All About mechberg
Here's six games that took up a lot of my free time over the last year, and some brief thoughts on each.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12
I had a chance to go to Augusta back in college; to attend a real-life Masters. A friend of mine's father had tickets and invited me to go, to which I politely declined. Talk about a life's regret! This is one that's especially haunted me over the past few years as I've gradually picked back up the sport that meant so much to me when I was younger. Anyway, I've always been a fan of the Tiger series but I never thought EA Sports would pull this one off. Forget its seemingly eternal exclusive with the NFL and NCAA. Finally landing Augusta National in Tiger 12 was the coup of the decade for the company in my book. It does beg the question though: Having delivered golf's Holy Grail to such fine effect, where on earth do they go this year?
NBA 2K12 owes a huge debt of gratitude to Sony. The first time I popped in 2K12 in my 360 and dove into "My Player" mode, the first thing I thought of was Sony's hoops games from the mid-2000s. You remember those, right? No? Well, you're probably not alone there. Featuring narrative-fueled tales dubbed "The Life", these games were as inarguably ambitious as they were deeply broken. These were bold (or, perhaps, foolish) takes on sports gaming; titles whose innovations were ultimately overshadowed by their prodigious fundamental flaws.
In 2011, 2K12 finally took those same ambitions and nailed it. "My Player" mode is an engrossing look at the life of an NBA player--both on and off the court. The key difference here is that, unlike Sony's melodramatic narratives, 2K still keeps the focus on the business of a ballplayer. There's no hangers on, no seedy agents, or any other superfluous subplots. Instead, "My Player" keeps the focus tight on your NBA career: what happens on the floor and immediately afterwards in the post-game press conference (where, to my eternal joy, you have a wealth of options--from being the fan favorite to being a locker room cancer. Think of it as Bioware focusing its talents on 7-foot-tall multimillionaires instead of Grey Wardens, Jedi, or people named Shepard). It's a fascinating and well-executed mode with a huge amount of variety and, this year, it felt really well-balanced.
I fear that, in a few iterations from now, 2K Sports will evolve "My Player" in one of two ways: deeper into the "traditional" NBA experience, resulting in something truly authentic and (dare I say it?) resonant, or they'll go the easy way and inject some of that trademark cheap 2K silliness into the mode--"My Crib 2.0" perhaps? Still, the possibility of overkill in the future certainly doesn't detract from the promise that's on display right here and now. Far and away my best sports game of 2011.
Forza Motorsport 4
Probably no explanation needed here, right?
Grand Prix Story
I devoured Game Dev Story with a sort of devotion I normally reserve for Scarlett Johansson. So, I was primed to love Grand Prix Story. But I only liked it. Liked it a lot, mind you; enough to sink tens of hours into the game. But something about the balance felt off to me. More to the point, I suppose in the end my passion for the Game Dev Story formula had already been properly sated by the original.
Developer Kairosoft continues to pump out these charming eccentricities, all seemingly cut from the same cloth--"Oh! Edo Towns" (Game Dev Story with samurai), "Epic Astro Story" (Game Dev Story in space), and so on. And as much as I love their commitment to their niche, I feel like I've seen it all. In other words, there's really only one Scarlett… everyone else, no matter how easy on the eyes, feels like a cheap knockoff.
Magic the Gathering -- Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012
Don't you dare judge me.
Ticket to Ride
Based on an old boardgame of the same name, Ticket to Ride is a charming game about the railroad business, where the goal is to control as much of a particular country's rail system as possible.
I never played the original Ticket to Ride boardgame and I'm actually glad I didn't. Having experienced experienced it on the iPad--with its gorgeous artwork, evocative soundtrack, and rewarding fast-paced gameplay--I suspect that, as with Magic the Gathering, playing Ticket to Ride in its original form would be a pretty unsatisfying experience. I mean, who wants to count mana cards and do the math needed to calculate damage in Magic? Who wants to keep track of remaining train cards in Ticket to Ride?
Forget online play or portability. The real reason retread games like these succeed on modern platforms is two-fold: 1) Time-tested gameplay and 2) The automation of tedious mechanics. After all, games are about relaxation, aren't they? In the immortal words of Butthead, "If I wanted to do math, I'd go to school."
So there you go. That's a handful of games that meant something to me in 2011. Here's hoping for an even better 2012!
On Tuesday, May 24, my father, Larry Ekberg, died of complications from his long-standing diabetes. Though in relative health for most of his life, the last 17 years had been a seemingly unending string of health-related setbacks, surgeries, and a slow deterioration of the man whom I was proud to call my hero. He died peacefully in his home with my Mom nearby.
It was easy for a stranger to look at my father—frail and shrunken in his wheelchair—and see someone whose life had been taken over by his disease. But just as none of us are entirely defined by what we do, or where we come from, or even what games we play, my father was never defined by his sickness. It was happening to him but it was never him. And that's why, even though his death and my family's collective grief are the foremost thoughts in my mind, it's not at all how I choose to picture Larry Ekberg.
My father was a golfer. A gifted athlete in high school and mostly self-taught, he took an early interest in the sport and played it for as long as his body allowed him to.
When I was young, I'd accompany my Dad to the local course and play along with him. In the earliest years, I was too young to appreciate golf's intricacies and too carefree to be impressed by either my father's natural ability or his careful instruction. At that age, it was fun simply to be outside or to be in charge of driving the cart from one shot to the next. One of my most vivid early memories is my father and I running an impromptu race to see who could reach the garage that held our golf cart—by the time we reached the building we were both sweating in the humid south Alabama heat, laughing so hard we were both already exhausted, and with a full, fun day of 18 holes still ahead of us.
As I got older, my outlook on golf changed. What at first seemed like a fun chance to spend time with my Dad eventually became a chore, as I became more and more frustrated by my lack of ability on the course. Perhaps there was a bit a jealousy there—I couldn't do what came so easily to my father.
Even as I shied away from the real thing, golf was always a common thread between us. We watched tournaments together and talked about our favorite players on the phone. We marveled at the spectacular rise of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s (and more recently, commiserated over his meteoric fall, both in his public perception and in the degradation of his physical skills).
And, endlessly, we played golf games together. First and foremost, we were Links guys. The long-running PC golf game was our go-to game, mainly because of the extensive course collection. These were the days of floppy disk drives and, somewhere in my house, I still have the massive collection of expansion course disks that my Dad and I collected over the years. We each had our favorites—for me it was courses like Banff Springs, with its impressive mountainous scenery and challenging layout. My Dad gravitated towards courses he had played in real life—Pinehurst, Harbour Town and, of course, the famed Pebble Beach.
It got to the point where, deep in the Alabama summers when I would be home from college, we would spend more time in our basement playing Links than actually going outside and braving the heat on the actual course. We were together, enjoying a beer, some conversation (or none at all), and spending hours taking turns on the mouse to make a shot.
In the real game, my Dad's skills were light years beyond mine. On the PC, things were a bit more lopsided in my favor. We loved to compare stats over time—my Dad had a thing for printing our post-round statistics so he'd have time to analyze his performance later. Now, I find myself desperately wishing we had kept those printouts; they would have been a tangible link to some of my fondest memories.
Our shared love for golf—whether virtual or the real thing—has proven to be increasingly important for me in the past few years. Naturally, I'm still a huge golf game fan—there's not a year that goes by that I don't buy EA Sports' Tiger Woods series. But I've also come back to the real game with a renewed vigor, if not any more natural ability that I had when I was younger.
These days, I often think about how my father played the game. I think about how he would have handled certain situations on the course—both in terms of the physicality of setting up the shot, as well as the mental aspect of dealing with that shot's result. That Dad was a natural player did not mean he didn't hit plenty of stinkers on the course. The difference was that he had a maturity and a good-natured spirit that easily dealt with insignificant failures… and, as a lifelong perfectionist with the soul of a sore loser, that's the part I'm still working on.
Due to his failing health, my Dad "retired" from golf a long time ago. The last round I ever played with him was a decade ago while I was home for my sister's wedding. He didn't play much that day; instead, he joined our foursome as we played and took only a few swings of his own. Riding along with him as we played, and seeing such a sense of longing in his eyes—I think he knew that he would never again be able to play the game he loved—was perhaps the saddest thing I've ever seen.
But was it really sad? I think back to that time now and I don't remember him being bitter. I don't recall him complaining. I remember him laughing and telling jokes, and making fun of my bogus swing. I remember him teasing my soon-to-be brother-in-law, and laughing with my cousin about some ridiculous occurrence from 20 years past. I remember that beautifully graceful stroke he took on the first tee and thinking, "Damn, I wish I could do that." I remember the ball sailed straight and far.
First, let me tell you what I have to tell you: Tomorrow, Friday, July 16 will be my last day at GameSpot. I've decided to resign my post and have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry.
Whew. OK, now let me tell you what I want you to know.
I screwed over a friend to get a job at GameSpot. Well, sort of. It's not like I stole his wife or something really terrible. But getting this gig back in 2004 meant that I had to leave a job that had been graciously offered to me by a long-time friend. At the time, I was working for his start-up company and, before that, I had spent the previous couple of months struggling as that most tired of clichés: an unemployed writer.
When my friend offered me the job, he was doing me a real favor, and I had no qualms about taking the job he offered, even though it wasn't what I really wanted to be doing. For many years, I had harbored a fantasy of writing about games full-time. Earlier in my career, I had covered the industry tangentially for a couple of magazines in Atlanta and, once I moved out to the Bay Area in 1998, I wrote for small sports gaming sites, some of it paid, most of it for no money at all.
Do what you do, after all, even if it means work for free. That's what I kept telling myself.
Dotcom gigs came and went and eventually I was hired by my buddy. About a month later, I saw an ad on Craigslist (if memory serves) for a sports editor position at GameSpot. Because I had spent the majority of my free time playing, talking, and writing about sports games, I figured I'd give it a shot. So I turned my resume and application in, never realistically thinking that anything would come out of it.
Then Greg Kasavin called me.
To be completely honest: I didn't know Greg by name alone (though, in hindsight, I should have) and it took several moments for my brain to register what was happening during that phone call: Greg was calling me. Greg worked for GameSpot. GameSpot (and Greg) had seen my resume and they were interested in meeting me in person.
I remember jumping up and down a lot. And then calling my wife, while jumping up and down a lot.
Not long after the phone call and the jumping, I came to the GameSpot offices for the interview. I clearly remember sitting with former GameSpot editor Bob Colayco and talking about NCAA Football 2004 (probably my all-time favorite entry in my favorite sports videogame series) for what must have been 20 minutes or more. It occurred to me: Here I was talking about my favorite thing in the world, as part of a job interview. What a surreal and utterly enjoyable experience! At that moment, the idea of any obligation to my friend and my then-current job went out the window. This was, after all, what I wanted to do for a living for the foreseeable future.
Do what you do, after all, even if it means you have to step on a few toes. That's what I told myself.
In hindsight, any guilt I felt at the time for screwing over my friend was completely unwarranted. For my part, I've been able to spend the past six years working a dream job, traveling the world, and acting like an idiot on camera. And for his, my buddy made a ton of money from his business, subsequently retired, and has spent the past few months sailing solo around the world. So, you know, things have a way of working out.
And things have a way of changing. Thus my decision to leave GameSpot for another opportunity. I'm not ready to announce my future plans yet--I'll wait until I'm settled in at my new position first--but I will say that the new job probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me and my gaming preferences. I can also say that I cannot wait to get started.
There are so many things I'd like to say before I sign off but, in essence, they all boil down to gratitude. I'm thankful for GameSpot taking a chance on me back in 2004 and for allowing me an astonishing level of professional freedom in the six years since. Even in a job that is fun to begin with, I've always felt like I was getting away with murder--being allowed to cover exactly what I was passionate about, create incredible stuff from scratch, and basically make GameSpot a personal playground. My output hasn't been perfect but it's always been from the heart.
I'm thankful to every single person I've worked with here at GameSpot--past and present--all of whom have made an impression on me. Being surrounded by people who are smarter than you is an opportunity, and you're a fool if you don't take advantage of it. For the past six years, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by the industry's best and I've learned and grown much in the process. Special thanks go to GameSpot's illustrious editor in chief Ricardo Torres, who has been a wonderful mentor and friend, and whose belief in me has been thoroughly inspiring.
Thanks also to my family, especially my wife Karen. She doesn't play games--I vividly remember the time I begged her on bent knee to play one hour's worth of World of Warcraft with me, her mouth agape at the outright, unrelenting nerdity she had agreed to--but she knows that they are at my root. As a result, she's put up with my long hours, frequent travel, and enthusiastic rambling with all the patience and love you could ever hope for.
I'd also like to thank you, the GameSpot user. You folks are the reason we get up for work early and go to bed late. You're the reason we obsess over every word in the reviews we write, and pray for inspired moments when on camera. You're the audience we get to be silly in front of, the folks we strive to entertain and enlighten, and the people we want to please the most.
The thing is, we're just alike. We are all driven by a lifelong passion for games--us GameSpot editors are just privileged enough to be able to have a wonderful platform upon which we can share that passion. That platform and your presence here are never taken for granted and is always appreciated.
Finally, I'll leave you with some advice. Over the years, I've been asked many times for thoughts on how to get into the games industry. Beyond the nuts and bolts you've probably heard before--learn how to write and write fast; learn how to spell; have some respect for grammar--the larger issue for me has always about persistence. My path to GameSpot was full of stops, starts, and unexpected turns. Whether working at companies I knew would fail, writing for free, or quitting a job that had been offered to me as a favor, I've always tried to keep my eyes on the ultimate goal. I wouldn't have had my long, strange trip to and through GameSpot any other way.
Do what you do, after all, even if nobody is listening. Because someday, they might.
Thanks and see you around.
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