Friday, November 4, 2011

Graphic Horrors

By Brian M. Sammons

Ok, not much in the way of horror games this month, although I have two ginormous titles to discuss. One broke the sales records of…well everything. Books, movies, music, even other video games; they were all blown away by this 800 pound gorilla, but does huge sales automatically translate into a great game?

As for the other game, that one sold like gangbusters too, and it does have ghosts, walking skeletons, demons, and all sorts of monsters in it, so while not horror per say, it does have some of the flavor. Oh and it also happens to be the hands down winner for my Game of the Year and one of the best video games of all time. Yeah, that’s not just hyperbole, it’s a fact. Or at the very least, that’s my highly educated opinion. And since I don’t believe in saving the best for last, I’m going to start with that amazing game now and prove it to you.

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM, by Bethesda Softworks, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

This is not only my Game of the Year for 2011, but it honestly could be the best game of this generation of consoles. Never before has a game world been so fully and completely realized. Never before have you been given so many options on how to play, both in what type of character you want to truck around as, but where you want to go in a huge, sprawling map filled with wonderfully realized and vastly different locations. SKYRIM is easily the greatest sandbox game ever, blowing your mind with an almost limitless amount of choice and game play that seems to go on and on forever, if you want it to, or a main story line that can be rushed through in a couple of sittings if that’s your thing. However, if that is your thing, don’t bother with this game, it’s not for you. SKYRIM is meant to be savored, enjoyed, and experienced for days and days, perhaps months and months. If you are the type of gamer that loves to lose yourself in a RPG, then this game will do that for you like no other has done before.

The actual main story of SKYRIM is pretty straightforward fantasy fare. You play as one of a half dozen or so fantasy races, from cat and lizard people, to three different types of elves, and even a few human types from different parts of the kingdom. Even the ever present orc, usually resigned to just being sword fodder in games like these, is a race you can choose to play. Whomever you play as, you find yourself in the land of Skyrim, think of it as the home of Vikings as it is a very wild and often snowy place, but also a starkly beautiful land.

Your character is a “dragon born” which means that when you slay dragons you can absorb some of their power and then use it against your enemies by shouting at them in the mystical dragon language. The varieties of dragon powers you can learn are impressive, from the typical breathing fire thing to more neat tricks like slowing time or summoning a raging storm to hurl lightning bolts at your foes. And it’s a good thing you just came to Skyrim, as the dragons, long thought to be extinct, are starting to fly again in ever increasing numbers. It soon becomes your duty and destiny to find out what’s bringing the dragons back and to stop them before the whole world is lost to the flames.

And when I said before that this game was big, I meant it was freaking huge! There are so many side quests, miscellaneous adventures, and random bits of fantasy adventure goodness to explore that the creators of this game have said that to complete it all would take over 300 hours. Yes, I said 300 hours! And in these harsh economic times, that’s one hell of a bargain. If the 300 hour estimate is true, and so far I have yet to see anything even hinting that it’s not, and you bought this game at the usual price of $60 US, that translates into just twenty cents per hour of entertainment. No other video game has ever given you so much for so little, and that includes online multiplayer games that routinely soak you for new DLC map packs every three months or so.

But a whole lot of something, if bad, is still not a good thing. Thankfully SKYRIM is very good, damn near perfect, in so many ways.

The way you play this game is wonderfully fresh and liberating as you don’t play a class, like a warrior or a wizard. Instead you get a bunch of skills and the ones you use more are the ones you will excel in. Do you like casting fireballs and bolts of ice at the bad guys? Then do so and soon you will be a better combat wizard than Harry Potter could ever hope to be. Do you like bashing things with big, intimidating weapons? Well just keep doing that and you’ll be a bigger badass than Conan ever was. Or do you prefer to be more subtle and sneaky? Then go ahead and play that way and you’ll be the slyest master thief in no time. This freedom also means there are no ends of the possibilities of what kind of heroic adventurer you want to play. Me, I’m a fireball chucking, great axe wielding, heavy armor wearing, death machine who can pick a mean lock and forge my own high-end weapons and armor and then enchant them to deal even more hurt to my enemies. Yeah, that’s role playing freedom the likes of which has never been realized so completely before. When this game tells you to play it however you want to, it actually means it.

Then there is the world this great game is set it. Yes it is huge, but it is also beautiful and at times literally breathtaking. I cannot count the number of times I stopped doing whatever it was I was doing to look around at the scenery and all that was around me and was just floored by the detail and how amazing it all looked. One of the main reasons people play games like these is to see things they’ve never seen before and to adventure in a world of harsh beauty. It’s one of the things that made the LORD OF THE RINGS movies so memorable and its one of the things this game gets so very right. SKYRIM just looks great.

Now all this praise, while fully warranted, doesn’t mean that SKYRIM doesn’t have its share of foibles, boo-boos, and bugs. Thankfully such things are minor, but they’re still annoying. Currently there are some graphical glitches that keep the game from looking as good as it should. There were also a couple of bugs that all but halted two of the quests I was doing. Luckily they were non-essential side quests, but it was still very annoying. And yes, the game completely locked up on me in that sadly familiar Bethesda way three times. Yeah, that never makes me happy, but that sadly seems par for the course anymore. Then there were the occasional funny bits, like mammoths floating in air and objects, usually the dead bodies of your enemies, clipping into solid objects like walls and tables and becoming stuck that while not game breaking are still a bummer to experience. Perhaps my biggest gripe is not a bug but the many, and usual long, load times you get any time you transition from any outside location to an inside one, no matter how small the new location may be. However, that is a small price to pay for such a giant world to go adventuring it, and just the nature of the beast when it comes to sandbox games, so I try not to let it get to me too much.

In closing, there has never been a game, RPG or otherwise, as big, freeing, or fun as THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with it and I fully intend to spend a whole lot more in that wonderfully realized fantasy world, slaying dragons, climbing the highest mountains and delving the darkest dungeons. I just can’t get enough of this game and I can’t think of the last time I felt that way over anything, be it game, movie, book or other.

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM easily gets 5 dragon shouts that blast baddies to bits out of 5. If you get one video game this year, or even the next, make sure it is this game.

CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3, by Infinity Ward and Activision, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

What more can be said about the MODERN WARFARE series that hasn’t already been said? If you know about this game at all then you know what it’s all about. Even if you’re not a gamer (then I’ve got to wonder what you’re doing reading this) chances are you still know all about MODERN WARFARE. Not only does the series continue to break sales records with every new installment, but it has had a mega dollar media blitz like nothing else ever. Hell, even my mom knows what this game’s all about and she’s never played a video game, ever. So with all that said the chances are very high that if you want this game, you’ve already got it and if you don’t care about CoD: MW3, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. But hey, it’s my job to tell you about games, so I had better get to it.

The story of MW3 picks right up where the previous game ended, with the much loved character of “Soap” barely hanging on to life after an epic battle. As for the whole rest of the world, it is smack dab in the middle of World War 3! As with other CoD games, the action will jump around all over the globe and you’ll be playing as any number of solders and special operations bad asses. You’ll start in New York City but then quickly hop over to London, Paris, Germany, Africa, Russia, and on and on before finally wrapping up the trilogy’s storyline if a pretty satisfying way. Seriously, if you can think of a setting, chances are you will do battle there in this game. Not only that, but MW3 is jam packed with explosive action set pieces that would make Michael Bay drool and leave you laughing or with your mouth agape wondering what the hell you just saw.

But the single player story mode isn’t all exploding golden goodness. It has a tendency to put you into far too many on-rails gun sequences. That is, you’ll be in a vehicle of some kind and have no control of the movement. You’ll have to shoot wave after wave of bad guys while your AI controlled buddies do the driving. There are still elements to cool in this, as you get to travel by land, sea, air and even underground in mini-subs, man-sized robo-tanks, full-sized real tanks, choppers, trucks, insanely overly armed flying gunships, and more. But the fact that you do this kind of thing again and again, and then a couple times more just for good measure, does start to get old, no matter how cool the ride.

That said, CoD:MW3 is like the best, over the top action movie you ever watched, but one that just so happens to put you in charge of the action. Well, at least most of the time when you’re not riding around on rails. While it doesn’t do anything really new, it does the ever popular modern military first person shooter thing better than any other game out there.

And then there is the real reason people buy this game; the online multiplayer component. Simply put, if fragging your real life friends (not to mention many foul-mouthed, raciest, homophobic teenagers, yes thank you Xbox Live) is what you live for, then this is the game for you. Period. Sure, the learning curve is brutal and you’ll get wasted over and over again in a blink of an eye until you get your footing, but you’ll have fun doing it. Also, this time around the geniuses at Infinity Ward, or should I say those that remain after the mass, news making exodus, has made things a little easier for those who can’t rack up the kill streaks with a support class. Now even the noobs can contribute something to the war effort. It’s little tweaks and perfections like this that proves once again no one does multiplayer better than CoD. They have really taken the online experience to the apex and it looks like they will remain on top for the far foreseeable future.

CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3 gets 4 ac-130 flying gunships blowing the holy hell out of everything out of 5. What it does it does better than anyone else, but it must be said that a new CoD game every single year is getting to be a bit much. Activision, if you’re reading this, please don’t kill off these series like you did with GUITAR HERO.

--Brian Sammons