Tag Archives: Gaming with Gold

Paul’s Preeminent PlayStation Plus Purge – Monster Jam: Battlegrounds

Monster Jam: Battlegrounds is a bad game. I thought I’d just put that up front here in this new feature for Grinding Down where I finally start taking a look at the many, many PlayStation Plus titles I have installed on my PlayStation 3. Why? Well, the service is not what it once was in terms of the games you get (at least for the console I’m still on), and I’m looking to ultimately cancel it down the road. Unlike Microsoft’s Games with Gold program, you don’t get to keep the titles from Sony, so I should try some of them out before I cut ties and these disappear for good.

Let’s get to it. Monster Jam: Battlegrounds is Trials, but instead of motorbikes you use monster trucks to get the job done. The job is usually going from the left side of the screen to the right side. Actually, that comparison is completely unfair to the Trials franchise, which is noteworthy for its physic-based controls and steep challenge, but high level of polish. Also, completing a tough jump in Trials Evolution felt do-able and was really rewarding; here, you are fighting at every twist and turn to keep these monster trucks upright, almost as if they are hollow inside. Ugh.

There are three modes: Skill Driving, Stadium Events, and Stunt. Each is less exciting than the previous one. Skill Driving has you trying to reach certain areas by maintaining momentum and not toppling over. Stadium is a ridiculous scenario where you drive in a circle two or three times and beat an opponent doing the same thing, and to call this a “race” is an insult to the very definition of the word. Stunt wants you to use your boost power effectively and see how far you can make a monster truck fly through the air. These are all straightforward and over quickly, which makes the long load times to get to them and unresponsive controls all the more frustrating.

So, in the end, not a keeper. The physics are appalling, the challenge and graphic designs are lackluster, the audio is a mess, cutting in and out and culminating into one large crunch of static, crowd cheers, and cheesy rock music, and it takes forever to play, which, for a game I don’t want to play all that much, makes the decision to uninstall pretty easy. Didn’t even need to boost.

Oh look, another reoccurring feature for Grinding Down. At least this one has both a purpose and an end goal–to rid myself of my digital collection of PlayStation Plus “freebies” as I look to discontinue the service soon. I got my PlayStation 3 back in January 2013 and have since been downloading just about every game offered up to me monthly thanks to the service’s subscription, but let’s be honest. Many of these games aren’t great, and the PlayStation 3 is long past its time in the limelight for stronger choices. So I’m gonna play ’em, uninstall ’em. Join me on this grand endeavor.

Advertisements

LEGO Star Wars is from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

I’ve not played every single LEGO video game out there, but I’ve gone through a good amount, most of which were in order of release. For me, it began with LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game back on the PlayStation 2, but it’s probably more accurate to say that the starting point for the evolution of these LEGO video games from TT Games began with LEGO Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues. That’s where you began to see things like an enlarged hub world to explore and a split-screen camera option for when playing with a co-op partner, both of which have become mainstays for the series. Going back to play LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga recently has shown me just how far the series has come, for better or…no, just better. It’s only gotten better.

That’s not to say LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga is a bad game or un-fun. Mel and I have been having a good time completing levels, collecting studs, unlocking red bricks, buying multipliers, and revisiting areas for hidden collectibles. We chip away at the larger beast. The LEGO grind is here, but it’s enjoyable because, compared to LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, not every level takes upwards of an hour to complete. Not every door requires you to solve a minigame to open it. Not every puzzle is dastardly obtuse. I guess there’s some worse in the newer entries after all.

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga is basically a compilation of LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game and its sequel LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, that way you can play through them all together using one single product. Which is good for us because I only ever played through the former of those two, and Mel played the latter with her brother many moons ago. So we both got to experience some new areas together. Also, the game incorporates two previously deleted levels–“Anakin’s Flight” and “Bounty Hunter Pursuit”–though I’m only finding out about this now. Many other levels were redesigned and updated so that both games worked with each other and felt unified. Either way, the games follow the movies, which means you’ll get to see the exciting Trade Federation negotiations go down, young Anakin grow up, watch Luke learn about his father and The Force, and see Ewoks take down the Empire with sticks and stones. Since this is an older entry in the series, the cutscenes are wordless reproductions, but still silly when they want to be.

Here’s something I didn’t expect to ever say: Jar Jar Binks is essential. Early on, his ability to both double jump and jump high is pivotal for getting some hidden minikits, red bricks, or blue studs, which are the ones worth the most money. We brought him into every level we could during Free Play. I do miss the camera that would split in half and allow both players to do their own desires; here, you are stuck to each other, and often it made things easier for one player to simply drop out then for both to jump across sinking platforms floating in red-hot lava. Also, the flying levels are a struggle, especially when you need to get from point A to point B with missiles or a bomb being dragged behind you, and the whole world is out to make you explode. Later, we managed to make a door glitch out and not open despite doing everything right because glitches need stitches. Or something like that. Sorry, I didn’t know how to end that sentence.

We’re currently around the 65% completion mark, with several more levels to fully finish. Then there are special levels to do after you complete everything else, as well as challenges, arcade mode, playing online, gold bricks to buy, characters and vehicles to unlock, special cross-over Achievements to pop, and so on. Only after all that, after we see that 100.0% high in the sky, can we happily put LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga to bed. Still, this has been good co-op fun, which is not bad in July 2017 for the 23rd greatest video game of all time, according to the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition in 2009.

Gears of War 2 continues its virile fight against the Locust horde

gd impressions on gow2 xbox 360

A part of me somehow knew that if I waited long enough I could get all of the Gears of War games for free thanks to Xbox’s Gaming with Gold program. Well, not exactly free, as I am paying money to be a Gold member, but free from the outside looking in. It started out with the first Gears of War, which I played through and found myself dumbfounded over how this became a popular, blockbuster series, even if I was having fun with the active reload mechanic. I find it perfunctory and fine, but nothing amazing, and you can feel free to call me names in the comments (if I approve your abhorrent name-calling comment for all to see, that is). Then Microsoft gave out Gears of War 3 and Gears of War: Judgment, but I was holding my breath for the second entry in the series so I could at least play them in some sort of sensible order. Lo and behold, it was a freebie for February 2016, completing the path forward.

Gears of War 2 takes place shortly after the end of the first game. The Coalition of Ordered Governments continues its fight against the Locust horde, who are attempting to sink all of the cities on the planet Sera. Sergeant Marcus Fenix leads Delta Squad down into the murky depths of the planet to try to stop the Locust from destroying Jacinto, one of the last remaining safe havens for humans. I feel like, other than the part about sinking planets, you could use this same description to summarize the first game, too. Either way, there are a couple of small side stories to explore, such as what happened to Dom’s wife Maria and a civil war brewing between the Locust and the Lambent.

Gameplay remains largely unchanged from the first Gears of War, though you can now pick up fallen enemies and use them as cover against incoming bullets. These are lovingly referred to as meatshields, which I approve of greatly. Regardless, you’ll push forward in linear levels, hiding behind cover and popping out of it to shoot the bad dudes. You’ll also have an AI-controlled partner with you for most of the missions, and I assume this character can also be controlled during the co-op campaign. I found Dom, at least on the “normal” difficulty, to be mostly a waste of space, especially during that boss fight against the Leviathan. Truth be told, and maybe this has to do with my recent practice with the Gears of War 4 Beta, I did pretty good in the campaign, only seeing red a handful of times, and those really only occurred during the two separate fights against Skorge, as I wasn’t sure exactly of what to do. Okay, okay…maybe an unseen Ticker got me now and then as well.

Alas, I’m still not enthralled with the running and gunning of the Gears of War series. I liked finding the collectibles in the levels, which should not surprise anyone following Grinding Down, as well as when you got to ride a Brumak near the end and just massacred everything in front of you. There’s also one level inside a giant monster where the focus is not on pelting Locust with bullets but rather surviving all the weird internal organs.  Those stand out as the highlights of the campaign for me.

Since beating Gears of War 2, I’ve been dabbling in its multiplayer modes. For various reasons. One is to clean up some Achievements I’m close to getting, like performing all the different execution methods or using proximity mines to kill ten enemies. Two…is that I fully expect to never return to Gears of War 2 once I start playing the third one, which I’m in no rush to load up, and so I want to make sure I get everything out of this game that I can. Or rather, that I want. I managed to get into one online multiplayer game with real-life people and had my butt handed to me swiftly, and so now I’m sticking to local matches against bots, as well as the Horde mode (solo and on “casual” difficulty). I also plan to pop back into the campaign and grab the remainder of the collectibles, considering I already got half of them my first time through this brown, brown world.

I’m definitely not immediately launching into Gears of War 3, even with the way this campaign ended on a cliffhanger. I’m okay waiting a bit. There’s plenty of other games currently in circulation too, such as Sunset Overdrive, I Am Alive, and Saints Row IV. In the meantime, if you are in the mood to play some Gears of War 2 and want to help me progress through Horde mode (I crashed into a wall around wave 6), hit me up on Xbox One.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War can bloom even on a battlefield

valiant hearts gd early impressions

I don’t know much about war, but I suspect I’m more knowledgeable when it comes to details related to World War II than World War I. Mind you, this is not me saying I’m knowledgeable at all. Just more familiar with how things went down from 1939 to 1945. Blame it heavier on popular entertainment media than my limited history school lessons, as I probably absorbed more from things like Band of Brothers and The Saboteur than anything else. As for World War I…well, I know it was one of the deadliest conflicts, with some absolutely terrifying weapons of war used. Like severe mustard gas.

So, naturally, there’s not a plethora of games based on this happy-go-lucky time period, though I did recently puzzle my way through Covert Front‘s alternative take on World War I. Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War is also a puzzle adventure game, released in summer 2014 and developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, and walks the path of being both fun to play and educational. Evidently, the game was inspired by actual letters written during World War I and focuses on four different characters: the Frenchman Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, American soldier Freddie, and Belgian nurse Anna. It’s a heart-twisting story of love and survival, sacrifice and friendship. There’s also a dog you can continuously pet.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is divided up into four chapters, and each chapter is split into several sections. Most of these sections you to clear an objective in order to progress through the story, like solving environmental puzzles or acquiring specific items related to the situation. Other sections mix the action up, such as surviving heavy gunfire, stealthing past enemies undetected, and, my personal favorite, rhythmic car chase scenarios set to classic songs where you have to avoid obstacles in the road. Also, each of the four characters is able to interact with the world based on who they are, such as Emile shoveling through soft ground, Freddie cutting barbed wires with his shears, and Anna treating patients’ injuries through a mini QTE. When available, the characters can order the dog to carry objects and push levers.

Despite the tone and horrific historical details, I’m really enjoying my time so far in Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It’s got a fantastic, cartoonish art style, and the puzzles have not gotten too complicated to the point where I’d want to throw the controller away. Even if they do, there’s an in-game, timer-based hint system, if you need an extra clue on what to do with the dog or how to sneak by that watchful sniper in the tower. Toss in some relaxing piano tunes for when you are reading up on days past, as well as a soothing narrator, and this is a strangely tranquil gaming experience amidst all the explosions and mortar shells. I’m somewhere in the middle of chapter two currently, so I don’t expect this to last that much longer, but that’s okay. It’s bite-size, but so far quite filling.

Lastly, I keep thinking from its title that Valiant Hearts is somehow related to Vandal Hearts, a PlayStation 1 tactics RPG that I regret trading in back when I was young and dumb (but haven’t written about yet). Alas, the two are no more related than…well, I tried for the longest time to think of some witty war comparison here, but came up empty. Germany and Canada? Meh. If you’ve got a killer line, drop it in the comments.

Doing the assassin thing during the Italian Renaissance

Assassin's Creed 2 early impressions

Yesterday, everyone was all atwitter over Assassin’s Creed: Unity–though not really over Assassin’s Creed: Rogue–mostly due to Ubisoft’s strange limitations on its review embargoes, as well as the resounding conclusion that the newest stabby-stab title for new consoles in the age-ol’ franchise from a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs is nothing more than mediocre. Naturally, I got the itch to run around rooftops and pierce jerks with hidden blades, so I finally loaded up Assassin’s Creed II for the first time, which Xbox gave out for free many moons ago. Please remember that I played the original Assassin’s Creed and then followed it up with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, so I’m jumping to the middle chapter mega-late, but that’s all right.

What is Assassin’s Creed II all about? Well, the outside-the-Animus narrative is set in the 21st century and follows Desmond Miles after he escapes Abstergo Industries and relives the genetic memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The main narrative takes place at the height of the Italian Renaissance during the 15th and early 16th century. Ezio, a young, charming fellow very much in love with the ladies, is on a vengeance quest against those responsible for betraying his family. That’s all I know so far, having completed everything in sequence 1 and now just running around the map in search of treasure boxes and feathers (when I hear them twinkling).

The game came out in 2009, and it still looks really good, just not in cutscenes. Moving around the world still feels mightily impressive, with a good number of people roaming the streets below, though it is more fun to leap around on the rooftops. However, cutscenes show a lot of dead-eye stares and flat expressions, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I remember Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood fixing a lot of gameplay problems I had with the original title, and I suspect those changes actually started here. Looks like the side missions mostly consist of beating up faithless husbands/boyfriends, racing thieves across rooftops, and killing targets for money, and then there’s the collectibles: hundreds of treasure chests, eagle feathers, semi-mystical glyphs, and statuettes hidden throughout the world. The fact that some of these collectibles appear on the mini-map (after you buy a treasure map) is truly all I needed.

There’s still some open-world jank and lousy platforming to wrangle with, but that’s kind of the same ol’ baggage every Assassin’s Creed carries with it, and the good generally outweighs the bad. However, I do not like trying to climb a building only to accidentally cause Ezio to leap from a window off to the street below and his synchronization death. It’s happened a few times. The combat is not as refined or fluid as Brotherhood‘s was, but still enjoyable to counter a soldier’s sword swipe and knee them in the gut. I’m still early into the adventure, so I don’t have any other fun combat tools at my disposal, but hopefully Leonardo da Vinci can help freshen up the fights.

People are all up in arms over Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare‘s “Press X to pay respects” prompt, but maybe many have forgotten how, early on here, you press buttons to make baby Ezio move his limbs. I’ve also run into a few strange QTE-like moments in Assassin’s Creed II that leave me feeling very uninspired. Every now and then, during a cutscene, there’s a button prompt to do something, like show off your newly acquired hidden blade, but these button prompts are on the screen for less than a second. Generally, I put the controller down during a cutscene, not expecting to be asked to remain involved, and so I’ve missed every single one of these moments. Even when I suspected one might be incoming, I still missed it, being too slow and distracted by my kitty cat. I don’t know, they are strange additions.

I wonder if Assassin’s Creed II will sustain my open-world, rooftop-running itch for a while or if I’ll need to acquire another title down the line. If so, I think everyone likes Black Flag the most currently. Until then, may no one see you stab someone in the neck.

Shooting the Covenant and the Flood for some reason in Halo 3

Halo-3-Covenant-Files-7-05-FLOOD-TANK

You might say I play the Halo games wrong or, at the very least, in the wrong order. Other than dabbling around with the first level in the original Halo a few times on the PC many moons ago, here’s how my Halo history has gone down so far: I played Halo 3: ODST, which I found a bit lackluster, and now three years later I just beat Halo 3. Y’know, the game that came before the previously mentioned one. Truthfully, I don’t think it matters because these games seem to have generic, paper-thin plots that are there to set up firefights or crowded hallways of enemies, as well as a vehicle-driven sequence or two, which all boils down to shooting aliens. I suspect I said the same thing minus the alien bit about Battlefield 3, but I’m really picky about my first-person shooters, usually going for ones that focus on non-shooting mechanics and stealth.

Anyways, recently, I jokingly tried to sum up the plot of Halo 3 on Twitter, which went something like this: You are Giant Soldier, out to shoot bad aliens. Then foreign plant aliens show up, and you shoot them too. At one point, these plant aliens are your allies, and they help you shoot the bad aliens. Then they get mad at you, so you are back to shooting all of them. Lastly, a planet blows up. The end. Sure, that might sound a bit dismissive, but really, that’s kind of it, unless you want to also discuss the post-credits scene, which is there to remind the Bungie loyalists that, don’t worry, you’ll get to do all of this again in the next forthcoming title. It probably also didn’t help that I played the first two missions back in October 2013 and didn’t get the urge to play again until after finishing Crackdown and wanting to keep the 2007 hype train a-rolling.

If there’s one thing I really didn’t like about Halo 3, it’s that Master Chief can’t run. Or, if he can, I have no idea what button sets those bulky feet into motion. The game, in general, moves extremely slow, but when you are trying to rush over to a Wraith to pop a sticky grenade in its engine and crawling babies are passing you–something is terribly wrong. Yeah, Master Chief can jump really high and regain his health/shield, but I’d trade all that and a limited edition Needler that shoots green spikes to be able to run up a hill. I guess speed is not a concern for Halo fans, but games like Borderlands 2 have spoiled me too much.

Also, let’s talk a bit about friendly AI and the wonky, unpredictable physics of flipping vehicles. Master Chief, on occasion, is accompanied to firefights with a handful of soldiers, and most of them will die before the end, either by the enemy’s hands or your own. In my case, I ended up running over a lot of them with a Warthog. They are terrible at flanking the enemy, and sometimes end up in weird, buggy states, like standing still or running up against a wall. I found myself on at least three different levels sitting idle in a Warthog while an AI-controlled soldier got in the driver seat, sat staring ahead, and mumbled, “Need a ride, sir?” until I got out, removed him from the driver’s seat, and drove away on my own. Enemy AI is pretty decent, as the goons and grunts will take cover and try to surprise you now and then. For true hilarity, when your vehicle tops over, you can press a button to flip it upright, and sometimes that works, and sometimes the entire thing does an Olympic gymnastic routine that would surely garner high scores.

After finishing the game and immediately deciding not to replay it all once more on Heroic or Legendary difficulty, I went hunting for skulls. These are tiny collectibles you can find in the levels that, once grabbed and turned on, make the game harder, but also give greater rewards. Sort of like the god shrines in Bastion. Alas, these skulls are teeny tiny and aptly hidden, making hunting hard. In other words, I looked up a guide and followed along, grabbing all of them within an hour, with only two proving quite tricky (Fog Skull and Famine Skull). First-person platforming is no easy thing.

I also tried a match or two of online multiplayer–yes, people are still playing Halo 3 competitively–and that’s fine fun, but again, it all moves so slow. You die, you respawn on the opposite end of the map, and by the time you get over to where everyone is shooting at each other, they’re all already dead.

Which is your favorite Halo game? Should I try any others or just call the series average at best and move on with my time? I could live life just fine if I never had to shoot another stream of Flood monsters ever again…

Dust: An Elysian Tail is colorful, cutesy, and full of genocide

dust-5 early imps

From what I’ve read on the always trustworthy Interwebz, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a polarizing game. Meaning, there’s the people that love it, and the people that hate it. And from what I’ve played, which is maybe an hour and change, enough to have at least opened up the map and availability of a number of side quests, I think it all comes down to whether you are a big enough person on the inside to unabashedly accept a game with cutesy, colorful–and I mean that in two ways–characters that harken back to that era of safe, but satisfying Saturday morning cartoons. Because everything else seems solid, if perhaps a little perfunctory and possibly unnecessary in some areas. We’ll get there, kids.

Welcome to the world of Falana, which is inhabited by any great number of anthropomorphic animals. You get to see the world and its people–if you can say such a thing–through the titular main character Dust as he tries to remember his past. Yup, it’s another main character suffering from short-term memory loss; at least he’s not mute. Anyways, right at the start, Dust finds a sentient sword called the Blade of Ahrah, which will be his main fighting weapon. Ahrah’s original guardian, Fidget, a flying squirrel-fox-thing, also joins the group and is able to toss magical orbs at enemies from afar. I don’t know much more about the story, except there’s monsters and a village and I think the monsters want to kill all the talking furry folks. There’s that and trying to reconnect Dust with his surroundings.

So that’s the story…kind of. Gameplay-wise, Dust: An Elysian Tail is basically a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up of yore. Think Odin Sphere and Shadow Complex rolled into one. Or if you want something more artsy, maybe Aquaria. Basically, you move left or right across a grid-based map, fighting monsters, building high combo counts, and earning experience points for it all. Oh, and you can also acquire loot in the form of ingredients and materials. Occasionally, at least early on, Dust acquires power-ups that permanently alter how he fights and moves, such as double jumping or being able to combine Fidget’s magic with one of his attacks for more damage. The RPG elements allow Dust to level up and put points into certain stats (health, damage, defense, magic), as well as wear different types of gear and craft new equipment. And that’s more or less everything I’ve seen so far.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with furries, though I’m finding the story a little slow and predictable at the moment…at least until the other shoe drops in relation to Dust’s past and how he factors into all this genocide. Thankfully, the fighting is a ton of fun, even if it can quickly go wrong or become chaotic and confusing. If you know what you’re doing before you start tapping buttons, you can have total control over an entire group of enemies, much like you can in Guacamelee!, which I do need to get back to soonish. I enjoy knocking enemies up into the air, juggling them for a bit, and then pile-driving them into the earth below, sometimes hitting some other enemies along the way. It’s fun if occasionally mindless.

One aspect to RPGs of all kinds that I’m finding less and less appealing as time goes on is that moment when you arrive in a town, generally your first safe spot, and everyone under the sun has a side quest to give you. For Dust: An Elysian Tail, this happens in Aurora Village, and you can’t help but collect quest after quest as you walk left to right towards the mayor’s house. I think you end up picking up around five or six additional quests before you can move on, and sure, most of them aren’t thinkers, just asking you to collect this or that while out battling monsters, but it felt a little exhausting. I remember feeling the same when arriving at Borderlands 2‘s hub of Sanctuary, as well as stepping foot in every single Skyrim town. Quantity does not always equal quality.

This always gets talked about when I come across something Dust-related to read, so I might as well join in and mention that the game was developed by independent designer Dean Dodrill…and mostly only himself. Sure, there’s voice actors and a bunch of other stuff you might not think about, but Dodrill drew, animated, programmed, test, rebuilt, and so on. I believe it took him around four years to put a cap on his furry game’s head, and that’s one amazing accomplishment, whether the game resonates with you or not. There’s a fantastic piece over at Polygon on his plight, which I suggest y’all check out.

I’m going to keep playing for sure, as the difficulty hasn’t reared its ugly head, and it feels like the kind of game I can just chink away at over the next few weeks. Here’s to finding out what dirty deeds Dust did in his past life.