Is it time to drop LJ? Probably was a long time ago. Regardless, I'm trying something different for when I feel the need to put something on the internet.

And no, it's not a Twitter.

LJ's been behind the times for years now, but this (somewhat) recent change that only shows 1 or 2 entries on my friends page? Man, that would be the absolute last straw...if I still had a bunch of friends here who posted semi-regularly. Maybe I do? I wouldn't know!

Is Tumblr a better option? We'll see; I think I'll miss real comments, but I don't really post so much to warrant a real blog these days. Still, I like the fact that it allows you to put in a decent amount of text when you actually do have something to say.

If you happen to see this within the 36 hours it appears on your LJ friends page, come join me!

Portal 2: More is Less
I just finished Portal 2, and I'm-a gonna talk about it. Because it is another shining example of how every person who identifies themselves as a gamer loves Valve and everything they do to death, while I just don't think they make games that are all that great. I've probably already ranted about how Half-Life 2 is the most overrated piece of media in my lifetime, so now I'm going to tell you why Portal 2 is not as great as everyone else says it is.

First off, let me get this out of the way: I'm not going to shy away from general spoilers. SPOILER: It really doesn't matter. If you've played the first game, guess what? This one is exactly the same. There, now that you know how it ends, let's talk about why it is worse in pretty much every way than the original.

Now, I say that not to imply Portal 2 is a bad game--in fact, I rather enjoyed it. I say it simply because it is true: I enjoyed Portal 2 less in every way than the original. I think I have it pinned to one major culprit: it's bigger.

First, the characters: I am rather disappointed the silent, faceless protagonist (whom the marketing materials call Chell, but I believe has only ever been referred to either game as [SUBJECT NAME HERE]) from the first game has returned for the sequel. I understand why they did it though: because they wanted Glados to make references to it at every turn. This was actually a colossally poor decision, because it removes every bit of her charm. There's no depth to Glados' character anymore, and there's no breadth to her humor. She just spends the entire game calling you fat and whining about the fact that you killed her.

Fortunately, the new characters pick up the slack. The maintenance bot Wheatley hauls in a load of British humor, and the recorded messages from Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson fill the role that Glados did in the first game. Namely, a headstrong single-mindedness and casual disregard for human life. In fact, the parts with Jonson are the points where the game almost feels like Portal 1 again. As you walk through older sections of the testing facility, you get a glimpse of the saga of Aperture science, and the toll running it has taken on the once-idealistic entrepreneur. This is where the only meaningful story in the game is told, and is probably the best part in the game. Except the puzzles suck.

Overall, the puzzles in Portal 2 seemed quite easy and a bit lackluster compared to the first, and I thought those in the old wing were the weakest of the bunch. I didn't care too much for the gels in particular, and that's where they were introduced. I did like the light bridges, and conveyors were fun, but I never really enjoyed the other new gimmicks much (they probably could have done more with the springs, but I guess that would have put it dangerously close to "physics puzzler" territory). In most cases, they relied too heavily on these new gimmicks, and your portal gun was just a tool to get them from one place to another--not in the cool way of flinging yourself around in the first game, but in more of a "I shoot one portal at where this laser/bridge/gel is landing, keep it stationary, and now I essentially have a gun that shoots lasers/bridges/gel.

At any rate, the combination of all the new gels and other testing elements and the very limited selection of portal-able walls make most solutions immediately clear as soon as you've had a chance to survey the entire room. If you've got something that only goes in one direction (or only has one blindingly obvious place to put it), and only one portal-able wall that faces that direction, well, you're not so much "thinking with portals" as "connecting the dots."

As for the world itself, remember that feeling when you broke through the wall in the first game, and discovered that there was more to the game and its environment than you had been led to believe? That doesn't happen here. The game starts as a roller-coaster ride with the premise pretty much outlined from the beginning: the labs are falling apart, and you need to leave. They come up with a rather flimsy premise for you to have to go through a bunch of testing chambers while you're there, though, but running through chamber after chamber always feels at odds with the initial impetus, and there's never any pretense that doing so accomplishes anything.

Aside from the vintage wing, where you're exploring the history of Aperture labs, you're never discovering anything about the world around you, either. It's just some maniac robot making you jump through hoops in some vast underground lair that's falling apart. It tells you at the outset that all the other humans in the facility (including the test subjects) have been dead for quite some time, and I guess uses that as an excuse to have no evidence of any kind of life at all outside of the voices in your ear. No scrawled messages on the wall (well, I saw one, but it made no sense in the context of anything else in the game, and was pasted wholesale onto another wall later on in the game), and no evidence that any scientist ever actually sat at any of the identical desks littering the observation rooms.

The game also tells you that there's likely some manner of apocalypse happening in the outside world, but then promptly forgets about it so Glados can make some snarky insult and then remain completely silent while you solve a puzzle. I guess you're supposed to be some Valve superfan who reads all the press releases and developer interviews so you can connect it to some point in the Half-Life timeline that you're intimately familiar with because you've played them all several times and read all the fanfics. For someone like me who doesn't even give half a shit about Half-Life, it just seems like a glaring omission (and kind of a kick in the teeth that they're taking content away from this good series to bolster interest in their boring-ass shooter).

Maybe I just missed every single side room with information about the world and what was happening/had happened, but the only thing I found were a bunch of copy-pasted work desks and one circular room with a collection of novelty mugs. In fact, every time I thought I was going into some clever out-of-the-way place, I was rewarded only with another bland, sterile observation room with the exact same assets as the last. Stick to your rails, player! There's another setpiece ahead!

And while those large setpieces are pretty, I find another lifeless skybox in falling-apart brown-town to be a poor substitute for the simple visual appeal of the bright white testing rooms of the first game. (Seriously, between this and Half-Life 2, I'm beginning to wonder if Valve only knows how to make sewers and rusted-out industrial warehouses.) It meant something when you found a bit that was out-of-place in Portal 1. Here, they use "hidden" mechanical widgets and service catwalks as just another brush to paint their levels with.

In essence, Valve was so busy trying to stuff so much "new hotness" in Portal 2, they forgot to leave room for the soul and the charm of the original. There seemed to be no real brilliance in the puzzle designs this time around, and no real purpose to much of the plot. I had my doubts a triple-A title could capture the magic of an inspired 4-hour indie game (though to be fair, the writing was a big part of that magic, and I believe the writers were Valve before the rest of the dev team got bought), and unfortunately, my pessimism was vindicated.

Still though, it's more Portal, and you're not really going to get that anywhere else. Especially now that I hear they've cut the portals out of Prey 2.

A Glorious Return to Blogging About Dumb ol' Videogames
I'm close to almost done with this livejournal business, but I do kind of like griping about the media I consume, so here we are. I was actually going to write a post a week or so ago about this dumb book I read, but then I decided it would be better if I actually wrote a review on Amazon so other people wouldn't make the same mistake of reading it. Of course, I decided Amazon probably wasn't the place for some tirade about how I thought I was reading a sci-fi book, which it turned out was actually just Twilight set in the future, and I really should have been able to judge by looking at the cover...ironically enough.

But no, I logged on to write about Dragon Age 2, for two reasons. 1. I just finished it and was rather disappointed with the ending, and 2. Jerry Holkins is once again picking on someone who made the mistake of disagreeing with Jerry Holkins when he doesn't have a million internet fans, and usually when that happens, things get dumb. I thought I'd go ahead and speak my piece on Dragon Age 2 because I guess I had way different issues with the game than everyone who gets paid to talk about video games.

Yeah, they reused a lot of areas, but you know what, I've been a DM before. When you need a different part of road for a different set of kobolds to ambush from, you don't draw a whole new map, you just turn the one you've got around. BOOM! Different road! These guys made a 50-hour cinematic RPG in two years, someone along the way had to get creative. The alternative is Final Fantasy 13, which was delayed for years so they could craft hundreds of painstakingly rendered locations for you to spend 30 seconds in and forgot about forever because A. it was just a place for you to fight till you got to the next bit of plot, and B. you really didn't give a shit anyway. I think BioWare made the right call here.

Also, a lot of people complained about how dull the combat got since every fight included multiple waves. Yeah, that got old, but if you're bitching about tedious combat in DA2, you probably didn't play much of the original. Sure, in DA:O, you had to make important tactical decisions sometimes, but mostly you had to pause every 5 seconds because Allistair was standing in the damn fire again. Even with the multiple waves, combat in DA2 felt a lot faster, and I'll call that a great thing since in either game1, you're still going to get in a dozen fights just on your way to breakfast from the hotel.

So yeah, people complaining about that stuff are whiners. The real meat of Dragon Age is that it is an engrossing story you get to control bits of. In that sense, Dragon Age 2 is a resounding success. It's a lot like Mass Effect: Middle Ages, which is A-OK in my book. It's got quite a different feel than the first, and I can see people being disappointed in that. But no, they're mad about bad guys calling in their buddies or caves looking eerily similar (spoilers: they're both holes in the damn ground).

Or, I guess they're upset because everybody is gay. To read about it from all the "sensible" people on the internet who all hold the "correct" opinions, this is due to nothing more than the fact that they're a bunch of worthless homophobes. If we're honest, though, it really seems like BioWare has overcompensated due to all the hemming and hawing over the lack of gay sex in Mass Effect2. As a male Hawke, I was either hit on and/or had multiple options to hit on all of my male companions before I was offered a single opportunity to flirt with any of the female characters. This may be partly due to the fact I got Isabella last, but still, it's more than a bit conspicuous.

The guy Tycho is picking on is upset that he doesn't like any of the female characters. Kind of a silly nitpick, but I can see where he's coming from. Let's run down your options here: you've got a rather cold knight who's all-business-all-the-time3, a wild slut who will bed anything breathing (and spends all her time talking about it), and the little elf girl who I suppose is supposed to be cute and innocent, except she spends so much time dabbling in forbidden magic her clan hates her, and is so willful, no matter how often you tell her she's being dumb, if you don't play out her sidequests right, she can wind up being responsible for the slaughter of every last one of them.

I mean, the dudes don't seem like much of a prize either: two of them are terribly emo, and carry around more baggage than a freight train. The other is a dwarf. Seriously though, these guys were my party pretty much the entire game, if for nothing else but the banter. The first half of the game the dwarf picks on the elf for being so emo, and after you help him work through his isuses, they become best buds and pick on on the mage because he's a git.

But that's not the biggest problem with your companions. No, the biggest problem is your mages. Mages in Dragon Age are feared, and with good reason. They've been known to summon demons, subjugate minds, perform sacrifices, and according to legend, staged an assault on the gates of Heaven itself brining the wrath of God down upon the earth in the form of the Darkspawn that were the bad guys murdering everyone in the first game. Even when they're not actively summoning demons, they're constantly targeted by them for possession. So yeah, they're kept on a pretty tight leash.

In the first game, your two mage choices were a high-order mage who works within the law as a mage trainer, and an apostate4 who was raised by a witch. This was posed as a sort of dilemma, but even the apostate wasn't evil5, she just lived outside the law. I guess that wasn't gritty enough for the sequel, because your two mages in this game are a blood mage (the forbidden magic) and one who is possessed by a demon.

Maybe what a normal person would do would be to say "screw these assholes," and just go see if any of the circle mages want to help, you know, defend the city they live in. In fact, considering all the murder the game forces Hawke to dish out against slavers, mercenaries, bandits, and other general lowlifes, in any other circumstance these are exactly the kinds of people whose blood he would be wearing like a fashion statement. But no, you're stuck palling around with these assholes for the whole game.

One of the undercurrents of the entire game is the conflict between the mages (who just want to be free, man!) and the Templars (who are trying to keep the children safe from the evil mages!). The game uses the imagery of its city's past as a center of the slave trade to depict the terrible conditions under which the mages are forced to live. The templars are portrayed as overly agressive and tyrannical oppressors. It basically asks you to choose between these two bickering factions throughout the entire game, on the grounds that the Templars are just trying to protect people, and not all mages are evil, just some of them and we shouldn't all have to suffer for it.

Except, in Dragon Age 2, mages are all evil. Every single one of them. Every mage you meet is one rough day at the office away from demon summoning and human sacrifice. Your companion choices only reinforce this. Sure, they may claim that they were driven to it by extenuating circumstances, but I don't think forbidden magic has easy step-by-step directions printed on the back of the box. If you're spending your free time studying how to slaughter dudes and re-animate their corpes into undead horrors to do your bidding--you know, just in case--I think maybe you've already taken a wrong turn somewhere.

That's not the disappointing part, though, it just makes the moral "dilemmas" easier. The problem is that the leader of the Templars really is a tyrannical usurper, but unlike the mages, the templars aren't all like that. This is a problem because most of the choices you have to make are either "yay templars, torture all of the mages!" or "yay mages, overthrow the templars and the order of the whole city!" There's no, "hey, these mages are assholes, and need killin', but you know what, maybe the templars could use some change in direction, because this lady is just making the problem worse." There's no room for nuance; you have to be all in, one side or the other.

You know what though, it's just a video game, and they still did a pretty damn good job at it. There's only so many paths they can program for. And to their credit, they did let me give Merrill the Blood Mage a really good dressing down after I had to reload twice to avoid killing her entire clan because she's a stupid blood mage who does stupid things despite my warnings. In fact, she even turned herself around, smashed her demon mirror, and swore off blood magic, so that actually turned out to be a nice little arc of hubris and redemption.

I guess my biggest problem is Anders. He's a radical mage-ist who you're forced to pal around with even though he's constantly trying to take actions that would throw the whole city-state into anarchy. And you're forced to buddy around with this asshole the whole time, instead of killing him like every other demon-possessed abomination you come across throughout the course of the entire game because that's what you do with murderous superhuman entities who literally cannot control their actions.

And to top it all off, he's your only healer, guaranteeing him a spot in your party at all times, because there just aren't enough healing potions in the game to keep your dumbass dwarf alive.

And here are the end-of-the-game spoilersCollapse )

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the biggest problem with Dragon Age 2 isn't the combat, or the maps, or anything else the critics keep griping about. It's that they've crafted a fantastically engrossing story, one that made me actually care about the story and characters enough to get genuinely angry at them, and then didn't let me customize the outcome enough.

1. ...and in any video game, really.
2. This is a silly claim anyway; as anyone familiar with Star Trek could tell you, there are no homosexuals in space.
3. At least until her ridiculous sidequest where she asks you to help her stalk a guy she likes.
4. In this context, it mostly just means an unregistered mage who doesn't live within the mage asylums, where they are watched by the Templars, an order of knights whose sole purpose is to hunt down mages who go bad or get possessed.
5. Except for the fact that she hates it when you do nice things, and likes killing people. So I guess she is pretty much evil, but not because she's dabbling in evil magic, because she's just a giant evil bitch.
6. I bet they're sacrificing virgins and summoning demons right now.

Since I already owned Braid and Osmos, I bought the Humble Indie Bundle pretty much entirely because I mistook Revenge of the Titans for Titan Attacks. Despite having similar titles and being from the same developer (maybe even part of the same series?), only one of these games is actually fun, because only one of these games is not a stupid tower defense game.

That game is not Revenge of the Titans.

Seen in the parking garage today: Pea-green Honda Element with Apple logo sticker, flying spaghetti monster emblem, and bull horns zip-tied to the grill.

Ultimate destination: Douchebag championships.

Metroid: The Other (White) M(eat)
I took a break from playing downloadable games to try out Metroid Other M. It's an easy verdict, easily reached: STARK STEAMING TURD.

First, Other M is not a Metroid game. Sure, it's got missiles and health packs, but it retains nothing of what makes Metroid Metroid. It's not just because it's got different mechanics; Metroid Prime's mechanics were quite a bit different than Super Metroid's, but it still had the Metroid soul. Calling Other M a Metroid game because the main character wears a yellow suit and can turn into a ball is like calling a transvestite a woman because he wears a bra. It's just window dressing, and when it comes time for the action, you're just going to wind up disappointed.

More importantly, however, Other M is not a good game. The reasons for this are myriad, though I'd argue there is only one truly critical flaw.

It's not the ridiculous control scheme. True, a needless and frustrating impediment between player and game makes any game difficult to enjoy, but a lot of people still like Resident Evil. Other M tried to do something unique here, and while you can question the wisdom of their decision, you can't really fault the ideal.

It's not the "story" they tried to cram in, either. Oh sure, listening to emofag Samus ceaselessly whine her way through some kind of midlife crisis (complete with ticking biological clock) in laughably forced monotone made me want to get drunk on rubbing alcohol and kidney-punch an Evangelion fanboy. I've been playing games from Japan for a long time, though, and I've developed a certain tolerance for angsty existential bullshit.

It's not even the complete undermining of the exploration element that made the Metroid series so entertaining in the first place. Oh sure, you'll run into super-missile doors long before you are allowed to use your super missiles, but for every legitimate Metroidvania-style obstacle or good old-fashioned switch you have to press, there are 3 other doors that are arbitrarily locked until you view the cutscene they want you to watch or kill the enemy you want to kill. This is lazy game design, and it is an insult to the Metroid franchise, but it's worked for plenty of other God of Inferno May Cry-onettas in the past.

No, the major problem with Other M is that it's no damn fun to play. Almost every enemy in the game is either too numerous or has too many hit points, so each and every one of the game's many monster closets turns into a dreary slog that far overstays its welcome. Oh sure, they try to spice it up by giving most enemys a "trick" to beating them, but that "trick" is, 9 times out of 10, to simply run around avoiding them until your beam charges, they drop their invincibility, or they stop shooting so you can safely turn into a missile turret, shoot them once (probably missing if you are attempting to use the non-lock-on charge beam), repeat until it is no longer fun, then shoot them a couple more times before they actually die.

As laborious as that sounds, it's made even worse by the fact that most of those enemies respawn every time you leave the room, even further dis-incentivizing exploration. Without interesting characters or story, engaging exploration, or compelling combat, Other M offers absolutely no reason to pick up that Wiimote.

Sorry, but you lose again, Team Ninja. You should really stick to games with both "Dead" and "Alive" in the title.

It's not all bleak on the Japanese action game front, though: Back before I resorted to gaming with disk drives, I played the Vanquish demo. Verdict? SHIT HOT. I mean, it's basically the anime version of Gears of War, but on the other hand, it's the anime version of Gears of War.

Solid cover-based shooting with Japanese action game speed and intensity? With copious amount of bullet-time so you can keep up, and a color palette that branches beyond brown and grey? Sign me right up.

I'm Getting Too Old for This Shit
Monday Night Combat is actually a pretty great idea. It's like DOTA, I guess (I never played it, but that's what everybody says), except you're actually doing stuff instead of clicking on things, so it's fun. Also, it's 3rd-person instead of 1st-person, so you can see what the hell is happening, which I really appreciate.

The problem is it's rarely actually fun to play. I feel like I've been the victim of a bait-and-switch here. When I was playing the demo, I guess I was on some kind of demo-only n00b server, because I was actually having a lot of fun. I could usually kill somebody in between deaths, and the matches weren't horribly lopsided. Then, when I bought the game, I was thrust into the hellhole that is XBox Live, and reminded exactly why I never play online games.

See, here's the problem. After a bit of trial and error, I've found that my most effective class seems to be the tank; the big slow dude who deals a good bit of damage and can soak a lot of damage, but is not very adaptable (since he is slow and generally close-range), so you have to be a bit methodical with him.

There's also the assassin, which I wish I were better at. She's fast, nimble, and almost 100% melee. It's really fun to play as one, because her main thing is to sneak up behind people and do a grapple attack that, from behind, will kill anyone but a tank in one hit. It takes some effort to position it, and some balls to pull it off, but it's satisfying, and you feel like you've earned that 1-hit kill. The part I haven't figured out is how to actually survive killing someone, because you are locked up in an animation that takes a few seconds, but can still take damage. If there's anyone else around (especially those damn turrets), you'll get your kill, but you're dead before you can make your getaway.

But that's what makes it exciting. It's a tradeoff between really high damage, and the necessity of finding your opportunity. And like I said, it still won't kill a tank in 1 shot even if executed perfectly.

Then there's the fucking sniper. The perfect example of how Jeff Gerstmann is 100% correct: headshots are ruining gaming.

The sniper can get fucking headshots. He can kill fucking anything in one fucking shot with a fucking headhsot. Which means I can leave my fucking spawn point as a tank, and be dead before I hit the fucking ground because some fucking autistic shithole is sitting there with a sniper and can actually aim with a fucking thumbstick (this is not a human skill; the mouse is the gentleman's pointing device).

When I die to an assasin, I think "hey, you got me." Even though they are fast, can cloak, and once in melee range, can execute their grapple with a wide margin of error for aiming, I can appreciate the skill required to put everything in motion and make it to me to do their move. Especially when I'm a tank, and they either have to have backup, or finish me off after their initial strike.

But when I am suddenly zoomed out of my lifeless corpse (that previously had full fucking health) for the Nth time because some shithead savant swept his crosshairs over my head from across the map, I just want to stop playing until his fucking XBox explodes.

Seriously, that headshot bullshit is even more frustrating than their brain-dead matchmaking which will put one level 25 and a bunch of single-digit level dudes on my team, while the other team has 3 guys above 45 and no one below 10. I know the levels don't really change your stats, but they are an indicator of experience. I can't tell you how much fun it is to spawn in my base and be immediately surrounded by 3 enemies without an ally in sight, because we blue teamers are still screwing around trying to learn our classes, and red team is a highly-trained special ops murder squad.

It's still way more tolerable than taking a fucking headshot.

Oh well, I guess grandpa over here is going to go back to his single-player Zelda rehashes and let all the teenagers play the new and exciting games. But you can bet your ass they won't be doing it on my damn lawn.


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