The Backlog: Welcome to Bright Falls, Sponsored by Energizer Batteries edition

What's scarier: Fending off legions of possessed townsfolk while armed only with a flashlight? Or witnessing a Pacific Northwest polluted with countless billboards promoting batteries and a cell phone carrier?

In my experience, neither one is too frightening, but you'll probably be sick of both of them by the end of Alan Wake.

Our gaming exploits have taken us from the soccer pitches of Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 and the wilds of the turn-of-the-century American West to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and the, uh, Mario-shaped planetoid-turned-spaceship that Mario used to travel the universe to make Bowser regurgitate the power stars he'd eaten (!?). In other words, it's been a long week.

Doug

Since it's been raining like winter — Portland has already doubled its average monthly rainfall total for the month of June in all of four days — and I've had plenty of free time the last week or so, I've put quite a bit of time into my 360. Two games more than anything else this week: PES 2010 and Red Dead Redemption.

One of the more shocking things I saw this week was when I (finally) looked at the accumulated stats page for PES 2010. Apparently I've put more than 110 hours into the game since I got it in December. Let that sink in a little bit: 100 plus hours into a game. That's...pretty unreal. I'm not terribly surprised — in retrospect, I feel like I've played enough over the last five and a half months to justify that number — but seeing it quantified still is kind of stunning.

That said, it's still one of the games where I can fire up the save and get lost for a few hours. I'm into the third full season with my primary save, using Italian giants AS Roma, and I've finally won both the Italian league and Champions League. I'm into one of my favorite phases of a long-term sports game save, and that's the point where my roster changes are accumulating and the team is becoming mine. The squad plays the way I want to play, features players I've purchased or discovered, and young talents have developed into starters and stars. It's also good to see how, long-term, PES' Master League mode brings new players into the game. A staple of the past four or five PES games has been "resurrecting" old players as fresh, young talent; with PES 2010's additions of Youth Teams as the primary method of acquiring these players, it's provided a good reason for you to invest in that as opposed to just buying other teams' players.

An example: My youth team just produced a 16-year-old Irish kid who is an astounding 85 overall and a carbon copy of Argentinian midfielder Javier Mascherano, who will be starting for his country in the World Cup starting next weekend. That 85 overall rating makes this kid one of the best players on my team....at 16! Unbelievable. I'm expecting more good news as previews of PES 2011 rattle out; after all, what's an addict to do when he needs a yearly fix?

I know we've been talking quite a bit about Red Dead Redemption, but it's well deserved. Put simply, it's a good evolution of the "Grand Theft ____" mission structure formula in single player, a better implementation of group-oriented multiplayer than GTA4 was, and looks much, much better graphically than its predecessor to boot. I spent hours on Monday riding in a posse, going from gang hideout to gang hideout (and back, again and again), eventually just riding around the old west shooting other players and holing up against NPCs and players alike down in Mexico. In the grandest 3D GTA tradition, you can still create a lot of your own fun — like sticking to throwing knives for a while — but the gang hideout missions also provide great framework for multiplayer, too. My only complaint is that I went through those too fast; if I hopped on now with Nick and Aaron, I might feel a touch bored by the process. This game needs more modes, badly, soon.

As for single player...without giving story details away, the game builds upon innovations from GTA4 — including run-ins with "mysterious strangers" — while improving both the structure and writing quality of the missions throughout. It makes its predecessor look stilted and rigid by comparison. In my mind, the analogy I go to is the differences between Mass Effect 1 and 2 — the developers and writers obviously learned from their experiences and figured out how to apply that knowledge in the new game. Fortunately, we're all the better for it.

Aaron

Today's Friday, and that means I'm leaving for the weekend (a few minutes after I have typed this, and long after you will have read it) to traverse the untamed forests of the Mount Jefferson, Oregon wilderness. It's part of my job for the summer, which doesn't officially begin until the end of June.

Anyway, I played these games this week: Alan Wake (great ending), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (fantastic level design) and Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (reminiscent of Mega Man Legends, a series of two games [and one spin-off] very close to my heart).

One final note: I'll be sure to take pictures if I happen to meet an actual silicon Sasquatch while I'm out in the woods. It's more likely that I'll meet a silicone beaver.

Don't ask what that is.

Nick

In the last week, I've finished Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption and Super Mario Galaxy 2. In case you hadn't guessed it: Yep, I'm unemployed again. I'd like to talk in brief about all of them; while we've got reviews for each coming over the next week or so, I'd like to make sure I get a chance to say my piece before I move onto the next time-sink.

Alan Wake is a game that never could have lived up to my expectations, but I still hoped it'd be a little better put-together. As a die-hard fan of Remedy's first two Max Payne games, I was hoping to see the same level of polish and consistency of pacing that made those games so great. On the other hand, a lot has changed since the Max Payne games were in vogue: third-person shooters are now the bread and butter of the average gamer, and achievements are practically required for any major game, regardless of platform. Unfortunately, these are the places where Alan Wake stumbles.

Achievements can be implemented successfully in a game through a variety of approaches. They can act primarily as milestones in a linear game, as with Forza Motorsport 3 or Assassin's Creed 2, or they can guide the player toward enjoying the game outside the confines of the core experience, as with Red Dead Redemption. Alan Wake's achievements are, on the whole, far less satisfying than those of any of the aforementioned other games. Many of them are all-or-nothing, collection-based achievements, and despite whatever notions Remedy may have held about the Alan Wake experience, collecting 100 hidden coffee thermoses does not make for a good action-based thriller experience. And in a game rife with obtrusive advertising, they even had the gall to include an achievement for watching ads on TV at an intense point in the story, utterly destroying the mood of the scene. In-game advertising works best when it complements the experience; unfortunately, in this case, it all but derails it.

I love the concept of the light-based combat system in Alan Wake, and for the most part it didn't disappoint. Enemies are only vulnerable to gunfire after they've been exposed to enough light. Strangely enough, it actually feels a whole lot like Luigi's Mansion. But after a few hours, it becomes apparent that there aren't many real surprises left for the player. Enemies only come in a couple varieties, and your arsenal of weapons is limited to just a few guns. By the end of the game, I was more than ready to leave the combat behind and just reach the conclusion. Fortunately, the story is appropriately campy and well-paced, and I'm eager to see where the game goes from here with its upcoming downloadable episodes. But if you're on the fence about Alan Wake, I'd suggest waiting until it comes down in price; frankly, I just don't feel like it offers $60 worth of entertainment.

All I'd like to say about Red Dead Redemption is that it was one hell of a ride. In case you're taking notes, this is how you tell a story, and this is absolutely how you give a game a proper ending.

And as for Super Mario Galaxy 2: I've got a review in the works which I hope to post later this week, but I think it bears mentioning that quite possibly no other game has ever executed on its premise as well as this one. If you enjoy games of any kind, you really ought to play Galaxy 2 as soon as you can.