The Backlog: Sandbox of Chaos edition


I kinda got carried away with Photoshop this week. You see, Rico Rodriguez, the protagonist from the Just Cause games, is chaotically belly-flopping into a child's sandbox, which serves a visual metaphor for the open-world adventures he stars in. Hence the headline.

With that out of the way, I can tell you this edition of our beloved (by some -- maybe our mothers) Backlog pertains to Nick's first aural experiencing of Axis: Bold as Love, Doug's dusting off of the old Xbox after his adventures in Asia and my unbelieving satisfaction from playing a ton of Just Cause 2.

Backlog - Forza Suzuka
Backlog - Forza Suzuka



And I thought returning to classes after winter break was hard. Adjusting to being at home in the United States, versus being in various hotels around Asia, has taken some doing — never mind doing it while returning to graduate school classes AND trying to fight jet lag.

I've taken a bit of refuge in gaming to relieve stress, and because I hadn't fired up my Xbox 360 in a month! I spent a little bit of time finding Pocari Sweat and JR East logos on the storefront for my cars in Forza 3, driving around Shinjuku and Shibuya in Project Gotham Racing 4 and worked on my second Mass Effect 2 playthrough for a short time as well.

What took more free time, though, was PES 2010 — I'm fully re-addicted to Konami's soccer games, and it feels good. Along with that, I spent time on Tuesday playing a bit of Rock Band 2 for the first time in a while. Nick reminded me that a Jimi Hendrix Experience album, Axis: Bold as Love, was being released for the game last week; I haven't been following RB2's DLC schedule as much as I had in years past, and haven't been as excited for new songs since the middle of last summer. It felt really good to hop on, get an invite from Nick to rock, and get some play time in. I'd been thinking about hosting a Rock Band 2 party at some point this spring; that's definitely going to happen now. (Editor's note: I'm totally going to be there!)

Backlog - Hendrix for Rock Band
Backlog - Hendrix for Rock Band



With Final Fantasy XIII and all its broken promises having been returned to the shelf, I'm back to actually having fun with the games I play -- fancy that!

My love affair with Just Cause 2 (or, as my girlfriend derisively calls it, "Lost Cause") continues to burn passionately. It's just a big, stupid game with more than a few clever ideas and a heart of gold, and I can't recommend it enough to anyone with an appetite for destruction and a flair for open-ended game mechanics.

In order to make up for the hours of excruciating voice acting and mindless violence that dominate my Just Cause 2 playtime, I've been spending a good amount of time playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii co-operatively. Now that we've finally beaten the game (which, by the way, featured the most difficult Bowser fight in any Mario game I can think of) we've begun the exhausting task of hunting down every single star coin in order to tackle the stages in World 9. It's a real credit to Nintendo's ingenuity that I'm still avidly playing a Mario game months after its release.

But the best surprise this week was the latest batch of Rock Band songs, including the entire Jimi Hendrix album Axis: Bold as Love. I'll be honest -- I never knew much about Jimi Hendrix's music. Other than a handful of songs like "Fire," "Hey Joe" and his cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," the closest I ever got to Hendrix was the time I broke the rules and touched his guitar on display at the Experience Music Project. (Please don't sue me, Mr. Allen.) I've found that playing songs in Rock Band is often one of the best ways to gain an appreciation for an artist, and Axis didn't disappoint. Doug and I both grabbed the album and played through the vast majority of it, and it hooked me immediately. It's the rare song collection that speaks for itself, and it's an infinitely replayable addition to any Rock Band collection -- or MP3 library, for that matter. Definitely don't pass this one up.

Backlog - Just Cause 2
Backlog - Just Cause 2



I'm a dabbler in the realm of videogames. I dabble. It's good to keep things varied, in my humble opinion. For example, this week my gaming time has been split between four vastly different games: Final Fantasy XIII, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Pokémon HeartGold and Just Cause 2. The former two games have been discussed at length in previous Backlogs, so I'll talk about the newcomers.

Pokémon means a lot to me, as far as games go. When Red and Blue first released here in the U.S. in 1998 I was 12, and highly impressionable. My friends and I watched the cartoon, played the games and collected the cards. With the onset of puberty we became a bit more reserved in our enjoyment of the merchandising, but the games continued to hold a lofty place -- in my mind at least. The enjoyment of an extremely simple goal, to catch them all, has stayed with me throughout the years, and it's forced me to buy almost all of the various new games in an attempt to recapture the mystique and newness experienced through the original games. From Gold and Silver to Diamond and Pearl, I've bought at least one of the subsequent games, and each time I slip back into the catch-crazed mindset I first felt 12 years ago. The recent release of HeartGold has brought those feelings to the surface again for a sixth time, but each time I arrive in the world of pocket monsters on a quest to defeat a new set of gym leaders, thwart the evil machinations of another group of criminals and capture one more unique cover-photo Pokémon, the thrill of it all diminishes a little bit more. Economics 101 wasn't lying when it told me all about the law of diminishing returns, though it would probably be unhappy with how I'm using the concept as a metaphor for my wavering commitment to a child's videogame series.

I love HeartGold (and I prefer Ho-Oh to Lugia [yes, I know their names still]), and though it may be a rehash of a game from 2000, it's still a rehash of a great game from 2000. The new/old batch of poké-creatures are second only to the original 150 (or 151, depending on which kid in the GameStop you ask) in their design factor. Chikorita, I can assure you, is bad ass. If you fancy yourself even the most fair-weather of Pokémon fans, you should pick up HeartGold or SoulSilver. It's still great fun, but I can't help feeling less and less impressed with the formula as the years go by. Maybe it's time to go all Pepsi on us and try something new, o' great minds at the Pokémon Company.

Onto the topic of Just Cause 2. Are you readers prepared to read a heaping pile of praise? You should get ready to, right now. All set? Okay.

Just Cause 2 is, as of this writing, my new favorite game of 2010. Forget Mass Effect 2, disregard Final Fantasy XIII, ignore Bayonetta and scoff at God of War III -- Just Cause 2 is my kind of game, and I'll tell you why.

A lot of videogames work hard to fill-in the blanks of your imagination and answer the questions you might have by the time the credits slide down the screen. Developers don't always intend to make gamers confused by ignoring this one iota of information here or that plot point there; sometimes it simply happens throughout the development process and gamers are left to figure things out themselves on fan fiction sites and hardcore forums in an effort to tie together all of the threads dangling in front of them. So while I'm enthralled by the history and culture of Mass Effect's universe, and appreciate the great lengths BioWare has gone to cover all of their creation's bases, I don't necessarily want the story to be told for me. On occasion I enjoy imagining a narrative and plot structure by myself -- personal motivations for my character to do whatever he or she is doing at that point in time.

Left 4 Dead and its sequel are good examples of that self-created narrative because the series' mythos is so vaguely explained. You're allowed to decide exactly what type of shady life Nick (the character, not the legal assistant) lead before he was dragged into the zombie apocalypse, or why Bill has what looks like stains of SpaghettiOs on his shirt. The gamer answers the questions of his own accord, and that design strategy pleases me greatly. Which brings me to Just Cause 2, and how it encourages my mind to run wild with imaginative motivations for blowing up helicopters, swimming to an island in the middle of the water and enjoying the beautifully rendered sunrise atop the highest peak in Panau.

Call me a dreamer -- or some dude who thinks too hard about his games -- but 90 percent of the fun I've had in Just Cause 2 has been in exploring the gorgeous landscape of Panau and putting myself into the game -- doing what I'd do if I had that much freedom to romp across a series of island paradises as I pleased (and with no possible need for traveler's checks). I'm not playing as the protagonist Rico on his quest to assassinate a despotic president; the main plot is paper-thin and far too easy to disregard. I've instead removed any of the preexisting narrative and simply traversed the 400 square miles of land, sea and air to seek out my own exciting preoccupations.

I wonder how long it would take to grappling-hook climb that mountain? Let's test it out. Hey, maybe that desolate, unpaved road goes somewhere cool. Nice -- I found an ancient native temple with weapon upgrade parts. There's an entire digital country to explore, and everything I've seen in Panau during the past 20 hours (I work fast: I just got it on Wednesday) has kept me wanting to see more. And in all that time, I've only completed two of the main missions.

Now, all of this virtual wanderlust wouldn't be enjoyable if the core mechanics failed to work right, but thankfully Avalanche Studios has made a top-tier game that controls, sounds, looks and performs far above average. Just Cause 2 is exactly why I play games: to explore new and different worlds on my own terms. I of course enjoy the story-heavy linear experience when it's well done (i.e., BioShock 2, Prince of Persia and Batman: Arkham Asylum), but ever since I played Grand Theft Auto III, and EverQuest shortly thereafter, in 2001, the games that taste sweetest to me are of the sandbox variety. Let me do what I want, and I'll have a great time.

If Rockstar can hurry up with Red Dead Redemption, 2010 will become one highlight of a year for my sort of games.