Jan 23 2014

What Ever Happened To Me Getting Back Into Video Games?

Published by at 11:00 am under Columns,Video Games

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A few months ago, I wrote a column called “Help Me Get Back Into Video Games After A Decade Off“.  It was an instant hit, and among the accolades and awards and people throwing flowers in the streets, I got some very cool people to give me some very solid advice.  I know this isn’t the most current piece (the games I’ll be talking about are relatively ancient), nor the most appealing to all (because not everyone likes video games), but I think the narrative has a nice heft to it.

This is the story of one lapsed gamer and his quest to get back into a medium he once loved.

Phase One: The plan

The situation: I’d loved video games from ages 12 to 18, then stopped playing them because of college, then circumstance, then momentum.  I woke up one morning and wanted to get back into it.  Not knowing where to start, and realizing that I wrote for a site that I’m told some people do read, I posted a desperate plea to current gamers to help drag me into the modern age.

After taking all the suggestions into my brain box and crushing them with my mind-vice, I was still baffled by that simple question: console or PC?  I saw the benefits of both.  After leanings towards PC, even going so far as to start pricing out parts for a home-built rig, I was at a friend’s going away party one night when a mutual acquaintance announced he’d just upgraded and was selling his 40-inch flatscreen for 50 dollars.  I said, “I will give you 50 dollars right now,” and I did.  Sometimes the universe just hands you one.

I went and picked it up the next day, along with his “old” home theater system.  I brought it home, put it on the living room floor, and I swear it looked like this:

biggest-flat-screen

It looked absolutely gigantic in the living room.  For the past 5 years, I’ve watched everything on my MacBook – and it’s not even the BIG MacBook.  A 40-inch TV felt just absurdly large.  Guess how long that lasted?

If you guessed “less than a week,” you are correct.  Not 5 days later, I was walking through the living room and I caught myself thinking, “I think I need a bigger TV.”

“I think I need a bigger TV” just might be the quintessential American experience.  I saw a promotional video from this year’s Consumer Elecronics Show where Samsung was showcasing their curved 90-inch TVs.  My reaction a month ago would be “Jeez, who needs a TV that big?”  I DO.

 

Phase Two: The buying frenzy

So, console it is.  I decided on an Xbox 360 just by virtue of the fact that I’d owned the original Xbox and thought I’d at least be familiar with the controls.  In my research, the only noticeable difference was the lack of black/white buttons (which I’m glad are gone; those were pretty dumb) and the addition of left/right bumpers above the triggers.  Fine and dandy.

So, I loaded up my virtual shopping cart with everything I’d need now that I had a TV: Xbox 360, Apple TV (for any and all actual TV I might want to watch), HDMI cables, a battery pack/charger – I did my research!  And when it came time to pick games, I could fall back on the great suggestions I got from the Unreality readers.  I ended up getting:

Halo 3

Halo 4

BioShock

Mass Effect

Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 3

Skyrim

Grand Theft Auto IV

Red Dead Redemption

Tomb Raider

That ought to keep me busy for a couple years, right?  The beautiful thing about this process was how cheap it was.  Given the age of the pieces involved, I ended up spending – on everything, including the TV – less than just a brand-new Xbox One would have cost.  So, once everything had arrived (January 7th was my personal Christmas morning) and I had a fun little time with a flashlight connecting wires in awkward positions and intermittently cursing, I was ready to go.  So what happened?

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Phase 3: Play video games until my eyes bleed

Before I talk about specifics, let me just say, oh my god, did it feel good to be just playing a video game again.  I don’t care what anyone tells you, folks.  If you like a thing, do that thing.  Pretty simple.  Unless the thing that you like is fashioning children’s skulls into decorative fruit bowls or something.  Let me rewrite that: If you like a thing (and that thing doesn’t have the capacity to harm anyone besides yourself), do that thing.

On to the actual games!  The first game I popped in – after passive-aggressively picking the stupidest Xbox Live “avatar” I could – jeez, when did video games make you do things other than play the video game? Does everyone just go along with this whole “multimedia experience” thing? – was Halo 3. (It’s okay, I forgot what was happening before the hyphen, too)

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I thought it would be the softest landing possible.  I’d played the first two Halo games, I remembered (basically) the plot, and unless the series had taken a dramatic turn, it would be a very linear experience.

The first 30 seconds were just pure joy at how much better it looked than I remembered video games looking, plus knowing that current games probably look better.  The next 30 seconds were marveling at how easy it was to pick up with a controller in my hand.  Like riding a bike.  In the next 30 seconds I promptly jumped off a cliff, plummeting Master Chief to his all-too-quick death.  I’d forgotten that jumping in Halo is like taking Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drink despite the fact that your suit probably weighs 3 or 4 tons.  Whatever.

Anyway, I found it a little too challenging for comfort (the level where you search through the infested ship to find Cortana proved that you’re never too old to throw down your controller in disgust and yell “what the shit is that?” to no one.), but I attributed that to being plain rusty.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it really made me consider how emotionally invested I was in rescuing Cortana – I mean, I write for Unreality, so I’m comfortable with caring deeply about fiction, but a virtual character in a fictional world should be a stretch, and I seriously wonder how much of it is her personality, look, and sound.  I doubt I would care so much if she was a nondescript blue square who was voiced by Bruce Vilanch.

In related news, I really need to go see the movie Her.  Anyway.  Moving on!

Purely, purely because it was convenient, the night I beat Halo, I started Tomb Raider.  Hey, it was a free download that game with the console and I didn’t even have to get up off the couch to switch the disk.  Convenience might be the most insidious danger to modern civilization; just saying.

tomb-raider-2013-wallpaper

This is the best Lara Croft looks in the entire game, and it’s a two-second shot at the beginning, and I am SO TOTALLY ON BOARD WITH THAT

Not knowing what to expect, but knowing that generally modern Tomb Raider games were pretty widely panned, let’s just say that I was very pleasantly surprised.  In the Year Of The Reboot, this is one that really worked.  I had a blast.  The basic premise of the game is: “you start out weak, you get strong.”  That’s a feature of most games, but for this one it’s the whole shebang.  It’s about Lara Croft learning – the hard way – how to be a survivor.  By surviving being beaten, shot, stabbed, electrocuted,  set on fire, and more.  The whole transition from “I’m running through a burning camp with my hands tied behind my back trying to hide from kidnappers and desperately fending one off” to “I’m screaming defiance at my enemies and stabbing them in the knee with an arrow before taking their faces off with an incendiary shotgun” is pretty awesome to experience.

There are nits to pick, to be sure – it’s kind of odd how little confidence she has in cutscenes that directly follow her gunning down literally dozens of Russians with an assault rifle, for one thing – but overall, despite a fairly pedestrian story, this was a smooth, well-handling game that was loads of fun start to finish.

So, two down, one to go.  After these two relatively light games, I dared to turn to something heavy.  Almost every single person who commented on my first article recommended one game.  Well, three games: the Mass Effect trilogy.  Mass Effect One, deep breath – whatcha got?

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I think maybe I shot myself in the foot on this one.  It was a perfect storm.  The universal acclaim.  It being from BioWare, the company that made two of my favorite games of all time, Baldur’s Gate II and Knights of the Old Republic.  The genre being right in my wheelhouse. I was expecting to be absolutely blown away.  Instead, I merely liked it, so it felt like a letdown.

I enjoyed it, I really did.  The plot is solid – it managed to surprise me a couple times, which is saying something for a video game.  The combat works very well, and is flexible enough to accommodate every style from “methodical sniper rifle fan” to “charge, assault rifle until the combat music quiets down, repeat”.  The characters were for the most part lively and engaging.  To quote my favorite current TV show: except for the things it did wrong, it did everything right.

My enjoyment of the game was seriously damaged by two basic things:

Sargent Bland-Face, aka the main character.  The player-character doesn’t need to have personality to be awesome – Link doesn’t even have any lines.  But once you have a voice actor on board, the character is a character and they need to be a character.  That made more sense in my head.  Let me explain.

I felt completely hemmed in with my Shepard.  I just expect more from BioWare.  Baldur’s Gate II let you routinely choose from 5. 8, sometimes upwards of 10 dialogue options covering a wide range of personality types from do-gooder Paladin to sarcastic, outlaw Ranger to spiteful evildoer to melodramatic villain.  With Shepard, I had two, and only two options: Lieutenant Boy Scout or Captain Asshole.  I get that you can’t cater to everyone’s tastes, and dialogue trees in general have a lot of plot and/or logistical constraints, but holy God, is that it?

There has to be a more interesting spectrum than “Aw shucks, just doing my job, ma’am, hope to save the universe for all the kids and puppies,” and “SCREW aliens right in their stupid alien faces – now hand over the credits, grandma!”

Deja Vu: This was the big one.  I was absolutely shocked at this.  Given the nature of how I play video games, the very first time a semi-open world RPG lets you “off the rails,” so to speak, I do every possible sidequest I can do and the main quests last.  So, fresh off the Citadel, I went to every system except the plot-based ones.  Oh my god.  Look, I have nothing against palette-swapping goblins and calling them “fire goblins” or something.  Or having a bunch of fetch quests where the items are just named different things.  Or heavily repeating environments.  But here’s where I draw the line:

Land on a planet.  The planet is barren and has jagged mountains.  There’s a crashed probe.  There’s also an alien artifact that gives you part of a fetch quest.  There’s a mineral deposit.  There’s a research lab that’s run by the galactic equivalent of the Umbrella Corporation and all the scientists are space zombies now.  Repeating this once or twice, fine.  15-20 times, not fine.

To have the research lab have not only the same environment, but the same LAYOUT on every single planet feels… so wrong.  The first time it happened I thought I was having deja vu, but then it happened about 10 more times.  There’s the Mine, the Research Lab, the Bandit Lair, the Space Freighter, and THAT’S IT.  Not just the same textures, the exact. same. thing.  Every turn, every room, functionally identical.  I could probably navigate the Research Lab in my sleep.  Inch out of the second door, there will be an enemy behind cover slightly to the right.  Every time.  I couldn’t believe it.

We’re crossing the 2,000 word mark here, and for those of you that stayed with me to the end, please tell me – what am I missing here?  I liked the game, but I was very emphatically not blown away.  Did I do it wrong?  Should I try a crazy class combination, tell the paragon/renegade system to go jump off a bridge and pick middle options?

Believe me, I want to love this game.  Help me do so, readers.





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39 responses so far

  • Jeff Puijk

    Yeah, those parts about Mass Effect sucked. The great thing about the game is the story line and the relation you build up with your team as a player.
    Please finish it and continue with ME2 and 3. They have storylines just as great, and they’ve done away with the annoying landing on a planet. And the Renegade/Paragon points now allow you to interrupt your conversations with certain options particular to your ‘score’, which makes it more interesting.

    • Alex W

      Everything he just said. ME1 is generally considered the weakest installment of the games, and now whenever I go back and revisit the series I just go through the missions I know have an effect on the ensuing games.

      • Indy Z

        That’s great to hear, Alex. I definitely enjoyed the first one – I didn’t hate it or anything. I’m glad the next two are even better.

    • Indy Z

      That’s gratifying to hear. I’m definitely going to continue with ME2, I’m just not sure it’ll be right away. Might need a Halo 4 palate cleanser first.

      About the conversation system… are you talking about a different system than the first game? Because there are definitely blue/red options that depend on your score, which was okay. It’s not so much that I don’t like the system in general, it’s that I don’t like the two versions of Shepard they engender.

      “Paragon” Shepard is so genial and “by the book” that he basically put me to sleep, and “Renegade” Shepard reminds me of an angry alcoholic. I was constantly looking for conversation options that didn’t make me look Lawful Stupid or like my racist uncle.

      “Good” doesn’t have to be unassuming; it can still be brash. “Evil” doesn’t have to be in your face and loud, you can be quiet, sarcastic, subtle; a knife, not a club. Any of that come through on the next couple games?

      • Jeff Puijk

        Hmm, to be honest it has been a while since I’ve played it. So I don’t know if Paragon and Renegade Sheperd were less stereotypical in the latter games.
        However, I don’t remember being very annoyed by the limitations of conversation options in the other games. And I didn’t feel as forced to really ‘choose’ what type of Sheperd I wanted to play as in the first game.
        So I assume that they gave you more options and not just red or blue. Or that you weren’t punished for switching between red and blue conversation options, depending on if you liked the person you were talking to or not…

  • goseebananafish

    Play as female Shepard.

    • Indy Z

      I’d have no problem doing that, if it’s really a big improvement.

      • Jeff Puijk

        Ah yes, the female voice acting is way better indeed. Good tip!

        • Indy Z

          This was a very good call – I started a new game last night with a female Shepard, and maybe it was just the fact that I took the time to really customize my class/appearance (first play-through was default look / Solider) but I’m already feeling way more into it.

          Also, the way it’s structured where you can unlock all these achievements that have effects on subsequent playthroughs, it’s like the game was built so your first run would be the least fun, which is an odd choice.

      • goseebananafish

        Create a new Shepard and play the opening mission to try it out. In my opinion, female Shepard has a wider range of emotions than male Shepard.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    Wow, that was an impressively quick turnaround! You went from “what do all these fancy new buttons do?” to cynically slaughtering one of the greatest RPG’s of all time over minor issues in like 3 games. You got back on the hardcore gamer horse fast. From born-again gaming virgin to impossible to please /v/irgin in one article. Welcome home, bro.

    • Indy Z

      Thanks! I didn’t think I would get back into it so fast, but it was just like riding a bike! I’m actually thinking of moving into my parents’ basement to really cement the whole thing.

    • Indy Z

      In all seriousness, though, I really did enjoy the game. I just found it pretty surprising that, specifically, the layout of the ‘dungeons’ was literally identical across planets. I mean, the original Diablo came out like 40 years ago and at least they randomized the layout of their identical dungeons. :)

      I am in fact pretty easy to please… I think that comes across fairly well if you look at the Tomb Raider or Halo section before the Mass Effect one.

      • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

        I was mostIy just joshing. Actually, I thought Mass Effect was the best possible progression from KOTOR. But then, I never played Baldur’s Gate so my frame of reference may be different than yours. A lot of your issues with it are wiped away in the sequels. I was just so entranced with the depth of the story, universe-building, and characters that the little things didn’t bother me at all. It was a sci-fi wet dream come true for me. I’ll play through the same dungeon 100 times if it continually progresses a great story in a meaningful way, though, so what I value in a game seems to be different from what some people do.

        • Indy Z

          Oh, I am a *huge* fan of story – and Mass Effect had a good one. I would also go through the same dungeon 100 times to advance a story – in fact, that might be a cool premise for a “Groundhog Day” style game… hmm.

          Anyway, I appreciated how the side missions added little bits to the developing universe – there were cool little hints of a plot beyond the main plot, and those were cool – but it was just hard to maintain the suspension of disbelief when the experience of each planet was so viscerally similar.

  • Andy

    I had the same issues with the first Mass Effect, as I also blasted through the side missions nonstop and was a little disappointed in the lack of effort that was put into them. They definitely addressed that with the second and third ones.

    Also, I couldn’t help but notice that Dragon Age: Origins must have slipped through the cracks when you went on your spending binge, but based on what you seem to look for in a game, it’d definitely be your speed. I actually preferred it to Mass Effect, and even though the gaming community doesn’t seem to put in on a pedestal as high as Mass Effect’s, it’s definitely worth a go. Maybe the lack of hype will even help its case. Don’t bother with the second one, though.

    • Shawn Adams

      DA:O is a great game and I disagree, I liked the second one.

    • Indy Z

      Dang, you’re right! That had totally slipped my mind. You made a great pitch for Dragon Age in the original article. Looks like another trip to the online store is in order…

      • Shawn Adams

        While you are there may I suggest Dishonored? I’ve been playing games my entire Adult life and its one of the best I’ve played in years. If you like(d) Thief 1 2 and 3 you’ll like Dishonored and its excellent DLC.

        • Indy Z

          Took your suggestion and looked up some reviews. To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by the concept. I like the IDEA of stealth games, but I’ve never really run across one that made me fall in love with it. Since stealth has so much to do with how enemies react (or don’t react) to your presence, the AI has never felt ‘real’ enough.

          • cypher20

            Personally, I thought Dishonored was a lot of fun. Especially in the way you can play it through “full stealth no kill” mode or just be a rampaging monster of destruction. It’s cheap enough that when you get a chance, you really should try it out. One of the more fun games I’ve played at least.

  • Shawn Adams

    Play a female Shepard, huge difference in Voice Acting (I played all three games back to back in a row with a male shepard and enjoyed it… I then went and did the same with a female shepard, and it made me question why I spent so much time with old wooden head).

    Also I agree that everything looking the same in the first game is annoying, the story makes up for it and it is something that is addressed in the 2nd and 3rd games.

    • Indy Z

      I’ve only played through it once, as a male, but my nickname for Kaiden was “Mr. Mumbles” as I could understand like every 3rd word of his dialogue.

      • Shawn Adams

        I liked his back-story but they just didn’t go anywhere with it. Ashley is much more fun even as a friend.

  • Oddjob86

    I think one problem with playing games or watching movies or listening to music you’ve never played/watched/heard before is that you hear a lot of positive things about them, so you become a bit overhyped.

    That has happened to me with a few games, movies and music with people constantly saying “this is one of the best games/movies/songs ever”, and then when you play/watch/listen to it, you feel let down.

    That’s why I always try to stay away from hype nowadays :P

    But as others has said, female Shepard is much, much better.
    And the landing on dozens of planets, almost doing nothing, is boring but you don’t do that in the next couple of games.

    • Indy Z

      An excellent point. I’d just heard so much amazing stuff about Mass Effect that I probably had unrealistic expectations.

  • Waelsch

    I agree with you on the majority of your points though, having also come from a background in the Baldur’s Gate / IWD games. The story is bigger (and better) than most of the old games in my opinion, but Shepherds character suffers some because the character is a bit more streamlined than before. The planet exploring bits of ME1 are literally the worst sections in the entire trilogy, but they go away in ME2 (to be replaced with slightly less sucky side missions). The combat gets drastically better in ME2/3 as well.

    If you yearn for another Bioware game, Dragon Age: Origins was a good one (just the first, I’ve heard the second is a steaming pile). DA:Origins limits your group size to four, but it plays a lot closer to the old BG games. There is less focus on the D&D rules that dominated the old, replaced with a bit more action. The language options remain more limited than the classics, but you get a bit more than two options each time you speak. I played this game on PC, so I do not know play differs on Xbox360.

    • Indy Z

      Thanks for the info. I actually meant to get Dragon Age: Origins with the first buying spree, and forgot about it. It’s been rec’ed to me before so I’ll definitely be picking it up. I have a few other titles to work through first however…

      I’m glad to hear ME2 gets better. Like I said, I didn’t think the first game was terrible by any means, I was just expecting a bit more from a trilogy that is so universally loved.

  • Jeff L

    I’m super stoked you took everyone’s advice and did this. Glad everything’s worked out for you… As for Mass Effect…

    The original ME is a good game that sets up a great story in a very well detailed universe with wonderful supporting characters. An instant-classic it is not. It had tedium and some rough patches and a lot of cumbersome bits. It set the stage and was a good game, but it isn’t the reason people gush over the series; Mass Effect 2 is. Think of the series as Star Wars… good start, legendary middle act, satisfying ending with a few small flaws that were blown out of proportion due to absurdly high hopes.

    The folks recommending Female Shepard aren’t wrong, either. I played both sexes through my many, many, many playthroughs and enjoyed both but FemShep is definitely the better acted of the pair. Oh, and always kill Kaiden. Ashley is a raging xenophobe, but at least she has a personality.

    • Indy Z

      Thanks, Jeff. Of course, you realize that now I’m getting all my hopes up for Part 2. Question: I’ve heard there’s some killer DLC for Mass Effect 2. Should I grab all of it before I play, or play through the game once without it for contrast?

      • Jeff L

        The DLC for the ME games is, indeed, killer. I would grab Lair of the Shadow Broker and Kasumi: Stolen Memories before jumping in. Both stories take place during the main story and add depth to it. I would pick up Arrival afterwards as it’s more of a prologue for ME3 than it is a part of ME2.

        One of the unique things about the ME series is that you can import your save and have your actions and choices in one game carry over to the next, which in turn carries over to ME3. Yes, this includes dead crewmates. And yes, you should do this. It makes your game unique to you. ME: Genesis is a DLC that gives you the option to create a new character for ME2 and fill out his/her ME1 story, which acts identically to a ME1 save. Essentially, it’s a way to play through ME2 with different ME1 decisions (Kill Kaiden/Ashley, Save/Kill Wrex, Save/Kill the Rachni Queen, Save/Kill the Council, Romances, etc.) without playing through ME1 all over again. If you want a FemShep but don’t want to replay ME1, Genesis is not a bad way to save time.

        • Indy Z

          That’s a very cool touch indeed. Do things like your class / skill point allocations carry over? Paragon/renegade?

          • Jeff L

            Paragon/Renegade carries over a bit. You get a boost towards whichever alignment you finished the last game as, but not so much that your character is forever stuck in that one alignment. You also get a level boost based on how much XP you gained in ME1 and some other minor rewards like credits, ore, etc. for importing a ‘veteran’ character.

            Class can be changed. In the interest of spoilers I won’t explain why. The skill points get a revamp in ME2 and another revamp in ME3 so they always get reset.

  • Nick Ramsay

    Good effort man, keep it up! I’d recommend hitting up Bioshock or Red Dead next. And while Skyrim is awesome, the console ports were terrible – can’t recommend it on PC enough though!

    What about Batman?

    • Indy Z

      I played Morrowind on the original Xbox and Oblivion on a PC and didn’t think either were terrible – what makes Skyrim such a bad Xbox port? That would kind of suck… I am planning on eventually getting a gaming PC but it won’t be a for a while.

      • Nick Ramsay

        Nothing…. if you like loading times.

  • Indy Z

    That’s good to hear. I actually can’t comment with authority on the full gamut of Renegade options since after the first couple hours I mostly stuck with Paragon.

    Very interested in the whole “interruption” thing – do you actually get the option to interrupt someone mid-sentence, like a timing thing? Or is it preset and you jump in without prompting? Guess I’ll find out…

    • cypher20

      A prompt will flash on the screen and if you push the button you’ll take an action, say shoot someone in the face mid-sentence if it’s a renegade interrupt or give someone medicine if it’s paragon. Stuff like that.

  • cypher20

    Play ME2 and ME3, they’re better then ME1. That is all. ME1 was good but the sidequests are ridiculous, it is improved in the sequels. Although I’m probably an odd duck in that I generally prefer ME3 to ME2. Too many of the story missions in ME2 are “Go down to XYZ planet, collect ABC crewmember, rinse, repeat”. It just made the story feel far too short in my opinion and meant that unlike in most RPGs, you don’t have your whole crew early on, which is frustrating. Yes, the ending to ME3 is not that great, but the 95% of the game up to that point is awesome.

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