Backlog: SXSW Edition

Look! I took this picture yesterday on just another one of Austin's endless, dreary days. I don't know why anyone would want to live here. South by Southwest is in full swing here in Austin, which means the city's swarming with throngs of techies, artists, musicians, writers, gamers, and every other subculture you could imagine. It's a little insane for those of us who live here year-round, but it's nice to see so many familiar faces coming into town to check out all the awesome stuff that happens here.

For my part, I'm taking things pretty easy this time around. I move here during SXSW in 2011 and drove myself nearly to the brink of exhaustion chasing down all the free shows and movie screenings I could hunt down, and last year was even tougher to endure as the size of the event grew even more overcrowded. So that's why I'm writing this from the outskirts of Austin in a quiet, comfortable space.

But I'm not planning on playing the hermit for the entire event. Tomorrow I'll be braving downtown traffic to check out SXSW Gaming, which sounds like it has some pretty cool stuff to offer. But in the meantime, let's talk about some of the games we've been playing here!  – Nick Cummings

Tyler

We like the cars, the cars that go boom. #yearofthebow

I finished Dead Space 3 late last week. Unfortunately, the game did not end on as strong a note as it began. I enjoyed the overall experience but for the franchise to continue in a compelling way it either needs to return to its horror-based roots or reinvent itself entirely. Bolting on new features to the original experience does not seem to be aiding in its marketability and that is seemingly alienating enthusiastic fans of the series. Also, the ending; jeez, Dead Space 1 has one of the better conclusions I've experienced in a game this generation so it's unfortunate that DS3 ends more in the style of an action-serial than a psychological thriller.

I'm looking to pick up Eidos and Square Enix's Tomb Raider reboot next week but in the meantime I thought I'd hone my survival instincts on another tropical island with Far Cry 3.

Though I've progressed much further into the single-player campaign, my initial impressions of FC3 remain largely unchanged: I love the gameplay, as the moment-to-moment action and variability of what can occur in an open world is matched only by Bethesda. An experience like Far Cry 3 is what could happen if modern Fallout titles focused less on the role-playing and more on actual game mechanics (writing aside; most of the story and characterization in FC3 is awful). This is a game I'll likely see myself finishing to 100% completion, a feat I so rarely have the attention span for.

I am, however, reminded of why I put down the Far Cry 3 in the first place: the actual story campaign is wholly uninteresting. I see what Ubisoft Montreal was attempting to do narratively with the protagonist, Jason Brody, but they just weren't successful. Nothing about his quest to avenge his brother or help the Rakyat people is compelling, and the actual missions themselves are less enjoyable than simple tearing around the islands hunting game, liberating outposts or treasure hunting. The message Ubisoft attempts to send with Jason's gradual embrace and glorification of violence is done much better in other 2012 releases like Spec Ops: The Line or Hotline Miami.

I have a lot of admiration for the products Ubisoft puts out as a publisher. It is obvious a lot of labor from many studios goes into these titles. If not for the cooperation across borders and oceans, there would likely be no Raymans, no Far Crys, and no Assassin's Creeds (though Nick might argue the latter might be more of a boon than otherwise). I do wonder, though: with such a collective collaborating on a singular release, how does anyone manage the project as a whole? Or does such a role even exist? It is seemingly a trend lately with Ubisoft titles that they are the sum of their parts and nothing more, with some of these parts more polished than others.

I can't remotely call Far Cry 3 a bad game, just lesser than pieces of it might suggest. I likely wouldn't even describe Assassin's Creed III as "bad" but it is absolutely the most flawed of the series. Yet I remain hopeful for Ubisoft. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag looks extremely promising to me (AC3 did as well but I'm an absolute sucker for pirate fiction) and Watch Dogs has the potential to be a showcase launch-window title for next-generation hardware.

I've read editorials describing the culture of celebrity in some game studios (holding up heads as auteurs akin to film directors or authors) as disingenuous given how many individuals contribute to a project and in what capacity. Ubisoft, though, with how much talent they have in their employ, seems like they could largely benefit from having someone firmly at the top of these projects. Someone with a singular vision to bring the diverse parts to a cohesive whole and leave them feeling less disjointed.

Doug

Bulletstorm-31

This past week, I played a pair of games that have quite a bit in common but act as a stark foil between Japanese and American development from this generation. They also both have you firing an inordinate amount of bullets while sliding around on the ground.

The first of these is Platinum Games’ Vanquish, which is up for PlayStation Plus users to download for free now. Platinum has gotten a lot of talk recently since their newest game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, was released last month; Vanquish is from 2010 and was Platinum’s and Shinji Mikami’s attempt at a game to break into the American market. There are a few reasons why this didn’t work. Admittedly I’ve only played the game briefly and will give it another shot, but I didn’t like much of what I saw. Over-long cutscenes, annoying characters, and twitchy mechanics leave it on the wrong side of “stupid” and “duuuuumb”. That infinite knee sliding was kind of amusing, though.

On the other hand, once I popped in Bulletstorm I was hooked. I feel bad that I’d let it languish in my drawer o’ games for over a year without even a look (I bought it around Christmas 2011!)

I regret the error of my ways.

Compared to Vanquish, this game falls on the correct side of “stupid” and “duuuuumb”. Sure, the attitude and sense of humor often make you feel like Bro Montana, captain of the Bro-Tang Clan, but to me it’s not a criminal offense (I believe Tyler feels the opposite way based off our discussions this week). Instead, I revel in the stupidity and laugh along when the game sends enough winks to let you know the writers are in on the joke.

And along the way it has proved to be a very fun, incredibly solid first-person shooter. I love the mechanics they’ve added into the genre. The leash and the boot are the primary additions, but together they combine with the scoring system to give you a reason to come up with new, creative ways to shoot dudes. Even the genre-standard gameplay twists and turns they’ve taken me through (turret sequences, sniper areas, giant remote-control robot segment) have been incredibly fun twists on the norm.

I’m not a huge first-person shooter guy. I’ve enjoyed the better games of the genre, but the one time I was hooked into a game was Halo 2 and that was as much for social reasons as gaming. But Bulletstorm does enough different to keep me interested.

Nick

Tomb Raider's concept art practically screams "gravitas" — which is why the inconsistent direction in the game is such a downer

So let's talk about Tomb Raider, a game I've been wildly excited to play for months ever since I played it at PAX last fall. It looked like a serious, gritty, and human re-imagining of one of gaming's most successful series — and one of its most unapologetically crass sex icons. In other words, it's a series that was ripe for reinvention, and from the look of the demo and the concept art, it seemed like developer Crystal Dynamics knew what it was doing.

After spending a couple hours with the actual game, however, I'm not so sure anymore. Lara's character suffers real pain and shows signs of following a defined arc of character development, but the game presents her tribulations in a creepy, almost exploitative way. Deliberate camera zooms and pans are employed gratuitously to emphasize disturbing sequences such that power is taken away from Lara, which is appropriate, and given to the person holding the controller, which is unwarranted and, from my point of view, creepy. I'd been hoping for a game that could deliver a deep, human female protagonist with a believable journey, but instead I'm watching as Lara quickly evolves from a penitent hunter of deer to a larger-than-life mass murderer. It's disturbing.

Maybe I'm just not into so-called "Triple-A" games anymore. Maybe the things I enjoy in games have fallen so far off the beaten path that I wind up fetishizing half-broken, experimental freeware and admonishing the highly polished, feature-rich, sixty-dollar games that line store shelves and wind up on every Game of the Year list. In other words, maybe I'm the problem.

But probably not.

On the other hand, there's always Demon's Souls! Like Tomb Raider, Demon's Souls is unrelentingly cruel to its protagonist, but it's also the sort of tough-but-fair game where every failure is your own to own and learn from. I've been playing it since 2010 and finally had a minor breakthrough a few days ago that brought me that much closer to the game's conclusion. I'm finding more and more that I have a real love for games that are deeply challenging but are engineered to be conquered with persistence and an attentive mind. In other words, I'm already getting pumped up to eventually do it all over again with Dark Souls.