Backlog: Portals to a New World edition

Happy Easter! Or, in particularly snarky corners of The Internet, Zombie Jesus Day! We've got Tyler back again extolling the virtues of digital downloads, Nick and Aaron digging into Portal 2, and Doug still playing innkeeper and digital tyrant. So without further ado, to the backlog!

Tyler

When I left the U.S. thirteen months ago, I was a fan of the trend of full retail games being released digitally on consoles, either via Microsoft’s Xbox Games on Demand or on Sony’s PlayStation Network Store. For me, it was a combination of laziness and convenience — no changing discs and no shelf space taken up by game boxes. One year later, however, I it’s essential and, I think, the future of how we acquire and consume games.

It’s difficult for me to keep up on the latest games. For starters, the vast majority of games released here are (obviously) predominantly in Japanese. My language skills are at best conversational and I'm not close to being fully literate. Also for western titles it can take months for games to reach our shores, just like the days of waiting for Japanese SNES & PS1 titles to be localized. Worst of all, game pricing here is market-driven, without standard $59.99 pricing. If your game is more popular, you command a higher price point. Accounting for exchange rates, Call of Duty: Black Ops new is nearly $100, and that isn’t even for the ‘Hardened’ edition.

For these reasons I'm excited when a game I’ve been meaning to play becomes available digitally. It can be difficult with regional issues (especially Steam and PSN hating my credit cards for some odd reason) now that I’ve changed continents, but work-arounds can be found. Split/Second hit PSN recently for the very reasonable price of $29.99, which was a no-brainer for me.

I enjoyed the demo of Split/Second last summer but was wary of the final product. Black Rock Studio’s previous title, arcade-racer Pure, had major issues with rubber-band A.I. This issue still plagues Split/Second, as do other glaring flaws that would turn me off from any other racing title, but in the context of the mechanics they don’t bother me nearly as much here.

Split/Second puts you in a world that is Michael Bay’s wet dream playing host to a car-centric reality show. Every track is ridden with explosives to disrupt your fellow racers, and when you get bored of being a thorn in their side you can ratchet things up a little bit. You can trigger events like getting chased down by a missile-laden helicopter or passing trucks dropping combustible barrels. This mechanic is Mario Kart’s blue shell given a more realistic analog, allowing racers in the back to catch up more easily. It works without being as aggravating as in Mario Kart, though.

So far I feel Split/Second is a better Burnout Paradise successor than developer Criterion’s own Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The game is more focused on fun and destructibility than realistic car modeling. I had assumed some of the explosions and course changes would become tired after a few races on the same track, but there is strong enough variety in placements that it has yet to stop being exciting and it becomes even more of a blast online. However, presumably due to the title’s age, the number of players in the ranks online is dwindling.

Anyone with a desire to drive fast and blow up urban centers (and anyone that’s ever been stuck in mid-day traffic who has wanted to do both at the same time) should definitely give Split/Second a try.

Nick

Let's sing the praises of Portal 2, but let's also be quick about it; there's plenty to discuss today.

Like any other game made by Valve, Portal 2 should be expected to be more clever and thoughtfully designed than 99% of the games on the market. All I really think needs to be said at this point is that Portal 2 is unmistakably a Valve game. I'm halfway through the game, and while I'm disappointed with the brain-dead simplicity of the game's first few chapters, I'm trying to remind myself that the best is (theoretically) yet to come.

I've been playing on PlayStation 3, naturally, because I wanted two copies for the price of one. Steamworks integration on a closed, proprietary console network has some huge effing implications for the games industry, but that's the sort of speculation that's best saved for a lengthier analysis written by an author who isn't running on just five hours of sleep.

The PlayStation 3 has been getting a fair bit of love lately, actually. My roommate is a diehard soccer fan, and for the past week or so he's spent a couple hours per day deep within FIFA 11, driving the Seattle Sounders from relative obscurity to, um, something better. Let's go with partial obscurity. Maybe a hardcore Western European soccer fan in the theoretical FIFA universe will have heard of the Sounders after he takes down LA Galaxy.

I'm not sure how soccer works.

But I do know God of War! And now that I'm finally playing God of War III, the most ultimate and final of all the God of Wars, I can say with confidence that this is one God of War-ass God of War game. Yes, that's a tired joke — but so is God of War.

This final chapter in the Kratos cycle has bombast and dismemberment in droves. In other words, it's a game that sets out to do one thing — to enable the player to just royally fuck shit up — and it is an incontrovertible success. But it's still riddled with the same design problems and painfully hackneyed writing as before. I've been pretty vocal about my ambivalence toward the God of War series for its inability to fully nail either an epic story or a deep and rewarding combat system, but the experiences have been presented with such brilliance that I can't totally fault them.

Anyway. The PlayStation 3 is all well and good, but you know what's even cooler? Finally having a new PC build that isn't just barely enough to run Age of Conan. (Remember that game?) I just upgraded to a quad-core i5 processor with a GTX460 video card and 8 gigs of RAM. I'm currently installing Crysis in the hopes that I'll finally, finally be able to try it.

But while running a game from 2007 is a noble enough goal, my primary reason for upgrading ought to be obvious to anyone who knows me. Battlefield 3 is on the horizon, and I fully intend to be getting my squad-leader mode on with the best of them.

Doug

Here's a surprising thing: Nick's been playing soccer games and I haven't! Actually, in all honesty, I haven't been playing all that much this week. At least, nothing new — beyond figuring out how to break Hot Springs Story, I've been engaging in another breakable-yet-fun strategy game, Civilization Revolution.

A moment on Hot Springs Story: If you were a fan of Game Dev Story, well, it's very similar. However, the ramp and path through a play-through of the game is a lot different, and a lot more based on moving from targeted client sector to targeted client sector, unlocking new pieces for your ryokan and figuring out how they go together. It's a little old school in that the game hints toward combinations of rooms around your hot springs doing things, but never explicitly says what to do; however, experimentation yields rewards. Also, try to avoid your hot spring looking like a rabbit warren at all costs. It's inefficient.

In a certain way, Civ Rev is much the same — an enjoyable grind that, if you've beaten it before, provides comfort in getting through the steps. Or, on higher difficulties, a challenge to reach those goals. And a good challenge it is! But sometimes you just want to go out and squish ants, and that's what I've been doing. I'm writing this as my world conquering continues unabated, my Spanish empire beating out India, Germany and the U.S. to conquer the whole world. And after a rough day, don't you just want to take over the world sometimes? I desperately need a computer that can run Civilization IV and V, because I need to upgrade to the hard stuff post-haste.

Sword and Sworcery is now out for the iPhone. Should I buy that? I think I might have to.

Lastly, I'm going to embark on a dangerous, strange journey of gaming this coming week. It should prove for an interesting Retrospective Overdrive article soon. Secrets!

Aaron

Much has been said about Portal 2 already, so I won't rehash Nick's words with additional input. But the one thing I do want to point out is that the sequel makes me laugh out loud — very hard. Valve sure knows how to write.

Otherwise, I hate to be the wet blanket but I haven't played enough this week to contribute a hefty block of text to this ol' log. Apart from Portal, my entertainment input focused on going to the movies to see Scream 4, which was expectedly cheesy, finishing book six of The Dark Tower series and playing another chapter in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with some pals.

Oh, and fuck the PlayStation Network. I want to do some Portal 2 co-op on the console with my shiny new bluetooth headset (and yes, I realize I can play it on PC). Gripe all you want that Xbox Live costs money, but it hasn't been down for more than a day in years.

And I see what you're doing, Mortal Kombat. You win: I am intrigued...which could lead to a purchase. Maybe.