Quality Brain Food

If this blog is to ultimately serve as a diary of my media consumption, well, that makes it a bit easier to figure out what to write. Especially on days like today, when I’m feasting on the good stuff.

SO:

Last summer I wrote a thing about falling in love with a song, and it appears to have happened again. In this case, it’s “Plimsoll Punks” by Alvvays, and while I don’t necessarily need to do a moment-by-moment breakdown of it, I would like to point out a few highlights.

#1: That opening is straight out of The Smiths, and I adore it.
#2: The “You’re getting me down, getting me down, getting me down” hook is killer.
#3: Again – the guitar work all over the place is straight out of Johnny Marr’s playbook, and I have no complaints about that.
#4: Listen to the bassline at 1:53 or so, the way it hits the third instead of the root. UGH. That shit melts my brain.
#5: The singer’s voice in the third verse is so gorgeous.

_____________

[I was going to write a much longer First Few Hours-style post about The Division 2, but I don’t have the mental bandwidth today. (I feel like I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in about 3 months.) And in any event, while I have put in a solid dozen or so hours into it already and just dinged level 12 last night, there’s still so much more to do. In any event, what follows is what was in my drafts folder from the other day:]

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – I’m generally not into online games. I am a curmudgeon and a hermit and have no need to trade insults with young, racist whippersnappers. I like the single-player experience because it’s like playing a book. It’s made for me. I get to experience it on my own terms. And I also need to pee a lot, so I need a game that won’t punish me if I need to pause it.

When I have dabbled in online games, it’s generally for a co-op, PvE experience. The two notable exceptions to this were a several month-long phase when I had a somewhat unhealthy addiction/obsession with World of Warcraft, which needs its own post at some point, and when my Gamespot forum buddies and I would play Burnout 3 every night.

But I digress. I’m not good enough to play competitively, which is why I tend to shy away from both traditional deathmatch stuff and also the newer battle royale genre. Never cared for it, and that’s fine.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing stuff like Destiny or Anthem, or, also, the topic of today’s post – The Division 2. While they’re obviously meant to be played with groups, you can solo these games without getting unduly punished, and you can also join in with strangers rather seamlessly to take down the game’s enemies. Sure, the endgame probably won’t be as interesting if you remain a solo player, but to be honest I generally never get that far. I’ve beaten the vanilla campaigns of both Destiny 1 and 2 and The Division 1, and I got my money’s worth.

[That’s as far as I’d gotten.]

So the point that I was eventually going to get to is that The Division 2 is really and quite unexpectedly terrific. I can’t seem to get enough of it. AND THAT’S WEIRD, because, as noted above, I normally don’t get this attached to this particular genre. Playing solo is fine, though a bit more challenging than I’m happy with – but that usually just means that I need to tweak my loadout and realize that I’ve been using a wildly under-powered weapon, or that I should probably use a drone in a particular fight instead of a turret. Playing in a group with random people is, to my great surprise, A LOT MORE FUN. We’re all using different perks and playstyles and we end up complementing each other. I tend to hang back and snipe and heal, and my run-and-gun comrades end up needing my services, and I actually feel useful for a goddamned change.

Now, is the story good? OH, MERCY, no it is not. But narrative is totally unnecessary for this experience. I open the map and see that I have a mission, and in that mission I will acquire loot, and that is my primary motivation. And that’s enough. The more missions I complete, the more I can improve the quality of my safehouses, and then I can acquire better gear there, too.

And DC – as Manhattan was in the first game – is a wonder to explore. So many nooks and crannies! So many hidden caches and crates to discover! If I don’t feel like engaging with the many feral gangs roaming the streets, that’s totally OK. I mean, I’ll have to deal with them eventually, but in the meantime there’s this whole entire building that I can sneak into and pilfer to my heart’s content. It is glorious.

The whole package seems genuinely well-thought-out and put together, in all the ways that Division 1 wasn’t, at least at launch. I’m gonna be playing this for a long while.

If you want to hook up, I’m generally on during weeknights after 8pm on Xbox; my gamertag is JervoNYC. As noted above, I believe I’m at around level 12 or so. I’m always happy to tag along with fellow Agents; shit, I might even be persuaded to put on my headset.

The First Few Hours: Ratchet and Clank (ps4)

[Note:  I will be on vacation next week, but unlike last week this is a for-real vacation, in a warm and sunny climate with beach access and a full Kindle and nothing on my to-do list.]

After dozens and dozens of hours in The Division‘s freezing wasteland of post-apocalyptic NYC, and a few more hours in the sci-fi nonsense of Quantum Break, I can’t help but note how refreshing it is to be playing the new Ratchet and Clank, a game where there’s more color in one scene than there is in both of those other games combined.

I have a very soft spot for action platformers, is the thing.  Even in the absence of a Nintendo-filled childhood, I am an avid fan of the genre.  Give me your Crash Bandicoot, your Rayman (2), even your Voodoo Vince.  There is a lack of self-seriousness in these games that is so goddamned refreshing; yes, you might have to kill some monsters here and there, but it’s never upsetting in the way that shooting is.  In R&C, I can fire up a disco ball that gets all my enemies dancing, and then I can blast them with my Pixelator gun, turning them all into dozens of 8-bit sprites that brilliantly explode into hundreds of nuts and bolts upon a solid whack of Ratchet’s wrench.  It is endlessly satisfying.

I’m not sure I’ve ever played an R&C game before, to be honest.  I think there might’ve been a PS3 title that I rented for a few hours, but I might be confusing that with a Jak and Daxter game:  in any event, I am given to understand that this new R&C game is a complete re-building/re-booting of the original, much in the same way that Oddworld rebuilt Abe’s Oddysee into New & Tasty.  As such, I suppose I can see that there are certain elements of the game’s design that might feel a bit antiquated, but I can forgive those sorts of things very easily; beyond the game’s ridiculous good looks (I’ve heard R&C games feel like “playing a Pixar movie”, and even after only a few hours I totally get it), it’s just a joy to play.  And it does feel very much like “play”; it does not feel like “work”.  Even going back to earlier areas to find hidden stuff with newly-acquired gadgetry doesn’t feel like grinding; I’m just happy to be out and about.

 

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.

tidying up before a brief intermission

Just a note that I’m going to be pretty quiet this week, if I post here at all; the wife is going to be out of town, and so I’m going to be at home, working on music and hanging out with my kid and, yeah, probably just finishing up the various odds and ends in The Division.  If I post at all, it’s going to be elsewhere.*

Regarding The Division:  last week I wrote that I was struggling to stay motivated, and also that I will eventually need this game to end.  I kept assigning various goalposts to reach, just to give myself something to look forward to, and I’ve pretty much ticked off all the items on the to-do list:  I’ve seen where my office is supposed to be (as I expected, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the real thing); I hit level 30; I’m almost done with all the main story missions (I wiped out on the final boss in the final mission a few too many times last night, and it got too frustrating and the hour grew late, and so I turned it off).  All I plan to do now is to get all the wings in my main base up to 100%, which most likely means I just have to finish all the side missions and encounters (since I finished all of the main missions, save that last one).  I might screw around in the Dark Zone, too, but I don’t particularly care for PvP, which is not news to anyone.

I’m about halfway through Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country“.  It’s got an interesting structure; it’s less of a novel and more of a connected set of short stories that are arranged in chronological order and contain the same characters, though each story is from a different POV.  With a title like Lovecraft Country, you’d expect there to be a fair amount of dreadful, otherworldly weirdness – and there certainly is, though it pales in comparison to the real, true horror that is American Racism.  I get far more terrified by that stuff than I do the occult business, and I suppose that’s because (a) the racism stuff is true, and feels very real, and as such (b) it works much better than the Lovecraftian stuff that exists within it.  Again – I’m only halfway through, and so I’m still not quite sure where it’s going.  But I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

Finally:  even though we bought the BluRay, we couldn’t help ourselves; and so, because our families were in town this weekend for our son’s 3rd birthday party, we watched the digital download version of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and GODDAMN I will never get tired of that movie.  I don’t care that it’s basically A New Hope retold, because it’s done so goddamned well.  (And if you haven’t already seen this shot-for-shot comparison of Eps 4 and 7, well, you should fix that.)

EDIT:  I knew I was forgetting something:  I played that Final Fantasy XV demo this weekend, and… was it supposed to be totally underwhelming and janky and kinda shitty?  Because it was totally underwhelming and super-janky and definitely kinda shitty.

Also downloaded the Doom beta, and attempted to get into a match (which took about 10 minutes just to find a lobby), but then I remembered I don’t give a shit about multiplayer, and so I deleted it, and that’s that.


 

* I started a new, personal, private blog last week.  I’m not going out of my way to publicize it, though I suppose even mentioning it here is doing the exact opposite of not publicizing it, but, I mean, look: blogging is weird.  If you want to read it, contact me privately and I’ll email you an invitation; no hard feelings if you’re not interested, though.

 

the end of things

1. Whether we like it or not, all things must eventually come to an end.  We’ve all had that experience where we’re reading a book that we love so much that we never want to put it down, or a song that we can’t stop listening to… but eventually we do, and we have to, because we don’t want to ruin the thing that we love by wearing it out.

This is why it’s sometimes hard for me to stay engaged with a game once it’s outstayed its welcome, and especially when the game in question doesn’t actually have an official finish line.  I’ve put in probably close to 30 hours in The Division by this point; I’m level 23, I’ve only got a few more main missions to go before my Penn Station base is completely finished, but I’m starting to grow weary of the game’s repetitiveness.  The side missions and encounters and diversions are all identical except that tougher enemies take more bullets.  I’m no longer wandering the streets looking for collectibles, since I know that once I finish all the side missions they’ll automatically pop up on my map anyway.  I was hoping I’d stay engaged long enough to hit level 30 and do a little cursory exploration of the Dark Zone, even though I don’t care about PvP; now my goal is simply to make it to 41st Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, to see if my day job’s location is accurately portrayed.  (Spoiler alert – it most likely isn’t; with a few exceptions here and there, the NYC that’s portrayed in this game bears little resemblance to the actual NYC.  I’ve already glanced at the map and immediately noticed that there’s no exit/side-street for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, which bisects 4-5 blocks between 2nd and 3rd Avenues; then again, the game also features a 2nd Avenue subway, so perhaps this near-future Manhattan has done away with the tunnel altogether.)

This is not to say that I think The Division is a bad game; frankly, compared to Ubisoft’s other recent offerings, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to play, and in many ways it reminds me of what Watch Dogs could’ve been.  But I find myself turning my brain off the longer I go; I ignore cutscenes and narrative beats because they’re meaningless at this point.  I finish a mission and they show me recovered video of atrocities committed by the game’s “enemies”, but I find it hard to care considering that I just killed hundreds of people single-handedly.  All I’m doing is moving from waypoint to waypoint, mowing people down, hoping they drop something useful.  This was fun for the first dozen hours, but it’s growing monotonous; there’s no depth.  I continue to hide behind cover and pop off shots here and there, the same way I did 30 hours ago, but now I have a portable turret.  I spend too much time agonizing over the relative merits and statistical improvements of different kneepads.  Do I sell?  Do I deconstruct?  Is there any point in engaging with the Advanced Weapons Dealer in the Ops Base before hitting level 30?

I need more co-op time, I guess.  That made the game a lot more fun to play, because suddenly I could think tactically instead of simply rushing from cover to cover; my friend and I could consider locational positioning, and work on flanking and suppressing.  Granted, this too eventually gets repetitive, but at least we can still talk to each other instead of simply listening to the horrible, horrible stereotypical New Yorker voice acting of each safe house’s side-mission giver.

Then again, I’m not necessarily in any rush to get it out of my house; if my rental Q is to be believed, I still have more than a week before Quantum Break and DiRT Rally show up.  But I do need to put it away, soon, because otherwise I’ll just feel like I’m wasting time.

2.  Oculus Rift reviews are dropping all over the place, and they all seem to be saying the same thing:  “a key to a new era of entertainment“, “like nothing you’ve ever experienced before“, “It [has] changed how we think of games.”  I guess this is good?  That hopefully this isn’t a fad?  I have no stake in this tech one way or the other; I think I’ve said this already, but in case I haven’t, right now the only VR set that I’ve got any eyes on is the PSVR, because my gaming PC is more or less busted and I can’t afford a new one right now, much less a new one AND a Rift.  I’m curious, I suppose, but until I actually experience it I will remain skeptical.  (I also wear glasses, and I suspect that wearing glasses underneath a VR headset is problematic.)

I’m also a little skeptical of Sony’s ability to make their VR unit compelling for more than, say, the initial launch quarter.  Considering the horrendous support that the PSP and the Vita have gotten, it’s hard to have faith that PSVR will be worth the investment – especially since it sounds like any PS4 owner would have to upgrade to the PS4.5 in order to get the most out of the VR setup.  As someone who’s owned multiple iterations of iPhones, of course I’m going to upgrade to a more powerful PS4, irrespective of my decision to jump on the VR bandwagon, but not everyone can make the same jump, and the more I think about it, the more of a mess it becomes.

3.  Regarding the aforementioned “all things must end”: I’m currently reading Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and it is slow-going; it’s beautifully written but there’s tragedy on every page, and it’s the sort of thing where I have trouble sticking with it, if only because there’s only so much Chechen atrocity I can handle in one sitting.  (There is a section describing the plight of teenaged refugees being kidnapped and executed, and the remaining family members asking for portraits of their missing loved ones; and while it is poetic and beautiful to read, it’s also gut-wrenchingly devastating; I was reading this on the evening commute, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out in sobs.)

4.  I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” over the weekend.  I’m… I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I might make a separate post about it.  I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure it would make one hell of a play, but I’m also wondering if I’m starting to get a bit weary of QT’s tics and mannerisms.  (It also didn’t help that the film’s opening credits introduce the film as “The Eighth Film from Quentin Tarantino”.)

5.  I was going to wrap this post up by talking a bit about Corey Feldman’s IndieGoGo campaign, but I don’t feel like mocking him.  I mean, if you click on that link, most of the mocking is already done for you; you will cringe and recoil in horror involuntarily, whether or not I prepare you for what you see.  Frankly, I have no business making fun of him; I have an album of my own that I’m trying to finish, and while I’d love to raise some funds to be able to hire my friends to play on it and have it recorded and mixed by a guy who actually knows what he’s doing instead of me simply dicking around on my Macbook, I’d be lucky to get even half of the pitiful amount he’s raised.  If you’re making art, and you’re sincere in your desire to make something that you believe is important and beautiful, I don’t want to make fun of you.  I’d rather be angry at myself for not working as hard as I should, because I at least have some measure of control over it.

So instead, let me leave you with maybe the best remembrance (of many) of the late, great Garry Shandling.

“Make the spiritual search more important than the problem,” he told me once. Better than anyone I know, he understood that the search was the destination, that messiness was better than tidiness, that the complexity that makes us suffer also is the source of all beauty.

Weekend Recap: Dividing Together

1. I believe I’ve said this already about a million times, but on the off-chance that this is your first visit to this site (welcome!) it bears repeating if only so that this post makes sense:  I have been making an effort to not buy so many full-price games this year.  Barring some surprise announcements at E3, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that I feel compelled to own, and certainly nothing that I need to pre-order.

That being said, I did kinda sorta end up buying Hitman over the weekend, and I’m still not sure why.  I have never been very good at Hitman games; while I can certainly appreciate how free-form they are and how they encourage creativity and improvisation – there’s any number of ways you can take out your target and all that ultimately matters is that you escape – I always feel like I’m missing a crucial piece of the game’s vocabulary when I sit down and play.  I came to the series late, I guess, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t occur to me to try all sorts of things; I tend to be very basic, which means my schemes are generally somewhat rudimentary, and so when I pull off a hit successfully I don’t feel any particular satisfaction.  But then I’ll hear or read about or watch some spectacular methods of assassination, and I’ll once again realize that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I did enjoy Hitman Sniper on iOS, though, which is maybe why I’m predisposed to giving this new Hitman a shot.  Specifically, the iPhone Sniper game (which is itself an iteration of Hitman Sniper Challenge on PC, which was a sort-of demo that came with Absolution) was simply one level, which you played a zillion times, but each time you had different targets and challenges; with each successive playthrough, you’d begin to recognize guard patterns, and with each new challenge you’d learn certain tricks you could perform – as an example, you could lure a cluster of targets near a furnace, which you could then explode with a well-aimed shot; you could wait for a few minutes for a target to lean against a glass railing, which you could then shoot out and have the body fall off the cliffside below – and so even though the game fundamentally remained one of endless repetition, you’d begin to dive deep and develop a microscopic understanding of the level’s design.

So the idea that the new Hitman game would be episodic, and that each level would have these similar abstractions that you could explore, so that you’d never be replaying the same level the same way – well, I understand the appeal of that in a way that I definitely would not have, had I not spent a significant amount of time with those sniper challenges.

I finished the first tutorial level, but only once, and I didn’t do such a great job of it, and I’m anxious to give it several more tries before moving on to the next level; while the game has gotten somewhat mixed reviews, the people who like it really like it and even if I’m coming at the game from a completely different perspective, I think I can understand the appeal of this game and, specifically, the way it’s being delivered.

2.  I also finally got to do some online co-op in The Division, and that is definitely how this game should be played.  I continue to enjoy the single-player experience (if only because I’m content to play it mindlessly, instead of actually paying attention to how seriously fucked up it is), but playing with a friend is infinitely more fun and engaging.  My character is around 10 levels higher than my buddy’s, so we were able to pretty much wreck havoc and managed to unlock all three wings of his Ops Base relatively quickly, and so even though I’d already played these missions before, and even though none of the gear that dropped for me was useful, it was still fun to strategize and call out enemy locations while also experimenting with new abilities and talents (since only one of us needed to use Pulse, I started playing around with the medic abilities, which ended up coming in handy, actually).

Side note: I’ve been debating whether or not to buy my rental copy of The Division.  On the one hand, it’s only $45 to keep my copy; on the other hand, there’s the lazy-ass part of me that’s gotten used to the idea of not having discs, even though my PS4’s hard drive was filled up many months ago.  Speaking of which, my co-op buddy recently upgraded his PS4’s hard drive to 2TB, which I was also tempted to do… and then, literally the next day, Kotaku reported that there might be a PS4.5.  I’m already trying to figure out if I’m going to get the PSVR bundle… if there’s a VR bundle that comes out alongside the PS4.5?  Can I trade my PS4 in towards the new one?  Do I even need a 4K TV?

3.  I’d whined a little while ago that Spotify’s weekly discovery playlists felt a bit lackluster this year, at least compared to last year; this week’s playlist, though, is among the best I’ve ever received.  I keep a separate playlist of my faves from each week; usually I’ll keep one or two, but I think kept, like, 8 or 9 from this week’s list.  (Should you be interested, my 2016 list is here, and also should be in the sidebar to the right.)

I was hoping to write a bit more here – about some of the new Irish whiskey I bought over the weekend, and a little about books and such – but it’s suddenly gotten a little bananas over here at work, so I’m gonna put this up while I still have a second.

The Division: HOT TAKES

On the one hand, Gareth Martin for KillScreen has a rather remarkable and thought-provoking analysis of The Division, taking it to task specifically for its “perverse and and misanthropic politics”:

It’s always been a quirk of videogames that they succeed in depicting believable environments over believable people. The Division feels like the ultimate realization of this trait. The section of Manhattan island that the game takes as a setting is an artful work of digital craft. It takes a detailed one-to-one replica of the existing city as its starting point and covers it with layer after layer of enviromental detail. Every surface is creased, worn, scratched and marked, then plastered with trash, water, notes, graffiti, and greasy footprints. There is an obsession with garbage that tells the story of the breakdown of the systems of society so effectively. Bags of it lie in great drifts across roads, it fills stairways and alleys, piling up in cavernous sewers. It is an image that speaks so strongly to the supposed knife-edge the game wishes to depict society as resting on. It defines a society of endless consumption brought to its knees. When combined with the Christmas imagery that comes with the games’ “Black Friday” timescale—wrapped trees lined up on the streets, fairy lights twinkling above burnt out cars—it starts to feel like a visual interrogation of late Capitalism. And when the precisely simulated snow drifts in, and you are stalking down an empty city street surrounded by refuse, The Division seems to make sense, it seems to say something. But before long, out of the swirling flakes will come a jerky citizen, who will congratulate you for your efforts, and then ask you for a soda. And all at once, that something is lost.

The Division has a serious representation problem. Despite the complexity of its world, and its bleak sophistication, it fails miserably to represent the culture within it. Its crude depiction of a society divided entirely into “us and them” feels like the ugliest of conceits. “Citizens” are classified as those friendly-looking, passive idiots that wander up and down streets looking for a hand-out. “Enemies” include anyone who might take their own survival into their own hands. Within the first five minutes of the game you’ll gun down some guys rooting around in the bins, presumably for “looting” or carrying a firearm. Later you’ll kill some more who are occupying an electronics store and then proceed to loot the place yourself, an act made legal by the badge on your shoulder. Even the game’s “echoes,” 3D visualizations of previous events, seem designed to criminalize the populace, usually annotating them with their name and the crimes they have committed. This totalitarian atmosphere pervades everything—even down to a mission where you harvest a refugee camp for samples of virus variation, treating victims like petri dishes. Developer Ubisoft Massive runs merrily through any complexity and shades of grey in these acts, in what seems like a vain attempt to mask the fact that you are shooting citizens because they are “looters,” constantly prioritizing property and assets over human life.

* * *

This is the paranoid fantasy of the right-wing brought into disturbing actualization by The Division. Look at the three gangs that form the main antagonists of the game: The “Rikers” are the prisoners of Rikers island prison that lies off the coast of The Bronx. They are the most obvious member of what The Division presents as societies’ dangerous underclass—known criminals. The “Cleaners” are former sanitation workers, who have decided that the solution to the virus is to burn it out of the city. A gang of blue-collar garbage men and janitors equipped with flamethrowers, they represent the lowest rung of the working class. The third gang are the “Rioters,” a majority black, generic street gang, decked in hoodies and caps that spend their time looting electronics stores and dead bodies. Perhaps the laziest and most repugnant of all the game’s representations, the Rioters might have been clipped from the one-sided and inaccuratemedia coverage of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Their collective name even seeks to mark anybody who resists the dominant regime for execution. Together, these gangs present a trinity of soft political targets, those that can be killed with little social guilt or questioning. The Division mercilessly uses these skewed representations to justify its political violence.

It’s a perverse idea of society, one where the government and its agents are the only thing standing between the average man and a host of violent sociopaths that surround him; from the “hoods” hanging on his street corner to the janitor at his office. They want what he has, the man thinks, because it is what they lack. They want to take what he has earned—to destroy what he has built. It comes from a deep seated place of ignorance and selfishness, one that doesn’t seek to understand the world but to divide it up into property and power. This ideology is nothing short of poisonous and yet The Division uses it as the fuel for its world. It borrows, word-for-word, the rhetoric of the New Orleans police department command who after Hurricane Katrina gave the order to “take the city back” and “shoot looters.” It presents those disenfranchised by society as its greatest enemies. It follows neo-liberal dogma so blindly that in one bizarre mission it actually sends the player to turn the adverts of Times Square back on, as if those airbrushed faces and glimmering products were the true heart of New York City, shining down like angels on the bodies of the dead among the trash.

And on the other hand, I completely agree with these series of tweets from Josiah Renaudin:

Neither of these viewpoints are wrong.  I was taken aback by Gareth Martin’s political analysis if only because, like Josiah, I simply haven’t felt obligated to pay much attention to why I’m doing anything in The Division; I’ve been playing for over 12 hours now and I still don’t 100% know who I am, or why I’m here, or what I’m doing.  That hasn’t stopped me from enjoying myself, even if I do wish I felt a stronger connection to the game; it wouldn’t stop me from wanting to continue, but as it is I have absolutely zero emotional involvement with what it is I’m doing.  And that’s fine as far as my gaming habits are concerned, most of the time.

But yeah, after a dozen hours of this shooty shooty bang bang business, I do start to question the ethics of why my digital avatar is behaving in this way.  It makes no sense to be ordered (by the game’s enemy-location radar) to shoot looters dead in the street, and then walk up to them and literally loot their corpse – or, more often than not, to walk away disappointed that they didn’t drop anything good enough to pick up.  I especially don’t know why I’m shooting the guys with flamethrowers, who presumably are setting virus-ridden things on fire, and so aren’t necessarily the enemy, per se.

The premise of The Division – a deadly virus contaminates New York City and you, as a member of The Division, are tasked with restoring law and order to a lawless wasteland of a city – is certainly rich enough that it ought to be able to carry some narrative momentum in and of itself, but that’s not what the game is really about; your real impetus to carry forward (and a very strong impetus it is, believe me) is the loot chase.  Very few games manage to make the chase compelling enough without being overwhelming and/or annoying; one might even make the argument that a game like Borderlands goes too far on the loot side of things.  The Division’s loot chase is very finely balanced and well-tuned; I don’t often get what I need but when I do, I’m very, very happy.

But in the same way that eating potato chips out of the garbage in order to regain health felt a little weird in Bioshock, or that in order to catch a serial killer in Condemned you end up killing more people than the serial killer you’re chasing, and often in gruesome and horrifying ways, it’s starting to become weird that I, as a member of The Division, am advancing the cause of liberty and freedom by shooting stragglers to death, and mostly in the head in order to get an XP bonus.

EDIT, POSTSCRIPT:  As I was writing all this down, another insightful essay popped up by Robert Rath on ZAM.

Weekend Recap: Fare Thee Well

1. I am a few years late to finally seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, I know, but these things happen sometimes.  I’m a much bigger Coen Bros. fan than my wife, who is actually somewhat turned off by their films; we’ve discussed this at length and at the end of the day it simply is what it is.  As for the film itself, well, obviously the music is fantastic and the acting is wonderful and the cinematography is impeccable… but the movie also fell a little flat for me; I couldn’t figure out what the movie’s purpose seemed to be.  The AV Club used to have this feature called Justify Your Existence where they asked musicians to explain why anybody should listen to their record; I would ask the Coen Brothers the same question with regard to this one.  Did they want to make a road movie that doesn’t really go anywhere, and indeed ends up ending the same way it starts?  Unlike other films of theirs, I simply couldn’t figure out what it was I was supposed to feel, beyond that Oscar Isaac’s character does in fact deserve to get the shit kicked out of him at the beginning/end.  Of course, as with most Coen films, I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since we watched it, and I’ve also been unable to get this song out of my head.  The way they sing the word “Fare” over that suspended chord in the chorus fucking kills me.

2.  This was a busy weekend, as it turned out; a good weekend – multiple trips to parks, a fun visit to the local zoo with some dear friends, and the knowledge that there would be no transit strike after all – tempered by our first homeowner’s nightmare, a small leak in the basement that necessitated a plumber’s visit.  This meant that I ended up staying home yesterday anyway, and so I was able to finally dive into The Division.

Actually, before I talk about that, I also just want to say that since I was home alone yesterday, I decided to bring my PS4 up from the basement and into the living room, where I could hook it up to our surround sound speakers.  And this should go without saying, but playing a game in surround sound is a completely different experience.  I can’t believe I’ve been so careless about my gaming audio after all these years.  I kinda want to play Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption again through those speakers, which already had some of the best sound design I can recall in recent years; I don’t necessarily need a 3DTV, but I do need surround sound and I need it right away.  (I’m honestly tempted to buy a second system for the basement, that’s how eye-opening it was.)

Anyway, so with regards to The Division:  I’m currently just over level 9, I think; I’ve unlocked all three wings of my main base of operations, and I’ve got some pretty good gear, and even playing solo I’ve been able to take down pretty much every mission I’ve come across without dying.

Every preview/review that’s come out so far has referred to The Division as Ubisoft’s answer to Bungie’s Destiny – an online-only, co-op friendly, shooter/RPG hybrid.  Which is absolutely fair, and I suppose this comparison will be mostly borne out in the level-cap endgame.  I don’t know that I’m going to stick around for that endgame, though, because I’m not terribly big on PvP (especially since The Division’s endgame is currently very much a work in progress).  I didn’t stick around for Destiny, either.

Comparisons to Destiny aside, I continue to feel that The Division reminds me more of Mass Effect, especially ME3.  The meat of the gameplay – the cover-based shooting – is actually quite solid and engaging, and even if the firefights still feel very same-y after a while, they’re also still satisfying (at least at this early stage).  I’m also far more inclined to simply wander around NYC, looking for hidden collectibles and materials and treasure chests and such; the city doesn’t necessarily feel like New York to me, but in and of itself it’s a very cool place to explore, and I’ve been content to simply turn my waypoints off and poke my way through alleys and open doors (which is where a lot of those collectibles end up being hidden).

I’m enjoying it, is what I’m trying to say, and I suspect I’ll enjoy it even more once I try it in co-op.  I don’t know if I’ll have the energy to grind out the endgame stuff, which is also why I haven’t bought my rental copy just yet, but for the time being I’m enjoying the game a lot more than I expected to.  The beta wasn’t a fluke.

3. To that last point – I’m not pre-ordering games this year.  I believe this was one of my new year’s resolutions, and here we are in March and I’ve actually stuck to it without realizing it.

I have a Gamefly account and last year I barely used it; all the games I’d rented were games that I was only merely curious about, and nearly everything I rented I ended up sending back within a few days, if not the same day.  This year, though, I’m adamant about not ripping myself off; I have the rental account, now I’m going to use it.  As an example, I rented Far Cry Primal, and after around 12 hours I think I’m starting to get a bit fatigued with it.  (That being said, it bears mentioning once again that experiencing that game with surround sound is something I wish I’d tried earlier; the sound design is far better than I’d initially given it credit for, and the experience of stalking prey through the forest is completely different when you can hear the forest around you.)

When I look at this year’s slate of upcoming releases, I’m hardpressed to think of anything that I absolutely have to own, no questions asked.  In fact, there’s only two games that I can think of that I would immediately pre-order purely out of reflex, and neither of them officially exist (yet) – Portal 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2.  I don’t know if this is simply me being a more discerning consumer, or if I’m just not looking forward to 2016’s slate, or what, but it is what it is.

discouragement

[CAUTION:  PERSONAL STUFF.  I don’t keep a personal blog anymore; if I did, I’d write this stuff there, as opposed to here.  (I’ve also forgotten my Livejournal password.)  I am feeling inclined to write anyway, so, deal with it.]

I am unwell today.  I think I got gluten’d from my office cafeteria breakfast, and so the morning has been… unpleasant.

Sometimes I hear stories about people who take medication for depression or anxiety, and they start feeling better and decide to stop taking their meds because they think they don’t need them anymore, and then everything falls apart; I am not one of those people.  I’m on anxiety medication and it’s improved my quality of life a thousand times over and I do not plan to stop taking it unless there’s a really good reason not to.  Similarly, it’s days like today where I realize that no matter how much progress I’ve made in terms of my GI illnesses – and I’ve made a lot of progress – there is absolutely no wiggle room for mistakes; if I eat something I’m not supposed to, I pay for it.

(This is also a “fuck you” to people who go out of their way to make fun of people who are gluten-free.  Let me assure you, this is not a choice.)

I am also feeling a bit pessimistic about a timely resolution to the impending NJ Transit strike, despite one of the lead quotes from this article (which directly flies in the face of last night’s developments).  My office also won’t let me work from home, so I’ll be forced to take vacation time, even though my inability to get into work isn’t my fault.

My rental copy of The Division finally arrived yesterday, and so I’d been hoping to offer up some early impressions today; alas, the game required a 3GB patch and for whatever reason my PS4 was refusing to download it in a timely fashion.  That said, if the above-referenced transit strike ends up happening and I’m stuck at home, well… I’ll be able to do a much more thorough write-up, at the very least.

What else, what else, what else.  I don’t know.  I’m in a weird headspace today; feeling discouraged and pessimistic, in addition to everything else.  I wish I could go into greater detail here, but this isn’t the best place for it.

 

disconnection

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

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

That said, I’m feeling guilty about whining.

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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