Summertime has come and gone, and fall is upon us. For me, this summer was a big one. I graduated from The University of Texas at Dallas with two degrees, went to Chicago, went to Austin, quit my college bartending job, went to Japan, and finally started my first real programming job. In the time in the cracks between those events, however, I played a lot of video games. Like, a lot a lot. I’m kinda proud of myself, I ended up beating quite a decent number, clearing out a little bit of my backlog.
So, with all of these games behind me, I figured I’d do a quick write-up on my impressions of all of them. A lot of them I actually posted about as I was playing them, but a collection of general impressions of them, as well as overall thoughts of my “summer of gaming”, might be interesting.
I also want to rate these games, but I generally find review scores arbitrary. Numerical scores end up feeling either so small in range as to be extremely unenlightening, or so granular that the differences between scores feel slight. The same goes for star or letter grade systems, so instead, I’m going to rate each game by comparing it to a beverage. No real reason, I just thought it would be fertile ground for clever metaphor.
Hey, surprise of the century, the guy with a Dishonored tattoo really likes Prey. At the risk of immediately undercutting the tension of this list, I think Prey might be my favorite thing I played this summer as a complete experience. The art direction is excellent, and the story, while perhaps polarizing near the end, I found a fascinating way of handling some classic genre tropes. If I had to sum up Prey in one word, it would be “clever”.
Prey really shines in its mechanics and level design, however. So many interesting moments in the game happen due to the interactions between separate mechanical systems. Generally speaking, when you think something should happen a certain way, it does, from being able to reduce physical barricades to elementary ingredients using a Recycler Grenade, to having automated turrets begin to target you after you’ve spliced too much alien DNA.
All of this works because the level designs are so open and thoughtfully created. There are a dozen ways to tackle any problem, and never once do you feel really bottlenecked. Moreover, the space feels real, with such a laborious attention to detail (most notably the fact that every NPC has a name and physical location within the game) that it adds to that sort of experimental feeling. When the game world feels like a real space, you feel a freedom to try and apply real-world reasoning to the problems in the game, and real-world assumptions, and have them work, or at least yield an interesting result. I felt extremely clever when I realized that the security monitors tracking everyone on board the ship also monitor your brother, Alex Yu, who you spend most of the game trying to find. While using that monitor isn’t a silver bullet for the entire storyline, it is acknowledged in a satisfying way, and having that work, at least to an extent, is extremely satisfying.
My rating: A Bloody Mary. Formed from a menagerie of different ingredients working together to create a complete whole. Some people might really not like the aftertaste it leaves in your mouth, but I ultimately love the space for creativity, and the freedom to mix new ingredients together and see what happens.
The Last of Us
Man, this one was a real mark of shame for me for a while. Despite having owned a copy for, god, four years, I hadn’t even removed the shrink from my copy of The Last of Us until this summer, at which point I binged the entire game in a couple of days.
While I was unbelievably stoked about this game after finishing it, I have to say that my love of it has ever-so-slightly waned over time. I feel like the game could have benefited from a smidge more openness, or at least freedom to explore and scavenge the post-apocalyptic environment. I feel like the game’s best emotional climaxes aren’t struck at the end, but instead just before it (I’d definitely call Winter the best chapter), and the ending left me pretty frustrated. The puzzles are pretty brain-dead, and ultimately less intellectually interesting than some of the combat encounters, which themselves become “puzzles” in their own right.
Despite all of this, I still really like The Last of Us. Its highs are really high, its characters are strong and vivid with personality, its combat gritty, violent, and evocative. This is a game that knows how to use its quieter moments, and the experience is all the better for it.
My rating: Fireball. Basically everyone likes this right now, although I kind of wish it was a little bit more complex. But, hey, sometimes the tried-and-trues are great when they’re done this well. Hits you strong, but the further you get from the experience, the more you start to question if it’s really worth the hype.
I have convinced four people to buy this game since beating it, but I’m still not 100% sure how I actually feel about this game. This game honestly goes for so much despite its limitations as far as design scope, and everything it does it either knocks completely out of the park or falls flat on its face.
The characters are a massive strong point, with everyone being just weird enough to be wonderfully quirky and memorable without reaching a point of being completely unrelateable. It reminds me a lot of going through small towns on road trips and being, without any sense of malice or fear, just slightly put off by the slight differences. The story is fantastic and takes some wonderful twists. The soundtrack is weirdly charming, despite consisting of what feels like four songs. York’s dialogue especially is wonderful, and does a great job of making you relate with someone who is initially extremely weird.
But man does this game play like ass. The gunplay is awful, the enemy variety nonexistent, the cars move like tanks, and the level design is full of bland, uninteresting spaces. I feel weird recommending this game, knowing that at times playing it is a miserable experience, but I sat on my couch pushing through the mediocre dungeons because I was dying for more character interactions. I don’t know that Deadly Premonition can reasonably be called a good game, considering that basically all of the mechanics are trash, but the story and characters are so great that it’s definitely a good something.
My rating: A cup of black coffee. When you first try it, it’s basically immediately offensive to the senses. You might pine for a different drink, one that has a bit more sugar and sweetness to it, but as you get used to it, you realize that the foul taste is simply the vehicle for what really matters: an energizing payload that gets the mind spinning.
Kirby: Planet Robobot
I bought Kirby: Planet Robobot to help alleviate my twenty-six hours of plane flights between Dallas and Japan, and it ended up being a wonderful choice. Kirby games aren’t exactly known for being challenging, and this one isn’t an exception, but charming art design, combined with a pretty well-paced drip feed of level mechanics and power ups, keep the game interesting.
Kirby’s suite of powers in this game are a delight to use, with each of them being just different enough to make the distinction between them meaningful. Do you want the direct confrontations offered by Fighter, or the trickery of Mirror, or the mobility of Jet? The game won’t be difficult no matter what you pick, but playing the way you like, and finding the kinda-hidden Code Cubes, is enough stimulus to remain interesting, especially when in concert with new and interesting level designs, and the mix-ups provided by quick jaunts into shoot-’em-up gameplay.
My review: Milk in a carton. It’s definitely for kids, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have this sort of treat every once in a while. Sometimes you just want to enjoy something simple and good, and it’s ultimately a nice little treat to enjoy.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut
The first, let’s say 75% of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is probably a solid competitor for my favorite game of this summer, which made me all the more disappointed when the game completely flubbed its final acts. Everything up to Adam Jensen loading himself into a stasis pod to finally hunt down his missing girlfriend is essentially fantastic. The level design is on-par with Prey for being open to creativity and versatility. The plot was interesting and moving in exciting directions, while also full of interesting themes.
Sure, I had some complaints. The “retooled” boss battles in the Director’s Cut amounted to “find and hack some turrets to blow the boss up”, and sometimes I felt like I didn’t quite understand the dialogue system, but the overall quality of the experience was well worth it.
And then, The Missing Link, Human Revolution‘s main piece of DLC which is integrated into the Director’s Cut release, begins, and the whole thing goes downhill. The Missing Link is full of backtracking, excruciating load times, some miserably boring characters (although one character is a fantastic addition, bratan). Worst of all, it commits the most heinous sin of all: it takes away all of the player’s upgrades, forcing them to play the whole DLC with a limited subset. I get that, at this point in the game, the player is so maxed out that most encounters are trivial, but the solution to that is to make more taxing or interesting encounters, not to take player abilities away.
The game has a small uptick in the penultimate scene before finally taking one last nosedive during the final mission. Stealth options become basically meaningless as there are no consequences for being noticed in this final mission, and it feels like it’s rushing towards one final grand choice at the end that ends up feeling like it comes straight out of left field. Combine this with a completely underwhelming final boss, and the whole thing ends on a completely sour note, and that’s even if you take the option that lets you kill the final boss in seven seconds.
My rating: A glass of orange juice, but you brush your teeth before the last sip. A pretty nice experience for the most part, with wonderful sweetness and flavor. Then, at the last second, the whole thing turns rancid, and you end up wondering how something that was so good could possibly become so insufferable.
I know you can’t “beat” Overwatch, but I’ve been playing a lot of it, so it’s probably worth talking about. I feel like the pacing for updates of this game has gotten a lot better than it was before (cue PTSD flashbacks to the buildup to Sombra), and man, I just can’t stop playing this game. It’s just so good. It’s also a good thing that the events have started to serve as a fantastic way to cycle in some new and cool gametypes, from Uprising earlier this year to the return of Lucioball.
I do have to step back and wonder if my connection to this game is a smidge unhealthy, though. When I play, my focus is definitely square on the flow of loot boxes into the game. No matter how play goes, I find myself getting frustrated with bad pulls and elated with good ones. The worst part is the way the game convinces me to come back on the promise of more boxes, and if the pulls are bad, well then, I just play to get more. I haven’t spent much money on loot boxes (ten bucks total, which considering I’ve played about 150 hours of the game, feels fair), but it still sometimes feels like I’m trapped in a Skinner Box, especially considering the arbitrary decision to not have loot transfer between platforms, despite the ability to link accounts across platforms.
My rating: Coca-Cola. Literally everyone’s drinking it, and it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t deserve that. When you’re tired of the default, you can jump to one of the less popular flavors for a bit of variety (RIP Coke Zero). Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s definitely bad for your health.
According to HowLongToBeat, not counting time spent in Overwatch, I cleared 80 hours’ worth of games from my backlog this summer, and the momentum keeps going. I’m turning now to some smaller games in my Steam Library (right now I’m going through Scanner Sombre) before I pop into a couple of slightly larger games, with L.A Noire and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds topping that secondary list.
Another note is the most recent addition to my console collection. An adult’s paycheck means new toys, and in my case, that means that I went to my local game store on payday and picked myself up a Nintendo Switch. My initial thoughts are that the game ecosystem right now is a smidge dry, but has promising releases coming up, although I definitely have enough to play right now. With just my first purchase, which was obviously Breath of the Wild, I have enough to entertain me for a good while, or at least until the end of October when Super Mario Odyssey comes out. Combined with the chance to hop onto some of the indie games I’ve been meaning to play but never got around to (Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley, and Darkest Dungeon), as well as some interesting new “Nindies” (namely Wargroove and The Longest Five Minutes) combined with some heavy hitters (Project Octopath Traveler and Shin Megami Tensei: New Project), I think this thing will be getting some use.
The satisfaction of clearing out one’s backlog really is wonderful. Not only do you loosen the guilt you feel from having never beaten or even played something that’s been on your shelf for potentially years, but it also is just nice to broaden your experience of games as a whole, and to play all this new stuff.
So, yeah, playing video games is good. Go figure.