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:
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:
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 3
Grand Theft Auto IV
Red Dead Redemption
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?
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)
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.
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?
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.