preposterous architecture

First thing’s first:  regular readers of this blog know that I have a tendency to post somewhat irregularly.  Unfortunately, due to events beyond my control (i.e., my day job just moved to a new location and my computer monitor is now far more visible than it ever was at the old location), this is probably only going to get worse before it gets better.


I’ve been stressed out about the Goodreads challenge.  I am still 2 books ahead of schedule, but I don’t like only being 2 books ahead of schedule; there’s not a lot of breathing room.  But more to the point, I don’t like feeling like I need to read quickly just to hit some arbitrary number that I selected at the end of last year.

In any event, I finished David Means’ excellent and very trippy meta-Vietnam-memoir “Hystopia” this morning, which means I can now jump to “The City of Mirrors”, the just-released and final installment in Justin Cronin’s wonderful Passage trilogy.  I recently re-read the first two in order to get better prepared; I’d always adored the first book, but wasn’t quite as hot on the second.  After this re-read, though, I thought the 2nd book was much better – possibly because the first book was still fresh in my mind, and also possibly because I wasn’t rushing through the ending and so I found myself better able to follow what was happening.  I still think he’s better at writing about people than he is at constructing elaborate action set-pieces, and to that end the 2nd book is still problematic, but it’s still engaging.



As for games:  I’m finding myself having conflicting thoughts about Uncharted 4, the longer I stay away from it.  It’s tricky.  While I was playing it, I was thoroughly enraptured by it; the pacing is so fucking good and I always felt involved and invested in what was happening.  But now that it’s over, and I’ve read some more critical appraisals, I’m starting to wonder if it’s “THE BEST GAME EVER MADE.”  I certainly wouldn’t go quite as far as, say, David Shimomura’s disemboweling of it in Unwinnable, but there are some interesting points raised therein.

I had planned on replaying it, but as it happens, I’ve found myself more and more entranced by the new Doom.  It started off very slow, almost alarmingly slow – though I concede that this might’ve been because my initial hour or so was spent in that post-Uncharted 4 haze.  But it’s become quite enjoyable.

I don’t have the same relationship with Doom that most people do; I played the first few levels back in the day but I don’t think I ever beat it.   Same thing with Castle Wolfenstein.  The only games I had access to in those years, for whatever reason, were Duke Nukem 3D and then Quake 2.  I’m sure I bought the Xbox Arcade version of Doom, just to have it, but I don’t know that I did anything with it.

Point being, even in my limited experience, I’m familiar with the old Doom enough to recognize that this new Doom feels like it’s coming from the same place.  Certainly the movement feels similar.  The momentum through a combat arena feels the same – constant movement, jumping all over the place, nonstop action, and then a very pleasing break after that last kill, when the music calms down, and then you can begin to explore for hidden stuff (most of which I can’t find, even though I do look for it – even with my recon upgrades, I’m still missing things all the time).  It has the same confounding first-person platforming bits on preposterous architecture.   My first visit to Hell felt… well, not particularly hellish the way a more modern horror game might depict it, but it certainly felt like a Doom version of Hell should, which is appropriate.

I don’t give a shit about the narrative and, refreshingly, the game knows it.  It gives you just enough to point you in the right direction, but doesn’t overplay its hand; nobody’s playing this for the story.  (Which, again, is an interesting thing to experience after playing Uncharted 4, a game in which there are several different levels specifically dedicated to wandering around a person’s private residence, where every single item is part of a larger character study.)


So, yes:  it’s going to be quiet-ish around here for a little bit, until I can better figure out how to write without making it profoundly obvious that I’m not doing actual work-work.  Bear with me.

The End of Uncharted / The First Few Hours of Doom

It’s been a weird week, folks.  That’s all I’ll say about that.


I was hoping to have already written up – if not a “review”, at least a summary of my experience with Uncharted 4.  I finished the game last Sunday evening and then immediately went back and started it over again, this time playing it with the cel shader turned on (which also looks amazing, by the way – I mean, the vanilla U4 is already the best-looking game I’ve ever seen, and the cel shading isn’t a quick thing that Naughty Dog cobbled together; it changes the way you view the game, and somehow makes the violence refreshingly cartoonish).

I’d written on Twitter that it’s rare when a big-budget AAA game feels special.  And what I mean by that is simply that for all the spectacle of U4 – and there is plenty – there’s also a great deal of heart and soul.  There’s an attention to detail – not just in terms of environments, but also in terms of emotional storytelling.  A pause in a conversation; a look passing over a character’s face.  The Uncharted games are lauded for their conversational writing, but U4 also contains a great deal of words left unspoken.

Point being, in terms of blockbuster games feeling “special”, there aren’t many that I can think of.  In recent years, Witcher 3 certainly qualifies (even as I wonder if it’s truly AAA – though the definition of AAA is something for another post); BioshockRed Dead Redemption and Portal 2 certainly come to my mind as well.  I’m sure you can come up with your own examples of Big Games that went above and beyond the call of duty (pun intended) and tried to mean something.

Or maybe I feel this way simply because my expectations for Uncharted 4 were somewhat lower than I anticipated, considering how U3 felt very much like a big fat let-down after U2, and that I worried that U4 was just going to be one soul-less gunfight after another, with some technologically staggering but empty-feeling set-pieces staggered here and there.  That U4 is very much NOT this game, when it just as easily could’ve been, is maybe why I’m so relieved.

I said in my last post that the game felt remarkably well-paced, and that remains the case through the finale.  The gunfights are still my least favorite part of this franchise, but at least here they weren’t ever truly frustrating the way some of U2 and U3’s gauntlets were; you can anticipate when they’re coming in U4, and they’re over fairly quickly, and then the game just lets you take as much time as you want to explore.  (And play with the camera mode, of course, because HOLY SHIT this game is really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.)

And so while U2 might still have the most exciting set-pieces (the train, the giant climbable dagger, the Nepalese village), I think Uncharted 4 might be the best overall experience.  Certainly it has the most satisfying ending.

On that note, I’m reluctant to do a deep-dive because of spoilers, but I feel compelled to link to Carolyn Petit’s follow-up essay to her review – there are MAJOR SPOILERS in the essay, but it’s also incredibly insightful and well-written and speaks to a lot of the larger issues with the franchise as a whole.  (Funnily enough, I read that follow-up essay as I was beginning my 2nd playthrough; at one point she writes about Nathan Drake’s casual relationship with violence, and immediately after I finished reading that and went back to the game itself I found myself in a prison fight – arguably one of the more brutally violent sequences in the entire franchise.)

I may also be participating in a write-up of the game elsewhere, so I’m going to save some of my thoughts for that piece.  (And believe me, there’s at least 1000 more words I could write right now that I’m holding back on.)  In any event, Uncharted 4 is, for whatever it’s worth, my current front-runner for Game of the Year, and if anything manages to knock it from the top spot, I’ll be very impressed.


It is exceedingly weird to go from U4 to Doom; the two games couldn’t possibly be more different.  Maybe this is why I’m having trouble enjoying it.

Doom feels weird.  I almost wish it was running at 30fps if only so that the graphics would look less… artificial.  Again, it’s hard to come to Doom after spending nearly 20 hours with Uncharted 4, which is almost certainly the most dazzling graphical display I’ve ever seen.

I can appreciate the old-school feel it’s going for; it’s not slow and methodical, there’s no cover to duck behind.  Standing still is instant death.  You fly around the maps, blowing the shit out of everything you see, and even if I’m not necessarily in the mood for this type of thing at the moment, I can at least appreciate the endorphin rush as you melee staggered enemies and commit bloody atrocities in gleefully exciting ways.

To that end, I will agree with Polygon’s assessment that Doom has the best videogame shotgun in decades.  I’m just not sure if that’s enough to get me through the next 8-10 hours.

The First Few Hours: Uncharted 4

Current Status: beginning of Chapter 14, 9:42 hours in, 362 enemies killed, a whole bunch of screenshots taken.

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Note to self:  When the inevitable “everything sucks, there’s nothing good out” mope-fest happens later this year, remind yourself that in one 4-day span in May, Captain America: Civil War came out and kicked ass, Radiohead put out a new excellent album that kicked ass (albeit in a quiet, elegiac way), and that Uncharted 4 did what Uncharted 4 does, which is to kick ass all over the goddamned place.

whee

I don’t know where to begin with this post, which is OK, since it’s not a proper review.  I mean, I could talk about a million different things – the extraordinary presentation (not just graphically – the audio is just as spectacular), the dramatic changes to the combat (i.e., it doesn’t feel as endless as it used to, and enemies are far less bullet-spongey than before), the fantastic writing and voice acting (and facial animation, too).

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The best thing about the game so far, though, is the pacing.  My biggest fear for Uncharted 4 was that it would be all combat, all the time, with a minimal emphasis on exploration and traversal and puzzle solving; as it happens, I was completely and utterly wrong on all counts.  This game is all about exploration and traversal and puzzle solving; indeed, as you progress you’ll find that there are multiple paths to your eventual destination, which means that if, like me, you’re hungry for finding hidden collectibles, you will drive yourself completely insane trying to make sure you’ve covered every possible square inch before moving on to the next area.

 

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The game is very content to take its time – or, rather, to let you take your time.  Chapter 4 is perhaps the best example of this so far, as it starts with Nathan exploring his attic.  The attention to detail in this chapter is simply staggering; every pixel has been placed with care and attention, and I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed wandering around a digital house before.  Every detail tells a story, and in these details you learn about Nate’s domestic life: the quality of his marriage, the disappointment and regret he feels in the life he’s walked away from, the rut he’s fallen into.  Nate is no longer a freelance treasure hunter; he is a shadow of his former self, and everyone around him knows it better than he does.

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Apparently there’s still quite a bit of game left.  As I noted above, I’m a little less than 10 hours into it, and I thought I was nearing the end, but apparently the game is closer to 20 hours.  And in retrospect, I can see that there are still some significant story beats that need to get tied up; if this is the definitive, capital-E END of Naughty Dog’s involvement in the Nathan Drake saga, and Naughty Dog has made it explicitly clear that the end of this game is it as far as they’re concerned, then there’s quite a bit more to deal with beyond simply getting to the treasure.

I am happy that there’s quite a bit more to deal with.

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Civil War! Radiohead!

Here’s hoping you all had as lovely a weekend as I did.

First thing’s first:  normally I’m very late to the party when it comes to seeing big blockbuster movies in a timely fashion.  I spent 20 years dealing with the insanity of seeing big movies on opening weekend in NYC, a process that, among other things, entailed getting to the theater at least 90 minutes before showtime to ensure getting even a halfway decent seat, and this eventually wore on my nerves.  So between that and our weird reluctance to hire a babysitter, my wife and I don’t often get to go to the movies together, and certainly not for big big movies like Captain America: Civil War.  (Or, for that matter, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  My wife and I both saw it separately, and it wasn’t until the movie had been out for several weeks that we were able to see it together.)

But somehow we were able to see it yesterday.

I don’t know how valuable my opinion is when it comes to evaluating Marvel movies.  I’m not a comic book guy, and so my primary exposure to anything involving superheroes is through film – and film will always be different than the source material.  My wife, on the other hand, is a Marvel girl through-and-through, and she devoured the Civil War run when it was in print – indeed, I think the primary reason she was excited about the idea of an Avengers movie in the first place is that it might eventually lead to a film of the Civil War.

My understanding is that the film’s Civil War and the comic book run couldn’t be more different, even if they had a number of common similarities.  Obviously, the comic wasn’t constrained by all the various legal issues that have split up the various Marvel franchises among rival film studios – my wife is an X-Men fan, and so their absence in this Captain America film is rather strongly felt.  The comic was also, if I understand it correctly, spread out over a long-ish period of time; the movie, on the other hand, appears to take place within a 72-hour period, and the one big superhero battle is rather self-contained, all things considered.  It’s more of a grudge match than a capital-W War, like when a fight breaks out between teammates on the bench during a baseball game.

But this is all besides the point; I didn’t read the comics, so it makes no sense for me to look at it from that perspective.  As far as the films themselves, I’ve enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the most part; some films work better than others, to be sure, but all the heroes are well cast and the films possess a buoyant energy – far more so than the DC films.*

Anyway:  of all the MCU films, this Civil War film is almost certainly the best one.  For an ensemble action movie – with an absolutely gigantic ensemble – it’s remarkable how well-paced it is, how every character gets enough space to have their requisite emotional beats, and especially how both Captain America and Iron Man have compelling and valid points of view.

And the action sequences are similarly remarkably well-framed.  Unlike other recent action movies I could name, you can always tell what’s going on, who’s punching who, and there’s none of the motion sickness that seems to be part and parcel with these sorts of set pieces.  There’s one chase sequence in particular involving Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Captain America that is absolutely fantastic, specifically because the stuntwork is excellent and is shot in such a way that you can actually see what the hell is going on.  (The shot of Winter Soldier grabbing the motorcycle is arguably the most exciting shot in the entirety of the MCU thus far.)

It’s been noted by better critics than me that if this movie has one downside, it’s that the villain isn’t particularly memorable, and also that the movie makes up for this by not really needing a villain in the first place.  The Cap’n and Iron Man have been getting under each other’s skin for several films by now, and this film’s conflict is less about current ideological differences and more about, as Tony Stark says, simply “wanting to punch you in your perfect teeth.”

I want to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything; I just hope I get another chance to see it on the big screen before too long.

*  *  *

The other big cultural event of the weekend: the new Radiohead album, “A Moon Shaped Pool”, was released on Sunday.  I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until late last night, and even then I was being an idiot and struggling with the admittedly ridiculous decision as to how I should get it – iTunes? Amazon mp3? or hope for it to appear on Spotify before too long?

I’ll need a few dozen more listens before I can write about it with any authority, of course.  But even just on first glance it’s clear that this is a gorgeous album, with haunting melodies and Jonny Greenwood’s otherworldly string arrangements doing freakish things to my brain.  The thing about Radiohead albums – for me, at any rate – is that the production is always interesting, even on their lesser tunes, and on this album there are some rather startling and intimate sounds; the ones that got me in particular are how you can hear the piano’s hammers strike each string, as if the microphone was placed an inch away from the piano’s heart.  (I’m reminded of a Flaming Lips lyric – each press of a piano key is like “the softest bullet ever shot”).

It’s perhaps not the grand return to form I might’ve hoped for after the rather limp King of Limbs – I can’t help but wish there were a few more uptempo songs, though I feel certain that “Ful Stop” will absolutely destroy in a live setting – but this is definitely an improvement.  It’s hard to know what I expect from a Radiohead album anymore; the 1-2 knockout punches of OK Computer and Kid A will probably cloud everyone’s judgement on that score, not just mine.  But in terms of pure sonic beauty, this one’s a keeper.

*  *  *

Nothing to report on the games front; my digital copy of Uncharted 4 is already pre-loaded and that’s pretty much where I’ll be for the foreseeable future.

As for books – I finished re-reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage and am about halfway through my re-read of The Twelve, all so that I can get caught up for The City of Mirrors, which comes out in 2 weeks.  Those books are still great!


* I still wish that Edgar Wright had been allowed to make the Ant-Man film that he wanted to make; I bet it would’ve been spectacular.  But I suspect that his directorial vision would’ve been too idiosyncratic with the rest of the MCU; the final film feels constrained and reigned in, and it’s not nearly as joyous and charming as it wants to be.

 

Return of the Subway Gamer: War Tortoise

I’ve never claimed to understand the appeal of game streaming; why would anyone watch other people play games, when they could be playing the same game themselves?  Even if the streamer is funny or insightful or entertaining, it seems like a perverse way to spend one’s time.

But by the same token, I’m one of those weirdos who is fascinated and compelled by auto-clickers; games which, eventually, play themselves.  I still have an active Clicker Heroes save, which I’ve actually checked on several times today.  I’ve been heavily invested in Cookie Clicker – twice.  I had been playing Mucho Taco on my iPhone, but then put it aside to play Doomsday.   I’ve spent actual money on these games.

So who am I to judge?

Point being:  in the last few days I have become rather enamored of War Tortoise, which is a strange and uniquely compelling hybrid of auto-clicker and tower defense, with an RPG-lite skill levelling system, a strikingly gorgeous presentation (for the iPhone, at least), and the ingeniously designed option to jump in and play, rather than just watch.

This isn’t just an auto-clicker – the gameplay is that of an endless turret sequence.  You can usually just let it run while you tap on various currency drops, but if there’s a tough bullet-sponge enemy bearing down on you, you can reclaim the turret and use some of the heavy weaponry to help take it down.  It’s not necessarily difficult, but there is a strategy involved in terms of how to best spend your money and build up your defenses, and that’s where the fun (for me, at least) lies.

It’s a strange game, don’t get me wrong – I don’t know why I’m on a tortoise, or why I am some sort of field mouse facing off against hordes of armored iguanas and beetles and such – but I don’t care.  The game doesn’t explain any of this, nor does it really need to.  Nobody plays these types of games for any sort of narrative sustenance.

It’s weird, and I’m weird, and I get it, and I accept it.  War Tortoise is awesome.


I’m in a bit of a holding pattern as far as my game playing is concerned right now; supposedly the review embargo for Uncharted 4 drops tomorrow, and while I’m nearly positive I’ll be buying it, I’m still curious as to how it reviews.  I worry it’ll be too combat heavy, but I’ve said that about all the Uncharted games, and by and large they are still enjoyable games.

I bought SUPERHOT for the Xbox One this morning, even though as a Kickstarter backer I already had it on my PC; my PC is basically busted, though, and I never got a chance to finish the game.  It looks absolutely fantastic on the XB1, for whatever that’s worth, and it plays just as well as I remember it playing on the PC, so that’s really all that matters.

I’m close to the end of Ratchet & Clank, which has remained a very pleasant action platformer which eventually gets a little tedious and exhausting.  I’d like to finish it, but I won’t necessarily kill myself to get there.

Most of my gaming has been on the iPhone.  Before War Tortoise came along, I was heavily invested in Marvel Avengers Alliance 2, which is a free-to-play turn-based RPG with impressive production values and a rather enjoyable combat system.  I’ve also been addicted to Loop Mania, a rather deceptively simple arcade game that is easier seen than described.