoked when someone, like, drives a tank through a plane in mid-air, and whose fault is that, huh!?

Consider all this when you think how excited I was to find out I would be playing as Johnny Gat in the standalone DLC for Saints Row 4, Gat out of Hell. Sure, I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be playing as The Boss, but I had become very used to the vaguely Hispanic female voice, anyway, and it’s either gone entirely and replaced with a French female voice, or it’s being done by a new voice actress who accidentally sounded too French. Playing as someone other than my sad, not-really-Hispanic-anymore character wouldn’t have bothered me no matter who I was playing as. Oh, by the way…

MAJOR FUCKING SPOILERS ARE ALL UP IN THIS BITCH

Seriously, you’re gonna read some shit if you keep going. So, if you haven’t played it yet and it’s gonna bother you to know some bare-bones ridiculous plot, stop reading immediately. I won’t be directly quoting the script, but half of the fun of the script is seeing how the hell they are gonna escalate from where things were, before. Without spoiling anything, though, I can tell you that the story in this game is very different from previous iterations in a lot of ways, and it’s paced a bit strangely. Rather than completing specific story missions from your phone or your PDA or whatever, a gauge fills up as you create chaos, and specific amounts of chaos trigger a small handful of scripted events. It ends up putting the climax roughly in the middle of your takeover of Hell City, which feels kind of soon, but there’s still so much to unlock after completing the story that you’ll be right back out there blowing things up. Anyway, let’s jump right into the spoilers.

Gat out of Hell starts with a birthday party for Kinzie, probably my favorite out of the new generation of characters. She’s fairly agoraphobic, and watching her have to be the center of attention during a party she never would have agreed to is pure schadenfreude. A not-Ouija board is brought out (pretty sure they call it a spirit board?) and the board, of course, opens a portal to Hell and kidnaps The Boss. Fairly straightforward. We knew it was called Gat out of Hell, at the very least, and we had to see some sort of image of Johnny Gat hanging out in the fiery abyss in order to download the game, so some expectations were in place. What we didn’t expect was for Johnny to pull out a gun, shoot a blank portion of the “spirit board,” and intimidate it into opening another portal to Hell so he can get his best friend back. And we definitely didn’t expect Kinzie to pull the “it’s my birthday” card to bully Gat into letting her come along. And NOTHING AT ALL could have prepared us to fly around Hell as Kinzie herself.

Within seconds of making it to Hell, Johnny spots a billboard for the Ultor Corporation, the primary antagonistic force in Saints Row 2. This doesn’t surprise Johnny in the slightest, and he does the only thing he knows how in response: steals a car, drives it into the door of Ultor’s headquarters, and puts a gun to the head of Ultor, Ultor’s head. Here’s a tip for all of you would-be writers of fiction: Give the company head a different name than the company. Makes talking about both of them in the same sentence end up sounding dumb, and apparently even more so when you’re trying to talk about putting a gun to the head’s head. Not everyone is so narcissistic that they’d name a corporation after themselves, and it makes way more sense for someone truly evil to take over an existing company than for them to build their own. Why, look at the 3rd Street Saints. They’re hyper-powerful and dangerously narcissistic, but they don’t spend a ton of time building new towns or naming these admittedly non-existent towns after themselves; they just take over a town that’s already there and paint it bright purple.

Ultor talks Johnny down and explains that he realized how similar The Saints were to himself and his own organization, and he decided after they killed him that he would try to help them out if they ever ended up in Hell. To that end, he gives Johnny Gat the halo that Lucifer lost when he was cast out of Heaven, and it gives him all-burny-lookin’ wings and a bunch of superpowers. This is unsurprising. Come on, guys. They let us have superpowers the whole way through Saints Row 4 and justified it as (pretend the following, in quotes, is said in a spooky, kinda wobbly voice) “part of the simulation,” so they certainly aren’t gonna take the superpowers away, now that we have them. It’s about escalation, people! Can’t escalate something you left out, gotta keep everything in! Just add more!

And add, it did.

Before we talk about gameplay improvements, let’s take a step back and recap something we talked about before, but with a little more emphasis. The main story of the Saints Row games will probably always be directly tied to the gameplay, and it will be about taking over a city. We would hate a Saints Row game that strayed from this formula. As a one-off? Sure! Maybe they could make another piece of standalone DLC, do something linear and super story-heavy. But as a main entry in the series? The fans would abandon this franchise faster than… why is every comparison I can think of about speed of abandonment absolutely horrifying? We’ll skip the metaphor. Suffice to say people would hate it. So, as a result of us, the consumers, flaying developers alive when they change their games too much, some portion of the story and the gameplay will never change. And this is just fine. They aren’t trying to make a life-changing experience in video game form, they’re trying to make something that’s fun to play. As a developer, you accomplish long-term franchise-level entertainment by hitting the sweet spot of fun-to-play for your franchise, then making slight, incremental changes to that formula. Saints Row hit the sweet spot pretty early on. Volition had the advantage of being a late addition to the chaos simulator genre (the first game came out for the Xbox 360, to give you an idea of the timeline), and this has allowed them to really fine-tune their formula. There’s not an awful lot that Volition really needs to change. A juiced-up melee system would be welcome, now that superpowers have rendered cars almost entirely obsolete, but I’m willing to let them cling to the fantasy for a while longer that I will drive anywhere when I can run up the sides of buildings. Seriously, though, if someone at Volition is reading this, you could just make some locations on the map for ridiculous driving minigames, and I bet no one would bat an eye if you mapped something that kicks or punches people to the “steal the nearest car” button. I need to get back on track before I go off about controller schemes, but remind me to talk about it, some time. We have some serious work to do in that regard, since no one has come up with a viable substitute apart from maybe Nintendo, and I am referring specifically to the DS and its touchscreen. I guess the Wii U can come, too.

Anyway, I guess the point is that we have to expect that the gameplay isn’t going to change, much. Luckily, it’s fun. Not much change needed. What matters now is what they do to improve it. And adding semi-realistic flying is quite possibly the best thing they could have done. Well, as someone who is not a man with magic angel wings, I have to assume, with the evidence I have at my disposal, that it is pretty close to the real thing if the real thing was possible. It’s damn fun, too. My biggest gripe with the superpowers in Saints Row 4 was that I had to touch the ground from time to time between super-jumps. Gat out of Hell has almost entirely eliminated the need to land. You can flap your wings a limited number of times each flight, and these “flaps” recharge when you land, which includes flying into a building so hard you sprint up the side of it. That honestly is enough of a rest for you to be able to flap your wings some more. If vertical sprinting is restful enough to recharge your flyin’ juice, how much fucking work is flying?

The guns have also escalated since the previous iteration, and this is mostly for the best. With how far the guns have escalated, though, it can feel counterintuitive to use them before they’re fully upgraded. The strangest gun I’ve unlocked, The Last Supper, shoots frosting at enemies so they eat each other, but I haven’t put any money into upgrades, so I can’t really tell if it’s doing anything at all. Most of the other truly badass guns have the same issue. One gun is so badass it talks to you, and that one also starts off woefully weak. I get why it happens like that, but it breaks the immersion to suddenly realize that the insane new gun you just got isn’t actually all that insane. If they’re gonna give us unlimited rockets at level 20 (which is fairly easy to attain), I don’t see any good reason to not allow one or two guns to be absolutely ridiculous while they still have limited ammo at level 10.

The new superpowers have escalated in a manner quite similar to the guns and, in the same way, this makes some counterintuitive things happen. Some of these superpowers are absolutely worthless until you get their top-end element, and the cost required to really flesh out a power and its elements is absolutely staggering. Unlike the previous iteration, each element is split into a tree in the upgrade menu, and must be upgraded independently, rather than having every upgrade affect all three elements, ala Saints Row 4. The overall cost for upgrades has been slightly lowered to compensate, but not enough, in my opinion. This is particularly noticable because powers like the Aura thingy are unimpressive until they become overpowered, and that can’t happen until you unlock the last element. The stomp power retains its usefulness from the moment you acquire it regardless of the element you’re using, and the new summon power is pretty cool, I guess, but it’s kinda wonky, much like the new projectile power. Some of the projectile’s elements don’t seem to do much, not when compared to the Aura element that makes nearby enemies kneel in reverence to you, allowing for easy melee kills or headshots.

So, the escalation in this game is mostly intact. Again, AND I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH, if you’re expecting anything other than a very slightly upgraded version of Saints Row 4, you will be disappointed, and should think about revisiting the notion of what “standalone DLC” means to you. I don’t know that it compares to the last standalone DLC most of us (I hope) have played, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (and if you haven’t, honestly, do yourself the favor), but it’s on the right track. In terms of the game’s size and the amount of things to do, find, and unlock, I’d say Gat out of Hell has the advantage on Blood Dragon, but all the stuff to do is a little more samey than Blood Dragon. The dozen or so carefully crafted outposts scattered about a couple mountainous islands seem far more engrossing and immersive than the hundred-odd copy/pasted missions in Gat out of Hell. And, maybe I’m just a masochist, but I’d rather spend time in a terrifying open world than a completely unthreatening one. Yet, I am not masochistic enough for one type of mission in Gat out of Hell. The Salvation mission type was a miserable experience every time I tried it. I’m kinda old and slow compared to the days when the NES and SNES really tested our reflexes, but I’m pretty sure Salvation is also insanely hard. There’s so much to manage, and very little time to react. These missions kept me from completing certain side-quests, and that kinda sucks, but none of the good items seem to be locked away behind these side-quests, so I can deal with it. I can’t complain too much about trivial issue like this, though, since it’s standalone DLC for a game that was already, in essence, standalone DLC.

Man, I wasn’t gonna bring that up. I kind of avoided it for a while, but I suppose we do, eventually, have to talk about the elephant in the room: Enter the Dominatrix. It is, after all, the reason for all of this, the single event that most shaped the Saints Row franchise.

In Saints Row: The Third, there was a pretty awesome mission in which The Boss got superpowers. Everyone went crazy over it, and the internet (that’s you guys) clamored for more. Volition responded that it would be nice, and obviously it would be fun to play, but they didn’t know how to pull it off without compromising the base concept of the game. Later, on April Fool’s Day 2012, THQ announced “Enter the Dominatrix,” some obviously fake, superpower-based DLC for Saints Row: The Third. But then, like some hideous mutant in a disturbed middle-school science teacher’s basement lab, it came to life. A while later, it was actually announced, and Enter the Dominatrix took its first shaky steps. Eventually, the project became too large, and the story was scrapped to make room for a new script, and suddenly the superpower-based DLC mutant that was Enter the Dominatrix metamorphosed into Saints Row 4. Out with the leather and whips, in with the aliens, and I guess just go ahead and leave all of those “leather and whips” character models in there, who are we kidding, this is a Saints Row game, we’ll find a use for them.

No shit, people, this happened. I am reviewing DLC for DLC that went way over budget and turned into a full release. Do I think this is acceptable? Yes and no. I think this is incredibly indicative of the current shape of the industry. I think we live in a world where DLC, an idea I abhor, is here to stay. I don’t want developers to spend their time milking an existing game for more money instead of just making the next game, and it happens anyway. We validated it by buying it, so we get to live with what that created. But, at the same time, this is pretty much how every game got a sequel back in the so-called “golden era” before DLC. The developers sat down with their old source code and tweaked it until it was a new game. If I can praise Mega Man, with its ridiculous number of similar games that mostly just made slight improvements over time, I can’t nitpick about how Saints Row, another game from the same school of thought, comes to life. I do recognize that this could impact how some people feel about buying this game, but I encourage those people to let it go. I am one of those stubborn, principled people who refuses to buy games for stuff like this, and I have no regrets on this purchase. It’s nearly as big as Saints Row 4, and an awful lot of new assets were created for this experience. Hell looks absolutely incredible, and you’ll have such a great time flying around on your stolen angel wings that you’ll entirely forget the convoluted development cycle that led to it. Also, the Volition guys don’t seem that greedy when compared to the rest of the industry. Saints Row 4 was released two years after the previous game and only had two sets of DLC released for it, and Gat out of Hell was released eighteen months after that. Maybe a hundred and twenty bucks total over a year and a half, and the drought between the third and fourth games takes a bit of the edge off. Compare that to the cost of annually renewing your ability to play Call of Duty with your friends, and I think you’ll find that Volition is on the low end of the Money Grubber Scale.

Oh, shit. I did it again. Look at all of those words. Jeepers. Sorry, everyone. I get pretty passionate about Saints Row and video games and stuff. It got this long and I didn’t even talk about how much I think Kinzie is doing for gender equality in games (SPOILER: it’s a lot) or who I think The Boss should actually marry (but I hope it’s me). Anyway, I think that Gat out of Hell is a pretty okay game, and worth almost exactly the twenty bucks I had to shell out for it. Maybe even a little more, since I’m sure I’ll crave the flying and revisit this game later on. I am a gigantic sucker for a fun movement system in a game, and this game has one. You ever play City of Heroes? It was like one long orgasm for me. So many options for movement.

Score? Score! For the next step in the Saints franchise, 8/10. In the grand scheme of things, maybe a 5 or a 6. It’s not changing the industry, and it’s a byproduct of the current greed that shapes games, but it’s still pretty great, all things considered. It’s comfortable. It’s cheap. I guess that can’t be a terrible thing.

Fantasy Life Review: Really guys, I think it might be too much game

I should be playing and reviewing so many other things. I have dozens of games sitting there with maybe a few hours of time spent on them, but goddamn Fantasy Life keeps pulling me back in. Seriously, fuck this game.

I like three things in a game. I like to explore, I like to kill things, and I like to feel some sort of progression. It’s called an adventure. Look it up. I mean, I don’t really have to explain this to you, do I?

Some games do parts of these things well, or even all of them. But, even among the greats, certain things tend to be lacking. Bethesda knows their way around exploration and progression, as evidenced by Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, but even these incredible games are somewhat lacking in quality combat. The Far Cry Franchise excels in exploration and combat, but the sense of progression could stand to maybe, I dunno… exist? I mean, apart from locking off whole combat mechanics, ala Far Cry 3, the series has very little sense of character growth. Borderlands, the game I should be writing about right now, has great gunplay, as well as character progression that puts most other games to shame (Pirate ship mode, guys. Am I right?), but the exploration is hurting so bad it might as well be dead.

These games are all great, no doubt about it, but they all suffer from a lack of one of these three qualities. Fantasy Life has, arguably, too much of all three. Seriously. There is way too much to do, and that is coming from someone who likes having a lot to do in a game. Give me something I can easily sink 60-70 hours into, and I will give you my money without hesitation. I am currently 40+ hours into this game, and I have barely even scratched the surface. (Update 3/19/15: My fiancée stole this game from me and held it hostage in her 3DS for a long-ass time. She hit 100 hours this week and I hit 85 after buying a second copy so I could play it again. Still haven’t done everything. And, bonus, since she likes it, your less-nerdy friends might like it, too. Nerd.)

Fantasy Life is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You live someone’s life in a fantasy game. It’s similar to games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Rune Factory, in that the gameplay consists of waking up in the morning, doing your job, maybe talking to a couple of the other townsfolk, completing a few menial tasks, then going to sleep.

I have never been able to get into this style of game. I find Animal Crossing to be nauseatingly adorable while it demands that I only play an hour a day. Harvest moon was the opposite, and didn’t seem to want to charm me at all. And Rune Factory… It feels like Animal Crossing with simply the ability to go to bed and progress time added in. All of these games claim to be life simulators, but limit me to one, maybe two different types of lives to live, and they dictate what pace I must use. I really don’t like being told to play an RPG at a certain pace. It’s my adventure. Don’t tell me that I have to go to bed.

During all of my time with Fantasy Life so far, I think my character might have gone to bed roughly four times, and that was just because he was near his bed and low on health. There is a weird kind of bliss in keeping your character awake for weeks at a time in a life simulator. It’s absolutely cathartic. Makes me feel, like, a million times better about my own life. I might have a hard time getting comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but at least I’m not so addicted to fishing and killing bears that I go a month or two between naps. Makes me feel like frickin’ Rip Van Winkle.

I voiced another complaint about the life simulator games earlier: lack of choices in the type of life I lead. Harvest Moon allows me to be a farmer, Rune Factory allows me to be a farmer and a warrior, and Animal Crossing allows me to be a… um, a… fucking… silent conversation partner/slave worker? I honestly don’t get Animal Crossing at all. I find its popularity mystifying. Fantasy Life, though, has a list of “Lives” I can live. I can choose any of those lives at, essentially, any time. It’s locked out while actively pursuing a main story quest, and possibly for a little while at the beginning? By the time I was ready to start learning about the other lives, I was able to change, so if it is locked off at all at the beginning of the game, it isn’t for long, and it’s probably just because you’re experiencing the main story.

I started as a Paladin. Swords and shields and piety, or so I thought. Instead, I got swords and shields and being a town guard. This is not as boring as it sounds, really. The dialogue is both charming and witty, and the characters are mostly distinct enough to be somewhat memorable. Once I started branching out into other lives, I encountered other characters who were eerily similar to characters I’d met before, but the plot is that perfect combination of well-written and forgettable that it has the right to get a little samey. If you take the time to actually read the dialogue, you’ll enjoy it every time, but it’s also not really needed after you have the base mechanics down. In fact, you have the option to skip the introductory quest for each life after your first, and there is generally special dialogue written that lets you know that there are gonna be people in town who you should have met during the quest you skipped, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they inexplicably seem to know you. It’s a nice touch, and it helps alleviate the strange sense of guilt I feel every time I skip some of the game’s carefully crafted script.

But, who gives a shit about the story? In this sort of game, i.e. one that doesn’t entirely rely on its story to carry it, like Bioshock Infinite or Telltale’s Walking Dead Series, we have to judge it mostly by the meat of the game, which is the gameplay. In the spirit of the introduction on this review, let’s break it down by the three qualities I mentioned.

First, we have exploration. Sweet, baby Jesus, do we ever have exploration. Think Skyrim, but segmented like a Zelda game. Portions of the world are locked off by the main story, and do not open up until specific tasks are complete, and fast travel can take even longer to unlock for a given area, but, for the first time in my life, I almost welcome this. The game’s map is massive, and even the small portion I currently have access to (maybe a third of it, tops?) is slightly overwhelming. To make matters worse, or better, depending on how you view it, each area is positively flooded with things to do. You want monsters to kill? Take ten goddamn steps in any direction outside of town. You want a quest to complete? Go back to town and, again, take ten steps in any direction. You want to gather crafting materials? Bitch, you have no idea what you’re getting into, there. Every single area, regardless of whether or not combat is possible, is riddled with resources to gather. In addition, smaller areas branch off from each map, lending it a size that can induce panic attacks in those not prepared for this game’s size. I seriously cannot emphasize this enough: this scope of this game is bonkers, especially for a handheld title.

On that note, let’s take a step back before we look at combat and progression. This is a fucking handheld game, and I am comparing it to an Elder Scrolls game, at least in terms of size. That sinking in for you? The Nintendo 3DS has a game that rivals a hardcore, open-world RPG for consoles and PCs. For those of us paying attention, though, this is what we have come to expect from Level-5. They brought us the Guild Collections, which I recommend googling, since I couldn’t possibly do the size of these collections justice in a single paragraph or two, and that’s all the space I want to dedicate to fellating these guys with my words. I talk a lot about “pedigree” when it comes to studios, and these guys are so full of pedigree you could show them off at the fucking Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. No shit. Look them up. You probably know several of their games if you play RPGs at all, and love them if you’ve played them. They came onto the scene in the year 2000, when they released Dark Cloud, one of the unsung heroes of the PS2. Dark Cloud 2 followed in 2002, then they hit the big-time, when Square Enix approached them to develop Dragon Quest VIII, which is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest games of all time, and quite possibly the single best old-school, turn-based RPG ever created. Even IGN ranks it at #39 on its list of the best games of all time, which is impressive when you assume that the 38 games above it probably bought their way into that list, to some extent, or, at the very least, were made by much larger studios. At the time that Dragon Quest was started, Level-5 was still considered to be a small startup company.

With the success of Dragon Quest 8, Level-5 was able to expand dramatically, hitting 150 employees by 2010. They released dozens of high-quality games, including Jeanne d’Arc, Ni no Kuni, Inazuma Eleven, Dragon Quest IX, and the Professor Layton games. If you move in gamer circles (and I assume you do, since you’re reading my bullshit), you know these games. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve heard talk. No one has bad things to say about these games. In recent years, they have focused more on smaller (file-size-wise) games for handheld systems, but every single one has made their first game, Dark Cloud, which was universally praised, look like the work of amateurs.

I love this studio, and I didn’t even know it. They have something like 3% of the Japanese game market on lock, which doesn’t sound like much, but, considering that they have less than a tenth of the staff of giants like Square Enix, that figure starts to become impressive. With a small market share like that, they don’t come up often in every day conversation, though, and that’s a fucking shame. Go download Bugs vs. Tanks for like $3.00 right now, and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing else at that price point approaches the level of quality these guys can pull off.

Anyway, Fantasy Life. It’s a game. We’ve already talked exploration, so let’s talk combat.

It’s… meh.

It kills me to say it, but that’s always the way with these games, right? Now, that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of combat, because it’s everywhere. I would even go so far as to say that much of the resource-gathering is combat, as well. When you approach a tree or an ore deposit that you would like to make yours, you press the A button, then swing at the tree or rock from different angles, trying to find the sweet spot that will let you deplete its health as quickly as possible, so you don’t get too tired to keep going. Really, the combat against inanimate objects might even be more compelling than combat against actual enemies. You have exactly one button for attacking that does a lunging hit when you move toward an enemy while swinging, and a multi-hit combo while standing still. If you have a shield, you can block, but it usually only shaves off a few points of damage, so just walking out of the way of attacks is preferred. If you are in a combat life that matches the weapon you are using, you get a special gauge that slowly fills and allows you to do an extremely overpowered attack. You cannot do a special move at all in combat if you’re in a non-combat life. It’s not like, the best thing ever, but it helps, when you have exactly two different attacks, otherwise.

This causes most of the hard decisions in the game. Playing as a Paladin is great, because it gives you a special move that does assloads of damage. But, if you’re in a combat life, it means you will have a harder time gathering resources. I spent most of my time playing as a miner, a woodcutter, or a fisherman, so that I could at least gather one type of resource with relative ease, because, again, trees and rocks and fish are the toughest enemies in the game. Many of these trees and rocks will be entirely skipped by you when first encountered, because you simply can’t damage them no matter how hard you try. There are a few trees I found that I still cannot damage 40 hours in, and I found them in hour ten.

Last, we have character progression. And holy shit, do we have a lot of it. There are experience points that increase your character level, giving you extra points to put toward stats of your choice upon leveling. There are stars, which can generally be earned in any Life, that increase the level of that particular life, from Fledgling, to Novice, all the way up to Master and, supposedly, Legend. It could go past Legend, I don’t know. I try not to look up stuff about games I haven’t finished. I’m right in the middle on all of my Lives, either an Adept or an Expert, and I have completed an awful lot of challenges. I can’t even wrap my brain around the amount of sushi I would need to make to become a Cooking Legend. There’s Bliss, which is earned by performing tasks to make you feel more connected to the world and its inhabitants, which can be spent to unlock larger inventory, pets, horses, and even better inventory for shops. The three crafting-type lives (Alchemist, Woodworker, and Smith) allow you to craft better gear for your character, which also adds to your sense of progression. One could feasibly do nothing but craft items to gain levels, and the crafting mini-game is just barely tolerable enough to make that a possibility. So, not only is there a fuckload of character progression, there are also nearly limitless options for accomplishing this. Sure, you could run around and murder things until you have enough money to buy gold armor, or you could buy the raw gold and craft your own, which could land you a higher-quality set of armor. Or, even better, you could mine your own gold ore, smelt it, and craft for the chance at better gear, gaining experience and stars every step of the way.

This game is remarkable, all things considered. The combat is bland, but is also mostly avoidable, and it is varied enough to make it at least more interesting than the combat in an Elder Scrolls game, if you decide to include fighting lives in your run through the game. I didn’t mention it above, but the graphics and music are also extremely pleasant. The music was all done by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy soundtrack fame. Here’s a little taste, because, let’s face it, I could never describe a graphical style or sound well enough for you to understand it as well as this (It’s the trailer, so it starts off with a bit of cutscene, but gameplay starts right around the 25-second mark and continues for about a minute, and all of the music is from the game.):

All-around, I can recommend this game to anyone who enjoys life-simulators or lengthy RPGs. If you require gore and intense violence, you’ll probably be bored by this friendly little title, but in the current market that is flooded with realism I, personally, welcome any title that remembers that it is, in fact, a video game and not a real-life simulator.

Score time. Damn it. Either an 8.5 or a 9, depending on personal taste. The bland combat is all I can really fault it for, and I lean toward 9 simply because, if you don’t want to engage in the boring combat, you don’t have to. This is, however, the best life simulator I’ve ever played, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about picking up this wonderful little title. That’s funny. “Little” is about as far from true as possible. We’ll call it a massive little game, at the very least. For a handheld title, it’s practically The Elder Scrolls VI.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review – Giving your game a name like this makes it hard for me to decide which tense to use when writing

Alright, it’s been out for a while, we’ve played as much as we’re going to in a lot of cases, so let’s talk about The Pre-Sequel. It’s good to let it sit for a bit before we discuss it, I think.

Here’s what I think: lower gravity is a good thing.

You want more than that? Fine, we’ll break it down a bit.

You know how I feel about this game series. If you don’t, it’s like the last post I put up or something. Go check it out. I think I made some valid points while keeping things light and pleasant, but I’m also my most gentle critic. Short version: I like Borderlands for its concept, and I love Borderlands 2 for refining that concept into something more accessible while jacking up the writing to 11. The second game did let me down in a couple ways, I admit. It wasn’t the step up toward a large, immersive world that I thought it would be, and the exploration was minimal and unrewarding. The first Borderlands was like Fallout 3 cut into bite-sized segments and infused with multiplayer, and I think we all thought the second one would go more that way. When it went more mainstream, it lost a bit of its soul, but it gained a lot of appeal and playability, particularly where multiplayer is concerned, so it’s hard for me to fault Gearbox for these decisions.

Additionally, it seems that Gearbox themselves feel the same way. Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox, has been widely quoted as saying, “When you think of what Borderlands 3 should be… No. we don’t know what that is yet. We can imagine what it must achieve, but we don’t know what it is yet.” There’s a lot of buzz in that statement, as is the tendency when developers talk about their own games, but it belies a certain amount of desire to excel. When held up to the ending of the second Borderlands game, which seems to imply that the third game will be huge, Pitchford’s statement gives me hope.

The Pre-Sequel is not the fulfilment of that hope.

I knew that going into it, though. The screenshots and videos released before the game came out made it pretty damn clear that The Pre-Sequel would be made using the same engine as its predecessor, and we already knew that the engine in question could not handle massive environments. So, rather than the giant leap that Borderlands 3 will (hopefully) be, The Pre-Sequel is more of an incremental step. It’s not ideal, but I can at least respect it for what it is.

This is all talk about franchising, though. To some extent, we always need to judge a game (or a movie, or a book, or an album, for that matter) by the entries that came before. If a studio cannot improve constantly, the franchise stagnates, and the money we gave to the developers goes to waste, and we learn to resent them because of it. I want to make it clear right off the bat that Gearbox has not put me into that position. All-around, it’s a great game, and I love what they did with what they had.

Still, let’s rip it to pieces real quick. Out of respect. Or some shit.

As I mentioned in the previous piece, I don’t play Borderlands games online. I will always prefer local multiplayer games. Borderlands is a franchise my fiancée will play with me, and I’ll game with her any day over total strangers on the internet. No offense, I like you guys and all, but I like her more. That’s why I’m marrying her. That, and she’ll let me marry her. But, I digress. I’m reviewing this as a couch co-op game. I’m sure someone could find something completely obtuse to say about the differences between the methods of playing other than the obvious, but, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s fun to play with one other person, it’s probably fun to play with three other people instead, and it’s also probably fun to play alone.

I’m not gonna get into the general ideas of the gameplay too much, here. It’s a Borderlands game, and it’s the same engine as Borderlands 2. If you like Fallout 3 and/or Diablo, and you’re a fan of shooters, you’ll probably like it. Go pick up a copy of Borderlands 2, play it, then come back and read this. You’ll thank me. You don’t even need to play the first game. Situations derived from the first game’s plot are mentioned maybe once or twice, but the story is an entirely separate beast, and all of the DLC for Borderlands 2, as well as the Pre-Sequel and all its DLC, branch out from the story of Borderlands 2, rather than the first one. As stated earlier, I think the first game has better maps and exploration, so it ends up being a bit meatier of an experience, but it isn’t needed to enjoy what came after.

One might be able to enjoy The Pre-Sequel without playing Borderlands 2, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You won’t get the same impact from the story, and that impact is the whole point of the story. It all revolves around Handsome Jack, the villain of Borderlands 2. The story fills in some gaps between the first and second games, which is why they were able to give it such a ridiculous name. If you haven’t played Borderlands 2 and start up The Pre-Sequel, you’ll probably still be amused by the story, but you’ll be a little lost when it comes to the more nuanced ideas they’re dealing with. After all, Handsome Jack started off as (at least in his eyes) a hero. It’s the story of how Jack came to be the murderous sociopath in charge of the HyHHyperion Corporation. If you didn’t spend an entire game wanting to blow him away, you’re not gonna get the same “oomph” out of the story as everyone else.

The story is, to my mind, at least, both the high and low points of the game. The concept is great: watch a fairly normal, while somewhat narcissistic, guy slowly descend into madness and villainy. It’s a tried-and-true story for most media, but is rarely tackled in video games. Jason Brody may have become less human in his journey through Far Cry 3, but, like other protagonists whose games approach this sort of plot, he’s still the hero when the game ends, and probably didn’t start off as one. Handsome Jack starts off as a hero, and turns into the bad guy over the course of the game we’re playing. The whole script reeks of Anthony Burch’s social awareness, from the lesbian thief who is your main source of interaction in the game to the little orphan boy who know where all of the best scavenging is. Anthony loves to write non-traditional characters and situations, and the Pre-Sequel is no exception.

But, it seems to me that he merely provided suggestions and guidance on the story and characters. Most of the dialogue is a little more clunky than what we’re used to from Mr. Burch, and their character flaws aren’t as pronounced as they have been in the past. Most of them should seem a little evil, or at least psychopathic, as is tradition in these games, but they all ended up a little… happy-go-lucky. Maybe this is by design, to highlight Jack’s descent, or maybe that’s just what all Australians seem like to Americans. I don’t claim to know at all what can be held accountable for the disparity in tone, but there is undeniably a difference between the script of Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

This is not to say that the script is bad. It’s just different. Some of the characters are even more memorable than they were previously, or they’re brand new characters who really stand out. Red and Belly, a pair of enemies who are too close for even each other’s comfort, stick out as particularly magical new additions, and existing characters like Moxxie and Nisha are fleshed out and given depth that they lacked, before. I also really like that the dialogue changes based on what character you are using. The best instance of this is during a mission you receive from the Hyperion lady-voice (You know, “Don’t think of your death as failure, think of it as fun! Don’t think of Hyperion’s New-U respawn charges as war profiteering, think of them as war… fun!”) while playing as Claptrap. I don’t want to spoil it, because the entire script for this mission is so great that you should really just experience it, but I will say that it gives us an almost unwanted look into Claptrap’s head. It’s dialogue you would entirely miss if you weren’t playing as Claptrap, and I can assure you, you don’t want to miss it.

Let’s take a minute to talk Claptrap. I know a lot of people don’t like him. Everyone I talk to about this cites the fact that he’s annoying as their reason for not liking him. I would like to point out that this is the point of his character. Everything he does, he does in the most obnoxious way possible. It’s not about to change, and I love it. We should always have well-written characters around that we don’t particularly like. This character trait actually comes across in the skill tree for Claptrap. All of his skills are just… fucking annoying. Like, annoying to the people you’re playing with. Through gameplay, with no dialogue at all, Claptrap is annoying.

THIS IS FANTASTIC DESIGN.

Yes, that deserved its own paragraph.

So did that. For emphasis. Because, honestly, I hardly ever see so much character in a game’s mechanics as I do with the skill trees in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Claptrap’s skills all revolve around him being terrible at everything. He goes down easily, stays down longer, and does more damage from the ground. Honestly, he’s just lying on the ground and crying for most of the game, and we already knew this to be what his character is like. Wilhelm, who I honestly thought was a robot in Borderlands 2, appears as a human who is addicted to cybernetic implants, and his skill tree not only reflects this but also explains how he ended up as a towering robot monstrosity. Each character feels different from the others, not just because of their special skill like in the previous games, but also their other skills. I feel like this becomes a more impressive feat when we hold it up to another game in a similar style: Diablo 3. The barbarian class is cool in Diablo, and the skills are great, but I am generally just confused by what they might say about the character. Making a volcano erupt at will is neat and all, but all it tells me about the barbarian is that he can make volcanos erupt at will. Claptrap’s skills make him seem like an annoying crybaby, Nisha’s skills make her seem like an Old West sheriff, Wilhelm’s skills make him seem like a technology addict, and Athena’s skills make her seem like a protector of innocents. Absolutely stunning design, in the character skills department, and I applaud Gearbox for every single square in the skill trees.

I know I already mentioned this, but the decision to make a mostly low-gravity game was another fantastic decision. The first Borderlands had pretty low gravity, as evidenced by your character’s above-average jump height and the fact that falling from a great height did very little damage. Borderlands 2 stepped it up, and removed falling damage. Entirely. It was already so low in the first one that it was negligible, but Gearbox committed and just took out fall damage, completely. The Pre-Sequel took it further and lowered the gravity by a lot, allowing for higher jumps that take you much further. Long story short, it’s a fucking blast. They also introduced a new type of gear to assist in this: the Oz Kit. Oz kits give you a refillable source of air that can used to breathe in vacuum (boring) or you can expel some oxygen to propel you in mid-air and give you extra distance and height on your jumps (fucking awesome). The designers recognized that you might not always want to spend 10 full seconds in the air, so the Oz Kits also give you the ability to slam into the ground, Kirby-style, when you have enough height. Slamming is also awesome.

Low-gravity jumping and slamming alone make this game leaps and bounds (damn unavoidable puns) more fun to play than its predecessors. Boss fights will have you jumping over missiles as they fly harmlessly at the space you used to occupy, and slamming is great for crowd control. There are plenty of small, skittery enemies who would be miserable to shoot one at a time, and slamming gives us an efficient and fun way to handle that situation. Again, great design. Once you figure out that you can one-shot the little Torks by slamming, they go from being an enemy you dread to one you actually enjoy fighting. You kind of get excited to jump and slam around like a cracked-out pole-vaulter.

This game is absolutely riddled with great design hampered by its basic nature. No part of this game is bad, but it’s still just a placeholder, something to slake our thirst until Borderlands 3 comes out. And that’s fine! I’m glad I have a game to fill that void! But, I also wish it had been more than it was. I love the bigger maps, but they still aren’t big enough. I like the new gameplay mechanics, but I wish that we’d gotten an updated engine. I like the new characters, but I’m mad that I have nothing bad to say about them or their skill trees. I wish I liked this game more, and my instincts make me think I should like it less.

It is a Borderlands game, though, so I’ll keep playing it.

Score? 8/10, I’d say. It’s passable in every way, but it didn’t change my views on games like the two previous games did. I guess they can’t all be game-changers. I just have to accept that. Gearbox, make us a game that compels us to go 10/10 with Borderlands 3. I want you guys to raise the bar again, like you did twice before.

Azure Striker Gunvolt Review: Fleep, Flop, Floobity Doop

The Nintendo 3DS has an awful lot of games launching every week in the e-shop. These download-only games are mostly made by companies no one has ever heard of, so the more discerning shopper might hesitate to buy them. I know this pain, and have put myself through it several times in the last few weeks so I can hopefully help you decide if you want to play some of them. We’re gonna start off with Mega Man X.

Shit, I mean… what’s it called? Right, title of the post. Azure Striker Gunvolt. I cannot imagine a worse name. Actually, I take it back. I can think of a lot of much worse names, but I wouldn’t put them on something I produced. Shut, that’s pretty mean of me. Now, to seem like less of a dick, I will give this review a terrible name, so Gunvolt doesn’t feel as bad. I guess the title doesn’t really matter, though, so let’s move on to the gameplay.

It’s Mega Man X. You like Mega Man X? You might like this game.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not enough like Mega Man X to really draw the comparison. Where Mega Man X has upgrades squirreled away all over its levels, encouraging you to replay them several times, Gunvolt’s replay value comes in the form of “Challenges,” which just aren’t as good. Some of them are kind of interesting, but most are forced speedruns. Count. Me. Out.

I’m gonna make the Mega Man X comparison a lot. When you make a game that takes nearly all of its core mechanics from the Blue Bomber, you open yourself up to these comparisons. And Gunvolt fails just about every litmus test.

When you purchase Azure Striker Gunvolt from the e-shop, if you do so within the time limit, which is probably over because I took forever to play through it, you will also receive the fake first game in the series, called Mighty Gunvolt. It’s not a fake game, people, it’s a fake first game. It was not released that I can find before the release of its companion game. You know how I said Azure Striker Gunvolt is Mega Man X? Mighty Gunvolt is Mega Man.

It’s honestly not bad. It’s arguably a bit longer than the first Mega Man game, since there are three characters to play with, but from the bit I played with a second character after beating it, I think it was the same levels in a different order, so the length argument seems pretty flimsy.

It’s just… Mega Man. The first one. Each character has slight tweaks to make sure they don’t control quite the same as the man himself, like a double-jump, hovering, and… somersaults? But, their base movements and jumps are basically identical to Mega Man.

You know what I like about it, though? The story. It’s one of those stories that’s so vague, awful, and poorly-translated that it transcends to pure hilarity. I get the feeling it’s meant to be a pretty deep story with some real social commentary, but it… it doesn’t make sense. Like, for instance, the following excerpt from the intro:

“The other time, the other place: Experiments on humans started by massive media group ‘Sumeragi’ to audition for next ‘muse’ idol. Their magic hand even reached female schools. Female students vanished and no new couples formed. Love was in a danger.”

Wow… Love was in a fucking danger, indeed.

Every mistake I typed was directly from the source material. Honestly, what does that even say? It starts off talking about human experimentation, and ends lamenting the death of love? There is one more paragraph of explanation that makes a little more sense, but sheds no light at all on the paragraph above. The game itself also does nothing to explain its own plot. Guys show up, then they hold up swords and turn into super-powered robots. I have no idea what the auditions are that they mention, although I am fairly confident that I played a level in one of the fabled female schools, and I can attest to the fact that no new couples were being formed. I would like to point out, before we move on, that those are the first lines in the entire game. It’s brilliant! Confuse them right off the bat, then everything else makes sense in comparison!

Apart from this, I’m just a little worn out on Mega Man clones. The controls are tight, and the music is honestly great (like, really great and you should check it out if you’re into the 8-bit stuff), but it’s not enough to keep me interested. The levels are riddled with seemingly unavoidable damage, and it doesn’t feel fun. You learn the patterns, you jump exactly right, and you still get hit. It feels like a tax, not gameplay. Run to the right, take half your health worth of damage, grab a heal, climb a bit, run to the left, take another half of your health in damage, heal, repeat, repeat, repeat. Fuck taxes. They aren’t fun. Oh, boy! Gonna really tear into my damage tax return this year! I hear they passed a bill that’ll let me deduct every bullet I pull out of my leg! I’m gonna be the richest tax whiz on the block!

This annoyance ends when a boss appears. These guys definitely know their way around boss fights. They all still seem to have unavoidable tax-attacks, so they become a game of avoiding the attacks that actually can be dodged, to survive long enough to kill the boss, while trying to kill him fast enough to not have to deal with the unavoidable attack more than once. It’s almost like a puzzle. Most of the bosses will kill you several times before you succeed, and the feeling when beating one is pretty great. You feel like you earned it, and it didn’t feel quite as unfair as the run up to the boss.

So, the first game wasn’t much to get excited about. I think anyone could agree. The only people that Mighty Gunvolt may appeal to are those who wish there were more of the original Mega Man game. And it hurts to say that, you know? Right now, with the death of our favorite blue, shot-chargin’, left-to-right-runnin’ hero, I want more Mega Man games more than anything. I grew up on those games, you know?

It just doesn’t make sense to me. The members of the team making these games have made Mega Man games. Were they intentionally making Gunvolt less appealing? Check out their Wikipedia page. The studio is called Inti Creates. Seriously, pull it up. I can wait.

Look at that pedigree! Mega Man Zero, Battle Chip, even the upcoming Mighty Number Nine (the rebirth of Mega Man, in case you weren’t aware). I’m willing to admit that I might not be viewing the game in a completely objective manner, but I don’t think that’s the case. My current assumption is that they are focusing all of their resources on Mighty Number Nine. That’s how I have to justify it to avoid losing faith in the game I helped kickstart.

The other justification I use is that it’s a weird, artsy tech demo for, or maybe a preemptive homage to, the real game: Azure Striker Gunvolt. I have not yet finished this one, but that is something we’ll get to later. The only character playable in this one is the titular Gunvolt. He is nothing like he was in the first game. Or demo tape. Or parody. Whatever Mighty Gunvolt is. I have never had this much trouble figuring out what a game is and why it exists.

Shit, ummmmm, anyway… Azure Stirker Gunvolt. It’s not bad.

It’s definitely not for me. If I want a game in this style, I have the Mega Man Zero collection sitting in my 3DS. Azure Striker Gunvolt has just a little too much resource management for my taste. It feels like the rule set of Starcraft crammed into a left-to-right runner.

There’s never just one thing to worry about at a time with this game, and it can get overwhelming. You can’t just shoot bad guys with your darts; that takes too long, so you shoot them with darts and hurl lightning in their face. That’s cool and all, but the only button I remember the game telling me to push for that skill is under my right thumb, along with the jump button and the button for shooting darts. I can handle jumping and shooting. I’ve been jumping and shooting for as long as I can remember. I fucking grew up jumping and shooting. When you throw a third action in there, and that action involves a button that you have to hold down, it goes from second-nature to next-to-impossible. It’s like trying to pat your head, rub your belly, and drink a glass of water while making it seem like your dummy is singing The Star Spangled Banner at the same time. After an embarrassing amount of time, I accidentally pressed the right shoulder button, which also apparently shoots electricity. It made things infinitely better, but I’m still pretty mad that I wasn’t told about this at all. Clearly, since people enjoy Starcraft, there are probably a lot of people who enjoy managing several different resources on the fly, but I find it to be more similar to work, which is also pretty much exactly what I think of Starcraft. People can be good at it and even enjoy it if they dedicate themselves to learning everything about it, and I completely understand why people do enjoy it, but I’m not looking for that in a game. Not my style.

The level design in this game was a huge disappointment to me. One level tried to do this thing with portals, but it only happened at scripted moments. There was no real control over when it happened, and not indicator to warn you, so it just felt out of control and tacked-on. And, apart from a couple exceptions, all of the levels were pretty samey. Two in particular do stand out in my mind as being different from the pack. One was annoyingly vertical with moving platforms, and one was on a cargo train that forced you to destroy boxes to progress, and neither of them were interesting at all. Apart from those slightly less boring levels, nothing really stood out, and even the levels that did were pretty annoying as a result.

You know what’s a shitty idea? Putting the checkpoint for a level before both a miniboss and a jumping section. Why not between them? I really, truly, do not want to fight the miniboss over again when I miss a jump on your blustery-ass platforms. The platforming is less than fun, and it all involves using your electricity to hover in a way that the game doesn’t do the best job of explaining.

I assume this lack of direction is a translation issue, though, since the plot actually makes even less sense than it did in Mighty Gunvolt. So far, I’ve decided the story is about a pop star clone who is possessed by… something? Not quite sure who or what has possessed her, yet, or if it’s even a literal possession. The translation seems much better in Azure Striker than it did in Mighty Gunvolt, so it weirds me out that the story still makes no sense. It’s just a device to put bosses in our way, though, much like the levels that lead up to them. And, just like the smaller game, the bosses are the real substance here, rather than the environments or the story.

When your story is nothing more than a device to justify gameplay, you should own that. Look at Sonic. The story there is, “Bad guy over there, some kind of gems can stop him.” Or Mario. “The princess is gone, let’s go look for her.” You can have a practically non-existent plot, and it doesn’t have to be a detriment to the game. When you half-ass it, though, it can be a serious detriment to the game. Here’s the plot you could have used: “8 bad guys have magic swords, and we need them.” Sound familiar? It’s almost the plot of every Mega Man game. Oh, but I suppose you would have a harder time resurrecting those bosses if that was the plot. Which brings me to my next point: boss recycling.

For a long time, I was stuck on the second-to-last level. I knew it was the second-to-last level because I was just fighting every single boss over again. In a row. I was “stuck” on the most obnoxious one. I was not actually stuck, since the boss was exactly the same as the first time I fought him, and I’d obviously beaten him once to get to that point. I was definitely capable of killing him. I just couldn’t work up the desire. Remember how I talked about “damage tax” before? That’s all this boss does. He fires a near-constant stream of damage through the entire bottom of the screen, where one would need to stand, since Gunvolt cannot fly. It can’t be avoided in full, so the fight becomes a race to kill him before he manages to kill you, and he will almost always kill you first, because the constant damage attack is pretty much all he does. THIS IS BAD DESIGN. You can’t design a boss whose strategy is “hope the AI is stupid enough to not do his infinite-damage-across-the-screen attack for the entire fight this time so you can beat him.” I shouldn’t be throwing attempts at the wall until one sticks, I should be devising a strategy. Even the other bosses with an unavoidable attack feel more fair than this one, since they are either rare and do a fixed amount of damage, or the attack is a one-shot kill, but it only happens if you take way too long to kill the boss. The worst part is that I couldn’t turn my DS off, or I’d have to fight the previous five bosses over again so I could just get stuck on that shield-bearing asshole one more time. None of them are a challenge. I’d killed them all before, and could defeat most of them on my first try, by then. It’s not fun, though, and I am of the opinion that a game should be fun. Weird, right?

After a week or so of trying maybe once a night before getting bored and hibernating the DS, I did manage to beat him, and was rewarded with the end of the level in moments. This brought me to the final boss.

I did not beat the final boss. There was no way. I could just barely beat his first form, but his second, more awful form could swat me aside, easily. I tried a bunch of times, but it was clear that either my reflexes or my character wasn’t good enough, and I play an awful lot of video games, so I feel like I probably have above-average reflexes. Please, let me remind you that the gear for your character is obtained by playing levels over again with odd restrictions in place, and most of the levels are uninspired enough that I have very little interest in playing them a second time. Saying that I couldn’t beat the boss due to lack of gear certainly aligns with my pride in a convenient way, so I’ll go with that. Once I was sufficiently bored with dying, I just searched for the boss fight and the final cutscene on youtube. I clicked on the first result I found, and the characters started talking in Japanese. That didn’t bother me, at first. I figured that the plot made no sense to me, anyway, so not being able to understand the dialogue wouldn’t make it any more boring. It bothered me an awful lot, though, when I realized that I was hearing full spoken dialogue when there was no spoken dialogue at all in the version I was playing, except for the odd moment when a Japanese voice-actor, as Japanese voice-actors are wont to do, speaks the occasional word of English while doing a special move. I understand why a small Japanese studio would avoid spoken English dialogue, but it’s still jarring to see. I didn’t even watch that much, anyway. People talked to Gunvolt for a while, and I can now scientifically say that the language barrier actually did make me even less interested in what was going on, so we learned something, too!

The parts of Azure Striker Gunvolt that I liked, I really liked. The running and jumping are precise and fun, and the boss fights are (for the most part) an absolute joy, and those are two of the most important things in run-jump-shoot games. I think this bodes well for Mighty Number Nine. This studio still has a knack for interesting theming, and I have to assume that a full retail release of their new flagship franchise will prompt them to step up the things I can complain about, like level design and repetition. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll finally make the 2D spiritual successor to Dark Souls I’ve been expecting from them for years. Give me something sprawling and merciless with constant character progression and fast-paced, deep combat, and I’ll give you my money for the rest of my life. Just sayin’.

Score time. I hate this part. Especially for this one. If Mighty Number Nine is better than this game, I could maybe go as high as a 6.5 or a 7. If it’s equal to or worse than this game, then Azure Striker Gunvolt dips down to a 4, tops. I like a game to be hard, but not if it makes me repeat the same boring shit over and over again to progress. I have to say, for what it is, which is a download-only game for the Nintendo 3DS, it’s pretty solid. I don’t resent my time spent playing it, but I will now be returning to the copy of the Mega Man Zero Collection I picked up a while back when I want my left-to-right runnin’ fix. Can’t beat the real deal, for now.

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.