Weekend Recap: Good Times

I’ve been really enjoying fatherhood lately. I don’t mean to sound like I’m surprised by that; it’s just that, well, my kid is awesome and super-sweet and we’ve been hanging out a lot together over the last few months, and it’s been wonderful.

The two of us started and finished Luigi’s Mansion 3 this weekend, in fact, and while I did most of the controller work it was he who ultimately figured out how to beat the last boss, and when the credits rolled he gave me a huge hug and it was all I could do to not just start crying all over the place.

And then we started recording a rap album, as you do, and that was also awesome. I’ve written here recently about how I’ve been in a creative rut, and yet I was able to turn out 3 or 4 beats for him in a very short amount of time, and he was so happy to be shouting into a microphone.

Anyway. It was a busy weekend.

Finished: Luigi’s Mansion 3, Outer Worlds.
Started: Jedi Fallen Order
Bailed: Death Stranding
Continuing: Dragon Quest 11

Regarding LM3: one of the first “real” reviews I got to write was about Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS, which I was pretty lukewarm about. (Indeed, I never finished it, which made me feel even more sheepish than usual about submitting my final copy.) I’m happy to say that LM3 is a much, much better game in every respect; it’s generous with checkpoints, you never get lost, it’s absolutely gorgeous and chock full of tiny details, and the game feels great to play. There’s nothing quite like sucking up a ghost in the Poltergust 2000 and whomping it all over the place, breaking everything in sight. (Plus: no bullshit tilt controls to worry about.) My kid loved it; I loved it; it’s the second game on the Switch that we’ve played through to completion (after Super Mario Odyssey), and he’s already started a second playthrough (where he’s doing most of the controlling this time around, letting me handle boss fights).

Regarding Outer Worlds: yeah, that game is excellent. Not nearly as janky as these sorts of Elder Scrolls-esque RPGs tend to be, which is probably because the game is wildly reduced in scope; I beat the campaign and finished just about every side mission I could find in maybe 12-15 hours, which is exactly the right amount of time for someone who loves open-world games but doesn’t have a lot of time. There’s no filler; just great writing up and down, lots of interesting people to meet, relatively satisfying combat (though there’s plenty of non-violent options to get through encounters as well, which was in line with how I like playing anyway).

Regarding Jedi Fallen Order: I was skeptical, as everyone was, because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars game in years and I hadn’t been following any coverage. Well, color me surprised, because the reviews were positive and I ended up downloading it and I’m having an absolute blast with it. It’s scratching the much-needed Uncharted/Assassin’s Creed/Tomb Raider third-person action platformer itch that I’ve been having all year. I’m still very early on so I’m not going to heap any more superlatives on it just yet – it could certainly use a performance patch, as the frame rate can hitch up – but I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.

Regarding Death Stranding: I wrote a gigantic thing about my attempts to get through MGS5 for Unwinnable a few years back, and my opinions on Hideo Kojima remain unchanged. My rental copy of DS arrived late last week and so I played the first hour or so of it and while it’s visually stunning, it’s also fucking ridiculous, and life is too short to sit through that much bullshit. (Or even that much absurd in-game advertising for Monster Energy Drinks.) The Twitter discourse seems to agree that the game really picks up speed about 10 hours in, and that is 10 hours that I don’t feel like wasting. You’re all aware that the world is currently on fire, yes? Spend your time wisely.

I also finished Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys on Friday, and my GOD, what a book. What a writer. What a horrible, terrible, true story he tells. I’ll have more to say about it when I get my Year of Books post online.

The First Few Hours: Outer Worlds

CURRENT STATUS: Around 12 hours in. Level 16. Running around on Monarch, all companions unlocked.

As much as I love classic BioWare RPGs, they’ve instilled some gameplay habits that I’ve found hard to shake. From KOTOR to Dragon Age to Mass Effect, I always do the same thing; my first time through, I err on the side of good, always picking the supportive/positive dialogue option, always being a good guy. THEN, 60 hours later, I’ll start a New Game + and pick all the bad guy options. I didn’t necessarily feel the urgency of my choices; I only wanted to achieve maximum virtue.

The Outer Worlds has, thankfully, broken me out of this loop, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

To begin with, the world you find yourself stumbling into is essentially a sci-fi capitalist dystopian nightmare; and like the good socialist I am, I try to help people break free from their corporate shackles. And sometimes those people don’t want to be free. They don’t know how to live independently. In short, doing the “right” thing isn’t always doing the “best” thing. Which means that you have a bit more emotional investment in the choices you end up making, because there is no clear “Paragon” path to follow. You do what you think feels right, and then you react to the repercussions.

Freedom of choice is, in essence, what the game is about. And even when I leave the main narrative aside, I’m still very much playing it in my own style. I’ve talked a lot here about trying to move away from playing violent shooters, and as such I’m opting out of combat when possible, just because I’d rather explore my way through something than kill everything. And the game respects this choice, and rewards you just as easily; you can gain plenty of XP from lockpicking and hacking and dialogue options, not just headshots. (This is helpful also because the combat is not quite as satisfying as other, similar shooters.)

That said, my crew and I are fully prepared to wreck shit when necessary. I do try to stay off the main roads whenever possible and sneak around and explore, but if I accidentally catch an enemy’s attention, well, that sucks for them. My companions and I are well-prepared to end threats.

I don’t really know how far into the story I am, and I’m not feeling particularly inclined towards picking up a walkthrough and finding out. For the first time in a long time, I’m allowing myself to truly role-play. (It is for this reason specifically that I wish there was a third-person view, because I’d love to see my character in this world.)

All things considered, The Outer Worlds was the last “big” game on my personal radar for the year. (Everything else either got pushed back to 2020, or is Death Stranding, which I remain extremely skeptical about; I’m sure there might be one or two more indie gems that pop up, too, though I don’t yet know what they are.) It’s certainly one of the best.

And on that note, I’m gonna start putting together my 2019 lists… and then I guess I also have to start putting together my decade lists. Hoo-boy.

Quality Brain Food

If this blog is to ultimately serve as a diary of my media consumption, well, that makes it a bit easier to figure out what to write. Especially on days like today, when I’m feasting on the good stuff.

SO:

Last summer I wrote a thing about falling in love with a song, and it appears to have happened again. In this case, it’s “Plimsoll Punks” by Alvvays, and while I don’t necessarily need to do a moment-by-moment breakdown of it, I would like to point out a few highlights.

#1: That opening is straight out of The Smiths, and I adore it.
#2: The “You’re getting me down, getting me down, getting me down” hook is killer.
#3: Again – the guitar work all over the place is straight out of Johnny Marr’s playbook, and I have no complaints about that.
#4: Listen to the bassline at 1:53 or so, the way it hits the third instead of the root. UGH. That shit melts my brain.
#5: The singer’s voice in the third verse is so gorgeous.

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[I was going to write a much longer First Few Hours-style post about The Division 2, but I don’t have the mental bandwidth today. (I feel like I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in about 3 months.) And in any event, while I have put in a solid dozen or so hours into it already and just dinged level 12 last night, there’s still so much more to do. In any event, what follows is what was in my drafts folder from the other day:]

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – I’m generally not into online games. I am a curmudgeon and a hermit and have no need to trade insults with young, racist whippersnappers. I like the single-player experience because it’s like playing a book. It’s made for me. I get to experience it on my own terms. And I also need to pee a lot, so I need a game that won’t punish me if I need to pause it.

When I have dabbled in online games, it’s generally for a co-op, PvE experience. The two notable exceptions to this were a several month-long phase when I had a somewhat unhealthy addiction/obsession with World of Warcraft, which needs its own post at some point, and when my Gamespot forum buddies and I would play Burnout 3 every night.

But I digress. I’m not good enough to play competitively, which is why I tend to shy away from both traditional deathmatch stuff and also the newer battle royale genre. Never cared for it, and that’s fine.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing stuff like Destiny or Anthem, or, also, the topic of today’s post – The Division 2. While they’re obviously meant to be played with groups, you can solo these games without getting unduly punished, and you can also join in with strangers rather seamlessly to take down the game’s enemies. Sure, the endgame probably won’t be as interesting if you remain a solo player, but to be honest I generally never get that far. I’ve beaten the vanilla campaigns of both Destiny 1 and 2 and The Division 1, and I got my money’s worth.

[That’s as far as I’d gotten.]

So the point that I was eventually going to get to is that The Division 2 is really and quite unexpectedly terrific. I can’t seem to get enough of it. AND THAT’S WEIRD, because, as noted above, I normally don’t get this attached to this particular genre. Playing solo is fine, though a bit more challenging than I’m happy with – but that usually just means that I need to tweak my loadout and realize that I’ve been using a wildly under-powered weapon, or that I should probably use a drone in a particular fight instead of a turret. Playing in a group with random people is, to my great surprise, A LOT MORE FUN. We’re all using different perks and playstyles and we end up complementing each other. I tend to hang back and snipe and heal, and my run-and-gun comrades end up needing my services, and I actually feel useful for a goddamned change.

Now, is the story good? OH, MERCY, no it is not. But narrative is totally unnecessary for this experience. I open the map and see that I have a mission, and in that mission I will acquire loot, and that is my primary motivation. And that’s enough. The more missions I complete, the more I can improve the quality of my safehouses, and then I can acquire better gear there, too.

And DC – as Manhattan was in the first game – is a wonder to explore. So many nooks and crannies! So many hidden caches and crates to discover! If I don’t feel like engaging with the many feral gangs roaming the streets, that’s totally OK. I mean, I’ll have to deal with them eventually, but in the meantime there’s this whole entire building that I can sneak into and pilfer to my heart’s content. It is glorious.

The whole package seems genuinely well-thought-out and put together, in all the ways that Division 1 wasn’t, at least at launch. I’m gonna be playing this for a long while.

If you want to hook up, I’m generally on during weeknights after 8pm on Xbox; my gamertag is JervoNYC. As noted above, I believe I’m at around level 12 or so. I’m always happy to tag along with fellow Agents; shit, I might even be persuaded to put on my headset.

Stumbling out of the gate

I’m a thousand words into my Games of 2018 post without even having settled on a definitive ranking of my Top 9, for whatever that’s worth – and then I considered trashing the whole column and doing something similar to my Books post (which coincidentally looks a lot like Stephen Totilo’s recap), BUT:

Last night I played the first hour of Astro Bot on PSVR and now everything is in flux. I hadn’t turned on my VR unit for pretty much the whole year, but I’d rented Astro Bot, Tetris and Moss and figured I’d give them each a fair shake before deciding if I should just get rid of the thing. Tetris is basically super-trippy Tetris, which is either your thing or isn’t. (I like Tetris, but I’ve never been particularly good at it, and I’m not sure that VR is the extra kick in the pants that I needed.) And I haven’t even put Moss into the PS4’s disc drive.

But Astro Bot…. wow. Even for a relatively simple platformer, it genuinely feels like a new thing, and it’s also just so goddamned cute and charming and delightful. It felt like magic. I finished the first world and was absolutely floored by it. And given that games aren’t often a vehicle for pure joy these days, I am definitely going to need to finish the whole thing before I can fully reconcile the rest of my Games of 2018.

And speaking of which, one of the games that gets a substantial write-up in that post would be Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which I’ve now sunk over 70 hours into and I’m starting to see the finish line off in the distance. I’ve wrapped up 2 of the 4 major campaign storylines, and the other 2 are somewhat tied into each other anyway, and so that’s where I’m spending the rest of my time when I’m not in VR-land. (Or when I’m not playing the hard parts in Super Mario Odyssey for my son.) I would like to see the credits roll before I figure out where to rank it inside the AC franchise; it has so much in common with Origins that it’s hard to think of the two as separate games, and I don’t think I actually made it to the “end” of that one, either. In any event – it’s good! It’s janky and clunky, as AC games tend to be, and it’s really hard to play it without thinking of Red Dead Redemption 2 (and vice versa), but in and of itself it’s quite something.

In other news, I’m upping the ante on my Goodreads challenge – 40 books, instead of 30, which still shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Since I put up that Books post, I finished 4 more:

  • Jeff Tweedy’s excellent memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)”;
  • Bethany Morrow’s art deco sci-fi story “Mem”, which has a really interesting premise but also a lot of unanswered questions;
  • Ottessa Moshfegh’s astounding “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”; and
  • Tara Westover’s mesmerizing “Educated”, which deserved every bit of praise it received.

And I’m already 2 books into 2019 – I finished Nova Jacobs’ “The Final Equation of Isaac Severy”, which was pleasant but slight, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s short and savage “My Sister, the Serial Killer”, and now I’m reading Richard Powers’ “Overstory”, which is just absolutely gorgeous. There is something to be said for escapist fiction – it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s something else to think about for a little while – but there’s also something to be said for reading a real-deal Novel, where the language is more like music than anything else. I’d read a previous novel of his, “Orfeo”, and I appreciated his poetry even if the novel fell a little flat; but “Overstory” feels like a genuine work of beauty.

Anyway – this is just to say that the 2018 Games post will be coming eventually, and that in the meantime I’m still here. Hope you’re all doing well.

The First Few Hours: Marvel’s Spider-Man

It’s early-mid September, school is back in session, and it’s finally feeling somewhat autumnal in the NYC area; yes, today is cold and rainy, but after 4 straight months of 90+ and humidity, I’ll take it.  I miss wearing jackets and comfy pajamas.

Friday’s release of Marvel’s Spider-Man would also appear to be the official kick-off of the AAA blockbuster release schedule; Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out later this week, and then we’ve got a few weeks to finish those before my personal big three hit the scene in October:  Forza Horizon 4Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and last but not least Red Dead Redemption 2.  I’m not really feeling all that excited about Fallout 76; I’m hopeful but not necessarily optimistic about Darksiders 3; I’m almost certainly going to buy Civilization VI for the Switch even though I know I won’t play more than 15 minutes of it on the easiest difficulty setting; and then Just Cause 4 is something I’d like to see a bit more of.

And meanwhile I’ve still got a considerable backlog to get through; I’ve put in over 10 hours into Nier:Automata, though I’m kinda stuck at the moment and I’m not sure if I’m even enjoying it.  Then again, I’m not sure that anything is going to pull me away from Spider-Man right now.

Let me back up a quick second.

When it comes to superheroes, I’m a passive but agreeable fan.  I never got into comic books as a kid, so the whole of my exposure to them was from movies and t-shirts.  I don’t think I ever had a “favorite” superhero.   My wife is a hard-core Marvel girl, and so we live in a Marvel house.  I think the Marvel movies are fun enough and competently made – and the DC movies are hot garbage except for the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, but that’s mostly because I’m a Christopher Nolan fan first and foremost.

I’ve never really cared all that much about Spider-Man, if I’m honest.  Never particularly liked the Sam Raimi movies; can’t even remember if I watched the Andrew Garfield one(s); the most recent iteration is fine, if only because I adore Michael Keaton and I’ll see him in pretty much anything, and he’s been good enough in the Avengers.  The character himself is… well, I don’t know.  The endless quips come off as annoying to me, and while I could certainly relate to being an adolescent teenager who is lovesick and having strange issues with puberty, that’s about as much as we’d ever have in common.

My son, on the other hand, is a fanatic.  When I told him there was a new Spider-Man game coming out, he couldn’t wait to check it out.  And this is how he looked while he watched me play.

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Who am I to discourage him?

Anyway, holy shit, this game.  My god.  It’s as if all the best parts (traversal, combat) of the Arkham Batman games met all the best parts (narrative) of the better Naughty Dog games, while throwing in tons of collectibles like this was an Assassin’s Creed game, all while being visually sumptuous and exhilarating.   Zipping around the city is as much fun as I’ve had in a game all goddamned year.  Hell, I even found my office:

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The game’s depiction of Manhattan geography is a bit wacky, but I did find my office building and it’s remarkably accurate.

I’m maybe 5-6 hours in – honestly, I lost track of time yesterday while playing it.  I’ve been staying away from the main story and am mostly focusing on exploration and collectibles and opening up the map, and it’s been absolutely glorious.  It’s pretty much all I’ve been thinking about today, and until Tomb Raider drops on Wednesday (yes, I pre-ordered, don’t judge me) it’s all I’m going to be playing.

Who knows if the rest of the game is as fun, but whatever – as far as first impressions go, this is knocking it out of the park.

The First Many Hours: God of War

Current status:  Any and all synonyms for exhausted.  Mentally, physically.  Resources depleted.  Running purely on caffeine vapors and anxiety.  Trying to keep it together.  In desperate need of a mental health day, while knowing that such a day probably can’t happen until at least next week at the earliest.

Look: I’ve read and watched my fair share of dystopian fiction, and the thing that never gets mentioned in those works is the unceasing exhaustion and overwhelming despair that comes of perpetual outrage.  Or the near-constant stress-eating and resultant GI distress.

This latest fallout from the WHCD this past weekend is just the icing on the cake.  I cannot come up with a witty retort, so I’m gonna let Burneko handle it:

…As you’ve surely read by now, Wolf joked that [Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders’s makeup—her “perfect smoky eye”—is made of the ashes of the facts she burns.

That’s about as gentle a way as anyone could come up with to lampoon the single most relevant fact about Sanders and what brought her to a station in life that would make her a reasonable subject of lines in a White House Correspondents’ Dinner monologue in the first place. A frank and honest description of who she is and what she does would be much more harsh: Every day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders plants herself, by choice, between the public and the facts of what’s being done at the very highest levels of American executive power, and does her damnedest to break and delegitimize the means by which the two are brought together. She is one of the most visible and powerful people in American civic life, and she uses her visibility and power—she chooses to use her visibility and power—to confuse the public and degrade its grasp on the truth, rather than to inform or empower or serve it. Her willingness to do this on behalf of Donald Trump, day after day, and the unmistakable teeth-gnashing relish with which she does it, are the substance of her power, and the reason why anybody knows who the fuck she is at all. What history will remember about Sanders is that she is the scum of the fucking earth, and not the jokey means by which one comedian pointed out this inarguable fact—and that’s only if the senile rageaholic pissbaby moron on whose behalf she shames herself on television every day doesn’t annihilate the human race, first.

I take solace where I can, folks, and right now it’s listening to good music, snuggling with my family*, and, after my family has gone to bed, obsessively playing God of War.

Speaking of which.  I’m at least 30 hours into it.  Currently doing a tricky side quest in Niflheim, newly unlocked.  Can’t stop thinking about it.

Let me back up a second.  I’ve recently been doing a thought experiment at work; I keep a Google Doc in a tab and any time a game pops into my head, for whatever reason, I’ll write it down.  I’ve been doing this for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it happens quite a lot, and I’m wondering what triggers it.  As a weird example:  for the longest time, any time I gave my son a bath, I’d start thinking about a certain sequence (the dockyard shootout)  in Max Payne 3.  (I have no idea why, and I don’t know if I want to know why.)   More to the point, I’ve been trying this out because sometimes I’ll be in my basement, utterly paralyzed by my backlog and not knowing what I’d want to play first; the log reminds me what I’ve been thinking about, and perhaps the paralysis can end.

I’m in no such paralysis at the moment, of course, because every free waking moment I have is spent being thoroughly absorbed by the aforementioned God of War, which is, thus far, probably one of the best games I’ve ever played in my life.  It’s probably fair to say that part of my above-mentioned exhaustion is that I spent the bulk of this weekend’s evenings playing far past my usual bedtime.  Like, 3-4 hours past my usual bedtime.

Because this is not a traditional review, I’m not particularly compelled to tell you about mechanics, though they are wonderful – like a lot of actual, professional critics, I found myself spending a lot of the early hours just throwing my axe into things and then summoning it back, and even 30 hours later it never gets old.  It is, indeed, one of the most satisfying weapons I’ve ever used in a game.

Nor am I technologically savvy enough to describe the graphics in any sort of meaningful way.  Let me simply say that, while I don’t know if it’s the best looking game I’ve ever seen, it’s certainly among the very top.  I can’t give it full marks if only because this is the first game I’ve really spent any time playing on my PS4 Pro / 4K HDR TV setup, and having seen what the X can do in that setup, I can see that the Pro isn’t quite as powerful.  (If I’m splitting hairs, I’d say that the X port of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is better-looking than the PS4’s version, and is also probably better-looking than God of War on a pixel-by-pixel basis, though it’s fair to acknowledge that each game is doing wildly different things.)

And I don’t want to discuss the story, because it should be experienced first-hand.  I accidentally spoiled myself on a mid-game plot point and almost immediately regretted it.  What I can say, though, is that the relationship between Kratos and his son, Atreus, is far better written than I’d ever give this franchise credit for.  There’s a thoughtfulness behind every line of dialogue, and the voice acting is marvelous.

Here’s what I can say, and I know this is going to sound weird – this game feels like it was built for me, specifically; the 40-something tired father with not a lot of free time.   It is paced exactly the way I’d want it to be paced – much like Uncharted 4, the combat is exciting and dynamic but is also spaced out evenly, and there’s just as much emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving as there is on beating the hell out of demons.   The game is beautiful, and it knows it, and it knows you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny, and more often than not there’s a useful treasure hidden away in those places, and so you’re encouraged to go off the beaten paths.  Indeed, sometimes those paths go to rather unexpected places, and the rewards are generally always worth it.

More interestingly, I feel like the game understands how I’m interacting with it and responds accordingly.  The interstitial dialogue as you’re travelling from place to place does a wonderful, effortless job of world-building and character development, and it does it through subtlety (inasmuch as a character like Kratos can be subtle).  If I need a break from killing things, there are always tons of non-violent things to do.  Hell, even just pausing before a combat section so that I can re-outfit my weapons is satisfying; there’s a hint of puzzle-solving that goes along with each encounter, and you can see the results of your decision-making immediately.  It’s wonderful.

As much as I was enjoying Yakuza 6 and Ni No Kuni 2, and also kinda diddling around in Far Cry 5, this is the game that I’m gonna want to keep coming back to.  The new Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption games don’t come out until the fall; this will more than suffice in the meantime.


* I just wanted to mention that my current favorite thing is the way my son plays with the back of my hair when I’m carrying him downstairs in the morning.  He is half-awake, floppy-limbed, and can barely keep his eyes open; but when I pick him up, he puts his arms around me and runs his fingers gently through the very short hair on the back of my neck.  It is the sweetest thing – I have no idea if he even knows that he does it – and it makes my day.

The First Few Hours: High Maintenance, Far Cry 5

I don’t have a lot of time today but I did want to put down some thoughts before they vanished from my brain entirely.

1. High Maintenance.

My brother told me about this show over the weekend, and so last night after we put our kid to bed we ended up watching a few episodes.  (I should add that, on his recommendation, we started with Season 2, Episode 1, rather than starting from the very beginning – the show itself is non-linear and episodic and somewhat Black Mirror-ish in that it’s got a mostly different cast in every episode.)  (I should also add that the aforementioned Season 2 opener is fucking incredible and is what got us hooked on watching the rest of it from the beginning; I should also add that even for an HBO show it contains a rather startling amount of sexual content – it makes Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street.)

Anyway, some thoughts.  On the one hand:  it’s a brilliant idea.  The show is basically a series of short stories about the lives of New Yorkers who have nothing to do with each other except that they have the same weed dealer.  Often the “weed guy” is barely in the episode at all – indeed, one particularly moving vignette takes place entirely through the POV of a dog.  It’s a funny show but it’s not necessarily “stoner humor”; instead, the thing I love about it is that it lingers in those ambient and transient moments that occur between other moments, which is the sort of thing that a stoner might find interesting.  It certainly captures those weird 10-15 minutes of hang-out time between the dealer’s arrival and departure.  And if nothing else, it’s the first show I’ve seen since moving out to the suburbs that’s made me miss living in New York City, because it captures the rhythms of city life more accurately than anything else I’ve seen.

On the other hand:  one can’t help but notice that the weed guy is white, and you’re almost never, ever, EVER worried about him getting arrested.  I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, so maybe this gets brought up at some point.  I’m not saying the show ignores race – indeed, the show has a wildly diverse cast from episode to episode in terms of the weed guy’s clientele, and many scenes are filmed in other, native languages with English subtitles, and the accompanying culutural rhythms are presented realistically.  But it’s the sort of thing that, in this current cultural moment, is very hard to ignore.

2. Far Cry 5.

I don’t know how to write about Far Cry 5.  I’ve only dabbled with it for a few hours, so I don’t yet have a full sense of where the game is going.  But it certainly feels like a Far Cry game – well, let me rephrase that.  It feels like an extension of 3 and 4, and that leads me to ask an obvious question:  what is a Far Cry game supposed to feel like?

I can’t pretend to answer that question fairly, because of the 6 and a half Far Cry games that have been released (the half being Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon), I’ve only actually seen the credits roll for one of them (that being Far Cry 4).  I’ve played maybe an hour of the first one and even less of the second; I understand that quite a few critics love Far Cry 2, and if nothing else they call it one of the most avant-garde AAA first-person shooters ever made, but I’ve only seen a tiny sliver of it, and that was at least 3 apartments ago.   I got somewhere near the end of Far Cry 3, but then the shooting at Sandy Hook happened and the act of firing a gun made me feel sick to my stomach, and FC3’s bloodlust felt particularly brutal in that context.  I’ve seen maybe the first half of Primal, which is certainly an interesting experiment, though mechanically it doesn’t necessarily do anything that the other games haven’t already done.

That said, I’ve played enough of 5 to recognize its rhythms.  You meet the game’s villain in the beginning – as you do in 3 and 4 – and then you make a violent escape and eventually take him down by reclaiming the land for the native citizenry.   This time around, of course, the action takes place not in some far-flung tropical island or Himalayan plataeu, but rather in rural Montana; your villain is a cult leader, and you – a lowly police deputy – find yourself forced to take him down in order to escape (since, for some reason, you have no cell phone service and can’t call backup).

Far Cry 5 could be a really interesting bit of social commentary, if it had any courage.  If you say the word “cult”, chances are you’ll think of David Koresh and Waco, Texas – or you might think of Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown.  If you consider the idea of a gun-crazy group of militiamen who abhor the federal government, you might recall the Bundy family, who took over that wildlife preserve just a few years ago, basically daring the feds to come in shooting.  If you think of armed citizens, you might be tempted to think of any of the dozens of mass shootings that have taken place in the last 6 months.  If you think of the idea of a policeman forced to shoot their fellow Americans, you might be reminded of any of the hundreds of unarmed black Americans that have been killed by police in the last few years.

Far Cry 5 addresses literally none of these things.  It exists in an entirely self-contained universe that, while taking place in the modern United States, has literally nothing to do with the country that we currently live in.  It feels, instead, like a videogame; you shoot the same 3 or 4 grizzled rednecks who are heavily armed but also run in straight lines.  You perform silly side missions for the locals after you liberate their towns from the cult (one early mission I’ve stumbled across requires me to harvest bull testicles for an upcoming town fair).  The most interesting parts of the game (as in 3 and 4 and Primal) are the hidden caches, which usually involve some sort of light environmental puzzle solving.

As a game, it’s fun enough; it’s certainly gorgeous on the X, and the gunplay is solid and you’re never at a loss for things to do.  But as a bit of social commentary – which you can’t help but feel like it should be, considering the subject matter – it comes up wildly short.  One can’t help but wonder what this game would be like if, say, Rockstar had made it.  (Well, I suppose one could just play GTA V in first-person mode and find out.)

Weekend Recap: Books, Debt, Pause

You ever have one of those weeks where you keep thinking that you have stuff to talk about, but then you start writing it down and none of it seems particularly interesting or important?  That’s where I was last week.  That’s sorta where I still am this week, but the day job is slow at the moment and I need to look busy.  So here we go.


I started reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” to my almost-five-year-old (!) son last week.  It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and it’s one of the two books that I’d been looking forward to reading to him pretty much since he was born – every once in a while he’ll ask me to read “The Monster At The End Of This Book”, but Grover doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it did to me.  In any event, we made it through a chapter and a half before he started losing interest, and rather than force it on him, I figure it’s probably best if we put it to the side, and then he can get back to it when he’s ready.


Speaking of books, I’ve been on a tear of late.  The last book I’d mentioned in these pages was Nick Harkaway’s “Gnomon”.  Since then, I finally finished Zachary Mason’s “Void Star” (interesting premise, though the writing is almost too flowery and obtuse), Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (which is as magnificent as everyone says, and which I vastly preferred over “The Goldfinch”), and now I’m catching up on some early George Saunders work – “In Persuasion Nation”, which is brilliant, and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”, which is equally brilliant.  I’d never particularly cared for short stories one way or the other – I generally always preferred getting sucked into a very very long novel rather than a short vignette – but what he does with the form is nothing short of revelatory.  And quite frankly, he’s a lot more sci-fi than most people tend to acknowledge – a lot of his stories read like Black Mirror episodes if they were allowed to be absurd, rather than just purely filled with technological dread.


I think I’d mentioned a few weeks back that the wife and I were determined to get back into our respective creative gears this year.  For me, this feels a bit more daunting than it should, because my laptop is running on fumes at this point and buying a new computer is just too goddamned much for me right now, what with credit card debt and the mortgage and car payments and day care and etc.  And yet, if I ever hope to make any money from making music, I need a new computer.  I did end up buying a new input box, but I’m so afraid of it not working that I haven’t yet attempted to hook it up.

It wasn’t always this way, of course.  Back in high school, I was writing music all day; I still have a notebook filled with at least 200+ songs with charts and lyrics and melodies and arrangements and such.  But I never recorded them, beyond sitting in front of a boombox and recording a sketch to show the band.  Eventually I bought a four-track, and that was also just used for sketches (and indeed I never had the proper means to mix them down, and so I ended up sending the mixes through my guitar amp and recording them with a hand-held dictaphone).  And so on and so forth.  The point being, I never needed to have professional equipment at home because there was always a band I could send this stuff to, and if we liked a song well enough to record it we’d just go into a studio and record it properly.  Now, of course, I don’t have a band, and I don’t have the money to pay for a studio (or to hire the musicians necessary to play this stuff), and so if I’m going to release this stuff I need to do it myself.  And so I need a new computer.  Anybody have a spare $2000 they’re not using so I can get an iMac?


If you’re looking for a good time on your mobile phone, you could do a lot worse than The Room: Old Sins.  The story is as obtuse is ever, but that’s hardly the point; this is the best game in the entire series, bar none, and it’s a pleasure to play through from start to finish.


Lastly:  I started playing Monster Hunter World this weekend, like most of the gaming world.  It’s my first foray into the franchise, and my understanding is that it’s the most accessible.  I can’t speak to that; I’m just coming to it as a newbie and hoping it makes sense.  Actually, let me rephrase that – I’m coming to it pretending I’m Geralt from the Witcher franchise, to the point where that’s what my character looks like.  I need to get out of that habit, of course, because the combat in Monster Hunter bears little to no relation to The Witcher, and that’s why I feel like I’m almost about to die quite often.

In any event, I finished the first 3 missions and am now at the point where I can explore without a time limit or without any particular objectives, and I think this is where I can see the game becoming quite awesome.

That being said, the game makes some puzzling design choices; the one that drives me the most insane is that you can’t truly pause the game.  While it’s true that this doesn’t always matter – like when you’re in the starting hub, or if you simply decline to press “A” during a cutscene – it most certainly matters if you’re in the middle of a quest.  My game-playing time is in the evening, after my son goes to bed, and I’m in the basement, two floors below him; if he needs something and my wife isn’t available – or if my dog needs something – or if I need a bathroom break or a snack – I’ve gotta put the controller down and deal with it, and not being able to pause means that meta-Geralt is most likely going to die.  Not being able to pause is a source of needless anxiety and I don’t know how to get around it.  (This is also why I never stuck with the Destiny franchise.)

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.

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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