A massive(ly multiplayer) realization

At some point when I wasn’t paying enough attention, I seem to have become an MMO player. What started out as an academic dalliance to figure out what this World of Warcraft thing was all about has slowly progressed to become a Thing I Enjoy. Over the past couple of years (which, not coincidentally, also represents the time frame since which I acquired a decently beefy gaming PC), I have slowly begun to notice that I’m actually paying attention to MMO launches. I might even go so far as to say I’ve looked forward to some of them.

I’ve not yet devolved to the point that I’m pulling all-nighters on launch day, chugging lukewarm pizza and Red Bull, trying to be the first to reach level 60. I’m not planning weekly raid events or drawing up spreadsheets with PvP stats. But, more and more, I’m treating big MMO launches as something to look forward to and participate in. This is something of a big deal given my prior disdain for the genre.

To be sure, I have not yet conquered my general tendency to hop about wildly from game to game and purchase the newest, shiniest thing that catches my attention. When considered along with that pesky “job” thing I’m forced to drag myself to, it’s little wonder I rarely make it to the big boy levels of these things before losing interest. Nonetheless, only recently I've seen The Old Republic, Tera, The Secret World, and Neverwinter come and go while dabbling in the early stages of Firefall and looking forward to The Elder Scrolls Online. I can keep telling myself I’m not going to play these things all I want, but it’s clearly not working.

I’ve written before on some of the reasons why I like this genre, despite my frequent criticisms of it, but the realization that it may have morphed into something more than a guilty pleasure is relatively recent. There are many possible reasons for this development. The acquisition of my gaming PC makes me more likely to hunt down interesting PC titles, of which new MMOs represent a significant chunk. The drought of JRPGs these days leaves fewer outlets for long adventures and the oh-so-satisfying thrill of seeing your level number increase than there once was (a niche that western RPGs can only sometimes fill in quite the same way). MMOs as a whole have also increased dramatically in quality, both mechanically and graphically, as well as, crucially, user friendliness. Even repetitive games like Tera can impress with a solid set of combat mechanics, or games with tired combat like The Secret World can thrill with a unique setting and focus on story.

There has always been a certain something to MMOs that I enjoyed that nothing else provided. That sense of grand adventure, of scale, and of permanence is an addicting concoction. I think, simply put, the genre has gotten better at capitalizing on those strengths while not getting on my nerves nearly as much as it used to. The future looks bright indeed for the genre, and I am becoming more and more comfortable with admitting to myself that I genuinely like these titles, because the titles are more and more worth liking.

Not so bright, however, is the outlook for my staggeringly large backlog of unfinished solo games. Not a pretty sight. 


Gaming’s Super-Powered Savior

Saints Row IV had all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making. Rumors of stretching what was to be a small piece of downloadable content into an entire game, one with a mighty quick turnaround time from its predecessor, did not bode well. Neither did the marketing which appeared to be trying to out-crazy a game that was already exploring the outer limits of Crazy Town.

A scant few minutes into the game I was disarming nuclear missiles in mid-air, punching aliens in the face, and outrunning cars down city streets. Saints Row IV is glorious, and I couldn’t be happier. It is deeply refreshing to see a potential train wreck of a release turn out so right for once. That’s a rare sight these days.

I firmly believe the industry needs this kind of game right now. As our collective focus turns relentlessly to the maturity of the medium, deep storylines, realism, gritty overtones, and brown landscapes as far as the eye can see, we need a Saints Row IV to come along and remind us how to have fun. Staring at a screen and controlling glorified digital shapes with a hunk of plastic buttons need not be something we always take so seriously.

Am I glad we’ve gotten to the point where we can bring up discussions of gender roles in gaming stories and not be laughed out of the room? Am I glad my mind can be blown and my heart touched by stories told in games such as Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us? Absolutely.

Am I equally tired of the pretention and self-seriousness that comes with that territory? So much yes. For all that we’ve gained, it seems like gamers are afraid to go back and enjoy the gleeful colors and ridiculous fun games of old used to give us.

My plea to you: remember to enjoy the outlandish. Embrace the interactive insanity that only games can deliver. Go blast some aliens with a dubstep gun. 


Collectible Madness

I stare mournfully at my pile of shame. It was, quite literally, only yesterday I was telling myself I would ignore the call of the plastic temptresses. Now I find myself sitting in front of a worryingly large pile of Disney figurines and what is undoubtedly a game intended for small children. There is a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t need Mickey to tell me that I occasionally lack something in the way of willpower.

What I have managed to play of the game itself so far is slightly disappointing. I wasn’t expecting much, and this feels like a decent romp for what it is, but it also feels a bit clumsy, in that way that games so often do when the developers know the parents will buy it regardless of whether it’s good.

The game is not deserving of too much badmouthing though. What it sets out to do is primarily become a toy box for items both physical and virtual – a playground in which to adventure with familiar characters and build your own creations with the tools it provides. In that regard, it succeeds. The art is colorful and appealing, the character designs universally adorable, and there’s plenty here to explore and bring a smile to your face, even if the controls will sometimes frustrate.

If you’re in this for the gameplay though, you’ve come to the wrong party. The game itself, at least for the adult collector, provides only an ancillary benefit to the main attraction, which is the aforementioned pile of figurines I now have laying in front of me. It must be said that, while the gameplay isn’t what I was hoping it might be, the physical items driving the insidious marketing of this machine are even better than I was expecting. They have a solid feel and a consistency to the paint work that I wouldn’t have imagined was necessary given the target demographic. Probably a smart move, as it allows suckers like me that wouldn’t buy into the whole affair otherwise a great justification for diving in wallet first.

Still, these collectibles do allow me to allay some of my guilt over this ridiculous investment. My soft spot for many of Disney’s properties means I can’t help but find these stylized little guys charming and I eagerly await the day I can fill a shelf with a tasteful arrangement of somewhat cuter versions of characters I came to love through so many classic movies.

I’m not yet ready to give up on the gameplay half of Disney Infinity yet either. Roaming around the Monsters U campus has been worth a smile or two, which is notable as I haven’t even seen the movie it’s based on. Having not tried the worlds for Pirates of the Carribbean, The Incredibles, or Cars, I just bet there’s some more fun hidden away in here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to purchase the Lone Ranger set, which is based off of a terrible movie I haven’t even seen. 


Better late than never review: SoulCalibur V

The once venerable SoulCalibur series has lost its way. The series that swept into prominance on Sega’s ill-fated white box, gloriously representing the downfall of arcades with its stunning presentation and packed feature set, has struggled to find its way in the modern era. After a sophomore success that many fans still see as its pinnacle, Namco produced two sequels that each failed to live up to their predecessors in their own unique way.

SoulCalibur V is evidence of a series continuing to struggle with a serious identity crisis, the roots of which were planted as far back as the beloved SoulCalibur II. The zenith of SoulCalibur’s popularity also saw the introduction of guest characters that, while seemingly innocuous at the time, signaled a marketing-driven tone that hinted at the difficulty Namco would face balancing its desire to sell more copies with the necessity of keeping the game relevant among the passionate niche of fighting game players that make up the tournament community. The clash between the hardcore zealots and the casual button mashers has long been at the core of the series’ problems. 

SoulCalibur V wrestles these inner demons better than either of its two troubled predecessors. The obligatory guest character, Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore, fits SoulCalibur’s aesthetic and tone better than Namco’s own two bizarre newcomers, magic orb wielding Viola and pseudo werewolf Zwei. The gameplay is solid, with a well-balanced cast fighting with renewed enthusiasm thanks to the speed boost the combat has received. Solid ideas have been borrowed from other modern fighting games in the form of super moves and meter management. These won’t win points for originality, but they do more to change up the strategies and tactics of fights than anything in the series’ history since Soul Edge became SoulCalibur. SoulCalibur V feels fresh again.

But trouble lurks in the periphery.

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Nightwish at the Diamond Ballroom, 10/9/12

Nightwish are consummate professionals, you certainly have to give them that much. Nary a week after unceremoniously dumping the sweet, much-maligned Anette from their lineup, the band of Finnish rockers finds themselves with a couple hundred people in a glorified barn in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. And they rocked the hell out. 

Turmoil? What turmoil?

Having seen Nightwish twice now, the thing that strikes me most about their live performances is how much damn fun that group always seems to be having. Big stage. Small stage. Tarja. Anette. Even now, amidst much change and uncertainty, every person on the stage, including unproven new vocalist Floor Jensen, looked to be having a blast. Playful smiles, crowd interaction, and glorious head banging were everywhere. Their enthusiasm is infectious. The crowd loved it. 

The crowd also loved the new voice of Nightwish. Ms. Jensen got quite the warm response upon waltzing confidently onstage and in later, more personal addresses to the crowd. These fans gave no sign of being unhappy with being suddenly down a familiar face (and their accompanying vocal chords). Floor certainly did her part and fit right in. That lady has a mean hair whip and clearly knows how to rock. 

She also knows how to sing. Technically speaking, she's more classically proficient than the pop-influenced Anette. In theory this makes her a better fit for Nightwish's bombastic style. In practice, things haven't quite settled down enough to tell.

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