Thank God. I am reborn.
This is how you’re supposed to be doing it.
It’s 3 A.M., I’ve got my headphones on and the 47” LED is searing my retinas in hot pink and turquoise neon, the title in scan-lined Russian letters like it’s bootleg contraband, hardcore violence porn from a world where only outlaws play outlawed violent video games. The music is turned up almost painfully loud, throbbing synth pulses from a 1989 that never existed except as a fantasy of unremembered nostalgia in the minds of musicians likely too young to have listened to music back then. I’m trying for either the 20th or the 100th time to complete a level of Hotline Miami, and I’m feeling totally wired, paranoid, cranked up really high and headed for a 19th nervous breakdown as I get gunned down again.
In another life, I split skulls and splatter gore everywhere, mind flashing back to the white suited apocalypse at the end of A Better Tomorrow II, thinking about how many times I’ve killed that dog and wondering if that Call of Duty dog will die this ruthlessly, cruelly, and without pity. I die again. Stupid mistake. Get up and go again. Is it just me or is the screen changing colors? Why does it all look crooked? I’ve never taken cocaine before, is this what it’s like? It’s how I imagine it. I don’t feel any pain when I die over and over again. I don’t really feel anything but DRIVE.
It hits me. I’m not working out a puzzle. I’m not watching guard patterns and learning the level. It’s not about learning a sequence or perfecting a series of moves. It’s not all in the wrist, reflexes are not being refined. The repetition starts to grate, and I realize the horror behind this video game.
I’m being programmed to get it right. I’m being programmed to lose all feeling and become a desentized 8-bit killing machine. I put on my mask, pick up a shotgun, and become a fucking monster.
And then a man in a cock mask asks at point-blank range, “do you like to hurt people?”. I pause. He’s not asking the top-down 8-bit Ryan Gosling on the screen. He’s asking ME. Music is hurting my ears at this point, it’s so loud. I’m staring at the screen, those fucking scanlines slicing up eyeballs. Well, do you, punk?
This is Hotline Miami’s Grand Statement About Video Game Violence, about all the Little Computer People we’ve murdered over and over again over all of these years. This is, or should be, Video Gaming’s Message to the World 2013 (or 2012 if you played it on PC, before it hit PSN). This is your argument, right here Roger Ebert (Kurosawa rest his soul), that games can be art, carry meaning, and comment on humanity. But this isn’t another bro-op AAA game disguising fucking MURDER FANTASY with Hollywood production values. There is no anti-hero bullshit obscuring the fact that the character you control is a psychopath. This is raw. It’s not “awesome” to kill people in this game. It’s pretty sick- by design.
I don’t know that there has ever been a more wretched, honest moment in a video game than when the character stops after the first massacre and vomits.
Yet it all remains remote, at arms length. The video game medium keeps us safe from the truths Hotline Miami is exposing us to, as we play. The deconstructed retro graphics and Lynchian narrative cryptograms give us safe distance from what this game is screaming at our faces. Many will play this game and think that its “bad ass”. Many will relish in its merciless, brutal bloodshed. But they’ll miss what this game wants to say to us.
As the highest paid developers in the video games industry continue to fail to find anything for us to do other than to kill things, Hotline Miami is like a blazing neon indictment of what we are psychically, digitally doing far too often when we play. Maybe the developers didn’t intend this, maybe they thought they were making nothing more than a bloody, violent, surreal old school indie action game with an incredible aesthetic sense. But even if they didn’t, the underpinnings remain.
Did I have fun playing Hotline Miami? Of course I did, the gameplay is awesome. But is it because I’ve been programmed to enjoy it? Or do I just enjoy hurting people?
Bass rumbles, my 2013 TV flickers like a 1983 set. It’s really too fucking loud. I should turn it down but I won’t. I should turn off the PS3 and go to bed but I won’t. Next level, new mask, weapon unlocked. I descend.
While I do miss the money I was paid to review games, meager though it may have been, what I do not miss is that awful feeling I would get in my stomach when I knew that I flat out did not like the game I was playing, yet there was still a dozen hours left before I could put the thing to bed. Luckily, this is not a problem here at NHS. If I’m not feeling a game, I stop playing it and move on to other things. I figure that my reasons as to why I stopped playing will be just as useful to our readers as a full blown review, only in this case, I don’t have to waste my time playing something I think sucks.
Which brings me to Assassins Creed III: Liberation. Granted, I don’t think the game sucks, that’s a bit harsh, but I certainly don’t want to play it any more, so I’m not going to. Before we get to why I don’t want to play it again, I can’t stress enough that this is not a review of the game. I’ve put about six hours into the thing and I have no idea what percentage that is, but I do know that I didn’t finish it, hence this is not a review.
So, what exactly were my problems with the game?
I have no idea what’s going on in this story, and that’s probably my fault for not paying enough attention. Aveline is an assassin, although how she came to be one, I have no idea. Her mom was a privileged slave, so Aveline can mix it up both with the hoi polloi of 18th century New Orleans as well as the slaves and common people. At some point, Aveline’s mom disappeared and while my understanding is that Aveline starts to uncover the reasons behind this disappearance as the game goes on, my time with the game focused more on missing slaves and false holy men. Occasionally I’d help a slave get some of his stuff back, sometimes I’d mess with rival businesses that were threatening my livelihood, but whenever I was in a story mission, I had very little understanding, or interest, in what was going on.
On a similar note, the Templars’ role in the story’s events aren’t made clear, which is somewhat by design. The game was created by Abstergo, undoubtedly as a piece of Templar propaganda, and at times you can assassinate Citizen E, a hacker who placed versions of himself into the game so that the player can see the events as they truly unfolded. Killing Citizen E after a story assassination allows you to see a different cut scene and unlock the “true” ending if you manage to find and kill all instances of Citizen E. While I like the idea, in practice it didn’t work all that well. The change to the cut scene I saw didn’t seem all that different and worse, after every mission I was looking around for Citizen E, afraid I was missing out on the truth. It kind of takes away from the narrative when the player is more focused on what may happen after you’re done telling the story, rather than what is happening while your’e telling the story.
One of the best things about Assassins Creed 2 was Ezio and my fondness for the character is what kept me going through Brotherhood and until the end of Revelations. I have no affinity for Aveline whatsoever. I don’t know why she’s an assassin or what she’s trying to do against the Templars nor do I care if she’s successful or not.
Roaming around in the city is typical AC style climbing and jumping. No real problems here other than the developer’s penchant for making every single objective as far away from your current location as humanly possible and not including any means of fast travel. In the bayou, it’s another story. The same far flung mission objectives exist, only here, if you fall off of a tree, and you will fall off of trees, you can’t climb back up the tree and keep on going. Your choice is to either swim back to where you can climb a tree or swim to your destination. I usually chose the latter. On a similar note, climbing trees to get to sync points in the bayou is an exercise in frustration. One misstep, of which there are many, and you’re back in fetid swamp water, wishing for a gator to put you out of your misery. After four AC games, I’m used to my assassin deciding to hurl himself out into midair rather than jump straight up to the next ledge, but at least in the city, I can just start the climb over again from street level. Having to backtrack through the swamp to find the right place to climb a tree is annoying. I hope that the forest traversal is better in Assassins Creed III or I’ll end up throwing the disc out the window, General Lee style.
As I mentioned before, Aveline exists in three different worlds: as a slave, as an assassin and as a lady. Aveline can switch between the three personas as needed, or as required, and depending on which persona you’re in, your options and how you deal with notoriety are affected. As an assassin, you can climb and jump and do the usual assassin things, but the only way to lower your notoriety is to bribe officials, and unlike in previous AC games, officials are few and far between. As a slave, you can still climb and you can use a machete and your wrist blades, as well as some firearms. You lower the slave’s notoriety by tearing down posters, of which, thankfully, there are many. As the lady, you can’t climb and you won’t survive very long in a fight, but you can walk up to witnesses and kill them, pretty much unseen, thereby lowering your level of notoriety.
I understand what the developers were going for here, and sometimes it works, but most of my time spent as the lady was wondering why they thought it was a good idea to have an AC game where I can’t run and jump. That’s when I wasn’t having flashbacks to playing as 80 year old Altair in AC:Revelations. I can certainly understand the appeal of switching into alternate personas to help lower the heat when one persona gets to be too well known, but the options for lowering notoriety were so limited for the assassin, it wasn’t before long when I had to switch back any way and I’d end up being spotted. I know that what they were going for was to show how Aveline exists in different worlds, but mostly it was just annoying to walk at a snail’s pace in a fancy dress and get roughed up by street thugs.
The AC games have always preferred to put logic on the back burner, but Liberation seems to take it to new, silly heights. Sure, it was always dumb that Ezio could walk around in full assassin gear, bristling with cutlery, and no one would notice, but rather than fix that in Liberation, they instead came up with their own logical missteps. As a slave, as soon as I climb up on a roof, my notoriety goes up by 1/4 the circle. Ok, I guess the New Orleans Safety Patrol is very concerned with people climbing on roofs, so they want me captured so that I can be spoken to sternly. Ripping the wanted poster down though, in full view of everyone, causes no such raise in notoriety. Again, I know this is carried over from other AC games, but it was stupid there too. Similarly, as a lady, I can walk up to a witness, who is always accompanied by two other man, stab them in broad daylight and then just walk away. The witness falls down dead and the two companions go about their day as if nothing happened. Worse, if I loop around the block, the witness will show up in the exact same place, ready to be killed again for my notoriety reducing purposes. I know that Aveline is dressed nicely, but I have to think that if a black woman stumbled into a white man in 18th century New Orleans, they wouldn’t just brush it off as nothing, especially if the guy falls down dead in front of two other people. The end result of both of these methods of reducing notoriety is that losing notoriety becomes busy work with no consequences for your actions. As long as your notoriety doesn’t go in the red, the only thing you lose is time spent not doing story missions in an effort to become less wanted. It also begs the question why I don’t just kill everyone as the lady, seeing how she could slaughter a bus load of nuns in the town square and no one would bat an eye.
From floating alligators to custom map markers that show up out of nowhere to rooftop guards that don’t react to you and can’t be killed, the game is filled with all sorts of bugs and glitches. Some of them are funny, some of them are annoying, many of them simply should not be there and probably would not have been had the game not had its release tied to ACIII. I can certainly forgive a certain number of bugs, but when I access the pigeon coop for the first time and it results in Aveline reading a letter while floating ten feet off of the ground, you can’t help but have the immersion completely destroyed.
It’s possible that the story gets better and Aveline becomes more interesting and you eventually get a jetski that lets you traverse the bayou more quickly, but I’m not sticking around to find out. I have too many other games I want to try out to spend more time with Aveline. It’s a shame, because I was looking forward to this one. I’d say that maybe they can fix things in the sequel, but I don’t see the Vita being a viable platform by the time that Assassins Creed III-2 comes out, so I”m pretty sure this will be Aveline’s only outing on this console. C’est la vie, Aveline. C’est la vie.
Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday and while I will most likely pick it up, I fear that it will confirm something that I’ve known for quite some time now, namely that I don’t really give a crap about handheld gaming any more.
It’s a difficult realization to come to. Handheld gaming has been a big part of my life for years now, but over the past 18 months or so, things have shifted and I find myself less and less enthused about the hobby’s diminutive offerings. Pokemon Black/White 2 may end up being the last handheld game I ever buy.
Cue the hyperbole machine!
I’ve gone to two E3s now where I have been absolutely and completely unimpressed with the handheld offerings for the 3DS. The first E3 that showed off 3DS games displayed mostly remakes of existing N64 titles, with a smattering of new games that still haven’t seen the light of day. Luigi’s Mansion 2, I’m looking at you. Hell, this past E3, they didn’t even have a set place to see 3DS games. You had to flag down a Nintendo rep and play the 3DS attached to her belt. Let me tell you how much that’s not going to happen.
Sony’s booth fared much better when it came to presenting Vita games, but at the same time, did I see anything there that really made me get excited for the platform? Not really. Sure, Sly 4 looks cool, and the cross play feature is a nice sell, but nice enough to hold on to the unit, especially after Barnes put that bug in my ear about selling it? Probably not.
Sure, you can blame the iPad, my go to source for mobile gaming at the moment, but just like in any situation, if you point one finger at something, there are four fingers pointing back at you. Only in this case, the four fingers are pointing back at Sony and Nintendo. Yes, iPad games look better than the 3DS, but they’re not better than the Vita. Sure, they’re cheaper, but sometimes, wading through which games are actually cheaper and which ones are just cheap storefronts for in-app purchases makes the cost comparison moot.
The reality is this: the latest and future offerings for both handheld systems interest me only barely. Pokemon Black/White 2 is a slam dunk, as is the new Professor Layton, but what beyond that? Assassins Creed: Liberation could be good, but good enough to pay $40 for? I doubt it. What beyond that? I read the list of upcoming games for both platforms and not only do I not see anything that strikes my fancy, but I’m not really bothered by the fact, something which speaks more to my state of mind than anything else.
There was a time where I would look forward to the upcoming handheld releases, planning out my time with the games so that I always had something to play. Nintendo and Sony both saw to making that impossible, with such a cruddy trickle of releases for both systems, and as a result, I stopped playing and stopped caring. Now, I couldn’t tell you when things are coming out and furthermore, I have on interest in looking. Hell, it took me by surprise that Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday.
In the space vacated by Nintendo and Sony, I find myself playing games on my iPad, reading digital comics and, surprise of surprises, playing games on my PC. I don’t see the PC replacing my 3DS or Vita to the same degree that my iPad has, simply because of the portability factor, but more often these days, when I want something to play at night, I turn to Steam and the small collection of inexpensive, indie RPGs and adventure games I’ve amassed over the past few months. Hell, I’m seriously considering buying Torchlight 2, with the excessive heat generated by my laptop as the only limiting factor. $20 may be a lot for a game I’m not sure of (although I’m finding the demo to be delightful) but it’s half the price of games for the Vita or the 3DS and it’s on a platform that isn’t going anywhere.
It’s possible that things will change, but I would be surprised if they did. I think I’ve been away from traditional handhelds too long and as a result, I can no longer see the wisdom in paying $40 for something that isn’t that much better than games to be had at a fraction of the price. I’m still looking forward to revisiting Unova and playing the new Layton later in the fall, but these games may end up being the final notes of a song that’s been over a decade in the making. They look to be pretty good games to go out to, but at the same time, I can’t help but be a little sad. It’s been a long, great relationship. I just wish Sony and Nintendo had been as interested in keeping it going as I was.
For Jumping the Shark #133, Brandon and Bill celebrate the coming of Summoner Wars on the iOS. (I’m sure I’ll join the jubilee soon. Took the time to figure it out over the weekend and am starting to feel its draw.) There’s also some Amazing Spider-Man discussion and a Bill tangent about not liking fun murderers. And really, who does? Leading off this week, though, Brandon and I wax poetic about the revised Mass Effect 3 ending and he gets me to say something that, in a righteous universe, ought to never ever happen – “Brandon, you’re right.”
And even now a chill goes down my spine.