Weekend Recap: Books, Debt, Pause

You ever have one of those weeks where you keep thinking that you have stuff to talk about, but then you start writing it down and none of it seems particularly interesting or important?  That’s where I was last week.  That’s sorta where I still am this week, but the day job is slow at the moment and I need to look busy.  So here we go.


I started reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” to my almost-five-year-old (!) son last week.  It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and it’s one of the two books that I’d been looking forward to reading to him pretty much since he was born – every once in a while he’ll ask me to read “The Monster At The End Of This Book”, but Grover doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it did to me.  In any event, we made it through a chapter and a half before he started losing interest, and rather than force it on him, I figure it’s probably best if we put it to the side, and then he can get back to it when he’s ready.


Speaking of books, I’ve been on a tear of late.  The last book I’d mentioned in these pages was Nick Harkaway’s “Gnomon”.  Since then, I finally finished Zachary Mason’s “Void Star” (interesting premise, though the writing is almost too flowery and obtuse), Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (which is as magnificent as everyone says, and which I vastly preferred over “The Goldfinch”), and now I’m catching up on some early George Saunders work – “In Persuasion Nation”, which is brilliant, and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”, which is equally brilliant.  I’d never particularly cared for short stories one way or the other – I generally always preferred getting sucked into a very very long novel rather than a short vignette – but what he does with the form is nothing short of revelatory.  And quite frankly, he’s a lot more sci-fi than most people tend to acknowledge – a lot of his stories read like Black Mirror episodes if they were allowed to be absurd, rather than just purely filled with technological dread.


I think I’d mentioned a few weeks back that the wife and I were determined to get back into our respective creative gears this year.  For me, this feels a bit more daunting than it should, because my laptop is running on fumes at this point and buying a new computer is just too goddamned much for me right now, what with credit card debt and the mortgage and car payments and day care and etc.  And yet, if I ever hope to make any money from making music, I need a new computer.  I did end up buying a new input box, but I’m so afraid of it not working that I haven’t yet attempted to hook it up.

It wasn’t always this way, of course.  Back in high school, I was writing music all day; I still have a notebook filled with at least 200+ songs with charts and lyrics and melodies and arrangements and such.  But I never recorded them, beyond sitting in front of a boombox and recording a sketch to show the band.  Eventually I bought a four-track, and that was also just used for sketches (and indeed I never had the proper means to mix them down, and so I ended up sending the mixes through my guitar amp and recording them with a hand-held dictaphone).  And so on and so forth.  The point being, I never needed to have professional equipment at home because there was always a band I could send this stuff to, and if we liked a song well enough to record it we’d just go into a studio and record it properly.  Now, of course, I don’t have a band, and I don’t have the money to pay for a studio (or to hire the musicians necessary to play this stuff), and so if I’m going to release this stuff I need to do it myself.  And so I need a new computer.  Anybody have a spare $2000 they’re not using so I can get an iMac?


If you’re looking for a good time on your mobile phone, you could do a lot worse than The Room: Old Sins.  The story is as obtuse is ever, but that’s hardly the point; this is the best game in the entire series, bar none, and it’s a pleasure to play through from start to finish.


Lastly:  I started playing Monster Hunter World this weekend, like most of the gaming world.  It’s my first foray into the franchise, and my understanding is that it’s the most accessible.  I can’t speak to that; I’m just coming to it as a newbie and hoping it makes sense.  Actually, let me rephrase that – I’m coming to it pretending I’m Geralt from the Witcher franchise, to the point where that’s what my character looks like.  I need to get out of that habit, of course, because the combat in Monster Hunter bears little to no relation to The Witcher, and that’s why I feel like I’m almost about to die quite often.

In any event, I finished the first 3 missions and am now at the point where I can explore without a time limit or without any particular objectives, and I think this is where I can see the game becoming quite awesome.

That being said, the game makes some puzzling design choices; the one that drives me the most insane is that you can’t truly pause the game.  While it’s true that this doesn’t always matter – like when you’re in the starting hub, or if you simply decline to press “A” during a cutscene – it most certainly matters if you’re in the middle of a quest.  My game-playing time is in the evening, after my son goes to bed, and I’m in the basement, two floors below him; if he needs something and my wife isn’t available – or if my dog needs something – or if I need a bathroom break or a snack – I’ve gotta put the controller down and deal with it, and not being able to pause means that meta-Geralt is most likely going to die.  Not being able to pause is a source of needless anxiety and I don’t know how to get around it.  (This is also why I never stuck with the Destiny franchise.)

Side Quests: Avoiding The Big Story

The big story is that I am not yet ready to talk about Mass Effect Andromeda.  I can offer a ton of first impressions, almost none of which are positive.  I can also bury these impressions under the mountain of goodwill that I’m trying to hold on to, with respect to Bioware and the Mass Effect franchise.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve earned it.  But YE GODS this game feels like a broken, buggy, unpolished mess.  I don’t really understand this need to radically re-invent the wheel as far as certain mechanical things are concerned – the first 3 games had an intelligent and intuitive user interface, and while I appreciate the desire to spice things up for a next-gen debut, the finished result feels decidedly unfinished.  The simple act of tracking a quest requires at least 3 button presses too many; I still have no idea how to add mods to my weapons, or how to switch my weaponry at all.  Now, granted, I’ve only just landed on Eos; I’m still barely into the actual proper game.  And Bioware RPGs are notorious for always starting off slowly.  But this feels like a mess.  I’ve already said too much.

Instead, let me talk up some other things that aren’t terrible.

First:  read this Kotaku review of Everything, which I downloaded immediately after reading.  If tonight’s run of ME:A remains as impenetrable as last night’s, I’m headed towards Everything ASAP.

Second:  holy shit, iOS has had some INCREDIBLE games land in the last few weeks.  I’d already been charmed by Little Folks and lost hours to Slayaway Camp and Tavern Guardian, but then this murderer’s row of kick-ass happened, one right after the other:

  • Ticket to Earth, a puzzle RPG unlike anything I’ve ever seen before;
  • Bit City, a city simulator from the people that made Tiny Tower (another game I lost many, many hours to);
  • Cosmic Express, another charming (and quite difficult) puzzler;
  • Pavilion, a “4-dimensional adventure game” with a gorgeous art style;
  • TypeShift, a new and very addicting word game from Zach Gage;
  • Kingdom: New Lands, which is some sort of resource-gathering thing with an absolutely gorgeous pixel art style reminiscent of Sword & Sworcery;
  • Euclidean Lands, which mixes Monument Valley‘s Escher-like aesthetic with Rubik’s Cube gameplay;
  • Beglitched, one of the weirder and more charming variants of match-3 I’ve come across;
  • Death Road to Canada, the newest game from Rocketcat (one of my favorite mobile developers); and finally
  • Card Thief, which is some sort of stealth/solitaire/board game mashup that’s as ingenious as it is clever.

Any one of those games will tide you over for quite some time, let me tell you.

Third:  I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn at the end of last week.  I submit that it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated with Mass Effect’s missteps is that HZD does everything correctly.  HZD is polished, intuitive, and graceful in all the ways that ME is broken, frustrating and clumsy.  It’s a remarkable game, and I only hope that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year, overshadowed as it is by the new Zelda.  Incredible world-building, fantastic production values, highly engaging combat, very involving gameplay.  If the story is somewhat predictable, the experience of playing it is anything but.

Return of the Subway Gamer: War Tortoise

I’ve never claimed to understand the appeal of game streaming; why would anyone watch other people play games, when they could be playing the same game themselves?  Even if the streamer is funny or insightful or entertaining, it seems like a perverse way to spend one’s time.

But by the same token, I’m one of those weirdos who is fascinated and compelled by auto-clickers; games which, eventually, play themselves.  I still have an active Clicker Heroes save, which I’ve actually checked on several times today.  I’ve been heavily invested in Cookie Clicker – twice.  I had been playing Mucho Taco on my iPhone, but then put it aside to play Doomsday.   I’ve spent actual money on these games.

So who am I to judge?

Point being:  in the last few days I have become rather enamored of War Tortoise, which is a strange and uniquely compelling hybrid of auto-clicker and tower defense, with an RPG-lite skill levelling system, a strikingly gorgeous presentation (for the iPhone, at least), and the ingeniously designed option to jump in and play, rather than just watch.

This isn’t just an auto-clicker – the gameplay is that of an endless turret sequence.  You can usually just let it run while you tap on various currency drops, but if there’s a tough bullet-sponge enemy bearing down on you, you can reclaim the turret and use some of the heavy weaponry to help take it down.  It’s not necessarily difficult, but there is a strategy involved in terms of how to best spend your money and build up your defenses, and that’s where the fun (for me, at least) lies.

It’s a strange game, don’t get me wrong – I don’t know why I’m on a tortoise, or why I am some sort of field mouse facing off against hordes of armored iguanas and beetles and such – but I don’t care.  The game doesn’t explain any of this, nor does it really need to.  Nobody plays these types of games for any sort of narrative sustenance.

It’s weird, and I’m weird, and I get it, and I accept it.  War Tortoise is awesome.


I’m in a bit of a holding pattern as far as my game playing is concerned right now; supposedly the review embargo for Uncharted 4 drops tomorrow, and while I’m nearly positive I’ll be buying it, I’m still curious as to how it reviews.  I worry it’ll be too combat heavy, but I’ve said that about all the Uncharted games, and by and large they are still enjoyable games.

I bought SUPERHOT for the Xbox One this morning, even though as a Kickstarter backer I already had it on my PC; my PC is basically busted, though, and I never got a chance to finish the game.  It looks absolutely fantastic on the XB1, for whatever that’s worth, and it plays just as well as I remember it playing on the PC, so that’s really all that matters.

I’m close to the end of Ratchet & Clank, which has remained a very pleasant action platformer which eventually gets a little tedious and exhausting.  I’d like to finish it, but I won’t necessarily kill myself to get there.

Most of my gaming has been on the iPhone.  Before War Tortoise came along, I was heavily invested in Marvel Avengers Alliance 2, which is a free-to-play turn-based RPG with impressive production values and a rather enjoyable combat system.  I’ve also been addicted to Loop Mania, a rather deceptively simple arcade game that is easier seen than described.

Greatness in all forms

1. I said this on Facebook late last night, and in the cold light of morning I think it still holds true:  the wife and I finished True Detective S1 last night and while I don’t watch nearly enough TV to consider myself any sort of critical authority, I’d have to put it among the very top of my Top 10 favorite TV seasons ever.  (I have no idea what that list looks like, by the way.)  Certainly I have a much more profound respect for Matthew McConaughey than I ever did before; his performance throughout the season is nothing short of extraordinary.  But also the writing, the cinematography, the sound design (sweet jesus, the sound design!), the rest of the cast… I’m not necessarily thrilled with the show’s gender politics (and I can now certainly understand why fans of the first season wanted to see two female detectives in Season 2), and maybe there’s a little too much gratuitous/unnecessary T&A (even if this is an HBO series, which apparently stands for Has Boobs, Obviously), but look:  for what is ostensibly a cop show, these eight episodes make for some of the most compelling and thought-provoking experiences I’ve had in quite some time.

2. I just finished Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer this morning, and am about to start Grimscribe, the second collection of stories in the omnibus edition.  Even if I don’t find Ligotti horrifying, I find his ability to conjure the feeling of uncanny, nameless dread nothing short of breathtaking.  I started reading Ligotti specifically because of his apparent influence over True Detective; now that I’ve finished Season 1, I suppose I see it a bit though not nearly as much as I expected to, if only because the Louisiana Bayou is the exact opposite of the sort of grey, misty, shapeless towns that Ligotti’s stories all seem to occupy.  But certainly some of Rust Cohle’s nihilism can be traced through to Ligotti, that’s for sure.  In any event, there’s one story in Songs that I simply adored (though that’s maybe not the right word for it) – seek out “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”, which executes on its premise in such a fantastic way that I can’t seem to get it out of my head.

“He has failed to embody in words his semi-autobiographical sorrow, and all these games with protective names have only made it more painful. It hurts to hide his heart within pseudonyms of pseudonyms.”

3.  I woke up to the news that George Martin had passed away.  It’s hard for me to put my thoughts in order about it.  Regardless of your thoughts on the Beatles themselves, there can be no question that Martin was the most influential producer in the history of modern music.  He pioneered so many recording techniques and oversaw some of the most mind-bending sounds that had ever been heard; even now, all these years later, songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus” and the string arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby” are still mesmerizing and astonishing.  A true giant, a true legend.

4.  I am continuing to putter around in Far Cry Primal, though with my rental copy of The Division arriving either tonight or tomorrow, I expect FCP will be put away for a bit.  I am not nearly as down on it as I expected to be, even if I find it somewhat aimless and without any narrative urgency.  Indeed, FCP is one of the few instances where having so much shit on the map is actually a good thing rather than a bad thing, because I find the non-story stuff infinitely more compelling.  I do like me some crafting; and while I’m not crazy about hunting, at least it’s somewhat tastefully done here.  It is very easy to pick up and mess around and then put away, without feeling like I’ve lost anything.  I still have no idea why this game needs the “Far Cry” tag, beyond the obvious corporate need to get the attention of gamers who might not have internet connections.

5.  iOS gamers:  download Train Conductor World now.  Just do it.  It’s free.

 

where did monday go

1. I feel like I’ve been out of the general loop of things for a few days now; my son was sick for most of last week, and I stayed home with him twice, and between that and having yesterday off, I’ve simply lost track of time and space.  And all I can offer in response is a quote from one of the more haunting tracks on Blackstar:  “Where the fuck did Monday go?”

2.  I don’t like abandoning books; there’s something about the act of giving up that makes me feel guilty in ways that I don’t feel with regards to music, movies, games.  But I gave up on Paula Hawkins’ “Girl On The Train” over the weekend (for reasons I’m still struggling to articulate), and the only reason why I haven’t yet given up on China Mieville’s new novella “This Census Taker” is because it’s very very short, and I could probably finish it on the evening commute.  (I’m very hit or miss with respect to China Mieville – I’ve given several of his books a try and the only one I finished was “The City and the City”; there’s something about his prose that makes my scalp itch, I have to read and re-read every sentence 4 or 5 times because I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.)

3. Work continues (at a glacially slow pace) on the new album.  I need time to finish lyrics, but I don’t have the time; and when I do carve out the time, I don’t have the inspiration.  Even now, when work is somewhat slow, I’m simply not feeling it.  I’m tempted to sign up for this year’s RPM Challenge just as a way to kick myself in the ass and finish what I started last year.  I do have some friends who have been politely kicking me in the ass, too, but I think I need to stare a deadline in the face and deal with it head-on.

4.  Oh, but distractions continue to haunt me.  For example, the new iOS game, “Swapperoo“, which is maybe the best and most novel use of the match-3 template since Bejeweled.  I’m helplessly addicted and I’m just hoping that’s because it’s brand-new, and that I won’t be playing this until 3 in the morning for the next month.

5.  Some movies of note:  the wife and I finally saw “Ex Machina” over the weekend, and WHOA.  Absolutely fantastic; terrific screenplay, great cast (and it was especially neat to see Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac together in a non-Star Wars context), hauntingly evocative cinematography, incredible soundtrack (co-written by Geoff Barrow, of Portishead fame).  I’m a little troubled by an element of the plot that I’d rather not discuss unless we’re OK talking about spoilers, and I’m not sure that too many people who’ve read this have seen it, so maybe we’ll talk about that in the comments.  But man.  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.  It’s free on Amazon Prime, if you have that, and it’s totally worth it.

And the wife and I also finally got to see the new Star Wars together; it was my second time, her third.  It’s arguably even better the second time, now that I wasn’t distracted by my foreknowledge of spoilers and such.  I think Rey is the best, and I can not fucking wait for Episode 8.

on managing expectations

In last week’s entry, I sounded pessimistic about the Fall 2015 videogame release schedule.  Not much has changed since then; unfortunately.  We had company on Saturday and I was laid up with a nasty head cold on Sunday, and so I only had a few hours of game time, and yet I was still kinda non-plussed at the end of it.  I played an hour or so of the remastered Dishonored; it looked fine – about on par with my PC – but I’d already played those first few missions a lot, and I wasn’t feeling particularly inclined to play them once more, Achievements notwithstanding.  I also played an hour or so of the remastered Gears of War, and it looks very much like how I remember it looking, which is probably the best you can hope for in a remastered port; it’s just that, as with Dishonored, I’m not really sure I feel like playing through the rest of it.  Calvino Noir has gotten fair-to-middling reviews in the few outlets that have bothered to write anything about it, which is a bit disappointing, and Madden 16 simply isn’t my cup of tea.  So there’s that.

This week is Metal Gear Solid V and Mad Max.  I’m going to take a wild guess and presume that the release date review embargo for Mad Max probably means that it’s not going to score all that well, and also that launching it on the same day as MGSV probably means that its publisher isn’t expecting that much of a return.

Review scores are not necessarily the be-all end-all for me, of course; I have been mystified by the Metal Gear franchise at every turn and even though this latest installment has gotten impossibly high scores from nearly every outfit that’s looked at it, I can’t help but feel incredibly skeptical about it.  I didn’t particularly care for Ground Zeroes, and if this is simply a much larger version of that, with a plot even more ludicrous and ridiculous, well… let’s just say I’m glad I’m not buying it.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s maybe a point that I should probably have emphasized a lot more during this last year or so of general gaming apathy; I’d love to be proven wrong.  I’d love to sit down with either one of these games and get sucked in and have a good time.  That’s why I still write here, that’s why this blog exists.  I have precious little time for gaming these days, and so I’d like the time I do get to play to be well spent.  I genuinely hope that I can sit down later this week and rip open my rental copy of MGSV and get sucked in – if not to the impossibly ridiculous story, then at least into the moment-to-moment experience of exploring the environment.


Not all is doom and gloom as far as games are concerned, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw some love towards some iPhone games that have been kicking serious ass of late.  To wit:

  • Lara Croft GO, which is a strategy-action-board-game hybrid that feels far more accessible and interesting than Hitman GO, the game that preceded it; I was able to finish the entire thing without needing any help, which was very rewarding.  I’d recommend playing it on an iPad as opposed to an iPhone (if only because the larger screen makes it considerably easier to find the hidden collectibles), though my iPad 3 did not run it particularly well.
  • PAC-MAN 256, which is a novel combination of both Pac-Man and Crossy Road, and which works far better than you might expect; and
  • Sage Solitaire, which is a poker-ish solitaire game built by the guy who made the excellent SpellTower, and which is fiendishly addictive and maddeningly frustrating.

While we’re on the topic of enjoying the moment-to-moment experience of a carefully crafted world, I want to pour one out for the dearly departed Hannibal, one of my all-time favorite television shows and which featured as thorough of a mic drop in its finale as one could’ve hoped for.  Nobody else watched this show, which is why it only lasted three seasons, but they were three of the most gorgeously photographed and exquisitely acted and straight-up BOLD seasons of network television I’ve ever seen in my life.  Not since Twin Peaks have I been so genuinely unnerved by something on a major network; there are images from nearly every episode of this show that I will never be able to get out of my head (the totem pole, the angel wings, the mushroom garden, the increasingly horrible fate of poor Dr. Chilton, etc.).  It’s been a hell of a ride, and I hope they can secure financing for a filmed version of the 4th season’s arc.  If Wet Hot American Summer can come back as a serialized Netflix show, then anything’s possible.


I’m currently reading Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, which I’m enjoying, though not nearly as much as I enjoyed his debut novel, The Gone-Away World, which is one of the most fun books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time.  I loved that book so much that I ended up buying the rest of his published output, and I suppose I should’ve expected a bit of a letdown after Gone-Away World’s brilliance; I’m not done yet, of course, and there’s still plenty of book left for me to get knocked out by – he has a remarkable way with words, of course, and even if the plot isn’t quite as riveting, his prose is still genuinely fun to absorb.


Asleep at the Wheel: E3 2015 prognosticaions and other ramblings

1.  Now that Fallout 4 has been officially revealed – and a new Gears of War game has been very strongly implied by the formation/re-naming of its development studio – it was put to Twitter to determine what unannounced game could possibly upstage those two.

I have two answers:  Red Dead Redemption 2, and/or Portal 3: Cake or Death (co-starring Eddie Izzard, obviously).

I’d of course love to see release dates (and gameplay footage) for Mirror’s Edge 2 and the new Crackdown, and certainly I’d like to know what Criterion is up to (as well as what Three Fields is doing (the new studio formed by Criterion’s founders)).  No Man’s Sky should be getting a more thorough rundown, and I’d love to get more information about The Witness.  I’d be incredibly surprised and pleased to hear more definitive information about the new Mass Effect game (and less surprised but certainly intrigued by a seemingly inevitable ME original trilogy HD remaster, and I’d buy that in a heartbeat if I could somehow import my save data from my 360 playthroughs).

On that note, now that the Uncharted HD trilogy has been more or less announced, one wonders what other last-gen games will be announced at E3 for a current-gen treatment.  I still maintain that a Bioshock HD trilogy is a no-brainer, though perhaps it would make sense to release closer to whatever’s next for that franchise; I also maintain that a Rockstar remastered box set of Red Dead 1, GTA4, Max Payne 3, and/or L.A. Noire is an impossible (but near-orgasmic) dream.

As I write this, I see that the first official Steam Machines will be coming out this fall.  If the specs are good, I might end up getting one of these – my current PC is starting to show its age, and it’d be nice to keep my gigantic Steam library as part of my rotation.  (I will hopefully be moved in to the new house by then, too, and so having a Steam Machine will make my gaming man-cave more or less complete.)

Beyond that, I’m kinda just curious to see how it goes.  I have no real expectations.  I am hopeful that I can live-blog my impressions of each press conference, though that may be impossible for various real-world reasons.

2.  A whole bunch of boffo iOS games have come out lately.  Last night saw the release of You Must Build a Boat, the sequel to the much-beloved 10000000, as well as Hitman: Sniper, which is very much like that PC demo from a few years back.  I’ve also been playing the shit out of Lara Croft Relic Run, which might be the most ambitious endless runner ever made; and I’m also helplessly addicted to Ball King, which is a free basketball shooter with lo-fi graphics but really good physics, which makes hitting tough shots ridiculously satisfying.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Twenty, which is a maddeningly addictive hybrid of Drop 7 and Threes.

3.  I’ve taken a 2-day break from The Witcher 3.  I’ve been meaning to write about it all week but haven’t been able to put my thoughts in order.  (I’m about to hit level 15, and I’m kinda just messing around with side-quests in Novigrad.)

My original thesis was that I loved it to death, and that I loved it specifically because I didn’t feel alienated by how it goes about its business (the way I felt about, say, GTA V or Far Cry 4 or any other AAA game of recent years).  Witcher 3 scratches a lot of the same itches that Red Dead Redemption does (which is great), and it also solves some of Red Dead’s narrative problems by making Geralt exactly the sort of person who would do random things for people – that’s his job.  And I also love that when he’s given stupid stuff to do, he’s really funny about it – for example, there’s an early story sub-quest wherein you have to find a goat for the local witch doctor.  Geralt rolls his eyes but knows he has to do it, and when he finds the goat (by ringing a little bell), he says something very much like “Hurry up and follow me, you stupid piece of shit”, which is something that had me literally laughing out loud right up until we both got jumped by a bear.  I love that each person you meet has their own quest line, which makes you feel more invested in what they have to say and how they’re helping you along in your own quest.  I said this before but it bears repeating – I love that the conversation system isn’t always obviously good/bad, which makes role-playing that much more immersive; more often than not, Geralt will have an option to say the thing that I personally would say, and I appreciate the level of nuance that the writers have carefully crafted into each situation.

That being said, I can’t help but notice that everybody is white, and that all the ladies with speaking roles have their boobs hanging out all the time.  I suppose I can appreciate the argument that, while more diversity in games is necessary, it isn’t always appropriate, but I can’t not notice that of the hundreds and hundreds of digital people and dwarves and elves and monsters and fiends and such that I’ve come across in Witcher 3, not a single one of them is a person of color.  Again – I appreciate that this is a Polish-made game that reflects Slavic mythological fantasy, but I also note that nearly every speaking voice is that of a Brit, and that this game was built to be sold to a Western audience.

On the lighter side, I do hope they patch in a photo mode.

4.  I finished Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves earlier this week; I’m not about to write a full review of it here, but the short version is that it’s my favorite thing he’s written in quite a long time.  It has more than a few spots where it’s a little dry, and the subject matter of the final third is a bit…. hmm… troubling?  Is that a good way to describe eugenics, even if it’s done out of necessity and not out of some sort of Hitler-inspired craziness?  In any event, it’s stuck with me ever since I put it down, and I may end up needing to read it again soon.

Where You Been

Has it really been over a week since my last post?  I’ve said repeatedly that I’m tired of apologizing for a lack of updates, but usually that’s just for a brief 2-3 day hiatus, not a week-long vanishing act.

There are several reasons for this break, I suppose, if that counts for anything:

  1. I’ve been unusually busy at work, which severely curtails my potential posting availability;
  2. I hit something of a wall last week working on music, and haven’t quite re-found my footing; and
  3. I’ve been a bit under the weather, including a bit of a headcold over the weekend and a vicious stomach bug that laid me out all day yesterday.  (My stomach is much better today, but the cold has returned; I’ll gladly take this over the reverse, though.)

GAMES:  I’ve been playing (some might say “rushing”) through GTA V‘s story mode on the PS4; I’m in the middle of setting up for the final heist.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD (Greg, please skip past this part)

Part of the reason why I’ve been rushing through it is because of this AV Club / Gameological feature about difficult choices; as far as GTA V is concerned, I have literally no memory of being faced with any particular decision (especially because in my post-complete state on the 360, everybody was still alive).  If I had to do it over, though – and I guess I do, given that I’m heading that way – I’m thinking I might pull the trigger on Michael.  As I’ve been going through this second run, I find him absolutely impossible to like.  I loathe every word that comes out of his mouth.  The “family therapy” scene is especially disgusting – I recall it being gross the first time around, and it’s arguably even more infantile and awful the second time.  I do not empathize with him at all, and I try to play as him as little as possible.

END SPOILERS

Beyond that, I’ve mostly been playing Alto’s Adventure on my iPhone – it’s an absolutely gorgeous 2D side-scrolling, snowboarding endless runner.  Obvious comparisons can be made to Ski Safari, another excellent iOS game, but its artistic flourishes recall both the sand-surfing level in Journey and the pristine environments of Monument Valley.  It’s also one of the few games that doesn’t absolutely destroy my iPhone’s battery, which is necessary these days as even just the simple act of leaving my phone turned on during my subway commute can drain the battery nearly 60% by the time I get to work.  I really need to upgrade, but I’m not eligible for Verizon’s discount until June; I’m hoping I can last until then.

MUSIC:  So, yeah – as stated above, I hit a bit of a wall, and it’s entirely possible that the thing below is what broke me.

If you can’t see it, here’s the note I wrote to accompany it:

yeah, so: this probably isn’t going to be on the upcoming album/ep – at least not sounding like this. it’s too long, it doesn’t build, it’s very noodle-y. BUT. my inner prog-rock-obsessed 15-year-old would love the hell out of this. and i might just have to figure out how to arrange it so that it can stay. (It’s not actually in 19/8 – it’s one measure of 7/8, then one of 12/8, but the only way Logic would record and not freak out was to combine it all as one.)

have done some minor tinkering to it since this demo was uploaded, and it now has a better build and a more focused structure, but I might just have to re-record the whole thing in order to get it right, and I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble.

I’ve also recorded some more sketches here and there, but none of them are particularly good, and on second listen a few of them appear to be subconscious re-workings of earlier sketches I’d worked on a long time ago.

I’ve said for a while that I’m treating the RPM Challenge’s commandments as more of a guideline than a rule, and to that end I’m not feeling particularly bummed that I most likely won’t meet the 10 songs / 35 minutes threshold.  Participating in the challenge was really just a way for me to kick my ass into gear, and in that respect I consider this a pretty wild success; I’ve not been this prolific or productive since I was writing songs during classes in high school.  Most importantly, I wanted to establish a routine for myself, which I’ve never really had before; I also wanted to work under circumstances where I could allow myself to record first drafts and just let them be before listening to them to death.  And I have succeeded on both counts, which is why the Challenge was worth it.

And even if I’ve hit a wall now, that doesn’t mean I’m done; I’m letting my batteries recharge and I’m getting back into the studio as soon as possible, which hopefully means tonight (I do have to finish my taxes, of course).

BOOKS:  I finished Richard Powers’ Orfeo, which is a beautiful, beautiful book that has a lot to say about music and art and science and memory and permanence and loneliness, but which also doesn’t necessarily have the strongest characters or a plot that carries any momentum.  And the ending felt… I don’t want to say forced, but it didn’t feel nearly as effortless as everything else.  I would recommend this book to lovers of 20th Century classical and avant-garde music, though, and I’d strongly recommend listening to a Spotify playlist of the music he writes about, and reading along while you do it.

I’m currently about 2/3rds through Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim, which at first glance appears to be the sort of mystery/thriller you’d pick up in an airport, and which reads very much like the screenplay that will most likely be coming very soon.  It’s great fun, even if it’s not great art, and to that end I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

The First Few Hours: Trials Fusion (PS4)

Current Status:  I’m around 2.5 hours in.  I’ve gotten gold medals in all of the first 2 locations (“Easy”), I’ve completed the third tier with silvers (“Medium”), and I just unlocked the trick system, which also opened up a whole bunch of locations, costumes and bikes (including 4-wheel ATVs).

I have been a heavy-duty Trials fan for what feels like years now, even if I’m nowhere near an expert.  There was an early, PC-only version (whose name escapes me at the moment) which I was terrible at, but when the Trials games appeared on Xbox 360 I immediately devoured them, even as I repeatedly beat my head against the wall of “Hard” difficulty.  Last year, when I was in my hard-core PC gamer phase, I even went and bought the Trials HD edition on Steam (which combined those first two XBLA games, plus added some bonus content) and tried to play that for a little while, although that PC version is kinda terrible.

And as I think I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve become fiendishly addicted to Trials Frontier, a completely new game for iOS, with a free-to-play model that is surprisingly not terrible.  The game plays just fine, but the reason why it’s worth bringing up here is that it’s also made some significant tweaks to the Trials formula – namely, it’s now a kind of RPG, in that there’s a narrative, a “bad guy”, and a host of NPCs that give you tasks that reward you with XP, money and blueprints for new bikes.

What this iOS game ultimately succeeded in doing is to make my appetite for a proper, next-gen edition all that much more difficult to sate.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait very long.

There are good and bad things to discuss with regards to Trials Fusion.  Let’s start with the good.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Trials Fusion is drop-dead gorgeous.  I’m aware that the Xbox One version came with a day-one patch that upped the resolution a bit, but the PS4 version arrives fully formed in glorious 1080p, and a frame rate that feels pretty rock solid despite the craziness of the backgrounds.  And, man – there is a lot of craziness happening in the backgrounds.  Buildings explode, wind farms collapse, dams break – and the draw distance is deep, so everywhere you look there’s something bananas going on, even if it’s something that looks 5 miles away.

The game also feels great, and a lot of this has to do with how much better the PS4 controller is at handling the fine-tuned movements that are vital to landing certain jumps or climbing steep inclines.  I do not find myself missing the 360 controller, which says pretty much all that needs to be said as far as that goes.

And the level of variety in each course is astonishing.  Again – I’m still towards the beginning of the game, but each course is radically different and shows off a hell of a lot more than I ever saw in the last-gen games.  I have no doubt that the creator community is going to go absolutely nuts once they get their hands on the tools.

There’s also, like in the iOS version, a quasi-RPG system, though it doesn’t yet appear to serve any real purpose.  You gain XP and money for completing levels and meta-objectives (more on that in a second).  I think I hit level 20 last night, but that doesn’t really mean anything as far as a noticeable increase in my skills or in my bikes – all it means is that I’ve reached certain plateaus where previously locked bikes and clothes are now available for use.*

* I think it would be neat, eventually, to have an RPG system in a Trials game that actually improved your skills dependent on how well (or how often) you executed them – like in Skyrim, or (digging deep here) Aggressive Inline.  So, for Trials, if you show that you can land flips regularly with ease, you should have greater control over your spin with a heavier bike, for example.

Those meta-objectives are interesting, in that they can be tough to ignore.  The levels are already pretty challenging, but once you see that you can earn bonus XP for landing 10 flips in a zero-fault run, or if you avoid touching certain colored obstacles on the course, those things are tough to un-see, and so it adds an extra layer of stress to your run.

The biggest change to the Trials formula is probably the trick system, but since I only just unlocked that before calling it a night last night, I’m not quite ready to discuss it.  It’s a neat idea, though, and I suspect that it’ll give multiplayer matches a lot more depth.  (Oh, yeah, there’s multiplayer.  Haven’t tried that yet, either.)

Alas, not all is perfect in Trials Fusion.  In a game famous for giving you the ability to immediately restart a race at the touch of a button, the biggest grievance I have is the interminable waiting that happens after you finish a run; there’s a period of what may be only 30 seconds but feels like 20 minutes as the game does… something… after you finish.  Perhaps it’s sending your run to the uPlay cloud?  I’m not sure what the cause is, but it takes WAY too long and completely ruins the flow.

The weirder aspect is that there’s also an attempt here of some sort of narrative.  There are two disembodied voices that you hear – one is a male announcer, making either kinda lame jokes about how it’s only been 14 minutes since the last workplace accident, and to “keep up the good work”, or else some weird attempts at giving the weather.  The other is a female AI named Cindy, who walks you through each tutorial phase and who also tends to chirp in from time to time to comment on the male announcer’s ramblings.  Between the futuristic laboratory environments and the AI companions, it’s almost as if they wanted to set a Trials game in Portal‘s Aperture Science, but forgot to hire funny writers.

And, also, the writers they did hire did not factor into account how many times you might restart a race – which, if you’re like me and you’re determined to get as close to gold as you can, is an awful lot – and so you’ll hear the same quips over and over and over and over and over again, until they stop making any sense (if they ever did make sense), and you kinda just wish they’d shut up.  Cindy keeps making these odd comments about how nice it is to see you – or, at least, this version of you, anyway – and this is strange in a game that takes such gleeful joy in ragdolling your rider in increasingly bizarre and convoluted ways after each finish line.  Is the joke that we’re just a bunch of clones?  Is that the big twist?  That’s not really that big a stretch.

Anyway – long loading times and weird storytelling aside, it’s a next-gen Trials game, and if that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy, well, you’ve probably already downloaded it.

 

Weekend Recap: Trials and Tribulations

This was an absolutely perfect weekend, weather-wise; it’s true that I’d settle for anything after the winter we’ve had, but this was a beauty, and we were able to enjoy it to its fullest.

Of course, now it’s Monday and I’m utterly exhausted.  But I’ll still consider the weekend a win.

There’s not a lot of gaming happening these days, though; the Vita’s (finally) in the shop, I’d already gotten 100% completion in Infamous Second Son, and my attempts at playing side missions in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes immediately reminded me why I kinda hate that series.  I’m kinda plugging away at Rayman Legends on the PS4, and it’s fun and charming and also frustratingly difficult – though at least it’s not as intolerable as, say, Dark Souls II.

The one thing I’m playing with any sort of intensity is Trials Frontier for iOS, which I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop since its release last week.  I’m a huge Trials fan anyway, and I’ve already pre-ordered Trials Fusion for the PS4 (which I think comes out tomorrow?), and I’m pleased to report that Trials works about as well as you can hope for on an iPhone.  New to the Trials experience is an actual narrative, which (surprisingly) isn’t terrible.  It looks gorgeous and feels pretty good – I mean, I do wish I was playing it with a controller, and I must admit that my thumbs are kinda mushed from pressing them so tightly against the iPhone screen, but it definitely works, and you can more or less do the things you need to do without too much difficulty.  That being said, I think I’ve started to reach that inevitable point in any Trials game where the things I need to do are just beyond my abilities, so… there’s that.

Other than that, it’s quiet.  I’m getting my iPad loaded up for my upcoming vacation, which is at the end of this week; I’ve got FTL ready to go, and Shadowrun, and a very cute and charming puzzler called CLARC, which I’ve played a few levels of on the iPhone already but which I’d like to see on the bigger screen.

Finally, my first post over at Gamemoir should be going up later today, which is pretty exciting.  More about that in a bit.