The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Late to the Game: Grand Theft Auto IV

grand theft auto 4 box cover

This game sucks.

I tried playing this many years ago, but an irritating video stuttering issue stopped me. I thought I just needed a new graphics card, so I archived it until I got a new computer. Now I got a new computer, and it still plays like crap.

Why doesn't GTA IV need a remaster? - Quora
Okay it wasn’t that bad. I just thought this GIF was funny.

I haven’t dived (dove? diven?) into a GTA game in years. Not since Vice City on my PS2 (which I still have). But I don’t remember it like this. I remember vibrant cities and fun stunt ramps and zippy motorcycles and colorful characters (they were misogynist douchebags, but it’s GTA–you have to expect some “unenlightened” material, just like you can’t be surprised when someone slaps his wife in a Martin Scorsese film).

Speaking of Martin Scorsese, the story needs a cocaine injection. It looks like, instead of ripping off Scarface and Goodfellas, they tried to make their own gangster story. This time, it’s Eastern European immigrants in America, the “land of opportunity”, doing drug runs and taking verbal abuse. Like The Departed meets An American Tail. The protagonist is literally just off the boat and his only ally is a loudmouth cousin who sounds like Ali G if he watched nothing but Casino. He beats up loan sharks and takes shit from another equally Eastern European co-worker.

I appreciate the graphical upgrade, but that’s all it is–an upgrade. The textures are in high def, the corners are smoother, but where’s the style? Vice City and GTA3 all had bright skies, colorful buildings. Here, all the colors are washed out and it’s always cloudy. Every day looks like Ireland in Winter. If it wasn’t for the American radio, I would think this game was taking place in whatever Eastern European country the protagonist escaped from.

A Tour Through Russia's Five Poorest Cities
Is it Grand Theft Auto IV? A city in Russia? Can you tell?

The character movements are the weirdest. Previous GTAs didn’t have the best motion capture. Everyone moved like marionettes with mitten hands. But they were marionettes controlled by trained puppeteers. These guys move like they’re in Garry’s Mod.

But most of all it’s boring, boring, boring. Every mission is driving someone somewhere. Maybe you shoot a few dudes. Then you drive back. That’s it. Over and over again. All I’m doing is chauffeur missions. I might as well be playing Crazy Taxi. Except in Crazy Taxi the cars are actually fun to drive. Here, they all control like bricks. I’m always running into something stupid and then slowly backing out to correct my course. Meanwhile the asshole I’m pursuing is getting away.

gif gta 4 gta iv the creatures danznewz danznewzmachinima kootra  createthefuckingchaos •
Here I am on a date oh sorry motocycle guy watch out no big deal right honey?

I’d understand if this is the tutorial level, but here’s the thing: a tutorial introduces you to the basic activities that reflect what the future gameplay is going to be. And none of these activities are enticing me to play the game any further.

The point of GTA is that I can run around and do what I want. I don’t have to follow a storyline to have fun. I know I’m usually the one rooting for linear gameplay, but I like side missions to break up the experience, to go exploring, to see a part the world that I might not if I stick to the main storyline.

Here, I don’t have any reason to do that. Each city block is the same slate gray as the other. I can’t take “odd jobs” like taxi driver, cop, ambulance driver, firefighter, ice cream truck, etc. I can’t shop at the mall, drive RC cars, find hidden packages, do street races.

Maybe it’s early and I don’t have access to the fun stuff yet. But if I have to get through hours of gameplay to get to the “fun stuff” (I’m looking at you Kingdom Hearts 2), it’s not worth it. Or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Saints Row 3 and 4, which took out everything dull and plodding in GTA and replaced it with fun, wacky, bizarre shit like hoverbikes and zombies. Unrealistic? Maybe. But who played video games for realism? The first video game involved a plumber who could super-jump, shoot fireballs, eat mushrooms, and punch bricks.

Late to the Game: The Clone Wars

clone wars star wars cast

Okay, so it’s not a game, but it’s on Disney Plus and it’s got all these characters I’m apparently supposed to know. They show up in other movies and shows and everyone freaks out and I’m supposed to know what it means. Who is Asaaj Ventress? Ahsoka? What is the “Bad Batch”? Bad batch of what? Brownies? So basically, I’m binge-watching to catch up on Star Wars lore.

It’s… it’s not very good. The animation is cheesy and crappy. I’m not a fan of the character designs, from Ahsoka’s flat chin to Palpatine’s raisin skin. Everyone looks like an action figure. Which I suppose is expected, since that’s always been Star Wars’s biggest money-maker.

The serial format is cute. Reminds me of the old-timey WWII films the original Star Wars was inspired by. But it also seems like fight-fight-fight. No plot, no character development. Just blasters and lightsabers flying back and forth with stories as thin as paper. Most of the series is story arcs of 2-4 episodes. The problem is, not all of these have anything to do with the mythology, which is what I’m here for.

I watched it expecting to have all this lore explained. A whole war takes place between Episode II and III. Clone Wars should have been the unnecessary-but-nice-to-have side story that describes what took place. Why does Anakin have a scar? What happens that causes the Jedi’s council not to give him master rank? Who is Ahsoka? Where did she come from? Why does she have two different colored lightsabers? (Several bad guys have two, but it’s uncharacteristic for Jedi to have anything but the single basic model.)

Where did General Grievous come from? What’s his rivalry with Obi-Wan Kenobi? But nope, Anakin starts the series with his scar. Ahsoka just shows up and is assigned as Anakin’s padawan. And suddenly, in season two, she has a second lightsaber. Did they just want to sell more toys?

Anakin suddenly has a student of his own? Is he no longer under Obi-Wan’s tutelage? He’s barely out of Jedi diapers himself. Is that appropriate during a war? I thought his apprenticeship ended at the beginning of Episode III, where Palpatine appoints him his personal envoy. What’s the point of having a canon if they never explain these Chekhov’s guns? That’s why I’m watching–to see the origin of these little touches.

The dialogue is trite and useless, like filler. Someone is always telling someone else “be careful”, “stay sharp”, “proceed with caution” before doing something dangerous. Like are they ever going to do otherwise? They’re constantly doing dangerous stuff. Are they ever going to say “go in riding a dewback, guns blazing, looking like you have googly eyes.” It’s not like anyone of importance can die. Grievous, Dooku, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Palpatine, Windu, Yoda. We know they all live to Episode III, so there’s no tension. Plus, the episodes with Jar-Jar prove going in with no caution or heed works just as well.

The only one that can experience any consequences is Ahsoka, but she can’t because she’s the main character. She’s the audience surrogate–the one who gets expositioned to and closest in target age. The hand-chosen kid who gets to wield a lightsaber and learn under Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker. I like Ahsoka’s character. Even if she starts out whiny (“but we’re not supposed to!”, “but we should follow orders!” “But that’s not what the general said!”) she has the most character development. She actually learns her lessons. Her transition is subtle and earned. And now that I’ve seen more seasons, I see where her appeal lies.

But it feels like there’s no imagination in the stories. The content feels like something Mike Teavee would be into–lots of explosions and people dying (robots and clones) and guns blasting.

Speaking of blasters, the funniest part is how incompetent everyone is. I’d love to see a percentage of “Number of blaster shots fired” over “Actual targeted object hit”. I bet it’s something like .001%. Star Wars has always had a tradition of never hitting anything. But Clone Wars takes it to a whole new level. There’s one scene where Ahsoka is trapped in a four-way corridor with twenty clones and droids on either side. And no one’s getting hit, least of all Ahsoka. She doesn’t even move or do Jedi gymnastics to avoid it.

It’s like Cobra Kai–everyone has marshmallow punches, no one ever gets tired, no ever draws blood. Are the guns designed to act this way? I guess the cost for having infinite ammo is that your accuracy goes down to zero. Likewise, the armor does jackshit. I saw a clone trooper wearing a helmet get punched out. If that can happen, your helmet sucks.

Speaking of badly designed technology, these droids are the worst. You would think an army full of disposable soldiers without the trappings of human error would be a windfall. But they’re terrible. I have more confidence in my off-brand Roomba killing someone, and it’s constantly getting stuck. They’re robots–they should be intelligent and rational like Data or Hal 9000. That would be an unstoppable army. Instead the strategy seems to be overwhelming numbers of replaceable, recyclable troops. Because they can’t hit anything, can’t take a hit themselves, aren’t strong, aren’t dextrous, have neither insight nor intelligence, and no superhuman abilities like reaction time or flight. These guys, a Jedi jumps between them. “Hey… you… shouldn’t… be… here…” Slash.

All in all, the only gap Clone Wars fills out is how significant they were in Star Wars lore. It’s just a throwaway line in “A New Hope”, but here we see what a war hero Anakin Skywalker, how it makes his name. And how meaningful his downfall is–from hero of the Republic to blackguard of the empire. But I wish I had watched just the mythology episodes. My dream of Clone Wars redeeming the prequel trilogy did not come to fruition.

And fuck Jar-Jar Binks. He still sucks.

Late to the Game: Transistor

transistor stabbing video game

I really liked Bastion. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the art style. I liked the fantasy-Western aesthetic. I liked the music. I liked the simple hack-n-slash gameplay combined with the “earn upgrades to get new moves”. I’m a sucker for that kind of game–where the objective is “grow stronger to defeat your enemies”.

So when I learned the same developers were creating a follow-up to their breakout hit, I jumped in feet first. It was going to be a little different–a computery cyberpunk feel and starring a slender well-to-do woman. But good art begets another. This game was called “Transistor” and released in 2014.

I’ve attempted playing it three times and only now have I gotten past the first level.

Not because it’s hard. But because it was boring. The problem was I had to get past the tutorial to understand where the game’s “fun” was.

One part is the “Turn()” system, which is a little like Fallout, where you can choose between real-time combat or queue up a series of instantaneous actions at the cost of a cooldown. The trick is to plan your attacks and movements efficiently.

The other part is the actions you get. Each one you get can be its own action, an enhancement to another move, or an enhancement to your character. Mix and match to try new combinations and see what best fits your style.

So that part’s fun for me, but it’s no good unless the game answers a crucial question — what’s the point?

I keep asking myself — why am I here? What am I doing? What am I trying to do? Is there anyone else here besides my talking sword? Who is my talking sword? Why does he talk? Am I inside some kind of Tron-world where everyone’s a sentient program? Who is my enemy? What are they? Why are they trying to stop me? Why am I trying to get through them? Where am I going?

In Bastion, it’s quite clear — some “Calamity” has broken up the world, generated all these weird monsters. You need to find the pieces of the Bastion to “fix it”, although you don’t quite know what it does until the end. And along the way you discover interesting tidbits about the world’s culture and characters, like uncovering a fossil.

There’s nothing like that in Transistor. It’s just you–another silent protagonist–and your chatty sword. There are no people in this world, just mute monsters. Oh, unless you like reading. Yeah, I guess each move is a person? And you can read about them in your encyclopedia when you pick them up. Long paragraphs about these people’s lives and what they did for the empty city you’re in. Because when I play an action-RPG, the part I like best is reading. Especially about characters you never meet.

You never encounter these people, never talk to them. They never show up in flashbacks or diaries laying around (either Resident Evil or Bioshock variety). I might as well hit the “Random Page” button on Wikipedia. If there’s no context to the descriptions, if it never matters in the game, then why should I give a shit about reading it. I wonder how many man-hours were spent on these biographies that were probably the least accessed part of the game.

The very first scene of the game has you standing in front of a man slumped over and stabbed with your giant circuit-board sword. You take it out and start moving. That’s it. The sword seems to imply you have a previous relationship (it calls her “Red”), but you don’t know if you stabbed the guy, discovered him, if that’s your sword or you just found it, who is in the sword, why you were there in the first place, and so on. There’s even a little flashback scene where it shows that, no, you didn’t stab him, just discovered him, but that’s it.

The game is essentially “walk the infinite hallway”, broken up by occasional battles. Your sword is supposed to be guiding you, but really there’s no way you can deviate from the path. He occasionally chimes in about where you are in a gravelly voice. “Hey, Red, look, it’s the Barkland Heights.” “Looks abandoned… wonder where everyone is.” “What a night. You’re still in one piece. That’s all that matters.” “Here he comes.” “Yeah, good call.” Really useful stuff, but it’s the only narrative color the game gets.

I hate games with this “story amnesia”. The characters know everything that’s going on, but we don’t. We, the player, have to piece together what happened, making the story part of the gameplay. I don’t want to play a game like that. A story shouldn’t be a puzzle. Well, I guess it can, like in Memento or a mystery novel, but in Transistor, it distracts. The player character knows where she is and who she is, but we, the player don’t.

Also just a basic storytelling mistake. And it’s especially bad in a video game, where you need to give your player motivation to play. This isn’t an unreliable narrator. It’s not trying to demonstrate something about the reader/player’s prejudices. It’s omitting or hiding information for the sake of drama. But it doesn’t add suspense, just confusion. That’s ludonarrative dissonance. It’s like in Bioshock: Infinite. You have this deep meditation on fate and American exceptionalism and alternate realities and quantum theory… but then you also grind someone’s face to a pulp with a rotating gear tool.

At least in Bastion, the story was simple enough that keeping things vague didn’t have much of an impact. When the puzzle pieces are big, you can kinda tell what the picture is anyway. But here, where you’ve got terms and jargon that never get a definition, that’s where my frustration lives. And I have a bad feeling the ending’s going to make as much sense as Birdman.

Late to the Game: Diablo

diablo logo

So I bought some retro games over the Coronavirus outbreak because my computer is too slow to play anything new (and has been for several years now).

One of them was called Diablo, which passed over my radar when it made its big splash in the nineties. I think I played the shareware version of it (ah, ♪shareware♪) , but never got interested. I wasn’t into PC games then. I had an N64 and the world was my oyster.

This is said oyster.

After playing Dusk I’d realized how much I missed my old Doom and Quake clones, so I bought Heretic and Hexen and some others like Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Diablo. The best thing about retro games is that they’re so cheap. And you don’t notice the bad graphics because you’re old and nostalgic.

When I got to Diablo, I played a little bit and realized it was really fun. I thought it’d be closer to Starcraft–needing strategy and placement rules. But it’s just another rat-in-a-maze hack-and-slash with RPG elements and an isometric view. The movement is wonky, probably because of the perspective, and it’s hard to figure out the mechanics when you start. For some reason you don’t even get a map in town.

It reminded me of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I played the shit out that with my friend on the PS2 and I still haven’t found a decent replication of it anywhere else. We creamed over the piles of gold and monsters and leveling up and swords with names like “Keen Masterwork Broadsword of Frostiness +1”. I didn’t realize it at the time but Baldur’s Gate felt fresh and fun where IT was the clone of Diablo.

But there’s a problem.

Because there are RPG elements, the game does not increase your potency– the amount of damage you can do–until you kill so many baddies. And baddies don’t respawn. So I’m stuck on level 9 and I can’t get past a big clump of bad guys around a corner. Ranged weapons aren’t working (partially because they have them too, partially because they seem to be unaffected). I can’t duck in and out because I have no cover. I can’t bait one to follow me, because they’re in some kind of cage.

So now I’m just stuck. I bought this game and there’s no way to move ahead, short of some time-consuming tactics (i.e. chuck one arrow at a time until the healing potions are used up, make the long trek back to town, buy more, make the long trek back, repeat). There aren’t even cheat codes to let me progress.

I hate the way these old PC games were just too hard because of cheap tricks and ludodissonant advantages. By “ludodissonance” I mean a fireball hits me even though I wasn’t anywhere near it because of the wonky 3-D view. Or I dodged into it because of the wonky movement. Resident Evil had the same problem — you could easily dodge those slow moving zombies, but the tank controls limit your agility, even though no human being moves like that.

Warcraft and Warcraft II were the same way. I wanted to beat them on my own merit, but I got frustrated that my men weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. Either I didn’t click on them right or they decided to fight a different guy or they’re attacking a house and ignoring the orc pounding them or because the path-finding AI is TERRIBLE. Seriously, there’s only nine maps. Couldn’t you playtest this a little better to make they don’t go the long way around the forest and get stuck? It’s like they’re too stupid to know there’s no straight line through the cave wall.

Once a guy built a farm, got stuck in a corner, and I had to kill him to free up my resources

Let’s just put a hundred bad guys together and call it difficulty. Ganged up, they take half my health in three seconds. And then let’s design the game so that you get stronger the more monsters you kill, but then never give you new monsters to kill. Seriously, I’ve killed everyone on each floor — I should be at least able to take enough punches without chugging all eight of my potions.

I’m just gonna play Bioshock 2 again. At least I know A) it works on my PC B) someone put some time into figuring out the level of challenge.

Late to the Game: Dusk

dusk header

Let me tell you about a game I’ve been playing lately. I don’t talk about positive things very much on this blog (especially lately) so allow me to gush for a few hundred words. Not even a gush. More of a spurt.

It’s called Dusk. It’s a retro first-person shooter valentine to games like Quake, Doom, and Blood. Personally, I think it’s closest to Hexen II, but nobody played that game, so the comparisons are fine. It evokes the days when fireballs shot from nowhere, blood was arcing cubes, and there were no waypoint markers.

These days I find myself liking the old games better than the new ones. My computer’s getting old so I haven’t been able to play anything new and good for a few years now. The triple AAA games like The Witcher 3 and Rocket League and even Batman: Arkham Knight are off the table. Even games from 5-8 years ago, I have to lower my resolution lower than I prefer so I can have a decent frame rate. I love Dishonored, but I can’t play the sequel until I get a new computer.

The last game I tried playing was Assassin’s Creed III and it was just boring. Lots of cutscenes with uncanny valley people and walking from one straight line to another. The combat looks complex but it’s just one-button mashing. The guy’s a superman compared to the cronies so there’s no challenge. Even when you’re fighting eight guys they wait their turn and then you wait for the triangle over their heads. The game is basically playing itself. It just needs a little input to activate the next sequence of cutscenes and–quote–gameplay.

Dusk has many many fewer A’s than Assassin’s Creed III. And yet, I’m still having more fun with it. It’s nice to go back to the days when environments were bleak and dismal, not because it was the fashion, but because that was the mood and tone they wanted. A jump away from the bleeps and boops of Mario 3 or Jazz Jackrabbit. The kind of games that made your parents worry. Yes, it is fun to be a rat in a maze, as long as the rat has a BFG or nailgun to mow down grunt soldiers and shapeless demons. And story? Who needs it? Shoot ’em in the head! Press A, motherfucker, press A!

It’s not without flaws. Overall, it feels like a chunky fanmod, which can be a good thing. Fanmods are made out of love, not profit. So that means the gameplay is solid, even if the graphics are not. Characters walk around a little like marionettes, like someone is holding sticks to their legs (reminds me a little of Half-Life 1, especially the asssassins). Some of the sounds are weird, like when you walk through toxic ooze, it gives this “boink” indication that you got hurt. It lacks the finishing polish games like Quake had, where the animations are tuned right and the maps are user-tested.

It’s just a neat game, and I wanted to call more attention to it. It deserves it–it’s cheap, it’s retro, it’s tonally gory, and it suits my sensibilities just fine. Certainly more than spending a hundred hours collecting every little trinket in whatever GTA clone of the month there is.

Late to the Game: Baldur’s Gate

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

So after my disappointment in The Witcher, I decided to try another old RPG — Baldur’s Gate (the enhanced edition).

When I was younger I played a co-op game with my friend on the PS2 called Baldur’s Gate. This must have been something different than what I got now, because I remember blasting rats in the basement with magic missiles and getting excited at finding a +2 Sword of Frost that actually froze enemies. This is more like an RTS, like Command & Conquer or Starcraft, except without resource gathering. And you only get six guys.

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

I did actually try this out when I got it, but the tutorial made me too anxious. That’s a lot of individual characters you gotta work with. How does Find Traps work? Combat got over so quickly I didn’t know how to do it. There’s lesson after lesson about moving, clicking, casting, etc. What happens if you die? What are all these commands? Is my mage going to waste all his magic missiles shooting at a jar? I didn’t really understand how to play.

So I put it aside and played some other (simpler) games for a while. I didn’t know if I’d ever pick it up again. It looks like an old game, like DOS era, so it’s not like something I need to put into my “classics I’ve played” bag.

But I came back to it and now I love it. Pretty much spent my entire December vacation playing it. It’s like a solo Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but with none of that disgusting “being around other people” crap.

I’ve gotten pretty attached to these characters. When it comes time for inventory management I say things like “OK, you need this and you should have this, and can you have this?” or “Dynaheir, where are you? Get over here” and “Xan, will you shut up.” I’d love to trade Xan out, but I haven’t found another sorcerer/magician person. It’s all fighters and thieves, which I started with.

The character movement is a little slow, but it’s nowhere near Witcher speeds [Editor’s Note: I found a way to instantly bring characters to your cursor using some minor console cheats. Now to avoid the temptation of using others.] My favorite part is the exploration. It’s kind of Starcraft where you’ve got a “fog of war” that’s all black until a character moves into it. Then it clears up, but if you go away, it fades. And now you know the terrain, but you don’t know if some gang of hobgoblins or a basilisk is going to be there when you get back.

Character management is still a problem. Sometimes my 7 HP mage keeps trying to go toe-to-toe with a pack of wild dogs.

Next time I’m going to play as an evil party. The dialogue choices aren’t varied, but that’s been a pattern for a long time (I’m looking at you Bioshock). So while it was fun to “play the character”, they really only give you choices between “be a noble hero” and “be a jerk.” I had people leave my party because I had too much reputation–I thought it was a glitch. Next time–let’s see what happens if I’m a bad boy.

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

Late to the Game: The Witcher

the witcher cross-eyed

I bought this on a Steam sale a LONG, long time ago, as part of a bundle with all the The Witcher games. The Witcher 3 was getting a lot of praise at the time. And I think Wild Hunt had come out? I think that’s like a expansion or the name of the “special edition”. Whatever it is, I finally started it after finishing The Stanley Parable and Torchlight.

Well, first there’s the production logos. And then there’s a long cutscene (really a short cartoon) with The Witcher fighting this werewolf thing. It all seems very Van Helsing and Hansel & Gretel. Bunch of impossible jumps, collateral damage, and no innocents harmed. And this has nothing to do with what follows (which is another bunch of cutscenes). I feel like that previous action sequence was either some kind of bonus content for the Enhanced Edition or meant to draw the player in. Because what follows certainly doesn’t.

exciting boring street signs

All of the sudden he’s getting carried somewhere on a cart despite defeating the wolf thing. And I don’t know who these people are and they’re taking you to some castle. And there’s talking and there’s old men and there’s a singular woman and they’re still talking and some bandits are now attacking and there’s still talking and now there’s a tutorial and I’m wondering when the hell I’m going to get to play.

cutscene

I mean, I like a game with story. But there’s story and then there’s having a preface to the prologue to the introduction. (Plus all the time I spent getting my controls working the way I want and adjusting the graphics settings for frame rate/detail balance).

So now I’m getting used to my sword and the combat is apparently based on clicking. I guess it’s in the timing of the clicks–you don’t press combo buttons or anything like that. All you really change is your combat style–fast, strong, or wide. At first I liked it because it was simple, but then it felt too simple. Too dry. It’s boring when you’re fighting a guy and waiting on the click. I wanted to play The Witcher, not Guitar Hero.

witcher combat
Click, click, click, like Farmville

Then cutscene, cutscene, cutscene, more running around. I still don’t know who I am, who’s attacking, why they’re attacking, who the other people are, or why I should care about any of this. Nor do I have any real freedom to explore or get used to my controls, I got thrust into combat right away. I think that’s a big mistake. Video games need to give you a chance to get used to the world and how you move. It’s establishing the “normal” before getting all crazy. Especially with a new IP. Half-Life did this. Zelda games always do this. Super Metroid, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, I could go on.

All right, this castle is the tutorial level. But they still give you sidequests, but before you know how to do them or how to finish them, it takes you to the first level/chapter.

And before we get to that, let’s talk about the menu for a bit. In order to level up your character, there’s a small skill tree for various stats and swording skills. But you have to meditate in front of a fire to commit your changes. Also, there’s a pharmacy-mixing portion, where you can gather ingredients to make buffs from potions. These, along with inventory items are all in tiny little boxes on your character. With drugs, I don’t know what the point in seeing them is, because I can see if the potion is enabled or disabled. And the items of the same type stack, but not unique types. So I can have 10 loaves of bread, but not a scarf if the grid is full.

witcher 1 menu
Hope you like tiny icons

My point is that this is needlessly complex. Why do I get medallions instead of EXP points? Why do these buffs take 5 ingredients plus a base? Can I mix things together without a recipe, like Breath of the Wild? No, you can’t. Someone needs to give you the recipe or you read it. Consequence of your laser-guided amnesia I guess. (BTW the books, that have a one-time use to gain knowledge, stay in your inventory). Even FFX made more sense, and at least it did the math for you.

So after some confusing conversations, you can start wandering around the world. If you’re smart enough to know to open doors, you can leave the little fort and explore the open world. Well, as open as it gets for a small village. There’s a few landmarks around, several characters to talk to for both main and side quests, items to fetch for them (the classic “light the five torches around town”). It’s like a text adventure.

witcher meditation
Witchers be meditatin’

Combat occurs only at night, but time moves very slowly in this world, not like Zelda. And the enemies aren’t much to speak of. They stand there and get hit. My only challenge came from getting the combat system down. I breezed through every fight and I was on normal. It’s just clicking, like a Facebook game.

The world is dingy and gray and foggy. You have to look at the map a lot because everything looks the same. You don’t walk quickly and there’s no fast travel (I even looked up a mod for it). I’d say I spent 90% of the game walking from one place to another. The characters stand stock still when they deliver their lines. Men are power-hungry nobles, fat and drunk. Women are hot wenches.

witcher 1 dingy landscape houses
Have I been here before? How would I know?

The breaker for me was the sex thing. I don’t want to have sex in a video game. I don’t want sex to be part of a video game. Whenever I encounter it, it turns me off from the game. There’s never been a time where it hasn’t. It’s icky and creepy. But this one took the cake. Basically any woman in the game is someone you can bed down. It’s part of the dialogue options, if you pick the correct one.

abigail witcher 1
All the women look like this, hot and plastic

And when you finally do the deed, it doesn’t show anything. It just kind of fades around in colors. But you get a trading card for that person. That’s gross in itself, like these are achievements to collect. But the card is pretty dirty. It’s not like an artful Renaissance nude or a 50’s Bettie Page pin-up. No it’s a sweaty, curvy redhead humping… something.

witcher romance card
This is one of the tame ones

This game reminds me a lot of Conan the Barbarian. Not the environment so much, but the idea there’s this invincible superhero laying waste to all the evil soldiers and bedding all the women. His only vulnerability is his loss of memory. And all that does is give the game a chance to infodump on you without looking like it is.

conan the barbarian movie sword arnold

So it didn’t surprise me when I found out it was a book first. Not one I’ve heard of, but I imagine it can be compared to Robert E. Howard. The covers certainly make it look like that. So all this turns out to be is male wish fufillment. One based in some pretty mundane fantasy trappings for boys, like Red Sonja and He-Man. Not sure why it’s so popular. Maybe Witcher II gets better.

Late to the Game: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild cover

So when I got my Switch for my birthday, I also got Super Mario Odyssey, Kirby: Star Allies, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When I finished Skyward Sword, I had said no more to Zelda. I was sick of them getting the big new stuff right, but getting the old little things wrong. Like forcing obnoxious motion controls, repetitious & dumbass messages like “you got a red rupee! It’s worth (20) rupees!” for the hundredth time, weird-ass characters like Groose and Ghirahim (as unpleasant as he is unpronounceable). But everyone’s declared Breath of the Wild the bestest game on the Switch, nay, mayhaps the world, 10/10, four stars. Also I didn’t buy it, my wife did (at this point she’s more into Zelda than I am). So it’s not my fault–I had this Zelda forced upon me.

So sure, let’s boot it up. The whole family is gathered in front of the TV like it’s one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. And the first thing we see is a light (go towards the light, Link!) Then … words! Holy schneikes, someone’s actually speaking to me. Using dialogue! In English! (with a slight British twang.) That’s never happened in a Zelda game. You’re always having to fill in the voices with whatever they provide from occasional chirps and grunts.

Link wakes up Breath of the Wild

Okay, then Link wakes up as water drains from the sarcophagus he’s lying in. Looks like he’s been in some cryonic sleep, like Han Solo out of carbonite. There’s some huge pillar above him, and then a console lights up. Isn’t this how Alien started?

Ripley in cryo chamber

It sure as hell looks like a spaceship. (If it walks like a cuccoo, swims like a cuccoo…)

So you get the Wii U Gamepad Sheikah Slate from the console, then head into another room. Could be storage, could be a hallway. There’s some rotten barrels and chests containing shoddy clothes (not the traditional green garb). My youngest comments that the aesthetic is just like Black Panther, which I enthusiastically agree with. Zelda’s been trending this way ever since the Tingle Tuner in TWW. It blossomed in Skyward Sword with the robots and time travel and companion who speaks like C-3PO. It’s going from swords-and-sorcery to this quasi-technological design closer to science fiction tropes. (BTW, my youngest also chooses not to equip Link’s shirt, because she likes him bare-chested.)

Then the real door opens up and we see the vast, vast, VAST land of Hyrule.

Mr. Burns Vast Fortune field simpsons

Wow, it’s beautiful. There’s Death Mountain. And there’s Hyrule Castle. It all looks so far away. A thousand times bigger than Hyrule field in Ocarina of Time. And it’s all one piece, not broken up into “lands” like Skyward Sword. You can walk from one end to the other without interruption, like Grand Theft Auto, but no buildings or people. And my kids are weirded out because the only Zelda they’ve ever played is The Wind Waker. So they’re not used to a Hyrule not underwater.

Speaking of people, there’s a figure down the slope to the left. And we discover that it’s… Old Man! He’s back! I have to explain to my kids “No, you don’t understand. This guy is from the very first Zelda game. He’s the first person you meet. And he hasn’t really shown up since.”

old man from breath of the wild zelda
“Hey man, it’s great to see you. Where have you been the past thirty-five years? I’ve missed you. What have you been up to? Sorry I ate your apple.”

Time for a little exploring. We go to the ruined temple further down (is this the Temple of Time? hm…) and see the first enemy. Not a hundred percent sure what it is, but definitely a blin of some kind. Stands out like a sore thumb–cartoony pink against green. Luckily, we found an axe. Not a sword, an axe. So this means we’ll get to have different weapons? Cool. We also get a bow a little later. Whoa, this is WAY earlier than you should be getting the bow. No Zelda game before it has had it this early. Usually it comes midway through, because a long-range weapon is just too powerful early in the game, before you’ve mastered swordplay.

In fact, no other Zelda game has started like this, with complete access to a giant world. Usually you have to tool around your home village for half an hour. Gotta talk to everyone, read block after block of text. Maybe do some stupid mini-game. Someone asks you to “Press B” to show how high you can jump. But here… everything’s so empty. Why? Where is everybody? I know Smoky Snake Ganon is sinewing around the castle. Maybe that’s affecting someone. But there’s not even the sign of an occasional hotspot. Or regions with other sentient species like Koroks or Mogmas. Not even an obnoxious fairy that hides in your sword and reminds you your Wiimote batteries are low.

vast field empty

There’s no towns. No passerbys. Barely any animals–just butterflies and an occasional bird. No man-made structures. No rupees or hearts when you break a bush. Not even a running mailman. It’s all nature. Even lacks the bright snappy colors–everything is doused grass-green. I feel like the last man on Earth. With the breakable weapons, crafting recipes, and health from food instead of hearts, it feels more like Skyrim (author’s note: I’ve never played Skyrim).

P.S. One of the last things we did was get the Sheikah Tower activated (warping early too? Damn, son.) My eldest daughter is controlling it, and we’re supposed to find a way down. She looks over the side, wondering what to do. “Should I jump?” she asks. Mom says “No, don’t jump”, but me and youngest say “Jump! Jump!” We all know full well what’s going to happen. She jumps and of course, dies. And we all laugh. No one’s going to find her body either, having dropped into a little nest of boulders out of line of sight.

sheikah tower
Oh come on, don’t tell me you wouldn’t jump off of this too. Just once.

Late to the Game: Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's Creed logo

This game is simply not that good. I do not know how it got a dozen sequels out of it, but playing the first did not make me want to play any others. It’s too repetitive and colorless.

First thing I gotta complain about is the poor PC port. Couldn’t see the opening movie, but could hear it. Took forever to figure out a way to get my XBox controller emulator with it, and then it wouldn’t save the configuration. I ended up just leaving the game on all the time, so now Steam thinks I’ve played Assassin’s Creed for 142 hours. Either the data miners at Valve are going to think I frickin’ love staring at sand-gray buildings or I’m really bad at the game.

assassin's creed viewpoint city
Weather Report: Brown with scattered taupe

That, coupled with the fact it takes about ten minutes to shut down the program. First you press escape, then exit. Except it’s “Exit Memory”, not exit game. You go back to the animus (more about that later) which does its hi-tech, green-blue thing. Then you need to exit animus. Then you slooowly get out. Then you have to press start and say Exit Game. Except you don’t. Now you’re back at the main menu, which forces you to select your save profile again to get to the screen where you can finally get back to Windows.

altair viewpoint assassin's creed
Hmm, now how do I get down?  Ah, I got it — a 50,000-foot drop into a hay bale should be okay.

OK, a bad UI can be forgiven–game designers may not be savvy about intuitive interfaces. So then the game starts, and you get plunged into a small tutorial level taking place in Heaven. It shows you all the skills you’re not going to need to get through the next level, which is some cave. Except you don’t know who the hell you are, or where you’re trying to get to or who you are. And this is kinda more important here than in most games, because you’re really some poor schmoe bartender being transported back via “genetic memory” in some kind of time-travel/hyperbaric chamber. So identity is thematic here.

Speaking of the animus (the horizontal TARDIS) what the hell is the point of this machine? There is no gameplay associated with this framing device. You slowly walk to your bed, then walk back to the chamber, then back to bed, then back to the chamber. All this place does is serve as exposition. It’s just a little break between assassinations. I played Candy Crush Saga on my iPod while they were going on.

And you need those breaks because the gameplay is repetitive. Every mission is the same. Go into a city, run madly through the streets and rooftops until you reach one of the three destinations where you do some mini-game that is either “assassinate 1-3 guys without triggering a witness”, “pickpocket someone”, or “sit on a bench”. They give you way more of these than you need to complete the mission, but every one is the same thing. No eye-opening story tidbits or easter eggs, no leveling up (you only get new abilities after each mission). Just gameplay extending, meaningless collectibles.

altair assassin's creed
Fifty citizens need to be saved, held by the exact same guys, saying the exact same things each time.  I was expecting one of them to tell me about their arrow to the knee.

I was hoping from something close to Dishonored, but it’s really Prince of Persia: Open World. It doesn’t matter how stealthy you are, or how patient you are, nearly every objective is the same — fight some guys. And the combat is ridiculous. It’s not designed to be the core mechanic, but there’s so much of it (all the Save Citizen missions, and all the other times you trip combat). It’s sluggishly slow, consists of single sword strokes against single opponents (even though they surround you and take potshots). It doesn’t let you throw knives or do a sneak-behind throat slash or use any of the tools you gain throughout. The actual gameplay is more based on parkour — how can you run efficiently so you can climb walls and jump gaps.

And then, after I went through all that, hours and minutes of gameplay more monotonous than an arcade game from 1985, it ends on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger?! All I wanted to find out was why anyone cared about shoving this Joe Blow in Michael Jackson’s old oxygen tent. And after all that you still don’t know. They make you play the second game. Fuck that, Ubisoft. YouTube was invented for a reason.

Late to the Game: Fallout: New Vegas

fallout new vegas

This is another game I got during the summer Steam sale. As you can see, I take my time on these things. I’ve never played other Fallout games and the closest I’ve come to an FPS RPG are those simple “you can upgrade your weapons” mechanics. Little customization beyond abilities.

I’ve only been playing in short spurts because, to be honest, the game is kinda boring. It takes a long time to get past the world-building, then the main character’s backstory, then the character customization which goes on and on. And I have no idea what character I want to be, so I just end up being myself. The simple fact is I don’t know how the different skills and perks factor into the gameplay, so it’s like a bunch of quiz-taking for nothing. Like in the beginning of Kingdom Hearts.

fallout new vegas screenshot guy
“Sarah Connor?”

I’m not sure why bother making an FPS game with RPG attributes. You can either do battle the “run and gun”/”strafe and aim” way or switch to “matrix time” and target limbs a la Vagrant Story. Neither of these elements feels particularly immersive.

Maybe it’s just because I got done playing Dishonored, but it feels really dissonant when a character walks right past a corpse and does nothing (not that the guards in Dishonored were any smarter beyond that). Here’s the thing. I should be able to sneak behind a guy and do a one-hit kill — slice his nads open or tase him in the rectum. But instead, you make a hit, do a little damage, then he turns around and you trade bullets like snowballs. I know this was made three years ago, but you should be able to choke the guy out if the game gives you the ability to be stealthy and sneak up on people.

fallout new vegas screenshot road
Let’s see… I can go to that brown hill or… that brown mound… or that brown area over there.

Maybe it’s cause I’m starting early, but the game is just going really slow. I run slow, I reload slow, my weapons are slow, the story is slow people die slow. To be honest, I’m still not sure what my main goal is.  And battle is ridiculous. It’s not like these guys are demons or zombies. They take bullet after bullet after bullet and don’t die.

fallout new vegas screenshot guy
Armor can’t protect everything

I don’t like the amnesia thing. And it’s sooooo common for that in RPGs or character creation mechanics. I’m alone all the time. I miss the old days where I had a party. Where I had a relationship to the characters instead of drop-in/drop-out like a ronin.  Your character is generic, so you can’t form a relationship based on personality dynamics.

I wish it was more like Final Fantasy 7. You still had the amnesia plot, but it wasn’t like you started from zero. You had a relationship with Tifa. Through Tifa, you knew Barret. Through one of Barret’s missions, you found Aeris. And so on and so on as the adventure continued. You formed a cohesive team with characters you grew with and cared about. The characters in Fallout: NV feel like animatronic robots at Disneyworld.

fallout new vegas screenshot jukebox dog
“I… am… job…”

The dialogue has no guff because it can’t go based on your personality because you don’t have one. You can’t roleplay because the game doesn’t really change based on your attributes.  There are barter and speech attributes, but those are A) very ludodissonant (a la a Dungeon & Dragons charisma stat) and B) only for getting information. And I haven’t mentioned the bugs.  The game’s saved me from a lot of fights because animals got stuck in the ground.

fallout new vegas screenshot robot
Needs more robots

So this is a game I’m on the fence about continuing. The environment looks so blah — brown desert and more brown desert — so I have no desire to explore.  And growth/getting stronger doesn’t feel worth it.  Those are two core RPG mechanics that need to work for a game like this.  And I’m wandering around aimlessly and feeling generally weak. I’m trying to play the system, not the game.