Previously I reviewed Far Cry 3 on the surface level and deemed it to be a pretty good game. In this post I’ll examine the writing and explain why I think Far Cry 3 is a great game.

Beware, there are countless spoilers. If you want to experience the game yourself without my biases, play it first.

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After a long series of delays, Runic Games’ Torchlight 2 has finally hit Steam. I played it a bit yesterday, and I thought folks who were Diablo 3 fans might like to know how Torchlight 2 compares.

Torchlight 2 by itself

If you’ve played Torchlight 1, or any of the Diablo series, you know what you’re in for – killing all the dudes and getting all the loot. There’s a pseudo-Steampunk angle to the world so you’re just as likely to fire a gatling gun as draw a bow. You’re also blessed with a pet from the very start of the game which has a remarkable impact on gameplay.

Versus El Diablo

It’s really hard to write much about Torchlight 2 (TL2) without reference or comparison to the Diablo series. I might as well bite the bullet and get into the comparisons.

The first thing you notice is money, in few contexts. Torchlight 2 is only $20, whereas Diablo 3 hit shelves at $60ish. You can buy a 4-pack of TL2 2 on Steam for the same price as Diablo 3. Then from the intro screen, you can tell that while TL2 got a lot of love, it didn’t get anywhere near the budget that Diablo 3 (D3) had. While the music in TL2 is fine, you can tell Blizzard shelled out for a full orchestra to really smash that opening screen. Same sort of thing for the sound – while it’s quite good in TL2, it lacks some of the variety and quality that D3 has.

Curiously, TL2 has a very similar art style to Blizzard’s biggest earner: World of Warcraft. Textures are fairly simple, colourful but evocative. D3 had that wonderful painterly feel to everything (if you didn’t zoom in too far) whereas TL2 retains a video game feel. By eschewing any dedication to realism, the TL2 guys were able to be a lot more creative with the different enemies and landscapes that you see. You cycle through both pretty quickly so while not individually engaging, it constantly feels fresh. D3 rooted itself in areas, soaking up a particular atmosphere that the artists tried very hard to capture.

The main difference as I see it is that Torchlight 2 wants to be fun, whilst Diablo 3 wants to be hardcore. I think TL2 wins in executing this and being my kind of game. One of my issues with D3 is I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. A lot of the gameplay and theming was structured around being hardcore. Percentages are quoted to 1 or 2 decimal points. You have to prove your worthiness of later difficulties by finishing the lower ones first. Bad guys are routinely tougher. If you want to go to town you are punished by a long wait and potentially decaying loot drop chances. Every patch to D3 tries to finely balance all the different class and skill choices. Heck the whole online-always thing was to ensure a level playing field for everyone in what is ostensibly a single-player game.

But then the execution of D3 was uneven. The auction house blew away any sense of difficulty, progress or achievement if you had the cash. The very grimdark storyline was too serious yet not interesting nor carefully crafted enough to warrant it. In the midst of a very serious battle that might determine the fate of the world, you are encouraged to smash up Heaven in order to find a few extra dollars. When you save the world by beating up the Prime Evil himself you get a bit of thanks, but mostly they care about what Tyrael does next. You’re just some dude. A set of bad guys and their related achievement are named after the Three Stooges. Your character will have a serious contemplation about the afterlife whilst punching someone’s skeleton out. The NPCs have more social interactions than you do. The mix is all wrong.

Torchlight 2 doesn’t take itself anywhere near that seriously. The cinematics are cartoons, which is not to say they aren’t great, but D3′s realistically-rendered cutscenes demanded a certain amount of gravitas whereas the Big Bad Guy in TL2 explodes a few buildings with his staff on the way to punching up someone. While TL2 has the same sort of thin story that it tells fairly straight-faced, it doesn’t insist on it as strongly as D3. It revels in the secondary detail that D3 loves but is supposed to be too serious to lower itself to. For example, in one area you fight a ghost pirate called One-Eyed Willy (which is a joke in itself), but a drop you find nearby is “The Other Eye of One-Eyed Willy” which is basically a rare gem you can shove into your weapon. While D3 had similar rare champions and gag loot, they seemed out of place.

TL2 is really just there to have fun. The first 20 odd enemies I fought I could one-shot kill them (and they’d explode in a shower of gore). You’re encouraged to wield gigantic shotguns or grindstones strapped to logs. A nice way to get loot is to go fishing and the fish you find polymorphs your pet into various crazy creatures. Occasionally, just apropos of nothing, you’ll fight a phase beast enemy that will open up a portal to a mini-game. Socketed weapons come thick and fast. You are encouraged to use gems as soon as possible because they don’t allow gem combining (although they do allow you to recover either the gem or the item, but not both). Identify scrolls are basically instantaneous. Portals back to town are instantaneous and semi-persistent. The town itself isn’t a chore to navigate and basically once you’re outside the gates, it’s combat time.

TL2 allows local, LAN or Internet play and totally doesn’t care what you do. You are strongly encouraged to mod the game and use other people’s mods. While they offer much the same gameplay options as D3, you don’t have to grind for them. Hardcore and harder difficulty modes are available immediately.

You can craft your own character however you want. I have an engineer chick that has specialized in hitting things with weapons as big as her, and robots. With a different set of skill choices, I could have made her a pseudo-knight hitting things with a sword and doing all sorts of shield-bashing, or taken an entirely different route and made myself a damage sponge distracting the enemies while a horde of robots cleaned up. And this is just one class of four!

If you realize quickly enough that a skill choice was not for you, a guy in town will allow you to respecialize your last 3 choices. They don’t really care so much about a level playing field so all the pros are evenly matched. They want you to have a good time killing things. Speaking of levels, you gain them at a good pace, which is a great contrast to D3′s general grind.

Pets are great. You have a choice of ten different species (dogs, cats, wolves, hawks… even freaking ferrets with hats!) They’re all very adorable. While mechanically they have a lot of similarities to the paladin/brigand/enchantress you could have in D3, they feel quite different. Like in Torchlight 1, they can be loaded up with extra items and sent to the store while you keep bashing things. Interestingly, they can also buy consumables for you. The town felt like a chore in D3, whereas you can avoid it entirely in TL2.

Pets can be given very simple gear, but more importantly can be given spells to learn. While thematically weird, it means that my wolf can cast a Summon Skeleton spell while I’m summoning a small horde of spider mines. I’m rocking out with an entourage similar to my witch doctor from D3, but my character is more than able to handle herself. I could have chosen the Summon Skeleton spell for myself, but in the chaos and finite amount of mana I have, it’s great that my wolf can provide a skeleton at a moment’s notice.

While this review was supposed to be a quick TL2 vs D3 bullet-point comparison, I had too much fun pointing out the things I liked about Torchlight 2. I think this is very telling. I appreciate the effort that went into D3 and the game Blizzard were trying to make. However, I felt as a player Blizzard was keeping me at arm’s length from their game, lest I sully its very important sheen. They were building the game for the obsessive 1000-hour players and making me work for entertainment. While they both revel in the fairly mindless hack and slash emblematic of Action RPGs, Torchlight 2 wants everyone to come in, make yourself comfortable and have fun.

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The fact that Diablo 3 was being released this year was mostly a curiosity to me. I had played a bit of Diablo 1 and 2, played a reasonable bit of Torchlight, and had attempted (and failed) to get into World of Warcraft. The action RPG never really caught me, because of a variety of gameplay and gaming reasons. But as Diablo 3 release day grew closer, my friends got more and more excited about it. I was interested to see how the real-currency auction house would work, and I had faith that Blizzard had enough people, experience and smarts to make a great game. And a good few days later, here I am, reviewing it. The one-line review is that I like it, but I am very, very uncomfortable about that.

To put it favourably, Action RPGs are all about taking the mechanics and settings of standard RPGs and streamlining them to be more arcade-like. You still have stats and gear, but you don’t have skills like Diplomacy, or Crafting. Everything is about killing bad dudes. Gear makes your stats higher, which makes you better at killing bad dudes and better at not being killed by bad dudes. You have skills but they are really different attacks or abilities. My Diablo 3 character is a female Witch Doctor. Her skills are shooting blow darts, or throwing jars of spiders at people, or throwing frogs at people, or throwing decaying zombies at people… you get the idea. You can choose a single skill from a bank of what you’ve unlocked by gaining levels. You can swap skills at almost any time. This gives you a bit of latitude in how you want to play. I play my Witch Doctor by creating a clusterf mess of zombie dogs, gargantuan zombies, followers and spells I’ve thrown into the fray. Basically I stop throwing spells when the area that the bad guys were in stops moving.

Action RPGs are designed to be little pockets of bad guys that you encounter in an area. Kill them all and then you can move onto the next pocket. There are very few scene transitions, narrative or much that isn’t fight, fight, fight. Hence the name “action” RPGs.

Diablo 3 does this well. They shake up the “pockets of bad guys” just enough to keep you on your toes. A dead tree may actually animate and ambush you. Lizards or giant worms may advance on you by swimming through the sand like sharks. Birds may drop in from the sky. There’s a lot of flavour in it all. Bad guys have a bunch of tricks up their sleeves, although some of them are not so fun. Fear effects on bad guys is awesome – they all run away. Fear effects on you is not so great – you run away and lose control of your character. Same goes for “jailer” bad guys who can temporarily freeze you in your spot, or “waller” bad guys who can arbitrarily create smashable walls.

The environments have a lot of flavour. Each area has a different visual texture to the others. It may be the difference of lighting (an underground cavern may have very diffuse or very harsh lighting), or architecture (the ruined castles you wander through all look different) or just special effects like sand storms or swamp gas. Even the abilities have some great effects on them.

Levels are procedurally generated, so while the artists have put a bunch of work into the “local” art, the level design in general is some form of controlled randomness. This idea was borrowed from roguelikes like Angband. They’d randomly create the levels every time you entered a new one. Torchlight did the same thing, although not so successfully. They had an evil dungeon near town that had endless levels on top of each other, which was jarring if you had a level with lava everywhere somehow on top of a level of bottomless pits. Diablo 3 is a little more careful. Some levels are large plains that have cellars or a few levels of a hidden city underneath them. It’s logically consistent if a little fantastic, which is great.

Diablo 3 does this all very well. It’s a polished game and you can see a triple A developer has been working on it. What I don’t like is that a triple A developer could have done so much more.

After 12 years of development, really they’ve just come up with the same game. There’s some new classes and tweaks, there’s a bit more physics and particle effects to make things look interesting, but the gameplay is fundamentally the same. Which is to say incredibly shallow. Spam an area with attacks and that’s strategy. The difference between the classes seems to be the distance to your foes that you need to be (monk/barbarian – up close, wizard/witch doctor/demon hunter – at range) and how big an area your effects hit. Witch Doctors, for example, hit far and wide, but precision stuff is not so good. You can change this up with different skill load-outs, but there definitely seems to be an optimal load-out and all the rest are kinda flavour.

Even then, the experience is pretty empty. The writing and narrative are really quite terrible, although the ideas present suggest that there is a good writer in there trying to get out. All the quests are about killing everything in an area, maybe clicking on a book or two. No puzzles. No real choices. Everything is about making the numbers bigger. Like I’ve mentioned to my friends, this will become a game to play whilst listening to podcasts. Which doesn’t say much for the mental stimulus of Diablo 3.

Loot drops like rain, but it’s mostly trash. You can buy a weapon for say 2000 gold pieces, but if you found the same thing, you might get a handful of gold pieces in return. Even then, the merchants sell nothing of interest. Your blacksmith requires loot to improve, and you will sink hundreds of thousands of gold coins into him to just get him to be able to make something you want. And halfway through that process, a lapidary shows up and you need to do the same thing for him.

The heart of the game is loot. It’s the only way you improve outside of levelling, and levelling slows down over time. Because of the randomness of it all, you’re encouraged to shake down every last bookcase, punch every last coffin and run over every last gold coin on the ground. And this is where I really dislike the game. It becomes pure addiction. Very shallow gameplay, yet they constantly encourage you to act compulsively. You probably can play through Diablo 3 not grabbing all the loot not immediately in your path, but you will have a tougher time because of it.

Worse still is the game engine they decided on. It’s a MMO-like. You play on a server somewhere, even if you’re playing single player. The idea proposed by the developers is that this approach gets rid of the black market or grey market item selling, thus protecting their customers. But it also means you can’t play without an Internet connection. You get lag if the network or server is flaky.

Which would be okay if they went all the way with this, but they seemed to have ended on some half-arsed solution. A new player is not explained that they may lose their game or items if the server is shut down. In fact, you are fairly unceremoniously bounced from a game if this happens. You can’t use the auction house mid-game. You can’t even get the benefits of the auction house mid-game. The UI for contacting friends and being social is slightly awkward, a thing you’d think they’d have spot-on from 8 years of experience with WoW. And you’d especially think they’d know how to provision a few extra servers for the release date. With all the people, money and experience, they kinda did an underwhelming job. I feel uncomfortable supporting dev work like that.

The economics of it all, while still nascent and developing, are kinda worrying. Loot is plentiful but mostly worthless. You have to invest a not-insignificant portion of time picking up and selling loot (gold is automatically picked up if you’re nearby, why not items?) The gold auction house is in a weird state of flux. There’s a vast number of items that the game can procedurally generate, so there’s no baseline prices for anything and the market will have a hard time agreeing on a value on anything based on stats. Plus the gold auction house feels like a trainer for the real currency one. For example, the auctions for game gold charge a processing tax. I can understand that they want a coherent system, but that in itself is devious. If I can’t really tell the difference between virtual game gold and real money, what are Blizzard trying to encourage? Especially when they are taking a bit off the top for every auction, even ones that fail!

There’s something unsettling in the final product that I have a problem putting my finger on. I would have thought that you could have a hybrid server/single player model and still preserve the integrity of your auction house. If the server goes down, your computer takes over until it can pass the reins back to Blizzard. All the items you have generated by your computer aren’t signed by Blizzard, so they can’t be used in the auction house and maybe they get even poorer merchant exchange rates to avoid converting illegitimate goods into gold. Maybe only have rare identifiable items be auctionable, and identification is the process that generates an authorized item. These solutions aren’t foolproof, but with the amount of money and people they are throwing at this game, you think they’d try something better than booting single player gamers out of their game.

In addition, Diablo 3 really feels like an MMO-lite. There’s the endless cooldowns on abilities. Some I understand – you have to wait between changing a skill and using it, so you don’t get to use all skills all the time. Others are daft – the game encourages me to stand and watch a clock tick down before I can re-summon my zombie dogs. If the game knows there are no bad guys nearby and I’m not in combat, speed the cooldowns up! This is a single player game, and you don’t want the experience to be “I’m watching cooldowns tick down.”

All in all, it’s an okay game, but it’s unsettling. Blizzard has so much resources and sway, and really they’ve put out a graphically nicer version of a 12-year old game. It’s about as good as a game like this can be. But they haven’t innovated. They haven’t improved the customer experience (except for protecting against being ripped off by the item black market, which is a small problem at best). They’ve secured a profitable model for themselves, based on a shallow addictive experience, and given very little back to the customer. Definitely nothing with lasting value. A bunch of decisions could be made by fear or greed, but I’m willing to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. What I’m not willing to give them is any more of my money. They’re a triple A developer, an industry leader. They need to act like one.

After the explosion of triple A games late last year, I’ve finally cleaned through them and started playing a wider variety of games. A bunch of friends have recommended some awesome games, that I thought I might share with you.

  • Legend of Grimrock: Old-school dungeon crawler with some modern graphics. You run a band of 4 adventurers thrown into a dungeon carved into Mount Grimrock. You have to descend to try to get out and solve the mystery of the Legend of Grimrock. Some of the interface takes getting used to, but it’s a neat game with lots of fighting, puzzles and secrets.
  • Gemini Rue: An adventure game that is a gentle blend of sci-fi and classic noir. Kinda like a less fluorescent Blade Runner. Great atmospheric music and sound effects (the opening scene was pretty awesome). Voice acting is quite good and extensive for an indie game. The puzzles are fair, action actually quite gripping and the story not too bad.
  • Lone Survivor: A survival horror adventure game that messes with your head. While I wasn’t really happy with the visual style at first, it grows on you. The special spooky effects are quite awesome. I think I understand the game loop so far, but have little idea where I’m moving to -for good and bad. There’s certainly a lot of mystery and weirdness going on, but I’m finding the main day game loop is getting shorter and shorter. Definitely recommended though, especially while it’s only $7.99 on Steam.
  • Analogue: A Hate Story: Spartan but efficient anime visual novel game. You’re bouncing through log messages, trying to figure out what’s happened on this space ship, whilst interacting with an AI with a secret or two. The story is great, with expert drip-feeding of mystery and information. If you stand back, there’s not a lot to the game, but it really makes full use of its interface for gameplay and story. Recommended if you don’t mind a gentle pace and lots of reading.
  • Orcs Must Die!: Yet another tower defence game, but you are part of the real-time defence! There’s a lot of character in this game, and I liked all the different traps. As it goes on it becomes more of a puzzle game since you definitely don’t have enough resources to make the default setup trap-laden. In the end you have to guide the flow of orcs into your much cheaper (and hopefully more efficient) meat grinder.
  • Dear Esther: If you want to be gaming literate, you need to play Dear Esther. It’s far removed from being a traditional game but still excellent and definitely suited to its gameplay. You can’t run, jump or shoot. There’s no inventory. In a sense there isn’t even a straight story. But it’s excellent and some of the visuals are breathtaking.
All of the above are available on Steam for $15 each at most.

If you didn’t catch all the triple A games from before, I heartily recommend (in order of recommendation) Batman: Arkham City, Mass Effect 3, Saints Row 3 and Skyrim. Serious Sam: BFE is good if you’re nostalgic for that sort of thing, but after a while I found it an adrenaline-filled game that was somehow simultaneously boring.

Do you have any recommendations for lesser-known but still excellent games?

I have a confession to make. I’ve been working on a review of Saints Row The Third for a little while now, but Christmas got in the way. I’ve 100% the game and loved every minute of it. However my long form review was more-or-less captured by ex-RPS writer Kieron Gillen in his Eurogamer review. In short, it’s a game of pure madness, where if you trust the developers to give you fun, they’ll deliver by the truckload. It’s not at all subtle or particularly sophisticated, but it’s very, very fun. I like what they are doing with player-based content and telemetry, and it’s great to see a developer smack it out of the park with good humour.

Anyway, I had captured over 100 screenshots in preparation for the review, and I can’t let them go to waste. So I present to you my insane, not-safe-for-work holiday in Steelport (aka Saints Row 3):

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Thanks to the lovely folks at RockPaperShotgun, I managed to snag a weekend beta pass to Star Wars The Old Republic. I’ve never been huge on MMORPGS but I’m not alien to them – I invested a fair amount of time into Matrix Online, a reasonable amount of time in Lord of the Rings Online, played some WoW and D&D Online, and I still play the heck out of Kingdom of Loathing (although KoL is a slightly different beast). SWTOR has been dubbed a potential “WoW killer”, so I was interested to see how it panned out. I wasn’t personally interested in playing, until my friend showed me this:

I mean, seriously. A Jawa with a rocket launcher? What’s not to love?!

So this weekend I put in a few sessions with the game as a female human Smuggler (in that I’m a female smuggling goods, not ladies). She’s got the whole Han Solo thing going, which is cool. She’s at level 8 or 9 now. I’m still in the newbie class-specific area (that I share with Troopers). My character’s recent skill acquisition was effectively “kick them in the groin”. It complemented my “throw a grenade into their face” skill.

What’s it like? Well, it’s like a MMO. It’s like WoW. It’s like expansive, slightly low res environments where nameplates run around and there are little pockets of bad guys standing around, waiting to die. It’s like watching cooldown on icons so you can do your same cycle of skills to kill yet another insurgent that’s getting in the way of you running to a dude and getting the next location to run to. Of course, I’m overly cynical here. SWTOR is definitely an improvement over the WoW style (last time I played WoW). Having conversations with quest-givers actually be little cutscenes (a la Mass Effect or any other modern Bioware game) is neat. My first bunch of NPCs were really boring and I was a bit disappointed that they had spent a lot of time and money getting voice actors to deliver boring stuff. But as I got on, the animation got better, the writing more nuanced and the voice acting more varied and interesting. I wasn’t blown away by it, but man, it’s so much of an improvement over WoW “oh gawd, I dunno, fetch 10 wolf pelts” streamlined quest givers.

I don’t know if Lord of the Rings started it, but I like the seemingly new design choice to make the quests from quest-givers actually something with a plot, and incidentally along the way you can kill 10 bad guys and get a bonus. LotRO invested more in it (in that the “kill 50 dragonflies” were quests that hung around) but SWTOR seems to make them more thematic. For example, all of mine thus far have been to teach a lesson to the separatists as part of a larger campaign, so I kill 12 separatist scum whilst travelling between quest-giver and quest-Macguffin.

All the things you’d expect for a MMO to have is there: an extensive list of social actions, quick-fire slots for all your skills, hub cities with clusters of vendors, if you hover over an item it’ll tell you what you get by equipping it versus what you already have… There’s a fast travel taxi service between areas, and my character at least had a special “Quick travel” skill to zip between known areas. It’s all from Ye Mighty Checklist of Modern MMORPGs and it’s all done pretty competently. The UI is slick and help isn’t too hard to get. The codex entries are fairly detailed, but I never read them. There were some nifty surveys on quests to help them fine-tune the game. I grinned at a support request coming back to me via “Protocol Droid M0-T0 of Human-Cyborg relations”.

It’s all very well done. Maybe better done than WoW. But to me, it’s still just polishing that old tile. A lot of my time was spent creeping between pockets of bad guys, gradually nuking them with grenades, or finding the racing line between them to avoid aggro. All the bad guys exist to die, and you kinda have to wait your turn for them to respawn before you get your chance to kill them. It’s like an oversized fun park where you have to travel sizable, awkward distances to get anywhere, and all the rides are Skinner boxes. In this sense, SWTOR was not much different to the Star Wars MUD I played about a decade ago.

The writing here is much better than I’ve seen in other MMOs, but it’s not excellent as far as real writing goes. Most characters are introduced just to discard once the quest is complete. Despite their plight, there’s nothing to invest in here. I like that quest-givers are voiced and animated, and there are usually interesting camera angles on the action. But the animation in cutscenes is merely serviceable, and the vast majority of your interactions in the world are with very strict animation state machines (aka bad guys).

All-in-all I think SWTOR is a good take on the modern MMO formula, but with all the money and talent they threw at it, I’m a little disappointed that it’s a shinier version of more of the same. It’d be risky to do something new and there’s a lot of money on the line, but the gameplay has barely evolved since the mid-2000′s. I would love to see someone turn the formula inside out and produce something new. Regardless, I know a bunch of my friends will invest sizable chunks of their life to this game, but I don’t think I will. My mistress has and probably always will be Team Fortress 2, but if someone would do something significantly different from prettier, more fine-tuned Skinner boxes, I’d be into MMOs in a heartbeat.

So while Jawas with rocket launchers are hells cool, and I enjoyed my weekend as a female Han Solo, I think I’ll leave SWTOR to the millions and millions of people who will enjoy the heck out of this game.

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I finished Rage last night. Steam says I clocked up 17 hours, which is not too bad for a modern game. All in all, I was a bit disappointed. It felt like they had three acts in mind, got 75% done on the second act and had the vice-like grip of Zenimax squeeze them into releasing now. The third-last mission: pretty awesome. A very vertical level with hundreds of bad guys swinging in from all angles. The second-last mission: You shoot 6 mutants, a tank, two dudes and press maybe 3 buttons.  I expected the final level to include amazing sights and a massive boss fight. Nope. Press three buttons and watch your spider droids kill “super soldiers”. No big celebration afterwards. No rousing speeches from your main man saying how they couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for you… Nothing. Just a quick pre-rendered cutscene of not-very-exciting stuff happening, then roll credits.

For what it was, Rage could have been awesome. For what it is, it’s a big disappointment right before the most spectacular months of gaming in years.

I took a bunch of screenshots of Rage that I thought I might share. I absolutely loved the character design, so most of the shots are about them.

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My mother visited her grandchildren recently and took them to the park. Little Dani (4 years old) was having a good old time, swinging on the swing and jumping down the slide. At one point she stopped, ran over to my Mum and asked, “Nanny, I am having fun, aren’t I?” Adorable. Worlds and realities away, if John Carmack was watching me play Rage over my shoulder, I’d keep turning to him and go: “John, I’m having fun, aren’t I?”

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So Valve Software recently released their much-awaited sequel to Portal. Before its release they published a number of in-house generated trailers, and promoted the release with an alternate reality game. The game came out, the critics almost universally loved it, but on Metacritic, the forums and blogs there seemed to be general ire against the game and Valve in particular. I’d like to explore this to get a feel of the current games market and blow off some steam on Portal 2, the ARG, Steam and Valve themselves. (Click here to read the rest of this entry)

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