Weekend Recap: Order out of Chaos

The Game:  The Order: 1886
Current Status:  3-4 hours in, halfway through Chapter 9 (out of 16)

The conventional wisdom on The Order: 1886, as far as I can tell, is the following:

  • for a $60 game, it’s far too short and has no lasting value beyond the initial campaign
  • for a third-person cover shooter, it hardly reinvents the wheel, and the combat is bland and uninspired
  • it’s absolutely gorgeous, though the decision to force black bars on the top and bottom of the screen (to enhance the cinematic widescreen effect) means you see less of the world than you’d like
  • but still, holy shit, the game is gorgeous
  • there’s not much to do beyond shooting, and while there are lots of nooks and crannies off the very narrow path, there’s not as much hidden secret stuff as you’d expect, and the stuff that’s there isn’t particularly interesting or provides any tangible benefit to the player
  • given that Nikola Tesla is basically the game’s version of James Bond’s Q, you’d expect the weaponry to be a bit more diverse than it actually is
  • in any event, the weaponry you encounter in the world is not adequately explained (which is to say it’s not immediately apparent why you’d pick up one weapon as opposed to another when given the choice)
  • also:  lots and lots of QTEs, which are dumb

I can’t really argue with any of that; and yet I’m still finding myself enjoying the game quite a lot.

I think what we’ve got here is essentially an incredibly polished first draft.  The game’s world feels rich and deep, and the characters are acted quite remarkably well, even if the script is somewhat lacking in urgency and certain elements of the plot feel somewhat under-developed.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for finely delivered British accents that I’m allowing myself to gloss over the story’s shortcomings.

As to whether the game is worth $60 – well, I’m renting it, so I’m not feeling shortchanged.  But I think there’s something to be said about a game’s length in proportion to its intrinsic value.  Not all games need to be 100 hours long in order for me to feel like I got my money’s worth.  I loved Dragon Age Inquisition but there’s a fair amount of padding in that game, and once I finished the main story I lost any and all desire to finish my considerable amount of sidequests.  Meanwhile, I’ve played the considerably shorter Portal and Portal 2 more times than I can count, and I enjoy them every time I do.  Length isn’t the issue; it’s making sure that every moment feels as though it matters.

To that point, I don’t feel like my time is being wasted in The Order: 1886.  It’s not without some considerable problems, but I’m having more fun than I thought I would.  Maybe it’s the graphics whore in me, too – but goddamn, this game is spectacular to behold, even despite the fact that a lot of it is dark and dreary.  I would love to see Dishonored 2 run this well.  (It also reminds me a fair amount of last year’s ill-fated Thief reboot, for whatever that’s worth; games inspired by London in the late 1800s are apparently a thing now, but when they’re done well it’s quite breathtaking.)

Backlogs and futurelogs

1.  I finished Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris last night.  I’m not sure that “underwhelmed” is the right word to describe my experience with it, though I’m having trouble finding something more apt.  The original game felt really fresh and new, and this feels very much like a safe treading over the same ground; there’s no flash or spark of inspired design.  The single-player campaign was surprisingly short, too, and even though I’ve still got some side stuff to do, it’s not all that much.  I’d still like to kick the tires on online co-op; I’ve heard that some of the puzzles change when there’s more than one person involved, and so maybe that would keep things from getting stale.  Nevertheless, I’m not feeling pulled back to beat my high scores the way I was the last time around.

2.  After finishing LC, I wanted to give Far Cry 4 another go, but for some reason I was having trouble logging in.  I’m not sure that the PS4 was having the same problems that Xbox One owners were, but the Ubisoft servers were taking a really, really, abnormally long time to get going, so I put it aside and went back to Dragon Age Inquisition to take a look at some sidequests.  Man, that game is hard to go back to once the campaign is over; suddenly all these quests seem frivolous and padded out.  I was able to overlook that when I was playing the campaign – if only because I was mostly just grinding, and the grinding was relatively fun to do – but now that there’s nothing big to work towards, I’m having a really hard time staying invested.

3.  I’m also kinda dabbling again in the PS4 version of GTA V; I’m far enough now where I’ve finished the first heist and I’ve unlocked Trevor.  Get ready for some hyperbole:  Michael is one of the worst “protagonists” in the history of the medium.  He’s such an obnoxious asshole; every word out of his mouth makes me cringe.  This is partly because the dialogue is so rotten and riddled with misogyny and condescension, but it’s also because the voice actor thinks he’s in Goodfellas or the Sopranos.  Even playing as the psychotic Trevor seems like a breath of fresh air.  I had a hard time with the game the first time around; it’s really excruciating to get through this second time, and I’m not sure I’m going to play much more of the campaign.  I don’t really know what the current state of the online side of things is; if you’re there, is it worth checking out?  I’d gotten my character to level 10 on the 360 before getting distracted with other things, and I’ve synced it up on the PS4, but… I’m not really interested in getting shot at while walking down the street.

4.  Switching gears:  I’m a little more than halfway through Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is something of a frustrating read.  On the one hand, it’s a fantastic premise for a realistic science fiction story, in that it’s about an astronaut stranded on the surface of Mars and his attempts at surviving and getting back to Earth, and all of his methods seem rooted in real-world tactics – as if the author interviewed a bunch of NASA people and asked them what someone could actually do.  On the other hand, a lot of that stuff ends up being a bit dry.  Furthermore, while the stranded astronaut is rather chipper and funny and is doing his damnedest to keep a smile on his face, there’s really no arc to him; he doesn’t have any feelings or emotions beyond finishing his next task.  The book seems to be much more about making his ordeal (and his attempts to rectify it) as realistic as possible, and I suppose the only way he could survive is if he didn’t stop to take stock about how fucked he is – and even though he does actually, literally say “I’m fucked” an awful lot, he generally manages to get un-fucked within a paragraph or two.  So there’s no real terror or dread to his predicament; he seems resigned to his fate, whether or not he’s successful at fixing it.  That’s an awfully good way to handle his predicament, of course, but it doesn’t make the book particularly moving.

5.  I’ve been trying to stop apologizing for not posting on a regular basis; I do my best to post at least 3 times a week, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way – for any number of reasons, none of which I can get into here.  But I suppose I should say that if it does get a little dark here in the next few weeks, it’s only because I’m working on some other projects which I am hoping to share with everyone soon enough.  I’ll keep you all posted on that stuff as it progresses, but in the meantime I’m trying to actually work, as opposed to talking about working (which is what I usually end up doing).

DAI: It’s all over

DAI_fade

It’s all over.  At just over 50 hours, and with still tons more side-stuff to do, I have finished the Dragon Age Inquisition campaign.

If you want the short version:  it’s very good.   It’s the best BioWare console experience I’ve had since Mass Effect 2, that’s for sure.  Is it my Game of the Year?  That’s a tougher question.  I stand by its inclusion in my top 5, but I don’t know that it was the “best thing I played all year.”

For one thing, even though it ran pretty smoothly for me, there were a handful of times when the game locked up and crashed on me – including the literal moment before the final battle started, which meant I had to re-load the game and go through the opening cutscenes again, wondering if I’d lost any progress (since I hadn’t done a hard save before I started the mission).

And honestly?  I’m kinda glad it’s over, because holy shit it’s been a while since I sunk that much time into a game; even if, at the same time, it’s been a long time since I played a game that I enjoyed for that long without getting bored.  Sure, some things are tedious; I read the subtitles quicker than the voice actors say their lines; towards the end I opted to fast-travel instead of walk, because I don’t particularly care to inspect every single goddamned inch and harvest every single goddamned herb and mineral; but what would an RPG be if not slightly tedious at times?  The overall experience was far more enjoyable than any moment-to-moment tedium.


What to do now?  There’s something freeing about finishing a massive game like DAI; it’s like finally finishing a huge book, where you’re kinda sad to see it go, but also glad that you can move on to something new – or just take a little break altogether, now that you’re not shackled to anything in particular.

I may go back and finish some of DAI’s side-stuff – there are still a large number of small quests I never finished, and plenty of places I never fully explored, and that stuff can be dealt with in short bursts.

I may go back to Forza Horizon 2 (henceforth, “Forizon 2”) and might even get that new DLC island.

I may dip my toes back into Far Cry 4, or also Shadow of Mordor, and if Sony puts Alien Isolation on sale, I might buy it and try to finish it.

One thing I’m not going to do, though, is finish Assassin’s Creed Unity.  I gave it a quick go yesterday afternoon, once the latest patch was installed, and the simple fact that it took me almost 3 minutes of staring at the map to figure out where the hell the next story mission was located was all I needed to say, “I don’t have time for this shit.”

Speaking of which, one of the categories in my GOTY post that I didn’t get to this year was “A Once-Favorite Franchise That I’m More Or Less Ready To Give Up On”, and it should go without saying that the winner of that particular category would be Assassin’s Creed.  I’m done.  I don’t care about next year’s installment; I don’t believe it will fix the things that need fixing, nor do I have faith that it will be shipped in a working state.  And considering the current state of Ubisoft game design, why should I bother playing an Assassins Creed game when I could play Far Cry 5, or Watch Dogs 2, or whatever else they decide to rush out the door?


 

And speaking of the GOTY post, three other notable omissions:

1.  In the “Did Not Get To” pile, the biggest name on that list is Kentucky Route Zero.  I’ve been meaning to sit down and give KRZ a serious go for basically the whole year, and for whatever reason I never found myself in the right frame of mind and with enough time to give each episode a proper go.  (“Right frame of mind” doesn’t necessarily imply a state of sobriety, mind you; it simply means being open and un-distracted for a different sort of pace.)  I’ve heard nothing about raves about both Episode 3 and a Side Story thing, and I need to get on this soon.

2.  Also in the “Did Not Get To” pile, but with the caveat that I simply hadn’t bought it yet, is Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris.  I was a big fan of the first game, and this appears to be more of the same; I just haven’t gotten around to pulling the trigger yet.

3.  I did end up playing the first 10 minutes of Danganronpa over the weekend, which is (obviously) not nearly enough time to figure out just what the hell is going on.  I would like to give it at least an hour or so to figure it out, and then decide whether I should push on with it or send it back.  I don’t necessarily regret buying the Vita, but I never have a proper opportunity to play it, and, so, there it is.

 

on GOTY paralysis, Hatred & Valve, and @Nero’s review of DAI

Look, I don’t really even know what to write about today.  I feel like I’ve gotta say something, if only to justify the expensive site redesign.

I’m still playing Dragon Age but I feel like I’ve run out of things to say about it, even if I’m 40-50 hours in and have no idea how much is left.  As far as proper story missions go, I finished “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts” last night; but meanwhile “Here Lies the Abyss” is still open because I started it before I was properly leveled up.  According to IGN’s walkthrough*, I have 4 main storyline missions to complete, but I’m also doing pretty much every single sidequest I can find – all my companion quests, all the random environmental quests, and most of the fade rifts I come across (although I get bored of those and don’t find them especially compelling).

I intend to finish it – and, indeed, I want to finish it – but I also feel like I have to finish it because only then can I start moving on to the other stuff I’ve put aside.  I’m looking at my GOTY post-in-progress and there’s just so much I’ve yet to get to.  I know I said as much last week, but man.

Why this quest for completeness?  Why am I feeling pressure?  I’m not getting paid for this!  Nobody’s asking for it!  Someone once yelled at me for a post I wrote that I was just writing inflammatory shit “for the clicks” – but on a good day this site gets maybe 20 hits.  I get more views just from cross-posting at Kotaku’s TAY forum, which I’ve only done like 3 or 4 times.

*sigh*

In other words, I’m having trouble even finishing this post because I’m distracted by:

  1. Valve putting “Hatred” up on Greenlight, and then promptly removing it; and
  2. Milo “Nero” Yiannopoulos’ “review” of Dragon Age.

Regarding 1:  I never actually ended up posting my thoughts regarding Hatred when it was originally announced, though they more or less aligned with Polygon’s opinion article.  I just turned 39 and I’ve been playing games for most of my life, and so I’m sure the number of virtual people I’ve killed is in the 6-7 digit range by this point; but as I’ve grown older I’ve found it becoming less and less enjoyable**.  Even so, I continue to do it, if only because the context of these virtual killings is more or less understood to be “entertaining”, and not literal.  But I still have limits.  I tried playing Rockstar’s infamous Manhunt a million years ago and found myself nauseated by the snuff-film aesthetic; I tried playing Postal and just found it hideously stupid.

Hatred, on the other hand, is different.  Hatred is specifically about going on a suicidal shooting spree, massacring as many innocent civilians and police officers as possible.  (Yes, you can do this in GTA if you feel like it; the key phrase in that sentence, though, is “if you feel like it”.)  To quote the developers themselves:

The answer is simple really. We wanted to create something contrary to prevailing standards of forcing games to be more polite or nice than they really are or even should be.

Yes, putting things simply, we are developing a game about killing people. But what’s more important is the fact that we are honest in our approach. Our game doesn’t pretend to be anything else than what it is and we don’t add to it any fake philosophy.

In fact, when you think deeper about it, there are many other games out there, where you can do exactly the same things that the antagonist will do in our project. The only difference is that in Hatred gameplay will focus on those things.

I personally find the game distasteful, disgusting, hideous, nightmarish.  I wouldn’t play it; I wouldn’t accept money to review it for a publication; I wouldn’t want anything to do with it.  Frankly, I find its mere existence to be nauseating, as is the community that’s rallied around to support it.  Even the name smacks of opportunism, a brazen attempt to be “un-PC” while being willfully ignorant that being “un-PC” is, in fact, a very clear political agenda.

Does that make Valve’s decision to pull it right?  Paul Tassi in Forbes makes some interesting observations (the whole article is worth a read):

Though you could also make the mass media argument that if something like Human Centipede (and its even-worse sequel) is available to stream freely on Netflix, that it’s not the most ludicrous thing in the world for Steam to consider allowing Hatred to exist there. Not that I’m encouraging that, but Hatred is hardly the first piece of media to glorify or stylize the murder of innocent people. I really don’t care to defend Hatred as the content is frankly nauseating, but it just seems weird where the line is drawn when we look at what other types of violent media are hugely popular and widely distributed.

Valve is a storefront, and I think they have the right to sell whatever they want; they’re not censoring it, they’re just refusing to sell it.  Valve’s near-ubiquity in the PC market might make some people wonder what the effective difference is, since if you’re not sold on Steam, where can you be?  It’s a tricky question, and I’d like to hear Valve offer some clearer guidelines as to what it chooses to sell, but by the same token I also agree with Tassi’s conclusion:

I think it has the right to exist, but if it doesn’t, I certainly don’t think the world has lost a valuable piece of media.

Regarding 2: I’ll have more to say about Milo in my 2014 GOTY post, but in the meantime, that “review” is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.  It’s enraging, it’s ludicrous, it’s impossible to take seriously; it’s an expert bit of trolling by a guy who’s clearly pandering to an audience.  (The review apparently came out within 24 hours of his announcement of his forthcoming book about GamerGate, in a funny bit of irony.)   The Gamergate audience claims they want “unbiased objectivity” in their reviews, and yet this review is nothing but bias – sexist, transphobic bias – and it’s also full of straight-up lies and made-up bullshit.  The more you read it – if you can stomach it – the more you wonder if he actually played it.

I’ll let @untimelygamer take it from here:


* I know I say this every time I link to a walkthrough, but I’m saying it again for clarity – I’m not using a walkthrough, I’m just curious to see how much is left.

** Which is probably why I’ve been avoiding Far Cry 4, frankly.

Failure, And Moving On

I turn 39 on Monday.  And as such, I’m feeling particularly reflective and ruminative today, with all the attendant melancholy that such navel-gazing generally brings.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention that I failed this year’s NaNoWriMo, and it was a pretty spectacular failure – I think I topped out at just under 7,000 words.  What started as a memoir-ish chronicle of a person I used to know ended up with a deep dive into my college journal and an inadvertent re-opening of a lot of old wounds that I thought I’d closed, and so I’m in this weird paralytic state where I can’t finish the project because I desperately want to reach out to people that I’ve lost, all the while knowing that some of those people probably don’t want anything to do with me.

I was emailing with an old friend yesterday about this:

I get hung up on a lot of stuff in my past, which sucks, because aside from [one specific thing that I’m redacting for purposes of this public blog] I’m very much in love with my present.  But the thing is, I still recognize a lot of my darker moments in my journal, and that’s the part that’s disconcerting, because it would appear that I haven’t changed nearly as much as I think I have.

So anyway, there’s that.


On the gaming front, this weekend is primarily focused on progressing through Dragon Age Inquisition, and I suspect that’ll be the case until I’m done with it.  If I need a break, I’ll go back to Assassin’s Creed Unity, because (a) I hate myself and (b) I’m almost done with the campaign.


On the TV front – and yes, every once a while I watch TV – the wife and I watched the first two episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix last night, and holy shit that show is incredible.  The Brits know how to make really good TV, people, that’s the lesson to be learned here.


I finished reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven last night; I liked it, but it was the third post-apocalyptic novel I’d read in a row, and so as such I was probably a little burned out on the subject matter.  I’ve since started Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco, which is really creepy and unnerving and good.  I came across his name the other day in a piece about True Detective and plagiarism; I haven’t watched the show but I’d obviously heard a lot about it, and Ligotti’s work is cited quite often as a direct influence on the show.  So I figured, hey, why not.


I’m not necessarily done with this just yet, but I figure I might as well start putting it out – here’s my Favorite Songs of 2014 playlist.

[spotify https://play.spotify.com/user/jervonyc/playlist/1qUgxbGW7oZehDejNwFsUk]

Further Thoughts on Dragon Age

I was under the weather yesterday and so I took a very long, deep dive into Dragon Age Inquisition.  I’m just about to hit level 12, and I think I’ve finished what I’d gather is Act 1; I won’t spoil anything other than to say that I’m in a new base of operations, which I’m very much looking forward to customizing.

I still think the game is pretty terrific, but after 20+ hours I’ve also accumulated some nits that need picking.

1.  Wildly Uneven Difficulty Spikes.  With the notable exception of important main storyline missions that explicitly say what level you should be before taking on, there is absolutely no way of knowing if you’re properly equipped to be in a certain area of exploration.  Indeed, there are even places in the Hinterlands, the opening area of the game, that I’m still having trouble with.  There’s simply no way of knowing how tough a group of enemies are until they start kicking your ass.  I’ll give the game credit – it creates checkpoints quite frequently, so you don’t lose too much time/effort if your party gets wiped, and it almost always respawns you in a place where, if you decide you’ve had enough, you can fast travel the hell out of there.  But I’d prefer to know what I’m getting into before I get there.

DAI_rift

2.  Crafting.  Now that I’ve done it a number of times and have gotten the hang of it, I quite enjoy the crafting system – especially now that I’ve got an Arcanist in my employ who can enchant my weapons and armor.  More often than not, I craft stuff that’s far better than what I pick up in the field.  But I do wish that I could compare what I’m about to craft with what I’m currently using, because I’ve already ended up wasting a bunch of precious materials on crafted items that didn’t necessarily make huge improvements over what I’d already had.  I can at least pawn this stuff off on the members of my party that I don’t roll with all the time, so that if I suddenly end up taking them along they’re not underpowered, but it’s still a needless inconvenience.

DAI_mount

3.  Inventory Management.  For the first dozen hours or so, I almost never ran into trouble with my inventory; 60 slots may not seem like much, but considering that herbs and minerals stack, I still had plenty of room for looting and pillaging.  But now that I’ve gone exploring in lots of different places and have acquired a much wider variety of stuff, I’ve got a ton of crafting materials in my inventory that I can’t really get rid of until I use them (since I don’t want to sell them), and I can only use them in between missions.  I’d much prefer it if I could drop off this stuff at any camp that I’ve set up, which could then be ferried off to my home base.  Alternately, I’d like to be able to hold more stuff; it’s possible that this is an Inquisition Perk that I’ve yet to unlock, but right now I’m hoarding my perks together so that I can get my rogues to unlock all the impossible locked doors.  (When it comes to RPGs, locked doors are my undoing, and I’m always determined to get them open somehow, even though I almost never create a rogue.)

DAI_tree

None of these are necessarily game-breaking problems.  #1 is the most problematic, and it’s the issue I’ve found myself repeatedly getting the most frustrated with, but as I noted the game does give you a few outs, and at the very least there are always other things to do, and even if I end up grinding for XP for a few hours, it never feels laborious or tedious – mostly because those missions (even the fetch quests) are well-written, and they take me to new areas that I might not have found on my own.


It’s December, which means that it’s officially time to start gearing up for GOTY posts.  The games post will obviously be the biggest one; given the current state of gaming, it’s also going to be the most difficult to write.  That said, I’m also going to curate a What I Read This Year post, and I’ll most likely publish a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of 2014.  So there’s that to look forward to, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The (Dragon) Age of Anxiety

1.  I’m 20 hours deep in Dragon Age Inquisition now, and I think it’s fair to say that any doubts I might have had about BioWare following the 1-2 punch of Mass Effect 3‘s controversial ending and The Old Republic‘s failure to topple World of Warcraft can be put to rest; BioWare’s got their mojo back, big-time.

But let me qualify that “20 hours” first:  20 hours is a rather considerable length of time as far as games are concerned, and yet I’m still dickering around in the early areas of the game… because I haven’t yet decided to align with the Mages or the Templars.

I mean, the Templars were huge dicks when I met them, and the Mages weren’t, and it seems pretty straightforward to me that the Mages would be better for an alliance… but this is BioWare, and they’ve been known to throw curveballs before, and I don’t want to piss off Cassandra (even though she hasn’t been rolling in my party for the last few hours).

I guess the thing I’m most concerned about is making the wrong choice, even if it’s the one I believe is right, which is why I’ve been grinding sidequests for the last dozen hours and trying to gain more powerful equipment.

I could, of course, consult a walkthrough and see what happens; I could also manually save before making my decision and see for myself how things play out.  And I could also just arbitrarily decide to do one thing and then play through the campaign again as a different character (in all senses of that word) and then really play up every opposite choice I made the first time around.  But all of those actions feel like I’m simply hedging my bets; while I’d like to think that my Herald of Andraste is a woman who carefully considers her options before taking decisive action, I can’t very well believe that if I’m taking advantage of a design flaw of the medium itself.

Real life does not contain these sorts of loopholes.

It should go without saying that being afraid of making the wrong choice, even if it’s the one I believe is right, is a fear of mine that extends to nearly every avenue of my life.  Jobs, friendships, romantic entanglements; I get paralyzed by fear and doubt and anxiety and more often than not I end up simply treading water until something else happens, and then the decision is made for me.  In those instances where I do take charge and make a difficult decision, I actually do feel a bit empowered and accomplished; but it can be terrifying to make that leap.

In the game, however, I can essentially continue treading water forever; there’s no alarm bell ready to go off if I haven’t committed to a specific story-driven course of action by a certain time, and so I’m free to dick around in the Hinterlands until I’ve seen every single blade of grass.  And so I’m grinding because I’m procrastinating, so at least I’m being productive.

It is to the game’s immense credit that there is so much to do, and that so much of it is actually worthwhile, and – most importantly and refreshingly – that it treats its open world with a careful, considered grace, unlike the spatter paintings that become the Ubisoft maps in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.  I don’t feel the need to explore in those games, because more often than not, anything I come across is likely some variant of something I’ve already done.

I haven’t enjoyed questing like this probably since Oblivion or Fallout 3.  And even then, the writing is so much stronger than in Bethesda’s games; I love this world, I love seeing what there is to see, and I love that the game’s letting me see it instead of constantly reminding me of other stuff.  At some point I’m going to have to actually make a choice, though, even if only because there’s a lot more world out there that I’m going to want to see.

2.  I don’t mean to keep harping on Ubisoft.  The truth is, I did end up giving Assassin’s Creed Unity another go, now that it’s been patched rather thoroughly.  The patches have helped, I think; the game certainly seems to be running smoother, and now I’m in this weird state where I’m reluctantly finding myself wanting to finish it, even if it hurts.  At the very least, I fully levelled up the Theater Cafe and did all its missions, and so now I have a very healthy stream of income coming in.  I bought some bad-ass weaponry, too, and all my gear is 4 stars or better, and so now my enemies are cleaved in half like a soft pat of butter.  If I must proceed, at least the proceeding is relatively easy-peasy.

The thing is:  while I appreciate that the Paris of Unity is gigantic and really quite spectacular to behold, it’s also quite tedious after a few hours.   I rarely actually walk from point A to point B any more; if there’s a fast travel location anywhere near where I want to go, I use it.  Why bother walking?  So I can get chased by bad guys simply because I’m running?  So I can collect hidden collectibles that don’t actually offer anything worthwhile?  So I can open hidden chests that don’t contain anything useful?  So I can engage in those murder mystery side quests that are just mind-bogglingly dumb?  The only reason to walk from one side of the map to the other is so that the in-game clock continues to run and that I can collect more money in the Theater.  (Speaking of which – the fact that this money isn’t directly deposited and must instead be manually claimed is absolutely insane.)  The world may be historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean I want to walk every inch of it when so much of it doesn’t really matter.  GTA 4‘s Liberty City felt like New York, but it certainly wan’t an inch-by-inch recreation, and it was a lot more fun to explore in that regard.

3.  Speaking of GTA:  the more I replay GTA V, the more difficult it is to take seriously.  Let me rephrase that:  the GTA franchise is “satirical”, a playful poke in the eye of American pop culture, and so it’s not necessarily meant to be taken seriously.  But in light of what’s happening in Ferguson, it’s incredibly difficult to play Franklin’s storyline and not feel like it’s just a way for white kids to feel OK with casual use of the “n-word”.  Indeed, it’s almost as if GTA V was specifically built for people like Michael’s spoiled, privileged son Jimmy, even as it makes fun of Jimmy at every single turn.  It’s hard not to feel that Rockstar has moved from satire to outright contempt.  And while American pop culture is certainly deserving of contempt, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that the game’s writing is so lazy about it.

Here, Carolyn Petit said 1000x better than I ever could:

I don’t think the so-called satire in GTA is daring at all. I don’t think it “goes far” at all. I don’t think it takes guts at all to reinforce traditional notions of masculinity, to mock women and trans folks, to reinforce the status quo. I don’t think there is a single moment in GTA V when the average straight male player will find his worldview challenged, his notions about masculinity seriously called into question, when he will feel in any way threatened or caught off-guard by anything the game is saying about our culture.

It doesn’t take nerve to side with the powerful and to punch down.

4. Aside from my initial splurge, I’ve been trying to ignore the Steam sale, even if there’s a few things on my wishlist that I keep thinking about.  On the one hand, do I really intend to play Resident Evil 5 again – a game I might be alone in saying that I enjoyed far more than 4, and played to death on the 360 – even if it’s only $6.79?  On the other hand, knowing that my PC can run it but not necessarily run it well, do I even want to bother trying Divinity Original Sin at 33% off, especially while I have my hands more than full at the moment?

As it is, I tried playing Vanishing of Ethan Carter before I left on Wednesday night, and the damned thing crashed on me about 20 minutes in.  So that’s a drag.  Supposedly there’s a PS4 version coming in 2015; I suspect it’ll run much better there, but I wasn’t necessarily planning on buying it twice.

I’m also kinda debating whether or not I should get Geometry Wars 3 – and if so, what system to get it for.  It’s a little ridiculous that it’s not on the Vita, I think, which is why I haven’t already bought the PS4 version.  The reviews are on the lukewarm side of positive, which makes me more inclined to wait it out for the time being.  Again – there’s way too much on my plate as it is.

De-Stuffed: finally digging deep into Far Cry and Dragon Age

In my last post, I wrote that I was feeling both (a) overwhelmed by all the games I felt that I had to play, and (b) I was having trouble enjoying any of them because I wasn’t giving myself enough time to get sucked in to them.

What I didn’t say was that even in the midst of this frustration and chaos, I still knew this would only be a temporary feeling; after a certain inevitable point I knew I’d end up weeding out the ones that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, and that I’d save some games for later, and then I’d be left with the stuff that I still felt some degree of urgency about, all the while knowing that 1 or 2 is far more manageable than 6 or 7.

So then:  we can cross the Halo Master Chief Collection off the list entirely.  I played about 10 minutes of Halo 2’s “Outskirts” level, just enough to see the improved graphics, A/B them with the original graphics, and then remember that I’ve never liked the Halo games as much as I felt like I should’ve.  I was curious about the remastering package, and wanted to at least make sure I saw it so that I could keep it in mind for my HD Remake section in my 2014 GOTY post; now I’ve seen it, and that’s that.  It’s hard to know who that package is for, really, beyond die-hard Halo fans who want access to every single multiplayer map.  And as of this writing, I’m still not sure if the multiplayer is working correctly.  It is a tremendous value proposition, but for me it does not feel necessary.

(Let me now reiterate my desire for a Rockstar Collection, including HD remasters of Red Dead, Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire and possibly GTA4.)

Assassin’s Creed Unity is on the cusp between getting saved for later and getting sent back to Gamefly.  On the one hand, I’ve already sunk far more hours into it than I expected to, and I’m past the halfway mark as far as the story goes.  On the other hand, I’ve not thought about it at all since last week, and I’m only reminded of it because the PS4’s menu screen automatically keeps it at the front of my stack, given that it’s on disc.

In the “Saved for Later” category, I’m putting Sunset OverdriveForza Horizon 2, and GTA V.  And in the specific case of GTA V, I’m putting that into a special “Saving for Much Later” category, because I’ve not necessarily blown away by the remaster.

So, then, what’s left?  As I suspected, it’s Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age Inquisition.  And also Rollers of the Realm for Vita.  Regarding Rollers, that’s still a fun portable game and it doesn’t really impact my attention span, so let’s also put that aside for the purposes of this discussion.  And speaking of fun portable games, stop what you’re doing and get your hands on Crossy Road for iOS; it’s an endless Frogger clone and it’s got a fantastic visual design and it’s wonderful and it’s free.


Far Cry 4 is a bit disappointing, I think.  The Far Cry franchise is notable for, among other things, completely throwing out the rule book and radically reinventing itself with each subsequent iteration.  Far Cry 4, on the other hand, is almost completely identical to Far Cry 3 in every respect that matters – as well as being conceptually identical to both Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs – and so I don’t feel all that compelled to go and explore, given that nothing feels particularly unique.  The only real change I’ve spotted thus far is that every once in a while you’ll have to choose between two competing leaders on the same team, but it’s hard to know what those choices mean just yet, given that I barely know the two people I’m ostensibly trying to help.

Moreover, the game feels a lot more difficult from the get go, which means that unlocking the map and crafting is far more important in the early going; my loot bag is constantly full, I’m not holding enough weapons, I don’t have enough ammo, and so I have to do this “optional” stuff in order to hold my own in the campaign.  But, again – I’ve already done this stuff to death in Far Cry 3, so it feels more compulsory than anything else.  I liked Far Cry 3 (up to a point), and I suspect I’d like Far Cry 4, but I don’t feel pulled to it.  It’s good for short bursts; if I only have 30 minutes or so, I’ll unlock a tower or an outpost, craft something, and then sign out.  (One more note about crafting – it’s annoying as hell that the crafting system doesn’t expand to let you see what you might need for later crafting levels.  Which is to say:  I’ve got a bunch of skins in my bag that I can’t do anything with just yet, but I don’t want to get rid of them if I’ll need them later.  Will I need demon fish scales at some point?  Can’t I just store that stuff in a hideout until I’m ready to use it?)


I’m now around 6+ hours into Dragon Age Inquisition, and I’m loving the hell out of it.  It took me a while to get the hang of it; the opening tutorial mission is a bit slow, and learning how to manage the inventory and how to craft weaponry and armor was a bit intimidating, but once I made it out to the Hinterlands and started questing?  Oh, baby.  Yes.  YES.  YAAAASSSSS.

It’s Skyrim but with BioWare-quality writing, and the writing and characters are great.  Even if I’m not as up on my DA lore as I’d like to be, I still feel like I understand the broader strokes of the current situation.  But more specifically, BioWare really emphasizes the role playing part of RPGs, and I always feel well-represented when a dialogue option comes up; I’m playing my female human warrior very much like myself, I guess, and so it pleases me greatly that I’m almost always given the option of asking the questions that I actually want to ask, and that I can answer questions in a way that almost always reflects my personal opinion – even if I’m being cagey by answering it strategically.

And it also should go without saying that BioWare’s attitudes towards gender and race are really quite extraordinary in this post-GamerGate era, specifically because gender and race aren’t that big a deal.  In my game, as in Susan Arendt’s in the link I just posted, 4 out of the 5 people at my war council are female, and it’s not commented upon or addressed; it simply is.  What GamerGate doesn’t seem to understand is that this is the whole point of wanting equal representation; it’s not about drawing attention to the fact that Dragon Age is full of women, but rather that it is full of women and it doesn’t change the experience at all.

I’m not necessarily pursuing a romance in DA just yet, though I do like it whenever I see a notification that “Cassandra slightly approves” whatever it is I just said.  Still, while I appreciate that BioWare goes to great lengths to let you romance whoever you want, that’s not why I play these games.  I like that it’s there; it’s just not important for me.  I’ve not yet been drawn to any particular character anyway, though – as I said – Cassandra is a tough nut to crack, and it’s nice to feel like she’s warming up to me.

I still feel a bit out of my depth in terms of the mechanics; I’m not crazy about the combat, though perhaps that’s because my warrior is wielding a very powerful but very slow two-handed weapon.  But there’s always the option of switching over to my party’s rogue or mage, and seeing how they work, and so that’s something I keep in mind if I’m ever feeling out of touch.

But this is all ancillary to the larger point, which is that I’m loving the hell out of it.  Now that I’ve sunk some quality time into it, and now that my to-do list is really, really long, I’m exploring and questing and doing all the things that BioWare games do so well, and it’s awesome, and all I want to do is go home and play some more.

Stuffed

Capture

You may or may not have noticed that I keep a widget of what I’m currently playing.  I do my best to keep it accurate and timely, though sometimes I miss a few things here and there.  In any event, I’m marking this specific moment in time here because, if for some strange reason you’re reading this particular post in future weeks/months, it won’t look like that.  The current rotation widget may not look like that ever again.  Such a thing is simply unsustainable, because (i) unless I’m suddenly unemployed and (ii) I am also no longer required to be a parent, there can be no time to play all these games, and (iii) if everything in (i) and (ii) is (god forbid) true, then there’s certainly no money to purchase them.

More than that:  having this sort of to-do list is incredibly intimidating, and we’re not even taking into account my Steam backlog.   I’ve spoken before of the weird need to be part of the conversation, or to at least to have an understanding of what the current conversation is about, and this pathological need to be “up” on as many possible games as my brain can allow is basically a recipe for disappointment.  In my mad rush to dip my toes into all of these games, I’m resistant to letting myself get sucked into any particular one, and so I’m not having nearly as much fun with the fall blockbuster releases as I’d like.

I used to be this way with music.  I’d go to the record store and buy 5-10 CDs all at once (I realize that there might be some of you who are totally unfamiliar with this experience, and for that I pity you – to be fair, I also did this same sort of binging on iTunes and Amazon MP3) and listen to them all, only eventually sticking with the one that I liked the most.   It took two things to get me to stop acting this way:  the first was the realization that taste-making sites like Pitchfork, which I’d been relying upon since a few months after it launched, were no longer in sync with my own personal tastes (this 6.6 for the self-titled Forms album, for example – one of my favorite albums of all time – was the final straw), and the second was Spotify, which I was more than happy to spend $10/month on, considering how much listening I was doing (and continue to do).  (And yes, I do wish Spotify would modify their method of distributing revenue to artists – this Medium article has a much fairer and better approach.)  I still devour new albums and catch up on older ones I’ve missed, but I’m no longer putting self-applied pressure to absorb them into my bloodstream as quickly as possible.

I do still binge on books, but I can only read one thing at a time.  I have a good friend who’s constantly reading 2-3 books at once (while also writing her own novel and poetry), and I have no idea how her brain doesn’t explode.  As far as books go, though, the idea of a book backlog is comforting as opposed to intimidating; I generally read rather quickly, so I know I can get to stuff, but I also like knowing that I have a new book for nearly any mood that might strike.

Games, though… there’s this pressure to play them all, as soon as possible, and the pressure comes from all different angles.  If you’re into multiplayer, you more or less have to start from Day One – I just bought an Xbox One but I can’t possibly imagine jumping into Titanfall right now, since none of my friends are still playing it and I’d have to guess that only the hardest of hard-core fans are still around, which also implies that there’s absolutely no possibility for survival for a noob.  On the flip side, if you’re into single-player, you have to start early, too, so that you’re not accidentally spoiler’d.

There’s also the long-term pressure of simply staying current with the hardware you’re using.  If I’d never gotten around to playing, say, Red Dead Redemption, I’d be totally screwed now – my PS3 is in our bedroom, and my 360 is basically dead.  Sure, the PC is a bit better in terms of legacy titles, but by the same token – why would I want to start Baldur’s Gate 2 right now when I could instead start Divinity: Original Sin, which is itself already a few months old by this point?  And why would I play either of those when I have Dragon Age Inquisition on my PS4 right this very minute?

At some point I know I’ll get over this pressure to be on top of everything, especially since I’m currently under no professional obligations to actually be on top of everything.  But in the meantime, it’s driving me insane.  I think I said this yesterday – wanting to play all these games at the same time means I can’t actually allow myself to get sucked in to any of them.  I was telling a friend this morning – playing the new GTA V right now is an exercise in absurdity, because I’m too used to the first-person controls of Far Cry 4 to be able to deal with the changes in GTA’s 1st person scheme (even if you can change them), and similarly I’ve got Assassin’s Creed Unity in my fingers, which makes moving in GTA’s 3rd person scheme tricky, too (I keep hitting R2 to run, and I end up punching people in the face).  And having all three of those games in my hands means that the aforementioned Dragon Age Inquisition – the one game I genuinely want to play more than any of these others – is basically impossible.


In that list above you’ll also notice I’m currently playing Rollers of the Realm.  It’s a pinball/RPG hybrid, and it’s on the Vita, and it’s everything you could ever want a pinball/RPG hybrid to be.  (Here, let Kotaku’s Leo Wichtowski tell you about it.)  I played it during this morning’s commute and was charmed immensely; the dialogue is unexpectedly sharp and well-written thus far, but the pinball itself is solid and fun, and will be my go-to commute game for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know if this is true for all Vita owners or if it’s just my own particular experience, but my Vita’s download speeds are so ridiculously slow that it defies logic and reason.  Rollers of the Realm is 350 MB.  I started downloading it at 8:00 pm last night.  It didn’t finish until 7:00 this morning.  That’s 11 hours to download 350 MB.  The only reason why a 350 MB download should take 11 hours is because the current year is 1997.

Analysis / Paralysis

I knew this would happen; I’d be unable to choose between Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age Inquisition while still keeping Assassin’s Creed Unity and Forza Horizon 2 in the rotation (side note – originally typed that as Forizon, and I might end up keeping that for shorthand purposes) with periodic messings-about in GTA V and Sunset Overdrive.  And so I kinda just move from one to the other, primarily spending an hour each with both Far Cry and Dragon Age, and those specific two games are so completely different that my brain ends up getting scrambled.

What can I offer in the way of impressions?  Hmm.  After 90 minutes with Far Cry 4, it is essentially Far Cry 3 in a new locale, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not necessarily a new thing.  FC3 felt new and refreshing and daring, and 4 is essentially a refinement of what worked in 3 with a better-looking engine, an absurdly charismatic villain, and a player character so bland and uninteresting that I’d forget his name if everyone in the game didn’t constantly gasp with amazement when I walked into a room.  It’s more of the same, but what made FC3 so good (relatively speaking) was how surprisingly vital it felt, how clearly it was designed with a purpose.  Sure, I’m still very early, and I’m already in an especially cynical mood, but thus far in my time with it FC4’s primary purpose for existing seems to be so that Ubisoft can say they had a robust and diverse holiday release calendar.  This is not to say that FC4 isn’t strikingly pretty, or even fun – it is both of those things – but it’s also relatively mindless, which is a disappointment.

Dragon Age, on the other hand, feels absolutely vital, lovingly crafted and cared for and built by a team that has something to prove, to make up for DA2’s inadequacies and the original’s limited reach.  So that’s wonderful!  BUT: it feels awfully weird in my hands.  This is not necessarily DA’s fault, of course – I’ve still got the Assassin’s Creed Unity controls scheme very much in my fingers, and so every third-person experience is going to take some getting used to (this is also true of my time with GTA V, a game that I’ve already spend 50+ hours with).  That said, BioWare RPGs are almost always magnificent experiences that have kinda clunky combat, and so there’s some precedent here.  Once I decide to remain focused on it, and only it, I suspect I’ll get over my clumsiness quickly.


In BOOKS:  I finished Steven Galloway’s “The Confabulist” yesterday, which is a book I’m not even sure I knew about until just a few days ago.  It presents itself as a magician’s odyssey, the intertwining tales of Harry Houdini and the man who killed him “twice”.  I expected it to feel much like Glen David Gold’s splendid “Carter Beats the Devil”, a similar story about magicians in the early 1900s.  Instead, it’s a book about memory, loss, loneliness and regret, and so while I might have been disappointed that I didn’t get the adventure/mystery I’d thought I was getting, I ended up relating a lot more strongly than I anticipated to the “killer”, Martin Strauss.   Galloway’s prose is unremarkable, and yet in its plainness there are some moving passages that resonated very strongly with me (particularly in light of my own recent bout of memory-induced panic/regret):

It’s inexplicable what causes a person to love someone. It is a feeling so irrational that it allows you to believe that the person you love has qualities they don’t actually possess. And when someone loves you back, it’s nearly impossible not to feel you must never let them see what you are really like, because you know deep inside that you are not worthy of their love.

We talked in a roundabout way about nothing in particular: school, people we knew, things we liked and didn’t like. It was the sort of conversation people who haven’t known each other long but understand they will have many more conversations have, uncomplicated and almost lazy but also anticipatory.

What do you do when the best you have is not very good? I had always been paralyzed by my own inadequacy.

Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion. You cannot be paralyzed by the fear that you are an illusion. If you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place. If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.

It’s not the sort of must-have book that I’d heartily and eagerly recommend, but it’s certainly an interesting way to spend a few days, and I found myself unexpectedly moved by a reveal that I even sorta saw coming at a certain point.