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E3 2013: The Best In Years

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 Its easy to claim that E3s success this year was due to the heavy showing of next-gen console tech.  Watch Dogs looks awesome and The Witcher 3 seems to be visually unparalleled, and yet it was the drama that ensued that made me want to follow the conference as much as the impressive games did.

            Microsofts great proverbial belly-flops never stopped growing more simultaneously painful and amusing to watch.  The laughable moments accumulated since their revealing of X Box One and just ended today with another statement makes it hard to believe that they actually want their system to succeed.  They tried to act like a bull dog, but came off as brutish and uncaring to their fans, catapulting Sony and Nintendo into trumping position over the Big-N.

            Theres no doubt that the graphical capabilities of Microsofts and Sonys new machines are impressive.  Microsoft showed arguably more graphical gravitas than Sony had and seemed to have an upper hand over their relatively long-time gaming rival.  That was until Sony talked about their price-point and first-party used game support wooing us Play Station fans and winning more gamers over.

            It hasnt been long since Ive decided to go back to my Sony roots, it just feels like home.  I never felt totally comfortable on the 360, with the controller or with the interface (especially the ads).  The 360 offers some great franchises that Ive had a lot of fun with, but playing the Play Station 3 just adds that comforting sense of familiarity that came with years of owning and playing a PS2.

            Thats not only just to say I had some biases going in, but I also harbor a hope that Microsoft does stay healthy.  However, as a coworker said, They didnt just shoot themselves in the foot, they blew their whole [damn] leg off.  Its sad that they seem to succeed by graphical integrity and console features alone.  With higher pricing, 24 hour required internet check in and a broadband-soaking internet service, theres very little reason to go with the big Ms machine over Sonys machine.

            Sony and Nintendo had fun mocking Microsofts conference and their responses.  Microsoft just continued to be the pit-bull, showing little tact when discussing fan-related issues.  It was obvious that somewhere they ran off the track.

            The X Box One has some impressive games, many of them being exclusives.  In a former life, I would have gladly supported their system over the others, but now that Im older and a bit wiser, I know better.

            This years E3 was the best in years, because they focused so much more on games and tech rather than booth babes and swag, at least from what stay-at-homers saw.  The next gen games seem to go back to the roots of why we love to play video games and how our experiences will improve.  Its both a good and intimidating time to be a gamer.  Lets see what happens in the years ahead.

Stark Trek: Into Darkness Review

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*Yar! There be light spoilers ahead!  Ya best be warned!*           

If 2009s Star Trek was a conversation about how the characters from over forty years ago can be cool today, then Into Darkness is an argument as to how the old formulas can still work.  Not all the story moments gel and Trekkies will find nothing surprising in the plot, but the movie is fun and the 2 ½ hours go by at a reasonable pace, for the most part.  At least the 3D is pretty snazzy.

            All of the cast and crew from the reboot return and start the show running, literally.  Theres little downtime in JJ Abrams flaretastic sequel, I actually like the lens flare.  This time, theres a lot more at stake from the get go.  Kirk and Spock end up getting split up and demoted and Pikes had it up to here with Kirks cheeky shenanigans.  Theres also a terrorist attack in London and soon Kirk and Spock are back together and tracking down the mysterious and deadly John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, from BBCs Sherlock).

            Certain moments feel tacked in, like the inclusion of the Klingons, who just seem to be there for fan service and to tell the Federation that they dont like them.  The movies arguably coolest eye candy moment is during that scene, though.  There is a lot of eye candy to be had, but the quintessential space battle unfortunately drags on a bit too long.

            A nice touch was the storys dependency on the character chemistry and us buying it.  Luckily the cast did the best with what they had and it brought a tear to my eyes watching these characters play off of each other very similarly to the original cast with Karl Urbans Bones as the show stealer.  Granted, some friendships seem to have developed rather quickly, but thats okay because this feels more like the old Star Trek than the first movie did.  Ill gladly continue to boldly go as long as this crew does.

The Next Xbox Isn't the One For Me

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Theres a charm in simplicity that seems to have passed over Microsofts heads in the development of the Xbox One.  The reveal shows us what gamers, and mostly non-gamers, can utilize with this shiny piece of Next Gen tech when its released later this year.  There were some impressive demonstrations, but, for the most part, the new dashboard features made me wonder what would happen to those with low attention spans and made me glad that I now bed with Sony.

            Kinect remains overall unappealing.  The ability to turn your Xbox One on and off via a voice command is a nifty feat, but the 1080 camera, improved motion capture, etc., are all wasted on me.  Its like theyre milking a one-trick pony.  In all fairness, I feel the same way about Sonys Move.  I cant help that Im an old-fart gamer!

            Microsofts Xbox luster is gone from my eyes.  They seemed to focus more on what products to show via their new system than they were of the games one could play.  They mentioned a number in the teens of exclusive titles, apparently within the next year, but instead showed two of the games and spent the rest of the game trailers on multi-platform releases.  Granted, they did look very nice.

            On paper, the PS4 and XBO (XB1?) are identical.  The major differences between the two lay in the companies differing focus which gives Sony an advantage on the gaming side, and thats the point of the systems.  Sonys presentation showed us more of what gamers can do with the powerful system.  Microsofts every-man appeal has its draws, and Steven Spielberg, but I was turned off by the fact that it seemed like they were trying to say the gamer is not their main target.

            Forza looks awesome.  The controller looks cool, and theres no denying that the number of exclusives coming in the next year is impressive.  A lot of the new bells and whistles seem to over complicate the system and could threaten to ruin the entire experience.  But dont take an old gamers word for it.  Im just looking forward to spooning the PS4 controller.

Lessons in Far Cry: Expectations

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Playing Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, I realize something is amiss.  Some reviewers describe it as easy when I find myself dying quite frequently.  Of course, my experience with the Far Cry franchise was practically null before I started Blood Dragon, minus a twenty minute MP ass whooping I took against friends about 4 years ago.  Id say that a lot of Blood Dragons enjoyment comes from an implication that the player is familiar with the franchise canon.  On the other hand, my tag is badgamer83.

            My interest in Far Cry 3 started as a simmering curiosity and went, inexplicably, to a boiling enthusiasm to play the game.  Even before Blood Dragon was released, this weird itch came over me, a voice in my head whispered tales of grand adventure, blowing stuff up, and an open world experience with decent story telling.  I wish-listed it, not so subtly dropped hints of wanting it to friends on Steam and decided Ive had enough of waiting, this Friday, May 24th, I will pick up Far Cry 3!

            What could I possibly expect out of it, though?  Maybe Im hoping this will make me better at FPS and enjoy the single player ride, as opposed to the oft-infuriating multi-player modes out there.  Thinking back to how much I enjoyed Uncharted 3 and how it seemed to improve my gaming skills (for lack of a better term), thats what I want to accomplish in playing Far Cry 3.  I feel like exploring, blowing s**t up, driving off cliffs and learning more about gaming in general would just be the bees knees!

            Of course, theres some speculation that the game could end up at least a little disappointing.  I am sure that Ill have a blast with it all the same.  So, for now, Rexs adventure goes on the backburner as I anxiously wait to hungrily devour the sights and experiences of Rook Island and learn more about what Im capable of.

Evolving "Woodward"

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In 2005, I started outlining what would potentially be my first novel, called OBrien.  OBrien was complex and heavily clichéd and never was written.  One part of the story had the main character (not named OBrien) have a flashback to a different time and that was the first iteration of what has become Woodward.

            The cabin, the giant black tree and Roanoke were always going to play a big part in the story.  Virginia was the latest character introduced and ironically became the protagonist.  David was originally going to be the main character, but because of story direction changes, he became more of a device.  Further was always going to be this strange person whos a mixture of free spirit, but also has some strange tendencies.  Woodward is a character in the story and is revealed in part 3.

            Once the decision was made to make the story its own entity, it started off as being this comedic modern folk tale.  Because of certain imagery and the narration style I was using, it didnt seem to mix and that idea was thrown away.  Then I started reading Joe Hills Locke & Key and that gave me the idea to change the style to a more gothic-horror light and through someones eyes.

            This, sadly, is the first story Ive been this excited to finish in years.  While I have a game plan for the ending, mostly Ill be figuring things out as yall do.  Also, there will be going back and tweaking of previous parts once more gets written.  I dont plan on doing a lot of parts, but I believe that as the story evolves, it should do so as a whole.  This is all an experiment for me and I hope youll enjoy the journey as much as I do writing it. 

Iron Man 3 Review

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             Iron Man 3 is a 180 for Marvels third story in their gonzo epic metallic super hero character study.  Shane Black, who co-wrote and directed, is well known for buddy action flicks such as the Lethal Weapon series and The Last Boy Scout.  What we get as a result is a movie thats different in unexpected ways and makes it damn near impossible to peel your eyes away from the screen for the more than 2 hour run time, not literally of course.

            The story begins with a narration from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), talking about his regrets in Sweden circa New Years Eve, 1999.  He turns down then frail scientist Aldrich Killians (Guy Pearce) proposal to join his company in favor of hoping to bed sexy scientist Maya Hensen (Rebecca Hall).  We return to modern day to see Tony struggling with nightmares mixed with a fair share of insomnia while struggling to maintain a peace of mind and his hanging-by-a-thread relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Oh, and there are attacks on the US by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

            This movie is darker, more intense, and faster moving than the previous two.  It could also be the funniest.  Its a well told story about regrets and consequences and succeeds in brandishing Tony Stark as an anti Bruce Wayne of sorts.  Stark needs to be Iron Man and he uses the obsession to fill the gaping void in his sense of belonging.  While the first two movies told us how much we may need Iron Man, this is a more personal tale of why Tony Stark needs Iron Man.

            There are great action sequences with great CGI, humor and fisticuffs.  Ben Kingsley is great as the Mandarin and the twist on the character made me have a good laugh rather than offending the fan boy in me.  Don Cheadle gets to flex his acting muscle a bit more this time as James Rhodes/ Iron Patriot and his scenes with Downey are among the most fun in the movie.

            In the end, Iron Man 3 is a great super hero movie that launches Marvels stage two successfully and makes me wonder what changes are ahead for Earths Mightiest Heroes.  Though Downeys stepping down as Stark becomes a bit more apparent, its been a pure delight to see him get to the gritty of what makes Tony Stark tick.  Other things that are accomplished in this movie are spoilers, but for those who are fans of the movies, its well worth finding out.

My Personal Grade: A

On Gaming and Depression

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Ive been called out on here with having anxiety and social issues as if that makes my points moot.  Its true, I do struggle socially and have some anxiety issues and depression, but I think that makes my points more poignant, as I make them first hand.  In my life, Ive hardly ever touched drugs, Ive never had a drinking problem and Ive managed to maintain healthy and happy relationships.  In my times of need when I didnt have people to reach out to, or they werent willing to help, video games became my way of escaping this sense of isolation.

            I moved to Massachusetts from Maryland almost ten years ago.  I didnt know anyone here, outside of my mom and her wife, and my exit from where I spent the majority of my life had its fair share of hostility.  So I became that guy who lived in his moms basement.

            Video games have always been in my life, they still are.  As a kid, I remember playing on my dads Atari and him getting my brother and me a NES.  Later I got a Genesis and I remember squealing with delight, I was 10.  Throughout the years, Ive had a number of systems and have spent a large amount of time with each.  This didnt become a problem until I had moved to Massachusetts and fell into my own pit of despair.  Apologies for the cliché.

            My best friend here at the time was a big gamer.  He wanted as many friends as possible getting whatever system he had playing whatever games he wanted to play.  When I met him, he wouldnt shut up about me getting a PC that would play World of Warcraft.  Little did I know that this would take over my waking life and send me in an emotional tail-spin.

            I played that damn game for nearly four years.  I finally stopped after my now fiancée gave me an ultimatum and made me see what damage the game has done.  I skipped work, often shirked plans and would spend my weekend obsessed with doing dungeons, raids and daily quests.  Unfortunately the game missing from my life left a hole that I felt like I needed to fill as soon as possible.

            My spending problems got worse again and my skipping out of work continued.  I horded games and movies and they took over the majority of my attention.  This caused a rift between me and my fiancée and I started therapy and continued to struggle.  Having to learn things the hard way, as I often do, it took both my job and my relationship hanging by a thread to make me realize that I really did need to get my shit together.

            My problems dont stem from video games alone, but from a lifelong miss-lesson that stuff is love.  I believe doing stuff that makes you happy is important in life, but its also the balance of priorities and realizing whats really important that helps.  Im by no means through my issues, but I acknowledge them and am now not ignoring them.  I still enjoy gaming and know what games to avoid.  I dont condone the use of gaming as a tool for healing depression, however.  I believe that too much of one thing can lead to addiction/ emotional dependency, which leads to other kinds of issues and even more depression and instead of lessening the problem, it can expand it in other ways. 

Redeeming DLC

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For years, gamers have argued that DLC is no substitution for expansion packs of yore and that publishers and developers have been price gouging us completely innocent customers.  Then come along a good handful of games that make good use of DLC to provide standalone experiences that, while not providing the amount of gameplay in a full value game, add onto what made the original game fantastic and adding a theme thats more fun.  Ubisoft seems to have made this part of their mantra.  Its a good way to market the full game, while also providing a more eclectic view of the main product.

Rockstar unofficially started the trend for this generation with Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodic standalones.  They then did the same with Red Dead Redemption and its Halloween themed zombie add on.  Sony/ Sucker Punch followed suit and added a vampire element to the already powerful protagonist in Infamous 2.  Ubisoft recently released the downloadable George Washington tyrant series for Assassins Creed 3 and today Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was released.

To be fair, we used to pay $20 - $30 for an expansion, and thats when games were cheaper.  The $10 - $15 of content we typically pay for now adds that much value of content to the game.  Borderlands 2 has a number of expansions that add between five and ten hours to the game, each.  The overall game is about 20 30 hours, depending on how much you complete.  For 1/6 of the price, Gearbox provides from a quarter to half the games length in content with each downloadable DLC. 

Common knowledge to those who pay attention, AAA games are getting more and more expensive to make.  Dragons Dogma Dark Arisen was just released, adding a second campaign for $40, but the original game is also included for that price.  Its possible to get the content as DLC as well.

DLC shouldnt be seen as the money hording scheme we make it out to be.  People crave more content, or they get bored with a game after finishing it, I know I mostly do.  I think its fair to charge a portion of the games value to get a few more hours of quality content out of a well known franchise.  Its fair to say that not all of this content is very good, but thats a different discussion. 

Woodward Part 2 (Fiction)

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2

David's birthday party was back in February. We did nothing super special, it was just a few friends at the house, we decided to geek it up with party games, a pinata and video games. We decided we just wanted to celebrate a good life. That's when I first met Further Henceforth.

She was taller, skinner and prettier than I imagined. Her reddish-brown hair came to her knees and made her deep blue eyes pop. It was awesome to see that she was wearing moccasins instead of trendy sneakers or Uggs.

Under her arm was tucked a square present. I cursed myself yet again for forgetting to mention no gifts on the invite e-mail.

Virginia Collinder, she said incredibly formally, holding her hand out. Further Henceforth, she finished when I shook her hand.

Alright, well, at ease, Further. I replied, relaxing a little when she smiled. I just hoped she didn't actually see it as mocking. I can put on a good front at the best of times. David's been saying a lot about you.

Has he? she replied quickly, tilting her head as if in contemplation. That's strange, considering I haven't told him that much. Eric was right, this girl was off.

Well, um, I hesitated. She really caught me off guard, few people can do that. The kids are in the living room and you can put your present with the others in the kitchen.

She smiled thinly and walked into the house. Outside of her looks, I couldn't see why David was interested in her. Teenagers are a whole other species.

I went and hung out with the parents who decided to stick around. I didn't mind. I knew the three of them from growing up anyway. We occupied the kitchen table and shared a bottle of single-malt, Frank's last great pre-junky achievement. Thanks for the hooch, pops. The kids were blasting the TV volume as they played video games, so it was safe for us adults to talk openly.

So, I started, pouring myself a shot. Not to be the one who always brings up the elephant in the room, but...

Further Henceforth, Sue said, letting out a chuckle. I always loved Sue, she's Eric's mom. That whole family is a school of strange fish. They're scary rich, emphasis on scary. No one's even sure if their money is new or old. No one's been brave enough to check.

There was no point in holding back my skepticism. I mean, yeah, she's strange, but Further seems nice enough. The rest of the family can't be that bad.

There have been stories, Don said, pouring his second two-fingers. The Henceforths own an old cottage out near Roanoke. Of course, that's not odd. He sipped and wiped his mustache. The odd part is the tree. Black as night and about five stories tall, I reckon. The tree never bore any fruit and the branches have been bare for as long as people have remembered. Those brave souls who have ventured close enough have told stories of scrapes and loud husky breathing coming from inside the trunk.

Of course, that just may be a tale to keep kids off the land, Don resigned and downed his drink. That tree, though, that is real.

The word is that the cottage has been in that family for generations, Erin almost whispered. Visitors that go there never quite come back the same.

We moved onto other subjects and talked and laughed until the sun started going down. Then we went and played party games with the kids. I'm sure they saw it all as dorky, but even Miss Henceforth seemed to be enjoying herself. David later refused to wear a paper hat, but let me take pictures of him blowing out the candles on his cake.

I was relieved when it was just David and me again, lounging on the sofa and watching him mercilessly channel surf. Thanks for the party, he murmured.

Aw, you're welcome, chum! I patronized and flattened his gel-spiked hair and wiped my hand on his shirt. He laughed and playfully swatted my hands away.

Though you did forget to add 'no presents' to the invites, he scoffed and fixed his shirt.

I laughed. I'm sorry. You have to admit that even your shrink would say it's unhealthy for you to think I'm the only person in this world who doesn't suck.

You just suck less, he zinged. Eric's cool. He's always been there for me, even when I was in the hospital. Further's not bad, either.

Not bad, eh? I mocked, nudging him with my elbow.

Yeah, she's hot, he snorted. Though she's different too. She's the only person at school who doesn't look at me like she's expecting me to explode. Even Eric looks at me like that sometimes.

Totally waxing cliché here: it's hard for people to not fear what they don't understand. Especially as a teenager, I reassured, putting my arm around his shoulder and giving a small hug. My mind went right to Further and the story about the tree and wondered what could be inside.

His phone vibrated and he held it up to me to show me it was Further calling. I sat back on the couch and dismissed him with a flick of my hand.

When he was in his room, I opened a window and lit a cigarette. The melancholy was really setting in. I missed Florida and you so much. I also hoped David would never find out what I gave up to have a life with him. I didn't know if he would forgive me.

Bioshock Infinite Review (PS3)

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 Bioshock Infinite takes what we know about the established franchise and turns certain elements on their heads, giving us a game that's both fresh and familiar. The biggest change is Booker Dewitt, the protagonist who is already defined as opposed to the anonymous Jon we traversed with in the original. The other big change is Columbia, an anti-Rapture of sorts whose populous blends political and religious philosophies together. Fit in some solid shooting, a great NPC companion, and an overpowered, but awesome, vigor system (replacing plasmids) and you have a game that at least equals the original in quality.

Booker is tasked with rescuing the girl Elizabeth from Columbia to clear a debt. Once you have rescued the girl, things start going more and more down a rabbit hole. Not only does the game spin a tale about the good, bad and potential of an alternate America, as well as ours, but brings a surprising amount of emotional connection and existentialism.

Following the franchise's form, Bioshock's fights are brutal and shooting guns and vigors feels great and look fantastic. Switching between the two weapons as well as your vigors is quick and easy.

Ammunition can be quite a problem, especially if you stick with the same two weapons throughout the experience. Elizabeth does help you during fights, adding some tower-defense style elements by being able to open tears that summon certain types of ammo, turrets, etc. based on what's available in the area.

The game as a whole looks fantastic, despite some minor pop in and flat textures on the PS3. Sunrays shine brightly and the white buildings literally glow with the impressive bloom effects. The townsfolk are animated well and often provide some amusing dialogue as you pass by them.

Overall, the game is hard to describe, much like the original. There is a lot that can be left up to interpretation, especially if you stick through the credits. The game's twists are surprising, but I never felt myself getting lost. Irrational spins a meaningful tale that never feels stretched too far, even at the game's relatively lengthy 12-14 hour campaign.

Bioshock Infinite is an impressive feat, sticking with things that are familiar while adding fun elements, such as the skyline and the strategic tears. Columbia is a wonder to behold and Elizabeth is a great assist in combat and a great character. Shooting and story progression may be a bit linear, but with combat this solid and a story this good, it's easy to overlook. In many ways, the adventures in Columbia surpass those in Rapture and show us exactly why this is such a celebrated franchise.

 

Pros:

  • Great story with great twists

  • Elizabeth is amazing

  • Combat is fun and frantic

  • Columbia

Cons:

  • Some texture issues, pop-in

  • Ammunition can be surprisingly scarce

  • Ending may be lost on some

  • Less emphasis on exploration than the original