Sunday, November 29, 2015

My Thanksgiving Scores

This past week was absolutely amazing. With the company of my girlfriend I got out and hit the thrift stores, flea markets and a few other places. To be honest I was surprised at how many video games I was able to find in all the places we went, most of them were sports titles but at least they had something. Nestled away between the sports titles, empty cases and the overpriced riffraff I found the occasional game worth spending a few dollars on, as well as I finally found a few games I had been wanting from Gamestop.

The adventure started on a snowy Saturday, where I found a complete copy of Duke Nukem Forever for Xbox 360. Sure I've heard bad things about this game, but it was only $3, it was complete and it was at Goodwill, so I felt it was a pretty good deal overall. Not the greatest, but not something I could have walked away from.

On another day we stopped by a local Gamestop and I had a strangely great experience. I bought two cheap 99 cent games from Gamestop: WWII Aces and Wii Play, nothing special but they were games I've been wanting to pick up for a while now. The cases were mint, the manuals were completely in tact and the discs look as if they've never been played, perhaps rightfully so, but regardless this is the first time Gamestop hadn't tried to shove me out the door with grime covered discs and/or a broken case without the manual.

Finally came Black Friday, which had two meanings. Firstly it was the sales event of the year, yet it was also Black Friday because it was the final day of my girlfriend's visit. I'll save the best for last, but my actual final pickup came from another Goodwill, where I found a mint copy of Wii Fit for $3. This isn't a mind blowing score but this is a game I've been wanting to find, because I've actually been debating picking up a Wii balance board from Goodwill on their 50% off sales.

And finally, the best for last was a pick up I couldn't pass up! I've been wanting this for years and have watched the prices fluctuate on the used copies and I finally decided that $20 for a brand new copy of  Grand Theft Auto 5 for Xbox 360 would be the reason I finally own it. I've made it well known that I love the GTA series and besides the handheld versions I now own all of the console version of GTA. Even though my Xbox 360 is dead, I feel $20 for a sealed copy to have when I finally do get a working 360 is better than $30 for a used one, especially since this was a Gamestop sale.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Project: Outlet Wii - The Final Peice

It's been over 2 years since I've last stepped foot in the outlet store, although I haven't completely stopped going to thrift stores. Sporadically I've been to Goodwill sales days as well as going to a local Salvation Army store, yet I've never been able to find the final piece to finish off Project Outlet Wii. I found everything, short of a replacement controller, through the outlet store, flea markets or other thrift adventures, yet for some reason I could never, and have never found a Wii sensor bar that wasn't already part of an overpriced bundle.

Up to this point I've been using a wireless Big Buck Hunter Pro bar that is essentially the exact same thing, albeit ugly and eats batteries like a glutton. This meant I would turn the thing on just enough to navigate the menus or get a game started, then I would turn it off and hope that I didn't use up the brand new batteries I just put in the thing, not 10 seconds ago. I do have a few games that require a constant presence of a Wii sensor bar, which I don't play all that often anyway, otherwise causing the game's controls to be horrible or non-responsive at all. I needed to find myself a Wii sensor bar, or did I?

Being the crafty fucker that I am, I decided that I would just compromise and use what I already had, but modify it to work with the Wii's USB ports. It's a super simple little project. All you need is a Big Buck Hunter Pro sensor bar, or analog, which I found at the outlet store years ago, I also often find them hidden among the toys at local Goodwill stores, and a cheap USB cable, which I procured from Goodwill for 50 cents.

While the Big Buck bar only requires 4.5 volts, USB will provide 5, and to be honest I'm not completely sure whether this will shorten the life of the sensor bar or not, but the fact is I'm sick of changing out batteries constantly and I don't often play games that require the bar on the whole time, so I see this as being a necessary evil. Either way I feel this project is worth the attempt as it only cost me about $1.

I simply isolated the 5v source and the ground wire and soldered them to the proper terminals in the battery slot. Then I made a knot in the USB cable and cut a notch in the battery door of the Big Buck bar and voila! Now I have a USB powered sensor bar for about $1. If this thing burns out or dies, I can most likely salvage the USB cable and just find a replacement bar at Goodwill for $1-2 and just do it all over again. Hopefully with the infrequency with which I use the sensor bar I won't need to, but it was well worth a try because now I don't have to worry about batteries anymore!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Mafia Video Game Series.

Amongst the slew of open world, free to explore at your own leisure games there stands one game that set the bar at a slightly different level than all others; Mafia. At the time of it's release Mafia was sandwiched between two of Rockstars juggernaut games of the GTA franchise that seemingly inspired Mafia, both GTA 3 and Vice City. Where the GTA franchise missed a large era that would have been the perfect setting for a GTA universe, the prohibitionist 1930s, Mafia crept in and took it's rightful place as the outlet to freely explore and live a fictional life in that era through the protagonist Thomas "Tommy" Angelo.

Mafia was indeed the answer to those wanting a 1930s era Grand Theft Auto. From a random encounter with the mob, Tommy is given a chance to join the mob as an associate, which may sound cliche today, but actually turned into a great story line. Mafia was filled with twists, turns, challenges, rewards and all of the things you would want from an open world game.

That's not to say Mafia wasn't without it's flaws, the biggest of which was that the console versions felt like very sub-par ports of the PC game. Everything felt like it was slowed down to fit the controller configuration and never really felt very much like a genuine console release. The graphics weren't always the greatest, and while driving was a great portion of the game the cars were never really all that exciting to drive. For good and bad, Mafia was and I believe is still a worthwhile game to play.

For nearly 8 years the franchise sat dormant, and only those with their ears to the ground heard much about the franchise, but in 2010 a whole new experience was unleashed. With the release of Mafia II came a shift in console generations, meaning everything looked better, everything felt smoother and everything felt more alive. This time Mafia was set in the mid 1940s, following a war veteran by the name of Vito Scaletta as he returns from war and catches up with old friends, only to find the fast track to money and fame is through his old friend Joe, who has been doing odd jobs for the Mafia while Vito was away at war.

Again, this time through Vito, you are taken through the twists and turns of joining the mafia, but this time things don't feel quite right to me. Where the first Mafia was story driven, everything felt more fluid and everything seemed to link together, not the case with Mafia II. Mafia II lays out the story as if it were a book, in chapters, which left me feeling as if the story was disjointed and clunky. I'm familiar with the mission to mission grind, but the story just didn't seem to flow with all the fast forwarding and jumps the game did.

The flaws within this game don't really smother the fun you'll experience while playing it, but they are there. For instance the lack of free roam, which even the first game offered, 8 years it's senior. I honestly can't remember whether or not the first game unlocked free roam after completion or not, but I know it was there, so why wasn't free roam ever offered in it's sequel? Well, technically there is free roam, albeit in the form of a DLC pack called Jimmy's Vendetta. You won't be using Vito, the character you've grown attached to in the story mode, you'll be doing a short story line for Jimmy, but at least here you do get to access all three homes from the story mode, unlike Vito.

Another issue is the tiny garage, as you're only allowed 10 vehicles, only getting more with DLC included vehicles. Since Mafia II allows the player to steal and customize just about any vehicle within the game, you would think the game would allow more than just 10 cars in a garage. For example Driver Parallel Lines allows players to store 99.9% of in-game cars (which is around 80 or more), and Saints Row offering about 50 cars. There is no need to limit the player to 10 cars, plus DLC cars, especially with the plethora of vehicles that Mafia II provides.

And finally, and simply put, the police are far too easy to escape. In almost every free roam game I've played the police are ruthless crime stoppers. From GTA to Saints Row, to the original Mafia and all the way around to the Driver series. In Mafia II the police will give chase, they will even shoot, depending on the severity of the crime, but in a moderately fast car you can easily lose them within a few city blocks, no hassle. It may sound like a nitpick but if there is no real challenge or punishment for committing a crime in a video game, there is no real fun or reason to do so.

Mafia II isn't all bad, not at all. The graphics are beautiful, the city is beautiful and fun to explore. There are many things to do within the city, magazines and wanted posters to collect, clothing stores, gun store as well as diners and bars you can go in and have a meal or a drink. You can even rob these establishments for a little bit of cash, and I do mean a little bit of cash as the highest I've taken was $300 from a gun store. Not much, but it adds a little bit of adventure to the overall exploration of the city.

Now what would an open world game be without vehicles? As I started earlier you can customize vehicles and race them around the city, although there really aren't many places you can truly max your car's horsepower, it's still fun to speed around the city. There is quite a selection of vehicles to choose from, all of them based loosely on popular real-world vehicles of that era.

One of my (oddly) favorite parts of Mafia II is that should you find a vehicle you wish to make your own you have two options; you can just be brash and smash out the window, or you can be quiet and cunningly use a lock-pick mechanic to unlock the door. The trunk and hoods of some vehicles will open up with very little use as you can't store anything in the trunk, but if your car is heavily wrecked you can pop the hood and have a fiddle around to get it working again.

I like the Mafia franchise the same I like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and I believe they both hold their own respective places alongside each other. As GTA expands upwards and outwards I hope that Mafia continues to follow where it is headed as well. I loved the crossover mission in Mafia II that called back to the ending of Mafia, proving that Mafia has a good idea of where it's headed, and as a fan I will be along for the ride.