What I’ve Been Playing

Summer is one of the toughest times in the childhood of a video gamer. Even back when I was in elementary school, I remember lamenting the cutting irony of the fact that summer vacation arrived (a) well after I had thoroughly exhausted all interest in whatever game I’d gotten for Christmas, (b) well before my autumn birthday (at which time I would inevitably recieve gifts of clothes and school supplies anyway), and (c) at a time of year when hardly any new games were released. In the end, I suppose all these barriers to gaming were likely of little real consequence; even if I’d had a stack of unplayed cartridges at my disposal, my fascist parental overlords probably still would have forced me to play outside.

As an adult, I find summers to be much more palatable. Sure, I don’t get two months of contiguous vacation, but instead I have disposable income, free will, and air conditioning. And even though there aren’t many triple-A game releases this time of year, there’s a nearly endless supply of cheap downloadable fun to be consumed via Steam’s Summer Sale (which just ended) and Xbox LIVE’s “Summer of Arcade”. Here’s what I’ve been playing…

Diablo III (PC / Mac)

Released this May following a 12-year hiatus in the franchise, Diablo III has been the preeminent time-sink for something like 10 million people this summer. Despite its success on paper, the game itself has traveled kind of a bumpy road, one rife with server issues, bizarre gameplay limits, and game hacks and exploits. In a typical video game, these issues would be less of a problem; however, Diablo III incorporates a “Real Money Auction House”, which (for those of you who don’t know) is a virtual marketplace that allows players to buy and sell in-game equipment and commodities using real-world currency. Apparently, the lesson to learn here is that if you create a virtual economy that is already incredibly unstable because of its implicitly artificial nature, piling a bunch of additional problems on top of it yields results that are somewhat of a total clusterfuck.

Is there someone out there willing to drop $200 on a “Focused Beating”? Only time will tell.

Being one of those crazy people who doesn’t play games so I can farm loot to sell on the Internet, I tended to approach Diablo III as… well, a “game”. While Diablo III is undoubtedly highly-tuned, expertly polished, and addictive as hell, even after my first 30 hours of gameplay I’m still not sure if it’s actually “fun”. It’s entirely possible Blizzard has simply figured out an algorithm for directly triggering the pleasure centers in my brain via randomized loot drops.

Resonance (PC)

Eventually I took a break from Diablo III and returned to my traditional summer practice of snapping up old titles and indie games in bulk off of Steam. One of my first purchases was Resonance, an indie point-n-click adventure game in the old-school pixel art style.

Resonance: why wrestle with Diablo III server issues when instead you could be riding the subway as a particle physicist?

Compared to staring at Battle.net error codes, I much preferred Resonance as a way to pass the time. Although the puzzles aren’t terribly mind-blowing and the voice acting has the kind of stilted, canned quality that is hard to avoid in adventure games, Resonance is still well-executed in many ways. Not only does it build on the traditional adventure-game formula with a few interesting gameplay innovations, but its plot and character development were more than enough to make Resonance worth a few hours of my time.

Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 (PC)

I really enjoy the webcomic/blog/Internet institution Penny Arcade. I think one of the reasons I like Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s commentary so much is that it spans the full dynamic range of the human experience from the existential to the profane, in much the same effortless manner of comedians like Jon Stewart or Louis C.K.

It’s because I enjoy the eccentricities of the Penny Arcade world view so thoroughly that I’ve continued to play their “Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness” series, despite the fact each installment thus far has been decidedly middling. Granted, this newest offering is a departure from the two previous Hothead-produced titles, rendered instead in the style of a 16-bit console RPG by the qualified retro enthusiasts at Zeboyd Games. However, the end result is still a mediocre role-playing game that could (and should) be ignored by anyone who isn’t a Penny Arcade fan.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Xbox 360)

As I’ve mentioned before, seeing the Assassin’s Creed III gameplay trailer at PAX earlier this year really got me getting back on the AC bandwagon. After playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I decided to ride the sequel train right on through Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the third part of the “Ezio Trilogy”. This (hopefully) final chapter follows Ezio’s exploits in 16th-century Constantinople, where despite being well into his fifties, he somehow manages to keep free solo climbing, base jumping, and serial murdering as though he was still a teenage assassin.

Apparently three decades of jumping off rooftops and stabbing dudes in the face really ages a guy.

Unless you are deeply fascinated by the lore of the Assassin’s Creed universe, AC: Revelations is a sequel that could easily be skipped. While it is certainly as expertly crafted as other entries in the series, its more-of-the-same gameplay and its insistence on extending the already overdrawn Ezio plot line offers more exploitation than revelation.

Double Fine Happy Action Theater (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

Recently my kids and I had a playdate with a friend of mine and his two children. After a three-hour maelstrom of toys, tears, and bathroom mishaps, we were starting to run out of hope, as well as beer. Enter Double Fine Happy Action Theater, an Xbox LIVE downloadable arcade game for the Kinect that also seemed to be a safe and legal toddler narcotic. Although it’s little more than a tech demo of 20 or so minigames, Happy Action Theater includes some of the most innovative uses of the Kinect sensor I’ve seen thus far, and each is delivered with trademark Double Fine flair. If you have young children I highly recommend it… at $10, it’s one of the cheapest and most effortless ways you’ll find for wearing out your offspring.

Terraria (PC)

The first time anyone hears about Terraria, it’s always the same description: “It’s 2-D Minecraft.” To be fair, it’s an accurate description; Terraria not only borrows Minecraft‘s core gameplay concepts (i.e. “mining” and “crafting”), it also borrows almost everything else. However, it’s a testament to how genuinely well designed and innovative Terraria is that it can plagiarize so heavily while ultimately delivering an experience that is quite different from that of Minecraft. While life in Minecraft is an exercise in solitary exploration that occasionally borders on survival horror, Terraria is like Legend of Zelda would be if after conquering a dungeon you could lug it up to the surface and use pieces of it to build yourself a kick-ass fortress.

Now if only I would put this much effort into my real house.

My only gripe about Terraria is that the difficulty curve is steep. Even with heavy coaching from online walkthroughs and FAQs, after 20 hours I still couldn’t beat the first boss. In the end, I decided just to be happy with the fact that I had built another sweet residence to my long list of virtual properties.

Well, that pretty much wraps up July’s gaming exploits. God and Amazon Prime willing, this time next month I should be writing about one of my most-anticipated games of 2012: Darksiders II.

What Do You Think?