Category Archives: Review

Tablet Review: Asus Memo Pad 7

This past summer I was in the market for a tablet. Given how wide and deep the tablet market has gotten over the years, I figured I would go ahead and talk a little about what I was looking for and how I feel about my Asus Memo Pad 7 purchase, four months later.

Few complaints.

Few complaints.

Everyone will tell you that before you look at tablets, you should take a few minutes to outline what exactly you want to use it for. Do not skip this step. If you are looking for an eReader, getting an iPad is overkill. Chances are you will eventually start using the tablet for other things once you have it, but by that point you will have a better understanding of how one might fit your life, just in time for an upgrade.

My own goals were more temporary: I wanted a laptop replacement (mostly writing) for a series of vacations I was going on. But not an actual replacement laptop, mind you; I did not anticipate using it very much once I returned. My experience with the Nexus 4 phone also primed me to limit my choices to those that had microSD card slots. I had bought the smartphone to replace an old cell phone and iPod Touch with one device, but a 16gb limit basically meant I listened to the same music at work for nearly a year. I did not want to make a similar mistake again.

In the end, I went with the Asus Memo Pad 7, the latest version of which was released mere weeks before my July vacation. It was a ~$150 Android tablet with 16gb of space that nevertheless allows you to slot in a 64gb microSD card. It runs the latest Android software, has front and back cameras, and overall seems fast enough. My version is WiFi only.

These days I primarily use it as a musical device at work and as an eReader (including manga via Manga Rock) at home. During my vacation, I used a (wired!) rollable keyboard to write and it was technically powerful enough to run SNES/etc emulators if I hadn’t also purchased a PSP for that purpose. I absolutely feel that I got my money’s worth already from its performance on the two 14-hour flights I took, so it’s current extended use is pure bonus.

Are there some minor issues? Sure. As some reviews might have mentioned, the back is sloped weird, which sometimes makes reaching for the power/volume buttons a bit more awkward than strictly necessary. I also find it annoying that swiping down from the top brings up either the Settings menu or the Notification tray at random (when I always want the Notification tray). I have not investigated whether there is a setting I can change to fix this.

But, yeah, Asus Memo Pad 7. It is currently on Amazon for $135 $124 and will likely drop further in time for Black Friday. It probably won’t replace your Apple Air or whatever, but I feel it’s an excellent, safe entry into the tablet market for neophytes like myself.

Review: Dragon Age 2

Game: Dragon Age 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: 45 hours
Buy If You Like: More action-ish RPGs, Humorous party dialog, waves of trash mobs

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

In light of the impending release of Dragon Age 3, I decided to go ahead and play through the much-maligned Dragon Age 2. Would it be really as bad as everyone says? Well… maybe.

When Dragon Age: Origins came out, it was a love-letter to the Baldur’s Gate generation, featuring tactical and brutal combat, an epic and lore-rich storyline, and plenty of morally questionable scenarios. Dragon Age 2 follows mostly along similar lines, but there are enough breaks from the formula that you start wondering if the devs wanted to make a different game altogether.

Combat in Dragon Age 2 has a much more action game feel, even though it shares many things with the original. The Tactics system is still in place for configuring the AI, for example, and you can still pause the action at any time to issue orders or directly control different party members. Indeed, in the beginning, it felt largely the same as Origins, albeit “quicker.”

The major problem though is that the game throws waves and waves of weak enemies at you, even when it doesn’t make any sense. You could be walking around the slums when BAM! Thirty dudes try to take you out, ten at a time. While superficially more exciting, the challenge in these sort of fights is extremely low; the only times in which my party died were when an enemy spellcaster dropped an AoE spell, which typically will one-shot everyone nearby before you realize what’s going on.

There's self-deprecating and then there's sad truths.

There’s self-deprecating and then there’s sad truths.

Bioware went a different direction with the plot and overall story structure as well. Instead of fighting another Blight or dealing much with Darkspawn at all, the story follows your character as he/she… well, lives in a city. On one level, it felt pretty novel to experience a former refugee’s rise to prominence, especially given how reasonable the path ends up feeling. I especially liked how each game Act fasts forward time by 3 years – all too often it feels like the average RPG sort of assumes all this character development and world-saving occurs within a week.

On the other hand, the lack of any discernible threat puts a lot of pressure on the incidental stories being interesting… which they are largely not. The underlying plot of Dragon Age 2 is an exploration of the Circle and Templar tension within the Dragon Age setting. While I always thought that bit lore was cool, it isn’t enough to carry a 40+ hour campaign. At one point, the only quest left I could complete was the plot quest to find some Blood Mages who ran away, and all I could ask is: who cares? Those Blood Mages have nothing to do with anything, even in context.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

Another major issue I had with the game was the rather outrageously blatant copy & paste job with the environments. Going into a cave? Guess what, it’ll be the same cave you always go into, except maybe certain passages will be blocked off this time. Given how the game takes place in one main location, I can understand reusing assets to an extent. But when every warehouse, every cave, every secret base all have the exact same map even when they have no rational reason to be shaped similarly? Call it what it is: developer laziness and cutting corners.

Overall, the online criticisms of Dragon Age 2 largely hit the mark. It is very clear that DA2 was an experiment, and it is equally clear that even Bioware acknowledged that things did not pan out quite as they had hoped. Although some characters from Dragon Age: Origins make cameo appearances, there isn’t a real reason to encourage that fans of the original game to play this one. It isn’t awful, in isolation, but it’s not compelling enough to deserve the Dragon Age title.

Micro-Reviews: Suzuka, Orange Marmalade, GE – Good Ending

Suzuka

Suzuka

Suzuka starts off as a fairly cliche high school romance manga, right down to the main male character transferring to Tokyo and living in an all-girl dorm/spa. In fact, you might recognize pretty much that exact premise right out of Love Hina. The curious thing about the manga though is that I was never really able to get a sense of whether it started this way intentionally, or if the gradual evolution of the story into something more meaningful was a happy accident. In either case, the character progression becomes much more interesting as time goes on, the harem and fanservice drops away, and many satisfying (and occasionally frustrating) developments are had by the end.

Basically, if you are looking for a more “realistic” romance manga along the same vein as A Town Where You Live, Suzuka is a good front-runner.

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Orange Marmalade

Marmalade

This is a Korean-style romance manga centering around high school girl Ma Ri, the “ice queen,” who actually happens to be a vampire in hiding. It has been 300 years since the last vampire has actually killed a human, but the discrimination and threat of exile is constant. In fact, her family has had to move around repeatedly any time people start to get suspicious, which has led to Ma Ri to make peace being alone forever. Despite her best efforts though, she is befriended by a group of girls and Jae Min, a boy who seemingly refuses to leave her alone once she accidentally nips his neck.

The pacing, art style, and overall quality of Orange Marmalade is extremely good. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I basically plowed through the entire series in a single day. It has angst, drama, and moments of extreme pathos, all without necessarily devolving into standard tropes. There are some vampiric shenanigans, but the story isn’t necessarily about vampires. In fact, beyond a few initial plot points, the vampire angle is more allegory than anything – and in that regard, it is extremely effective. I recommend it.

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GE – Good Ending

GE

GE – Good Ending is, as you might expect from the title, a high school romance manga. The story centers around Seiji Utsumi, a boy who has a crush on the tennis club president. Too scared to make a move and too unathletic to join the tennis club himself, he remains content with admiring her from afar. That is, until another tennis club member, Yuki Kurokawa, catches him peeking in the bushes, and seemingly makes it her duty to put them together.

While this manga starts out with the stereotypical dumbass protagonist who is incapable of doing anything, the beauty of GE is the character progression and, indeed, evolution. Characters grow up, pasts are revealed, feelings change, misunderstandings are had, and basically real shit occurs. In other words, the beginning of the manga bears little resemblance to what it eventually becomes, which is a rather compelling narrative. If romance manga is your genre, GE will definitely earn a spot on your list.

Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Recommended price: Debatable ($5)
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~45 hours
Buy If You Like: Single-player MMOs, Action RPGs

Graphics aren't half bad.

Graphics aren’t half bad.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereafter Reckoning) is a 3rd-person, over-the-shoulder action RPG that comes the closest I have ever seen to any game perfectly emulating an MMO experience. After being resurrected and freed from the constraints of a setting bound by Fate, you set out into the world to stop the various forces that want to make your death stick this time. Along the way, you will kill many enemies, destroy a lot of boxes, explore many caves, and complete quests until you get so utterly sick of them that you swear you will never accept another quest in any game, ever. Then you will complete some more.

As mentioned, Reckoning is for all intents and purposes a single-player MMO. About the only thing missing is the ability to zoom out the camera (an issue that becomes rather annoying after a while) and the ability to jump. Other than those two, you will doing a lot of the same things in exactly the same ways. Each new town will have a half dozen or more NPCs offering quests, there is a quest-tracker of sorts, monsters can randomly drop rare/epic/legendary loot. As you level up, you can put skill points into three different skill trees that correspond with Fighter, Mage, and Thief. Depending on how many points you slot into each tree, you can choose certain Fate cards that are basically “classes” which give you certain passive bonuses. While the bonuses are generally worth specialization, it’s also entirely possible to cherry-pick some of the better abilities in the early trees.

In terms of general gameplay, I would say Reckoning is alright. Your main attacks are bound to left-click and right-click, with some of them requiring aim via the mouse. There is some element of timing to your attacks rather than just spamming the buttons, although it’s possible to do that too. Part of the game schtick is “Reckoning Mode,” which is really a re-skinned Limit Break from FF7 – kill enemies until the Reckoning meter fills up, then unleash a ludicrously powerful attack. And by ludicrously powerful, I mean forcing all enemies into slow-mo, killing normal mobs in two hits, and otherwise cheesing 100% of every boss fight in the entire game. Oh, and did I mention that your final attack against whatever target will trigger a Quick Time Event that lets you spam a button to get increased XP for all the dudes you just murdered? Yeah.

That's right, he's going to be impaled on that spike.

That’s right, he’s going to be impaled on that spike.

Beyond what I have already talked about, there were two main issues I had with the game. The first is a nitpick of sorts, and an unfortunate one at that. Basically this game came out three months after Skyrim. There is nothing at all this game does better than Skyrim and a whole lot that it does worse. Is it a fair comparison? Nope. But having played Skyrim first, you just can’t help but feel every little thing they have in common – such as picking herbs out in the world, questing, exploring, etc – is simply worse-Skyrim. If you are sensitive to that sort of thing, playing Reckoning will be an issue.

The second thing is that Crafting is broken. Like most of these sort of games, Reckoning allows you to put points into Blacksmithing and whatnot to craft your own gear. And like many games in which you can do this, the designers – either on purpose or accident – allow you to very easily craft gear so far beyond the scope of any possible random drop that loot itself loses all meaning. I understand that there is always a tension of sorts between crafted loot and random drops, in that if random drops are better, then the crafting system becomes a bit useless in comparison. But, seriously, come on:

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

Just so we have it in text form, my equipped gear was 82 Armor, +12% crit damage, and +3% crit chance. Meanwhile, my crafted gear is 122 Armor, +12% crit damage, +28% Health, +17% Damage Resistance, +10% Physical Resistance, and +15% Damage. I don’t even remember at which level I crafted that piece of armor, but I basically never equipped anything else until the end of the game. Which meant 100% of the armor drops I received from then until the end were vendor trash. Which meant my motivation for actually completing these quests and/or acquiring more gold dropped to zero.

Overall, it is sort of hard to recommend Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game isn’t terrible, even if it cannot really stand up to its peers. If you enjoy the combat and the questing, there is a ton of content that will keep you busy far beyond the ~47 hours it took me to beat it. In fact, that is sort of what happened with me: I was on a mission to complete ever single quest I came across, up until I got burned out and just did all the storyline quests until the end. Then there is the sort of mystique that comes from playing the game from the imploded studio and getting a feeling for what the Amalur MMO might have looked like.

But if you are strictly interested in compelling games to play, well, I might recommend taking even that $5 somewhere else. Reckoning is probably worth $5 in a vacuum, but that same $5 can buy so much more these days.

Micro Review: Usagi Drop (manga)

Usagi Drop

Usagi_Drop1

Usagi Drop is a straight-forward, endearing, and deeply compelling slice-of-life manga. It follows the travails of a 30-year old man named Daikichi whom notices a 6-year old girl wandering around his grandfather’s funeral. After asking family members, it appears that the girl, Rin, is actually his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter by an unknown mother, whom has all but abandoned Rin. As the relatives discuss putting Rin in foster care, Daikichi decides (almost on a whim) to take care of Rin himself.

As I mentioned above, this manga is slice-of-life and mainly focuses on the sort everyday considerations a 30-year old bachelor has to make in the context of raising a child. However, the scenes and scenarios presented are not being done solely for comedic effect or to evoke sympathy for Daikichi’s lost carefree lifestyle. Rather they are all the sort of mundane miracles of parenthood and self-discovery. And for any person interested in Japanese culture, Usagi Drop becomes an exceedingly intimate glimpse into everyday life over there (or at least an example thereof).

Usagi_Drop2

It is actually difficult for me to express exactly how amazing I feel Usagi Drop is. Perhaps it is because I am also a 30-year old bachelor without children that I identify so well with the primary character. But I feel like there is an undercurrent of brilliance to this manga that simply needs to be experienced. There is an inherent progression to the relationships amongst the characters, and as they grow up, you feel yourself grow up with them. I really cannot describe it any better than that.

Simply put, if you ever find yourself in need of an example of a manga to prove to someone that these aren’t all simply childish (or perverted) comic books, Usagi Drop is one that you should immediately feel comfortable offering.

Micro-Reviews: Beyond the Boundary, One Week Friends, A Town Where You Live

Beyond the Boundary

Beyond-the-Boundary_02

Beyond the Boundary is a 12-episode supernatural anime surrounding the troubles of Kanbara, a high school student that is half-youmu (e.g. half-spirit creature) which makes him effectively immortal. One day he meets Kuriyama, a transferred “bespectacled beauty” who nevertheless repeatedly tries to kill him. Turns out she is part of a cursed Spirit Warrior clan that makes a living killing youmu and selling the “spirit crystals” that they drop. Problem is, Kuriyama can’t bring herself to actually kill any youmu aside from Kanbara, much to Kanbara’s immortal dismay.

The series develops a more serious side as time goes on, and there are some more intricate shenanigans going on behind the scenes. The jokes were amusing, the animation stellar, and the plot perfectly serviceable. If you are just looking for something to watch and kill time, Beyond the Boundary is not bad.

One Week Friends

One-Week-Friends

One Week Friends is a rather endearing 12-episode anime that explores the somewhat novel friendship of Yuki Hase and his classmate Kaori Fujimiya. After building up some considerable courage, Yuki finally tries to ask Kaori – whom never seems to talk to anyone – to be his friend. After a week passes, Yuki learns Kaori’s secret: she loses all memories about her friends every Monday. The rest of the series deals with Yuki’s efforts in trying to get Kaori to remember him, and how they handle their relationship starting over every seven days.

I considered this anime to be well worth the watch. The premise is pretty interesting and the burgeoning relationship between Yuki and Kaori satisfying in its development.

 

Kimi no Iru Machi | A Town Where You Live

Town

A Town Where You Live (hereafter Town) is a roughly ~260 chapter drama/real life/romance manga that I really enjoyed. It follows the early high school life of Haruto as he experiences perhaps the standard harem-esque tropes of this genre: panty jokes, comical misunderstandings, and every female of child-bearing age falling instantly in love with him. Except… not really. Whether it was intentional or not, Town seems to mature in tandem with the growing age of its protagonists. There are still jokes here and there, but the background subject matter becomes as serious as the relationships it contains.

As mentioned, I really enjoyed reading Town, especially given its character progression and closure. There is a little bit of fan service sprinkled in (especially for the chapter 200 “alternate-ending” celebration), but it is not especially obnoxious about it. If you can get past the main character being a real dumbass when it comes to unintentionally leading women on, I think you’ll find it difficult to put down.

Reviews: RAGE, Crysis, Sanctum 2

Game: RAGE
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 13 hours
Buy If You Like: Racing games with FPS elements

What you'll be doing most of the time.

What you’ll be doing most of the time.

RAGE is a simplistic, 27gb racing game with some FPS bits tossed in.

Perhaps that is not entirely fair. If you include all the time you spend backtracking through the same exact environments, Halo-style, the game probably comes out to be 51% FPS or thereabouts.

In RAGE, you take control of a mute super-soldier who just woke up from cryo in the post-apocalypse future. After being rescued from some blood-thirsty raiders, you join the most generic-named faction in the world, the Resistance, to fight against the second-most generic-named faction, the Authority. Apparently the “Ark” containers (like the one you were on) were all supposed to be opened at the same time to usher in a new age of civilization. Turns out other Ark survivors somehow stopped that from happening, thus establishing themselves as rulers over the populace that apparently didn’t need space technology to survive the apocalypse.

Technically the above is a whole mess of spoilers, but considering there is literally no other plot, no character development, no competant writing, or really any redeeming factor for the game, it becomes necessary to work with what you got.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

I take that back. There is precisely one thing RAGE got amazingly correct: melee enemies that are legitimately scary. The typical FPS that features melee enemies usually has to rely on them being bullet sponges or incredibly fast to compensate for their lack of cover-usage. In RAGE, melee enemies dodge back and forth, run up the walls, swing from ceiling fixtures, and otherwise make you reevaluate your damn-near-futile attempts at shooting them in the head. While I’m sure a lot of their acrobatics came down to heavy environmental scripting, it’s still something I’d like to see in games going forward.

What I would not like to see ever again is such a piss-poor implementation of damn near everything else. Little things start to grate on your nerves, like how pressing Esc brings up the main menu instead of canceling out of the Tab menu. Or like how you can hit Esc, choose Quit Game, and then it takes you to the Title screen where you have to hit Enter and then Quit Game again just to leave. Or how you have the ability to jump in the game, but not enough height to actually jump over anything 99% of the time.

I can appreciate the devs rebelling against the “only carry two weapons” FPS headwinds, but out of the nine weapons, eight of them have at least one extra type of special ammo. The crossbow carries normal arrows, explosive arrows, electric arrows, and mind-control arrows. Cool… except there is exactly one stage that allows electric arrows to do anything special (the stage they’re introduced in), and the vast majority of the enemies you fight after getting mind-control arrows are either immune to the effects or infeasible to use against.

In the end, RAGE doesn’t know what it wants to be or to do, and neither do I. Well, other than wishing I was playing something else. If you can grab it as part of a bundle, it’s worth checking out the legitimately scary melee enemies. But I wouldn’t necessarily give up a box of Girl Scout cookies for the privilege.

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Game: Crysis
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: ~15 hours
Buy If You Like: Benchmarking your PC, Sandbox-ish FPS games

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Crysis came out in 2007, nearly seven years ago, and was the long-reigning benchmark of PC gaming everywhere. Not necessarily in terms of gameplay, but literal benchmarking – if your rig could play Crysis on High, you were hot shit back in the day. Crysis 3 was out for months before I acquired the original in some Steam sale or another, but I wanted to give the original its due, especially considering I finally had a computer (in 2012) that could run this beast.

Unfortunately, Crysis on Steam caused me considerable issues. I honestly cannot begin to recount exactly what steps were required, but I know some modding and 3rd-party downloads had to be done before the game would even boot up. Even when it deigned to boot, I experienced a C2D event roughly every hour or two on top of game-stopping bugs like missions not ending correctly.

Outside of those issues though? Damn, people weren’t kidding about the graphics thing. I mean, the game basically looks kinda like Skyrim, but Skyrim was released in 2013.

What I was really surprised by was the general gameplay though. Crysis is a FPS game where you control an elite soldier equipped with a nanosuit that has a handful of alternate abilities like cloaking, super-strength, super-speed, etc. Unlike perhaps every other game in existence though, you get all of those abilities right at the start. Indeed, most of the game consists of you getting a primary and secondary objective on a large map and being told to hop to it; the pseudo-nonlinearity really reminded me of the original Far Cry. This leads to the game feeling rather easy though, as for the most part you can abuse Cloaking and jungle-hiding to take out basically every enemy in the game, especially considering the suit provides regenerating health.

Overall, Crysis is FPS in which what you do in the first 30 minutes of gameplay is the same thing you’ll be doing in the last 30 minutes of gameplay. The graphics and environments are phenomenally well-done, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be worth the headache of installation unless you want revenge on its at-the-time insane PC requirements.

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Game: Sanctum 2
Recommended price: $0
Metacritic Score: 77
Completion Time: 10 hours
Buy If You Like: Console ports of a dumbed-down sequel

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

The original Sanctum, along with Orcs Must Die that was released around the same time, really sparked my interest in Tower Defense as a genre. Prior to that, Tower Defense was just associated with those annoying missions in RTS games that always seemed too hard or too easy. But Sanctum? Here is Tower Defense where you can not only build the maze yourself, but actually get down and dirty with shooting the bad guys. And multiplayer! So fun.

It’s just rather unfortunate that Sanctum 2 ended up being the sequel.

I have not even bothered to investigate it, but Sanctum 2 <i>feels</i> like everything that goes wrong with console ports of otherwise great PC games. There are four characters to choose from, each with various innate abilities and a main weapon that cannot be swapped out. Want to use the Sniper Rifle and Missile Launcher? Nope, that’d be too complicated. Instead of getting a pile of resources and having to carefully consider their application – do I build an extra-long maze, or upgrade all my towers? – you specifically get X number of wall units and Y amount of resources to apply to 15 deployed towers maximum. Oh, and everything is a tower now; there aren’t any floor traps (unless you count landmines).

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I'll get right on this maze.

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I’ll get right on this maze.

I can understand the logic behind most of these changes, as it pretty much universally speeds up the matches. “You can build 8 walls and drop maybe 2 towers this round, good luck.” I can wrap my head around breaking characters into distinct classes, as perhaps a way to foster more teamwork. The designers even took the time to introduce a Perk system to allow a bit more customization with characters. And hell, the ability to voluntarily buff enemies (sorta like in Bastion) to gain more XP is a pretty clever difficulty switch.

But at the end of the day? The game still felt like a truncated console port. I found a rather ridiculous combo of perks and weapons early on and sailed through the game with the exception of a few maps that had surprise bosses in them (most of which can simply destroy your maze walls). The tension between adding more walls or more towers afforded a surprising amount of strategic depth to the original game, and it’s simply absent here. In short: a lot of the things that were fun in Sanctum are replaced with either not-fun things or simply missing altogether.

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Review: Far Cry 3

Game: Far Cry 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~18 hours
Buy If You Like: Far Cry series, mostly-open world FPS

Some seriously nice graphics.

Some seriously nice graphics.

Far Cry 3 is the latest entry in the mostly unrelated, Heart of Darkness-esque Far Cry series. The game follows Jason, a trust fund frat boy who is violently thrust into a hideous underworld of slavery, rape, and torture on an otherwise pristine island paradise when his friends are captured mid-vacation by pirates. Much like the other two games, FC3 features a long string of story missions set amidst a wide-open island sandbox.

Far Cry 3 has a lot going for it. The game is unbelievably slick, from top to bottom, in almost every respect. For example, it is easily the best-looking Far Cry, with graphics and sweeping vistas that rival the likes of Skyrim. But the slickness permeates deeper still, down to character animations too. Stealth kills start off brutal and in-your-face, only to escalate further once you unlock the ability chain them together, use the target’s own knife to score a long-distance secondary kill, and so on. This sort of Ninja Gaiden feel is on top of the many layers of weaponry that impart similar visceral thrills, be they sneaky bow sniping or front-door grenade launcher-ing.

Another thing that was extremely well-done are the missions, dialog, and general plot. Missions flow well, the various tasks you are given feel substantial and necessary, the characters are absolutely unique, and there is a general sense of gravitas to your actions. In comparison, the mission structure in Far Cry 2 made less sense, or at least, it felt less impactful.

But therein lies the rub.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

As I have mentioned over the years, I view Far Cry 2 as one of the more sublime gaming experiences I’ve ever had. That game knowingly used its own flaws as a vehicle for storytelling, such that by the end of the game, you felt exactly how the in-game characters felt: weary, despondent, and resigned. Far Cry 3 attempts to recall the same lightning, but it can’t quite pull it off, for several reasons.

One of those reasons is that Far Cry 3 feels a lot more “gamey” than its predecessors. Part of the progression system involves hunting and skinning various animals to unlock additional weapon slots, a larger wallet, and so on. By itself, the mechanic is perfectly valid. However, it feels more artificial, especially given the fact that you are straight-up using cash in the stores to buy things. Why do I need to skin goats to expand my $1000 wallet? Couldn’t I just, you know, pay the $50 for a new wallet? Does this store really sell sniper rifles but no wallets?

That might sound like a little thing, but it’s precisely the little things that can break immersion. Far Cry 3 features a normal sort of game map, for example, but it’s a, ahem, far cry from the in-game map you had to actually glance downwards to see in FC2. More jarring to me though, was the crafting interface that necessitated crafting via the menu screen. Popping syringes felt pretty smooth, but effectively pausing the game with bullets in mid-air to pump out another half-dozen healing ampules just sorta felt wrong. And I haven’t even mentioned the interface riddled with perfectly usable but undeniably busy UI elements, mini-maps, quest trackers, and so on. Far Cry 2 didn’t even have crosshairs on by default, for god’s sake.

I didn't start the fire...

I, uh, I didn’t start the fire…

It is worth mentioning, in a general sense, that Far Cry 3 also continues the series penchant for wildly oscillating difficulty curves. If your natural inclination is to try and be as stealthy as possible when assassinating targets, you will experience some nice challenges. If you instead realize that a single flame arrow can burn down the hut your target is inside, or your bafflement towards unlocking infinite grenade launchers so early in the game leads to always equipping it, well… the game is remarkably easy. There are still a few missions where you can lose by raising the alarm or by letting an NPC die, but damn do you feel silly sneaking around after bombarding outposts with grenade fire and/or regular fire. Same outcome, minimum effort.

Overall though, I still feel like Far Cry 3 deserves top marks. Recommending that someone play FC2 carries a bit of baggage, as it doesn’t really become “worth it” unless they stick through it the entire way. In contrast, someone could play Far Cry 3 at pretty much any given moment in the game and feel like they experienced the best bits. I have seen some reviews that lament FC3’s later half for being less noteworthy, but while the main antagonists are less interesting at that point, it is somewhat offset by gaining a wingsuit and ample means to use it everywhere. Far Cry 3 is not particularly long, but I believe it’ll be worth the lower purchase price for most anyone… or at least FPS fans.

Review: The Witcher 2

Game: The Witcher 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: The Witcher, atmospheric and political fantasy gobbledegook

The atmosphere is almost - almost - enough to carry the entire game.

The atmosphere is almost – almost – enough to carry the entire game.

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to the original, fairly ground-breaking game following the travails of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt’s profession is a Witcher, a human who has mutated his own genes in order to more effectively fight the monsters that spontaneously appeared in the world many years ago. After the events in the original game, Geralt was playing bodyguard to a king only to see his charge assassinated in his presence and then framed for the crime. TW2 takes place immediately following those events, and the wider ramifications and intrigue surrounding a recent batch of regicide.

I am going to be completely honest here at the beginning by saying that I finished playing TW2 only grudgingly, and after several months-long breaks inbetween. The game features a decently robust journaling system that will allow you to read up on what you are supposed to be doing and the general lore of the entire game world, but the litany of nonsense fantasy pronouns and references to the original game events (and the books they are predicated on) is truly unending. While I am willing to admit that the breaks I took inbetween playing certainly contributed to my general confusion, I do not absolve the game from what I feel was a profound lack of engagement. “Why was I doing this again?” “So I’m fighting this guy, but it’s important I don’t kill him, because I want this valley to become independent, so that… err?”

One of the major strengths of the first Witcher was its creation of what felt like a distinctly authentic atmosphere. Most fantasy games have a sort of whitewashed, Disney quality to them at odds with the historical reality of peasantry who bathed infrequently, had access to few paved roads, and a general unconcern with hygiene. The Witcher felt dirty, gritty, and real. I am happy to report TW2 continues in that praise-worthy tradition. Hovels look like hovels, trolls like like trolls, and you can practically smell the NPCs through the screen. The casual race discrimination (in terms of humans vs nonhumans) and ease in which people’s lives are upended or destroyed feels correct in a way practically unique to the genre.

Layered on top of this “fantasy realism” are the most banal, discordant, gamey quests and mechanics that I’ve ever seen.

Good ole meta-humor.

Good ole meta-humor.

We are talking about completely shameless fetch quests, kill 20 monster quests, and boomerang quests that shatter any sense of immersion in the fictional world. In fact, by the end, I hated the game world for its perfectly realistic twisted pathways and obstacles, as I was forced to circumvent them dozens of times as I did quests A, B, and C in sequence. And can I talk about the map for a second here? Literally the worst, most useless map in any videogame I have ever played. Shit made no sense, and zooming out gives you a view of the overworld that had zero to do with anything given how you were actually trapped in small zones around the one main location of the Chapter.

The combat in the first Witcher was not particularly deep or complicated. Combat in TW2 has actually devolved to the point where I was feeling nostalgic for the timed button pressed of the original as a measure of skill. All you do here is left-click for a quick attack and right-click for a strong attack. You can block, cast a Sign, roll-Dodge, or use an item too, but combat never felt integrated into the game world at all. Maybe the devs were intentionally trying to ensure you didn’t feel like a badass playing as a Witcher. Well… mission accomplished.

By far the worst aspect of the game though (map aside), is the direction that they took potions. See, potions are an important part of the game’s fiction; Witchers mutate themselves almost solely so they can brew potions that let them regenerate health, have extra power, and so on. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, but could only meditate (e.g. sleep off the toxic potion side-effects) at certain locations. Which was dumb. However, TW2 decided to let you meditate almost anywhere, but you must be meditating before you can drink a potion. When can you not meditate? In combat, near combat, or somewhere where combat is implied to be occurring. The issue is that your abilities are balanced around potion use but potions only last for 10 real-time minutes. So you spend the entire goddamn game quicksaving every 30-seconds because getting into combat without having potions up is suicide, but you can’t exactly be running around with potions up the whole time, especially when you are exploring.

Only in The Witcher series...

Only in The Witcher series…

I am belaboring the utter travesty of the combat system because I’m at a point in my life where this shit just doesn’t fly any more. I used to suffer through all kinds of JRPG combat systems for the fruit that was their (quirky) plots. You can’t really even say that TW2 would have been a better Adventure game though, because the physicality of fighting is important to understanding the world Geralt and friends inhabit. You can’t cut-scene every battle, after all.

Ultimately, I think what killed The Witcher 2 for me was the simple fact that the rest of the gaming world continued moving. Yeah, this is a game that came out in 2011, so a certain amount of slack should be given. But… I can’t. If you have played Skyrim, for example, coming into this game will be physically painful – you will chafe at not being able to hop off the wall where you want, not being able to attack when you want, not being able to go where you want, not being able to drink goddamn potions when you want. All of which is a real shame, because The Witcher 2 features a wide array of morally grey choices that actually change large portions of the game, rather than being “mere” emotional placebos.

But, you know what? I kinda want to have fun when I’m playing video games and The Witcher 2 offered me the opposite of that. I’m keeping an eye on The Witcher 3 because I enjoy the game world they have created and the choices you can make inside of it, but I am oh so wary. And oh so tired of poorly implemented game features/design.