Backlog: Spring Has Come Edition

cherry_blossoms Ah, spring. We're firmly more than halfway through March, so I feel it's safe to say that spring is ready to start. Birds have started to return to my neck of the woods (including one that flew into the classroom and zoomed its way into a window while I was teaching this week!), the pollen has been here for a few weeks, and soon, the emblematic Japanese sakura (cherry blossoms) will be springing up everywhere. Tyler's already seeing them up in Tokyo, which surely means he'll be seeing snow soon too -- the Tokyo weather has been crazy. At least it's been predictable down in the countryside where I live.

In any case, we've all been enjoying a variety of games -- Spencer's fresh from a LAN party, Tyler's enjoyed one of Sony's more artistic games, and Nick and I have enjoyed a bit of racing. So let's get to the Backlog! --Doug Bonham

Spencer

DM-RB-Morpheus99

My weekend was spent at the spring Emerald City LAN 2013, which is more or less the only large-scale LAN party in Seattle proper. As such, my gaming was dominated primarily by Battlefield 3, with stints in Team Fortress 2, Starcraft 2, DOOM 2, and others.

But let’s talk about Unreal Tournament.

UT saw a remarkable amount of play at ECL - the vanilla Steam install, and a version with modifications assembled by a dear friend. Usually, my tendency to push this multiplayer relic is no big surprise, and I’ve successfully gotten a good handful of people to play at the smaller scale events. But while volunteering at the event’s help desk, a guy came up asking to make a quick announcement; one that turned out to be for a round of Unreal Tournament. Organically, without my prodding, someone else was suggesting that we all play one of my favorite games of all time.

It felt good, in a “hey, you, you’re all right” kind of way.

The popularity of this game now old enough to have its learner’s permit is, I think, a tribute to its design. Unreal Tournament, like Quake 3 Arena, endures in an era where we can’t even devote whole months to new games. They keep bobbing to the surface while so many next-gen titles fall away, never to be installed again. Part of this is nostalgia, certainly, as it is with so many games. However, when you get down to it, UT is just a really solid shooter; polished, carefully balanced, with a multitude of official and community addons available thanks to its old age. Plus it runs (with tweaks) on just about everything - a perk, when LANning.

Ultimately, I feel that Unreal Tournament is the result of a level of craftsmanship and curation no longer present in many triple-A games - a product intended to last in an industry full of disposable trinkets.

Also, it’s still a lot of fun.

I played through the Heart of the Swarm campaign in a scant two days following its release. More thoughts on that later.

Doug

Gran Turismo 5

It doesn't really matter what else I've played this week, because I'm back with an old, old flame: Gran Turismo 5.

Actually, let me specify: the Gran Turismo series. Until I picked it up this week, I'd never actually played the final retail version of GT5, but my history with the GT series runs quite long. For a long time I've been apathetic about Gran Turismo 5: I saw plenty of news and reviews that painted it as only an average racer wrapped around a mess of UI and game design. When I bought a PlayStation 3 I thought about picking it up, but it was still too expensive at the time. I'm not sure what sparked the idea -- perhaps Nick's thoughts from this week (see below) played a part -- but I ran by my local game store and picked it up.

It's funny -- I re-read the last little bit of that article I linked, and it remains true. To paraphrase, I love Forza 3's gameplay and progression but miss the Gran Turismo aesthetic. Good news: GT5 still has that aesthetic in spades (and since I bought a Japanese version of the game, that means "Moon Over the Castle"!) The menus and in-game UI still have an immense amount of polish, they still play catchy jazz music while you search for just the right car, and everything just looks perfect. The UI may be a bit cluttered, but I can deal with that.

How does it drive? Surprisingly well. I haven't put a ton of time into it yet, but one of my big complaints from GT4 -- that cars rarely felt out-of-control or would oversteer convincingly -- seems to have been resolved. Comparably, the Forza Motorsport games felt grainier and much more like driving. This is especially true of Forza 3 -- Forza 4 came out since I arrived in Japan, so I can't give any views on it. However, so far, GT5 stacks up much better. Whether under acceleration or through carrying too much speed into a corner, you can get loose in appropriate cars; as well, you can finally turn ABS off, increasing the difficulty when you feel like ratcheting that up.

I'm sure as time unfolds I'll lose interest in the game or find things to grumble about. But I'm back in the fold and enjoying my time there.

Tyler

papo_y_yo

I could not acquire Tomb Raider this week due to certain external factors (they know who they are), so Ms. Croft's reboot will have wait for another week. Instead I dipped into my backlog of smaller titles and finally played Sony's pub fund title, Papo y Yo.

When your primary hobby is narrative-driven, single-player video games, you become accustomed to certain tropes: saving the world, direct conflict with some other sentient group or being; straightforward storytelling, and more. These tropes are so ingrained in the medium and appear with such frequency that they barely even register anymore. No one even thinks to ask why these houses in a climate in which it never snows are slanted -- they just are because that's how we build houses. As an enthusiast, it can be extremely refreshing when a title comes along to remind you that it doesn't have to be this way.

In Papo y Yo there is no immediate threat, there are no enemies to fight, and the narrative is not even meant to be taken on face value. The entire experience is a transparent metaphor for designer Vander Caballero's childhood and coming to grips with his father's abusive and alcoholic nature (The game's title translates to "Father and Me"). The protagonist is Quico, who navigates a Brazilian residential area as a child might interpret it, filled with chalk drawings and cardboard boxes. Along the way he encounters the monster, a pink rhinoceros-looking creature, that exists both to aid and inhibit Quico's journey. The monster is never controlled directly but its nature can be directly manipulated. The monster loves three things: orange fruit, frogs and blue fruit (in that order of priority with blue fruit taking the highest precedence). The problem is that while the monster loves frogs, they also drive the monster crazy, engulfing it in flames and driving it into a rage to seek out and toss around Quico. Blue fruit, which make the monster sick, are the only direct means to quell the rage. In case you had a really difficult time with SAT analogies, I'll spell it out further: monster : frogs :: alcoholic father : booze.

Anyone looking for a particularly deep experience will be disappointed by Papo y Yo. It's not about providing challenging gameplay. Quico is never truly injured and none of the puzzles is particularly difficult (and every stage has hint boxes nearby). Likewise, anyone searching for narrative complexity open to interpretation, like in The Walking Dead or Journey, won't find what they're looking for either. Papo y Yo spells its message out quite clearly -- later in the game the frogs are replaced by bottles of whiskey, and the monster briefly shifts into an adult man in a suit. The appeal of Papo y Yo is simply the experience. The world is imaginative and well-designed and it deals with a subject matter the vast majority of games do not even touch upon. Alcoholism is a rampant addiction; I would venture to say nearly everyone has encountered at least one person in their lives suffering from it, and to see it presented through the eyes of a child is rather fascinating.

Papo y Yo is not a perfect experience but it is a refreshing one. It's difficult to imagine that such a simplistic title that deals with such a complex subject matter did tremendous sales; kudos to Sony for investing developer in its developer, Minority, and its designer, Caballero, to produce something so original.

Nick

There's something about taking a beautiful natural setting and filling it with crazy-expensive cars that's just so right

It can't be mere coincidence that Doug and I both stumbled back headlong into our car-racing addictions this week. We've been playing racing sims since the first Gran Turismo graced the original PlayStation, but both of us had largely taken a break from the genre after spending dozens of hours with Forza Motorsport 3. There must be something in the air -- some faint whisper from an unknowable voice that says "yo dawg, you should drive fake cars and get achievements."

Who am I to say no to that?

That's where Forza Horizon comes in, almost entirely under the radar and ready to scratch that old familiar itch. Horizon takes what I've always loved about the Forza series -- a weighty and natural feel to the cars, spartan interface design and excellent sound and visual work -- and merges it with a beautiful open landscape inspired by the state of Colorado. By dropping the old, linear model of career progression, you're now free to roam an expansive and surprisingly diverse landscape with plenty of events, challenges and new cars to discover. In other words, Horizon is more or less exactly what happens when a racing sim series is merged with Burnout Paradise: you can still play it like a hardcore sim with precise car tuning and parts allocation, but you can also just jam on the right trigger and turn your brain off if you'd prefer.

In fact, this is my first time playing a Forza game with manual transmission disabled. I almost feel like I'm cheating, but I found it was too distracting when the fun of the game comes from racking up point bonuses for driving dangerously. Horizon adopts a scoring system that feels pretty similar to the Project Gotham kudos system, and it fits in wonderfully here. It rewards skillful and audacious driving without ever feeling tacked on, and poor form on the driver's part is never encouraged. It's icing on the cake of a tight, responsive car handling system, and it's effing delicious.

Horizon is the most fun I've had driving a car in a video game since Burnout Paradise, and yet it feels so much more substantial than that. If you're a fan of more realistic driving but hate feeling restricted by overly complex driving mechanics and rigid career progression, you really ought to check out Horizon.

And while I'm here, I figure it's worth mentioning the few other games I've had the time to check out this week:

  • I just crossed the 60-hour mark in Persona 4 Golden, a game that continues to prove that a Japanese developer can still make an outstanding RPG. There are just a few in-game months to go until I reach its conclusion, and while I realize games that can hold my rapt attention for more than even ten hours are increasingly hard to come by these days, I know I'm still gonna feel like it was over too soon by the time the credits roll.
  • I'm about two-thirds of the way through Antichamber. In case you're not familiar, Antichamber is that insane, non-Euclidean puzzle game that received so much attention last fall, and as someone who loves a brain-bending experience I'm having an awesome time with it. Now, if I could just figure out how to get that red gun...
  • My Pokémans are doing just fine in Pokémon Black 2. I'm halfway through the gym rotation and hoping to get closer to the end sometime over the next week. I'm playing with a friend who picked up a copy of White 2 at the same time as me, but she's already well on her way to the Elite Four (do they still do that in these games?) or whatever. Time to catch up.
  • I died about forty-seven times on the same sequence in Demon's Souls. No shame.
  • I unwrapped my copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow the other day and thought about putting it in my Xbox but then I took a nap instead.