The Backlog: No Need for a Memorial edition
Don't call it a comeback? We've been through down periods before, and we've come back stronger before, but this one feels good. We've got a four-man strong Backlog that is incredibly lengthy (helped along by Tyler's mini-article about RPGs) and features as disparate things as L.A. Noire, Fallout 3, Chrono Trigger, LAN parties, Doug's sports games, Bayonetta, and more.
There are also more promises to write again, so please be on the lookout online, on Twitter, on Facebook, in RSS feeds and via smoke signals to see when we're publishing great articles once again. So, without further ado, TO THE BACKLOG!
I'm cutting a swathe through the bullshit and getting to the point today: L.A. Noire is among the most engaging games I've ever had the pleasure of shoving into my console's disc tray. It's nearly two weeks after its release, and I can't get it out of my mind. When I'm at work, I'm analyzing my case load for mistakes. When I'm cooking dinner, I wonder who would have been convicted if I'd used a different piece of evidence in an interrogation. When I'm not playing L.A. Noire, I'm thinking about it.
And why is that? What makes a modern take on a classic film, literature and television genre standout? Well, dear reader, that's because Rockstar and Team Bondi (whose backs should certainly be patted) have made a game more real than anything else on the market today; its realism lies in its intrinsic reliance on the human condition and a player's complete suspension of disbelief. Your instincts matter, and your natural intuition, which evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of reading emotion, can change the entirety of the scripted experience. As much as I love choice and consequence in videogames, the good and evil dichotomy most games latch onto (since Knights of the Old Republic popularized the notion) is infantile compared with the responsibility a player is entrusted with throughout L.A. Noire. Lives are in your hands, and your indecisions or your missteps can — and will — cost lives. It's so brilliant that I still can't believe this game exists, and isn't just a complete mess.
A CSI-branded bargain-bin game L.A. Noire certainly is not. A fictionalized pulp tale that in 30 blissful hours justifies videogames as an artform L.A. Noire most certainly is.
When an acronym is used with enough frequency it begins to lose the meaning of what it stands for and takes on an identity all its own. A major offender in gaming in this regard would be Super Mario RPG, a game featuring one of the most famous protagonists in gaming, a man whose role for all intents and purposes is very clearly defined. When I was younger, an RPG wasn’t a "role-playing game", it was a game with magic points, some (however slight) degree of strategy in combat and usually an epic storyline filled to the brim with melodrama. RPG for me back then was all things Squaresoft plus a handful of other titles hailing from the far east. I never played Dungeons and Dragons and had no experience with the progenitors of the genre like Ultima or Wizardry. No, it wasn’t until I received a budget-priced Fallout two-pack as a gift in middle school that I truly understood what it mean to play a role of your own making in a video game.
It was daunting then, and perhaps more so now, to come from the experience having only played linear titles to be thrown into a world with the freedom to go everywhere and do anything with only the slightest degree of direction. The first two Fallout games remain in my mind some of the only games in existence in which there is no correct way to play. Don’t enjoy combat? Whether you wish to be an explosives-loving, smooth-talking locksmith, a drug-addicted, kung-fu field medic or an autistic, sharp-shooting savant, the progression of the games and how the wasteland welcomes you is entirely within the player’s control. The difference between an RPG like Fallout and one like Final Fantasy VII is the difference between playing with action figures and playing with Legos. Once the rules of the game are understood, true role-playing games stop being intimidating and become freeing in ways that truly show off their potential of the medium.
The most recent release in the series, Fallout: New Vegas, represents those ideals better than its immediate predecessor, Fallout 3. Not to put down 3, as it served wonderfully as a reintroduction to the franchise, but it lacked much of the series' levity and do-anything/be-anyone mentality. The player's role was more clearly defined and his/her choices more limited. It makes sense to have this return to what Fallout originally stood for, as developer Obsidian was formed from the fallout (hah!) of the collapse of the franchise creator Black Isle.
Right from the start, Obsidian's additions bring the classic Fallout experience to Bethesda’s formula; the game was built on the Gamebryo engine used for Fallout 3. I have been playing in Hardcore mode: selectable from the start of the game, the option is seemingly built entirely for role-players. The mode causes the player to grow tired, thirsty and hungry and adds some other difficulties that one would naturally expect to encounter were they forced to roam a post-nuclear apocalyptic Mojave desert.
Also evident at the beginning is a secret feature present in the first games, the caustically fan-defined “retard mode.” If the player chooses to set their avatar’s intelligence to a level of three or below, NPCs will believe that the protagonist must be suffering from some sort of severe brain trauma, and player responses will be written as short and simple sentences, sometimes even being simple grunts or nondescript noises. It may sound pointless and almost counter-intuitive but it adds so much to the experience and does a great job of setting the tone for the game.
Talking to a friend yesterday about why Final Fantasy XIII failed so completely from a design standpoint, it drew to my attention how different these two games are, despite them both being released in 2010. XIII is sterile and pristine, every environment is meticulously designed with such a narrow path the player sees it all. It lacks a lot of the bugs and overall jankiness New Vegas suffers from, but it also loses so much personality and charm in the process. If you don’t like the characters you’re playing with, tough shit, you’re stuck with them for the entire experience. Naturally there is a balance between these two ends of the RPG spectrum, but ultimately it comes down to choice and freedom. If a developer wants to constantly throw the player down a set path interrupted only by quick-time events and cutscenes then there’s certainly a market for that, as titles like God of War and Call of Duty prove time and time again. But please, developers, leave RPGs for those of us that want to make our own path, not walk down yours. When designing an RPG it’s important to know your role.
I've got a stack of games in front of my TV that I fully intend to finish off before the post-E3 onslaught descends upon us. It includes recent games like L.A. Noire and Mortal Kombat, but there's also quite a few less-recent hits that I really need to finish off. I know that I could wrap up Singularity, Enslaved and Bulletstorm in a couple of hours each, but I just don't have that sort of time anymore. And that's not to mention deep, rich RPGs like Demon's Souls and Valkyria Chronicles, both of which have much more to offer before I can feel comfortable putting them to rest.
And Chrono Trigger! No game has ever come close to the impact on me that Chrono Trigger did, and yet I haven't played past the Millennial Fair on the recently-released Virtual Console version. CT is just one of those things that I need to revisit every year or two, much like Harry Potter or Calvin and Hobbes.
It's a shame, because having that time to get deep into a videogame is so important to me. A solid single-player experience can be so intellectually enriching, much like reading a good novel. I've got my hands full in other aspects of my life, but I think it's a mistake to underestimate the importance of downtime.
That goes for older games, too. Last night I went to a mini-LAN party at my friend's apartment. As someone who hasn't so much as plugged his desktop into a network with other Windows-based machines since PAX 2009, it felt a little bit like going home again. A four-player local run of Left 4 Dead 2 on expert was one of the most challenging and gratifying group experiences I've had recently.
There's just something weighty about LAN gaming. I think a large part of that is owed to just what a pain in the ass it is to throw a LAN event together: people have to haul desktop computers — all but a relic of the past at this point — into a shared space, troubleshoot network issues, make sure games are patched, and so on. Because there's that base level of commitment, the cooperative spirit is deeply entrenched in the LAN environment and taking on the hardest challenges in a fiercely collaborative game like Left 4 Dead works amazingly well.
Finally, I'm spending a good deal of time trying to get my shit together when it comes to writing. I'm not going to beat around the bush: I have been a colossal disappointment on this front. We're coming up on nearly three months with almost nothing to show for it, and as a writer, that's pretty much a death sentence. I'm trying to find the right routine or mindset to get back on the wagon, but until I figure it out, any and all suggestions are welcome.
Much of what I've been playing has involved scratching ritual itches: Formula 1 2010, Pro Evo Soccer, NCAA Football. Time keeps on ticking, but it seems inevitable I'll be playing some kind of racer, soccer game, or football game at any given point. But what's this? Something new, as well? Well, at least a little new: Bayonetta.
I picked Platinum and Sega's game back up a week ago via digital download on Xbox Live, and after crossing my fingers that it would read my existing save data, fired it back up. Nothing like jumping back into a complicated game you haven't played in a while at the worst possible time — right before a boss. As a tangent, this is why I haven't played Fallout 3 since it killed my last Xbox 360 — by now I have no clue where I am, how dead my character is, if it's in a firefight, or what. Kind of a risk to take, and the re-learning curve is incredibly steep.
But I found my feet again in Bayonetta, and I remain incredibly impressed with the title. Combat is wonderfully fluid and creative, controls are weighted perfectly, and nothing is ever really taken out of your hands. Despite the difficulty, it's more a challenge than ever really unfair; you have all the tools to kick angelic ass, and the battles are never so tough to feel overly punishing. Even jumping back in during a boss fight, I could figure out what the pattern was and then try to execute on it. The challenge was in staying alive long enough and not accidentally jumping into attacks that would kill the hell out of you. Sure, there's a really goofy story and the aesthetic of the game is definitely Japanese, but I feel it's much better executed in the game than if you were to get a quick glimpse from screenshots or videos.
I don't know if it's available direct-to-download on the PlayStation 3, but it's all of $20 as a download on Xbox Live and can be found for a little cheaper in stores. It's completely worth your time and money.
The other game I've been playing as of late is "prepare and pack to move overseas," one that I think Tyler already has a bunch of the achievements for. I'm going to be moving to somewhere in Japan as of this August (I still don't know where specifically, which just adds to the fun!) and though I'm worrying about things like banking and the culture clash and doing an entirely different job and what clothes I need to take, I'm also a gamer, and trying to figure out what I can take with me. Of course my Nintendo DS is going to come along for the trip — it's region free, it's one of the most popular systems in Japan, and I can fit all my games for it into an Altoids tin. My laptop is coming along as well. What gets tricky is when I think about my Xbox 360. Time to investigate my options, although I think I'd have to get it shipped over, because my packing options are limited.
Regardless, I'm excited and looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully it will lead to interesting stories to be related here.