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.

moving on

“Hey everybody it’s Tuesday…”

Still trying to process yesterday’s tragic news.  The internet’s collective outpouring of love, support and grief went a long way  And of course now I’m wondering if there will be a Bombcast today, and, if so, whether I’ll be able to handle it.

As for things bumming me out that actually directly affect my life, today is doubly tough because it was my son’s first day of day care.  I had to drop him off before I left for work, and he was already unhappy before I finished getting him out of the stroller.   I peeked through the window right before I left, and he was sitting on one of the older women’s laps, crying, not wanting the offered pacifier.   Broke my heart to leave him, but I was already running late for work.

In any event, it seems a bit harder than usual to talk about videogames, so I’m going to cut-and-paste and re-write a draft from last week that I never got around to finishing, and maybe that will help me get back on track.

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Finished Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [July 1st].  That’s a fun little game, I have to say.  I may have made this comparison before; it’s Bastion plus Bulletstorm in the Old West, which is a better-sounding combo than you’d think.  It took me about 5 hours to get through the story, and while it really wasn’t towards the end of the game that I started to feel like I was getting good at it, I still had a pretty good time overall.   Certainly worth picking up in a Summer Sale, if such an offering is available, but even at $20 it’s money well spent.

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I also managed to finish The Last of Us over the long weekend.  I finished it on “Easy”, and I understand from reading other TLOU articles that doing so prevented me from really feeling the game, but I don’t buy that; the game was plenty difficult even on Easy, because Clickers will always one-hit kill you, and sometimes the PS3 controller doesn’t do what I ask of it.  I’m guessing the biggest advantage in Easy was that I had more ammo, but I still generally tried to stealth my way around whenever possible.

It’s a remarkable experience (that opening sequence is one of the best of all time), and it’s certainly a landmark technical achievement (certainly in the top 5 best-looking/sounding games of this generation), and yet it’s also a game that I don’t think I want to play again.  It’s too dark, too soul-crushing, too depressing; I’m glad I experienced it the first time, but I don’t see what I would gain through a second playthrough beyond finding all the hidden collectibles – and one does not play The Last of Us to find hidden collectibles.

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I mentioned this at the bottom of one of last week’s posts; I’ve gotten back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which is surprising given how disappointed I was when I tried playing it on the 360 last year.  The PC experience is a completely different beast, however; it is absolutely gorgeous, for one thing, and the game experience feels a lot more polished and smooth than the 360 version.  And so now that it’s working the way it’s supposed to, I’m finally able to appreciate what Criterion was trying to do.

I think I was always going to be disappointed after it first launched, because even without the technical problems I was having on the 360, my primary issue was always that I really wanted NFSMW to be Burnout Paradise 2, and because it wasn’t, I couldn’t really judge it fairly and objectively.  The Need for Speed brand meant nothing to me, and my intense love of all things Criterion couldn’t save me from eventually walking away from the (still-excellent) Hot Pursuit.

But now that I’ve had a few months to forget about my first run and can finally see it with clearer eyes, I’m actually pretty impressed.  If anything, it’s a lot more like Burnout Paradise than I was willing to give it credit for – and I might even argue that it’s got a better (or at least more intuitive) career progression than BoP.

Sometimes I get intimidated by non-linear games – I mean, I appreciate that I have all this freedom, but unless I’m doing something constructive I feel lost and/or overwhelmed.  (This is why Skyrim‘s quests will always be more appealing to me than Minecraft‘s sandbox.)  What I do appreciate, though, is that even if you’re not racing, there’s still lots of side things to do – security gates to crash, hidden cars to unlock, billboards to jump through.  And in the meantime, if you actually want to advance in the game, there’s lots of ways to do that – each car you find has its own series of races to complete (with noticeable performance-improving incentives for finishing 1st), and once you accumulate enough of whatever the XP equivalent is, you can engage in the game’s version of Boss Battles.

I’m spending too long talking about a game that came out last year that nobody else is playing, but still – if it shows up on sale (and I happened to pick it up for $15 during an Amazon Digital Download sale), it’s a damn fun time – especially (as I noted above) if you’re playing on PC, which is miles ahead of the 360 version.

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Finally, I can’t not talk about the GTA V gameplay trailer that came out this morning.  Obviously, if you’re reading this post you’ve already watched it, but just in case you want to watch it again:

I don’t really know what else to say about it, other than I love how Rockstar’s been doing these “informercial”-ish trailers for the last few years.  (I seem to recall Red Dead Redemption getting this sort of treatment, and certainly Max Payne 3 had some as well.)

And I suppose I could point out that it appears as if they’re adapting certain elements of RDR’s combat system, which is very good news indeed.  (One of the reasons why RDR remains one of my favorite games of all time is because the gunplay was immensely fun and satisfying in all the ways that GTA IV‘s was not.)

And while I don’t necessarily see this game getting as far-out crazy as San Andreas did (i.e., I’d be very surprised to see a jetpack), it certainly does look as though they’re incorporating a lot more of the side stuff that made San Andreas as compulsively playable as it was (i.e., tennis, parasailing, long-distance cycling, etc.).  As long as there’s no David Cross-narrated model plane combat side mission, we’re good to go.

weekend recap: thrills and pills and headcolds

Not a lot of game-time this weekend; I caught a vicious headcold while in the middle of a double-feature at the movies on Saturday, and so I spent most of Sunday and Monday horizontal, with intermittent breaks for sneezing.

That being said, a few gaming-related items are worth mentioning:

1.  Before the movies on Saturday, I was more or less forced into buying an iPhone 5.  I tried as long as I could to wait until Apple announced the new model, but I couldn’t – not only were my apps struggling to work, but my 4 was missing calls and texts left and right.  (In fact, when my 5 was finally set up with my phone number, a flurry of voicemails appeared that I’d never seen before.)   The 5 has been around awhile, so this is probably old news  for most of you, but WOW – the difference between the 4 and the 5 is staggering.  Apps take almost no time at all to load, and the apps that are optimized for the 5 really show it.  On my 4, Temple Run 2 could barely hold a steady frame rate, but on the 5 it runs as smooth as silk and with lush textures and shadows and details that the 4 only hinted at.  (As I’m a fan of the endless runner genre, it’s very much appreciated to be able to play and know that any deaths are my own fault and not the fault of the phone.)

2.  Picked up The Swapper at some point over the weekend.  My cold kinda kept me from playing anything for more than 10 minutes at a time, but that worked out OK for the Swapper – I’d do a few puzzles and then switch it off.  It has a beautiful aesthetic – it actually reminds me a little bit of Little Big Planet – and the puzzle mechanics are novel and interesting.  Very eager to spend more time with it once my brain is up to the task.

3.  Played a few more missions of Call of Juarez Gunslinger.  As above, I could only really handle one mission at a time, but since most missions are around 10-20 minutes long, that was fine.  I’d stopped paying attention to the story and really just focused on getting through the levels, and that was fun enough.  Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek had called it a game for people who were sick of shooters, and I agree with that assessment – it mixes up the shooting formula enough to feel fresh and different.  I think he also mentioned that it reminded him of Bulletstorm, at least in terms of the scoring mechanic, and that’s absolutely spot-on.

4.  I succumbed to the Steam Sale and picked up Devil May Cry for 40% off.  I’d already beaten it on the 360 earlier this year, but I’d been finding myself thinking about it lately, and I was curious to see what it looked like on the PC.  It looks FANTASTIC on the PC, as it turns out, and it’s still as batshit crazy as I thought it was.  I made it to the beginning of the Upside-Down level, which I remember as being one of my favorites.

5.  I played about 10 minutes of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the 3DS, and hated it.  Controls were floaty and imprecise, the difficulty was surprisingly high, and the graphics were a bit jaggy and ugly.  As this was one of the 3DS games I was most looking forward to this year, I’m calling this one a big disappointment.

>shootin’ stuff

>The floodgates are starting to open; good games are starting to trickle forth.  Let’s pick up where I left off.

1.  I finished Stacking.  I’m not 100% finished with it – I still have a bunch of hi-jinks to do and a few special dolls to collect – and I hope that if the release calendar dries up a bit, I’ll find the time to go back and do those things.  It was wonderful and charming and unique and clever and everything I’d hope it would be.

2.  We had company at one point over the 3-day weekend, and so we got in some 4-player You Don’t Know Jack, which is really the way that game should be played.  The game can be played with the buzzer controllers from Scene It! (another fine trivia game), so if you’re short on regular controllers (or if your buzzers are collecting dust), break ’em out.

3.  I’m starting to get very excited for Dragon Age 2, so I decided to dive back into my PC’s version of Dragon Age: Origins, which I hadn’t picked up in months.  I’d tried to play the first game on the 360, but the game was ugly and the controls were weird – it was as if the game wanted you to believe it was an action RPG, but it wasn’t at all an action RPG – and gave up.  And then, of course, Steam had the PC version on sale, which I quickly bought… and then didn’t play, either.  Anyway, whatever; I finally finished the prologue and now I recognize where I am from my first playthrough.  The game definitely feels better on the PC, but it’s still not quite what I want.

4.  What I want, really, is much closer to what the Dragon Age 2 demo appears to portend.  I played it last night, and, lo and behold – it actually is an action RPG, where button presses correspond to real-time actions, and it looks great and plays great and borrows just enough from the Mass Effect 2 playbook to pretty much guarantee that I’m going to love the hell out of it, assuming I have time to play it.

5.  I ordered both Bulletstorm and Killzone 3 from Amazon, because I am an idiot and figured that the $20 credits I’d get for ordering them would come in handy for all the must-have titles I’m going to be ordering later, conveniently forgetting that these two games were still full price.  Which to play first?  Well, the 360 was already warmed up from the DA2 demo, so I figured I’d give Bulletstorm a go.  And it went pretty well, until the game locked up on me in the second chapter.  So then I switched over to Killzone, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful – it can seem like you’re playing a first person Final Fantasy game, with guns – and that was fun, although the PS3 controller can feel like an alien artifact when it comes to shooters, for me.  And so I got up to a certain point where I kept dying, and I decided to switch back to Bulletstorm.  And as it turned out, the game had locked up for me at the exact moment before the game starts becoming… the game, with the scoring system and the craziness.  And once I started I couldn’t look back.  It took a few minutes to get used to the controls again – KZ3 and the PS3 controller had messed me up – but all I can say is, Wowee Zowee.  Fun as hell.

6.  Finally, because I am an addict, I bought Bejeweled Blitz for XBLA this morning before I left for work.  I’ve been playing Bejeweled in some form for at least 10 years now, maybe longer, and I’m pretty good at it.  Let me rephrase that:  I’m fucking awesome at it.  I’m an average gamer in most things, but when it comes to Bejeweled I am a genius.  I generally score in the 200K-300K without boosts without really trying, I generally end a week’s tournament in the mid-500Ks, and my all-time high is in the 900Ks.  So, please consider my expert opinion when I advise you to KEEP your 800 points in your virtual wallet and DON’T BUY BEJEWELED BLITZ FOR XBLA.  It SUCKS.  The control scheme is totally fucked up and unintuitive and there’s no option to change it back to the original, vanilla scheme that was featured in Bejeweled 2.  I understand that playing Bejeweled with a gamepad isn’t as elegant as it is with a mouse, and I further understand that Blitz places a special emphasis on speed, and as such I can at least conceptually appreciate that they were trying to make the control scheme quicker.  But it doesn’t make any intuitive sense, and as someone who has played more games and sunk more time into Bejeweled than probably every other game combined, ever, I shouldn’t have to feel like a goddamned novice when I’m playing a game I’ve already played a thousand times.