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Gaming: February 2011’s Games

I’m still catching up with these, but unless procrastination gets the better of me March’s posts will arrive promptly in April once I’m off work (so probably the 6th onwards). This month the first monthly review post will cover gaming (which was last in January), followed by television, film and ending with the month’s reading.

Double the faces this month.

Image sources: Predator, Grayson, agent, Donkey Kong, Harry, sackbot, Crazy Dave, Recette, vampire Sim and Woody

I’ve still not made any major alterations to my gaming time, still getting in just a couple of hours on non-work days, which meant I played games on sixteen days in February (the four days on, four days off schedule meant I only worked twelve days). I’ve had some thoughts on ways to rearrange my free time but that won’t kick in until March at least, so I won’t cover it here. Without further ado, here’s what I played:

Aliens Versus Predator (PlayStation 3)

Progress: Completed all three campaigns. Played no multiplayer.

As I mentioned last month I finished the final campaign (the alien) on February 1st, but my thoughts are unchanged so you should head to January’s review if you want to read my thoughts on it. I’ve still not written a proper blog post about the game.

Bulletstorm Demo (Xbox 360)

Progress: Completed the demo level twice.

I’m looking forward to trying out Bulletstorm. As I mentioned in a recent blog entry I’m not happy about the direction modern shooters are heading, aiming to be highly linear and barely interactive while also being very serious, a far cry from the likes of Duke Nukem, Serious Sam or even things like Doom and Quake. Bulletstorm does seem to subscribe to the idea of each location being something of a playground, rewarding imaginative play (within set limits) with extra points and providing plenty of fun tools.  The demo didn’t blow me away but that was demonstrating a mode purely built around score chasing, something that doesn’t interest me, and it’s clear the mechanics are there for a fun game.

Crackdown 2 (Xbox 360)

Progress: Completed the campaign and all Freak and Cell activities, as well as all but the last foot race. Played no multiplayer.

I love the original Crackdown from Realtime Worlds and go back and forth over whether it or Saints Row 2 is my favourite open world game of this generation, so I was always going to be pleased by a sequel that came from at least some of the same people (even though it’s a different studio, Ruffian Games). The reaction to Crackdown 2 was almost universal in its disappointment, not negative as such but fairly lukewarm.

I can absolutely understand that reaction because it’s not a game that moves far beyond the original, an approach more and more sequels are taking these days. It’s the same city but tweaked, at times making it a slightly more interesting place but also one that’s less visually appealing, thanks to the game being set at a point when the Cell terrorists and the mutated Freaks have overrun the city, adding more dilapidation and shades of brown and in the process making it a little more generic. The objectives are also very repetitive, as for the most part the tutorial demonstrates everything you need to do in the actual campaign missions: secure Cell strongholds (which I think are actually optional), activate Project Purity Beacons and then defend the UV device in Freak layers. You’ll be doing that over and over again for the rest of the game, with only some rare moments of variety.

And yet… I really enjoyed myself. Part of Crackdown‘s strength was that it didn’t intrude on what you wanted to do too much, it just gave you an overall objective (kill the crime kingpins) and left you to it, which is exactly what Crackdown 2 does but with a little more variety. Everything else that’s great about the original – the powers, the advancement, navigating the city by leaping across rooftops (I almost never used a vehicle), the wealth of side activities and orbs to hunt and, most of all, the freedom – is all still in the sequel.

I think its obviously short development time kept Ruffian from making any major advancements, so much like Dead Rising 2 I’m hoping the next sequel will be a chance for them to really do something special with the very solid foundations that have been built up over two games now.

Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

Progress: Only just started, still in progress.

A Wii game managed to slip in right at the end of the month, the first I’ve played this year (and the first game I’ve played on it since finishing Super Mario Galaxy 2 in August). I’ve completed a couple of zones and initial impressions are favourable. Everything has a kind of celebratory enthusiasm at the series having returned, and as with their work on Metroid Prime Retro Studios have so far demonstrated that they really get what made the original games so popular. It feels like this is exactly where the series would have gone had 3D not come along and sent everybody chasing that extra dimension instead, though I’ll need to spend more time with it to form a proper opinion.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (Playstation 3)

Progress: Only played a little in local co-op.

As with last month I played this in the occasional brief session with my nephew, finishing The Philosopher’s Stone and only just about starting Chamber of Secrets. It’s still good but I still have little to say yet.

LittleBigPlanet 2 (PlayStation 3)

Progress: Finished the campaign in local co-op.

I put more time into LittleBigPlanet 2 and was able to finish the story mode with my nephew (who had already completed it solo for the create parts) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d say it’s more of a campaign now rather than being mostly just a showcase for what creators should be trying to do, and all the extra tools available means there’s so much more variety and creativity on display. I don’t think I would have been comfortable buying it full price if it was just for the story mode, but that wasn’t why it was bought and my nephew has already spent a lot of time creating, playing community levels and making new friends.

Plants Vs. Zombies (PC - Steam)

Progress: Played one level of adventure.

I had a little bit of time and couldn’t think what to do to fill it, so I played one level of the adventure mode. Plants Vs. Zombies lends itself well to that style of play, as do PopCap games in general, but there’s not much more I have to say to say about it.

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale (PC - Steam)

Progress: Started the game and played heavily, but have currently abandoned it.

I do intend to go back to the game and I’m glad I played it, but oddly enough it’s the fact that the game tolerates failure so well (restarting the time limit but preserving all your items and advancements) that caused me to stop. I reached the final week but just couldn’t pay off the last debt and didn’t see a way to achieve that without failing and restarting, which I just didn’t want to do. So it’s currently on hold.

I think the time limit also counts against it because time-intensive things like adventuring in the dungeons can be very unproductive, which I think aided in my failure because I could have made more money just from buying and selling. Even then it seems better to play conservatively rather than try to haggle high and risk losing the whole sale, because the time limit discourages that kind of risk. It’s a great game though and the writing in particular is excellent, making me smile often.

The Sims 3 and Late Night expansion pack (PC)

Progress: There’s not really any such thing in Sims, but I played it plenty.

I’m grateful that I have a mod that removes the limit on family sizes because there’s no reason to limit things at eight save for it becoming unwieldy to control that many Sims (which I’m comfortable leaving up to me), but the way The Sims 3 is designed – officially only allowing you to play one family – means that I don’t like to marry off my children and set them up in a new home like I would in The Sims 2, as the game takes control of them and they cease being ‘mine’. It means that each generation remains in the house, and then they marry and have children, who remain in the house, and the family grows through births and marriages faster than it shrinks through deaths, so upon starting it up after a hiatus it can be quite a shock to see a dozen or so family members in the middle of routines I can only half recall.

It doesn’t take long to get back into the swing of things though and I was soon fully in control again this time. After playing that family for a night I created a new one to try out the Late Night expansion, which right away demonstrates a flaw in EA’s approach, something which I bring up every time I talk about The Sims 3. The Sims 2 was crippled by loading screens every time you wanted to visit another home or shop or visit entire new locations, and while you were off the lot everything back home was frozen and each house lived in its own little time bubble. The open world of The Sims 3 was marvellous, yet in two of its first three expansions EA have added new locations entirely separated from the main neighbourhood, the first of which puts everybody else in a time bubble when you go on vacation and have to load the new location (which is at least an open world when it’s there).

Late Night is mostly focused on the new downtown location, and while I could have moved a copy of my family there it would have been uprooting them from a community of NPCs I’m familiar with (and some of whom are related to my Sims) so it wouldn’t have really been my family. Likewise, making a new Sim (which is what I opted for) makes it a spin-off story, something to play around with but which isn’t connected to what is the main part of the game for me.

Putting those issues to one side Late Night does seem fun. The celebrity idea of advancing your social status through connections and being seen at fancy locations (and being able to access higher-ranking celebrities and better locations as you do so) is interesting and the new downtown neighbourhood and apartment living seem fairly well designed, but it wasn’t without its flaws. One celebrity challenge involved my Sim, Randy Savage, being seen drinking at a particular club, but I couldn’t complete it because none of the NPCs in town were bartenders so there was nobody to serve drinks, and for whatever reason the game was keeping the population too low to support that.

It might just be that my PC is too low spec to support large populations (I don’t know if the game even monitors such things) but it’s not exactly uncommon for Sims expansion packs to have ridiculous flaws that stop even core concepts working, and I’ve long since started waiting for patches before trying them out. If it is a common problem then there will probably be a mod to fix it, or if not I should be able to use an existing mod to allow me to control an NPC Sim and make them a bartender, but I don’t see Late Night being an expansion I’ll get much use out of, or at least not any elements that mean being away from my main family. I should probably stop buying the packs that focus on new areas, but for whatever reason The Sims is a major weakness of mine and I always buy every pack, including holiday expansions for all three games in the series that I never end up using much. I might have a problem.

Toy Story 3 (PlayStation 3)

Progress: Completed the campaign in local co-op, played a lot of the Toy Box mode.

My nephew received this for Christmas but neither of us wanted to play it until we had watched the film (and having now played it there is enough in the game to spoil chunks of the story), and as it was near the end of January before we watched the DVD it wasn’t until February that we found time to play the game.

The main story mode isn’t bad (and the support for drop-in co-op is a huge plus), but if that had been all there was to the game it would have been pretty forgettable. It’s the Toy Box mode where the game really shines, a fairly open world with a cowboy town to rebuild, new areas to unlock, quests to complete, collectibles to find, a wealth of unlockables to purchase and quite a few customisation options for buildings and citizens. It also supports local co-op and lets you both wander off to do your own things, and really is a lot of fun as well as being surprisingly deep for a licensed movie tie-in.

It’s a particular surprise considering it’s a Pixar tie-in, which under THQ’s supervision were all fairly medicore (this one is published by Disney and developed by Avalanche Software). If this is what we can expect from now on then it’s possible that movie tie-ins aren’t going to be something us gamer relatives dread seeing gifted to younger family members.

*****

February Verdict

Quality – I’d again say nothing I played this month was bad, with Alien Versus Predator being the worst (and even then just being unremarkable).

Quantity – Quantity was okay this month. I completed three games and put plenty of time into some others, again managing to play on every day I wasn’t working, even if it was sometimes only for short sessions.

TimelinessPlants VS Zombies and the base game of the The Sims 3 are both 2009 releases, LittleBigPlanet 2 and Bulletstorm are both 2011 releases and the other six were all from 2010. That’s all seems pretty timely to me.

Platform Bias – Despite there being less days in the month I managed a better spread this time around. Time was split fairly evenly across the PC, PS3 and 360, while the Wii got some proper time at the end of the month. None of which was intentional, it’s just how it worked out.

Newness – Discounting those games that I was still actively playing from the last month everything else was played for the first time apart from the quick session of Plants Vs Zombies, though even that was playing a level I’d not attempted before.

Goals – I still can’t set a goal because of the lateness of this post. I’ll be able to do it next month, for sure. Probably.

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