On The Division, Quantum Break, and self-awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alive And Well And All Moved In (almost)

So I was hoping to write up a big thing here talking about the events of the last few weeks – specifically, the move – but today’s been so absurdly busy that there simply hasn’t been any time.  It’s 3:19 as I type these words and this is literally the first time all day I’ve had more than 10 consecutive non-interrupted seconds to write.

Given that I’m not 100% sure what’s in store for the rest of the afternoon, let me make this quick:

1.  The new house is awesome.  The move itself went very smoothly (aside from a guy crashing his car directly into the back of the moving truck without hitting his brakes, and it’s amazing nobody got hurt), and the kid was a champion (although the poor dogs were locked in bathroom doors so as to avoid antagonizing the movers / pee on everything), and we even got the bulk of the necessary repairs fixed while we were both off work last week, which is a huge weight off our shoulders.  Really, all that’s left at this point is a few miscellaneous boxes in the office and the hanging of pictures and artwork.

1a. Also the mancave needs a new thing for the TV, but that’s not something I need to get right away.

2. Also we bought new HDTVs.  Let me tell you – we bought two Vizio 48″ LED HDTVs and the mere fact that both of them, combined, cost less than $1000 is astounding, considering that I’d bought my old 40″ Samsung about 8 or 9 years ago for over $2000.  But the TVs themselves are pretty great, too.  There’s a part of me that’s curious about 4K, but the more realistic part of me knows that we don’t really have any 4K content right now, and it seems silly to shell out that much money when a 48″ TV for less than $500 is already getting the job done.

3. Given how busy the last two weeks have been, there’s not been that much opportunity for gaming/reading/watching things.  That said, of course we found time to watch Wet Hot American Summer – First Day of Camp, which we loved.  It’s true that the transformation of a 90 minute movie into 8 30-minute episodes means that it’s not as easily digestible as a whole, and it requires more work on our part to absorb it in the same way that we did the film, but it should also be said that it was also a really funny and silly way to spend a few evenings when we were exhausted from unpacking.  I don’t really understand why anybody would watch this that hasn’t seen the original film, especially since so much of the show is surreptitiously designed to show how the film’s events and characters got to where they are, and when I think about it now there’s a few not-quite plot holes that don’t necessarily add up (like how, given the events of the Netflix show, Gene would already know about the talking vegetable soup can, whereas in the film it comes totally out of left field – as it should, when you think about it), but whatever – it’s an inspired bit of silliness, and everybody gets more screen time, and at the end of the day I’m honestly just glad it actually exists.

4. The little gaming I’ve done has mostly been cleaning up various contracts and side quests in Witcher 3, if only to be as fully prepared for the New Game + mode, whenever that starts.  But I’ve also been kinda helplessly devoted to Rocket League on PS4, which is maybe the most fun I’ve had in multiplayer since Burnout 3 (no joke).  I don’t even care that I’m not particularly good at it, or that if I’m hanging back on defense and the ball comes my way I start feeling the same sort of anxiety I used to feel when I was 6 years old playing soccer, and I’ve started getting used to and accepting that certain feeling of inevitability that comes when I miss the open ball or accidentally re-direct it to the opposing team who immediately scores.  I can live with that; I can live with myself.  (I also play online without headphones, so I can’t hear if any of my teammates are calling me names, which is highly recommended.)

Beyond that – I gotta say, I like the train in the morning.  I’ve yet to take the train home, so who knows how that’s going to work, but this morning’s commute was downright pleasant.  I even got to sit down, which hasn’t happened in maybe 20 years.

I can’t yet speak to the suburban pace, given that I’ve only been there a week and that first week was largely spend indoors, dealing with cardboard boxes and tape.  I can say that our town has a ton of cute little parks, and our son is INFATUATED with playgrounds, and so it’s really nice to be only a 5-minute drive from any number of them, none of which are filled with hundreds of people.

In any event – you are all invited to our backyard, as soon as I learn how to grill.  Also I need to buy a grill first.

Tomorrow is the release of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which has been high on my to-play list all year, and so I’m hoping to play that and write something up later this week.

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