Backlog: Summertime Blues Edition
To be honest, I've never understood the way seasons work down here in the lower 48. Admittedly, part of that has to do with growing up in Alaska, where our seasons comprise "summer" (May-September, or as long as we can get away with), "fall" (the week all the leaves fall off the trees), "winter" (Whenever the first snow sticks), "deepwinter" (December-January, falling in the middle of regular winter), and "breakup" (the week the snow turns black and melts).
But mostly, I'm confused that people are saying summer is almost over. There's at least a month left, right? You people don't even start summer until June! It's like everyone is moping around about the end of a season that isn't even gone. Frankly, I'll have none of it — summer is on through October unless the weather stops me, and you sad sacks can join me if you want.
And what better way to celebrate summer than by playing video games inside? Doug, Nick, Tyler, and I have all chimed in this week with our recent gaming habits — join me for a closer look. -- Spencer Tordoff
I think I’ve dived into an unhealthy amount of games recently.
My official summertime time-killer is Sid Meier's Civilization V, which with the addition of the Gods and Kings pack has become a new monster for me. The balance changes in this (slightly old) expansion pack require a pretty different way to play. Religion and the addition of faith provides you with another way to spread your influence, and so many of the small streamlining changes provide context and depth. Two of my favorites are receiving quests from the AI-run city-states (which provides a new way to curry favor) and the addition of espionage. I find myself habitually starting a new game and figuring out how this specific civilization differs from others. It’s almost comparable to a fighting game in that way, and I’m enjoying discovering how I like to play best as well. I also love the little mini-stories that come from your own playthroughs -- for example, Siam stabbing me in the back after I helped go to war against the enemy they asked for my help with. It’s always the nice ones you have to worry about.
Since Tyler came down to visit this past week, I’ve spent plenty of time learning from him about the world of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I want to go into more depth about the game later, but the least I can say is that it’s fantastic to see how wide and deep the customization and interaction can go in that game. It’s living up to my expectations and justifying itself and the 3DS I bought for it.
Lastly, it was touched upon by Nick and Aaron on this week’s podcast, but Salty Bet is quite possibly the greatest gaming thing I’ve seen in a while. It’s AI cockfighting, and I’m not too ashamed to say that Tyler and I spent hours watching, betting, and either watching TV or playing Animal Crossing while the salts flew on my laptop. What? It’s summertime in Japan; it’s far too hot to leave home and go do stuff. When a crazy matchup happens, or when you pick the right side on a lopsided bet, it’s amazing. The site is more than the sum of its parts: when the chat is being creative, and the fighting characters aren’t horrible, and the music is good, it’s a special experience.
My gaming homework for the week: To finish The Last of Us and to dig into Gone Home.
Geoguessr entered my life when I was catching up on XKCD. It’s a simple pleasure - a Google Street View camera is randomly placed, and the player has to guess where the camera is placed. My method of play may not be totally "guess-y" (usually I look for an identifiable name, then search for it, ironically, on Google Maps), but if nothing else, it's an amusing way to take a short vacation.
Also, Brazil is my bane. Seriously, that place is huge.
Where Dance Dance Revolution proved only modestly successful, Ingress has stepped up as the new champion of exercise games in my life. Home is a termination point - once I get there, I wish to immediately relax, which makes the idea of sweating in front of my television abhorrent. However, playing Ingress can be factored into my regular commute. All I have to do is get off the bus a little early, and then... well, then, I walk around for an additional hour before I get home. But it's fine; I'm still headed home, right?
Ingress has cleaned up a lot since its initial beta release, and I've finally reached a playable state in it (level 4, after resetting once to change faction). It’s still being tweaked of course, but over the past several months the content has fleshed out quite a lot — there are many more portals than there were initially, thanks to user-submitted content, and the variety of items has increased substantially. There are still features I'd like to see — some manner of talent system, and sub-factions or "guilds" would be welcome — but it’s nice that the game is still going strong.
I picked up Payday 2, mostly with the aim of streaming my nonsense shenanigans. If you're unfamiliar with the game, think Monaco meets Left 4 Dead and you basically have the idea. Though I scoffed when the original Payday came out - suspecting it to be a cash-in on the opening scene of The Dark Knight - the developers (Overkill Software) really showed their chops as they kept the game fresh with new content, and they even offered free DLC for Steam users (a crossover with L4D's Mercy Hospital, no less).
Having spent several hours yesterday playing the second installment (amusingly, while I was supposed to be writing this article), I believe can safely say: Payday 2 is very fun. Like really, stupidly fun. Each heist is varied, allowing for multiple approaches - and in many, stealth and subtlety are encouraged. The moment you get spotted, though, the whole situation goes sideways. ("Sideways," in this case, is a state of affairs that involves zip-tying civilians and gunning down wave after wave of SWAT units.) It's got solid gunplay, well-developed character customization, an enjoyable variety of missions, and a penchant for making friends yell at each other in an amusing fashion. Yeah, I'm glad I bought Payday 2.
So this is exciting: I’m moving to San Francisco in about a month! I’m looking forward to being back on the best coast, breathing in the ocean air and living in a climate that isn’t actively trying to kill me.
Still, it’s weird to think I’m finally leaving Austin after two-and-a-half years of vegan breakfast tacos, bizarre street art, live music and the invaluable experience of working at Facebook’s Austin office since its first year of existence. This is the city that taught me how to thrive in a three-day music festival and how to score tickets to Austin City Limits tapings with my favorite musicians. It’s also the city that taught me there’s a hefty price to a $1 Long Island Iced Tea, but that’s neither here nor there.
I’m gonna miss the madness of South by Southwest, but I can’t wait to live in the city where the Game Developers Conference takes place. Change is good, and when the time’s right, the time’s right.
But you’re here because of video games, so let’s talk about video games.
I only had time for a few games this week and one of them deserves a full review so I won’t mention it here. But I did spend some time with a few bizarre and comical games that, despite their tonal similarities, couldn’t be any less alike.
The first is one you might’ve heard of: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. It’s a standalone expansion to Far Cry 3 that swaps the lush realism of the tropics for a post-apocalyptic, neon-drenched hellscape that looks like it was inspired by whatever VHS tapes the team could salvage from the nearest Blockbuster that just closed its doors. ’80s action movie staple Michael Biehn voices your character, Rex Power Colt, and provides a serviceable-yet-tired performance. So far I’ve stalked cyber-panthers, collected old video tapes and CRT television sets, and killed a fair number of cyber-soldiers in order to pilfer their cyber-hearts.
So as you might’ve gathered, it’s the sort of game that takes its satirical premise and runs wild with it. You can probably decide whether you’ll love or hate Blood Dragon based solely on whether you carry any fondness for bargain-bin sci-fi/action movies.
The other game I played is called Pom Gets Wi-Fi and it’s, um
…look, it's free, it's short and it’s a game you should play. Let's leave it at that.
Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time came out last week. I know, I was surprised too. The original was such a massive success for developer PopCap that you would think there'd be a certain degree of fanfare for the release of what I assumed was the much-anticipated sequel, but no — it seemed as though the title almost sneaked onto Apple's App Store in the dead of night.
At first I had concerns that the lack of attention was due to the change in business model. Plants vs. Zombies (referred to as PvZ from here on for convenience) was first released on PC for $20 and later saw release on just about every platform you can imagine playing a modern game on. I've personally played the title on no fewer than five unique platforms. PvZ2, however, is currently exclusive to iOS devices. I'm sure our resident Android enthusiast Mr. Tordoff may be a little miffed, but as the owner of both an iPad and an iPhone I take no issue. It's actually nice playing on both the tablet at home and phone on the train since my save syncs between the two devices. It's not a feature I utilize with many apps.
The larger sticking point for most is probably PopCap switching to a free-to-play system. This style of game can feel grind-heavy, random and often unfair unless the user makes a purchase (or several) of some sort. To be totally honest, this aspect of PvZ2 hasn't really bothered me. Nothing truly necessary has been locked away. Some plants are paid content only, but they're plants that tend to employ a lesser degree of strategy than the ones initially provided. Much of the paid content is also unlockable for free in the campaign provided the player uses randomly dropped keys at certain parts of the world map.
Advancing the story now also requires the player to acquire stars by finishing levels with unique restrictions such as having no more than 15 plants or using less than 2500 sun (one of the game's currencies). I fail to see how this is any kind of sticking point for average players. Anyone playing PvZ for the story is bound to be disappointed, and replaying levels with these restrictions prevents players from constantly using the same strategy. If I find anything truly tiresome it's the minigame levels that are no doubt designed to break up the tedium but are significantly less engaging than the standard gameplay style.
I don't blame PopCap or its publisher Electronic Arts for moving PvZ to a free-to-play model. I never bought Bejeweled 3 because there was no way I could rationalize buying a match-3 puzzle game with no secondary hook for $20. Releasing PvZ2 as a full $20 title would've found some audience but likely nothing equal to what a free title can acquire. I haven't spent any actual money yet but I likely will before I finish the campaign if only because I think PopCap deserves some monetary reward for the good work they put into the title. Those who refuse to engage this because of some consumer stance against the business model are missing out on a more-than-worthy successor to one of the best strategy titles around.