What I’ve Been Playing: The Feel-Good Edition

We’re well into 2013 (actually, it’s about 4% over at this point), and that means somehow I made it through another holiday season. That previous statement is a bit disingenuous… saying “somehow I made it through” implies that I didn’t knowingly leverage my other responsibilities (such as work and home repair) to escape from the annual rituals of holiday shopping, frantic housekeeping, food preparation, and entertaining our families. Nevertheless, we all made it through Christmas, New Year’s, and the Mayan apocalypse, succeeding in buying ourselves another 10 months or so until we have to deal with another joyous holiday season. The new year is afoot, and in the immortal words of Journey, “the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'”. Anyone who knows me might expect I would scoff at the idea of “New Year’s resolutions”, as though celebrating an arbitrary discontinuity in the way we measure the Earth’s orbital progression should have any bearing on one’s choice to quit smoking or lose weight. However, I accepted long ago that traditions are an essential part of society, and our annual making and inevitable breaking of the oaths of self-betterment seem to be as important a tradition as any. To get in the spirit of things, I’ve resolved to be more positive and generous in the New Year, a commitment I fully expect to last at least as long as it takes to finish this post. (I’ve also resolved to bring my lunch to work every day and to go to the gym twice a week, but I’m totally going to keep doing those things forever, from now on, no matter what.) Rather than my usual routine of degrading the creative accomplishments of others, I thought that instead I could run through each of the games I’ve been playing lately and say something nice about each of them.

Assassin’s Creed III (Xbox 360)

Well… fuck. Way to ease myself into this.

If you’ve read my review of Assassin’s Creed III, you know I was pretty disappointed with this game, and might suspect that saying nice things about it would be a challenge. Looking back on my critique, though, I was actually quite positive about certain aspects of the game, although these rare triumphs made its shortcomings sting all the more.

However, putting on my positive thinking hat, I’m forced to admit that after five games, maybe I’ve simply forgotten what was so utterly amazing about the Assassin’s Creed series to begin with. For starters, realizing that the games take place within the Animus was one of the great reveals of this console cycle. Though admittedly trite, the whole “Matrix” angle was so well integrated with the narrative and gameplay that it made this tired old trope feel fresh and new again.

A screenshot from the first Assassin’s Creed. Like its most recent sequel, AC1 had its share of issues, but still managed to do some truly amazing things.

More importantly, though—and what still makes Assassin’s Creed great today—is the extent to which the franchise expanded the “acrobatic exploration” style of gameplay pioneered by the modern Prince of Persia games. Free climbing, running, and vaulting through the massive historical cities in the Assassin’s Creed games really is a complete joy on both a visual and tactile level, and it’s easy to forget what an incredible accomplishment this is. It is in this sense that Assassin’s Creed III best carries the mantle of its predecessors, and further refinement of this art is arguably its most significant accomplishment.

Halo 4 (Xbox 360)

Speaking of games that are easy to take for granted, let’s talk about Halo 4. My recent review echoed the prevailing attitude that this latest entry in the Halo franchise was essentially “more of the same”, and I’ve wondered if the only reason I and others didn’t critique Halo 4 more harshly was because everyone simply gave the new developers a bit of a pass. However, like Assassin’s Creed III, Halo 4 does certain things so skillfully and effortlessly that they’re easy to overlook.

Shoot the big one first.

I thought about this further as I pondered why I prefer Halo games to so many other shooters. (In fact, only Gears of War 3 beats out Halo 3 for the “space marine game” spot on my desert island list.) It’s not simply that I’m much, much better at it than something like Call of Duty, though admittedly it’s hard to enjoy Black Ops when you can’t seem string together enough kills to buy yourself an exploding toy car, whilst everyone else is regularly calling down orbital laser strikes. Perhaps the question, then, is why do I suck so much less at Halo? I believe one reason is that compared to many other games, I find the game design elements communicated by its artistic choices to be much more intuitive. The moment when your shields go down, the reaction of an Elite to a thrown grenade, the subtle visual cues that indicate how an armored foe can be damaged—in all these cases, Halo works very hard to inform your gameplay through intelligent choices in its artwork and animation. In many ways this is thankless work, but it ultimately leads to Halo being one of the toughest, fairest, and most enjoyable shooters around.

Tales of the Abyss (Nintendo 3DS)

For me, Japanese-style role-playing games (J-RPGs) have always been a bit of a comfort food. Whenever I find I’ve run through a few particularly challenging titles in a row, it’s nice to revert to a genre possessing the kind of story and gameplay pacing that allows you to save the world with one hand while absentmindedly soothing a screaming baby with the other. To extending the J-RPG / comfort food analogy: if the Final Fantasy series is a favorite sugary cereal from your youth that now tastes like being orally sodomized by a high-fructose dildo, then by contrast the Tales series is a favorite ice cream, reliably waiting in your fridge to console you after your wife divorces you because you gained all that weight from eating sugary cereal. From Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube to Tales of Legendia on the PS2 to Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360, Namco Bandai has made a habit over the years of releasing high-quality RPGs that improve with each iteration while remaining comfortably familiar. Since I missed playing Tales of the Abyss when it first came out on the PS2, the 3DS re-release seemed like a perfect opportunity to pick up a title for my mobile gaming pleasure I could be certain I’d enjoy. So far I haven’t been disappointed.

Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360)

I’m pretty compulsive about finishing the games I start, so it’s significant when I tell you that a few days after picking up a copy of Batman: Arkham City, I found myself back at the store, receipt in hand, considering whether I wanted to return it. As we’re still being positive though, let’s ignore the many glaring design flaws that nearly caused me to give up on this supposedly critically acclaimed game, and instead focus on its incredible combat system.

Don’t fret, gentlemen… there’s plenty of beat-downs to go around.

Having never played Rocksteady’s first Batman game (Arkham Asylum), I found the learning curve for Arkham City‘s combat system to be pretty steep, but was doubly impressed once I started to get the hang of it. I’ve rarely played a game that deals with crowd control quite so elegantly. In most hack-n-slash games (such as Diablo or God of War), the mechanics for dealing with swarms of enemies follow a simple, standard formula that balances light, heavy, and area-of-effect (AoE) attacks. Often the AoE attacks serve as a sort of “panic button”, allowing graceless players like myself to substitute cheap shots and giant explosions for actual combat finesse. A remarkable thing about Arkham City is that the splashy AoE attacks are largely absent, forcing you to take each of your foes out behind the wood shed for an individual old-fashioned whuppin’. In almost every melee battle, you’ll hit a point where you start to fantasize about casting Ultima and vaporizing everyone, but with a bit of discipline and practice, eventually you’ll have the Dark Knight leaping around the room breaking arms and smashing heads so handily, it will feel less like a game and more like an expertly choreographed fight scene in a badass martial arts movie. So that about wraps up my holiday gaming, and other than my use of the term “high-fructose dildo”, I’d say I stayed pretty positive. Maybe this whole resolution thing isn’t such a joke after all… which I suppose could be a good thing, as I’ve also resolved to write blog posts more often.

What Do You Think?