Backlog: Return of the Back(log) Edition

Once again, we have returned from a brief hiatus to discuss what in the world of video games has been on our mind and taking up our time. It's been a little while so we've had plenty of time to get some games in during the early summer — Nick and Tyler both have thoughts on InFamous, Aaron's now one of us, and Doug's catching up with two of 2010's best action games. Nick also weighs in with what is easily one of the most bizarre recommendations we've ever made.

Anyways, without further ado (do do), TO THE BACKLOOOOOOG!

Nick

Duke Nukem Forever is out, and I've played the demo. After more than a decade of waiting uneasily, its release is not unlike the removal of a benign tumor. Good riddance.

InFamous 2 is also out. Based on the demo, Sucker Punch has delivered some impressively animated and ultimately soulless action-platforming, just like the first one. I can't help but feel like some of that blame can be placed on them for not sticking with their initial, more humanizing redesign of Cole, the protagonist from the first game. Fans were outraged for reasons I can't even begin to understand, and Sucker Punch acquiesced by returning to the shaved-head, gruff-talking hero from the first game. Just like every other blockbuster game in the last five years. Way to go out on a limb, guys. Let me know when Sly 4 is out.

Look, I realize this is getting a little pessimistic, but I wanted to point out that there is still some originality to be found and joy to be experienced in gaming. I've got two examples: something old and something new.

The old game is The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX. I never realized just how strange this game was until I revisited it over the last couple weeks on my 3DS. There's something wonderful about the peculiar diction used by Koholint's inhabitants and the Mario-universe enemies that populate the game's side-scrolling sequences. It's also a true classic, sporting some seriously compelling dungeon design, excellent music and goofy humor. While I could go on, I'll save the rest for another day — and possibly another medium.

Don't read too much into that. Unless that's your kind of thing.

The new game is an absolutely outstanding tribute to Cave's shoot-'em-up bullet-hell games. It's called Jamestown, and it's ten dollars on Steam. Buy this game.

Go ahead, buy it. Seriously.

I'm not going to beat around the bush. This game is amazing. The core game is supremely tight and refined, combining gorgeous sprites running at a high frame rate and several distinct, easy-to-learn but hard-to-master ships to play as. It's also got a lot of extra content to keep you occupied, including challenge missions and an alternate, unlockable campaign.

The plot is compelling and epic in scale. You're a British colonist in the year 1619 in the settlement of Jamestown, struggling against the hazardous native populations and the campaign of destruction being waged by the Spanish Conquistador.

Also, Jamestown is on Mars, and there are squid-like aliens.

Still with me? This is the game for you. I recommend it without reservation.

Tyler

One of the most unique aspects of video games as a medium is that, as a direct result of their inherent activity you can, to some extent, influence the outcome of every situation. In some ways this is more significant than others. In Super Mario Bros. you will always complete the game by saving the princess; however, the means with which Mario deals with enemy encounters and the order in which he progresses through the levels is left entirely to the judgment of the player. As narrative has begun to play a stronger role in contemporary titles, the amount of agency a player has has likewise shifted. A game in the Call of Duty series will allow players to deal with enemies how they see fit but only with the tools the designers provide in a very careful constructed environment. For all intents and purposes, these type of games are a slightly more interactive blockbuster movie.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum you have titles like Nick Cummings’ 2010 favorite, Minecraft. This is a title almost completely devoid of any narrative other than what one makes of it, and whatever happens in the world is almost certainly the result of direct action by the player. I can, to some extent, respect either extreme; both present unique cases for the potential of games. What I have a difficult time appreciating is when a developer will try to have their cake and eat it too by creating a tight, forward-moving narrative and provide some sort of illusion that the player has any real agency in this world or story.

Sony recently made their "Welcome Back" PlayStation Network promotion available to users and I took the opportunity to replay Sucker Punch’s 2009 open-world superhero title InFamous. I enjoyed the game for what it was two years ago and it worked well as an early summer release, but after two years much of the veneer has worn off for me. The gameplay is there, protagonist Cole McGrath has electricity/lightning-based powers (ala Marvel’s Electro and DC’s Livewire) that upgrade in interesting ways over the course of the campaign. What is most frustrating about the title is the aforementioned illusion of player agency. Open-world titles such as Just Cause 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and FarCry 2 provide strong reasons to break away from the level-act structure most narrative based games employ by crafting an interesting world with a variety of ways to influence it. InFamous’ Empire City is neither interesting as a setting nor is there any meaningful reason to interact with it beyond story missions. It is itself yet another New York City analogue, minus any of the personality (granted, part of the game’s narrative is that the locale is recovering from a severe explosion and is under quarantine), with plenty of other titles that have explored similar ideas with superior results. InFamous actually drew many comparisons to a similar title released in 2009, Prototype, which actually took place in a quarantined Manhattan with a super-powered protagonist.  Though Prototype was much less polished than Sony’s exclusive, the traversal and interactions with the world it constructed are significantly more entertaining.

The second egregious offense of dangling player agency as this carrot to the stick is InFamous’ morality system. I can accept that the decisions player makes in missions are obnoxiously binary (i.e. save this orphan or kick this puppy), many other modern releases have similarly employed such concepts to much more successful results. The first time I played InFamous I chose the evil path; this time I took the other route and was good. The powers are different, but evil’s are much more useful, which certainly put a damper on the more recent play-through. This is a trivial complaint compared to the fact that Cole does not feel any different as a character as a result of choosing alternate decisions at these key moments. The immediate result changes but his reaction to the circumstances of the world is uniform to each side of the story.

My opinion of InFamous has changed because everything it does that is intended to make the game unique and stand out are aspects I have seen done better one way or another in other media very recently. Mass Effect 2 has a better personality system, giving the player much more simulated control over their protagonist, even in an extremely linear space; Fallout: New Vegas provides a far more compelling destroyed open-world and a more diverse toolset with which to effect it. And ‘X-Men First Class’ (a truly fantastic film, by the way) shows that there are far subtler ways to show moral relativism with regard to super-powered beings in a comparatively realistic setting.

It is unfortunate that the reason I chose InFamous as one of the two free titles Sony made available in their Welcome Back promotion is that I sincerely wanted to get excited for the just-released sequel. Playing through InFamous did anything but, and unfortunately reviews seems to indicate most of these issues were not fixed for InFamous 2. Three Sly games gave me faith that Sucker Punch can deliver an entertaining title and I truly want to seem them do more with their next release than what InFamous delivers.

Aaron

There's been a significant development since our last Backlog.

I'm an iPhone owner.

My years of protesting aside, it's only taken a few weeks of acclimation to my newly connected lifestyle to make me appreciate the special nook a smartphone has in day-to-day wanderings. I've got my apps set up, I've purchased a few games (Sword & Sworcery EPInfinity BladePuzzle AgentArmy of Darkness DefenseWords With Friends and Gears) and I spent a large portion of my recent vacation to Bend, Oregon tweeting, posting to Instagram and following up on my Facebook news feed. I don't think the folks at Verizon realized they were creating a monster.

But I haven't always embraced the best parts of Web 2.0, 3G and app-fever. The people closest to me can attest to my notoriously bad social habits when it comes to phone calls, text messages and emails. Now with an iPhone always within reach, I have no excuse. And I'm preserving the lifespan of my ancient desktop by doing the majority of my Internets on the ol' Jesus Phone (named so for its magical powers, which are beyond those of normal phones). Shit, I'm even digesting more media content than before thanks to apps like Pulse news — in many ways I'm becoming a better, smarter and more handsome human. Who doesn't look cool holding an iPhone?

Most of you have suffered and recovered from this type of new-phone fever by now, but this is a pretty big development for me. I apologize for any curmudgeon-y attitude I may have demonstrated in the past when discussing the iPhone. Everyone but me was right, for once.

Now regarding "traditional" videogames, I have little to say. I've begun an attempt to 100% L.A. Noire, and I even purchased the Rockstar Pass because I just can't get enough of Phelps and Co. And last week I polished off The Witcher 2, which should be remembered as the most-improved sequel in the last 10 years.

Honestly? I'm not jazzed about much else right now. I can definitely feel my mind focusing its entertainment needs on my iPhone and its seemingly endless vault of treasures. Couple that distraction with a general lack of any major games releasing in the next month that I care about (InFamous 2 is..."a'ight," I suppose), and I'm starting to get restless. I need Deus Ex: Human Revolution to come out, and be amazing too, or I need to give up and buy a 3DS and Ocarina because I'm simply outta-my-fucking-gourd.

Doug

Since we last spoke, my most significant achievement has been winning my second World Drivers Championship in F1 2010. Okay, so in the grand scheme of things it isn't that important — packing and preparing to move to Japan in August is probably the most important thing I'm doing now. But, as somebody who loves F1 racing, loves playing racing games, and was hopeful last fall that the first F1 console game in five years would be as good as advertised, I'm happy to see it's a little more Ferrari than Minardi, if you follow the F1 allusion. I'm now on my fourth season in the game and will probably keep with it until F1 2011, which should be out this fall, and if previews are to be believed, should be much improved.

On a related note, if Kairosoft ever releases Grand Prix Story for iPhone, my life will be over. It's out on Android, and if the name sounds like Game Dev Story, that's because it's that game. But with auto racing. So, yeah.

However! In an unexpected turn, I've been playing games with single-player storylines and third-person cameras! No, I promise, I've broken the fever of sports games for the time in order to finish a couple of last year's best before I bid my Xbox 360 adieu. First up is Bayonetta, which I never put enough time into when I borrowed it from Nick last year but have grown to really appreciate and love since buying it on Xbox Live.

It's a very different game from what I've grown accustomed to with modern action games, where you unlock all the moves and weapons you need through the course of play. Sure, this also happens in Bayonetta, but a lot of the good stuff is stocked in the Gates of Hell store. Combine that with no suggestion as to which upgrades to pursue and ignore, and you've got the recipe for a very old-school, trial-and-error experience. Adding to that is the control and gameplay, which can be overbearing and difficult, but rarely in a way the player can't understand or learn from.

As an action game, though, it's a very different animal from the other title I've just picked up, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. After such a rocky start with the first Assassin's Creed, the gameplay and storytelling have taken massive steps in the Assassin's Creed II games. I only got through AC2 earlier this year (which is my fault) and when I saw that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was available for $40 on Xbox Live, I knew I had to have that, too.

I was a little disappointed with the very beginning of the game. It's a necessary contrivance, and actually pulled off halfway decently, but damn am I tired of games Metroid-ing you right at the beginning. I know it's necessary in order to have a "difficulty ramp" and to re-acquire goods so that the player isn't overpowered at the beginning of the game, but I think it would be a neat change of pace for a developer to roll with once. Maybe Ezio won't lose all his mojo at the beginning of Revelations this year?

To focus so much on other aspects should tell you two things: First, that I'm not terribly far into the game. Give me a week or so and Rome will bend to my will. Secondly, that the game is still so good. I was a little worried about stepping back into the fray and picking the controls and systems back up, but damn, Ubisoft has refined them in such a way as to make the game feel incredibly natural. Climbing buildings for viewpoints is such a cool experience, and I think one of the defying gameplay experiences in this generation.