While I may have taken a week or two off from posting in deference to the holidays and some necessary traveling, I did squeeze in a few games. It’s sort of my thing.
The newest title to grace my consoles has been Modern Warfare 2, which I picked up as sort of an ownership rental if that makes any sense. Honestly I had MW2 on my list of games to try from this holiday season but it wasn’t anywhere near the top of that list. I thought that I had acquired Left 4 Dead 2 early enough and removed it from any wishlists in time to avoid having it be a part of any gift-giving festivities but alas I did get an additional copy so I returned it to the store from whence it came only to discover that without any sort of receipt I had to accept the lowest sale price for the item and apparently in the few short weeks it has been on sale it has at one point or another gone for $39.99. Armed with less than a full retail game’s worth of store credit I had the choice of either spending some of my own money on the game I originally hoped to exchange the duplicate for (Assassin’s Creed II), buying something else like a World of Warcraft time card or going with one of the games they currently had on sale for the $40 amount. I nixed the first notion, my wife nixed the second (apparently I “stay up too late” when I play WoW, which interferes with my ability to tend to the early morning baby feedings that are distressingly common) so I went with the third option and grabbed MW2.
My plan all along was to play through the single player campaign and then trade the title to Goozex for the 1,000 points. I had few intentions of keeping the game because the multiplayer may be phenomenal but since my New Year’s Resolution is to be honest with myself I have to admit that I don’t play games to have the kinds of experiences that multiplayer gamers search for and I definitely don’t have the patience to wade through dozens of matches of slavering Xbox Live prepubescents hurling off-color slurs into their headset mics in vengeful falsettos on the off chance that I’ll have that magical match.
So I went through the campaign.
Long time readers may recall that I had lots of high praise for CoD4. I’ve heard by turns that Modern Warfare 2 is basically more of the same which one might interpret as A Good Thing but honestly I don’t think MW2 works even remotely as well as CoD4 did.
For one thing the narrative hook that CoD4 relied on was protagonist mortality. Among the most memorable and remarkable moments in any game of the benchmark 2007 was the slow radiation death experienced in gut-wrenching first-person about halfway through the game (sorry spoiler hounds, it’s been two years—you can still be impressed with it even if you know it’s coming). But I have to say, returning to that particular well pretty much undermined the impact of both the new instances of virtual death simulation and the original. It’s like movies with Hitchcockian startle-scares: It only works once. If you know it’s coming, you won’t be startled. Likewise once you know that basically any character whose shoes you don in Modern Warfare games could croak at any moment, you sort of expect it to happen or at least you understand that it could happen. It cheapens the experience and makes it as pedestrian as all the other deaths you experience in video games where you come right back and start over after the game over screen (or, increasingly in the current generation, a momentary reload of the last quick save or checkpoint).
I realize there were some people who grumbled that the death in CoD4 was sort of lame because CoD games are pretty challenging to begin with so you probably died a bunch of times before the death that actually “took,” which makes you wonder why dozens of flying bullets don’t do you in but radiation poisoning from a nuclear explosion finally does the trick. I ignored the criticism at the time because the impact was so forceful and the scene handled in such a novel way I was able to accept it. But after the third protagonist death in MW2 I started to see the point. In a lot of ways it is stupid that only the game’s pre-determined narrative decides when it’s okay to die.
Unfortunately, that’s not MW2′s only misstep. While the plot of CoD4 was sort of ridiculous and Jerry Bruckheimer-ish, it managed to stay compelling because it didn’t have to top itself. It was able to maintain enough of a grounding in plausibility to feel authentic in some key, fundamental fashion. MW2 is Big Dumb Action Movie all the way, complete with corny/serious dialogue, ludicrous Evil Master Plans and eye-roll inducing Shocking Twists. That doesn’t even take into consideration the snowmobile scene which I could easily forgive if it didn’t support the argument that Infinity War lost their minds with regards to the boundaries on suspension of disbelief.
It’s not that I hated MW2, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to try to find good in the world: The trademark CoD set piece battles are still there and still provide some fun shooter goodness. They’ve mostly eliminated the infinite-spawning killboxes although there are still a few places where I found myself having to just hold the sprint button and hope my magical regenerating health held out until I reached the next checkpoint because if you don’t do it The Way the Designers Intended, you can plan to spend the next 30 minutes replaying the same section over and over. And I will concede that Infinity Ward still make the best looking realistic visuals around: Some of the lighting effects especially during the night fighting through a burning Washington D.C. are astounding. The downside of that is the action is frequently so frantic and the flow from cover point to cover point so forces you to fixate on relatively drab level details like desks and rocks, it’s easy to miss a lot of the remarkable artistry on display. If you don’t mind Dumb Action, MW2 is still a fun way to spend a half dozen hours.
The problem is that the bar was set for something amazing. Sadly there wasn’t enough progress made narratively—and I’d argue that envelope wasn’t even picked up, much less pushed—to make it a worthy successor to CoD4. Let me put it this way: It should have been called Call of Duty 4.5: Now With More Stupid.
Meanwhile, I finished Infamous (it was one of my New Year’s Resolutions) and unlike MW2 I wasn’t disappointed in the least. I said when I talked about it before that Infamous was like a comic book and that stayed true through the end, even as the story got a little convoluted and silly. I can forgive silly when it’s thematically appropriate and Infamous is right on that line of being silly to my 33 year-old self but still pretty cool to my internal 12 year-old self who, let’s face it, is the one running the show when it comes to me playing video games all the time.
Eventually the missions (especially the story missions indicated by the blue markers at the starting points) got longer but I still appreciated that the game maintained a very busy-adult-friendly pick up and play vibe throughout. Well, at least until the final boss fight which was infuriatingly difficult but just within the bounds of that rewarding box. Fighting Kessler was delightfully reminiscent of the boss battles from my youth in the NES/SNES eras: Full of trial and error, pattern memorization, finding weak spots, experimenting with the tools at my disposal. It was the best end boss battle I can remember in a very, very long time.
I highly recommend the game but I must admit my one minor quibble is that I wish the morality path-exclusive powers were more effective. I chose the Evil path partially because Arc Lightning sounded really cool but it’s utility turned out to be pretty limited. I mean, either way it was still fun to run around Bio Leeching random pedestrians because it suited my needs and I doubt I could have beaten the game on the Hard difficulty if I’d needed to be careful about my surroundings to maintain a Good karma level, but still. I want Evil to be, well, freakin’ evil and capable of near genocidal levels of mayhem and carnage. Still, it seemed like they were setting the stage for a sequel with the end of the game and I have no shame in saying I’m all over that.
The other thing I spent a lot of the break doing is playing iPhone games. I initially dismissed the iPhone in its original incarnation but like most things Apple does the iterations eventually caught up with the potential and I found my desire for a device that was a microcosm of my digital life—only persistent—to be increasing. So when the contracts for our old phones expired my wife and I used some saved cash and a generous Christmas gift of cash from my parents to get 3GS iPhones. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to head over to the App Store to try and find some cool games.
It took me a while to find anything really interesting: I guess most of the games/genres I’m interested in are firmly in the paid-app realm and I’m enough of an iPhone newbie to not want to be saddled with lame software I dropped money for, even if it is mostly minimal investments. I did eventually find a few games, among them being a clever if not exactly perfect port of Nethack. Using tiles and mapping most of the game’s controls to gestures, it’s a cool little project but even though Nethack has never really worked very hard to be user-friendly, this version is particularly esoteric especially since players of the unix console version have to re-learn all the commands they’ve committed to memory as sets of gestures which work only most of the time when you want them to. I think a different interface would make it the game I played most on the device, but as is I’ve played it a handful of times and thought it was cool but mostly missed my terminal version.
I also experimented with some free versions of paid software including a little number called DropZap Lite. It’s a familiar-feeling drop-the-bricks puzzle game that isn’t based on speed at all, in fact it could be described as turn-based. The blocks in this case are sized large to small and as you drop new blocks the other blocks in the same row and column are reduced in size by one level. Once they reach the smallest size, new blocks remove them and gravity pulls them down and the chain continues with each successive drop increasing the score multiplier. The Lite version allows you to progress through up to three levels (you move up a level whenever you clear 50 bricks) and try to beat your highest score. It’s quite fun though I’m not sure if the novelty would last long enough for a full paid version, even if it’s only 99 cents. (Note that as of this writing I’m not able to locate the Lite version on the App Store.)
My friend Jim turned me on to GeoDefense Lite, which is a path-based tower defense game with a Geometry Wars aesthetic. Being a fan of GeoWars and, to a certain extent, tower defense, it’s kind of right up my alley although I think I prefer the open TD variety. Still this one is pretty nice and I like that the upgrades are more than just stat-based but actually change the graphics and effects of the shots as well. I wasn’t crazy about the fact that there isn’t much information available about the enemy units (unlike, say, Desktop Tower Defense) and the placement interface is kind of frustrating as the location circle doesn’t seem to map to your finger location on the touch screen very well, but I was able to have fun with it once I got used to its peculiarities. The Lite version has several Easy and Medium levels; the paid app is $1.99.
Jim also talked about Song Summoner Lite long before I even got an iPhone of my own so I sought it out when I was a platform owner. It’s a turn based strategy role playing game in the vein of Final Fantasy Advance and in fact created by SquareSoft. The hook though is that it has a Monster Rancher like method of generating solider units for you based on the waveforms of your iTunes tracks. I’m not sure if it’s due to the app being the free version or it has something to do with my song selection or maybe just a quirk of the game engine but no matter how dynamic a song I picked the characters I generated were all fairly low ranked out of the gate; my friend confirmed that he had a similar experience and I believe he purchased the full game. I haven’t done much more in it besides the tutorial and playing with the soldier generator, but it’s a cool enough concept and it’s close enough to what I’m looking for in an iPhone game that I felt compelled to mention it. One bad thing is the full version is a pretty hefty $9.99, so I’d have to really love the Lite version before I felt okay with dropping ten bucks on a game for my phone.
I also checked out Atoms, which as near as I can tell is an exclusively free game. It reminds me a little of the pacifism mode in Geometry Wars 2: You drag your blue ring around the screen, avoiding the deadly red circles. Eventually the red circles change into green and they can be run into at which point they explode like bombs to clear out reds and earn you points. I think the familiarity comes from the passive, indirect method of combat. My main problem with Atoms is that it relies on you placing your finger directly over the play field which suggests that the most effective way to play the game is to be invisible, something I haven’t yet mastered but is one of my New Year’s Resolutions.
Probably my biggest surprise is that I’m playing iMobsters/Zombies, two games in a pantheon of Storm8 games that are very much like the Mafia Wars/Vampire Wars games that clutter everyone’s news feed on Facebook. I’m not interested enough to research which games came first but in any case they’re curious turn-based strategy/adventure games that are very similar to text-based adventure games of old. Basically you are given a handful of action points (all the games play the same, the only difference is the thematic metaphor) with which to execute quests with a simple button click. These quests provide some sort of experience points and a form of currency which you can exchange for income sources or equipment that makes you more effective at PvP combat (some of the equipment often cuts into your income with upkeep costs as well). The kick is the social aspect which allows you to join forces with other players to add them as an item carrier slot in your PvP attempts by linking your accounts into each other’s groups. Again, the detail is in the theme but the perpetuation hook is that the action points refresh based on a real-time countdown so you have to log in regularly to continue your XP grind. The games are also micro-transaction based so you can speed up your progress for a small fee based on some kind of loyalty points which are also given infrequently for various in-game actions.
It’s hard to portray why I’d be inclined to continue with what is, essentially, narrative-deprived interactive fiction. iMobsters makes a little more sense thematically and in execution than Zombies, which I’m playing basically because if it says or hints at zombies I’ll probably give it a long leash. My New Year’s Resolution is to lay off the zombiephilia a little bit. In either case though they’re not particularly compelling in a rational sense, it’s more that once you get started it’s easy to think they’re something mildly interesting to do with your hands when you experience some sort of lull. The fact that they can easily be played with one hand while doing something else, say, eating or rocking a baby to sleep probably plays a role as well.
I keep hearing that Facebook and mobile phones will shortly become the principal platform for video games and honestly I’m not the kind of person who gets all “nuh-uh!” about those sorts of predictions, but on a personal level that kind of thing will only work for my gaming habits if the games themselves offer something more compelling than what I’m seeing now. I have a hard time understanding why there aren’t more games along the lines of what you see at Kongregate on Facebook: Rich, clever experiences that maybe don’t rival the kinds of things you can get on consoles but offer a variety of depths and levels of sophistication. So far everything I’ve seen on social network platforms is the ultimate in casual. These iPhone games are a bit closer to what I’m looking for but a lot of them feel very much like early DS games where people are still trying to figure out how to leverage the platform without being gimmicky or trying to shoehorn experiences onto it that simply don’t fit.
It’s worth seeing where this goes, though, because I see a lot of potential around. And my New Year’s Resolution is to make sure I don’t miss the revolution.