On The Division, Quantum Break, and self-awareness

My original intent with this post was to simply recap my experiences upon finishing both The Division and Quantum Break.  But having played two third-person shooters back-to-back – games which couldn’t be more radically different from each other despite existing in the same genre and coming out within weeks of each other – I think there’s something to be said for exploring the two, specifically with regards to their respective levels of self-awareness.

Still, in the interest of clarity, let me get my QB thoughts out of the way, given that I’ve already spent several posts and several thousand words talking about The Division.

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that QB is perhaps the most impressive-looking game on the Xbox One.  Character models are remarkably accurate and I never once felt the effects of the uncanny valley; nearly every combat sequence is spectacular to look at, especially since, as the game progresses, every enemy you kill dies frozen within time and space, often hurtling backward as frozen arcs of blood spurt forth.  There are also a few platforming sequences amidst collapsing environments that recall some of the more surreal dreamscapes in DmC, too; it’s rather astonishing stuff.  If you own an Xbox One and want to show it off to a friend, this is without question the game you want them to see.

The second thing that is apparent, especially just after sinking 50 hours into The Division’s bullet sponges, is that QB’s gunplay is far more streamlined: most enemies go down with a few accurately placed shots, but by the time you’re halfway through the game the bullets are really just there to augment all the super-time-manipulative powers you gain access to.  It’s almost reminiscent of Bulletstorm, in that you’re encouraged to be creative with your methods of enemy disposal; you can freeze them in a time bubble and then pour hundreds of bullets into them, you can throw a time burst at them and they basically just explode, you can even sort-of teleport around the environment and circle enemies and pick them off before they even know you’ve moved.

But the most important thing – the story – is where the game pretty much falls apart.  Not because time machines are an overused trope, but rather because none of the characters are interesting.  The big-name movie stars certainly provide adequate performances, I guess, though I couldn’t ever get over the feeling that the bigger names received paychecks with enough zeroes on them that they simply couldn’t refuse.  I’m not accusing Lance Reddick, Aiden Gillen or Shawn Ashmore of phoning anything in, as I would of Peter Dinklage in Destiny – but their dialogue is nearly impossible for them to be emotionally invested in.  And the TV Show half of the game really just feels like a low-budget version of Fringe, mostly featuring ancillary characters to the game’s story that I simply never cared about and was anxious to fast-forward through.  And the option to make timeline-altering decisions never felt particularly empowering, since everything ultimately winds up in the same place, and I’m certainly not interested in “seeing what happens” to play it twice and make all the opposite choices.

The game takes its story so incredibly seriously that its version of The Division’s collectibles – i.e., environmental doo-dads that you have to look for that provide varying levels of interesting backstory – are actually called “Narrative Objects”.  (And yet, despite the game’s self-seriousness, there is a bit of unintentional hilarity in that everyone – both good guys and bad – uses Microsoft phones and tablets; this is a very obvious bit of corporate synergy and it doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as it simply obliterates it.)

All this aside, it was really, really nice to have an excuse to use the XB1’s Elite Controller again; that thing is no joke.

So, back to the original premise of this post, which is about the relative levels of self-awareness in both The Division and Quantum Break.

To wit:  The Division is not at all self-aware, even when it’s being cheeky (like putting one of the safehouses in an abandoned Ubisoft office).  The Division is Ubisoft’s attempt at investment in a long-term product; having seen bits and pieces of the endgame, it is very clearly putting its own spin on Bungie’s Destiny.  (Ironically, though, my 50+ hours playing through the campaign reminded me much more of my experience soloing my way through the first 40 levels of Star Wars: The Old Republic; I did engage in a few PvP things here and there, and did some co-op raids and such, but mostly I kept to myself, and both games (to their immense credit) didn’t seem to mind all that much.)

That said, now that I’m a few days removed from it, I can’t honestly remember why I was doing what I was doing beyond certain mechanical rewards, like getting better gear and weapons and upgrading my base and the like.  The writing is incredibly blunt – which is odd, given that the narrative itself is rather thin.  (It doesn’t help that the voice actors who feed you context through your radio about each mission you undertake are the dumbest and most obvious NYC stereotypes you can think of – the nagging Jewish mother, the effeminate floofy dog owner, the reformed ex-mobster, the egomaniacal actor – and I stopped paying attention to their inane yammering as soon as I realized that nothing they were saying was particularly important.)  Nobody is spending hundreds of hours playing The Division for that game’s story, or even really exploring the abandoned city; after a while, the act of entering random apartment buildings and rummaging through apartments felt less of a violation and instead simply felt repetitive, especially as there’s only a few apartment models and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.    The hundreds of collectibles that justify their existence by containing backstory are poorly written and poorly voice acted and once I hit level 20 (or so) I saw no tangible value, not even in XP, in bothering to pick them up.  Combat is the main focus here, and most enemies are bullet sponges, so your battles are tactical and slow, almost never even approaching something you’d call “explosive”, even if there’s a lot of grenades.

Quantum Break, on the other hand, is VERY MUCH aware it’s a game.  More to the point, it’s self-aware that it is a much-publicized experiment in synthesizing videogames with a television show, and it’s even more self-aware that it’s a Remedy game, with more than a few references to Alan Wake and Max Payne and such.  (In a parallel irony with The Division above, QB also reminds me, more than anything else, of David Cage’s games – Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls especially – in their character-driven focus and narrative heavy-handedness.)

It also might be self-aware enough to know that Microsoft would really really really like it if it could also look spectacular and expensive and show gamers that the XB1 can be as graphically impressive as the PS4.  To me, though, QB’s stunt casting looks more and more like a large, easy paycheck if they can just get through a scene and exert a little energy.  (which could also explain while the filmed elements are almost entirely focused on this sub-plot and these characters that have almost nothing to do with the player character’s journey.)  As noted above, the collectibles in Quantum Break that justify their existence as containing backstory are referred to as “Narrative Objects”, which never stops sounding like a really weird thing to call something that is utterly disposable, even if some of them are actually and surprisingly interesting to read (even if doing so completely disrupts the game’s rhythm).  Combat is not the main reason you’re playing, but it is almost always the way you get from point A to point B.

It’s bewildering to spend so much time with two games that occupy the same genre – sci-fi third-person shooter – and have them turn out to be so radically different on every possible level.  This is neither a good nor bad thing; it’s simply an observation.  I don’t know that I’d call either of these games “successful”, but it’s interesting to see that there’s still a lot of room to maneuver within this specific space.

In case it wasn’t already apparent, I’m done with The Division.  Or, rather, I’ve done all I care to do.  I hit level 30, I fully upgraded my base, I visited every safe house, I visited where my day job should be, I finished all the side missions.  The Dark Zone is not my scene, and the rest of the single-player offers no loot worth grabbing.  Diablo 3 never needed PvP for me to stay engaged; there was always better loot just for doing what I was doing.  Not so in the Division; all the really good stuff is in the DZ, and I just don’t give a shit.  The few times I went in there I got ganked, either by real-life trolls or by elite AI squads.  You can’t go in there alone, it would seem, and I don’t have the patience to make the necessary friends.

Finally: dude, Rocket League?  Still awesome.  Hadn’t played it in months, but I gave it a go with my buddy earlier this week and it’s STILL SO GOOD.  I’ve gotten better at not totally sucking at it, which is always a plus.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of jumping for a ball and completely missing it and then just floating there in space, far away from the action, knowing that your miss has directly led to the opposing team scoring a goal.  There is also nothing quite like the feeling of being perfectly placed and nailing a shot into an empty net (because almost nobody plays defense).  The best?  Scoring in sudden-death overtime.  THE BEST, I say.

Categories: ramblings, weekend recap

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