Goal for my Xmas vacation: play lots of video games. I have so far succeeded very well, and here’s a rundown of what’s been drying my eyes out recently. In a surprised turn of events, it’s NOT Rock Band!
It’s not even Beatles Rock Band, though I will point out that I am very excited by the additions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul as well as for regular Rock Band the tracks from Weezer, Queen, Nirvana, Tom Petty, and Green Day. Oh, and did you see the preview of Green Day Rock Band? I am guessing this is just a DLC pack rather than a full game, but it’s almost surely required for me.
There are a lot of games that I haven’t tried but I’d like to… oh, if only I had infinite money and time. Borderlands has gotten good buzz as a “role playing shooter” and I’d mostly just like to see what that means. New Super Mario Bros for Wii looks like the return of the good old-school platformer. The whole “Motion Plus” range of things for Wii also looks fun. I didn’t pick up Batman Arkham Asylum despite liking the demo and smiling at the voice acting–they got Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arlene Sorkin to reprise Batman, the Joker, and Harley from the Animated series though the look and feel of this game is much darker and violent than that cartoon. I tried DJ Hero in the store and while it’s a neat concept it’s nowhere near as fun as Rock Band which can be played with more people. Plus, there’s no way to justify more plastic instruments.
Besides the lovely plastic-instrument genres, I have been playing a lot of three games–all for the PS3 and all sequels. Sequels are a a double edged sword because while they generally fix all the bugs and problems of the prior games they came from, it’s very hard to make the game stand out in it’s own right and often it just feels like the released the last game over again. Mostly not the case with the three I’m playing now: Assassin’s Creed 2, Modern Warfare 2, and Uncharted 2.
Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up the story from the first game where Desmond (i.e. you) must now relive the memories of a different ancestor (Etzio) who happens to look, move, and kill very similarly to the prior one (Altair). A somewhat reasonable conceit but it does kinda look like they didn’t want to really rock the boat on character design going into the second game. They do update all the models and textures so they’re more elaborate but a drapey hooded outfit looks like a drapey hooded outfit. Many of the complaints of the original game are addressed. There is certainly more assassination than in the first game, and there’s a bit more variety in how you go about it. There’s no more dying when falling into water. The assassins figured out how to swim in the last 400 years, but apparently the guards did not. The worlds are all bigger, and there’s less countryside travel. Gone are the pickpocket missions and the annoying lepers that would knock into you. They’ve modified the blend methodology so you can’t just hold a button and be invisible to guards: you can hide in crowds or (my favorite) throw money to cause a ruckus. There’s also the addition of medicine and armor which quickly increases your lifebar beyond the point of worry, so it will soften the blow of the one thing they didn’t change: the sometimes wildly swinging camera and hypersensitive controls that have you jumping completely the wrong direction off rooftops. I mentioned throwing money, and while that seems like a bad idea, money is really not a problem in this game. It’s not implemented in the best way–there’s an odd economic thing built in which you pretty much can’t do incorrectly (unless you avoid it wholly), but it assures a steady supply of cash for spending on medicine, armor, weapons, and hookers. You heard me. You can hire courtesans and they’ll “distract” the guards. There’s a lot more animations thrown into the game- especially around combat. The kills were always brutal in the first game, but now they’re brutal AND showy. Also, being Assassin’s Creed 2 your character has 2 hidden blades for more killing potential. There are still some annoying quests and they usually involve running and jumping puzzles which are notoriously frustrating in almost every 3d game and more so with the twitchy controls here, but there are only a couple that are required. As a sequel, it really develops the style and gameplay and improves on the original. As a standalone game, it didn’t wow me as much as the first one. There’s certainly enough fun in it to merit playing through many of the optional quests, and there’s more outer (real-world) storyline, but it’s not as impressive as the first game was, and feels too deliberate as a middle entry in a longer franchise. I call that the Matrix Reloaded effect, though Back to the Future 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 suffered from similar issues. Still, definitely worth playing but maybe not owning unless you were really into the first one.
Modern Warfare 2 has many of the drawbacks of the Matrix Reloaded effect, but it is able to stand alone much better than Assassin’s Creed 2 because the story is much more distinct for the single-player campaign. AC2’s internal plot is essentially the same as AC1: kill the Templars. MW2’s plot is a bit more twisty, and manages to overtake many of the first game’s awesome set pieces. It continues the tradition of bouncing between multiple sets of characters to get a larger perspective on the storyline, and they’ve upped the cinematic quotient of the levels. It’s moving more towards action movie than battle simulator which is fine for me. The purists can have Operation Flashpoint 2 where they realistically model wind, bullet drop due to gravity, and the speed of freaking sound. There’s not much new gameplay-wise in this installment; the big difference is grenades will now roll downhill (and sometimes back to you) rather than just landing. Multiplayer, though, got a very heavy revamp. There are many more options for weapon customization and the perks. Almost too much. It’s less realistic to be completist about all the weapons and attachments and more about tweaking loadouts. There’s more balance in the weapon choices so the later-unlocked ones are not automatically better than the starting gear. Finally, the games crash less because they figured out a way to migrate hosts if connections are bad. Despite all these changes, my reflexes are still awful so I get killed a lot online. I did, however, run into my brother in a random game and we were on opposite sides which was a fun evening.
Uncharted 2. This may be the perfect example of a sequel. It’s the same characters and gameplay, so the fans of the first game can hit the ground running, but is a completely standalone game from the first one, so there should be no confusion for new players. Also, the voice acting really sells the story and motivation well, and the control is near-awesome. There’s more of an emphasis on stealth this time around, and there are some points where being stealthy reduces the difficulty significantly though make no mistake, there are more firefights. There’s a lot of jumping puzzles in archeology, apparently. Luckily, these felt less annoying to me than in the first one. I think the scale of the puzzles is bigger and more “realistic” — a weird word to use when describing massive mechanical booby traps manufactured by pre-industrial societies. There’s also some multiplayer, but I don’t play it after trying it once; I find the third-person angle good for the single player game, but annoying for multi. If MW2 is moving towards action movie, Uncharted 2 is action movie bucking for an Oscar. The storyline is great, the characters are likeable, and the action is epic. It’s more of the same from the first game but they manage to make it feel very different and new.
Hopefully 2010 will be less sequelicious; I’m looking forward to Heavy Rain the most. It’s almost inevitable for me to need God of War 3, and Bioshock 2 is definitely on radar. Luckily I have plenty to keep occupied with unitl then.