The Ethereal Sigh

A Twitter friend recently held a poll asking which format of games was preferable – digital or physical.  I used to be a physical devotee; I took great pride in my collections of stuff, be they books, CDs, games, etc.  I felt that the object was just as worthy of obsession as the actual art within.  I painstakingly arranged my DVD shelves by director and genre; my bookshelves were a bit more haphazard but there was a logic in their arrangement that I could see; certain books just belonged together, and so they were.

This started to change in 2004, when I got married.  Instead of hiring a DJ, I bought an iPod and made a gigantic mix, and suddenly I realized the genius in having my entire CD library in my pocket instead of lugging around a discman and 2 20-disc CD wallets in my backpack all day.

And then at some point I got a Kindle, and ever since then I’ve almost exclusively bought e-books.

And so you can see where this is going:  I am a slave to the cloud.  I bought (much) bigger hard drives for both my Xbox One and my PS4, and while I might own 200 games among both systems, I think I only own 3 physical discs (both accompanied my PS4 purchase, before I knew any better).

I bring this up because last night, had I owned a physical copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I would have forcibly ejected it from my Xbox and snapped it in half.  I’d been stuck in this one particular battle on a very dreary, snowy planet for the last few days, and last night I was determined to figure out how to upgrade my equipment and actually beat the damned thing, and so I did all that stuff (and it’s so poorly executed in the menus, you guys, the whole thing could’ve been radically simplified if the developers looked at the most recent version of The Witcher 3 and just stole their UI wholesale) and then went back and… and… the loading screen never finished loading, and no matter how many times I went back and reloaded I’d keep getting stuck.

I did eventually have to backtrack to an earlier save which wasn’t fucked up, and I decided to abandon that particular mission entirely for the time being, and now I’m stuck with some bullshit Sudoku puzzle where I know I’m solving it correctly but the game keeps saying I’m wrong.  But at least the game is working, again, sort of.

I don’t know why I’m continuing to give ME:A the benefit of the doubt.  If this was any other game, or any other developer, I would’ve given up a dozen hours ago.  I keep wanting it to get better, to get closer to the Mass Effect experience that I’ve loved for so long, and it keeps… not doing that, at all.  As it happens, there’s nothing else on my gaming plate besides my backlog, and I’m still not sure if I want to bother with Final Fantasy XV until the infamous Chapter 13 gets patched.  (In fairness, I’m barely into Chapter 1 or 2, so I presumably have a long way to go before that point.)

 

Weekend Recap: Gloom and Doom

I had a great weekend, and that’s despite the fact that I was terribly sick for the majority of it.  Imagine how great a weekend has to be for that to be the case, that you can go to bed on Sunday night feeling at peace with the world even though you’ve been coughing your brains out and feeling like a huge lump of crap for 72 hours.

A lot of this has to do with my brother and his fiancee who stayed with us for the weekend.  They are lovely, lovely people, and my son adores them, and they even babysat for us while the wife and I took a desperately-needed nap on Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday evening, my wife and I asked our son what he wanted to be when he grew up.  He replied, without hesitation, “A cool person like Uncle Jono.”

 

I also learned that my almost-4-year-old son loves OK Go videos and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”, as featured in the animated movie “Sing”.  And for some reason this made me happy.  I don’t particularly care about Taylor Swift one way or the other but Henry was into that song, dancing uncontrollably all over the living room floor.  My wife and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

So, yeah:  good family visits, my son being adorable, and Trump’s healthcare debacle going up in flames were more than enough to make up for a super-shitty chest cold.  For a moment, all felt right with the world.

*   *   *

I am struggling with my feelings about Mass Effect Andromeda.  The one thing that makes it easier, I guess, is that I’m not alone in my disappointment.  I am a die-hard Mass Effect fan; this was one of my only must-have games coming out this year; I am very much wanting to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt.  If it was any other developer, I would’ve given up on this game a dozen hours ago; I keep hearing rumblings that it gets better the farther in you go, but I’m not quite sure what that actually means.  The gunplay is fine, for whatever that’s worth – for all intents and purposes it’s probably the best it’s ever been.  But I don’t play these games for the combat; I play them for the stories, the characters, the exploration.  And almost all of that stuff is either broken or badly written, and often it’s both.

I have no investment in my character; I don’t care about what I’m doing; I don’t like any of my crewmates – which feels odder than it should since Bioware seems to have gone out of their way to make sure you know that you can bang any or all of them eventually; most importantly, I have absolutely no idea how the upgrade and stat-leveling stuff works (I’m mostly content to simply auto-level for the time being until I get sufficiently powerful enough that I feel comfortable with a complete re-spec).  I do appreciate that my dialogue options are less obviously good/bad than they were in the earlier trilogy, which makes me feel more comfortable answering questions naturally, but I also find myself skipping through dialogue scenes because the voice acting is dull and lifeless and I read much faster than they speak.

Sometimes I feel like ME:A is what No Man’s Sky would’ve been like with a narrative.  Make of that what you will.  I’m not sure that patches are gonna fix what’s broken here.

*   *   *

I will say this – my ambivalence towards ME:A means that I’ll probably return to my backlog sooner rather than later, especially since as far as I can tell there’s nothing I absolutely HAVE to play until Red Dead 2, which is supposedly releasing in September.  I might actually get back to Final Fantasy XV; I’d like to finish Yakuza 0; I might even consider getting back into Gears of War 4, because why not.

*   *   *

Are you watching Legion?  You should be.  That show is fucking insane in all the best ways and I adore it.  I know it’s not for everybody – a lot of my Facebook feed is filled with people who are fed up with it – but it’s 100% meant for me, and I can’t get enough of it.  I may very well binge watch the whole season again once it’s over.

 

Side Quests: Avoiding The Big Story

The big story is that I am not yet ready to talk about Mass Effect Andromeda.  I can offer a ton of first impressions, almost none of which are positive.  I can also bury these impressions under the mountain of goodwill that I’m trying to hold on to, with respect to Bioware and the Mass Effect franchise.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve earned it.  But YE GODS this game feels like a broken, buggy, unpolished mess.  I don’t really understand this need to radically re-invent the wheel as far as certain mechanical things are concerned – the first 3 games had an intelligent and intuitive user interface, and while I appreciate the desire to spice things up for a next-gen debut, the finished result feels decidedly unfinished.  The simple act of tracking a quest requires at least 3 button presses too many; I still have no idea how to add mods to my weapons, or how to switch my weaponry at all.  Now, granted, I’ve only just landed on Eos; I’m still barely into the actual proper game.  And Bioware RPGs are notorious for always starting off slowly.  But this feels like a mess.  I’ve already said too much.

Instead, let me talk up some other things that aren’t terrible.

First:  read this Kotaku review of Everything, which I downloaded immediately after reading.  If tonight’s run of ME:A remains as impenetrable as last night’s, I’m headed towards Everything ASAP.

Second:  holy shit, iOS has had some INCREDIBLE games land in the last few weeks.  I’d already been charmed by Little Folks and lost hours to Slayaway Camp and Tavern Guardian, but then this murderer’s row of kick-ass happened, one right after the other:

  • Ticket to Earth, a puzzle RPG unlike anything I’ve ever seen before;
  • Bit City, a city simulator from the people that made Tiny Tower (another game I lost many, many hours to);
  • Cosmic Express, another charming (and quite difficult) puzzler;
  • Pavilion, a “4-dimensional adventure game” with a gorgeous art style;
  • TypeShift, a new and very addicting word game from Zach Gage;
  • Kingdom: New Lands, which is some sort of resource-gathering thing with an absolutely gorgeous pixel art style reminiscent of Sword & Sworcery;
  • Euclidean Lands, which mixes Monument Valley‘s Escher-like aesthetic with Rubik’s Cube gameplay;
  • Beglitched, one of the weirder and more charming variants of match-3 I’ve come across;
  • Death Road to Canada, the newest game from Rocketcat (one of my favorite mobile developers); and finally
  • Card Thief, which is some sort of stealth/solitaire/board game mashup that’s as ingenious as it is clever.

Any one of those games will tide you over for quite some time, let me tell you.

Third:  I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn at the end of last week.  I submit that it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated with Mass Effect’s missteps is that HZD does everything correctly.  HZD is polished, intuitive, and graceful in all the ways that ME is broken, frustrating and clumsy.  It’s a remarkable game, and I only hope that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year, overshadowed as it is by the new Zelda.  Incredible world-building, fantastic production values, highly engaging combat, very involving gameplay.  If the story is somewhat predictable, the experience of playing it is anything but.

The First 20 Minutes: Mass Effect Andromeda

I didn’t intend to start the new Mass Effect just yet.  The plan was to finish Horizon Zero Dawn, since I thought I was heading towards the finish, and then get to ME:A without feeling distracted.

But then I’d finally gotten HZD’s Shield Weaver armor, a set of armor so powerful it’s almost game-breaking, and decided that was as good a point as any to set HZD to the side and give ME:A a quick spin.

In the creative world, you can usually tell how someone is going to audition simply by how they walk into the room.  When it comes to new books by new (to me) authors, I tend to give the author a chapter or two – not just to see if the story is interesting, but to see how the author uses language to tell that story.  When I fire up my weekly Spotify Discovery playlist, I’ll give everything a very quick spin but if I’m not wowed immediately, I’ll skip ahead to the next track.  (I feel comfortable doing that if only because there have been tons of songs that do, in fact, wow me immediately.)

When it comes to games, it’s a little bit trickier.  I can forgive some technical jankiness here and there if the moment-to-moment gameplay experience is compelling, especially in big-budget AAA titles, if only because one expects those kinds of things to get patched.  Even the day-one disaster of Assassin’s Creed Unity got better, eventually, though that game had larger issues than simple glitches.

So, then:  I’d been doing my best to avoid any and all media concerning this new Mass Effect game, as I am a rabid ME junkie and wanted to go into this new game as unspoiled as possible.  But I am also a human being who uses the internet from time to time, and so it was inevitable that certain, er, wonkiness would come to light.

But, uh… holy shit, the first twenty minutes of ME:A are a bit of a mess.  Maybe it’s just the Xbox One version, but GODDAMN this game is janky as hell.  I’ve played the original trilogy all the way through, twice, and I know how the game is supposed to feel in my hands, and ME:A feels completely alien to me.  (To be fair, I have spent the last 30 hours playing HZD, which might affect this impression.)  But more to the point, it is super-janky, even in places where you wouldn’t expect the hardware to be taxed all that much.  Even the character customizer is kinda shitty.

I made it about 10-15 minutes into the first real planet-side mission before turning it off, somewhat in disgust.  Tutorial pop-ups would flicker on and off so quickly that it was impossible to read – I still don’t know how to engage with ammunition pickups; combat feels very stiff, even by Mass Effect standards; the scanning mechanic is not explained particularly well and it’s very unclear how it’s supposed to work, and while I might be picking up certain resources by scanning I don’t know what I’ve picked up or why (which isn’t helped AT ALL by the fact that the in-game computer system that would explain this stuff is necessarily disconnected for narrative purposes).

I’ve decided to stick to the original plan, which is to finish HZD and wait for ME:A’s day-0ne patch.  HZD is really good, you guys, I can’t emphasize that enough.  I know everyone’s playing Zelda or whatever, but still:  HZD is great.  If nothing else, it’s raised the third-person action/adventure/RPG bar rather high, and ME:A’s first 20 minutes fell way short.

Post-Snow Day Paralysis

I have officially reached the point of old-man decrepitude where shoveling the driveway – after a not-all-that-terrible snowstorm, for that matter – renders me immobile for at least 24 hours.  Everything hurts.  My back is totally fucked up, of course, but even the palms of my hands hurt.  I took a personal day yesterday, because I could barely move.  I can sorta move, now, but very slowly.

Anyway, my worries about not being able to finish Horizon: Zero Dawn before starting Mass Effect: Andromeda may have been ill-founded.  I think I’m approaching the home stretch, as far as the main questline is concerned.  I’m somewhere around 70% complete, I think:

  • I’ve done quite a lot of the errands and side missions, though I’ve avoided the hunting, because that can wait;
  • I’ve found all the “vessels” and ascended all the tallnecks; there are two other large sets of collectibles and I may or may not go after them;
  • I’m one power cell away from unlocking the best armor in the game, which is supposedly so powerful it’s nearly game-breaking.  I’d like to get that and mess with it before it gets nerfed in a patch.

As noted in my previous writeups about HZD, it is difficult for me to avoid comparing it to other, similar open-world games, especially when there are certain things that it does that are directly lifted from its inspirations.  I mean:  Aloy’s detective/tracking missions are as close as you can get to Witcher 3 without copyright infringement; and the tallnecks are essentially large, mobile Far Cry 4 towers.  There are certain environmental platforming sequences that are straight out of Tomb Raider and/or Uncharted, though in fairness they are much shorter and Aloy is far more nimble and agile than either Lara or Nathan.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that HZD is pressing all the right buttons for me.  I adore this kind of game – the large-scale single-player open world adventure.  It handles the open-world thing just right by guiding you gently, making quests easy to find, and making fast-traveling super easy; and while there’s always a sense of forward momentum, it’s also easy enough to turn off the HUD and simply explore the wilderness.  There might not be as many nooks and crannies to uncover as in, say, Witcher 3, but as a result it’s also far less overwhelming.  And the world itself is staggeringly beautiful; it can be difficult to stay away from the game’s Photo Mode.

I’m not yet at the story’s end, and there’s enough ambiguity in the story to keep me from guessing exactly how it will end, which is good!  I mean, I know who the big bad guy is now, and he will get his comeuppance, and I’m sure the final boss gauntlet will be something of a pain in the ass, but still:  if there’s room for a sequel, consider me signed up.

And if nothing else, I’m grateful that HZD is as good as it is, because it’s making it that much easier for me to ignore Zelda.  I’m sure I will succumb to the hyperbole eventually, but for the time being the Switch is all but impossible to buy, and next week is Mass Effect, and then eventually we’ve got Red Dead 2, and… well… I can keep myself very pleasantly occupied for the time being.

 

 

The Friday Funk

When even Twitter being adorable can’t snap you out of a melancholy mood, you know you’re in trouble.

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1. Here’s something positive – I’ve read a TON of really good books recently.  The last time I wrote about books, I was in the middle of reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which was great and I only wish I hadn’t rushed through the ending as quickly as I did.  After that was John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester (very good, even if the initial premise ends up fading away towards the end), Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes (which started off a bit blah, but ended up being great, and has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I can recall), Ursula le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (my first le Guin, and what a place to start!), Liz Moore’s The Unseen World (which was beautiful – although it, too, starts off in a direction that it very slowly veers away from), and then last night I finished Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, which was astonishing the whole way through.  I realized that I’d bought his earlier novel Await Your Reply a while ago but never read it, and so I’m reading it right now.  Instant fan.

2. All this reading has not yet turned itself into lyrics, but I’m getting there.  Slowly but surely.

3.  Game-wise, I’m still very much enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn although it’s a bit more difficult than I expected, and I’m currently trapped in a dungeon that I may not be able to get out of.  At the very least, it’s keeping me thoroughly distracted from wanting Zelda.  My rental copy of Nier: Automata arrived last night and I played the first hour, and it’s… pleasantly strange, though I don’t know if it’s where my head is at.  I may just need to power through HZD until Mass Effect Andromeda lands.

4. Speaking of which, I already pre-ordered ME:A on Xbox One, and since I’m an EA Access member I think I get to play it a few days early, and if that’s the case, I’ll probably have to put HZD on the back-burner, which means I might not ever get back to it.  HZD is the sort of game where you need the controls to feel fresh in your hands, and if I’m gonna spend 60 hours with ME:A, then HZD is going to be very difficult to get back to.

Keep your chin up, kids.  Trump can’t be president forever.

The Next Few Hours: Horizon Zero Dawn

Current status:  Level 23.  15(?) hours in.  

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I am old and jaded.  So when I say that Horizon: Zero Dawn has left me slackjawed in awe, and exhilarated after taking down a gigantic robotic dinosaur, I’m not being hyperbolic.  I am legitimately impressed that I can feel transported by any game, let alone a brand-new IP from a developer whose previous efforts were never really my bag.

In my last post, my gut reactions and first impressions led me to compare HZD to Far Cry Primal and Uncharted.  Those comparisons still feel appropriate, but now that I’m a bit deeper into the game (though I should also note that I’m doing as much side stuff as possible, so I’m probably not as deep into the actual story as I could be), I’d extend that comparison to include Witcher 3 and maybe even a little Dragon Age Inquisition Mass Effect.

It’s not nearly as deep as those games, of course; the characters aren’t nearly as interesting, and the cities and towns you visit aren’t necessarily all that interesting beyond a first glance at their detailed architecture.  But they are structured similarly, at least in terms of the player’s relationship to the world, and certainly the amount of side stuff that you pick up along the main path creates a fair illusion of depth.

I don’t want to demean the accomplishments of HZD by reducing it to what it compares to, but it does serve as an effective shorthand in terms of letting you know just what it is you’re getting into here – post-apocalyptic third-person action RPG doesn’t quite do the trick.  And I’d also further note that all the games I’ve compared it to are games that I quite enjoy.

The game excels where it counts, is the important thing.  I am certainly very curious as to who our protagonist is and where she comes from, even if that’s more because of the narrative than because of her, specifically.  But more to the point, the game’s primary emphasis on hunting machines is excellent.  One would expect this from a developer known for its FPS franchise, but here the battles are as intense as anything I can remember.  After finally conquering a particularly grueling encounter yesterday, I literally stood up and shouted “YEAH!” I felt like I’d accomplished something.  These machines are motherfuckers, and even if I’m wildly overpowered compared to them I’m still wary, because one wrong move leads to instant death – especially if I’m not prepared.  And it’s very easy to not be prepared, which is why the gathering of materials is so incredibly crucial.  In nearly every modern game I can think of, I tend to go nuts when it comes to gathering materials and flowers and such, but I can’t think of many games where it’s absolutely vital in order to survive.  If I can’t craft a health potion, I’m fucked.

The 41-year-old father in me does wish that the game were a bit shorter, though I don’t mean to imply that the game feels padded.  It’s more that I just don’t have as much time as I’d like to be able to sink into this game; I only hope I can finish it before Mass Effect arrives in a few weeks.

Speaking of which:  I am not getting a Nintendo Switch, and thus I will not be playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  I can live with that.  As noted above, Mass Effect Andromeda is dropping shortly, and in the meantime I’m enjoying HZD far more than I ever expected to.  I almost feel bad for the developers; I worry that the game is getting swallowed up by Zelda’s massive presence.  To that end, I say – if you’re like me and didn’t get a Switch at launch, Horizon will more than suffice.

 

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The First Few Hours: Horizon: Zero Dawn

Current status:  6-8 hours in.  Level 11.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

I am not necessarily fond of reducing an original work of art to a comparison between two other, unrelated pieces of art, but I acknowledge that I do it from time to time.  If I were attempting to be a professional critic, I’m sure my editors would remind me to stop doing that.  I am not a professional critic, however, and so I feel like I can say something like Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like a combination of Uncharted and Far Cry Primal without too much trouble.  Because that’s almost exactly what it is.

In the Uncharted corner, you’ve got:  a technological tour-de-force (mostly), a third-person action/adventure, a character-driven narrative with lots of in-engine cutscenes.  There’s some high-quality traversal animation, though you spend most of your time killing things.

In the Far Cry Primal corner, you’ve got:  lots and lots of crafting, lots and lots of hunting, and an open world in a primitive setting (though there’s obviously something futuristic about it, too, what with the robotic animals all over the place and the ruins of a long-ago civilization that might as well be ours).  Also: lots and lots of side quests, and “towers” that, once ascended, open up larger parts of a very busy map.

Do I love it?  I don’t know yet.  I’ve spent but one day with it, and I’m still mulling it over.

I do know that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling somewhat at a loss with my gaming time; I’ve mostly just been either tooling around with my backlog, or dipping my toes in the exquisitely silly Yakuza 0.  To that end, H:ZD is exactly the sort of big-budget AAA game that I’ve been longing to play; something that was carefully and meticulously crafted, something that was loved and cared for, something that has a lot of ambition but also a lot of heart.

Is it successful?  Yes and no, though I’m tempted to lean yes just because it’s so obviously well-intentioned.  It is somewhat jarring to see these primitive people wearing primitive clothing speaking very, very modern English in very, very modern American accents – one dude that I happened to meet almost has a hint of Bronx in him, which just feels weird.  But, to its credit, the cast of human characters is a lot more diverse than one is used to seeing in these sorts of AAA games; and while Aloy may not end up being as iconic as Lara Croft she’s certainly compelling in her own right, and I’m fully invested in solving the mystery behind her origin.

I should, at this point, mention that I’m playing H:ZD on an original PS4, on a non-HDR HDTV.  I mention this because H:ZD was one of the first big Sony exclusives that was meant to showcase the Pro and its HDR capabilities, and the presentation on my OG PS4 is… muted?  It’s not nearly as vibrant or as colorful as what I’ve seen in commercials and trailers, and while it’s rock-steady in terms of performance, I can’t help but feel that I’m not getting the full graphical experience.  I am not in any position to acquire a PS4 Pro and an HDR-capable HDTV, however, so I’m stuck with what I’ve got.  When I say I’m underwhelmed, I don’t mean to dismiss the game’s technological prowess; I only mean to imply that I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that the Pro version looks substantially more colorful, and in a game that’s so refreshingly free of the traditional brown/gray color scheme of modern games, I wish I had more access to it.

I should also mention that the game is tough.  I’ve died quite a few times already, even in areas where I thought I’d be over-leveled.  I suppose part of the issue is that you can’t simply rush into the thick of it and start killing everything in sight, even though you feel like you ought to; the game’s tutorial does stress the importance of stealthy approaches and careful planning, of course, but I often feel that I get killed by enemies that I simply didn’t see and had no way of seeing.  Other games do a better job of letting you know when something’s approaching off-screen, but here you just got walloped, and it doesn’t take all that much to get clobbered to death.  Again – I’m still in the early going, and I’m sure there’s better equipment and more effective weaponry out there for me to acquire.

I am compelled to continue, though, and so to that end the game’s got me hooked.  And I feel obligated to apologize to Night in the Woods, which I started over the weekend but didn’t quite get far enough into in order to keep me focused.