Backlog: Summer Diaspora Edition

While we've got a lot of irons in the fire here at the 'Squatch, summer is a time of year that causes us to wander off a bit, be it in pursuit of summer fun, or new games, or social stimulation. That means that we get somewhat scattered, and when the time comes for our weekly Backlog, we have to start herding cats to make sure everyone chimes in with what they've been up to.

In my case, I've been on a trip to my hometown - Fairbanks, Alaska - for some rest and relaxation. And such rest and relaxation! I was severed from my data plan, so if I really wanted to be online I had to hop from one wi-fi access point to another. Plus, I didn't bring any gaming systems (aside from my phone and tablet). Suffice it to say, my media consumption dropped almost entirely over the past couple weeks. The detox was nice, but it did made me start craving after some of my old gaming fixations. World of Warcraft and Star Trek: Bridge Commander both seemed like really good things to play. It was...weird.

Anyway, Nick, Doug, and myself all have tidbits for you this week. Let's take a closer look, shall we? -- Spencer Tordoff

Nick

The only flag we'll fly in Duderton
The only flag we'll fly in Duderton

If there's any game I figured I'd wind up spending too much time with this summer, it sure wasn't Animal Crossing: New Leaf. And yet here I am, counting the days until my loans are repaid, carefully cultivating a wide variety of fruits for profit and visiting distant towns to straight-up win friends and influence people.

Don't be fooled by its quaint, pastoral, toy-like presentation: Animal Crossing is raw. It deals with real adult issues like managing debt, mortgaging your home, material aspirations, jealousy, economics, investment and unyielding judgment from your peers. Yeah, it's populated with cute, fuzzy animals who each have their own endearing quirks, but under each cartoonishly-large head is a virtual brain ticking away at how best to test your loyalties as the town's mayor.

There's something truly brilliant about the Animal Crossing formula. I haven't spent much time with the previous three entries in the series, so maybe this shrewd and compelling blend of legitimate adult responsibilities in an innocent, inviting forest setting has always been behind the series' success. But it's also hard to imagine this game working better on any other Nintendo platform than the 3DS. The world and its plentiful accoutrements are subtle yet stylish, and the social features are robust without feeling invasive. Being able to privately message any of your friends when they're playing the game is old news on any other platform, but as with everything that's served up in Animal Crossing, it just feels a lot more personable and meaningful when it's presented in such a charming manner.

"Isabelle, you asked me if I was in the fruit business or the bells business. Neither. I’m in the empire business."
"Isabelle, you asked me if I was in the fruit business or the bells business. Neither. I’m in the empire business."

Animal Crossing just flat-out doesn't give a shit about sugar-coating things, and I respect that. With more than a few dozen hours invested into cultivating Duderton into a prim and desirable town, I think it's safe to say this journey's only begun.

It feels weird to end this post without saying anything about The Last of Us since it's one of those games I'd been looking forward to for quite some time. Over the last couple weeks I managed my way through the entire game. It's not a short game, and it doesn't have the the happy-go-lucky tone that made Naughty Dog's previous games in the Uncharted series so easy to power through. By contrast, The Last of Us succeeds in being stark, tense, optimistic, beautiful and sad through its entirety, and that's a hell of an emotional cocktail to sip on for more than an hour at a time.

But I did finish it, and I've had a few days to decompress the events of the game and its conclusion. There's a lot that should be said about the game, both for what it is and for what it represents: to modern game design, to its treatment of different types of characters, to the end of a console generation and the beginning of a new one. I'll table that for now, but I know I'm not the only one here who found something worth talking about after playing the game. In the meantime, if you own a PlayStation 3 you'd be well-served by seeing what the game has to offer.

Spencer

I spent my last almost-two weeks looking at scenes like this. In short, I didn’t have too much time for video games.

Well, I did grab a copy of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 for my Nexus 7. But that was mostly to get a promotional foil Scavenging Ooze.

Doug

image02-700x393.jpg

So, The Last of Us sits there, tempting me. I’m going to finally sit down and dig further in tonight and this weekend, but I feel behind. I also feel a bit intimidated — so much expectation built up for this game, and I know what sort of buttons it pushes already. I want to give it its proper space and time, but that waiting for the perfect time means it’s easy to push it aside.

I gave that NCAA Football 14 demo a little more time, and while I’m still frustrated it hasn’t changed much at all in years, it does definitely scratch the right itches. And some of the small changes are kind of nice — it’s easier to replicate my Oregon Ducks and the hurry-up “blur” offense, especially now that they’ve added a marker to show you which player to read on a read option. If I feel especially cash-flush I might get the game, but it’s not the must-buy it was four years ago for me.

The other demo I’ve spent some time on is GT Academy 2013, which is essentially a demo for Gran Turismo 6. My feelings for Gran Turismo have been published here before: It may sound melodramatic but the first game changed my life. GT2 and 3 appreciably moved things forward, and while GT4 added lots of content it’s where I’ve felt the series stalled a bit. While the Forza Motorsport series introduced new features and changed the landscape, GT stayed the same (to its detriment).

Well, GT Academy 2013 shows some promise. There was also a GT Academy demo last year, but it was a series of license test-style events (a.k.a. the bane of GT game playing). You drove a car through short sections of a track. Now, though, you’re out there racing other cars around full circuits immediately. When the time trial-style stuff comes in, it’s for the GT Academy scores proper, so you have reason to keep chopping away at your time, even for a small section of the circuit.

Those changes wouldn’t matter without improvements to the physics. It’s hard to say from a demo that the final product will be “great,” but the driving physics feel much improved from GT5. It feels a lot more like the Forza games, and that’s good — you can feel the tires and suspension working, and the sensation of speed is much more thrilling, even in the piddly Nissan Leaf. The two cars I’ve used in GT Academy 2013 were also available from 2012 (and became DLC for GT5), so I tried the two back to back. By comparison, GT5 feels numb and woolly; I’ve had the rear end break loose with the Nissan Leaf in GTA2013. WITH THE LEAF!!

I’ll give it more time this weekend but I’m really quite pleased. If there’s a proper GT6 Prologue I’ll be interested in giving it a shot, too. There’s still some UI and design choices that are more annoying than deal-breakers, but those wash away given that the big problems might be solved.