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.

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.

disconnection

I’m feeling a little disconnected lately, which might explain why I’ve been quiet here.

The biggest problem I mentioned in my last post – that of my almost-3-year-old son refusing to go to bed – is starting to wind down, so that’s something positive, at least.  Of course, my wife is sick, and the kid has a bit of a cough as well, and I’m very much feeling on the verge of catching something, too.  We’re all falling apart, is what I’m saying.

That said, I’m feeling guilty about whining.

I’m trying to tone down the amount of whining I do on social media, which is actually a bit easier than I expected, given that almost all forms of social media are driving me crazy right now and make me far less inclined to post than I normally would be.  Facebook keeps hiding posts from friends; Twitter is a garbage fire; Tumblr is filled with ads and every once in a while a random naked person will show up, unannounced and uncalled for, and so that’s off-limits.

I’m also starting to reach critical mass in terms of the upcoming election.  I’m disgusted and anxious and not at all prepared to move to Canada.


 

And, of course, I’m disconnected from the things I normally talk about here.

Book-wise, I’m re-reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I’d been thinking about recently (especially after reading Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master), and which I felt obligated to pick up in light of Eco’s passing.  It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and yet I’m having trouble fully engaging with it this time around for some reason.

Music-wise, I’m still struggling with writing lyrics, and in the meantime I’m not listening to anything particularly inspiring.  On a related note, I have to say that my weekly Spotify Discovery playlists have been awfully lackluster this year; the ratio of hit/miss is way, way off, especially as compared to last year.

Games-wise… I’m a big pile of “meh”.  I’m very much intrigued by The Division, and I’m looking forward to playing it in co-op, but I’m also wary of it; the beta showed off a lot of high points as well as a lot of lows – the writing in particular is just awful, and a lot of the mission designs felt very familiar (i.e., the final encounter in the Subway Morgue is a very typical “hold your ground for an arbitrary length of time”, and I was tired of that kind of mission in Destiny).  I tried playing a little bit of Fallout 4 last night, given that it’s been patched up quite a bit of late, and… yeah, I still don’t give a shit about that game.  I’m inching along in my NG+ of Witcher 3, but the Hearts of Stone expansion is for level 61+, and I’m still only at 43 or so; that’s an awful lot of ground to make up, and as much as I love that game I’m not sure I have it in me to repeat it.  Later this week my rental copy of Far Cry Primal will arrive, and as I’ve been lukewarm on that franchise for the last few iterations, I’m not sure that I’ll be fully engaged with it – even if the Stone Age setting is novel.

So, yeah.  I’m scared of American politics, I’m culturally out of sorts, and I’m physically falling apart.  I hit the trifecta.

sleepless in suburbia

Before I begin, a word of warning:  I am tired.  This is a different tired from the usual exhaustion of a busy week at work and parental duties.  This is the tired that comes from our almost-3-year-old son, who now refuses to go to bed.  Since the day we brought him home from the hospital he’d always been a terrific sleeper, but for the last two nights he’s completely changed his ways.  We get him into his jimmy-jams, we brush his teeth, we read three books, we tuck him into bed, we turn on his night lights and his little sound machine, we turn off the light, we close the door… and then, 5 seconds later, he tear-asses out of bed, opens the door, and looks at us, giggling.  We lead him back to bed, tuck him in wordlessly, close the door.  He gets up.  Last night this went from 8:00 until around 9:30.  In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t terrible; we’ve had friends whose children refused to sleep, and to his credit our son does eventually conk out.  But it is exhausting, especially since my wife and I are both a little under the weather, and we both have stuff to do after he goes to sleep.

So, yeah; between Henry’s late night antics and the barrage of work-related stuff, there’s been (a) little opportunity to write, and (b) not much of an opportunity to gather topics to write about.  But I’m gonna do my best here.

1.  I started and finished Firewatch last weekend.  I’ve read a number of illuminating and insightful pieces about it (Brendan Keogh, Emily Short, Ed Smith, among others), which have helped me piece together my own opinion about it, though I’m still not 100% sure I know what I want to say about it.  It feels less like a “walking simulator” and rather very much like an interactive short story, with wonderful dialogue and terrific voice casting.  And of course, given that the player character’s name is Henry (as is my son’s), I felt even more connected to him than I otherwise would have.

All this being said, there’s a part of me that feels somewhat disconnected from it; that all the decision-making I did in the conversation trees didn’t necessarily matter.  While Henry and Delilah have their own crosses to bear and work through, the larger story of Firewatch is about something else, and so at the end of the game I felt a little hollow.  (Maybe now I understand why everybody was so up in arms about the original ending to Mass Effect 3; you can feel a bit like the rug got pulled out from under you when 180+ hours worth of choice-making feels like it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much.)

The ending – such as it is – is bittersweet, and I suppose it’s the right way to end this sort of story.  But it also makes it somewhat difficult to return to, I think.

2.  I played about an hour’s worth of The Division beta on Xbox One last night, and I’m hoping to play it again on the PS4 tonight (just to compare/contrast, in terms of graphics).  My original impression of The Division upon its E3 reveal was that (a) I’m growing tired of this type of apocalyptic scenario, (b) it was very pretty and there’s simply no way it’s going to end up looking like that at retail, and (c) I don’t know if I need to play this.  But then, just a few weeks ago, it was revealed to be an RPG, and now that I’ve gotten my hands on it, it’s now become something I’m very, very interested in.

Making a Tom Clancys’ game an RPG is a very interesting decision, as far as these things go.  While all the Clancys’ games have had some very “game-y” aspects to them, there’s an additional level of abstraction that happens when you’re playing an RPG; leveling up, adding perks, comparing weapon pickups, etc.  You don’t necessarily notice this in the moment-to-moment gunplay (which, actually, reminded me a great deal of Mass Effect, come to think of it), but you can’t help but confront it after each battle when you’re running around looting corpses and lockboxes.  Any attempt at gritty realism and immersion kinda sails out the window when bright green columns of loot start glowing on the ground.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; if anything, I’m all for it.

The problem, though, is that the writing – at least in the beta’s abbreviated levels – is kinda terrible.  I don’t know if it’s Destiny-level terrible, but it’s certainly not Bioware, or even Bethesda.  Maybe terrible is too strong a word; basically, I didn’t really care why I was doing what I was doing, and I was content to simply follow the arrow to my destination.  The game also, sadly, features the classic Ubisoft trademark of having over-complicated controls; after an hour, I still couldn’t reliably get my grenades equipped and ready.  This is a third-person cover-based shooter, Ubisoft; most of us know how these games are supposed to feel in our hands, and it’s simply bizarre that Ubi feels compelled to arbitrarily change the formula to make it twice as complicated as it needs to be.

Still, I’m intrigued, if only because I’ve got nothing else on my gaming plate at the moment.  Tonight I test the PS4 version, and then I’ll run some sort of poll to figure out which of my gaming friends are picking it up, and on which system.  That said, I played what I played solo, and it wasn’t necessarily that lonely an experience; I think it’ll be more fun in co-op, obviously, but what isn’t?

3. I’ve finished a few books since my last post.

  • The Lost Time Accidents” – I loved this book, even if some of the more scientific stuff flew over my head.  Marvelously written, fantastically drawn characters, a pure pleasure to read from cover to cover.
  • Childhood’s End” – Apparently they’re making a TV show out of this?  Interesting, though I’ve got no desire to watch it.  I’ve actually read very little Arthur C. Clarke – until this one, I think I’d only read “Rendezvous With Rama“, and even though I’ve watched “2001” a bazillion times it’s not quite the same thing.  In any event – I can certainly understand why this is considered an all-time classic sci-fi book, and it’s remarkable to see how close Clarke was to imagining current technology from the 1950s.
  • Sudden Death” – OK, I haven’t technically finished this one, but it’s very short, and I’ll probably finish it by Monday.  I don’t have any idea how to describe this one, but it’s certainly very readable.

Hey, I managed to poop out 1000+ words!  Even if none of them have any thought behind them.  Have a wonderful weekend, everybody, and may you all get some sleep.

 

Weekend Recap: Wishes Upon Wishes

BOOKS:  Finished Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist very late last night, which made for some strange dreams.  It’s very nearly impossible to discuss without spoiling what makes it so intriguing and puzzling, and it’s got the sort of ending that you’ll need to re-read at least twice, and then also flip back to the very first chapter, and then step back and realize what the fuck just happened.  That being said, it’s an excellent book, a “literary murder mystery/adventure” story set in a rather unique period in history (and one that certainly piqued my interest, being that I – as I’m sure many other people my age – had a rather rabid interest in ancient Egypt as a kid); and so even if I can’t remember why I bought it, I’m very glad I did.

Next up: at long last, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 1.  I sincerely hope I haven’t set myself to be majorly disappointed, given how badly I’ve wanted to read this for so long.


GAMES:  There was more free gaming time this weekend than I expected to get – chalk it up to the wife’s recent promotion, which means she also has to bring work home with her on occasion.  Still, I’m in that awkward situation where, while I do have a backlog to deal with, I’m remembering why that stuff got put on the backlog in the first place, and so I’m kinda just flipping back and forth between a few different things, not really getting into the rhythm of anything in particular.

Specifically, my attention was split between four games this weekend:

GTA V, which made me wish I was playing Saints Row.  Honestly, I never thought I’d ever say that, but it’s true; playing GTA V for the second time makes the experience a hell of a lot more tedious and annoying – not just the horrific dialogue and misogyny and everything else, but the actual missions you do.  Like Trevor loading cargo containers onto a truck, or Franklin towing cars all over town.  Dockwork went out of style with Shenmue, for fuck’s sake.  While it’s true that the Saints Row franchise has never had a city that is as engrossing to be in as GTA, it’s also true that Saints Row stopped caring about “realism” right from the get-go, and has taken the concept of the “open world sandbox” to ludicrous extremes.  Actually, now that I’ve remembered that it’s coming out, I think I’m going to at least rent the Saints Row IV HD remaster thing that comes out later this month; I think that’ll be a lot of fun.

Destiny, which makes me wish I was playing Mass Effect.  I really only fired it up to pick up whatever legendary presents I’d been given, and then I did a Daily Story Mission or whatever it’s called, just to see if I still cared about it.  Yeah, the shooting’s still good, but there’s so little else there worth caring about.  I’m also a little pissed off; I thought I’d bought the Digital Guardian edition, and I’d bought that thinking that it was a season-pass thing for DLC.  But when I fired it up, I saw that The Dark Below expansion still cost $20.  If $20 is actually a reduced price for an expansion, then I might as well just delete the damned thing from my hard drive and be done with it.

Far Cry 4, which makes me wish I was re-playing Far Cry 3, or really anything else.  It’s also very disorienting after playing Destiny and also GTA V in first person, too, which shouldn’t be the case, since FC4 is actually supposed to be played in the first person.  I’m really just kinda nibbling at FC4; I’m unlocking towers and hideouts, and doing a mission here and there, but I’m mostly hunting if only so that I can craft everything I need to craft and then never worry about it again.  I will say that it’s a little comical to watch an eagle lift a goat straight up off the ground, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be intentionally comical or not.

Infamous First Light DLC, which I only really dabbled in for a brief period – it’s a free download this month for PS+ member, which is honestly the only reason why I picked it up.  Surprisingly, it was kinda neat to be back in that game again – I did like the original game even if it was somewhat empty and forgettable, and I forgot how good it looked.  I’ll probably keep this in the rotation for a little while, though it’s been so long since I beat the original game that it might take me a bit to get my bearings.

Random Ramblings: October edition

1.  What I’m about to write may very well turn you off from reading this site for the rest of your internet-using life, but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth:  I have never been a fan of Halloween.  I love fall foliage, I love the baseball playoffs, I love wearing warm sweaters, I love that it’s finally decorative gourd season, I really love candy, and I am hopeful that I will finally find a halfway decent gluten-free pumpkin pie this year.  But Halloween has never been my bag.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the older kids in my suburban neighborhood really got into the pre-Halloween vandalism routine, and even as a little kid it kinda pissed me off to find eggs and toilet paper all over the trees, driveways and mailboxes of my street.  Halloween is “scary”, sure, but this felt legitimately dangerous and personal.  This eventually put me off trick-or-treating altogether, and the honest truth is that I was happier handing candy out than I was going out and begging for it.

The second is that I was terrible at costumes.  Had no brain for it, no passion for it, and while my mom tried her darnedest, I never quite got the hang of it.

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All this being said, I am determined to prevent my curmudgeonly attitude from rubbing off on my kid.  If he wants to enjoy Halloween, I will put my big-boy pants on and make sure he has as much fun as he can.

2.  I got impatient and decided to buy the digital download version of Shadow of Mordor yesterday afternoon, but it had only downloaded about 68% of itself when I finally got a chance to turn on my PS4.  This ultimately meant that I could only play the first 10 minutes – the early tutorial, right up to the delayed title screen – before the game kicked me back to the main menu.  Obviously I can’t offer much in the way of impressions, though I will echo Carolyn Petit’s annoyed and astute observation that, yet again, a woman has to die so that the (male) hero has something to do.  Someone else on twitter also pointed out (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who) that it’s only the wife whose death is shown on screen – the camera moves away from the necks of the son and the father.

3.  So I ended up going back to Destiny, where I puttered around for an hour or two; ran some patrols, cashed in quite a few bounties, and finally started 2 exotic weapon quests.  (One quest requires me to visit the weekend merchant; as I’m away this weekend, that’ll have to be postponed for another week.)  As it’d been a while since my last visit, I wasn’t consumed with any particular feeling towards it (beyond impatience at SoM’s slow download progress – and I’m sure that being online in Destiny held up the works considerably, too), and so I was able to turn off my brain for a bit and just shoot things to death.  Destiny is a much better experience when you have no expectations and don’t care that nothing makes any narrative, logical sense.  Indeed, this is why it can be pleasurable to zone out to Diablo 3, too; you relax and elect to simply concentrate on your mechanics and technique and before you know it a few hours have gone by.  The bummer of it all is that even after the few hours I sunk in, I still didn’t pick up any gear with keeping, which is why it can be hard to not feel like I’m literally killing time.

4.  Speaking of mindless grinding and killing time, it’s been 3 days and I am fully addicted to Clicker Heroes, this year’s edition of Cookie Clicker.  I urge you to be careful of clicking that link.   If you have already clicked that link and are in the throes of paralysis as I am, well:  I’ve gotten to level 100 and ascended, and now I’m already up to level 50 on my second run, and the whole goddamned thing is absurd and I don’t understand why it’s so compelling and I need to switch my tab over to make sure I’m properly leveled up please god help

On The Outside, Looking In

far side dog

I’m in a weird head space today, where I’m wanting to write about games and such but I haven’t turned on any of my consoles since the middle of last week.  It’s not just that I’ve been busy, or out of town (both of which are true); it’s also simply that I’ve been exhausted.  I’d thought about popping in Destiny for a little while last night, but the day had already run pretty long by the time I had access to the TV, and I ended up passing out before 9:00 pm.  (Here’s an oft-repeated but still you-don’t-understand-until-it-happens-to-you truth about parenting:  there is no such thing as sleeping in.  At this point, I’d honestly consider waking up at 7:00 am a goddamned tropical vacation.)

And truth be told, I’m still in a weird head space about Destiny, too.  I’m stuck at level 21 and by this point I’d imagine that most of the people on my PSN friends list are way beyond me; I was already 2-3 levels behind when I was playing on a regular basis, and by now I’m sure they’re at 27-29, which means that I can’t run strikes with them with any hope of being effective, and I’m afraid that they won’t bother running strikes with me unless they’re feeling extra generous with their time; I mean, why bother doing level 20 strikes when you can get better gear playing at your own level?  This is why Destiny’s post-20 leveling system bums me out, at least when compared to Diablo 3 – I can take my level 70 Monk into a friend’s low-level game and still pick up decent gear at a steady clip (even if it’s all ultimately salvage), whereas in Destiny, even shooting at a Loot Cave for an hour doesn’t necessarily give you a strong return on your time investment.

And yet, given the absence of something else to play right now*, I still kinda want to jump in and play.  Before I left this past weekend I’d manage to finish 2 of those limited-time Queen bounties, and I’d like to be able to do a few more (and maybe even cash in a Queen Mission) before the event closes.  Even if I can’t get that far, though, there’s still a part of me that would like to be able to do a few strikes, hopefully get lucky with some drops, and gain a level or two before finally giving up in favor of the rest of the fall release schedule.  There’s just enough in Destiny’s post-cap endgame that makes me want to stay engaged.

That said, a larger part of this pull I’m feeling is that Destiny is still what most of my gaming friends and the community at large are talking about.  For better and/or worse, it’s dominated the Twitterverse ever since its release, and with each passing hour that I’m offline, I’m feeling further and further removed from the conversation.

As Patrick Klepek wrote in this weekend’s GB column, “Social Gaming and the Fear of Missing Out“:

With an hour to spare last week, I hopped online and started completing some bounties, one of the easiest ways to stack experience while playing. Two friends joined up, and helped me grind through what amounted to little more than fetch quests and shooting galleries for an hour. Even though our actions were hardly engaging, the act of doing them together was tremendous fun, if only a glorified chat room.

Once the bounties were cashed in, though, my friends were debating the next move. All of them were well past level 20, though, which meant the content I was playing through couldn’t help them meaningfully advance their equipment. Even though I was the party leader, I was the one who had to leave, forced to venture out on my own again. I hopped into a nearby strike, got myself assigned to a few random players, and went to it. We won. Some stuff dropped. But it wasn’t the same. There was only silence.

Granted, none of this is Destiny’s fault. To the contrary, it’s what Bungie wants, what these games thrive on. You could argue the existence of a loot vault, a void in which players shot mindlessly for hours, says more about what Destiny gets wrong than what it gets right. But that would be missing the point. These collective experiences, even when driven by exploitations of code, are entirely the point. These marks in time wouldn’t be possible in single-player. Individualized watercooler moments from the night discussed at the office the next day become shared experiences given more power from the group ownership.

I’ve been struggling with managing this Fear of Missing Out for a long time, I think.  It’s probably the primary force behind this blog; if I can’t get paid to write about the games I play, well, I still want to play as much as I can and write about it and talk about it with other people who are in on the conversation.  I love games, I love thinking about games, and when a game this huge is out and occupying so much of our collective brains, I want to be able to dive in to the conversation and contribute in a meaningful way.  It’s no fun being on the outside looking in.

Ironically, it’s this same Fear of Missing Out that will make it a bit easier for me to pull myself away from Destiny once I get my hands on Shadow of Mordor, even if, due to Gamefly’s mailing schedule, I won’t get my hands on it until Thursday (and, because of family stuff, won’t get any meaningful playtime with it until next Monday night, post-Gotham).  Hell, I’m even tempted to just say fuck it and order the digital version of SoM so I can at least get some quality time with it before I leave town this weekend.

It is what it is, I suppose.  In the meantime I’ve got Clicker Heroes running in the background and I suppose the less said about that the better.


*  Even given my aforementioned lack of free time and a relative shortage of expendable income, I nearly pulled the trigger on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter yesterday.  But then I learned that there’s a PS4 version due next year.  Now, my PC is a few years old and can make certain games look quite nice – and it passes the minimum specs according to Can You Run It? – but everything I’ve heard about VoEC is that it’s one of the most gorgeous games ever made.  So as much as it hurts to wait, I’m tempted to hold out for the PS4 version, which I know will look better than what my PC can currently do.  There’s no current date on the PS4 version beyond a vague “some point in 2015“, though, so you can probably guess that this will come down to a rigged coin flip.

Random Ramblings of a Sad Bastard

1.  For various reasons, but mostly due to utter exhaustion, I’ve not played much of anything this week, and thus I’ve not written anything here.  But it should be noted that my day job has sort-of put me on notice that I spend too much time on the internet, and so you should know that this blog be somewhat dark for the foreseeable future.  The timing is terrible, of course, given that this gaming year is finally about to get interesting, and I’ll do what I can to keep writing; but a man’s gotta pay his bills, and The Man takes precedence in this case.

2.  Everything I said above is true (about why I’ve not played anything), but I’ll also say that ever since I hit the level cap in Destiny – and then saw what I had to do to level beyond – I must admit to feeling a bit repelled.  I’ll cop to putting in some time at the Loot Cave; and I’ll also cop to feeling a slight twinge of something when I heard that Bungie patched it out; and I’ll even admit that there’s a part of me that kinda wants to check out the new one.  But it’s a hollow sort of feeling, at the end of the day; I’m not being rewarded for any acts of heroism or prowess, but because I had the stamina to fire bullets into a cave for an hour without having to pause.  I’d much rather play strike playlists and get rewarded that way, but the results speak for themselves; I got more quality loot from 45 minutes at the Cave than I did in 2 hours worth of strikes.  And if the goal of the endgame is loot, then why not shoot at a cave?  Eh, the whole thing just makes me tired and angry.

3.  I almost bought an Xbox One earlier this week; Microsoft had sent me a special email that offered me 50,000 Reward Points if I bought one within a certain time period.  Beyond not knowing what Reward Points are (as I thought Microsoft had moved beyond their proprietary currency in favor of real US money), I didn’t, and I’m still not sure if I will or not – the jury’s still out on Sunset Overdrive, and that’s probably the bundle I’d buy.  But there’s a part of me that’s really itching to play Forza Horizon 2.  Furthermore,  I’m a little peeved that nobody seems to be reviewing the 360 version.  I’m getting the 360 version via Gamefly next week, but I’m almost positive that I’ll be playing it alone; I’m pretty sure that almost all of my 360 friends have upgraded to the One.  Oh well.

4.  Speaking of next week, I’ll also be receiving a rental copy of Shadow of Mordor, which is getting surprisingly great reviews.  Unfortunately, the way Gamefly works, I probably won’t be receiving it until Thursday, and I’ll be out of town until the following Monday, so basically I won’t be playing anything interesting until the week of October 7.

5.  I also really really really want to check out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but due to money/time issues, I probably can’t get to it as soon as I’d like.

This has been your weekly sad bastard update.

Also:  I’m on Ello as jervonyc.  But, as mentioned in #1 above, I don’t know how much I’ll actually be there.  Still, if you happen to get an invite, look me up.

The Last Few Hours: Destiny

Current Status:  Story complete; level 21.


Destiny_BG

I finished Destiny‘s story and hit level 20 on Thursday night, and then sloooooooowly grinded my way up to level 21 by Sunday night.  Did a lot of strikes, co-op missions/patrols, a few rounds in the Crucible.   (I am terrible at the Crucible.)  I’ll even cop to spending 20-30 minutes shooting at the Cave of Loot (though I didn’t get all that much for my efforts).

I am more or less done with it, though, I think.  While it’s true that the next big game doesn’t come out until 9/30 (Shadow of Mordor), I’m not really feeling the pull to keep coming back.  Destiny’s endgame is similar to Diablo III in many respects – you’re basically just doing the exact same stuff over and over and over again, grinding away for better gear, BUT Diablo III has several big advantages over Destiny, even if it’s similarly tedious after a while:  there’s far more to do in Diablo right now, the loot is far more generous, and you can also hit the pause button if you need to take a bathroom break or if your kid is crying or if your aging TV decides to suddenly switch itself off.

Now, to be fair, the launch version of Diablo III on PC had a similarly lackluster endgame and barely resembles its current form.  And as Bungie has repeatedly said that they’re playing the long game with Destiny, I fully expect new content to roll out over the next few months, and I might even come back to check it out every once in a while (though I expect I’ll be woefully outclassed when I do).

But even as Destiny’s gameplay remains mechanically solid – and it is, there’s no question about it – there’s almost nothing else that’s compelling me to stick with it.  Leveling past 20 is arduous and arbitrary (as @LegendaryEngram is so cruelly brilliant in pointing out).  The Strike playlist consists of maybe 4 missions – maybe there’s more, but it certainly feels like there’s only 4 – and I’ve done them all to death.  I’m done with final bosses that sponge up 15 minutes’ worth of shooting, and I’m even more done with final bosses that are bullet sponges AND teleport, because teleporting is bullshit.  Few things feel as cheap as when you only get one grenade that takes minutes to recharge, and then the boss vanishes mid-throw.

I’ve said before that it can be a bit of a critical cop-out to compare one game to another, and so it would be hypocritical of me to compare Destiny to its most obvious influences and contemporary titles – Mass EffectBorderlandsDiablo III, Halo.  But if I’m being honest with myself – and therefore with you – I have to admit that the game that Destiny most reminded me of is this year’s Watch Dogs.  Both games were hyped beyond all rational measure, and they both appeared to look like phenomenal games during their preview stretch.  And then they came out… and left so much to be desired.  Both games featured solidly designed mechanics and impressive-looking graphics, both games eventually grew somewhat tedious and tiresome and repetitive, and both were saddled with dreadfully poor writing and voice performances (though it should be noted that each game’s writing is bad for much different reasons).  I think there’s obviously still plenty of time for Destiny to right the ship, and as said above Bungie’s playing the long game here, but as of right now, these two games are battling for my Biggest Disappointment of 2014 award.

The Next Few Hours: Destiny

Current Status:  Hit level 17 last night after finishing the first mission on Mars and having a successful Crucible run with some new friends.


A week after its release, my feelings about Destiny have become rather complex.  On the one hand, the things that are bad about it continue to be bad – laughably, horribly, stupifyingly bad.

On the other hand, well; I’ve spent the last 11 hours of my all-too-brief free time feeling more and more drawn to it, discovering the harmony within its gameplay rhythms, enjoying the slow but steady pull of new weapons and armor, exploring what there is to explore of Venus and Mars, and even dipping my toes into the PvP.

There’s no kind way to say this, and if you’re playing it you undoubtedly know this to be true:  the missions are dumb.  Go to point X, run the gauntlet, deploy the Ghost, fight off wave after wave after wave until the Ghost is finished.  (Indeed, the only way the missions could be worse is if your Ghost took damage.)  The reasons for doing any of this stuff are never explained – and if your answer is “But it’s in the app!” or “But it’s on Bungie.net!”, then you’re missing the entire point.  You can’t expect me to remain immersed in your game’s world if I have to have my iPhone next to me while I’m playing it – and when the only time I can read it is when I’m not actually playing.  I’d rather the use of audiologs, frankly, than having to read about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it on my iPhone when I’m in the bathroom.

And the game is also weirdly slavish to classic fantasy RPG conventions, even right down to the names of your enemies.  Why are the Vex – a robotic race of enemies – named Goblins, Harpies and Minotaurs?  Why are the Hive – insectoid-looking things – named Knights, Acolytes, Ogres and Wizards?   This is supposedly a sci-fi space opera – why am I fighting dragons?

Speaking of the Vex, and speaking of the shitty writing, here’s a case in point:  the very first mission on Venus leads you to a library; as your Ghost is analyzing this weird white digital tree thing, it suddenly cries out “Oh no!  The Vex are here!  Take cover!”  Who are the Vex?  It is not explained.  The fight isn’t particularly difficult as compared to previous firefights, but it is unnecessarily long and frustrating, being that the Vex keep teleporting in from elsewhere.  Why do they present more of a threat than any of the other murderous alien beings I’ve been fighting for the last 10 hours or so?  That is not explained either, until after the fight is over; and even then, it’s not explained in a clear, unambiguous way.

Later, you are told to go to the Rift to seek out how to enter the Black Garden.  (I could be mistaken in those names, but honestly – they’re so generic.)  After some weird bluster by some dude doing his best Tom-Hiddleston-as-Loki routine, he says that he’ll grant you access if you bring back the head of a Vex captain.  Your response (and keep in mind this is one of the only lines of dialogue your character says in the entire game thus far) is:  “Why do you need a Vex head?”  And faux-Loki replies – and I’m paraphrasing, but this is more or less the gist – “Oh, we don’t.  But you’re going to do it anyway.”

As I continue to unlock planets, I feel myself wanting to explore and poke around in various nooks and crannies, but more often than not (and by that I mean 90% of the time) those nooks and crannies are literally empty, and usually cut-and-pasted from other, similarly empty locations.  Every once in a while I’ll find a chest or a dead Ghost, but the rewards for doing so are minimal.

I could go on, but after a while it feels both like nit-picking and kicking a fallen horse.  The writing is simply terrible; this has been evident since the alpha.  It’s unfortunate.  One could argue that at least it’s not racially tone-deaf or sexually insensitive the way dozens of other AAA games are, and I suppose that’s true, but that’s very faint praise.

I continue to come back, though, because despite the lack of any compelling context, the shooting is enormously fun.  I’ve become rather adept at the scout rifle, and pulling off a string of precision kills is incredibly satisfying.  (It’s a useless weapon in PvP, given that everything in the Crucible happens 100x faster than in the story, which is probably why I’m so terrible.)

And it goes without saying that doing this all with friends makes the overall experience infinitely more enjoyable.  Joking with buddies instead of slogging through P-Dink’s endless mono-drone is definitely my preferred soundtrack, and having a full fireteam makes the story’s missions far less tedious.

There is potential here, to be sure.  I certainly aim to finish the story, and I presume I’ll hit level 20 before I see the credits.  I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stick with it after that, given that Shadow of Mordor drops in less than 2 weeks, and the flood of fall releases ensues shortly thereafter, but for the time being I’m having a rather pleasant go of it, and maybe I am starting to feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth after all.

(Shooter Of The Year still belongs to Wolfenstein, though.)