The Gaming Club
N'Gai's question may provide a better frame for my year in gaming than my kickoff e-mail did. For me, 2008 was more about confusion than disappointment.
What to think of Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose setting is a more complicated, fully realized, and living creature than its protagonist? Niko Bellic is supposed to resent the killing work that is increasingly forced onto him as the game progresses. But the game is wholly unconvincing on that level—the conflict between your actions as a player and Bellic's words and behavior in cut scenes is too jarring. I never finished the game, and I quit right around the time Stephen says the game loses its way, not too long after Niko reaches Liberty City's equivalent of New Jersey.
So Rockstar failed in its grandest ambition, to create a Mean Streets or Dog Day Afternoon for gaming. But it succeeded in creating one of the most compelling game environments ever made. Liberty City is a real place. Just ask anyone who's been there. Writing about it makes me want to overlook the game's flaws and start wandering its streets again.
Or, what to think of Gears of War 2? The game is even more shamelessly derivative than the first one. I picked up allusions to, off the top of my head, Independence Day, Battlestar Galactica (the Ron Moore re-imagining), The Empire Strikes Back, and the speeder-bike chase scene in Return of the Jedi. Mitch Krpata of the Boston Phoenix pointed out on his Insult Swordfighting blog that one of the game's levels is a tribute to, or a rip-off of, the final level of Contra.
The story in Gears, which Seth complained about vociferously in his Times review, is a combination of big explosions and sentimental revenge fantasy that will be deeply familiar to anyone who sat through the early works of the governor of California. And even the game's level design—while generally up to its predecessor's high standard—holds an occasional disappointment. There's a little too much running forward and not enough crouching in terror. A couple of times—which is a couple of times more than ever happened in the first Gears—I got a little lost and couldn't figure out where the game wanted me to go next.
I think Gears of War 2 was the most fun game I played all year, and the game that most achieved the goals it set for itself. If you want to see what an interactive Sylvester Stallone movie looks like, play Gears. It's everything a big summer blockbuster should be. But this is awards season, right?
And in the fall, I've been confused for some time now by a triple-F dilemma—should I be playing Fable II, Fallout 3, or Far Cry 2? Stephen, N'Gai, and I seem to come down on different sides of this triangle, at least for now. I started with Fable II and was enchanted for a while, only to become bored, not long after finding the quest's first hero, with a game that encourages me to sit in the middle of a town square farting for applause. (And trust me, I'm not too good for fart jokes.) But Stephen has persuaded me to give it a second shot.
But how can I do that now, when N'Gai makes a fine case for Fallout 3? I adored the Vault, the setting for the opening scenes during the protagonist's childhood. When I left the Vault, I was so mesmerized that I sat and listened to the post-apocalyptic president's entire radio message. (I am prone to this—I did something similar at the beginning of Half-Life 2.) I explored Megaton, the game's first village. All of this is just the game's amuse-bouche, but I can tell it's a spectacular meal. Except, the first time I left Megaton to carry out a mission, I kept getting killed during an encounter with raiders on a stretch of broken bridge on my way out of town. After five or so deaths in a row, I decided to take Far Cry 2 for a spin instead.
A friend tells me there's a lot of boring leveling and grinding in Fallout 3 before the game really gets going, and I always planned to give it some serious attention. A little more handholding in the game wouldn't hurt. I had to pull out the manual—yes, the manual!— to figure out the combat system. GTA IV did a better job of mixing some linearity into its open world.
And for me, at least so far, Far Cry 2 is less frustrating and more obsession-inducing than the Fable and Fallout sequels. I like the mysteriousness surrounding the Jackal, the arms dealer supplying both sides of the civil war you find yourself embroiled in. I like how the game lets you make moral choices without beating you over the head with them. I love the game's setting so much that I enjoy just driving around in it. Last night, I saw a gorgeous storm and a zebra.
Finally, what to think of Braid? Loved the ending. Liked the puzzles. Loathed the writing. I second Steve Gaynor, who thinks that the game, for all its pleasures, has a reach that exceeds its grasp. But at the same time: more, please!
The short answer to your question, though, N'Gai, is that the game that most confuses me about how I should think of it is The Force Unleashed. But I've gone on so long that I'm going to have to save that for Round 3 of this exchange.
One question for the three of you, though. We all think—or so I presume—that too many games (see the aforementioned triple-F dilemma) come out in the fall and too few in the spring and summer. But are we demonstrating an end-of-the-year bias by not lavishing more praise on GTA IV? Wouldn't we think more of it if, like Fallout 3 or Fable II or Far Cry 2, it came out in late October?
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N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews video games for Slate.Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.