Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Weekly Gaming Notes

I’d like to start off the second month of 2011 by blogging more. The concept took hold roughly two years ago but didn’t really take. However, this past weekend saw me complete a wide variety of tasks that had been left either incomplete for several years, or were never started in the first place. I want to keep that ball rolling uphill and return some of my free time back to writing. One of those goals is to give a sort of weekly update on what games I’m working through, why, and what’s still on deck. These updates may be long, short, or in between. If you’re looking for gaming news, I’d recommend the site I write for – Gaming Trend.

So what do I have on deck at the moment? Well, since I sold my PS2 three months ago and haven’t touched the Wii in ages, I’m left with the 360 and PC. I haven’t used my PC for long gaming nights for a while due to the mass clutter in the office. You know how once you move into a house, there is always one room that becomes the equivalent of a black hole? It just consumes everything you can’t find a place for eventually spilling out of the closet, all over the floor, and even climbing up onto the shelves.

That would be our office for the last two years. To compound matters, my office desk has been a black picnic table since 2000. It may lack points in style, but it’s a sturdy beast with a wide breadth. While the rest of the office saw a gradual accumulation of stuff from My Fair Lady, myself, and Max over the years, the junk on my desk has been exclusively mine. Bills, documents, story ideas, stickers, CDs, a printer, and even a small Dia de los Muertos doll I’ve named Manny.

The reason I bring this up is because I need you to imagine sitting at such a “desk” with all that stuff piled high on it, and a ton of stuff on the floor back behind you. If you peg the sensation in your mind as “claustrophobic” you’d be correct. My Fair Lady recently asked me why I never seemed to game much in there anymore. I pointed out that whenever I sat at my desk for longer than 30 seconds, I felt like I was about to be crushed in a trash compactor.

One thing’s for sure, I’d at least be a lot thinner.

Then My Fair Lady got a wild hair. Either that or she finally snapped and had enough. Over the course of three days, she harnessed her considerable willpower and aimed it squarely at the office’s heart. As a result of her diligence and devotion, we can once again see the floor (I think the last time was the day we moved in). I also took an evening to clean up and organize my desk so even those piles are gone. The end result--I no longer mind when she claims the main television because I can play games on my PC once again.

And there was much rejoicing.

As such, my backlog grew by one a few weeks ago when I snagged Darksiders via Steam for $9. Certainly can’t go wrong on the price tag. It’s a third-person action game where you control War—as in one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—during the Final Battle™. Or at least that’s what War thinks it is, at first. Evil and Good clash on the surface of Earth and naturally people are freaked out. Chaos reigns and demons and angels clash everywhere. War shows up, starts laying down a considerable amount of pain before figuring out that something’s wrong.

He’s the only Horseman who showed up. Apparently the Seventh Seal was never broken (which is what signals the End of Days and summons the Four per Biblical lore) so the battle shouldn’t even be happening. Right as he’s demanding to know what’s going on, War is defeated by a demon roughly the size of a building. He goes before judgment in the netherworld where he’s given a reprieve since technically it wasn’t his fault. He can’t come unless called, ergo he couldn’t have started the war in the first place since starting things is not his specialty.

Ending things, however, is exactly what he specializes in and he sets out on a path of vengeance… and where have we heard that before? To its credit, “Darksiders” is filled with an amazing amount of inventive grotesque. The character designs, backgrounds, animation, finishing moves, and bevy of otherworldly elements are uniformly terrific. The action is non-stop, most of the puzzles are easy enough to figure out despite taking a hell of a long time to finish, and the story is intriguing enough to want to see where things go. But there are two problems here that need addressing.
1) The story can’t possibly have a happy ending. War is defeated at the start and disappears into the ether as I mentioned. When he’s sent back, it’s 100 years later and humanity and practically everything else has been wiped out. War literally traverses a dead planet hoping to find whoever essentially set him up but to what end? What’s the ending here? Say he finds the bad guy, whips his/its ass, and stands victorious? Over what exactly? Ash? Bombed out and ruined buildings? A planet so bereft of anything that it would need to be destroyed and recreated by God just to make things as they were (thereby effectively calling it Earth 2)?

2)War himself. If all it takes is a Horseman for the Apocalypse to kick off, why pick the one who is guaranteed to kick your ass? Pick Famine as your foe. What’s he gonna do—raze your crops? Fine. That helps you out if you’re intent is to wipe out humanity and claim their souls. Bring Famine on down! But War? The essence of pure conflict crammed into the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger wrapped in body armor adorned with skulls and wielding a sword the size of a freaking car? Sure, pick a fight with that guy and let me know how that works out for you.
Obviously, I haven’t completed it yet otherwise I’d have my answer on #1. One thing I’ll give the developers credit for is they crafted a heck of a long game considering the storyline isn’t its strong suit.

The same goes doubly for Chronicles of Riddick—Assault on Dark Athena which came out two years ago and that I’m finally playing now. It’s a double bill with the original Xbox title “Escape From Butcher Bay” available too. It’s just as well considering that Dark Athena looks, feels, and plays like an expansion pack for Butcher Bay. The first game was exciting when I played it at the time, but less so now. Apparently nostalgia has again blinded me because it hasn’t aged well. Both titles serve as prequels to Pitch Black, which is a gem of a sci-fi monster movie if you’ve never seen it.

The setup for it is a spaceship crashes on a deserted planet. The survivors include a motley assortment of colonists, a mercenary, and the prisoner he was transporting. Said prisoner happens to be the most notorious killer in the galaxy and is known simply as Riddick as played by Vin Diesel in his breakout role, Riddick is primarily about screwing with people’s minds more so than hunting and killing them. He doesn’t seem to mind being stuck on an empty world because hey, it’s better than prison right? Things get a lot more complicated when the pilot discovers the planet’s about to go into a year-long eclipse at which point millions of nocturnal monsters will head to the surface, hungry after a 30-year hibernation.

Like I said, it’s a hell of a little film that does not in any way play things safe. The two games are set prior to movie’s events so that we’d get to see the hardened Riddick actually break out of a maximum security slam. The first game nails the atmosphere of a futuristic, gritty, underground prison so much so that you can practically feel the grim on the walls. The missions, though, are little more than fetch quests between a total of about 10 different non-playable characters (NPCs). Due to tech limits of the time, it wasn’t an open world game by any means. You also have to finish missions a certain way and in a particular order and that absolutely kills the immersion and replayability many years hence.

But I blew through it anyway to get in the right mindset for Dark Athena. I then raced through Athena in roughly five hours and I’m nearing the final mission now. Wow. Talk about short and a lost opportunity. Riddick is a strong character, albeit a fairly narrow minded one, that good writers could have a field day with. I’d still love to see good writers take a shot at crafting a good story for the character because I have yet to see one. I enjoyed Butcher Bay again in large part because the concept and story were so good, but the execution is what suffers. It may have been fine at the time, but current technology combined with general improvements to games have rendered it obsolete. Dark Athena plays much the same way without adding any such improvements, the result being a lifeless, stilted title in search of a stronger narrative.

But finishing it off gets me this much closer to clearing out my backlog. That’s my overall goal this year because while there will be games I need to lay claim to in 2011, I want to finish one or two games before picking up a new one. That’s my plan anyway. We’ll see how many weeks it takes me to violate that pledge.

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