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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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.

The First Few Hours: Deus Ex Mankind Divided

Current Status:  Let’s say about 5-6 hours.  I’ve done 3 or 4 main missions, 2-3 side missions.  I am attempting to play as stealthily and non-lethally as possible; in other words, I’m mostly just crawling through ducts.

I have some conflicting thoughts about  Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but first I need to provide some context.

I have vague memories of playing the first Deus Ex game on my roommate’s PC.  I know I finished it, because I remember using a walkthrough in order to see all the endings (I also remember printing the walkthrough out at work and having it be this absolutely gigantic document); I remember certain levels better than others (i.e., the Statue of Liberty); I mostly remember the feeling of intense intimidation.  Deus Ex was billed as “the thinking man’s shooter/RPG”, which to me really just meant that it was incredibly complicated to learn how to play; you couldn’t simply WASD your way through a level.  And I dimly recall hearing that there were multiple ways to approach each objective, though I’m pretty sure I just killed everybody I saw, because the stealth controls were complicated and I always got spotted without knowing why or how.

I played Invisible War on console, and made it about 2/3rds of the way through before getting stuck.  All I remember about that game were its obscenely long loading times (which felt very much at odds with the relative smallness of each new zone) and that I had a little bit more success playing stealthily, though – again – I got stuck towards the end because I was pinned between some massive robot enemies and I had almost nothing useful in my inventory that could help me get un-stuck.

I played and finished Human Revolution, and enjoyed it (for the most part).  I was glad to see the franchise revived and treated not simply as a cash cow, but as an attempt to modernize the gameplay and keep it relevant.  The ending(s) were junk and the boss fights were awful, but I did enjoy sneaking around.

So, then: I am coming to this new game with the casual familiarity of someone who’s played the previous games but can’t necessarily remember if there’s any relationship between JC Denton and Adam Jensen; who is aware of the storied history of the franchise (or, rather, the high regard of the first game) but who isn’t necessarily going into this one with high expectations; and mostly as someone who desperately needed a palate cleansing after the existential, solipsistic despair of No Man’s Sky.

To that end, I am of two minds regarding Mankind Divided at this early stage of the game:

I do not feel that it’s necessary to have played any other DE game in order to enjoy this one; but I also feel that it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary to have played at least one other DE game in order to know what’s possible in this one.

If I’m being honest, most of what I know about how to play this current DE is from my previous experience, coupled with what I’ve read in pre-release previews and final-release reviews about the game. The game itself is not particularly explicit in letting you know how much freedom you have.  The tutorial level is heavily combat-focused, and while it teaches you about non-lethal takedowns and certain stealth mechanics, it doesn’t necessarily do the best job of showing you that you can sneak through vents and bypass rooms of enemies entirely, and that it’s often more beneficial to do it that way.  More to the point, I get the sense that there’s an expectation of the player to already know this stuff, and that the tutorial is mostly there to acclimate you to the controls, rather than the game’s philosophy.

And I should also point out here that by the phrase “game’s philosophy” I’m talking about the thought process that guides each individual player through their own individual gameplay experience, rather than the game’s narrative.  Because as far as the story goes, I mean, whatever.  Mankind Divided‘s plot is convoluted and ridiculous and the main takeaway so far is that Jensen acts like he’s auditioning to be in a Kojima Metal Gear Solid game.*

Which is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself.  I’m making my own fun.  At this early stage in the game, I’m largely avoiding the main storyline and simply exploring this future vision of Prague, which reminds me an awful lot of Half-Life 2‘s City 17.  Any time I see a vent cover, I open it and sneak around just to see where it takes me, because invariably it leads me to a secret stash of something worthwhile and at the very least I get a few XP points.  Any time I see a locked door, regardless of where I am, I immediately hack the shit out of it or I start looking for an alternate route in, because there’s almost always an alternate route, whether it’s a structural weakness in an adjacent wall, or even just hopping out onto a window ledge and sneaking in that way (you will learn, if you choose to, that while people might have complicated locks on their doors, their windows are almost always unlocked).

The world is super janky in that regard.  Half a dozen people might be milling about in front of a coffee shop, and they do not react at all to me opening up a manhole cover and jumping into the sewer.  Then again, considering how many people hang out in the sewer, I guess they wouldn’t necessarily be surprised.  It is unclear why there are so many people hanging out in the sewer, for that matter – there’s obviously some sort of conflict going on that’s making the citizenry uneasy, but I’m not entirely sure why they’re hanging out belowground.

The only other thing I can offer is that… I kinda wish I was playing this on PS4.  I think I’d mentioned last week that I’m aiming to break 100K in Achievements by the end of the year, and so I’m choosing to play most of the rest of the year’s multi-console releases on the XB1 in order to make that happen.  The XB1 experience is largely OK, though there’s a bit of slowdown here and there and I know the PS4 version would look a bit crisper and cleaner.  (Facial animation and lip-syncing are awful, though, and I hear that’s the case across all three platforms.)  Nothing about the XB1 version makes it unplayable, of course; but it’s clear that it’s bringing up the rear in terms of smoothness and fidelity.

More to come later this week.


* I would ordinarily link here to my Unwinnable essay about MGSV, but I don’t think it’s online.  I’ll see what I can do about that.  In the meantime, it’s available in issue 70/71.

The (Possibly) Final Few Hours: No Man’s Sky

I very nearly beat No Man’s Sky last night, except for one stupid thing I did 20+ hours ago.

Let me back up for a sec, though.  Firstly, don’t necessarily take my completion time as an average: I was specifically on the Atlas questline, which supposedly gets you to the center much more quickly than the regular way; secondly, I did finally upgrade my warp drive, which makes a huge difference when it comes to warping – I was jumping 4-5 star systems at a time, rather than just 1.  And honestly, at this point, I kinda just want to wrap things up and see what happens; there’s not enough meat here to keep me satiated, and meanwhile there’s still that Witcher 3: Blood & Wine DLC I keep meaning to finish.

So, then:  if you were to look at any NMS guides right now, one of the first things they’ll tell you is don’t sell your Atlas Stones, no matter what – doesn’t matter if you need the inventory space OR the copious amounts of money.  As you might imagine, then, my particular problem is that when I started playing the game, this wasn’t common knowledge.  I needed money and saw that a Stone was selling for something absolutely absurd on the Galactic Trade market, and so I went for it.

You need 10 Atlas Stones to get the Atlas ending; I currently have 9.

I’m in a bit of a dilemma, in other words.  I don’t want to start over from scratch.  I’m not particularly interested in farming 2M units’ worth of materials in order to buy a Stone off the market – and I don’t even know if my current star system’s market is even selling them.  And I’m very reluctant to leave this system until I can resolve this situation, as I’m not sure if I’ll run into any more Atlas Waypoints – and I foolishly forgot to rename the system so that I could easily find it again if I got too far ahead.

So the way I see it, I’ve got two viable choices.  I can either use that item-duping glitch and get myself the 10th stone as soon as possible (i.e., before they patch it out), or… I sell all 9 stones and buy myself the sweetest ship I can find, and continue on my merry way through the galaxy… doing the exact same shit I’ve already been doing since I started.  I’m not necessarily in favor of using glitches and exploits, but in this specific case I can’t help but feel like it’s the right answer, since I didn’t know I was supposed to hold on to them when I first got one.  And, well… I’m starting to get a little bored.  I don’t really know what else there is for me to do beyond getting all my “Journey Milestones” up to level 10 – and as it currently stands, I’m mostly there on that score anyway.

I should also admit that I looked at the 10 Atlas Stones ending on YouTube – just because I needed to know if it was worth it.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but I will say this:  if the ending I saw is indeed the real ending (since it might’ve been filmed pre-Day One Patch), then HOLY SHIT what a colossally stupid waste of time this has been.

I don’t mean to sound so angry.  The game’s ambition is staggering to behold and I certainly don’t regret my purchase, even if I’m ultimately disappointed in my experience – the lethal combination of infinite monotony and incessant crashing would do that to anyone.  And I can certainly see Hello Games patching in a whole mess of interesting content down the line, and I’d be legitimately curious to see what they have to offer.  I’d love to see some hand-crafted planets with some new questlines; or, at least, some new variations in the planet-forming algorithms.  The game doesn’t take up that much space on my PS4, anyway, so it’s not like I’m going to delete it.

But I do wish that there was a bit more there, there.

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The Next Few Hours: No Man’s Sky

I’m in a weird place with respect to No Man’s Sky.  There’s been an ongoing critical discussion with respect to what NMS actually is, and how the reality of what NMS presents may or may not conflict with what people wanted NMS to be, and whether the hype that NMS generated was warranted (even if, from my point of view, the “hype” was mostly about people’s self-generated expectations based on the very vague statements that Hello Games was willing to impart), and that’s a fine discussion to have.  But the reality is that, well, I spent $60 on this thing and I’m trying to figure out how to have fun with it.

I am not terribly attracted to truly open sandboxes.  Minecraft, as the most obvious example, has never been my cup of tea; I was always the sort of kid who followed the build instructions that came with my Lego sets, and so I always felt a bit at sea without a guiding hand pointing me in some sort of direction. Even the Hitman franchise is somewhat impenetrable, if only because I never feel like I have enough of an opportunity to improvise before everything falls apart.

NMS is a bit more guided than I originally thought, though it wasn’t until I had a quasi-epiphany about how to play it that I figured it out.  We’ve always been told that our primary goal is to get to the center of the galaxy.  And I’ve read enough stuff online that strongly urges you to follow the Atlas questline in order to get there more quickly that I’ve opted to go that route (even though those Atlas stones are killing my ability to properly manage my inventory – would it be too much to ask for some sort of Village Chest analog, where I could safely store the stuff I wanted to keep and it would automatically be available at each space station?  I suspect, actually, that it might).

But even those two arrows are still a bit too open-ended – getting to the center of the galaxy could very well take years unless I pay proper attention to what I’m doing.  And so, to that end, I’ve decided that each play session will be devoted to accomplishing one specific task.  Last night I wanted to finally buy a new ship.  So first I decided to suck it up and fully discover each of this particular planet’s species, which netted me a cool 325,000.  I then mined the hell out of as much expensive shit as I could find (keeping the starred inventory items at the Galactic Trade Portals in the back of my mind), and eventually I happened to find a ship at a spaceport that (a) represented a decent inventory upgrade (22 slots, up from 19), (b) had better built-in upgrades than my current ship (more effective shields and cannons), and (c) hit my price range.  This took about 2 hours or so, and now I’m feeling like I accomplished something.

Tonight’s goal is to upgrade my warp drive, which means I need to farm certain specific elements and buy a Dynamic Resonator or whatever it’s called (I do have the recipe to craft it, but in terms of managing inventory space I’d rather just have it already so I can mine the other stuff).  And once I do that, I’ll be able to push a bit farther along each time I enter warp.

(I’ve read some hints as to how to get better versions of those Atlas Passes; I may try to do that, too, since apparently the v3 passes open up doors that contain warp materials.)

So I’ve managed to turn the unstructured chaos into something manageable and do-able, and so that’s something.  The problem is that I don’t know how much longer I’ll find it interesting.

The bummer with respect to such a gigantic universe as NMS is that I can’t really tell you about any exciting adventures I’ve had.  If I were to describe my average session, it would almost certainly sound a lot like yours.  There’s no real possibilities for emergent narratives to form, because there’s almost nothing to interact with.  The creatures all look a bit different but they don’t necessarily do anything particularly interesting; the sentinels either attack you or they ignore you; sometimes there will be space battles, but you won’t necessarily reap any rewards if you didn’t have any open inventory space on your ship before you got started.  Unlike The Witcher or the Elder Scrolls games, there’s not much of a reason to explore neat-looking caves, because aside from mining materials there’s nothing to find.  The algorithm that created this universe is certainly impressive, but nothing feels hand-crafted.

In a way, though, NMS also reminds me of what I’d hoped there’d be more of in Destiny, which had a much smaller universe that I only saw tiny portions of, and which provided almost no incentive to venture off the beaten path.  Perhaps it’s just because a lot of NMS’s UI feels like a straight-up clone.

I remain intrigued, and I suppose I’m glad there’s something of a lull in the release window at the moment.  I do not know if I’ll make to the end.

The First Few Hours: No Man’s Sky

Current Status:  I probably should’ve written this down – I think I’m about 10 hours in, approximately 10 systems visited.  I’m on my 3rd ship, my first exosuit is maxed out in terms of inventory slots, and my gun/multi-tool is built for mining, not for combat, which has proven to be somewhat of a problem of late (I’ll get to this in a bit).

Like most people, I had no idea what No Man’s Sky was going to be.  And now that I’ve spent some time with it, it turns out that it is more or less exactly what I’d hoped it might be, which is a more in-depth version of the free-form exploration bits of the first Mass Effect.

Now, look: I knew that the free-form stuff in ME1 was dumb as hell, but I did it anyway; I visited every goddamned planet and finished every goddamned thing there was to do, because it made for decent XP.  And I also did it because I felt that I understood what Bioware was attempting to do, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt on that score because I loved everything else, and ultimately I also knew that it would only take 30-45 minutes per planet.

NMS is a different beast entirely.

The size of this game cannot be overstated.  Which is hilarious, because the game’s size has been the single-biggest selling point since it was first announced.  But I truly couldn’t comprehend just how big the game is until I realized that each individual planet is bigger than every other open-world game ever made, times x10000.  And considering that there are 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets, well, you get the idea.

This being said, the game’s size can be overwhelming – and a bit frustrating.  As an example, let’s say you forget to stock up on plutonium before you land in the middle of an unexplored planet.  And then, after you finish whatever task you set out to do, you realize you can’t take off because not only are you out of plutonium, but there’s no plutonium to be found within a literal 5-minute walk in any direction – which is especially daunting considering how slow your default movement speed is;  well, at that moment, you can be tempted to junk the whole thing, delete your save file, and start over from scratch.

There are also some technical issues that have been frustrating, to say the least.  I crashed to the PS4’s dashboard at least 4 times yesterday, even after deleting and re-installing twice.  The game does do a somewhat decent job at checkpointing, but sometimes it crashes at very unfortunate moments – like after a 10-minute jaunt to find language stones.

Speaking of technical issues, my current task may possibly be bugged – or simply impossible.  I’ve veered off the main path and am following some Atlas quests – I really want to open up all those locked doors – and my current task is to find something in an abandoned building.  The building in question is about 50m underwater, and – like the other Abandoned Buildings I’ve run across – there’s no obvious way to enter them.  And if I need to blow something up in order to gain access, well, I’m totally screwed because I focused my multi-tool on mining as opposed to combat/explosives, and while I’ve discovered dozens of multi-tool blueprints, I haven’t come across a new multi-tool with upgraded slots in hours, which means I have no idea what to do.  Similarly, I’ve entered more than a few star systems that have Distress Signals in outer space, but I have no idea what to do when I find them; there’s nothing attached to the signal icon, and hitting L3 to search/locate brings up nothing.

Nonetheless, I am compelled by the overall experience.  I’ve long expressed a desire to explore strange new worlds at my own pace and with a more-or-less pacifist bent, and that’s literally what this game is.  I’m maybe not as crazy about the constant mining/survival aspect of the game, but it’s usually not that big a deal – there’s almost always something lying about that will fix whatever is breaking down.

The game’s rhythms, while repetitive, are enjoyable.  And every once in a while I happen to discover something unexpected, and those moments are really fun and rewarding.  The game’s mysteries are tantalizing, but I’m also just enjoying the scenery; I’m not necessarily worried about getting to the end as much as I am simply getting better stuff and hoping that something cool is around the corner.

And, well, that’s the thing, isn’t it:  there are so many corners.

The Sense of An Ending / INSIDE

1. I’ve been continuing on my reading tear of late, and I’m sure it’s because I’m feeling pressured to make sure I hit my Goodreads Reading Challenge number for some stupid reason.  And most of the books I’ve read lately are on the short side of things.

Since my last post, I’ve finished Emma Straub’s “Modern Lovers”, which I found somewhat disappointing, though I’ll admit that it may only be disappointing in that what I expected is not at all what I got.  I should note that a lot of what I’m reading these days is stuff that I’ve picked in order to help me formulate some lyric ideas.  And a book about middle-aged people who used to be in a band in college and reexamining their lives in light of their shared connection – well, that’s a topic that’s very much on my mind, both in terms of lyrics and just in general.  “Modern Lovers” does not really focus on the stuff I’d hoped it would.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s without merit; it just means I was looking for something that simply wasn’t there.

Then I read Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, which Amazon had recently featured in a Kindle sale for $1.99 or something ridiculous, so I picked it up.  It is known as a sci-fi classic, and apparently you can’t describe it without mentioning its commonalities to Vietnam, of which Haldeman was a veteran.  To that end, it presents a unique perspective of the soldier’s point of view, which is certainly worth absorbing.  I was a little put off by his more far-out ideas of sexuality and eugenics, though.

Last night I began Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending”, and I finished it this morning, and WOW, WOW, fucking WOW.  I’ve read quite a few good books lately, but there’s a difference between reading a good book and reading a good book by a great writer, and Barnes is absolutely magnificent.  I am also perhaps a little ashamed to admit that I related to the narrator far more than I was prepared to be?  In any case, this was the rumination on nostalgia and loss and remembrance that I’d hoped “Modern Lovers” would be, and now I want to read everything else he’s written.  I think I’d been aware of this specific book for a while, but it wasn’t until the reviews came out of his latest book, “The Noise of Time” – a (fictional?) book about Shostakovitch – that I started looking over the rest of his work.


2. I stared playing INSIDE last night, the latest 2.5D game from Playdead, makers of Limbo.  You can’t talk about INSIDE without referencing Limbo, and I suppose that might be part of the point – they’re both very moody and atmospheric, and both feature a child running away from something horrible towards something unknown but also probably horrible, and all the while platforming and puzzling around dangerous obstacles.  And both games are not afraid of showing the gruesome fate of an ill-timed or wrong-footed step.  I’m about 2/3 of the way through and am hopeful I can finish it tonight.  I don’t want to say anything else about it except that it is, so far, absolutely stunning.  Remarkably articulate animation (helped out by finely-tuned controls), astounding sound design, and a very pleasing use of physics manipulation where necessary.


 

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.

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