Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Rainy Season

Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the season. Maybe it's just me. I've been in a bit of a funk and so I've dug deep into some comfort gaming rather than do the things I probably should be doing. The previous owner of our house chose to use these narrow rounded red brick 'fences' around the perimeter of the house and rounding the trees in the back and the longer they exist the more I don't like them. On one side they are actively channeling runoff and carving a small ravine down the hill. But I don't want to pull them up until I have an alternative. Which means choosing an alternative and buying it. Then storing it until it can be installed. Figuring out what needs to be installed to install it properly. Or just rough it in and deal with any potential consequences until we figure out what we need to do to 'nail' it down properly.
We're planning a vacation, but we've hit a bit of a snag where we're trying to figure out how ambitiously we can plan. Travel costs are still pretty outrageous and with both of us working flying is really the only option if we don't want to burn half of our days on just getting to the relaxation.
Then there has been the nagging knowledge that I need to call the dentist and reschedule the appointment I missed months ago. Part of me wants to say 'hold on' and just make the call now. That sounds like a better and better idea the more I think about it. "Hold on."
Earlier this month I was on a bit of a streak and forced myself to play and complete a few games. Max Payne 3, Psychonauts, and the main story of Costume Quest. Max Payne 3 was a little painful for me. Max is a flawed 'hero' that places himself or is drawn to situations where dishing out brute violence in life or death situations is the order of the day. The early game takes place in an alcoholic haze as Max medicates himself to suppress a painful past that was partially his fault and partially forced upon him... and then in a self-deluded mist as Max quits drinking and starts tugging at the situations he never questioned before... and then in a self-destructive rampage as he chooses to throw himself into the meat-grinder to dish out his version of justice in a system that would otherwise ignore those too powerful to prosecute. It's grim. It's dark. It's self-aware. Max narrates the story in a sort of hind-sight telling of his journey through the twisty maze that is his past. Until ultimately the story arrives back at the place you first met Max. The details don't really matter. The actors are caricatures of excess and manipulation. I 'enjoyed' it despite of myself. The 'game' is fun mechanically. An arcade third person shooter with trappings of score-chase (and I believe the multiplayer modes accentuate that, but I didn't play those). Max is a bullet sponge. A raging ball of fury that soaks up damage and refuses to die. As real and as gritty as the story wants to be, it all fades away when Max takes multiple AK47 bursts to the chest, leaps across the room and in slow motion caps a half-dozen assailants, ducking behind a counter, popping a pill, and then doing it again. And again. And again. Militant kidnappers. Gangs. Drug dealers. Human traffickers. Mercenaries. Crooked cops. More gangs. More mercenaries. Mercenaries in cars. Gangmembers on boats. The bodycount is obscene and in many places the gritty story being told felt at odds with the sections where I was given control of the player. Moments of high tension and drama were negated by the designers hiding collectible gun bits in odd places that you would never find without scouring every nook and cranny instead of chasing after the bad guys that will wait for you to cross the next magic threshold. The thresholds annoyed me early on because I wasn't prepared for them. I didn't realize that doors were locking behind me. The game funnels you along a preset path and there's no turning back. So you either check all the hallways and ledges before you open any doors or approach the flashing button... or you lock yourself away from something you missed and will have to play that level again in its entirety if you want to collect all the nuggets.
I learned to exploit that system and never ever worried about rushing through a level again. This broke many encounters (and is probably why the multiplayer modes have a 'fastest time' score). A bunch of enemies rushing towards cover is exciting if you're also rushing towards cover. But if you're approaching from a wide angle and have an accurate weapon (and years of hand-eye-mouse training) you can generally drop all of them with critical hits before they ever hunker down. Add to that Max's time-freeze ability that builds up as you play through and entire rooms devolve into headshot, headshot, knock the helmet off then headshot. Fun for me, but not how the gamedesigners probably intended that encounter to proceed. Any 'win' for Max Payne is one of hard attrition. He gets the 'bad' guy because the bad guy has no more goons to throw in front of Max. Wave after wave after wave have crashed against him and the relentless pain sponge just keeps rolling towards its goal. I can't recommend this game for the story except if you happen to enjoy these kinds of dark, darker, darkest descents into the pits of humanity to seek a form of vengeance or justice. The game-play was enjoyable enough, but the scripting and pathing was easily exploitable... but it seems to be almost by design. The game encourages you to find the most efficient route through the levels. To discover the sequence of ballet steps and hits that will let you speed through an encounter... but that trial and error stuff is not my bag and there are other games that place more focus on that and don't force you to sit through multiple minutes-long cutscenes to get to the action. If you know what to expect going in and go in anyway... it's fun. I can recommend it. If you're easily affected by realistic portrayals of the horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other... stay far far away from this one. I paid less than three dollars for this game. I got my money's worth.

Psychonauts is a gem. It's an old game that I first played back on the Playstation 2, but, because it is also a flawed game, was never able to finish. There is a platforming element that was always a little sketchy, and in one of the final levels there was a sequence of jumps that were performed under duress and with a rotating point of reference. A large number of gamers were all stopped at more or less the same place. Google Meat Circus and you will find the majority of comments lamenting how terrible this level is. I've finally finished it. It took over a dozen attempts at the same jumping puzzle, but I finally sussed out the 'trick.' In case anyone here is wondering. I played on the PC with the Xbox controller. The trick is 1) Turn off all sound. The constant taunting and the ghostly moans are infuriating. Play it with sound once or twice, but after that just turn everything down. It's more of the same. Again and again. 2) Ignore what you think you see. If you were stuck in the section where you are climbing the burning circular mesh while your figment-father is floating in the middle throwing bombs at you... stop paying attention to the camera. The mesh is NOT curved. Repeat after me. The mesh is NOT curved. The camera will swing around as you move around the circular mesh and you will feel the need to compensate. Do not. The mesh is NOT curved. Press left to jump the gap, and then when you have cleared the gap press up to grab the mesh again. Do NOT compensate for the curve. Ignore what your eyes are telling you. The mesh is NOT curved. Good luck!

More later...

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