Backlog: November Is Here and We're In Trouble edition

November is almost a dirty word among writers who cover mainstream games. It's the month when most of the major publishers like Activision, EA and Ubisoft ship their big-budget games to market. Despite the relatively high price associated with all three consoles, games continue to be a popular gift, and this year ought to be no exception.

Of course, since we're all adults here, we have to make our own fun--and, in some cases, buy our own gifts. That's just what Aaron did with his recent acquisition of an Xbox One, which completes the triumvirate of current-generation console ownership for him; meanwhile, Doug and I picked up the new Call of Duty because, gosh darn it, I kinda like that series.

As critics, we're more or less obligated to sample as many of these flagship games before we convene to determine our list of the best games of the year. But don't worry: I promise I'll get back to my regularly scheduled programming of waxing poetic about obscure indie games that nobody else likes before too long.  - Nick Cummings

Aaron

So.

Here I am, one year into the “next generation” with a Wii U, PlayStation 4 and, as of this week, an Xbox One. I didn’t anticipate owning all three consoles so soon, but I have no regrets over my financial decisions.

Let me be frank: I’m a frugal shopper. And while that sentence is at odds with the opening paragraph detailing how much (you assume) I’ve spent in 2014, I have to say I did a fine job of being practical.

I love games. I hope that’s obvious to anyone who’s read this blog at least once. Being that I, recent bullshit aside, fully believe in this medium as both a way to entertain and inspire, I can justify buying new hardware. But I will never pay full price.

In January I had a $15 Best Buy credit burning a hole in my pocket. After that appeared, a quite-rare bonus at work found its way into my bank account. My Roth IRA and other investments healthy and secure, I could justify a (minus credit!) purchase of a PlayStation 4 at the semi-low price of $385 dollars.

OK -- that’s not the best deal. Still, I didn’t pay full price!

I’m more proud of my frugal Xbox One acquisition. Through my credit card rewards program I procured a $100 Amazon code -- a chance to get something nice for myself. A week later the news broke of the $50 holiday price drop for current One bundles. Quite the perfect time to grab the Assassin’s Creed Unity package, no?

So for just about $250 I became the proud owner of an Xbox One and two Assassin’s Creed games. I already finished Black Flag, but my weakness for achievement hunting may coerce me into a second playthrough.

And you know what? The Xbox One is pretty rad! I’ve had a blast in Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive. While I hesitate to say these two titles alone will drive hardware sales (that’s the Master Chief Collection’s burden), if you own an Xbox One you should definitely grab a copy of both. Compared with the PlayStation 4, which at times feels reserved in its rigid gamers-first PR campaign, I’m having stupidly silly amounts of fun with Xbox exclusives.

As much as I enjoyed Infamous: Second Son, it wasn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious; considering the seriousness with which a lot of franchises take themselves, the Xbox’s vision is a welcome distraction.

My point isn’t in bragging. Rather, I’m happy to be the only staff member with ready access to every current-generation platform, which hasn’t been the case for me since the days of the SNES and Genesis.

Whatever exclusives Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft (and their respective partners) toss my way, I’ll be ready to enjoy them all without being hampered by either budget or allegiance.

And, lastly, I’m aware: I’m very lucky to experience that kind of freedom as an enthusiast of a very expensive hobby.

Doug

Let’s dive right in, because I have a ton of games left to play this fall and I’ve been spending a lot of time recently playing through a few games that I think deserve mention.

Chief among those deserving mention is Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. The original release of Diablo III on PC and Mac didn’t grasp me, but the switch to the PlayStation 3 version for Reaper and the changes and balances to its gameplay have absolutely hooked me. I’m in the expansion Act V now with a character just past level 50, and Blizzard’s title is still as addictive as it’s always been. I hope I can pin down Tyler to some Adventure Mode time soon.

The other really big title that I’ve gotten started in is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. After mentioning it in our podcast, I guess that got some of the guys on staff (Tyler and Nick in particular) interested in Activision’s latest and greatest. And as the review scores trickled out this week, it turned into a full-on hype train leading to the midnight release. I’m a few levels into the single-player campaign but I’m excited to see more, and to try out multiplayer. I expect a lot of failure in the latter.

A quick aside: my free-to-play addiction to WWE SuperCard continues with little abatement and, finally, a real tangible achievement. Yes, as you can tell from this photo, I’ve won a King of the Ring tournament! I might have been sandbagging a bit to have a chance at the title (and the paired cards that go along with placing in the finals), but I really never expected to actually win. Now, time to level up my rewards!

Lastly, I’m prepared to change my racing game of late from one prestigious world championship to another. I’ve been playing Formula 1 13 still of late, but with the release of MotoGP 14, I’m getting ready to change four wheels for two. I loved the Climax-developed MotoGP series on Xbox, and I’ve read that the physics and career progression in this new iteration (developed by motorcycle racing specialists Milestone) are particularly solid. I’m looking forward to battling the best of the best on two wheels once again.

Nick

After a month of moving and traveling, I'm finally in a place where I can play some stuff, make some stuff and write some stuff. Just like old times, right? Still, I'm gonna keep this brief because I've got a lot to cover.

The Binding of Isaac:Rebirth, Nicalis's expanded remake of Edmund McMillen's roguelike/twin-stick shooter hybrid, just came out on Tuesday for computers, PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. What made Isaac stand out to me the first time around wasn't its gameplay, which played exclusively and somewhat awkwardly on a keyboard. (The options menu teased at a "gamepad" option, but it cheekily just tells you to download Joy2Key instead.) Instead, Isaac stood out for its expressive, gross-out art style (similar to that seen in McMillen's earlier Super Meat Boy) and darkly comedic embrace of religious themes and zealotry. It's a game that deliberately tries to make the player uncomfortable, but all while seeming to sport a goofy, buck-toothed grin. I thought it worked quite well, even if the feel of actually controlling the game left a lot to be desired.

Rebirth fixes virtually every complaint I had with the original game. The game runs with impeccable smoothness on PlayStation 4, and the Vita version, despite a few split-second hiccups to load new content between rooms, runs impressively well even in cluttered rooms filled with enemies. Most important, however, is the addition of true twin-analog stick controls, giving the player much more nuance over Isaac's movement. Shooting is still bound to four cardinal directions, but it feels like the right decision to me.

I found myself quite taken with Isaac the first time around, despite its flaws. But Rebirth is such an improvement over the original that I'm already dreading the depths of my addiction to this game--particularly when I can play it anywhere thanks to my Vita.

I also found myself unexpectedly returning to SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt thanks to its inclusion in November's PlayStation Plus lineup. I 100%ed the original version on my 3DS a year ago, but the addition of challenging trophies to earn managed to breathe some new life into the game for me. If you're a fan of Minecraft and Metroidvania-style exploration/platformer games, you'll probably have a great time with SteamWorld, even if it doesn't do much to evolve either genre.

Meanwhile, back in AAA land...

I've never been an Infamous fan. Sucker Punch made a name for itself with the clever and smooth platforming action of the Sly Cooper series, and while I could appreciate how they evolved that formula with Infamous, the series just never worked for me. Between some of the most off-putting characters I've ever seen in a game (which is really saying something) and a thoroughly half-baked morality system, Infamous felt like a very polished game about jumping, climbing and flying that lacked the creative direction to do anything meaningful.

So yeah, I was a little surprised to discover how much I like Infamous: Second Son.

Moving to a real-world setting was the smartest thing that series has ever done. By freeing Infamous from its original aesthetic and setting, Sucker Punch also managed to create some complex, believable characters with some solid (if a little hit-or-miss) writing bringing them to life. The addition of multiple sets of powers is also a welcome change of pace from the lightning-wielding hero of the first two games.

That being said, this is still a very traditional open-world action game in many respects. Outside of a linear chain of missions to push the story forward to its conclusion, you've got a few varieties of collectibles to pick up and side missions to complete. These manage to be relatively engaging without requiring too much time to complete, which isn't a strong suit so much as a source of relief. Even still, too many open-world games stuff their environments with far too many optional objectives to complete, derailing players from the critical path without offering much in the way of entertainment to compensate. Second Son manages to strike a careful balance to where I've been able to alternate between completing a mission and then clearing out one of the game's 14 districts while still feeling engaged in the overall experience. Fans of the series will probably love it unconditionally, but if you've also been critical of previous Infamous games, you might still wanna check this one out.

I'm running out of time, but here are some rapid-fire thoughts on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

  • It's a very nice-looking game
  • There has never been a better-paced single-player campaign in the entire series' history
  • That being said, the story is still pretty dumb
  • Fortunately, great acting and sharp pacing prevents you from really noticing that in the moment
  • I can't say enough about how important the new movement abilities are -- they've almost completely revitalized the multiplayer grind for me
  • That being said, I still think Titanfall did it better