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Interface

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Happy New Year to all. I have been deeply nested in holiday and home for a month, playing games with family and friends. Over the holidays, we went skiing and tubing in Pennsylvania with another family and had a great time playing some old favorites and some “new” games. The house in which we stayed in had a pool table, which was thoroughly enjoyed by adults and children alike as was a “bar top” trivia game. The gaming system is called the Megatouch XL and this version hailed from 1995. It features a touchscreen CRT display and a color VGA display (although ours often dropped out to a faint blue color). The system has 20 or so games such as solitaire, poker, trivia, mah jong and even horse racing. Despite the fact that every child had their own tablet (and all of the adults had smart phones), everyone was drawn to this retro tech oddity. It wasn’t that the content was so good that we overlooked the poor graphics and sound — we genuinely enjoyed the quaintness of the experience. You might jump to the conclusion that this was us recalling fond memories of playing similar games in our youth, but the younger generation was even more drawn to it than the adults. Was it just the curiosity of it? Who knows, but my eldest wants us to acquire one for our home. They do take up considerable space, perhaps  Megatouch makes an app. In fact, they do, many of them.megatouchxl

Over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but notice the development of interpersonal skills while gaming. The holidays provide opportunities to get together and spend more time with your kids. My boys and I certainly played a wide variety of games, both digital and analog with other kids of various ages as well as adults. It didn’t really matter whether we played pool, dominoes, Chinese checkers or Call of Duty Ghosts or Forza 5 — it is always interesting to note the interactions between kids (and adults, too) while they play games. Perhaps the act of playing a game with a given set of rules allows people to let down their guard some and show their emotions in a less restricted way. Maybe we see their truer self.

It’s not always a matter of competition either. Some of the most volatile and contentious situations happen while my kids build worlds in Minecraft. Regardless of game type, the adults try to instill the right values concerning sportsmanship and fair play as well as the golden rule. Many adults see video games as out of their comfort zone and don’t necessarily apply the same coaching approach. In general, we were pleasantly surprised at how well everyone got along and the few incidents that occurred were all used as teachable moments.

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With regard to my own gaming, I have been almost exclusively focused on Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag and many of my comments while applicable to many of the new games are directed specially to AC4. I completed the main mission and have been wrapping up the various other activities such as the assassin’s contracts, diving missions and naval battles. After completing the main mission, I watched the credits, as I often do for the games I play. Once again I was amazed at the number of people who work on the large games. Black Flag has one of the longest credits that I have seen, perhaps the longest. To be honest, I quit out before they ended, but I saw enough to appreciate the scale of the operation. AC4 Black Flag, like many other games these days, was developed in many locations simultaneously, so it’s hard not to be a bit dumbstruck by the scale of the development. The size of the world and the amount of detail that is present in every location is staggering. I have always been a fan of large open-world games recently favorites include Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, both Borderlands games as well as the other games in the Assassin’s Creed series.

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Beyond the shear size of the navigable world and the degree of detail involved in every piece of it, this game has so many other levels of interaction, each fun in its own way. The main mission with its various scripted sequences puts you in your own action film. The many assassination missions, including those where you help side characters through their storylines, provide for a rich experience at each location. Then there are the treasure maps, the chests, the Animus fragments, etc. There is no shortage of things to do. Part of what sets Assassin Creed games apart is their attention to historical detail. AC4 is no exception. On top of the fantastically detailed and period correct ships, weapons and clothing there are the sea shanties that your crew will sing while doing their work. I have accumulated over thirty of these. It is easy to forget the amount of time it takes people to research, produce and record these in addition to the main background music, which like all games in this series is really powerful and spot on in terms of feel and weight.

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Every game depends on the success of its user interface to provide the appropriate degree of control while not overloading the user. AC4 Black Flag, like many new games, features more interface types than was required in previous versions. The display that is ever-present while you walk through the towns or captain your ship is minimal and designed to be unobtrusive. This game is beautiful at sea and on land and features lush environments that would be spoiled by clunky menus and navigational aids. There are different menus for each type of shop and the various games within the game, each built from the same visual kit of parts as the main interface. These days, there are also smart phone and tablet apps that tie in directly to the console game each with their own interface that echoes the main game. The effort required to create and coordinate all of these graphic elements is both staggering and ever-increasing.

All this being said, the game is not perfect. I have found a few glitches such as cut scenes where the audio has dropped out or a new one that happened to me last night where during the boarding of an enemy galleon, my character somehow fell through the deck of the ship and was trapped inside the geometry of the hull. But considering the scale of the undertaking, I am nothing but impressed at the quality of the experience and as usual, I have learned a few things about the period in which the game takes place and it has sparked my desire to learn more about that time in history and the real characters. What more can you ask of any work of art let alone entertainment?

Frustration

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Gaming can be a great way to get a break from life’s frustrations. We can let our imaginations go free in worlds created by artists and developers and not be tethered by earthly limitations and shortcomings. It is therefore even more irritating when your games create the frustration that you were trying to shake. Sometimes it is the entire game that elicits the frustration due to its bad design or execution. (Yes, I am talking to you, developers of the Loony Tunes Acme Arsenal game.)

There are some instances where the game itself is brilliant but flawed by the execution of certain scenes. A recent shining example comes right to mind in Far Cry 3. I absolutely loved the entire game except for the final boss battles. Without spoiling the plot of the game (which is extensive), I can say that the beautiful and freeing feeling that you get from the open world design where you attack targets and select missions without the pressures of time and physical limitations is completely compromised by these boss battles. The controls are reduced to simple timed button mashing and the entire sequence is scripted and completely unforgiving. To make matters worse, the characters you are battling deliver lengthy speeches prior to each section, so as you make mistakes you hear the same monologues over and over. And you will hear them over and over as the sequences are designed so that the only way in which to know what to do is to have done it before. This same situation exists in several of the Assassin’s Creed games where the free traveling open world is suddenly reduced to scripted button mashing. Luckily in both of these games, the good greatly outweighs the bad.

In the case of Far Cry 3, while the boss battles are frustrating, it is not due mainly to the level of difficulty. In some games, however, that is exactly the case. There are instances that burn in my memory where I was caught in a scene unable to advance and nearly had to quit the game. In the case of The Simpsons Game (for the Xbox) the scene that gave me trouble was beating god at “Dance Dance Revolution“. The timing of the moves in this section nearly made me pull my hair out and certainly made me fight hard not to curse in front of my three sons who were much younger at the time. Eventually, my oldest son figured it out and we finished the game. The web is also a great asset when you get stuck but sometimes even knowing what to do doesn’t really help. After playing through Mass Effect 2, I thought it would be great to go back and play through the first game of the series. I did so until a certain scene where the characters are all trapped on a rising circular platform where I watched my teammates die time after time leaving me to battle a roomful of enemies by myself. I am sure that if I went back today I could find where I am going wrong and finish the scene and the game, but at some point it becomes much less attractive to do so.

Many games contain parts that appear to be much more difficult than the rest of the game. You find yourself questioning whether there was enough play-testing prior to the game’s release. Sometimes you find something that you missed that makes the scene much easier (again, use the web) and other times not. These issues are secondary however to the biggest gripe amongst avid gamers. While playing with my party last night I asked everyone what they considered their biggest complaint when it came to gaming. The unanimous reply came instantly – lag. All those who play multiplayer first-person shooters know exactly what I mean. The situation may exist in many games but the biggest culprit lately is Call of Duty Black Ops II where the effect is especially pronounced. The typical way that it occurs is during gameplay you see an opponent, aim and shoot and then they somehow squeeze off a few shots resulting in your instant death. When the kill is replayed it shows your opponent’s point of view and the action is completely different. They had plenty of time and hit you many times while your shots came too little too late.

There is no doubt that some players are much better than others at deathmatch style FPS games. It is also true that some players will go to extremes to beat the system. These included the use of “Modded” controllers that allow weapons capabilities that they don’t typically have such as rapid fire and auto-aiming as well as unsportsmanlike gameplay like playing on the opposite team and allowing your friends to rack up free kills on you and thereby earning points as well as killstreak rewards for their team. Most seasoned gamers agree that multiplayer FPS games are best enjoyed when they first come on the scene. It takes time for players to find the games’ weaknesses and exploit them. But once the games have been around a while, it’s the Wild West, anything goes.

My last gripe concerns peripheral hardware, and not for the new platforms coming this fall. There are already too many places where we can read about how disappointed people are with what is coming and why they can’t use what they already have. I am referring to the current generation of consoles. I have had great luck with third-party controllers, batteries and accessories. I wish that I could say the same for headphones. I have spent a good amount of time researching what to buy and spent a good amount of money buying the best headphones in my desired range only to be frustrated time and again. The issues usually involve the built-in microphones. I have returned several sets of headphones from two different manufacturers over the last few years when their mics completely stopped working. The headset that I currently use echoes my comments and occasionally others’ sound as well. I have read the instructions and consulted online help threads and not found the answer. The game sound is great, but the echo in the conversation is a constant irritation. And no one needs that when they’re playing.

Do you have a pet peeve that I missed? A game that drives you nuts? A scene that you just can’t get pass in a game that you otherwise love? A hardware or network limitation that is ruining the fun? I would love to hear about it and include it in a future follow-up.

High Fidelity

game_musicAs a teen and college student I prided myself on having the most enlightened taste in music. I had to know everything about who I considered the most profound and original artists. Much like the John Cusack character in the film High Fidelity, I was a music snob. I knew people and small specialty shops where I could hear and obtain the latest, coolest music from all over the world. And then I got old apparently. I have a large music collection collected over the years that makes it all too easy to not actively look for new music.

I have found that video games are an excellent way of experiencing new music whether it be right up your alley or a surprising departure from your usual tastes. Certain games have stood out as having especially well-chosen soundtracks in my opinion. Some of my favorites include Forza 2 where I learned of artists including LCD Soundsystem and The Pinker Tones, both new to me at the time I admit with some embarrassment. Since then I have become enormous fans of both of those artists. Both bands had a few tracks in the game and both had one that stood out. LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk is Playing in my House” and The Pinker Tones’ “Karma Hunters” encouraged me to look into those bands discology and quickly load up on their albums.

The Dirt series has had some great music selections as well. Dirt 3 includes a track from the band Atmosphere called “The Waitress“. I strongly recommend that you give it a listen. The games that are grabbing my music attention these days include Forza Horizon and Far Cry 3. Forza Horizon includes some of my favorite bands including The Arctic Monkeys, The Hives and reprises with LCD Soundsystem. Far Cry 3 turned me on to Skrillex and Damian “Junior Gong” Marley whose “Make it Bun Dem” requires being turned up to 11.

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