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Brakketology Plays The Walking Dead: Season 2, Admires Its Shoes

Walking Dead - Clementine

On this week’s JtS, Brandon and I talked a lot, in spoilery details, about the first episode of Telltale’s adventure game, The Walking Dead Season 2. We both like it, but where I cannon-balled into this opening chapter, Brandon though it not as strong as the pilot opener for season 1. It occurs to me that the main reason we differ comes down to the notion that our DNA in these things is entirely different. In season 1, Brandon liked entering a world full of characters he’d never met, getting to know them and their histories and developing Lee from an entirely blank slate. I get that. I think that’s how a majority of players are. Or maybe it’s a question of introvert and extrovert tendencies? Being very much the former, I’ve never been big on discovery. Oh sure, once I discover something and like it, then I wrap it around me and live in it like it were a comfy blanket. So warm. So soft. I am home. And safe.

It’s just very tough for me to get to that point. This is true whether I’m playing games, watching movies, or reading books; especially so when reading books. Part of the reason I used to bury myself in fantasy series like Riftwar, and Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire is because I could live in those worlds for so much longer than I could in your typical modern day work of fiction. There was always another book and I didn’t have to spend time figuring out who everyone was and what they were like. I could just jump in and let the adventure continue. It’s the same reason, when confronted with a Netflix list chock full of movies I’ve never seen, that I’m more likely to seek out a sequel or something by a writer or director I already like, or even something I’ve already seen, than to take a risk on something wholly unknown. And so it is that Season 2 of The Walking Dead plays right into my tendencies.

Even with the past set of character largely absent, the central character of Clementine, the one I am to inhabit this time around, is a character I already know. She’s a character that I’ve already journeyed with, protected, and molded. I know who Clementine is and so, when Telltale tells me it’s time to walk a mile in her shoes, I already know how to do that. This makes season 2’s opening chapter much easier to get into. And what an opening chapter it is. (Modest spoilers to follow.)

The curse of a series like The Walking Dead, regardless of its medium is that it relies on shocking you. Oh my god, can you believe they did that? Oh, that’s so awful, how could they do that? And they’re doing it again, oh my god! Oh shit, they killed Kenny! Bastards!!!

You can get away with that for awhile, but eventually the script flips and the only way to shock your viewer/player is not to shock them. The world of The Walking Dead is brutal and at this point we’re wholly conditioned to accept that. It’s no longer a surprise when the friendly puppy turns feral, or the guy who’s the friendliest to you is the first to get bit. It’s not surprising when zombies appear at the most unlikely and inopportune time. And yet, so far, it still works, and that’s because of Clementine.

Season 1 ensured we invested in this girl. She’s young, yes, but we know she’s not helpless anymore. As Lee, we saw to that (or I did, at least). And so now we take a different kind of journey. The mystery is gone. The world has collapsed and the new equilibrium, such as it is, has settled in. Now it’s truly about how you, as an individual, figure a way to go on living and what you’re going to make of life in this world. Because there’s surviving and there is living.

I’m not sure yet if that’s what Telltale’s end-game is for season 2. It could be I’m reading more into it than is there. Maybe what follows will be another four episodes of torture and human foulness and the worst possible things happening at the worst possible times. Maybe, like the TV show, those are the only bullets they have in their gun and you’ll be able to set your watch by the recurrence of human tragedy. But I don’t think so.

Oh I think that element will be there still –it is The Walking Dead– but I think Telltale has something else to say about humanity and how it handles apocalypse. That journey started with Lee, in the first season. Ultimately, however, Lee only existed to shape and mold Clementine. Now it’s time to see what she’s really learned and how she’ll apply those lessons in the face of new challenges and new tragedies. And it’s precisely because I already know this brave girl so well that, as a player, I already feel well-equipped to help her get there. Clementine’s shoes are worn, but they’re sturdy and comfortable.

This is going to be fun.

E3 and the Longest Game

ps4 announcement

Sony has now shown its hand for the PlayStation 4 at E3, and it looks to be aiming squarely at the hardcore gaming market. In what is certainly not a co-incidence their latest press release was at pains to point out that the PS4 will be doing exactly the opposite of all the things that have so annoyed hobby gamers about the Xbox One so far. It won’t need to connect to the internet once per day. It will run used games. It might not be backwards compatible but you will be able to play PS3 titles streamed online through Gaikai. It’ll be cheaper, and have a bigger library of indie games. The message from Sony couldn’t be clearer: we’re the hardware for serious gamers, and we’re listening to what you want.

Personally I’m pretty much sold. I buy a lot of used games and the fact that one console will allow me to continue doing that and the other won’t is a deal breaker. The chance to play some great PS3 titles that I missed in this generation, like Journey, The Last of Us and Demon’s Souls is a huge attraction, as is the price. Being fairly tech savvy I can surely use my PC to mimic a lot of the added functionality of the Xbone anyway. Upgrading is a long way away for me: my 360 pile of shame is easily big enough to last me into the first year of the next generation. But unless things change drastically over the coming 24 months (and they might yet), it looks like I’m a Sony man.

But that doesn’t mean I think Microsoft have screwed up. As has been repeated tirelessly over the last few weeks, Microsoft wasn’t aiming to launch its new console at us. It’s an attempt to reach out squarely to the casual market, the two or three games a year market, the market that have been relentlessly gobbled up by smartphone gaming over the last few years. Whatever we might think of it, it’s a bold move and puts clear water between Microsoft and its competitors in the console environment.

It seems to me that in going after the hardcore crowd, Sony have chosen to play it safe. It’s a smaller market, but a solid one which will guarantee them sales. They’re effectively admitting that the days of the console as a unified gaming platform are over, and are seeking to corner the people who are sure to continue to support it.

Microsoft on the other hand are taking a massive gamble. The audience they’re going after might not want to come back to console gaming from their mobile devices. They might not want to drop hundreds of dollars on a gaming system that offers some fairly minimal usability advantages for regular media consumption over the disparate use of PVRs, PCs and tablets that we see at the moment.

This doesn’t surprise me. Microsoft have basically done exactly the same thing with Windows 8: abandoned their core market in favour of trying to recapture a segment of the mobile market. It’s clear that the bosses at Microsoft have decided that beyond the obvious conclusion of mobile being a big part of the future, mobile is almost the entirety of the future. And if there’s a company that can not only afford to gamble, but probably needs to gamble on the way the future is going to map out, it’s Microsoft.

The future remains, of course, utterly inscrutable on the matter. It could be that Kinect 2 turns out to be the transformative technology that Kinect 1 promised to be but clearly wasn’t. That would be a game changer. But I’m willing to bet that the next generation belongs to Sony. However, I’m also willing to bet that the next generation will be the last that sticks to the traditional models of production and consumption. And after the world has moved on, it’s possible that Sony will find it has cornered a market that no longer exists, and its Microsoft who’ll reap the rewards for playing the long game.

Microsoft Reveals New Remote Control/Cable Box Combo


In case you didn’t get the memo, Microsoft just revealed its new $500 (?) television remote control/cable box called the Xbox 361. It also may play some video games, according to some suit in a blazer and jeans for the special occasion.

The new Call of Duty game was shown and it will be a Durango exclusive for a couple of days. As long as you pretend that games like Thief, Vanquish, and Brink never existed it will provide innovative new gameplay experiences like the ability to lean and slide. Also, for the first time ever in a video game, there is a dog. What is most impressive though, according to the video I watched, is how the Xbox Infinity will simulate Captain Price’s arm hairs better than ever before. There were also some wireframes that show how your dudebro entertainment experience will come alive like never before with the NextBox. I thought it was pretty touching seeing those soldiers cuddling up. I hope my bros will purchase the Xbox instead of the PS4 so that we can share the man-love a couple of days early.

Steven Spielberg came on stage to say that the next Halo will have no gameplay at all, that you will just watch it. Lots of intro screens were shown for lots of sports video games, none of which I care a flipping shit about other than the soccer one, which is pretty popular. I hope that you care a flipping shit about some football, because the Xbox 720 will have lots of it. And you can scratch your groin at the Kinect and it will switch back and forth between Madden 14 and ESPN. Without having to turn one off. That is truly amazing, the next generation has arrived.

Forza 5 showed a bunch of cars that you can’t have. But they didn’t show what it’s like to actually drive the cars in the game. So Turn 10 may have actually reached the peak of motorsports simulation by not allowing you to drive any of them. Just like in real life.

Remedy showed a game based on the popular Quantum Leap TV series with lots of human drama- the kind only a little girl can deliver- and some multimedia CD-ROM game live action content. Stuff blew up. It looked like a summer blockbuster. But it will probably be a third person shooter that will kindly do you the courtesy of doing everything itself other than requiring a press of the X button occasionally so you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Bride of Xbox 360 features a bunch of cloud stuff, so it will always be online. Deal with it. The good news too is that you can throw your old Xbox 360 away, including everything you’ve downloaded on it. Believe me, when you see the ability to watch Netflix on this thing, you’ll never want to play Bastion again anyway. I hate old video games, don’t you?

So the takeaway out of all of this is that Microsoft, even more so than Sony, is doing us all a favor by reminding us that developing new design-level gameplay concepts and leveraging technology to create them aren’t important. We’re dumb to think that anyway, which is why the PC, Wii and iPads suck and have no legitimate game experiences. What matters in the next console generation is the ability to chit chat on the internet, watch TV shows, and marvel at 1080p arm hairs waving in the breeze at 60fps. Get with the program.

King of the Hill

king of the hill koenigsegg agera r

See that car right there? That’s a Koenigsegg Agera R. It’s a pretty sweet car. It has an approximate top speed of 273 mph. It can reach 200 mph in a hair over 17 seconds and then brake to 0 mph in less than half of that. At the current exchange rate, it costs around $2 million, but that’s for the carbon fiber version which adds an extra $270k.

Along with being a hypercar that I will never be able to afford, or probably even be allowed to look at, it is the final car to beat and then shut down in Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

king of the hill koenigsegg agera r nfsmw

Somewhere around car number 5, the Porsche 918 Spyder Concept, I realized that this game Was Not Fucking Around. Up until that point, I was able to shut down the Most Wanted racers with my trusty SRT Viper, applying mods as I won them through normal races. The Porsche kicked it into high gear, if you can excuse the pun, laying bare the hard truth that if I was going to compete with cars one through five, standard mods weren’t going to cut it. Luckily an achievement awaited me at the end of my quest to get all Pro mods, so there was incentive there beyond simply staying competitive.

Once I had all Pro mods, my SRT, a car that had before been a competitive and engaging ride, transformed into a demon on wheels. With all Pro mods installed, the other Most Wanted cars fell with nary a whimper. The Lamborghini Aventador, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, the Pugani Huayra, they all fell, most on the first try. Finally, I had worked my way up the chain to the Koenigsegg Agera R.

YouTube video

Most of the Most Wanted races are between two and four miles long and take two to three minutes to complete. As the races get more difficult and your opponents get more skilled, the game starts throwing cop chases in there as well, to further complicate matters. The final Most Wanted race is a hair over ten miles long and takes about four and a half minutes to complete. Sure, you can take longer than that, but if you do, you won’t win. Trust me. The race covers all manner of terrain with a particularly nasty section of underground freeway driving filled with cops and the AI racer consistently trying to push you on to an exit ramp that will effectively take you out of the race. It’s not pretty.

I can’t tell you how many times it took me to win this race, but I can tell you that I finally did it. I can also tell you that out of all of the people that populate my SpeedWall, the game’s online-when-you’re-not-online-ranking system, I am the only person to have shut down the Koenigsegg Agera R. Me, arguably one of gaming’s worst racers ever.

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I am also the only person on my SpeedWall to attempt, and beat, one of the game’s hardest races, the Needle Point speed run. This makes sense as the race is only available to the Koenigsegg and I think the Bugatti, and even with those road monsters, it’s no easy feat, consisting of two curvy highway sections, both littered with traffic and cops, split evenly by a trip through an abandoned airfield, an airfield filled with dirt roads, none of which have the benefit of guardrails to keep you from sliding off into oblivion.

I took me an hour and fifteen minutes to finally hit the gold level target, an average speed of 150 mph (151.4 to be exact). My SpeedWall says I made 24 attempts which I think is an extremely generous number, as I swear I made many, many more attempts than that. When I finally beat the race, one of the best races I have ever completed, filled with clean cornering, a fair amount of lucky traffic placement and a last second u-turn into a highway divider that made my car stall out and almost cost me the race, I whooped so loudly and so joyously that the entire house heard it.

YouTube video

Once I finished Needle Point, I jumped in the BAC Mono, made a few attempts at The Getaway to get the gold average speed of 120 and just like that, I was done: first place finishes in all 61 events in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. An 80 point achievement and, more importantly, a feat that none of my friends have accomplished.

Now, I know I probably sound like a big, gloating dick right now, but you have to understand something: I am terrible at video games. I mean, utterly awful. Of all of the games I am terrible at, I am really, really terrible at racing games. For me to have a racing achievement that none of my friends have is totally baffling to me. Now, it’s possible that my friends just stopped liking the game and gave up, but when I look a the True Achievements ranking for this achievement, only 12% of those playing the game have it. 12%! And that’s 12% of people who care enough about achievements to sign up for a site like True Achievements.

I’m sure it won’t be long until someone matches my feats and does it with better times/average speeds than what I’ve accomplished, but until then, I’m enjoying being the king of Most Wanted hill. The view from up here is pretty sweet. The car insurance premiums, on the other hand, are murder.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance in Review

games of q1 metal gear revengeance

Irresponsible, irreverent, and illogical, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a peanut butter and chocolate proposition for folks that love video games in the classical sense, pairing up Kojima with Platinum for an operatically absurd masterpiece. It is the heir apparent to two of this generation’s best action titles, Bayonetta and Vanquish, and it’s also one of the best and most focused Metal Gear games to date. It’s the kind of video game that makes me want to go out and gut punch every failed Hollywood screenwriter that thinks they can make it in this business by making games more like movies. It’s the kind of game that makes the claim that Japanese design is heartless or passionless look completely wrong, slicing and dicing with a rarified energy and a preposterous- but completely not macho- level of aggression.

With his high heels, eyeliner, and Aqua-Net abused hair, Raiden is a glitter rock cyber-ninja, the blatantly androgynous and homoerotic hero of the greatest electro-chanbara movie never made. He’s had his star turn in the Metal Gear Solid games before, sharing the bill with Solid Snake in Sons of Liberty, but never before has he been so fleet of feet and quick with a blade. Revengeance is fast as a shark, standing in stark contrast to the slower, measured pace and intentionally clunky controls of the core Metal Gear titles. Lightning Bolt Action indeed. The action is furious, with dramatic parries of skyscraper-sized swords and acrobatic counterattacks punctuated by the occasional slow-motion blade mode wherein Raiden can slice through a cyborg assailant and rip its spine out, drenching himself in precious nano-fluids.

Ludicrous, yes. But it’s small potatoes in a game where a boss throws helicopters at you. This is a very, very funny game that’s well aware that it’s a video game, never a movie, despite all of the expected cutscenes and QTEs. Oh, and the first boss? A Metal Gear Ray. This game doesn’t waste your time getting to the awesome, even if it feels like the cutaways and codec calls break up the relentless flow. If you liked the “Gears of War plus 1980s plus a mountain of cocaine” gameplay of Vanquish and the delirious technical qualities of Bayonetta’s combat system, you’ll dig this.

Once you plug into this game- and learn to play it, since this is an old fashioned video game where you need to develop skills- that flow is irresistible and disturbingly addictive. It feels great. You feel like a HF blade-wielding god. Unstoppable. And then there’s a character turn later in the game where Raiden can hear what his combatants are thinking before he slices them into 500 pieces (there’s an on-screen counter). It’s actually kind of chilling.

The writing is sometimes surprisingly sharp, but never too proud of itself to wallow in full-bore pulp ecstasy. A major plot element find Raiden trying to recover brains stolen from wayward children. All of the usual Metal Gear fare is here, like the off-hand Codec conversations. Don’t miss them. There are unexpected missives about “torture porn” horror films, Cambodian cuisine, and how war affects children. There is more questioning about the heroic motives of video game slaughter than just about anything else I’ve ever played. There are very clear messages here, as there are in Kojima’s other Metal Gear titles.

And it looks incredible, like all of Kojima’s work. The visual artistry on display- the production design- rivals and surpasses the best work in the science fiction cinema. It’s military, speculative, practical, and quintessentially Japanese. The environments don’t lie to you about how open they are (which they aren’t), and instead the scenery and settings serve to funnel the player straight down a dizzying flume ride of mayhem, surreal violence, and unexpected introspection.

It’s a grand slam title- every element is pitch-perfect, including the sleazy synth-metal soundtrack that cues up vocal passages at just the right moments to spur you into action. It is a short game- only about six or seven hours- but its all killer, no filler. There’s not an ounce of fat on its bones, no phony open world “agency”, no bullshit “bro-op”, no stakeholder dictated multiplayer. The DLC is genuinely optional and a complete game with no nonsense or microtransactions is on the disc. This is how it used to be. This is how it still should be.

I’ve been down on video games for a couple of months now, with virtually nothing interesting me other than DMC, another old fashioned video game. But Revengeance has completely blown me away by reminding me of the things that I have always liked about video games, going back to playing Atari 2600 games when I was five. It’s raw, unashamed entertainment but smartly framed and exquisitely presented. The bar is set for the remainder of the year.