Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A decade of games



A decade is wrapping up as we roll into 2020 and after seeing a friend's blog post about his top games of a decade, I decided to give my hand a go at it as well. I have put some thought to this, but it is likely I have forgotten to mention something that I would consider significant. To those titles, I am sorry. Without further ado, here at the 10 games that really had a lasting effect on me in the decade that was 2010-2020.



#10 - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed 

I have to admit, I'm a fan of Kart Racers. Mario Kart is of course the original and big name in this genre, but Sonic had a decent start with the first in this series and this game, Racing Transformed, really just improved on every aspect. Well before Mario decided to start parasailing and wall hovering, Sonic had cars that would transform into boats and planes when the track needed them to. The speed was there, the handling and the characters, all wrapped up in some fun levels, easy to jump in multiplayer and plenty of Sega unlockables. I've spent countless hours on this game with friends and my wife as well as sessions just by myself.  The only knock I have against it is some of the difficulty involved in some of the later unlocks. One of my fav racers of a decade! I would also like to note that it's sequel, Sonic Team Racing, was quite a let down after this title.



#09 - Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series as a whole is one I've thoroughly enjoyed and was shocked to see that the first two actually came out in 2007 & 2009 respectfully, thus disqualifying them for this particular list. I could have added the superb Uncharted 4 (or it's spin off, Lost Legacy) or even the Vita title Golden Abyss (which I really enjoyed) but I decided to give a nod to the 3rd game in the series as it seemed the to eek it's way up my list as most memorable as well as giving it a nod for it's polish. The characters, the story, the action are all things that really just kept me coming back to this title. To have it packed in with the previous two later on the PS4 as a collection was an extra sweet bonus.



#08 - Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

For me, Need for Speed dug it's claws into me as an arcade-y racer with the original 3 games, the third of which was the first Hot Pursuit. To my utter delight, this game was redone by Criterion, whom I very much respected for their Burnout games. A match in heaven was made (for my personal tastes at least) as the game hit all the check boxes for my personal list of what a racing game should be. Fast cars, solid sense of speed, unlocks that are better cars and not parts, cops vs racers and the ability to go at it as you please. No silly story lines forced on you, no stupid voice acting, no playing for ungodly amounts of time to unlock parts or pay (real money) for upgrades, just pure speed and fun.



#07 - Nier

Nier is an incredibly interesting game. It's set in a fictional world where a father must go on a Journey, defeating epic monsters, in an attempt to find a cure for his sick daughter. What plays out is an intriguing world with spectacular (also weird) and complex characters, things to do, NPCs to speak to and realms to explore. The game packs in a handful of different endings depending on how you play the game, the music is quite possibly the best I've heard in any game (seriously, it's good), the action is unique, your abilities fun to expand, worlds a blast to explore and the whole package something you'll never forget. It's highly recommended if you're looking for something different. Its follow up (Nier Automata) is also quite unique, but this title holds a special place in my heart.



#06 - Rise of the Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider franchise is always one I had a bit of an interest in as it existed when Core developed it, but it wasn't until Crystal Dynamics and their Legend title that I really started to enjoy the series. When that team then mixed up the formula with 2013's Tomb Raider, it changed the franchise in a big way. That title was a lot of fun and a neat Origin story, but 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider really planted the series in my good books. The feel of the game, the collection of environments, the RPG-light upgrade system, the tight controls and variety of ways you could go about a task really just hit many points for me. Lara was well acted and it was refreshing to see this character actually struggle a bit instead of being the super acrobatic wonder woman that she started out as in the first few games.


#05 - Batman: Arkham City

I believe Arkham Asylum had a bigger impact on me simply because it was the first super amazing Batman game to come forth. Thus it's shock factor has a play in how much I enjoyed it. However, that's a pre-2010 game, so I can't include that here. Instead, I'll include it's bigger, improved brother, Batman: Arkham City. It really is a refinement of an established system, with better visuals, bigger maps, more to do, more batverse characters, more weapons (and you start off with the weapons you gained in Asylum... how awesome is that?), Conroy back as Bruce/Batman. Gah, I just love these games. My girl Harley has a solid role in this title and honestly, I always look back at this one with more fondness than I do Arkham Knight.



#04 - Dying Light

There's something special about Dying Light in a world where we get Zombie games by the dozen. I can't tell if it's the completely satisfying first person parkour style or the 'never gets old' hacking zombies into bits with home-made weapons... or even the action of creating all of those wacky weapons in the first place. The world seems really well put together and while you progress, you get stronger and stronger, it's not unheard of to have Zombies hand you your ass (especially at night) with a few wrong moves. The ability to drive a vehicle and plow through zombies in the DLC just goes to show you how diverse the team is with ideas. I honestly can't wait for the second one.



#03 - Assassin's Creed: Odyssey

Assassin's Creed is a franchise that I kind of left alone for a while. I very much enjoyed the games with Altair and Ezio as main characters, took a dip into the Vita title (Liberation) and played around with Black Flag, but at that point I was burned out by the series. That is until Odyssey. I have a great fondness for Greek Mythology and when I saw that Odyssey was set in Greece and kind of blended the AC formula with a bit of that mythos... I was interested. I'm super glad I did. Odyssey is a breath of fresh air and arguably Assassin's Creed at it's finest. The world is massive, tons of stuff to do, controls are tight, leveling up system is rewarding, combat is a nice step forward from the older games I've played, ship commanding and battles are super fun, story and characters are superb and just over all the game is polished to the nine. I have not finished the game as every time I jump back in, I end up getting side tracked for hours with side missions or just playing and even just enjoying the world. I legit recall one sitting where I was swimming with whales and basking in the peacefulness of it all, surfacing to one hell of a thunderstorm raging in the world above. The game is an escape like few games offer. I absolutely love it.



#02 - Mass Effect 2

This couldn't be a list of any sort without a nod to one of my fav franchises ever. Mass Effect 2 eeks in just under the wire, being released in 2010 and while I preferred some of the RPG-lite mechanics of ME1 a bit more than those found in later games, ME2 certainly stands out for me above ME3 or Andromeda (though, I think I enjoyed Andromeda more than most). It's characters, improved action, dialogue trees, worlds, exploration all just helped flesh out the already amazing ME universe. My Shepard's data came over from ME1 making my decisions impactful across multiple games and that for me just floored my whole world. Can not get enough of this universe and I really hope a PS5 remaster of this trilogy comes into being.



#01 - Horizon: Zero Dawn

Horizon truly floored me. Not because it's something altogether unheard of, but because it pulls everything it does together in a masterful way. A spectacular story, strong/kick-ass main character, unique and at times jaw dropping-ly beautiful enemies all wrapped up in this wonderful world where it seems like almost every aspect has been thought out. I really really enjoyed the ambitious take the team has taken with this world as I sunk in well over 100 hours into this and still go back to from time to time. It's a game that really just sucked me in and made me not want to leave... not a lot of games can do that and for that I'm giving it the top spot on my list.


#00 - Honorable mentions  

It's not easy to gather a list of games that meant something to me over a decade and of course not every game over that time is going to make the cut, thus, here are some honorable mentions:

Valley - Really impressed me with it's style and atmosphere. Had a ton of fun with it.
GTAV - Again, a ton of fun. Just keep going back to this game and series.
Tesla vs Lovecraft - Love the theme and the speed in which this game flies. 
Until Dawn - A surprisingly fun horror title like many a cheesy horror film. 
Dishonored - Such a unique, first person game. 
DriveClub - A short lived game, but one that really just impressed with it's attention to detail. 
Mass Effect Andromeda - Quite enjoyed this even with it's shortcomings. 
The Witcher 3 - I have not beaten this game, so I didn't consider it for the list. It's lovely though.




Sunday, November 10, 2019

Xenomorphs



I've recently finished a second Alien(s) novel that ties itself into the movie timeline quite well and I'm sinking into a bit of an obsession with the franchise because of it. The franchise itself is not something new to me, the first two films are among my fav movies ever and have been for many years. Those films cemented my admiration of Signourney Weaver and Giger's beautiful style that defined the Aliens and arguably the series as a whole. I've consumed many other films in the franchise, be they good or bad, other novelizations, games, comics and so on, but this last batch of novels really just re-awoken my love for the world and I'm digging my heels in for more.

The first novel, Alien: Out of the Shadows, follows (Ellen) Ripley something like 37 years after the events in the first Alien movie, but before the events in Aliens. Having drifted in space in hyper-sleep that entire time, she's obviously a little confused a distraught when woken. This however pales in comparison to the news that the ship's crew that discovered her ship drifting is dealing with a group of the Aliens both in the mines of planet LV-128 and now on their ship orbiting this body which of course are the same creatures she narrowly managed to escape decades before. What follows is a bit of a side story involving the Xenomorph Aliens and the human crew (along with Ripley and her cat Jonesy) who are just trying to survive. Without giving away too much, Ash, the android from the fist film makes an appearance and the end of the book gets packed away nicely to fit into the timeline cleanly. I absolutely loved revisiting the universe and the (Ripley) character. It's really nice to see a novel fit so tightly into an already established lore without feeling like a gimmick.

So of course, when I learned that there was actually 3 planned books in this sort of series, I had to rip into the second. Aliens: River of Pain takes place immediately before and slightly along side the Aliens film. Ripley is, as seen in the Alien's movie, woken from hyper-sleep, this time in a space station hovering earth - where she learns that it's been 57 years since the events involving the Nostromo in the first film. However, Ripley isn't the main focus this time, as her involvement more acts as a way to tie into the film's timeline. Instead we're back to LV-426, renamed Acheron, teraformed and colonized with it's main base, Hadley's Hope, growing and thriving. During the course of the novel, we get to know a number of characters who call this rock home, including the Jorden family and their young daughter Rebecca (or Newt). If you're following along the Alien(s) timeline, you know where this is leading. It's quite an interesting dip into that side of the story, getting to know the Jorden family, the shady moves that Weyland-Yutani and it's employees are willing to succumb to for their own greed and getting a better, more concentrated feel for the Aliens, their growth and priorities. The end of the book leads right into the Aliens film and I couldn't put it down.

A third book in the series, Alien: Sea of Sorrows, is one I've decided to hold off getting into for now as I break into something a little different to mix it up... but I must admit, I'm looking forward to tearing through this one soon. All I know is that it's set 300 years after the first movie and follows a descendant of Ripley.

Then of course, I don't need to limit myself to just one medium, do I? Upon finishing the River of Pain book, I downloaded and started playing the 2010 version of Aliens vs Predator on my PC in an attempt to submerge myself more into this franchise. I've played many an Alien game over the years and have really loved some of them (Alien: Isolation is spectacular). I have an itch to re-watch the movies (All of them including the Promethesus prequels... which I found an interesting side project more than a great new addition to the franchise) and really just want to continue to dig into this amazing universe. Have any suggestions for Alien content worth checking out? Leave a comment below!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Audible: Upping my book game



Before last year I hadn't really given audio books much thought. I very much enjoy reading but find myself distracted by any number of other media sources and life happenings which puts my read count at a much lower level than I'd like. Then I threw my hat into Audible's ring to give it a shot. A monthly subscription offered by Amazon, it is free for 1 month which gives one a single book credit and the knowledge that you can cancel at anytime and actually keep the books you've acquired through the service. That was enough to get me to try it and I'm now hard pressed find another service that I pay for that I enjoy more.

It's been about a year with the service now and I've gone through 10 titles, mostly on my drives to and from work where I have time to just sit and listen. I've burned through a few autobiographies by faves Bruce Campbell and Alan Alda (read by them too), experienced the first two books in the Altered Carbon series (which were superb! - I'm reading the physical edition of the 3rd one now), ripped through a trilogy by Robert Sawyer about a bridging of earths, one our own, the other one where Neanderthals were the developed species. I've gone through another Mass Effect tie in book (and just started a second) and got around to seeing what the fuss was about with The Hand Maid's Tale.

The service (at time of writing) is $14.99/mo which gets you 1 book credit for the month and discounts on the others. I tend to stick to the credits as the audio books by themselves tend to be a bit pricey for my tastes... but they do hold sales where you can pick up titles for a few dollars a piece. As I said above, the service allows you to keep the books even if you stop the subscription and they also offer an option where you can trade in books you didn't enjoy at any point for another book credit. You can listen to the service on any internet connected computer with a browser player on their site or download their app for phones which then allows you to download the book in full for listening without streaming. The two connect to the same service for tracking, so you can simply pick up where you left off regardless of where you're listening.

This is of course if you're okay with what audio books are. I've been telling a number of people about my new found past time and a lot of them come back with "I'm not sure I'd enjoy listening to a book". Which I get. But I feel it's worth a try. One thing I will note, however, is that each book offers a snippet/preview for you to test. These can be key in determining if you like the person narrating the book. I've had the pleasure of listening to some books read by the authors who really put the extra effort in. I've also enjoyed some titles read by those who love their craft, who put so much into each character and portraying the scenes within rather than just reading the book to you in a deadpan sort of manner. However, I have run across switches in readers and just plain terrible readers who make you feel like you're in a lecture rather than unraveling a wonderful tale. This is exactly why I opted to read the physical book for Richard Morgan's Woken Furies (third in the Altered Carbon series) as the third audio book switches readers after the second book and after testing it, followed by some online research I've learned it's quite hard to get through on most reviewers accounts. In this regard one needs to be careful. I feel like one bad audio book would ruin someone's view of audio books for a long time.

All of this aside, I very much enjoy the service and plan on continuing to expand my "read" base with great titles that I've otherwise have yet to sit down and read in the traditional manner simply because of how busy life can get. In closing, I'd highly suggest anyone reading this to give it a shot.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Valley Review: Quite the Gem!

Game: Valley * System: PS4 * Developer: Blue Isle Studios


Occasionally I'll get into a slump when it comes to games, starting a handful or two but never really being captivated by any in that group enough to really delve into them. Valley was part of one of these slumps which broke that trend and I'm glad to report that it's completely blown me away. It's also one of those titles that I thought looked interesting and decided to buy on a sale, leaving it on my hard drive for quite some time. I'm glad I dug into it. It's an absolute gem.

The main premise of this game is that you're thrust into a remote location known as Area 634 (I believe that's what it was called) which is inspired by the Canadian Rocky Mountains with little more than that as information. You can choose to play a male or female (nameless) character and because it is a first person perspective this really only effects the grunts you hear from your avatar. Nice that they've added both as an option, but not really impacting of the story. You're left to explore at your leisure. This is where the first high point in Valley really starts to unveil itself; the level design.

The level design is so damn smart. It's linear in nature as you follow the story, but with wide open areas that beg for you to explore and reward you with smartly hidden collectables. The flow to these levels (and they're big) really is hard to describe. I've been playing games for many many years and it's rare that I see such care taken into the layout of every piece the player interacts with. That's not to say it's too easy, it's just damn good level design. Bravo to the members behind this marvel.

Only once in the campaign did I hit a snag where it wasn't apparent what should be done (this has been found by others too). In the screenshot below (took original from youtube), you can see the green arrow I've put in to show where you're suppose to go in order to get the upgrade you need for the section after this. However, you can veer left (see red arrow) and double jump onto a set of pipes which gives you access to the ramp you see in the picture. This ramp is meant to be used after you progress through the green path and pick up that upgrade. However, following the Red and then Blue path allows you to double jump into the next section where you can't progress nor can you go back. You're left thinking you're stumped on something that should be obvious. Thankfully you can fast travel to the section just before this and re-do. Still, it's an interesting snag in a game that's otherwise a winner in level design.

The single level design issue I had with Valley.


The game takes place mostly in nature as you unravel events that happened in the era of World War II (Early-mid 1940s) surrounding an energy source found only in this area and a military group researching this energy.  The L.E.A.F (Leap Effortlessly though Air Functionality) suit that is built around harnessing this energy is an exoskeleton that allows you to leap high, run fast and with upgrades you earn through the campaign, gain access to nearly anything you can see in the game world. This is a really interesting part of the game which has exploring at it's core. The levels in which you use the ability to run incredibly fast through a charged rail system are exceptionally fun to rush through.

Without saying too much about the plot, it's a somewhat passive story telling but one that is quite effective. You don't run into other characters, you're mostly hearing recordings and reading notes. It kind of adds charm to the game though, as you're spending your time thinking about the mystery of the island rather than dealing with NPCs. You're also not gunning down enemies, which is quite refreshing.

Visually the game is quite nice to look at and oozes it's own style all over the place. From the over all world esthetic, to the neat character/creature designs and intertwined WWII era equipment, the game really makes it's own little world unique. The only gripe I'd have against the visuals would be that the shadows were sometimes too dark. I found myself blasting energy to see in the dark sometimes. But I'd be doing the game a disservice if I didn't mention the spectacular sound track. On numerous occasions I found myself just poking around listening to the music instead of completing tasks. It's spectacular. Bravo to the composer and to the technical team who interwove the tracks into areas, changing with fluidity anytime the action/setting called for such.

I've got something like 10 hours into it, have completed the campaign and am now exploring further in the levels for secrets and collectables that I missed (or didn't have access to) throughout the game as the developers let you explore once the story finishes with all of the upgrades you have earned. For a small indie team to have pulled off such a tight, expertly built (on all fronts) game that rivals massive budget titles in quality really just impresses the hell out of me. Bravo team, Bravo.