Sunday, March 14, 2004

Killing Snowboarding Sims for Money

When I returned from my February hiatus, I promised some video game reviews. Here they finally are, for the geekier among you...

A couple of weeks ago, I watched ESPN for the first time ever in my life. This was a very strange experience, and anyone who knows me would undoubtedly be shocked. The thing is, I've become somewhat obsessed with snowboarding.

Though I'm generally a pacifist and very anti-gun, my taste in video games leans towards the violent. When it's purely fictional and safe, I find bloody death strangely relaxing. I don't like sports games and I don't like racing games. So it stands to reason that I would have no interest in the SSX series of snowboarding games. And in fact, I didn't, before SSX Tricky captured my soul.

Last year, Boy and I were staying with some friends of his in DC, and they had the first SSX on their PlayStation 2. I don't remember playing it at all myself, but Boy enjoyed it a lot. One of the many things that makes Boy such a fabulous boyfriend is that he has almost endless patience for watching me play video games. Unfortunately, he doesn't enjoy shooters himself, so we rarely play together. So when I saw a used copy of Tricky (the second game in the series) in Blockbuster, I grabbed it for him. I thought we should have something we could play together.

Little did I know. Little did I know that buying it "for him" would become a source of endless mockery.

I got hooked. Completely and irrevocably hooked. I played for hours on end when Boy wasn't around. I mastered the courses, and came up with complicated backstories and relationships for the characters. Part of the hook of Tricky is that you can choose from several characters to play as. Each has his or her own personality, strengths and weaknesses in racing and performing tricks, and a short bio you can read. As you advance through the game, you unlock different outfits for them to wear, and half the fun is in dressing them up. In other words, it's sports for fags.

So for Chrismukah, Boy got me the latest in the franchise, SSX 3. And it's goooooood. It's just so fucking pretty. The environments are amazing, the sound design is perfect, sunlight shines through pine trees, snowflakes blow in the wind and melt on the "camera lens"'s just cool. They've also done an amazing job of making the physics of the game seem very real when of course they can't be. Real snowboarding, I learned from ESPN, is pretty dull. The game, like any good game, is a fantasy, where you can spin a board around your head or fall several stories after a jump, land on your feet, and not shatter both legs.

Unlike its predecessors, SSX 3 is non-linear. Instead of a series of individual courses, you board down a mountain, turning this way onto a race course, that way onto a freestyle course, or just cruising around to explore and complete challenges that pop up at various points throughout. You need to complete certain tasks to unlock more challenging peaks, but you can spend a lot of time getting to know the terrain and earning money (which matters now in a way it didn't 3 you buy increased skill or, if you prefer, cuter outfits, rather than unlocking them) without getting bored. With Tricky, I often felt like I was thisclose to getting something. This would lead to hours and hours of trying to do the one little thing that would win me the race. SSX 3 is both easier and harder. Some areas are simply out of my league and must be saved for later. And I still occasionally get caught in the "restart loop." But there are also so many things to do that I can always do a short challenge so I feel like I've accomplished something, and call it a night. Or, y'know, stay up all night trying to get all the challenges. Either way.

My only real complaint is that the voice acting isn't nearly as good as in Tricky, which snagged several celebrities. There's much less emphasis on the gimmick of character relationships (where people would either encourage or threaten each other in cut-scenes, and if you pissed someone off enough he'd start knocking you down on the course) so the voiceovers obviously took a back seat to the visuals. Which I understand is why most people play games, but are you surprised that I want a story and good acting?

As things calmed down at work last month (a relative description, to be sure), I swung by a used game store and picked up a couple of things I've had my eye on for a while that I've been waiting to see for under $20.

First up was Star Wars: Bounty Hunter. It's not a bad game, but not nearly as good as the Star Wars game released around the same time, Jedi Outcast. Once you've had a light-saber, telekinesis, and the power to control minds and shoot lightning (all things I've wanted desperately since I was eight years old), everything else just pales.

Plus [geeky rant alert!], you play Bounty Hunter as Episode II's Jango Fett, and he bugs the hell out of me simply as a concept. I've never understood the fanboy obsession with Boba Fett, and the fact is that he's an incredibly minor character in the original films, who's been inexplicably fetishized through later merchandising. He has somewhere in the neighborhood of five minutes of screen time over two films, and he dies one of the most idiotic deaths in the series, even by Star Wars standards. So to give him a big fat portentous backstory in Episode II makes even less sense to me than the rest of Episode II. Especially because his backstory is totally irrelevant to his appearance in Episode V. It's not like Boba goes after Han Solo to avenge his father's death. He's a freakin' bounty hunter, and any connection between him and the later characters is a complete coincidence.

So anyway, on top of Boba's useless backstory, we've got this game to give us Jango's useless backstory.

Remember the "junk dealer" in Episode I? You know, the CGI alien with the hooked nose and the Semitic accent who was obsessed with money? Well, there's another one of those aliens in the game. This one is a motherly figure to Jango, and along with giving him leads on bounties, she needles him about when he's going to get a nicer spaceship and settle down and "have a kid." I assume that this is all setup for Jango getting Slave One (his butt-ugly flying iron of a ship that didn't have a name until it was made into a toy, and that no one seemed to care about until that toy sold millions) and begetting little Boba, but aren't these characters offensive enough without making one into a Jewish mother?

But I digress. The game itself is pretty entertaining. A jetpack is almost as much fun as a light saber, and there are lots of fun winks for the fan. I'm currently playing a level on Tatooine, where I'm especially fond of killing Sandpeople, and there's a fun sequence over the Sarlaac pit (a locale that didn't work out so well for Boba). When you shoot enemies they will, whenever possible, not just die, but fall screaming into a bottomless chasm. Are there no safety codes in the Republic? Have these people never heard of guardrails?

In addition to the main missions, you can earn points and unlock bonuses by collecting secondary bounties. That little antenna thing on the Fetts' helmet is apparently a scanner, and if you scan someone with a bounty on his head you'll get a little bio and find out how much he's worth dead or alive. Personally, I enjoy the utterly ridiculous names like Merk Teg, Bulbousola, and Samm Duo (yes, I made all of those up, but they're not too far off). Once you've marked them, you can either tie them up and take them alive, or kill them and take them dead (though this is where the falling bodies can get annoying, as your bounties can easily go bye-bye). There's always been a don't ask/don't tell policy among gamers as to how characters can carry so much shit with them, but I really have to wonder where all these bodies Jango carries go.

But I digress again... the fun thing about bounty hunting, is that Jango is a complete psychopath. And no, it's not just that I as a player, am a complete psychopath, these things are actually necessary to advancing in the game. Jango will gun down an entire neighborhood, unarmed bystanders and all, in pursuit of a couple thousand dollars (or whatever). Several of the bounties are placed by good guys -- escaped criminals wanted brought in or whatever -- and no one seems to care about all the collateral damage I cause. Good times.

Several elements of the game design can be annoying. I like a challenge, but I also play games to relax, not to get more stressed out, so I don't like being frustrated by my games. I've fallen to my death or failed to kill an enemy several times, not because what I was doing was meant to be hard, but because Jango failed to grab a ledge he was supposed to grab or because the targeting system didn't work properly. There are checkpoints throughout the game, from which you can continue if you die. But you only get five lives per level, regardless of the level's length or difficulty. So of course, the levels where you run out are also the ones you really don't want to do again! There's something nicely old-school about this, like when I used to spend an entire Saturday on Level 8 of Super Mario Bros., but in this day and age of memory cards it strikes me as odd.

Overall though, if you like blowing shit up to the accompaniment of John Williams music, this is a good game to buy used. (Look for mine on eBay as soon as I finish it!)

Last, and most definitely least, I picked up The Sims, whose transition to a console game intrigued me. I never got into the classic Sim games (SimCity, SimEarth, etc.), but when The Sims came out for the Mac I was sucked in by the chance to play god on a smaller scale. I've had my same little gay sim couple for years (their names, Dawson and Pacey, attest to their longevity), and I'll go for months without playing, then get obsessed again for brief periods (usually when I have insomnia) and advance them a little before getting bored, or just losing the time to play.

I'd read that in console form, The Sims was level-based, with specific tasks to accomplish before moving forward, much like a more traditional, linear game. And that's not exactly untrue, but since the goals are things like "learn to cook" and "get a job," gameplay doesn't feel any different than it did on a PC. I'd expected the graphics to be vastly improved, so many years since the original came out, but they're actually worse. Sure, there's more detail in the faces, and you can select individual features (hair, eyes, nose, etc.) instead of an entire head at a time, but it's so badly rendered everyone just looks creepy and ugly.

Maneuvering around the screen with a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard is clunky, at best. Worst of all, the game is boring. Like, shockingly boring. I realized something very important about The Sims: On my laptop, it's a great game to play while doing something else. At work, listening to music, watching TV. And even if you're giving it your full attention, it goes pretty fast. On the GameCube, of course, I can't have the TV on in the background, and I can only move away as far as the controller cord will take me, so it's nothing but dull. I don't know how they took a good game and made it not good, but they managed. Look for my copy of that on eBay too!

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