The “Invasion of the Vorticons Award” AKA Our 2013 Best Video Game Award

As the year winds to a close, we’ll start the tradition of naming a handful of our favorite entertainment mediums. Since the video game release season is basically over, we are going to begin there with our Commander Keen named trophy, the “Invasion of the Vorticons Award”.  It has been an interesting year, highlighted by the newest generation of console launches, the best-selling video game (and entertainment launch) of all-time, and the annual releases of  new Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and sports franchise games. But which one is the best one to come out this year? Below I will highlight a handful of the runner-ups and then conclude with what I believe is the best title.

Runner-Ups

The Last of Us – Naughty Dog Studios

From the studio that brought you the hit franchise in Uncharted, Naughty Dog strikes gold again with this fantastic tale that is one of the most visually stunning (if not the most visually stunning) games to be released on the PS3. Capitalizing on the zombie craze that is currently the fad of the land, the story comes to you in a post apocalyptic setting that crosses the United States as you play as a duo that is in search of a cure for the zombie plague.

To be honest, I haven’t played more than an hour of this game (what I did play was awesome though). Since I don’t own a PS3 I can’t give it a 100% accurate review, which is one of the reasons why I can’t name this title as game of the year. If it truly is going to be the very best game of the year, it has to be available to a wider audience. I also feel like the post apocalyptic theme (especially that involving zombies) is getting a tad overused nowadays. It was cool and unique four or five years ago, but it’s a little bit well-worn now. Still, an amazing game.

Grand Theft Auto V – Rockstar Games

This is the best-selling entertainment launch in history. Let that sink in. With a budget upwards of $200 million, and profits in the billions, this game redefines the open world genre of gaming. It included a massive playable space, one of the most varied online experiences in gaming, and one of the most fun campaigns in a GTA game to date, it is very very hard to not name GTA V as the best game of the year. I have invested the most time into this game’s online as I have any game’s multiplayer this year, even beating out my favorite Halo titles. Not to mention the fact that the character system is flawless as well as the single player “campaign” being a blast to play, fixing most of the faults from GTA IV and creating some hilarious scenes.

The only drawbacks to this game are the spatial anti-aliasing that occurs on some of the campaign and online, as well as the glitches that GTA Online launched with. Most are fixed now, and they’re constantly tweaking and adding content that should extend the life of the game. Grand Theft Auto V falls just short of the best game award which goes to…..

2013 “Invasion of the Vorticons Award” Game of the Year – Bioshock Infinite – Irrational Games/2K Australia

Although it has been losing to the previous two titles in most awards this year, Bioshock Infinite is definitely #1, as both I and the Associated Press critics agree. This game is mind-blowingly and mind-bendingly good. Set in a dystopian universe of 1912, it centers around a floating city in the clouds named “Columbia” and the exploits of a man who is supposed to pay a debt by rescuing a girl being held captive there. The game is filled with political, religious, racial, and social tones that compliment every aspect of the game and storyline. As you delve deeper into the game, you find just how complicated the game truly gets as it presents a complex concept in a way that is easily understood through the gameplay and character interactions. As a first person shooter, the controls and gameplay mechanics are fluid and innovative, borrowing in parts from the older Bioshock games all the while reinventing itself. The story is just so amazingly well done, with characters beautifully developed that you will feel completely attached to. The plot has unexpected twists and turns, and I can say beyond a doubt that I have never been more emotionally invested in a game before in my life. Everything is done right in this game, from the thankful exclusion of multiplayer and most micro transactions, to the hardcore addition of 1999 mode. The best part is, no matter what gaming system you own you can play Bioshock Infinite as it is available on PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and Mac OS X. The only people who are critical of this game are those that haven’t played or haven’t finished it yet. Bioshock Infinite is truly the masterpiece of the year, and will go down as one of my favorite games of all-time.

The Better Late than Never Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag Review

I am going to start off this review with a confession. Yes, I am one of those scumbags who goes ‘Black Friday’ shopping on Thanksgiving evening. Go ahead and hate me for it, but we eat Thanksgiving dinner around lunchtime, so after spending all afternoon/early evening with family, I am ready to go out and do something else. Which usually means going to Wal-Mart at 10 PM after all the crazies have left to see what sales we can score. One of which, was Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag, for almost 50% off list price. That’s a steal, and considering the game came out a month ago, I had to pick it up.

A little background information would be useful to start. I own and have completed all the previous games in the Assassin’s series. They are fun to play, if not the best created games in the world. I picked up the previous title, Assassin’s Creed III, on launch last year as I was excitedly awaiting what looked like the best installment in the franchise yet (don’t let the III deceive you, that title was actually the fifth in the series, and the fifth in as many years). Unfortunately I was disappointed, as the changes they made to the game such as the controller scheme and the setting did not improve my gaming experience. There were a good amount of bugs and flaws, and the story was simply not very good. I refused to buy the next year’s (this year’s) title on release, despite the fact that the Caribbean pirate-style setting looked like fun.

Which leads us directly into this installment. The overall strength from the previous title was the naval combat and the shipbuilding/seafaring aspects. Ubisoft recognized this fact, and built upon and expanded it for IV. The setting is a lot of fun, without a doubt. Being an assassin and a pirate on the high seas is a concept that a large studio like Ubisoft cannot ruin. Following treasure maps, engaging galleons in battle, upgrading your ship, boarding other ships and fighting hand to hand is a blast. I have waited for a while for a good pirate game to be released, ever since Sid Meier’s Pirates! was upgraded, updated, and ported to the PC in 2004. And Black Flag is that, a solid pirate game. The graphics are absolutely stunning on Playstation 4 (I got to play it for about half an hour), and still looks good on Xbox 360. If this game were simply titled Black Flag without being an installment in the Assassin’s franchise, I think I would love this game. Instead, I merely like it, because making it part of the Assassin’s universe is ultimately the biggest drawback.

And here’s why. The storyline in Assassin’s Creed makes no sense at all. I have sat down and played through every game in the series, and the story still is indecipherable. The concept is solid, with a secret war going on between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Order, with secrets about the past (which help the future) being found in the Animus, a machine that lets you relive the experiences of your ancestors. However, once the third installment (Assassin’s Creed : Brotherhood) is reached, the present day storyline starts to become convoluted, with technicalities and jargon taking over intertwined with ancient Roman religions and powerful “pieces of Eden.” So much crap and contradiction goes on that the only way to play this series anymore is to sit down and mindlessly enjoy yourself. The storyline is junk, and you’re a fool if you try to comprehend it and its universe. As a side note, there are actually fans of this franchise out there who buy and wear Assassin’s symbols and attire. I have seen it first hand, and it is quite frankly frightening to see people ascribe themselves to something so fake and flawed. It would be like someone openly worshipping the Great Green Arkleseizure from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Just, like, what on earth are you doing?

As I digress, garbage storyline aside, the controller scheme from III is virtually unchanged in IV. Which means, it too is junk. The buttons are so unintuitive, and so unlike the other open world masterpieces of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout that you would think Ubisoft would have learned better somewhere along the line. There will be many times where you are supposed to be chasing after a thief or assassination target, that because the controls suck so much, you will jump off of the tree you were climbing instead of jumping to the next tree. Or, your character won’t jump up the side of the building and will instead remain dangling and motionless. Or worse, you’re trying to run down the street when you get too close to a wall which your character starts to climb. Just, no. Make things simpler and the universe as a whole less sticky. And, don’t change the controller scheme from game to game. The differences between Revelations (the fourth installment) and III are so dramatic that without being briefed, an Assassin’s veteran will be lost in the wilderness. If you play Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto V you will notice that the controls are basically exactly the same. That is because Rockstar isn’t filled with idiots and knows a winning formula when they see one. Over six years, they have kept the same basic controller scheme. Ubisoft likes to switch it around in every single game. It is like piloting a Banshee in Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo : Reach. The buttons change with every game, and unless you have the manual in front of you, the button you pressed to get out of the Banshee in Halo 2 is going to shoot a bomb in Halo 3, and then make you do a flip in Halo : Reach. At least with Halo, the controls had to change because of a platform change. In Assassin’s, they have all been on the same machine.

The real question is though, is Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag a fun game to play? And the answer is a resounding yes. It is fun to be a pirate, sail the high seas, and board ships while wielding a pair of swords like Anakin Skywalker dueling Darth Tyranus. Obtaining treasure maps that lead to buried treasure, and using that money to create a deadly pirate ship is fun. It is when you sit down and think to the reasoning behind your character’s actions that the game starts to falter. Why are there always so many ships in the Caribbean sea? Why do they always attack me, and why must I always sink them? Why can I explore entire cities and towns and do things with Edward Kenway (the main character) when I haven’t even progressed the story? How does Kenway fulfill Assassin duties without knowing anything about the Assassin Order? How does the present day storyline make ANY sense at all, and why should I even care about it? Why do they still include multiplayer in this game?

Like Activision and Marvel, Ubisoft asks the gamer to keep their logical thoughts to themselves, and buy the new version of the game that they release every year. Assassin’s Creed is becoming Call of Duty. New titles every year, but the same game with small, gimmicky, and nuanced updates. Some titles (like Black Ops) are more fun than others (like Modern Warfare 3). And to be truthful, this title is more fun than others. I have not had this much fun playing an Assassin’s game since 2010’s Brotherhood. As long as I turn off my brain and keep the beer flowing, I’m having a good time.

7/10

The Halo Movie : How To Make it Well

There needs to be a Halo movie. Just watch these two shorts (the first directed by Neill Blomkamp) and just agree with me on how awesome this could be.

There’s been speculation since the acclaimed release of Halo 2 that Microsoft would team up with a movie studio to make a film out of their blockbuster franchise. Numerous projects have started and stopped, with the names Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp attached, but nothing has ever gained any traction.  Although Halo 4 Forward Unto Dawn could be viewed as the Halo movie, and although it was in fact fantastically well done and about an hour and a half in total length, at a $10 million budget it comes to about 1/10th or 1/15th of what a large production would cost. With the upcoming release of the Xbox One and Steven Spielberg’s promise to release a Halo TV series along with it, there is much doubt about the creation of a Halo film happening at all. However, if it were to happen for real, here’s how it should happen.

1. The Plot

Although a first person shooter game, the overall plot to the Halo series is a rather good one, with scores of books and lore being spawned outside of the video game series. To me, it makes the most sense to tackle the series from the exact beginning, or to tell the story as mostly presented in Halo : Combat Evolved. Although criticized for its seemingly uncanonical approach, besides the game we can draw on the book Halo : The Flood amongst anything else in the Halo universe to help support the plot. I’m not going to rehash the plot of the entire game and novel for you, if you really want to know what happens just play the game or read the book.

The movie will begin with a prelude similar to a 007 movie or JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. In it, we’ll see Noble Six from Halo Reach delivering the package to Captain Keyes, who then boards the Pillar of Autumn and takes off in conjunction with Cortana’s coordinates under heavy enemy fire. As the Pillar heads into Slipspace and arrives at Halo Installation 04 with the enemy already present there, the movie really gets underway.

In order to punch the ticket for Blockbuster status, the Halo movie will need to follow the four main characters, Captain Keyes, Sgt. Avery Junior Johnson, Master Chief John 117, and Cortana. The audience will have a tough time identifying with the Spartan supersoldier Master Chief during the onset of the film, which is where Keyes and Johnson have to take over, by giving the mere humans the emotional roles. It will seem at first that MC is just a cold aloof soldier that is really good at fighting and does cool stuff, but once the credits roll the writers and directors will have to shift the audience’s identification from Johnson and Keyes to John and Cortana. Master Chief will partially evolve through the movie as his relationship with Cortana is brought to light, and he begins to reveal his human side other than what could be taken for as a cyborg in a metal suit. Given that Keyes is imprisoned and killed about 2/3 of the way through, the transitional period from him being the emotional center to Master Chief becoming the relatable crux will need to happen right at the instant of his passing. Keyes’ humanity can be shown through his commanding decisions and flashbacks to his daughter Miranda, and her mother Catherine Halsey. Johnson is more of the comic relief badass marine, who has seen more than his fair share of war (especially by being where the war started and being on Harvest) and is scarred by it, yet continues to trudge on despite his personal losses.

The risky section of this movie is there are times where the main characters will all be split up doing different things. Although not often, there will be occasions when Keyes will be at one place, Johnson another, Master Chief another, and the villains yet another. The writers may have to mess with canon a little bit to simplify things, as when in films such as Return of the Jedi, following three or four different character lines at once can be too much. They will need to take a page from The Return of the King and keep everything simple and coherent. Although you have what was happening in Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, Minas Morgul, and the Paths of the Dead all at once, everything came together seamlessly by not spending too much time apart and focusing on the most important parts of the film. You don’t switch scenes in the middle of battle or of a major plot point, instead you let it play out until such a time where everything coherently makes sense.

The other key part of this movie will be the main villain. Although the parasitic flood will turn out to be the main enemy, the film needs to craft Thel ‘Vadam (the Arbiter) as the antagonist. As shown in the beginning cutscenes from Halo 2, he is the Supreme Commander of the Fleet of Particular Justice that follows the Pillar of Autumn to Halo. A lot of movies nowadays are make or break when it comes to the villain. Iron Man 3 was rubbish because of an awful villain, whereas The Dark Knight was amazing because of a fantastic one. The directors and writers will need to draw from other films that have alien species as antagonists (I’m mostly looking at Star Trek and perhaps parts of District 9 in this case) and create a humanistic/modern feel to them, such as juxtaposing the religion of the Covenant to overzealous terrorism, and the Covenant corruption and caste system to present day examples of government scandals and class separation. The thing we learn about Thel throughout the movie is that although he’s the villain, he isn’t exactly in the wrong as he is merely following the orders of the Prophets. Even though The (future) Arbiter the primary antagonist, he is more of a sympathetic one guarded by codes of honor and loyalty.

Finally, the movie will have to run in a non-linear style, similar to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. We’ll need flashbacks explaining the origins of the Master Chief and the Spartan program, along with some explanations on the Covenant side of how the war came to be. Starting off with the destruction of Reach is a good introduction for the characters and action, but as the film progresses there will need to be seamless explanations for those that are not familiar with the Halo universe.

2. The Cast

The problem with casting for a Halo movie is that your main character, The Master Chief John 117, is encased in his high-powered suit, the Mjolnir Mark V body armor the entire time. And in order to stay true to Halo lore so far, you can’t reveal his face as it sits under the suit. Which means, in order to better connect with your audience, Master Chief needs to be one of the films main characters, if not the main one. The good thing about this is that the iconic voice of the MC for the past 12 years, Steve Downes, can remain in his role, and we can save some room on the budget as far as casting goes. But in order for a more humanistic feel, who do we cast in other roles?

First and foremost, Captain Jacob Keyes. George Clooney or Bruce Greenwood. Greenwood already fits the bill as being Captain Christopher Pike and Star Trek, but Clooney has the acting chops to pull it off very well, creating an emotional and identifiable character.

Secondly, Sgt. Avery Junior Johnson. Either Idris Elba or Denzel Washington. Again, same scenario as above. Elba played a fantastic Marshal Pentecost in Pacific Rim, but Washington is the superior actor and has a better feel for an ironic comic relief role. Plus, as Man on Fire, American Gangster, and The Book of Eli have proved, he’s already got the badass part down.

Third, Catherine Halsey needs to be Bonnie Hunt. Because, who else in Hollywood can you picture playing Halsey well in a minor role?

Cortana can still be voiced by Jen Taylor and Thel ‘Vadam as Keith David as dictated in the video game.

Casting Miranda Keyes as an adult is something I would choose not to do for this movie, simply because if there’s a sequel made she needs to be a main character, and actress continuity for a small part in this installment to a starring role in the next might be tough to find.

3. The Director

I would love for any of the following directors to be in charge of this movie. Those being JJ Abrams, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, or Zack Snyder. Unfortunately, Cameron and Nolan only deal in their pet projects, and Abrams is tied up in Star Wars and Star Trek just as Snyder is tied up in the DC Justice League universe.

Which leaves three names out there, two that we’ve already visited in Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson. After seeing what Guillermo del Toro did with Pacific Rim, and his ties with Ron Perlman (who is Lord Hood in Halo 2 and 3), his name should be submitted for candidacy as well.

And in all honesty, I’d be okay with any of those men directing in conjunction with production from Steven Spielberg. I like Blomkamp’s sci-fi flicks in District 9 and Elysium, but I don’t know how well he would do creating a PG-13 movie, as he does like to attend the Peter Jackson school of gore at times. Under tutelage from Spielberg I think he could flourish and create a spellbinding sci-fi epic, but that is all up to him.

Should the Halo movie be made as I spell it out? If you have any ideas that shine brighter than mine, let me know in the comments. There’s nothing that I love more than speculation on something that will never happen.

 

Why Mass Effect 2 Sucks

Recently, Jonathan Drama’s brother, the esteemed Quintus Dellius, has been borrowing the Mass Effect series from me to play through. This simply opened up some old memories and wounds that I will probably never get over, in which like the revolutionary before me in Martin Luther, I shall dictate my grievances against the series in the games to follow the original. I first encountered Mass Effect about three years ago, when one of my friends told me to play the first one, and then subsequently the second at that point in time. The first Mass Effect is truly a masterpiece of its time. Although not a perfect game, the only things holding it back in my opinion where the smoothness of interactions and the graphics, which for a 2007 release were quite stellar. The second one I delved into shortly after the first, and I honestly stopped playing it about an hour into it, and had to pick it back up some time later to force my way through the beginning, like it was Assassin’s Creed. The third one I preordered way in advance, and was so excited for the release, only to be let down on the third day of playing it by the worst ending in any game I have ever played. For this week, I’m going to simply delve into Mass Effect 2 with my vitriol of the third to follow sometime next week. Fortunately, not everything in the sequels is bad (I did play through and probably will play through the series again), but to me they didn’t deserve the critical acclaim that was given. And here’s why.

Mass Effect 2

To me, the franchise ends right after Commander Shepard gets spaced. I’m dead and gone, see ya later, end of series. I get on with my real life, because my hero is dead. Which leads me into my first issue with the series (first title included). I hate that you can totally customize Commander Shepard. You shouldn’t let him be a her, or look like Samuel L, or have any first name you want. Because then the hero of the story is the gamer. And I don’t want a hero to be some moron who thinks the Mass Effect 3 ending was awesome. Give me a stock John 117, and then we’re golden. I like the customization, don’t like that “you’re the hero, save the galaxy!” Some kids don’t deserve to be heroes.

Secondly, Cerberus. Not only does the name make no sense (why did they decide to make them such a prominent factor in the game when they don’t even explain why they’re named after the three-headed dog that guarded the river Styx?), but Commander Shepard is totally okay with listening to the delusions of a terroristic mad man? Cerberus is a terrorist group. It would be like Iron Man dying and being brought back to life by the Ten Rings, and then after an explanation by the Mandarin on his world view, fighting for the Ten Rings. Whaaaaaaat?! IRL, Shepard puts a bullet into the Illusive Man’s brain and blows terrorists to kingdom come like George HW.

Thirdly, Miranda Lawson. In my second Marvel reference, the truth about her is just like Tony Stark puts it when arguing with Steve Rogers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” She’s a petri dish, a science experiment, a robot. Genetically engineered to be the best at everything, looks, intelligence, combat, etc etc etc, she is nonetheless an immensely insecure character despite how she should probably have built-in protocols for security. What a freaking boring backwards character. The only reason they put her in this game was to give the fanboys a fantasy of something they’ll never have in real life. Especially because god forbid, they couldn’t include Ashley Williams again.

Fourth, the cover-up. Apparently, there was a massive coverup by the Council and Citadel government on how the attack by the Reaper Sovereign in Mass Effect was just a super big Geth ship. This is some straight up Michael Bay storytelling right here. Other than you know, the millions of people and government officials that were present on board the Citadel, not to mention the sophistication of recording devices and Reaper debris everywhere, there’s going to be a lot more evidence than any futuristic government can cover up to show that this mega attack that held entire fleets at bay is something a little more than Skynet robots burning down the house. Simply lazy storytelling.

Fifth, Harbinger. What a lame-ass villain. All this dude does is sit there and spew threats against you, and use this Collector General to speak. It’s not even clear that Harbinger is a Reaper, you just think he’s the general because that’s all you see. And he’s simply all talk. I delay his plans, kill thousands of his minions, and he continues to talk smack against me. Like bro, just shut up you haven’t beaten me yet. It’s like playing your little brother in a racing game. You’ve trounced him ten games in a row, and he’s always saying “again!” or “next time!”. Just no, I will own you every day. He’s got nothing on Mass Effect’s Sovereign, who was a pompous one cyborg assailant taking one for the team like a boss. The conversation you have with him on Virmire is just mind-blowing. You actually fear threatened and mystified as to what Sovereign can actually do. Harbinger is just Stewie Griffin saying “mommy” over and over again. Just shut up and go away, I’ll deal with you in my spare time.

6. Loyalty Missions. I understand how they’re supposed to have a bearing on the game, but if I’m supposed to be speeding around the galaxy trying to save human colonies from being raided by the Collectors, then I am quite sorry, but your little daddy issues, or ghosts from your past are gonna wait. You’ve signed onto my crew, for my mission, to follow my orders. And that means saving lives as fast as possible. To make things worse, the game is gonna punish me if I don’t hasten to my overall objective, by making my squad worse? Please. More bad storytelling. Do not create a game that’s a race against the clock when I can dilly dally for whatever amount of time I deem necessary to take care of personal issues my crew might have. We’re all big boys and girls, sometimes some things don’t get resolved in the name of the greater good. Like saving humanity.

Seventh. My squad. In the orignal Mass Effect, I had a hard time choosing my squad. Granted, Tali Zorah never joined my squad because she’s a space Jew that doesn’t have anything to offer, but I still had some great characters like Ashley Williams, Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, Liara T’Soni. In the sequel, you have Garrus Vakarian. The only other two squad members who I would use either come in the DLC (Kasumi Goto) or last in the game (Legion). Grunt deserves to stay on ice the whole time. Jack is a weak attempt at making a character more than one-dimensional. Miranda is a robotic petri dish with a body like Kate Upton. Jacob is Kanye West without the talent or T-Swift disses. Mordin Solus is horrific in fights, and a motor mouth that doesn’t fully develop as a character in this game. Samara (or Morinth) is simply biotic cleavage. Thane Krios is a frog that does cartwheels in combat. Tali just likes to complain about her life trying to get Shepard to hit on her. And, if you know anything about Zaeed Massani, then you’re an idiot for actually talking to him. The characters are flat, and the game tries to force you to get to know them.

Eighthly, the removal of my inventory and the addition of ammunition. Granted, some of the Spectre gear from the original had ludicrous rates of fire and power, but if there’s one thing I hated it was scrounging for silly little heat clips and sitting there having to reload my gun and worry about ammo. There was nothing wrong with the original system, so why change it? And without a massive inventory like in the first installment, the game is inching toward a shooter than a true RPG. I liked picking up megatons of equipment and reducing all the garbage to truckloads of omni-gel. I liked not having “ammo powers” and being able to use a different type for each gun along with different mods for each. It’s an RPG, the more and the bigger, the better. Gimme my options!

Ninth. Electronic Arts. Which meant, at the time, online passes. Which got you access to the Cerberus Network, which has now been deactivated. Which means that even though the game was released only three years ago, there are some DLC that you can no longer get. It wasn’t necessarily good DLC, but neither were the maps Tombstone and Desolation for Halo 2 which were download only and are irretrievable. Doesn’t mean I don’t want it for completeness of the game’s sake. Also, EA ruins studios and games (see Pandemic Studios). I have no doubt that they had a hand in the demise of Bioware.

Ten. Fuel and probes. Why did they think it was a good idea to add fuel to the game, and the little mini-game that was hoping you didn’t run out of gas as you traversed systems? There was really no point other than to add a completely arbitrary problem to the game. And probing planets for resources and to find things might have been the worst idea possible. Who thought it would be fun to sit there and spam probes at planets for resources? It was way cooler to find a planet that you could land on in the Mako, and explore all around it by yourself running across random things and events on your way.

Who thought this looked like fun?

11. The little things. I loved being able to walk around the Citadel and the Presidium in the first one. Now my Citadel experience is reduced to the boring Wards? Give me a break, let me explore some more! Also, massive amounts of loading screens. When I just want to change floors on the Normandy, loading screen. When I go through a door, loading screen. It used to be an elevator ride or something instead of a loading screen, which felt like I was actually still playing in the game, not sitting and watching some screen with a spinning wheel of death. The races that they added to the game are also pretty dumb. Vorcha? Total space trash that contribute nothing but cannon fodder to the game. Drell? There are so few of them they don’t even have an overall impact on the game. Usually, when you add things into a great game, you want them to be improvements, not detractions.

As much as I didn’t like this game, I still own it and will probably play it again at some point in time, whenever I decide to make a run through all the Mass Effects. EA had a hand in the downfall of what would’ve been a great franchise, and one of the best space operas ever told, not simply just in gaming. They fixed a lot of the problems with the Mass Effect 2 for Mass Effect 3, but that didn’t stop the third installment from having its own smattering of issues. But, I’ve already gone way too in-depth and ranting/raving on this topic, so Mass Effect 3 will have to wait for another time.

My Favorite Lazy Saturday Video Game Missions

Have you ever had a wide open Saturday afternoon, where there was nothing to do outside because of the weather, and all that was on TV is garbage college football and re-runs of early 90’s movies? I can’t really say that I have, at least not for several years, but there was a time in my life where I would stare at my video game shelf and all my completed games and ponder what to play. Nowadays, I have an adult life and so many games to play (just on Xbox 360 I need to finish The Walking Dead Episodes 2-4, Dead Space 3, Batman Arkham City, Forza Horizon, Alan Wake : American Nightmare all the while needing to start Call of Duty Black Ops 2 while my attention now is wholly diverted to Grand Theft Auto V. And this isn’t even mentioning the 20 or so titles on original Xbox that I would love to get around to) that I don’t have time to go through some of my favorite games and their nostalgic replay value. But, if in such a fantasy land this were possible, here are the five missions I would choose to replay.

5. Star Wars Battlefront II – A Line in the Sand           

As a kid, this was the game that got me in the most trouble with my parents, and that I played the most. Back when I was 15 or so, on summer nights I would often steal my parents 20-year-old JC Penny television and put it in my room. Because they never used it, and it was usually sitting unplugged in their room, it would take a couple of days for them to realize that it went missing. By that time, I had already logged a good 10-15 hours playing Battlefront II, staying up late in the warm summer air blitzing my way through missions, and getting to the point where I was untouchable in this game. As far as the campaign goes, although not quite as solid an overall game as the original Battlefront, the storyline was far superior. In order to get the full realization of this mission, you have to play it on the hardest difficulty. Taking place on the planet of Kashyyyk, the most difficult parts originate from having to defend the oil fields (which have a finite amount of health) from a non-stop Separatist onslaught for about three minutes or so. While on lower difficulties you can just get in a tank and run a train, you’re dead in the water if you try this on hard, as the droid tanks will tear you a new one, while their buddies on foot will massacre the oil fields. It’s best to take out some rockets, lay mines, and get into the thick of things and just get messy to beat this mission. Once you defend the fields, you have to take the fight to the droid army using Yoda, who was in my experience the hardest Jedi to use thanks to the absence of saber throw and his small stature. And on hard difficulty, if you die as Yoda when the enemies focus their fire on you, you might as well give up because at that point the reinforcement count is so small that a comeback is next to impossible.

4. Mass Effect 2 – Suicide Mission

Mass Effect 2 wasn’t the best playing experience for me. I was massively disappointed with how it started following the masterpiece that was the original Mass Effect. The new ammunition, removal of the inventory system, and overall hijacking that EA did of the game didn’t make me too happy. There were plenty of bright spots in the game, but despite improved graphics and gameplay, it felt a lot clunkier to me. Still, some of the missions in the game were very well done, such as boarding the Collector ship or the derelict reaper. This includes the final mission, which if you played your cards right, not only did you get to have, um, “relations” with the mega-babe Miranda, but you got to save the galaxy afterward. Being able to choose who would go accomplish what task, such as scouting through the vents (always use Legion) and who creates the biotic shield (Samara or Jack if you desire victory), and seeing how exactly your actions and choices panned out were only part of what made this mission awesome. You also got to rescue your crew, shred Collectors with (if you chose it on the Collector Ship) the Widow sniper rifle, and lay waste to a human reaper with a nuke launcher. Plus, at the end you get to stick it to Martin Sheen, (I mean, The Illusive Man) and get yourself amped up for what was supposed to be an awesome third title.

3. Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare : All Ghillied Up

This has to be the best mission in any Call of Duty game made. One of the first ones I have personally ever played, this mission is just completely nail-biting. Crawling under trucks, through wasteland, under brush with a silenced pistol and sniper rifle, trying to remain completely off the grid by placing your shots and timing them perfectly, is just part of the experience that this mission offers. Plus, it’s one of the few missions where you get to play as series protagonist John Price, and it’s a good flashback that offers insight into the story. Having to make the shot that blows off Imran Zakhev’s arm by adjusting for wind and distance is one of the most difficult aspects of the game at first. After that shot, upon being discovered you have to escape to an extraction point while supporting the injured Captain Macmillian, all the while running and gunning with one free arm. It’s the perfect mid Saturday morning mission, right after pancakes and hot chocolate. I really need to be waking up earlier so that I can enjoy some of these things.

2. Halo 4 : Arrival

Although this is the most recent game by far, once this mission hit me I was immediately wowed, making it an instant classic in my mind. The second half of this game and storyline is simply brilliant, and starting a mission where I’m gunning through a Star Wars-esque trench run in a ship as the Master Chief, attempting to stop the Didact from reaching Earth is just so great. Then, I’m tasked with slaying my way through the Forerunner ship, picking up Gravity Hammers, Incineration Cannons and Binary Rifles along the way, while facing down hordes of Knights and Elite Battlewagons. To cap it off, Cortana is completely losing her mind, and decides to go crazy in the general direction of the Didact, who is busy assimilating the members of Earth to achieve his master plan. You inject Cortana into the system to digitally fight the Didact, and then burn your way through masses of Knights with a complete sense of urgency while the best score of any video game yet plays in the background. You come to the last terminal, and face down at least eight or nine Knights, one or two of which is always wielding an Incineration Cannon, and fight desperately for your life. The first time I played this on merely Heroic difficulty, I may have gotten slaughtered ten or eleven times in a row, before finally defeating the Knight Chieftain. Then with a sense of final victory, you get to blow the Didact to kingdom come, but are immediately captivated by the death of Cortana, who heroically takes one for the team to save the Chief. The gameplay, graphics, storyline, and cut scenes make this my favorite Halo mission yet.

1. Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King – Minas Tirith Top of the Wall

Along with Star Wars Battlefront II, this was my favorite game of my teenage years, aside from Halo. Based on, but released before New Line’s feature film, it’s amazing to play this game and remember that 10 years ago that these were cutting edge graphics. At its release, I didn’t yet own a new generation gaming console (being stuck playing NBA Shootout 2000 on PlayStation) so I could only play it in small amounts at the house of my friends or family. In fact, when I first actually bought this game around the age of 14 (about a year and a half after release), my parents forced me to sell it because they deemed it too violent for me, even though it was rated T for Teen. I played an excessive amount of it at my cousin’s house, who they at first didn’t have a memory card for their PS2. Which meant, in Sony’s nickel-and-dime-you-for-all-your-money plot, we could not save the game at any point whatsoever. So unless they kept the console on and paused at the game, we had to start over every single time. The furthest we had ever gotten was to this level, which on the Gandalf track of levels follows Helm’s Deep and The Road to Isengard. It involves playing as Gandalf on the top of the walls in Minas Tirith (as the level title would suggest), knocking down ladders and holding off being overrun by the forces of Mordor. The mini-map was at first rather difficult to decipher, but once you figured out where ladders were dropping and on what side the siege towers were advancing, the game got significantly easier. Apparently there’s a catapult somewhere on the map as well, which can be used to take down siege towers, but to this day I can’t recall how to get there, as instead I would use Gandalf’s ranged lightning attack to destroy them. It’s also possible to take down the flying Nazgul that terrorize the walls, but usually I would be so frantic to prevent being overrun that I paid them no mind. I take pride in the fact that I was the first one to beat this level on the memory card-less Playstation 2, advancing to the next level being Minas Tirith : Courtyard, before getting smashed to bits by trolls.

There are so many other games I could easily add, such as anything from Halo : Combat Evolved, Halo 3, Alan Wake, Mass Effect, Math Blaster, Commander Keen, KoTOR, or any GTA/Red Dead title, but these are the ones that happen to stick out in my mind. As the Pennsylvania weather gets colder, and if I possibly get bored with the massive amounts of titles that I currently have on my to-do list, maybe, just maybe, I will have to make some pancakes and hot chocolate, and play through a casual favorite flashback on a chilly Saturday morning.

The Cultural Impact of Grand Theft Auto V

I’ve written a review on the gameplay and how much fun Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V is, and what I liked and didn’t like about it. But now, we have to examine the impact this game has on our current culture. And it’s going to have an impact for certain.

In the first 24 hours of being on sale, GTA V sold 13 million copies. 13 million. According to the 2010 Census, the United States has 308 million people in it. That means that roughly one in twenty-four people living in America bought the game within its first day of release. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that two million of those people (a liberal estimate) live outside of America. Still, that would mean that exactly one in twenty-eight people bought the game within this country.

Now let’s break it down via age demographics. Again, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that out of people age 45 and over, only 500,000 people bought this game on the first day. Countrywide, citizens age 45 and over make up 120 million members of the population. That decreases our ratio to 10.5 million copies sold, against 188 million. Which, is practically one in every eighteen people bought the game so far. Then, we’ll take out the youngest demographic. There are 74 million legally defined children (under the age of 18) in the United States. If split evenly, that means there are 4.1 million humans per each year. Again, we’re going to assume that kids age 0-10 did not buy this game at all, which amounts to another 41 million. We’re down to 10.5 million copies per 147 million, which is a ratio of 1 to every 14 people. Even though the game is rated “M” for Mature, and you are supposed to be over 18 years old to buy it, I’m allowing the age bracket of 11-18 because of the irresponsibility of parents and the greediness of companies to want to sell the game. So far, in America, one person in every fourteen (of the age bracket 10-44) has bought the game Grand Theft Auto V in its first 24 hours of release.

To break it down even further, we’re going to throw gender into the equation. Male-female ratios in the United States are very close according to the Census (49.2% males to 50.8% females), so we’re going to call it a 50/50 split, so 73.5 mil for both guys and gals. Let’s say, one sixth of girls ages 11-44 bought the game, which turns out to be 12.25 million, or 12% of the total 147 million. Which according to the ratio, means that 12% of the 10.5 million copies were sold to females ages 11-44. or 1.26 million. To finally simplify that ratio, it means that there are 9.24 million copies left to the 73.5 million males aged 11-44. Basically, that means one in every eight males aged 11-44 in the United States bought Grand Theft Auto V in its first 24 hours of being on sale.

Granted, this is based on A LOT of assumptions, and numbers/percentages that I personally made up. However, I don’t think these figures are terribly far from the truth. I do not believe that I concocted unreasonable numbers for the sake of creating “controversy”. These numbers are based on Rockstar Games revenue numbers of $800 million of sales generated in the first day, which generally equates to 13 million copies sold. I could calculate for margin of error, but I’ve done enough math in a blog post for the day. Of course, these numbers assume that all copies of the game sold for $60 a piece, as the Special and Limited editions were put on sale for $80 and $150 each, however these versions, as the title would imply, are limited.

What does this mean for our society? GTA V is an amazingly well done game. It was created with piles of talent, time, and money, at an award-winning studio known for quality products. Quality aside, it’s fun, and extremely addicting even without its amazing critical components. The world that Rockstar has created is simply fantastic, as evidenced by its amazing reviews and insane sales. My only hesitation here is the content. It’s a game that although there are a million PG things to do, there are a lot of R or NC-17 or X things you can do. Getting into an SUV and running over pedestrians, engaging the police in gun battles, or going to strip clubs are things that you can do very easily, and that everyone who plays the game does. Is it better that gamers are doing this on a virtual reality than in reality? Obviously. But anyone who would claim that playing this game for in effect, multiple days, does not affect them, is a complete liar. On some level, all of these negative (albeit, fun in virtual reality) acts, studies have shown, do compromise the human brain. And as my statistics cite, there are going to be a lot of boys of all sorts of ages (some more impressionable than others) that are going to be playing the crap out of this title.

Another accusation heaped upon games like this is that it desensitizes people to things such as meaningless violence and frivolous sexual encounters. And although this is true, you have to look at the current definition of sensitivity. With the day and age that my generation is surrounded in, the definition of what should and shouldn’t affect you on a personal level has changed. We are exposed to so much more information, mostly on the television and the internet, in ways we cannot avoid in basic daily lives. Because the world is a broken, rotten place, the things that are going to make headlines and that are going to sell are criminal acts, violence, and tragedy. We no longer live in an age where we hear about news via word of mouth, or read about it in the Sunday paper. It’s right in front of us, accessible, and forceful in our daily lives. Living any sort of normal “American” life is impossible, if you make an out-and-out attempt to avoid the main sources of desensitization. We have to re-examine our definition of sensitivity for our generation. To the generation of my parents or grandparents, yeah, I agree that we’ve completely built up a resistance and a commonplace demeanor toward sex, crime, and violence. But to my generation? This is simply normal, this is life. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s the way it is and is going to be. Unless you choose to live (and then die) in a bus in Alaska, you are going to be exposed to major forms of desensitization in everyday life.

I know for myself, that this game and others that I have played have affected me to some degree. Does this mean I’m going to go on a grand theft mission, or a shooting spree at a strip club? Personally, no. I can speak for myself and know what I am and am not capable of, and am in enough of a control of my actions to never do such a thing, especially when you see the consequences not just in the news, but in the game itself. Can it affect others though, who have more volatile or impressionable personalities? I think so, and it has. There have been numerous thefts and murders in the past, where the accused cited Grand Theft Auto as to where they learned or got their inspiration for their deeds. Does that make Grand Theft Auto evil? I don’t think so, at least not inherently. The same argument could be made that The Dark Knight franchise is evil for inspiring the Aurora shooting. Although extremely critically acclaimed, like GTA, it inadvertently caused irreparable harm on a bunch of human lives.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Grand Theft Auto V is a GAME. It sold a stupid amount of copies, and it’s scary how many young males will have the game according to my assumed statistics. It needs to be recognized however, that it is simply not reality, and something fun to do. You get together with your friends and have fun while playing online, but you have an actual life outside of the game. Go volunteer, play a sport, go to work, hang out with your friends or family, sleep, go out to dinner, just don’t let this game consume you, and you should be fine. Don’t model your life after this game, and take it at complete face value. You aren’t one of the games characters, so don’t try to be. It’s going to be criticized, and there are going to be people who commit dastardly deeds thanks to its influence, and it really is a shame. The fact of the matter is, a game called Homeless Shelter Volunteering isn’t going to be as fun as Grand Theft Auto because in GTA you do things which in normal life, you aren’t allowed to do. Let’s just be thankful that some people express their disobedience for the law through virtual reality only. Take the game for the fun it’s worth, and have a real life outside of your gaming console, and then maybe, just maybe, we can have some fun without anyone getting hurt.

Grand Theft Auto V : A Review So Far

One of the most anticipated games of the year by gamers and conservative critics alike (to criticize for its absence of morality, not its gameplay), Grand Theft Auto V was finally released after nearly four years of development, yesterday. Personally, I stood in line for about half an hour to receive my pre-ordered copy at midnight on Tuesday at my local game store with a group of friends who had done the same thing. I even took all of Tuesday off work so that I could stay up and play with my friend, who we’ll refer to as Happy. We invested about six and a half hours into the game (until it was light out), and then caught some Z’s before I resumed to play for a little bit during the day. Through about 12 hours of gameplay, I’ve managed to complete about 21% of the story, but haven’t yet managed to even scratch the surface of this deep and hugely expansive game.

The first thing I will say, is that if you’re a parent reading this and your kid is playing this game and is under the age of 18, you may want to re-evaluate your parenting techniques rather quickly. Although there is so much you can peacefully do in this game (hunting, racing, flying airplanes, playing tennis, golfing, yoga, deep-sea diving, buying property, investing in the stock market), the game is obviously entitled Grand Theft Auto. Which means, it’s going to have many criminal components that you can’t really get around. This title specifically is centered around bank heists, coming in the wake of the current recession, and how three characters revert to their criminal ways to provide for their lives. Although the multiplayer content of the game isn’t going to be launched until October 1st, below I’m going to review the pros and cons of the game so far in my opinion.

Pros

1. Three Main Characters. After experimenting with new characters in the expansions for Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar Games decided to incorporate three main characters into GTA V, following the positive reception of the expansions and the intertwined storylines of the characters. While there are available missions for each character, you as the player have the ability to change between characters at your own discretion. If you’re getting bored with one, then just switch to another. This helps pace the game a lot faster, as you aren’t grinding through the game with one character and endless missions seen through their eyes as it seemed at times in GTA IV.

2. Largest, Most Detailed Map Yet. Rockstar has said that the playable area for this game is so large, that it could envelop the arenas from the past three games combined (Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV, GTA San Andreas). There are mountains, rivers, deserts, army bases, ports oceans, bridges, and the city of Los Santos (modeled after Hollywood/Los Angeles) all in one setting. It’s utterly massive, and thanks to the return of the ability to fly planes, the airspace has to be huge to allow such an arena.

3. Vehicles! The thing that irked me about GTA IV was that following (in my opinion) the best installment in the franchise in San Andreas, the vehicles took a step backwards. I couldn’t fly Harrier jets in IV, and that’s all I really wanted. The best part about V is that now you can do all that and more. After only being able to drive cabs of tractor trailers in IV, you can now drive full on semi trucks. Or logging trucks. Or 18 wheelers. You can also drive dune buggies, dirt bikes, ATVs, buses, firetrucks, ambulances, tanks, jeeps, halftracks, Humvees, or pretty much any type of car you can think of. You can also fly planes, blimps, fighter jets, C-130s, news helicopters, police helicopters, Apaches and Chinooks. Finally, you have the ability to pilot watercraft such as sailboats, yachts, speedboats, jet skis, and even possibly submarines.

4. It’s the Little Things. You know how in Call of Duty, you can add attachments to guns and change their skins? Well in GTA V, you can do all of that, and it’s only one small aspect of the overall scheme of customization. You can customize cars so specifically it’ll remind you of Forza, and you can customize your character in a way reminiscent of The Sims. You’re also handed a real smart phone that you can find side missions on the internet with, as you receive emails and texts and can surf the web, even being able to take selfie pictures with it. And this is all without mentioning the skills meters that were added for each character, in which you can choose to take place in different activities to advance your skills, giving your character better RPG-like abilities in-game. These include driving, flying, shooting and running, among others. You can hone all these skills by going to a shooting range, participating in races or triathlons, and by playing tennis, golf, or swimming.

5. It’s Rockstar. Which means, there’s going to be easter eggs all over the place, and even more little things than I listed above that you’re going to be able to waste hours and hours on. The spaceship and spaceship parts, along with some possible alien presence is already being discovered, but I can pretty well assume that won’t be all. And that’s not even touching the multiplayer aspect, which when that launches I’m sure will be absolutely stellar, especially if you have a good amount of friends to play with.

Cons

1. The Reticule. The shooting reticule is really rather annoying. The reticule for GTA IV was decent, although not perfect. For Red Dead Redemption however, it was perfect, just being a solitary white dot that you aim on the screen. It’s basically the same exact reticule for GTA V as Red Dead, but it doesn’t play the same for some reason. Perhaps it’s the brightness on my screen, and I should adjust it, but there are times where it seems really hard to see and difficult to aim, especially when blending in with lighter colors. This is a royal pain when aiming for the bullseye at the target range with a pistol, as it’s a bright yellow color.

2. The Graphics. Scenery is great graphically, and so is the entire atmosphere and universe (thunderstorms are particularly awesome). However, unless they’re trying to stick with a retro-esque GTA style, the styling and detail on people and characters in the game seems like only a slight upgrade from GTA IV which was launched six years ago. I’ll always say that the graphical realism of Red Faction : Armageddon should be the industry standard, no matter how lame that final product turned out to be.

3. The Radio Stations. So far, I have found the radio stations to be rather sub-par. Although there is a good mix of west coast rap and hip-hop (NWA, Snoop, Dre, 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar), there doesn’t seem to be that great of an assortment on the other stations. I don’t terribly care for country (although there was a Johnny Cash song) or hispanic music, dance, electronica, funk, or even their talk radio. My favorite station in GTA IV was Liberty Rock Radio, which had Smashing Pumpkins, ZZ Top, The Who, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Motley Crue and ELO all featured. GTA V’s counterpart, Los Santos Rock Radio is rather lacking, and doesn’t have a ton of real classic rock. I don’t count Phil Collins or Elton John as classic rock, and would rather have the harder assortment that IV had than the pansy array of V. There’s still the Steve Miller Band, Queen, and Foreigner, but nothing stands out as terribly fascinating. And I’m really going to miss Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” from IV. Plus, I can’t make my own radio station yet, and the interface for changing stations is really annoying.

4. It’s Rockstar. Which means, you’re going to have to wait to get online and play in gangs with your friends. Those two weeks in between game launch and online launch are painful, although it makes sense for them to do it as a company so that you familiarize yourself with the game and play the main product. It also means that you aren’t going to be rewarded for playing any of their other games. One thing I love is when studios give you bonuses in their new games as a thank you for playing (or finishing) their older games. It could be as simple as a cash bonus, or a car, or some type of gun. Who wouldn’t love to be able to use the Buffalo Rifle from Red Dead as a thank you for beating that game?

As you might be able to tell, the Pros are rather substantial and large portions of the game, and the Cons are nitpicky reasons that don’t really detract from the overall product. What does that mean? It means that overall, Grand Theft Auto V is an addicting masterpiece, a game that where it lacks in morality, it more than makes up in intelligent design and cohesive quality. And with still 79% of the game remaining for me to play, and the entire multiplayer experience as well, this title is going to see some major time in a lot of people’s consoles for some time to come. 9.7/10

Halo 4 Champions Bundle DLC Review

With no console Halo game coming out in the 2013 calendar year, 343 Industries needed to release something to keep gamers playing the “killer exclusive app” to the Xbox 360, in Halo 4. They had previously released three scheduled map packs, available with or without the War Games Pass (which, just to clarify, does not work with or cover this DLC), but besides what will eventually probably be another season of Spartan Ops, there needed to be more multiplayer content to pique fan interest. Thus, the Champions Bundle that 343 Industries released yesterday, was born.

Because of the new features of Halo 4, this DLC package features content never seen before in a Halo game, which makes it a completely different animal than any other normal DLC. Normally, in the days of Halo 3 and Halo : Reach (and Halo 4 if you didn’t have the War Games Pass) you could expect to pay 800 Microsoft Points ($10) for new multiplayer map content, which would net you three multiplayer maps. In the Champions Bundle however, you get only two multiplayer maps and an assortment of different content (weapon skins, game type, armor permutations) which you may or may not care about. Is it a good deal? It all depends on the quality of the content, and how much you care about the content.

The first map, entitled Vertigo, is a medium-sized, rocky, forest centered map on the border of a large body of water. 343’s description of the map is as follows :

An asymmetrical map, Vertigo provides a wide variety of indoor and outdoor combat. The map lends itself best to Slayer and Extraction game types and is best played with anywhere from 8 to 10 players. Vertigo also touts the return of a dynamic, interactive element in a Halo multiplayer map: Each base has a trigger point that depletes the shields of all players in range when shot. The map also contains a series of caves on each side as well as three levels of verticality, providing players with several different routes for attacking each base.

vertigo

This is good and well and all, but how does it play? is the real question gamers want answered. Off the bat, interactive maps are very fun to play on and should be desired by all gamers. For example, in the Halo series both Zanzibar and High Ground featured interactive elements (mostly having to do with opening and closing gates), as did the bridges in Call of Duty Black Ops’ map Discovery and ziplines in the map Kowloon. (Random side note, did you know that in Star Wars Battlefront 2 on the Kashyyyk map, you could hit a switch to raise and lower the sea wall that defended the oil fields? This tidbit was so valuable if you knew how to use it.) Bottom line, interacting with the map to alter gameplay makes it simply more fun. And, as my friend Henry Kissinger and I found out last night, it can be extremely frustrating as well. Whether the towers were on a timer, or were being triggered, we couldn’t exactly figure out. It was cool to see that even the high ground/camping spots were vulnerable to attack, which was good for balancing. Beyond this, the map was to me, very enjoyable. Vertigo is very detailed, and strikes a good medium-sized map balance having enough room to run yet still places to defend and navigate in duels, making it very reminicsent of Halo 2’s Beaver Creek. This map shouldn’t hold more than 10 players in it, with 5 v 5 probably being too crowded, 4 on 4 being preferred. I wouldn’t say this map is outstanding, but it’s definitely solid enough to rank in the upper echelon of Halo 4 maps.

The second map, Pitfall, is a remake of the Halo 3 classic The Pit. Its description reads as such:

Pitfall stays true to its original layout, remaining a medium-sized symmetrical map. However, it will also contain updated features (such as strategically placed crates and ledges) that provide increased pace and flow. Pitfall has the setting of an abandoned UNSC training facility with battle remnants outside. The Pit has a similar setting except it is located in South Africa and is not abandoned.

Back in Halo 3, I had mixed feelings about The Pit. A sniper with a decent degree of talent could own the map. By the same token, anyone camping in the sword room with the sword (or oddball) could own the game. I had some friends like Thurston Howell who loved the map, but to me it just wasn’t as great as they (he) made it out to be. Adding the ability to sprint however, changes the game entirely. Everything moves much quicker, and with armor abilities such as Jet Pack and Promethean Vision, it turns into a more balanced faster paced game than ever. Some codgy old badgers of players probably hate the speed and the changes associated, but honestly I really enjoyed playing this map. It’s balanced, it’s fun, and it’s fast. It reminds me a lot of a speedball course in paintball. There isn’t much to hide behind unless you’re intentionally hiding in the back, and if someone is going to make a quick move and come out shooting you better be ready. With the addition of a lift, the sword room camping aspect is all but removed. The only thing I wish this map had would be the Brute Maulers from Halo 3. Other than that I’m going to love playing slayer variants, and the new gametype released with this map pack called Ricochet.

Although in two weeks the Ricochet team armor and game type will be free to all players, for the time being it is only a part of the Champions Bundle. Ricochet is a game very similar to oddball and assault, with there being a center ball dropped and each team having a goal in which to score upon. You can either throw the ball in or run it in, different amounts of points being awarded for however you score (which I haven’t quite figured out yet). Playing on Pitfall is a little cheap, as it is very easy to run about halfway across the map, jump, and throw, in which you have a high probability of scoring. I look forward to seeing this game type tested on several different maps, and hoping that it finds a couple good homes to play on.

The final elements of the Bundle are all about aesthetics. The first aspect is a bunch of new gun skins. Included are some steampunk inspired skins for every loadout gun, that look a little silly when gears are thrown into the equation. Available for the Assault Rifle only there are the Teeth and Trauma skins, the first being a shark’s mouth similar to WWII fighter planes, and the latter being a blood splatter on the end of the gun. There’s also the camouflaged Salvage skin, Indigo, and Flare skins, which are available for the Battle Rifle and Magnum only. These skins look good, but then again I’m not a huge fan of skins that you can just buy. I’d rather that you earn them or unlock them in some way, as with the previous skins in Halo 4 or the skins in Gears of War 3 or Call of Duty. I want the appearance of my gun to mean something, not just show that I can blow money on meaningless in-game content.

To round out the Bundle, there are three new armor permutations included. Honestly, I hate the Halo 4 armory, which is horrid compared to the great one that Halo : Reach came with. There are simply too many options, the majority of which are ugly as sin and don’t even look like suitable armor for a Spartan, instead making them look like cybernetic clones. Adding armor was an option that I wanted in Reach but not in Halo 4. Thankfully, two out of the three armors are classics, being the Mark V and ODST armor. They don’t look bad, but they do look kind of plasticky and pale in comparison to their Reach counterparts. The last permutation, the Prefect armor, is straight up ugly. You look like Cyclops from X-Men, which isn’t a good thing.

You can purchase all elements separately if you so choose, which I should have told The Secretary before he blew $10 on the aesthetic crap that he’ll never use. The two maps and Ricochet game type and Ricochet armor come in the Bullseye Pack for 480 MS Points ($6). The three armor permutations come in the Infinity Armor Pack for 240 MS Points ($3) and the Steel Skin Pack has only the steampunk skins for 240 MS Points as well. Or, you could save $2 and buy the entire Champions Bundle and receive the other skins as well as all the detailed content.

Is it all worth $10 of your hard-earned money? To me, the answer is yes. Although the armor permutations are rather worthless, there are enough maps in this game to warrant replacing what would be a third map with cool new skins and armor options. Both maps are solid, and I would much rather have two good maps and some aesthetics than two good maps and a bad one (I’m looking at you, Monolith). If you don’t care about the looks, save yourself $4 and just buy the maps and the game type. Otherwise, grab the whole bundle while you can, because I think it is worth it!

Friday Nights in the California Household

Barring the occasional 4AM Saturday shift, the apartment of one Daniel California is usually a good place to be at every Friday night. At the end of the work week, my fellow comrades and I typically have a 21+ get-together featuring some fantastic games that we have created and refined over the course of the summer. If you’re ever in the area, and between the ages of 21 and 30, feel free to drop me a line and stop by to see what fun is going down on that particular night. We’re generally a safe and responsible crew, with plenty of room to crash so that nobody does anything terribly stupid. The night usually starts out with some form of MLB 2K11, until enough people show up and yell at me to stop being a nerd and only play baseball games. Naturally, we then switch to Oregon Trail II.

Well, actually it’s Oregon Trail 5, but the creators (I think The Learning Company bought out Mecc) made a brilliant plan to basically re-port the best Oregon Trail ever created for newer computers, instead of Windows 3.1 and ’95. Of course, we have managed to somewhat demonize this innocent educational game, and turn it into a competition of sorts, with an optional drinking game as well. Six people can play at a time.

The premise of Oregon Trail is to make it from one town on the eastern part of the midwest (around Indiana, Illinois or MIssouri typically) to some west coast destination by surviving the perils of the trail. To start, you create a “Wagon Party” and elect one player as Wagon Head, with the other five simply becoming characters that are entered into the wagon party. Upon leaving your home city, your party is presented with some major decisions along the way, such as how to cross a river, go up or down a mountain, treat a wound, cure a disease, etc. Going in a circle, we take turns on who makes what decision. If the made decision is incorrect (i.e. wagon tipping, falling into the water, turn for the worse), the person that made that call has to take a sip of their drink (be it an adult beverage or no). This goes on until the end of the game, where either the Wagon Head has perished, everyone else died off, or the destination has been reached. The only other major rule is that each time a person dies, they must take a shot. If they are the first person to die, they must take two, or a double shot. Most games are often marred with side bets and formation of teams trying to kill one another off, and typically we don’t get out of Utah with the amount of team killing going on. Usually hunting and rafting is incorporated in some way as well, but rules on those are not yet concrete. Whenever we tire of this, we’ll move on to one of the following.

oregon trail 5cards against 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cards Against Humanity is a popular title on Friday nights, and is occasionally played as well. If you’ve never played before, it’s very reminiscent of Apples to Apples, but much more crass and offensive. It’s billed as “A Party Game for Horrible People”, and if you are easily offended by pretty much anything that exists in the world, you shouldn’t play. The rules, as described by their website, are as follows :

To start the game, each player draws ten white “answer” cards. One randomly chosen player begins as the Card Czar, and plays a black “question” card. The Card Czar reads the question out to the group. Each player answers the question by passing one white “answer” card, face down, to the Card Czar. The Card Czar shuffles all of the answers, reads them out loud in a humorous fashion, and picks their favorite. Whoever played that answer gets to keep the Black Card as one Awesome Point. After each round, a new player becomes the Card Czar, and every player draws back up to ten cards.

A (very) PG Example of a Round with seven people playing is shown below

Black Card: What has been making life difficult at the nudist colony?

White Cards: 1. a plunger to the face 2. a passionate Latino lover  3. a beached whale  4. a bloody pacifier  5. a crappy little hand  6. mom

Basically, the “Card Czar”, after collecting and reading all the white cards, picks the answer that he/she thinks is the best (personally, I would pick “a plunger to the face” from the above answers), and the winner is awarded with the black card. The game continues by the next “Card Czar” in a clockwise fashion picking up the next black card, reading it, and so on and so forth, and whoever accumulates the most black cards win. The game includes some alternative methods of playing, but we haven’t investigated them too thoroughly. Our version is pretty straight-forward.

We haven’t associated any kind of beverage consumption with this game, as it is basic in its inherent board-gamey-ness. We play, we laugh hysterically, and eventually some of us will splinter off into some sort of other activity or conversation. Usually though, the last game I’m about to mention is the highlight of the night.

The final game and one that we always play is Beer Pong Baseball. We clear the kitchen table, draw it out, and put a cover on it to help prevent wood damage from spillage. The only real similarities to regular beer pong that this game has is the use of teams, plastic cups (I refuse to call them Solo Cups after that idiotically moronic song became popular), and pong balls in its play. To start, there are teams of four formed by all in attendance (team size could vary, but you generally don’t want them less than three or greater than five), with the amount of innings and games to play determined. Usually we have formed only two teams, playing a best of three set with each game being three, six, and nine innings each, the last game only being necessary for tiebreaking purposes. Everyone gets their own drink to start, with a communal beer and two cups in the middle for purposes that I’ll explain later. Amongst yourselves, you decide which team is home and which is away.

Both sides have four cups vertically arranged in a line filled about halfway with water, like a four blinker traffic light. The home team then assigns a pitcher to go to the center of the table. The idea of the pitcher is that when the opposing team gets a runner on base, the lead runner can engage the pitcher in a game of flip-cup using a few ounces of the communal beer in the middle of the table. If the runner wins, he has stolen up to the next base. If the pitcher wins, the runner is out, and the out is recorded for the defense.

In order to get on base, though, the offense plays a variation of pong. In an assigned “batting order”, the batter that is up throws the pong ball at the arrayed cups in an attempt to make it in one of them. If he makes it into the cup closest to the center of the table, it’s a single. The next one back is a double, then a triple, then the cup closest to the defense and table edge is a home run. The defense gets outs by working as a unit to catch the ball before it hits the ground once it clears the cups. If the ball hits the floor, it is a strike, which the batter is allowed three of before being recorded as an out. Interference on a ball that has not cleared the cups is deemed an automatic single for the offense. Runners can move up in forces and steals only, no first to thirds on singles or anything like that. Whenever a run is scored on the defense, each member of the defense must take a swig of their beverage. Upon three outs being recorded, you switch offense and defense until you reach the predetermined amount of innings set at the start. The pitcher for the defense must change every half inning, in a rotation similar to the batting order.

Other than the rules stated above, everything else that occurs during the game is subject to House Rules. Things that may arise include the eligibility of balls that bounce off the wall, double steals, and penalties for certain party fouls that may occur. My best strategy has consisted of not being on the same team as my one friend, who I’ll dub for all intents and purposes as Henry Kissinger.

I consider myself an above average pong player. My hand eye coordination is sufficient enough to be competitive in the majority of games I play, and given a competent partner I have the ability to be part of a good team. I don’t consider The Secretary to be a very good pong player, at best he’s average. But when it comes to baseball, it’s simply unfair. He has the uncanny ability to just snipe home runs at will. Recently I was playing against his team in a series, and after getting absolutely trampled in the first game, we held a four run lead going into the top of the last inning with us as the home team. We get the first out, and were well on our way to shoving the victory in their faces when he hits a solo homer. No harm done, we still maintained a three run lead and there were no baserunners. That home run was the snowflake that started the avalanche however. Before the inning is over, he had homered two more times and they had put eight runs on the board in a ridiculous comeback of epic proportions. Demoralized, we got two back in the bottom half of the inning, but that wasn’t enough to stem the tide. I swore off playing that evil game for the rest of the night, and have almost never had smack talk blow up in my face as much as then.

Starting around 8, we usually hang out and play games and whatnot until around midnight, when we walk down the street to the (good) local bar. It’s a good social atmosphere after competing against one another all night, and the deck is nice to be out on in the summer night air. Those that we feel can’t safely drive or operate heavy machinery are made to stay at my place either overnight or until deemed fit to leave. I’m open to suggestions on how to improve existing games, or new ones that I haven’t even touched on yet. So whether you happen to be looking for something to do on a Friday night with a group of friends, or you’re one of the lucky few to personally know me, I hope a few of these ideas might (responsibly) inspire you to, as Long John Silver’s proclaims, “Throw boring overboard”.

Playing Pool and Wild Darts, Video Games

Yes, I stole the title of this post from the lyrics of a Lana Del Rey song. No, I don’t care, it seems to fit perfectly.

Everything in this category archive will be primarily written by myself, with the others sprinkling in their bits of knowledge where they see fit. These posts are going to not just encompass video games, but any type of game that’s not a “sport” and we feel like covering. Maybe we will discuss how Monopoly Jr. skewed our perception of reality, or how the fishing system of Oregon Trail 5 is the most flawed thing on the face of the planet.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re going to skip over console gaming either. As a longtime Xbox owner, I will definitely be highlighting whatever news and major releases are made available over the summer months, although I don’t expect to personally get around to a brand new release review until Grand Theft Auto 5 in the early fall. I plan on buying the Xbox One at some point as well, putting me in what seems to be the minority for the next generation of gaming consoles, but I have my reasoning (Halo).

But not to fret PlayStation fans, our resident expert Thurston Howell will be covering any Sony exclusives and news, along with his argument on why he will eventually be buying the PS4 as well.

I will say a few things on games that I will not be covering at all. Any $60 sports game roster update I am without a doubt personally skipping over, although one of my co-writers may choose to waste their time in such endeavours. Also, if the main characters of the game look like they could star in a hentai film, there isn’t a chance I am about it. Sorry Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Fable, and Tekken lovers, but those games are simply not up my alley, and mostly not on Xbox, so do not be expecting any reviews or news about things that I just don’t care about.

Other than that though, I will without a doubt be reviewing some major fall releases, such as Batman Arkham Origins, the aforementioned GTA V, and Assassin’s Creed IV. Shortly after those releases will be when the brand new consoles will drop, and I will be taking a look at each one and its merits based on what it actually is at that time, instead of mere speculation. Until then, I plan on from time to time throwing in a Saturday Afternoon Flashback, which is bringing up an older game that I used to play, and giving it a little bit of a rehash playthrough and review in comparison to how I recalled it as a kid. Mostly anything is fair game in this feature, from DOS Shell games, to the Commodore 64, all the way up to Playstation 2 and Parcheesi. Just keep checking back, and I am sure that once we get the ball rolling I will definitely be posting whenever I have the chance.