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.

 

Weekend Recap: Forza Horizon 3

1. This was a lovely weekend.  Glorious, brisk autumnal weather; met up with friends every single day, both old and new; had one of the best bloody marys I’ve ever had in my life; really, the only way it could’ve been better is if all my sports teams hadn’t decided to collectively shit the bed at the same time.  I’ll credit my new head meds that I didn’t take that too much to heart.

2. I will not be watching the debate tonight.  I mean, look: my mind was made up a long time ago, and tonight’s shitshow is going to accomplish nothing beyond raising my blood pressure beyond acceptable limits.  If this infograph below doesn’t spell out how absurd tonight’s playing field is, I don’t know what else to tell you.  If “smile more” can seriously equal “stop lying” in terms of importance, then this nightmare will never end.

3. I tweeted last night:

I meant to follow this up with some further observations, but I couldn’t put my controller down long enough to type them out.  In any event, Forza Hoziron 3 is wonderful.  I think the thing I appreciate the most is that it’s genuinely and sincerely interested in me having fun on my own terms.  Indeed, the game’s earnestness and sincerity encompass almost every facet of the game’s design; even the cheesiness of the “narrative” seems well-intentioned.  Unlike other “car culture” games whose hyper-machismo bullshit gets incredibly irritating after just a few minutes, FH3 is inviting and welcoming and friendly.  I have no idea if car festivals like the one Horizon is attempting to recreate actually exist; I have literally no interest in car culture or anything beyond making sure my own car is gassed up and not falling apart.  I am very content to simply drive around and explore FH3’s vision of Australia, and the game actively encourages this sort of behavior.  In a way, I’m actually kind of glad that the Xbox One’s screenshot capabilities are so clumsy, because otherwise I’d be taking pictures nearly every other second.  At one point last night I was driving in the outback, and the in-game sun had begun to set, and suddenly the stars started to appear… and kept appearing… and suddenly there were, like, millions of them, and it was so breathtaking that I could barely keep my car on the road.

4. I may have hit the wall as far as Picross 3D: Round 2 is concerned.  I’ve seen the credits roll, I’ve unlocked all the stamps, and so all that’s left are some brutally difficult puzzles, and I’m the sort of perfectionist that needs as few errors as possible or else I automatically restart, and I find myself accidentally selecting the wrong color (which I still can’t believe I’m doing after all this time)… the short version is that I’m getting more frustrated than anything else.  So I think I’ll take a little break from that.  At least – I won’t bring it into work with me anymore.

5. The Nix continues to be amazing.  There’s a chapter right in the middle of the book that takes the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure, and it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve read in ages.

I think that’s all I’ve got for the time being.  I’m hoping to get my hands on XCOM 2 for console later this week, as my PC did not meet minimum specs when it was released there earlier this year; I’d like to post some impressions of that, though it’ll be tough to get FH3 out of my mind.

weekend recap: Dangerous Golf, Overwatch, Blood & Wine

Today’s favorite album:  Steve Gunn, “Eyes on the Lines.”

This was a very busy weekend; lots of fun family activities, plus also a wee bit of a stomach bug last night.  You can’t win ’em all.

I’ve got three games I want to talk about, so let’s get to it.


First up: the eagerly anticipated Dangerous Golf, the first game from the ex-heads of Criterion Games, makers of the Burnout driving games, also known as my personal favorite driving series of all time.  On paper, this sounds like a perfect little arcade diversion: take Burnout’s crash mode, but instead of a car smashing other cars in glorious slow-motion, it’s a golf ball destroying hundreds of fragile, breakable objects in an assortment of rooms.

In execution… well, it’s not quite there.  It’s so close to being great.  Sadly, it feels a little rushed and unpolished.  The impression one gets after an hour or so is that this is a snazzy proof-of-concept physics demo, rather than a well-thought-out game experience.  And it’s not just the strangely bare-boned career mode, or the inconsistent camera control, or the aggravating load times; there’s just a curious lack of attention to detail that make this feel a lot rougher than it ought to be.  Just as an example, there’s no interstitial music.  This is obviously not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it does come off as an oversight that ends up becoming more and more distracting.  Ironically, the 5-second guitar flourishes at the conclusion of each round sound not unlike the sound cues you’d hear after putting a set list together in Rock Band, which is *also* just a bit weird.

There’s also little things like having the control scheme graphic feature a whole bunch of advanced features that don’t actually unlock right away, which can lead to some frustration.  Key example – there’s a thing called “Pistol Tee” and “Pistol Putt”, which happen by pushing RT when you tee or putt (obviously).  But you don’t unlock those two things until after your 2nd “tour” is complete, and even when you unlock them, they aren’t ever explained.  Indeed, the whole putting game is never explained – and you can’t move the camera after you shoot, so when the flag is in a different room you can’t see where your shot is going.

These are things that could arrive in a future patch, but I can’t imagine they would.  I know lots and lots of Burnout fans who have yet to play this game – either they don’t know about it, or they’re busy playing Overwatch, or they just don’t care.  It’s a shame, because with a little more elbow grease this could be a ton of fun.  As it is, it’s almost a ton of fun – and I’m giving it the extreme benefit of the doubt, given that (a) I love golf games, (b) I love the developers’ previous work, and (c) this combination is right in my wheelhouse,  but I don’t know how much more time I’m going to spend with it.

* * *

And speaking of giving prominent game developers the benefit of the doubt – as well as mentioning Overwatch in passing – well, my rental copy of Overwatch finally showed up on Saturday.  I am probably not going to play very much of it.

But I want to stress that this isn’t the game’s fault.

I have nothing but respect for Blizzard’s past work, and Overwatch has received superlative writeups from all the critics I care about, and my friends all love it, and I’m all in favor of vibrant colors and a diverse cast of characters.

The problem, of course, is that I do not like competitive shoot-’em-ups, no matter how amazing they are.  Maybe it’s a genetic thing; maybe I’m never going to like competitive shooters.  It’s the part of every big game that I go out of my way to avoid:  Halo, Call of Duty, Uncharted, Gears of War, Destiny, The Division – I just can’t do it, man.  It’s not even that I suck at them – I mean, I kinda suck at Rocket League but that game’s never coming off my PS4 hard drive*, because even being terrible at it is still super-fun.  There’s a certain mind-set that goes into enjoying competitive shooters, and I just don’t have it, and I don’t know that I ever will.  I’ll be very curious to see what game comes along to break that particular pattern, especially given that I’m always going to be older than the target demographic, and also given that I will eventually spend less time per night gaming than I used to.

Finally, I gotta talk about The Witcher 3 – Blood and Wine DLC.


As I noted last week, I had no idea that I could’ve been playing the first DLC all along.  So I started a new character and began the first Hearts of Stone mission and very quickly  realized that it was all familiar, and very quickly remembered that I’d already played it  and simply forgotten that I’d done so.  So I then immediately started the new one, Blood & Wine.  Now we’re all caught up.

Here’s the thing about this particular bit of DLC – it’s a perfect bit for a player like me, someone who loved the original game but hadn’t played it seriously in a long time and had forgotten what the overall rhythms of the gameplay experience feel like.  Unlike other prominent RPG DLC missions, this is not merely a quest with some side objectives; this is an entirely new and rather large landmass, with at least a dozen heavy-duty side-quests that I’m compelled to tackle if only because I’m still underleveled for the main quest.

I haven’t even really begun to mess with the whole “I own a vineyard and a country villa” angle, if only because I’d already foolishly spent a lot of money improving a different DLC merchant before I realized what I needed it for.

The long and short of it is:  godDAMN I love this game.  I love how this game is built; each quest has its own pace and its own “hook”, and the characters you meet are almost always interesting.  It’s nearly impossible to predict how a given quest will flow; even the monster-hunting quests, which are the closest thing this game has to a “cookie-cutter” approach, are different in terms of your combat tactics.

Here’s another thing about Witcher 3 – it’s completely ruined Bethesda’s RPGs for me. I was already having trouble enjoying Fallout 4, and now I know I’ll never be able to go back to it after this.  Same goes for Skyrim and Oblivion and the like; even if Bethesda remasters them for current-gen consoles, they’ll still feel clunky and archaic.  Playing Fallout 4 after playing Witcher 3 is similar to what it’s like to play GTA 3 after playing GTA 5; even though I adore GTA 3, it’s damn-near impossible to play given how shitty the controls are.  And Fallout 4’s cutscenes and writing just simply aren’t as sharp or as interesting as Witcher 3; and Geralt is infinitely more compelling than any blank cipher I come up with.

But whatever – I’m not here to be sad about Bethesda, I’m here to celebrate The Witcher 3 – one of the finest games of this generation, and one of my favorite games of all time.  I’m so glad to have a compelling reason to revisit it, and I’m even happier that this DLC is, so far, really, really good.


* This reminds me of a question that popped up on Twitter not too long ago – what games will you always keep on your hard drive?   My PC, when it was working, had a 1.5TB hard drive and so everything stayed on it.  My XB1 doesn’t really get used all that often, but I will always make sure that Pinball FX2 stays on, and I suppose I’ll always keep the latest Forza Horizon title on.  (I did recently delete and then re-install Sunset Overdrive, because I forgot how to play it and the only way to re-tutorialize is to completely wipe out any record of you playing it, both locally and in the cloud, and I can’t believe this hasn’t been fixed yet.)  As for the PS4, my primary console of choice – well, I’ve had to do a fair amount of juggling in the last year or so, but I suppose I’ll always make sure I have room for Witcher 3 and Rocket League.

Civil War! Radiohead!

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

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

But somehow we were able to see it yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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


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

 

On The Division, Quantum Break, and self-awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

the end of things

1. Whether we like it or not, all things must eventually come to an end.  We’ve all had that experience where we’re reading a book that we love so much that we never want to put it down, or a song that we can’t stop listening to… but eventually we do, and we have to, because we don’t want to ruin the thing that we love by wearing it out.

This is why it’s sometimes hard for me to stay engaged with a game once it’s outstayed its welcome, and especially when the game in question doesn’t actually have an official finish line.  I’ve put in probably close to 30 hours in The Division by this point; I’m level 23, I’ve only got a few more main missions to go before my Penn Station base is completely finished, but I’m starting to grow weary of the game’s repetitiveness.  The side missions and encounters and diversions are all identical except that tougher enemies take more bullets.  I’m no longer wandering the streets looking for collectibles, since I know that once I finish all the side missions they’ll automatically pop up on my map anyway.  I was hoping I’d stay engaged long enough to hit level 30 and do a little cursory exploration of the Dark Zone, even though I don’t care about PvP; now my goal is simply to make it to 41st Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, to see if my day job’s location is accurately portrayed.  (Spoiler alert – it most likely isn’t; with a few exceptions here and there, the NYC that’s portrayed in this game bears little resemblance to the actual NYC.  I’ve already glanced at the map and immediately noticed that there’s no exit/side-street for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, which bisects 4-5 blocks between 2nd and 3rd Avenues; then again, the game also features a 2nd Avenue subway, so perhaps this near-future Manhattan has done away with the tunnel altogether.)

This is not to say that I think The Division is a bad game; frankly, compared to Ubisoft’s other recent offerings, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to play, and in many ways it reminds me of what Watch Dogs could’ve been.  But I find myself turning my brain off the longer I go; I ignore cutscenes and narrative beats because they’re meaningless at this point.  I finish a mission and they show me recovered video of atrocities committed by the game’s “enemies”, but I find it hard to care considering that I just killed hundreds of people single-handedly.  All I’m doing is moving from waypoint to waypoint, mowing people down, hoping they drop something useful.  This was fun for the first dozen hours, but it’s growing monotonous; there’s no depth.  I continue to hide behind cover and pop off shots here and there, the same way I did 30 hours ago, but now I have a portable turret.  I spend too much time agonizing over the relative merits and statistical improvements of different kneepads.  Do I sell?  Do I deconstruct?  Is there any point in engaging with the Advanced Weapons Dealer in the Ops Base before hitting level 30?

I need more co-op time, I guess.  That made the game a lot more fun to play, because suddenly I could think tactically instead of simply rushing from cover to cover; my friend and I could consider locational positioning, and work on flanking and suppressing.  Granted, this too eventually gets repetitive, but at least we can still talk to each other instead of simply listening to the horrible, horrible stereotypical New Yorker voice acting of each safe house’s side-mission giver.

Then again, I’m not necessarily in any rush to get it out of my house; if my rental Q is to be believed, I still have more than a week before Quantum Break and DiRT Rally show up.  But I do need to put it away, soon, because otherwise I’ll just feel like I’m wasting time.

2.  Oculus Rift reviews are dropping all over the place, and they all seem to be saying the same thing:  “a key to a new era of entertainment“, “like nothing you’ve ever experienced before“, “It [has] changed how we think of games.”  I guess this is good?  That hopefully this isn’t a fad?  I have no stake in this tech one way or the other; I think I’ve said this already, but in case I haven’t, right now the only VR set that I’ve got any eyes on is the PSVR, because my gaming PC is more or less busted and I can’t afford a new one right now, much less a new one AND a Rift.  I’m curious, I suppose, but until I actually experience it I will remain skeptical.  (I also wear glasses, and I suspect that wearing glasses underneath a VR headset is problematic.)

I’m also a little skeptical of Sony’s ability to make their VR unit compelling for more than, say, the initial launch quarter.  Considering the horrendous support that the PSP and the Vita have gotten, it’s hard to have faith that PSVR will be worth the investment – especially since it sounds like any PS4 owner would have to upgrade to the PS4.5 in order to get the most out of the VR setup.  As someone who’s owned multiple iterations of iPhones, of course I’m going to upgrade to a more powerful PS4, irrespective of my decision to jump on the VR bandwagon, but not everyone can make the same jump, and the more I think about it, the more of a mess it becomes.

3.  Regarding the aforementioned “all things must end”: I’m currently reading Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and it is slow-going; it’s beautifully written but there’s tragedy on every page, and it’s the sort of thing where I have trouble sticking with it, if only because there’s only so much Chechen atrocity I can handle in one sitting.  (There is a section describing the plight of teenaged refugees being kidnapped and executed, and the remaining family members asking for portraits of their missing loved ones; and while it is poetic and beautiful to read, it’s also gut-wrenchingly devastating; I was reading this on the evening commute, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out in sobs.)

4.  I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” over the weekend.  I’m… I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I might make a separate post about it.  I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure it would make one hell of a play, but I’m also wondering if I’m starting to get a bit weary of QT’s tics and mannerisms.  (It also didn’t help that the film’s opening credits introduce the film as “The Eighth Film from Quentin Tarantino”.)

5.  I was going to wrap this post up by talking a bit about Corey Feldman’s IndieGoGo campaign, but I don’t feel like mocking him.  I mean, if you click on that link, most of the mocking is already done for you; you will cringe and recoil in horror involuntarily, whether or not I prepare you for what you see.  Frankly, I have no business making fun of him; I have an album of my own that I’m trying to finish, and while I’d love to raise some funds to be able to hire my friends to play on it and have it recorded and mixed by a guy who actually knows what he’s doing instead of me simply dicking around on my Macbook, I’d be lucky to get even half of the pitiful amount he’s raised.  If you’re making art, and you’re sincere in your desire to make something that you believe is important and beautiful, I don’t want to make fun of you.  I’d rather be angry at myself for not working as hard as I should, because I at least have some measure of control over it.

So instead, let me leave you with maybe the best remembrance (of many) of the late, great Garry Shandling.

“Make the spiritual search more important than the problem,” he told me once. Better than anyone I know, he understood that the search was the destination, that messiness was better than tidiness, that the complexity that makes us suffer also is the source of all beauty.

Weekend Recap: Dividing Together

1. I believe I’ve said this already about a million times, but on the off-chance that this is your first visit to this site (welcome!) it bears repeating if only so that this post makes sense:  I have been making an effort to not buy so many full-price games this year.  Barring some surprise announcements at E3, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that I feel compelled to own, and certainly nothing that I need to pre-order.

That being said, I did kinda sorta end up buying Hitman over the weekend, and I’m still not sure why.  I have never been very good at Hitman games; while I can certainly appreciate how free-form they are and how they encourage creativity and improvisation – there’s any number of ways you can take out your target and all that ultimately matters is that you escape – I always feel like I’m missing a crucial piece of the game’s vocabulary when I sit down and play.  I came to the series late, I guess, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t occur to me to try all sorts of things; I tend to be very basic, which means my schemes are generally somewhat rudimentary, and so when I pull off a hit successfully I don’t feel any particular satisfaction.  But then I’ll hear or read about or watch some spectacular methods of assassination, and I’ll once again realize that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I did enjoy Hitman Sniper on iOS, though, which is maybe why I’m predisposed to giving this new Hitman a shot.  Specifically, the iPhone Sniper game (which is itself an iteration of Hitman Sniper Challenge on PC, which was a sort-of demo that came with Absolution) was simply one level, which you played a zillion times, but each time you had different targets and challenges; with each successive playthrough, you’d begin to recognize guard patterns, and with each new challenge you’d learn certain tricks you could perform – as an example, you could lure a cluster of targets near a furnace, which you could then explode with a well-aimed shot; you could wait for a few minutes for a target to lean against a glass railing, which you could then shoot out and have the body fall off the cliffside below – and so even though the game fundamentally remained one of endless repetition, you’d begin to dive deep and develop a microscopic understanding of the level’s design.

So the idea that the new Hitman game would be episodic, and that each level would have these similar abstractions that you could explore, so that you’d never be replaying the same level the same way – well, I understand the appeal of that in a way that I definitely would not have, had I not spent a significant amount of time with those sniper challenges.

I finished the first tutorial level, but only once, and I didn’t do such a great job of it, and I’m anxious to give it several more tries before moving on to the next level; while the game has gotten somewhat mixed reviews, the people who like it really like it and even if I’m coming at the game from a completely different perspective, I think I can understand the appeal of this game and, specifically, the way it’s being delivered.

2.  I also finally got to do some online co-op in The Division, and that is definitely how this game should be played.  I continue to enjoy the single-player experience (if only because I’m content to play it mindlessly, instead of actually paying attention to how seriously fucked up it is), but playing with a friend is infinitely more fun and engaging.  My character is around 10 levels higher than my buddy’s, so we were able to pretty much wreck havoc and managed to unlock all three wings of his Ops Base relatively quickly, and so even though I’d already played these missions before, and even though none of the gear that dropped for me was useful, it was still fun to strategize and call out enemy locations while also experimenting with new abilities and talents (since only one of us needed to use Pulse, I started playing around with the medic abilities, which ended up coming in handy, actually).

Side note: I’ve been debating whether or not to buy my rental copy of The Division.  On the one hand, it’s only $45 to keep my copy; on the other hand, there’s the lazy-ass part of me that’s gotten used to the idea of not having discs, even though my PS4’s hard drive was filled up many months ago.  Speaking of which, my co-op buddy recently upgraded his PS4’s hard drive to 2TB, which I was also tempted to do… and then, literally the next day, Kotaku reported that there might be a PS4.5.  I’m already trying to figure out if I’m going to get the PSVR bundle… if there’s a VR bundle that comes out alongside the PS4.5?  Can I trade my PS4 in towards the new one?  Do I even need a 4K TV?

3.  I’d whined a little while ago that Spotify’s weekly discovery playlists felt a bit lackluster this year, at least compared to last year; this week’s playlist, though, is among the best I’ve ever received.  I keep a separate playlist of my faves from each week; usually I’ll keep one or two, but I think kept, like, 8 or 9 from this week’s list.  (Should you be interested, my 2016 list is here, and also should be in the sidebar to the right.)

I was hoping to write a bit more here – about some of the new Irish whiskey I bought over the weekend, and a little about books and such – but it’s suddenly gotten a little bananas over here at work, so I’m gonna put this up while I still have a second.

Weekend Recap: Fare Thee Well

1. I am a few years late to finally seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, I know, but these things happen sometimes.  I’m a much bigger Coen Bros. fan than my wife, who is actually somewhat turned off by their films; we’ve discussed this at length and at the end of the day it simply is what it is.  As for the film itself, well, obviously the music is fantastic and the acting is wonderful and the cinematography is impeccable… but the movie also fell a little flat for me; I couldn’t figure out what the movie’s purpose seemed to be.  The AV Club used to have this feature called Justify Your Existence where they asked musicians to explain why anybody should listen to their record; I would ask the Coen Brothers the same question with regard to this one.  Did they want to make a road movie that doesn’t really go anywhere, and indeed ends up ending the same way it starts?  Unlike other films of theirs, I simply couldn’t figure out what it was I was supposed to feel, beyond that Oscar Isaac’s character does in fact deserve to get the shit kicked out of him at the beginning/end.  Of course, as with most Coen films, I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since we watched it, and I’ve also been unable to get this song out of my head.  The way they sing the word “Fare” over that suspended chord in the chorus fucking kills me.

2.  This was a busy weekend, as it turned out; a good weekend – multiple trips to parks, a fun visit to the local zoo with some dear friends, and the knowledge that there would be no transit strike after all – tempered by our first homeowner’s nightmare, a small leak in the basement that necessitated a plumber’s visit.  This meant that I ended up staying home yesterday anyway, and so I was able to finally dive into The Division.

Actually, before I talk about that, I also just want to say that since I was home alone yesterday, I decided to bring my PS4 up from the basement and into the living room, where I could hook it up to our surround sound speakers.  And this should go without saying, but playing a game in surround sound is a completely different experience.  I can’t believe I’ve been so careless about my gaming audio after all these years.  I kinda want to play Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption again through those speakers, which already had some of the best sound design I can recall in recent years; I don’t necessarily need a 3DTV, but I do need surround sound and I need it right away.  (I’m honestly tempted to buy a second system for the basement, that’s how eye-opening it was.)

Anyway, so with regards to The Division:  I’m currently just over level 9, I think; I’ve unlocked all three wings of my main base of operations, and I’ve got some pretty good gear, and even playing solo I’ve been able to take down pretty much every mission I’ve come across without dying.

Every preview/review that’s come out so far has referred to The Division as Ubisoft’s answer to Bungie’s Destiny – an online-only, co-op friendly, shooter/RPG hybrid.  Which is absolutely fair, and I suppose this comparison will be mostly borne out in the level-cap endgame.  I don’t know that I’m going to stick around for that endgame, though, because I’m not terribly big on PvP (especially since The Division’s endgame is currently very much a work in progress).  I didn’t stick around for Destiny, either.

Comparisons to Destiny aside, I continue to feel that The Division reminds me more of Mass Effect, especially ME3.  The meat of the gameplay – the cover-based shooting – is actually quite solid and engaging, and even if the firefights still feel very same-y after a while, they’re also still satisfying (at least at this early stage).  I’m also far more inclined to simply wander around NYC, looking for hidden collectibles and materials and treasure chests and such; the city doesn’t necessarily feel like New York to me, but in and of itself it’s a very cool place to explore, and I’ve been content to simply turn my waypoints off and poke my way through alleys and open doors (which is where a lot of those collectibles end up being hidden).

I’m enjoying it, is what I’m trying to say, and I suspect I’ll enjoy it even more once I try it in co-op.  I don’t know if I’ll have the energy to grind out the endgame stuff, which is also why I haven’t bought my rental copy just yet, but for the time being I’m enjoying the game a lot more than I expected to.  The beta wasn’t a fluke.

3. To that last point – I’m not pre-ordering games this year.  I believe this was one of my new year’s resolutions, and here we are in March and I’ve actually stuck to it without realizing it.

I have a Gamefly account and last year I barely used it; all the games I’d rented were games that I was only merely curious about, and nearly everything I rented I ended up sending back within a few days, if not the same day.  This year, though, I’m adamant about not ripping myself off; I have the rental account, now I’m going to use it.  As an example, I rented Far Cry Primal, and after around 12 hours I think I’m starting to get a bit fatigued with it.  (That being said, it bears mentioning once again that experiencing that game with surround sound is something I wish I’d tried earlier; the sound design is far better than I’d initially given it credit for, and the experience of stalking prey through the forest is completely different when you can hear the forest around you.)

When I look at this year’s slate of upcoming releases, I’m hardpressed to think of anything that I absolutely have to own, no questions asked.  In fact, there’s only two games that I can think of that I would immediately pre-order purely out of reflex, and neither of them officially exist (yet) – Portal 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2.  I don’t know if this is simply me being a more discerning consumer, or if I’m just not looking forward to 2016’s slate, or what, but it is what it is.

weekend recap: everywhere but here

In years past, the wife and I would go all-out for the Superbowl; we’d set up a big spread (even if nobody was coming over), we’d get drunk, we’d feel like crap and then Monday morning we’d be hungover and gross.  Not so, this year!  The secret to not feeling like shit on the Monday after the Superbowl is to (a) not give a shit about the Superbowl, and (b) go to bed mid-way through the 3rd quarter.  This gives you a much smaller window of opportunity to injure yourself with onion dip and/or scotch.

OK, let’s run this weekend down:

1. I am still itching to play XCOM 2, but I will have to wait until I either get a new PC, or a console version is released.  I know I said this last week, but even when I got home on Friday I was still curious, and so I ran some benchmarking tools and found that my PC simply can’t run it; it’s not even a question of running it slowly, but rather my graphics card can’t even meet the minimum requirements.  I’ve been debating whether or not to get a gaming PC for a long time now, or maybe just a Steam Machine.  I’m still not sure if XCOM2 is the game that makes me pull the trigger, especially since I already know that I’ll never be good enough at it to finish it.  But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it, anyway.

2. All things considered, I’ve barely touched anything gaming related over the last few days.  The weekend was busy; toddler birthday party at a bounce-house in Brooklyn on Saturday, and then a trip up to Grammo’s house for her birthday yesterday.  My son didn’t nap, even if he did a lot of running around.  This is why we went to bed early.  We did watch the first hour or so of Spectre, if only to experience the new surround sound system in its proper context – and, yeah, it sounds pretty great – but that was about it.  Tomorrow, of course, is the release day for both Unravel and Firewatch; the reviews for Unravel have been fairly positive, but since I already bought it I might as well play it.  (I showed it to my son yesterday for a few minutes; he loved making Yarny jump.)  I’m very curious about Firewatch; can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

3. I finished Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master on Saturday; the best way to describe it is “Umberto Eco-lite”.  It’s an entertaining yarn about a relic hunter in the mid 1500s, sent to steal Jesus’ burial shroud, and features a whole bunch of famous people from the period; it’s clearly very well researched in terms of getting period detail correct, and yet is also pleasingly modern in its dialogue; ultimately, though, the book is somewhat forgettable.  I am now in book purgatory until tomorrow.

Tomorrow night is the NY Game Awards, and it would figure that it’s going to be ridiculously amazing while I can’t be there.  Wyclef Jean is presenting; Joshua Cohen (who wrote “Book of Numbers“, among others) is presenting; a whole slew of other fun people are going to be presenting.  Ah well; ‘burb life strikes again.  I’ll be checking it out on Twitch.

Tonight, though, I’m meeting with my old buddy / label guy to talk about the album, next steps, release date, etc.  (I feel weird talking about this stuff here; but if not here, where?)  I am optimistic that I can get this thing out the door by Spring.

Weekend Recap: The New Year

1. In case you missed it, I wrote up some quick off-the-cuff thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night.  Now that I’ve slept on it, I can say with confidence that I still feel the same; it’s a very good Star Wars movie, and as far as rankings go I’d put it in my top 2 along with Empire.  In fairness, that isn’t necessarily saying all that much; the prequels are garbage, and both New Hope and RotJ have moments that we’d all rather forget.  Even if Episode 7 is simply a reboot of Episode 4, it’s really well done, and I feel like it’s OK to be excited for Episode 8 now.

2. My wife had attempted to buy me the Xbox One Elite Controller via Amazon, but even 3 weeks later there was no sign of it shipping any time soon.  As it happens, though, I was running some errands over the weekend and happened to be in a Best Buy and – lo and behold – there were three (3) Elite Controllers just hanging out, ready to be bought.  I bought one.  I had a tough time justifying the expense, especially since the XB1 isn’t my primary console, but.. I mean.. goddamn, once you hold this thing in your hands it makes as strong a case for itself as you can imagine.  It’s pleasantly heavy, the buttons and triggers have a remarkably more pleasing feel, and even if I never use the alternate buttons and back-panel triggers, I’m happy to know they’re there if I change my mind.

2a.  On a related note, I now feel contractually obligated to get back into Halo 5.

3.  I also bought Rock Band 4 for the XB1, and my old drumset and 1 of my 2 guitars still work, so there’s that.  I’m happy to have Rock Band back in my life, but HOLY SHIT the game feels barely half-built at this point.  How is it that in 2016, I can’t program my own setlist?  And the process of re-downloading songs I already own is beyond tedious; thankfully, I only have to do it once.

4.  I’ve read all the David Mitchell novels now, and so I’m back to re-reading Cloud Atlas, which was the first one of his that I’d read.  I didn’t necessarily see what all the fuss was about the first time out; I could certainly recognize his talent as a writer, and I appreciated how each story tied into the next one, but I didn’t really understand the point.  (I also felt similarly about Ghostwritten, his first novel, although the interconnected stories in that novel at least have a vague sort of butterfly-effect thing happening.)  This second time through, however, I’m feeling much more at home with it – and I also recognize many more of the characters from other novels, so that stuff makes it a bit more interesting.  All that aside, I feel like I need to read Bone Clocks again, and immediately.  I know I’m one of the few people on Earth who prefers Bone Clocks to Cloud Atlas, but what can I say?  That book affected me in a deeply profound way that few books ever have before.

5.  I’d been meaning to put up a Music of 2015 post – I even have a draft here, but I’m not particularly happy about it, and in any event all the navel-gazing I was doing about it is probably less interesting than all the other navel-gazing I do here as it is.  So, instead, I’ll cut to the chase and post two Spotify playlists:

 

 

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