How To Fall In Love With A Song

Hey everybody.  I’m back at work for the first time in a week and I need a break from thinking about our treasonous president, so come with me as I recap some non-political stuff.

I just returned from my first trip to the West Cost; 3-4 days near Seattle, with some near and dear ex-Brooklyn friends.  Sincerest apologies for not telling everyone else that I know in the Seattle area that I was in town – this was a very quick visit (and also a birthday gift for my wife) and we just didn’t have the time to schedule anything beyond what we’d planned.  (And judging from Facebook, I apparently know a lot more people out there than I thought!)  All that being said, I adored Seattle, and I want to go there again.  As soon as my body adjusts to the time change, that is.

I want to start a new mini-feature here.  I’ve gone on and on before about how Spotify’s weekly Discovery playlist sometimes knows me a little bit too well, and so I’ve decided to catalog those specific songs that I immediately fall in love with and listen to a thousand times in a row.  (I’ve also started compiling a separate playlist with those sorts of songs, but one thing at a time.)  In this instance, the song in question is “Happy Unhappy” by The Beths.  I am obsessed with this song and I need to break down why.

I’m not particularly fond of this lyric video, so I’d rather just have you close your eyes and put on some very good headphones and crank that shit up and then steer you to the following perfect moments:

1st:  the guitar production is pristine.  Also, the guitar arrangements are glorious.

2nd: in the chorus, the way the bass hangs on the 1 instead of the 4 at approximately 0:53 – it adds a wonderful propulsion and tension.

3rd: they’re from New Zealand, and so any word with a long “o” has a particularly wonderful shape to it – “own”, “stone”, “tone”, etc.

4th:  I’m not necessarily one for lyrics, but I love these lyrics.  Especially the ambiguity of the line “so I could forget you / like I really want to”.  Her delivery of the entire song is excellent.

5th:  Listen to the harmonies and the interlocking guitar lines after the solo (at approx 2:31).  I LOVE THAT KIND OF SHIT.

Finally:  There’s this little weird snare hit right at the end (2:58) – most likely a happy accident that they decided to keep – and I adore it.

I don’t know if I’m doing to do a Top 10 Games list this year, but if I were, I’d like to note that The Crew 2 is my current front-runner for 2018’s Most Pleasant Surprise; it’s essentially Forza Horizon with a lot of quintessential Ubisoft touches, but if you turn off the insipid dialogue and put on your own tunes, and just select events from the menu rather than driving over mostly barren landscape, it’s very nice.  I’m playing it on the X, and two things are also immediately apparent:  (1) this game is gorgeous, and (2) it has some of the most remarkably fast loading times I’ve ever seen, especially in an open-world game.

By the way, the addition of Groups on the X is WONDERFUL.  It’s basically the same thing as the Folders option on the PS4, albeit slightly less elegant, but it makes sorting out my backlog a hell of a lot easier.  (I should add that I have an 8TB external hard drive on my X, which is why being able to sort out 200+ games into custom groups is very, very necessary.)

Oh, and before I left for Seattle I started getting back into Ni No Kuni 2 on the PS4; I’m finally at the point where I’ve started doing some of the city-building stuff, and it’s quite pleasant.  I think Henry is a little too young for it, but it’s also pretty accessible; I might try to get him involved as I continue along.

Also: I’ve been playing the shit out of Switch lately.  Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is super-fun, and that one has gotten Henry’s attention, especially as the controls are pretty simple.  This actually is much better experienced in hand-held mode, as opposed to docked; some of the puzzles require touching objects, and using your finger is far more intuitive than the weird motion-control reticule thing on a TV.

And finally, I apparently beat my 2018 Goodreads challenge a short while ago.  I did kinda purposefully set the number low (to keep myself from feeling unnecessary pressure), and the current number includes books that I haven’t yet finished.  So I haven’t officially crossed the 35-book threshold, though I should be there shortly.

OK, that’s the news.  Good morning!  Good afternoon!  Good night!

Revisiting Watch Dogs 2

The wife and I have been talking about buying a record player for a while now, and I’m pretty close to pulling the trigger – especially since my mother-in-law just gave us a whole bunch of her old albums.  But I haven’t yet bought one, and there’s a couple reasons for that.

One:  we don’t listen to music very often in the house.  Now, part of me feels like I’ve failed as a parent because I, as a musician, haven’t exposed my son to enough music.  But the truth is that my wife and I like somewhat different things, and while the Venn diagram of our respective tastes does have some overlap, my son’s interests lie completely off the map.  Yes, he’ll listen to the Beatles in the car, but he’ll also want to listen to the “Sing!” cover version of “Shake It Off” a thousand times in a row.  And when we’re home and hanging out, he’s very insistent that we listen to no music at all, because it affects his ability to stack dominos.


The other reason is that… well… it’s a very slippery slope for me as far as record-buying goes.  Because if I buy one, I’ll buy a hundred without even blinking.  I’ve even been going through my existing collection wondering what might sound better on vinyl.  I mean, yes of course I want to get the new Sgt. Pepper remaster on vinyl, and the OK Computer remaster, and then I’m sure the new Fleet Foxes album sounds amazing, and then the next thing you know I’m $10,000 in debt and my floors are sinking because my vinyl collection is too physically heavy.

So I’ve gotta be careful, is what I’m trying to say.

*   *   *

I think I’d mentioned not too long ago that I’d been diving into some of my gaming backlog, and I realized that I’d made two notable omissions.  One is a replay of Wolfenstein: The New Order, because killing Nazis is particularly life-affirming in this current political climate, and the other is a revisit of Watch Dogs 2.

I don’t think I wrote about Watch Dogs 2 when I first started playing it last year; and if I did, I can’t seem to find it.  I can’t recall why I stopped playing it, either, beyond probably just being overwhelmed by my backlog in general.  (It’s entirely possible that I bought it in the middle of a gigantic Xbox sale, and so I was playing a dozen different things at once, and one of them ultimately won out.)

In any event, it’s a weird game in all the ways that Ubisoft open-world games are weird, but it’s also strangely compelling in all the ways that the first Watch Dogs wasn’t.  This doesn’t necessarily forgive it for its narrative sins, nor does it absolve it for its bizarre sense of morality, nor does it get a pass for making me feel like a very, very old man.  But I’m continuing to play it, which means there’s something there that’s keeping me invested.

WD2 is ridiculous and wildly incongruous in terms of its tone, but I think it’s at least supposed to feel that way.  It’s silly and goofy and while it still has moments where it’s attempting to be earnest – i.e., that you’re part of a rag-tag group of hackers with a Robin Hood ethos – you at least don’t feel weird when your quiet attempts at hacking go awry and you end up having to shoot everyone in the face with machine guns that you build with a 3D printer in your hacker base.  And even though you’re hacking for the greater good, you’re just supposed to ignore the fact that you not only steal cars all the time, but you steal all the expensive stuff that’s left in the cars, and you’re also constantly stealing people’s money out of their digital accounts – you can’t help yourself, because the game conveniently highlights them in blue and makes it very obvious that they’re ripe for the picking.

The game’s biggest sin, of course, is that it makes me feel like a very old man who wants to yell at kids to get off his lawn.  I don’t know if this is because Ubisoft has accurately portrayed youth/hacker culture, or if a similar group of old men think they accurately portrayed youth/hacker culture, but the point remains the same – Marcus and the rest of the DedSec crew are annoying and ridiculous and I kinda want to punch them all in the face.  The game’s got a pseudo-version of Instagram in it and if you take selfies in certain spots you get rewarded with more selfie gestures (which sounds ridiculous when you type it out like this), and your friends make the DUMBEST FUCKING COMMENTS underneath each photo, and the whole thing is just so absurd.

And yet I must confess that in spite of this game’s desperate desire to be cool and hip and relevant to whatever millennial audience they’re hoping to attract, and thus it has alienated me utterly and completely, I apparently also don’t seem to care all that much because I’ve been playing it for most of the last two weeks; and so while I’ve stopped paying attention to the narrative, I have at least continued to remain interested in the tasks I’m asked to perform.  They are repetitive, as all these things tend to be, but at least they’re different.  As in the first game, it can be immensely satisfying to come across a group of bad guys and find a way to take them all out without even setting foot in their space.

Frankly, it can be just as satisfying to just cruise around and see what’s going on – the digital San Francisco in this game is quite fascinating to explore.  Indeed, one of the things I most appreciate is that unlike other Ubisoft open-world games I could name, the map isn’t that cluttered with ridiculous things, and the hidden things that you do come across are actually quite useful.  Those Instagram selfies I mentioned earlier?  They help you level up and earn followers – followers are basically XP, and the more XP you get the more Research Points you can earn, and those Research Points help you unlock perks and powerups and such.  And so if I need a break from the story (such as it is), I’ll just go hunting for Research Points.

I’m a little surprised that Ubisoft didn’t mention the Watch Dogs IP during their E3 press conference – or maybe they did, but nobody remembered – and perhaps it’s just as well, given that it’s hard to know what this game is meant to accomplish beyond being a more tech-savvy and less blatantly misogynistic Grand Theft Auto clone.  That being said, WD2 is certainly engaging enough to check out – and given that it’s been on a sale a lot lately, you may want to give it a look.


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.

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.

The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Syndicate has its shit together in all the ways that Unity did not.

It’s autumn in 2015 which means that, for the seventh year in a row, I’m attempting to play a new Assassin’s Creed game.  Part of the annual ritual is deciding, with my friend Greg, what that game’s nickname should be.  Numbered sequels kinda take care of themselves, but so far we’ve come up with:

  1. Ass1
  2. Ass2
  3. AssBro
  4. AssRev
  5. Ass3
  6. AssFlag (or, alternately, BlackAss)
  7. AssUnit

Which brings us to this year’s installment, Syndicate, of which I had no choice but to bestow the sobriquet AssCat.  (As a long-time fan of the UCB, I felt it was only appropriate.)

Anyway, so:  I’m currently around 2-3 hours into AssCat; I’ve finished the tutorial and the Whitechapel sections, and both Jacob and Evie are at level 4.  Don’t let the even-level number misguide you, though; when given the opportunity, I’m spending every minute possible playing as Evie, because Jacob is a douche.  But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Here are some bullet-pointed immediate first impressions to note before I get into some details:

  • First and foremost – AssCat has its shit together in all the ways that AssUnit did not.  Even if I’m only 3 hours in, the game feels much more solid and conceptually unified, and exudes a self-confidence not seen since AssFlag.
  • The music is terrific – all sorts of very cool dissonant string quartet stuff going on, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in a videogame before.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about the new line-launcher as being AssCat’s great new innovation (even if it’s shamelessly cribbed from the Batman Arkham games), but for my money the best new thing about this year’s edition is the “Free Run Down” option, which makes getting down from the rooftops 1000x less annoying.
  • The map isn’t upsetting in the way that Unity’s was; there’s side-stuff, sure, but you’re not beaten over the head with it.  (And to be fair, the map had been getting out of control for a while now.  Even AssBro, my personal high point in the franchise, had a map that caused serious OCD panic.)

It is strange to be playing this game after having both Metal Gear Solid V and the Uncharted remasters still fresh in my hands.

As reluctant as I am to heap praise upon anything made by Kojima, I’ll give credit where credit is due – the stealth mechanics in MGS V are, without question, the best I’ve ever seen; and they’re the best because the controls are unambiguous and very responsive, and most importantly – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Kojima game – they make sense.  Enemies in MGS V react believably in response to your actions, and if they act absurdly in the face of absurdity, well, that’s an appropriate reaction.  Stealth in AC games, on the other hand, is a bit of a dicey proposition; the controls in AC games have always had a certain amount of jank, and so there is inevitably some grey area between what you intend to do and what your character actually does (like accidentally jumping off a rooftop instead of unsheathing your blade).  Furthermore, my 30+ hours in MGS V* have trained me to play non-lethally except where necessary – which I know doesn’t make any intuitive sense given that the word “Assassin” is part of the game’s title.

And as for the aforementioned Uncharted comparison: well, among other things, the opening of AssCat has you running through and on top of a train that eventually falls off a cliff, and train combat is a thing that happens quite a lot.  Which might sound familiar.

But let’s get to the actual game itself, shall we?

First thing’s first – I’m obviously still very early in the game and while I’m out of the tutorial and into the open world, I’m not 100% sure that I have the full gist of the game’s intentions.  That being said, if the opening Whitechapel area is any indication of how you progress in the game, then I’m pleased to report that it kinda reminds me of the very first AC game, of all things.  London is divvied up into certain sections, each with a recommended level.  You have 4 main tasks to perform in a section before you can take down the section’s boss, and I presume that you have to get rid of all the bosses before you get to the finale.  There are hidden chests and helix glitches and other collectibles to deal with, of course, but there’s a lot less overall clutter and tedium in your path.  I must confess that I like this streamlined approach.  The reason why it grew tedious for me in the first game was that none of these things ever changed, and so eventually I stopped playing “in character” and would start to bull-rush my way through each section, which would make everything that much more difficult.  Here, though, there are clear tasks to perform, and while the nature of each task might change from section to section, the game’s path of progression feels purposeful in a way that AssUnit lacked.

(Comparing this game to AssFlag is pointless; Flag is so profoundly and fundamentally different from everything that preceded it that it might as well belong to a completely different franchise.)

On a technical level, the game is gorgeous.  Again, I haven’t seen that much of London just yet, but what I have seen really quite spectacular; the texture detail on each building is quite stunning, and the frame rate is pleasantly smooth.  The streets are perhaps not as ridiculously crowded as in previous installments, but that’s fine.  (More on NPC behavior in a sec.)  This being said, London – as with each of these games’ open-world cities before it – lacks that certain thing that Rockstar does so well; it feels less like a living, breathing city and more like a really well-made 3-block radius that’s been copied and pasted all over the place.

I should also note that the NPC AI is so weird that I don’t even know how to react to it.  One of the things that is brought to your attention very quickly is that, in this particular era of London, factories were often populated by child laborers; one of the things that you’ll have to do as part of your section-clearing tasks is to free these children.  And as you might expect, there are guards patrolling each section of the factory.  And since you’re an assassin, you’re going to murder these guards.  In front of the children.  Who don’t react.  Nobody reacts, really.  In the opening tutorial, you run through a factory, sabotaging equipment and killing dudes in full view of everyone, and nobody bats an eye.  I guess people being stabbed to death in the street was just a thing that happened, and in the same way that modern New Yorkers deal with rats eating pizza in the subway, you just learn to deal with it.

Some other random, unconnected thoughts:

I have no idea what’s happening in the larger meta-story anymore.  Unlike some people, I liked the intersection of the modern-day and the digital past, and I had paid a lot of attention to it right up until AssRev, which I couldn’t finish; and Ass3 was a mess; and Black Flag had already moved on to something else; and I haven’t played Rogue; and I gave Unity far more time than it deserved, but still didn’t come close to finishing it.  Whatever the original intention was in terms of the present-day battle between the Assassins and the Templars has totally passed me by, and I’ve decided that I no longer care.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I wish these games could feel special again.  They should feel special; they’re setting games in places and eras that nobody else does, and at the game’s peak (which I put at AssBro), it was uniquely absorbing.  But the only way that’s going to happen is if Ubisoft stops annualizing it, which will probably never happen.  That being said, I don’t want to imply that AssCat is in any way phoned in; it’s just that the novelty has long worn off.

I love playing as Evie Frye; she’s a really cool character (where her brother is kind of a douche-bro), and I prefer the sneak/stealth approach rather than the brute-force tactic.  But as I mentioned above, it seems damn-near impossible to be non-lethal in missions, which means it’s more necessary to play as Jacob.  Again – I know this game is called Assassin’s Creed – you’re supposed to be killing people.  But it’s odd that they’ve given each character different strengths.  Jacob is a combat brute, Evie is sneaky.  (Still quite deadly, of course, but she also takes far more damage in combat.)  Everything you do in the game – from missions to side-stuff to just finding collectibles – earns XP, which unlocks skill points, which flow into a central pool; but if you unlock, say, lockpicking for Evie, you also have to unlock it for Jacob.  Switching between characters is easy in-game, but switching between their skillsets requires far more button presses than necessary, which is annoying.  This also means that leveling up can feel redundant, as well as unnecessarily difficult in terms of choice.  I want to make each character strong, but I’d rather make their dominant aspects stronger rather than having to catch up on their weak sides – like putting more points into health and stamina for Evie and putting more points into sneaking for Jacob.

I’m not gonna lie – I miss Prince of Persia.  But as long as Ubi is dedicated to churning out a new AC every year, a new PoP would be redundant (in terms of the action/platformer genre).  It should be noted, however, that its main competition – Lara Croft and Uncharted – are not annualized, and their respective releases feel special in all the ways that AC doesn’t.  I used to get really excited about AC games, and now I play them only out of obligation.  I wasn’t even necessarily planning on playing this one, and I’m not sure what it says about me that I was convinced because the general review consensus was that it doesn’t suck the way that Unity did.  I have a soft spot / blind spot where AC is concerned; that’s on me, and I hate feeling like a sucker.

This is damn near 2000 words already and I’m still only at the very beginning of the game.  I guess that means it’s worth talking about?

* I should probably just admit right now that I haven’t touched MGS V since I handed in that ~4000 word essay a month or so ago.  I still feel like I got my money’s worth, for whatever that’s worth.

Three Things for Friday

Prologue to today’s three things:  I’ve had an incredibly stressful week, day job-wise, and yesterday was perhaps the roughest of all.  I was in no mood to make music; I kinda just wanted to play with my kid, have a drink after he went to bed, and then sleep.  On the bright side:  I did end up making music, AND I had a drink, AND I played some games and read.  But I was not in the best of ways, I guess you could say.

GAMES:  As noted above, I was in a rough mood.  I did happen to come across Patrick Klepek’s video/article about Grow Home during one of the quieter moments during yesterday’s storm, though, and that did seem to be the sort of thing that might alleviate some stress.  For those of you that don’t know – Grow Home is an experimental game that Ubisoft just announced only two weeks ago, a prototype thing that they were working on based on procedural animation techniques (and which we’ll probably see an adaptation of in the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed games, I’d bet), and in it you play as a charming little robot named B.U.D. who climbs a gigantic plant.  I was certainly charmed by it, though for some reason the game wasn’t working with my 360 controller, and so I had to use mouse/keys, which was a bit more difficult and not particularly intuitive.  Nevertheless, it was a welcome breath of fresh air; pure platforming, exploration, minor environmental puzzle solving, charming art style and sound design.  Hard to pass up for $7.

After a music session (which I’ll get to in a second), I then ended up finishing Far Cry 4; well, I saw the credits roll, at least, though I still have the very last fortress to conquer and a Golden Path epilogue to watch.  (And all the other side stuff to do, of course, none of which I will be doing.)  Kinda screwed up the ending, though.  I’ll try to talk about it in as non-spoilery a way as possible:  after the climactic battle, I was given the opportunity to confront the big baddie, and then, after a speech, I was given a choice to either do something or wait a bit longer, and because I was tired and a little impatient and perhaps somewhat distrustful, I did that thing instead of waiting, and now I kinda wish I’d waited.  I’m certainly not going to go through all 30 hours of that game again just to get the preferred outcome (I’m sure I could look it up on YouTube) and I don’t necessarily regret my course of action (as I simply didn’t care enough about the plot or the characters), but I do kinda wish I’d been a little more open to the idea of seeing what might happen.

What can I say about FC4 that I haven’t said over the last 2 weeks?  It is the same exact game as Far Cry 3 except more bland and far less risky, filled with superfluous side content that doesn’t really mean anything, some occasional, unnecessary nudity that somehow feels more obligatory than gratuitous, and a whole lot of shooting people and animals until they die.  Now that I’m more or less done with it, I’m sure that the only time I’ll ever think about it going forward will be when Far Cry 5 inevitably arrives.

MUSIC:  Again, as noted above, I was in a rough mood.  Really didn’t want to work on music; all I wanted to do was space out and relax and not be required to think.  But eventually I did relax, and realized that I owed it to myself to stick with this RPM Challenge thing and do it anyway, especially since I’d be missing tonight and tomorrow.  To that end, I decided that instead of working from scratch, I’d try to reinterpret one of my older songs that had never been given a proper recording.  This particular song is a bit tricky, given that it goes from 7/4 to 4/4 a few times; it’s also tricky in that I’d always played it on guitar, but decided this time to try it out on piano.  I only laid down one verse and chorus; I never figured out a bridge for it in the past, and in any event I’m not sure if it will make the final cut.  At the very least I’m glad to have learned how to switch time signatures in Logic.

BOOKS:  I remain flummoxed by the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy; that’s pretty much all I can say at this point.

Backlogs and futurelogs

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

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

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

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

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

further thoughts on Assassin’s Creed

I get why people hate on Assassin’s Creed Unity, I do.  I listened to the last two Bombin’ the A.M. with Scoops and the Wolf episodes yesterday and both Messrs. Klepek and Navarro sounded fully exasperated with it, and given that I hold those two gentlemen’s opinions in rather high esteem, it even made me re-evaluate my own experience with it.

I mean, I spent a good 4 hours with Unity last night without even meaning to; I immediately found myself in a good rhythm and cranked through Sequence 7 while also fully upgrading the Cafe Theatre, solving a few murder mysteries (which are a neat idea, if a bit half-baked) and Nostradamus Enigmas (which I can only do with the help of a walkthrough, because I don’t give a shit), upgrading some armor and weaponry, finally figuring out how the different currencies are earned, etc.  The hours flew by, and I only turned it off because I looked at the clock and realized holy shit, I have to wake up in a few hours.

Even though I’m having a good time with it, I can (and will) acknowledge that Unity is deeply, deeply flawed.  Again – technical glitches aside (though that’s not to say they’re excused), it’s ultimately the same exact game we’ve all been playing for the last 7 years, with a ridiculous narrative thread that’s been at the breaking point for at least the last 4.

More to the point:  Ubisoft seems awfully insecure about its ability to keep you entertained.   It’s not just that the map is bursting with stuff to do, it’s that it continually interrupts what you’re doing with other stuff that has nothing to do with what you’re doing.  If you have one (1) unused skill point, you will be reminded every 5 minutes to spend it (even if there are no skills that can be earned with 1 point); if you are tailing someone, random crowd events (thieves, bullies, etc.) will still occur right next to you which are damn near impossible to avoid.  It steadfastly refuses to let you enjoy it on your own terms, which flies against the whole point of an “open world”.  (Indeed, you can apply this paragraph to Watch Dogs and Far Cry and the same issues will still apply.)

This all stems back from the insane amount of overcompensating Ubisoft felt obligated to perform in the wake of the original Assassin’s Creed, which had only 3 or 4 different things to do.  It’s true that those 3-4 tasks grew repetitive, but they also made contextual sense; you eavesdropped, you tailed, you observed, and thus you were properly set up for your ultimate task.  The world was technically a sandbox, but that’s not what the actual game was designed for; they could just as easily have constructed individual levels for each assassination and it would’ve worked just as well.  But because the game became a massive hit, and the larger audience was misled by what the sandbox structure was meant to convey, they built AC2 (and every ensuing title) with the express purpose of making sure that every goddamned square inch of virtual real estate had something for you to do.

And there are moments when this works.  Of all the AC games, Brotherhood remains my personal favorite because the side missions were legitimately interesting (especially those secret platforming puzzles and those weird digital glyph puzzles), the economy was legitimately fun to engage with, the villa’s upgrades were worthwhile (and it was fun to watch it get built up), the idea of building up your own gang of followers was interesting and really well executed, and so on and so forth.

But it’s also my favorite because it surpassed all my expectations for it.  I had absolutely no faith that a sequel to AC2 – especially one that was arriving one year later – would be worth playing, and it ended up improving all the things that were great about AC2.  Consequently, Ubi established an impossible precedent, that these massive and densely-packed adventures could somehow get better with every passing year, and that’s probably why Revelations fell apart for me; the tower defense stuff felt shoehorned in, an obligatory back-of-the-box bullet point, like they were merely capitalizing on the tower defense fad that was swarming everybody’s smartphones at the time, rather than making sure it was (a) contextually relevant and (b) fun to play.

And the less said about AC3, the better.

Last year’s Black Flag felt like a genuine breath of fresh air; it was most certainly not the same game we’d been playing, even as it immediately felt familiar.  Sure, some of the individual missions were tedious and tiresome, but the overall feel of the game was so radically different from what we’d seen before.  Finally, Ubisoft gave us an open world and let us do whatever the hell we wanted; we were free to explore on our own terms, at our own pace, and with our own goals to pursue.

This is why Unity feels like a step backward.  Sure, it looks good (when you’re not moving), but there’s nothing in the game that feels new.  Whatever lessons that Ubisoft may have learned from Black Flag were most certainly not implemented here (which seems especially ridiculous, given that after nearly every goddamned thing you did in Flag, you were asked to rate it out of 5 stars).  I suspect we’ll see those lessons in next year’s game, but even that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the next game will be technically competent.  It’s hard to be a fan of this franchise without being increasingly cynical, which is why it’s often safer to have no expectations at all.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  I spent 4 hours last night with it without even meaning to.  I managed to ignore the game’s incessant insecurities and pursued my own tasks at my own pace, and was able to rediscover those old familiar rhythms that I love so much.  It’s just a shame that it’s buried under so much nonsense.


Today is the biggest blockbuster day of the release calendar, and I still haven’t yet decided what game comes next.  I had a bit of insomnia last night so I tried out the first 10 minutes of the new-and-improved GTA V; not nearly enough to get a good sense of the game’s visual improvements, or even how the first-person stuff works.  I will mess around with it a bit more, but it’s not necessarily at the top of my to-do list; I’m thinking of it more as a palate cleanser.

I kinda want to play a little bit of Far Cry 4, because I liked FC3 on the PC and I’m curious to see it on the PS4.  I am intimidated by Dragon Age Inquisition, even though I suppose that’s the one I want to spend the most time with.  That’s really what it boils down to, I think; I can bounce between Far Cry and Unity (and also Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive) with relative ease, but once I start Dragon Age, that’s pretty much it as far as my attention span is concerned.

Yeah, I’ll probably be flipping a coin.

The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

Yeah, so.  I made it to Paris, did one side mission (which tasked me with – for real – finding 3 severed heads for Madame Tussaud), opened up a few trunks, and called it a night.   I am going to stick with it until Tuesday, when GTA V HD and Dragon Age Inquisition come out, and at that point I’ll either decide to stick with it or send it back.

Let’s leave aside the horrendous frame rate, the glitches, and the ridiculous story for the moment – these are all known issues, widely discussed and documented, and I couldn’t possibly claim to have seen enough of the game to comment with any sort of authority (even if I have run into some really bad frame rate issues and some amusing but non-game-breaking glitches).

For me, personally, of all the frustrating things about the AC franchise and Unity in particular, perhaps the most annoying is the UI.  I really wanted to take some screenshots last night, because when the framerate is stable and there aren’t NPCs randomly floating through a room (God, how I wish I’d taken video of that), the game can look quite stunning.

Except that there’s all this stupid bullshit cluttering the screen – maps, waypoint icons, mission reminders, currency counters, inventory numbers, eagle vision timers… I mean, I get it; I understand the point of the meta-story, where Ubisoft (er, Abstergo) is constantly trying to reinforce the idea that you’re in some sort of memory Matrix and that none of “the game” is real; but didn’t I already agree to that conceit when I sat down on my living room couch with a PS4 controller in my hand?  It’s impossible to be fully immersed in the world when there’s so much extraneous shit on the screen.

Of all the stuff I’ve read about Assassin’s Creed Unity thus far, I think it’s this Rock Paper Shotgun review that most closely resembles both my initial impressions about AssUnit and also about the franchise as a whole.  When these games are good, they’re really good (AC:Brotherhood, AC4); when they’re bad, they’re among the most frustrating things I’ve ever played (AC:Revelations, AC3).  It’s obviously too soon for me to know where Unity will lie on that scale, and yet I already feel overwhelmed by the extreme over-abundance of side activities, the crowded UI, and the game constantly reminding me at every opportunity that it’s a game.

I am hopeful that a patch can come out (soon) that will iron out some of the more glaring technical issues, but the problems with AC at this point – and with Ubisoft’s open-world philosophy as a whole, really – are much deeper than unstable frame rates.  Ubi’s big 3 – Watch Dogs, AC, and Far Cry – all feel very much alike, even as they aim towards different ends; and the homogeneity of their experiences coupled with their ubiquity starts to get suffocating after a while.  It’s already exhausting to go through a new AC every year, and Far Cry 3 was a handful in and of itself; I can’t do this same thing every 6 months.

Anyway.  I’ll have more to say about it after the weekend, I suppose, but it could very well be more of what you’ve already heard.

In Which A Whole Bunch of Navel-Gazing Ensues

1.  My rental copy of Assassin’s Creed Unity has not yet arrived – it might come tonight, it might come tomorrow – and yet considering the spectacular number of glitches and game-crashing bugs that are dominating my Twitter feed, I’m not sure I want to start it until the first wave of patches arrive (and that those patches don’t further break the game).  And by that point, when enough patches have come out so that the game is in a playable state, I could very well be knee-deep in Dragon Age Inquisition and might not want to bother.  The larger problem is that the code isn’t the only thing that appears to be half-baked; Assassin’s Creed games have always been tough nuts to crack from a narrative point of view, and I keep hearing that Unity’s story is bland, boring and nonsensically enigmatic, the way it’s always been.  No amount of patching can fix a busted story.  Do I want to spend 40+ hours of my life wrestling with something this problematic?  I mean, I’ve played pretty much every AC game there is (except the Vita game and Rogue) but I haven’t been afraid to leave them unfinished (i.e., Revelations, AC3).

Furthermore, regarding Ubisoft’s actions with respect to Unity’s release – specifically, the bizarre 12-hour post-release review embargo – well, it smacks of bullshit and corporate shenanigans, a desperate flailing to reduce the number of cancelled pre-orders once the word got out that Unity was straight-up broken.  And considering how the pre-release hype failed to live up to the post-release reality of Watch Dogs, I can’t help but feel very nervous about Far Cry 4.

2.  And speaking of broken stuff, I must admit that I’ve stalled a bit on my NaNo project.  Honestly?  The subject matter started sending me into a very inward-facing, navel-gazing spiral of depression – which was exacerbated by re-reading my college diary – and so I’ve been mired in this weird melancholic funk of nostalgia and regret for the last week (which itself has been exacerbated by a nasty cold that my family has been passing around to each other for the last month or so, as well as some day-job-related stress that I can’t talk about here).  Indeed, this morning I listened to the first half of Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Allie Brosh (of Hyperbole and a Half fame) and what I heard hit me square in the face.  I go through these depressive cycles every once in a while, and they’re a real pain in the ass; I get apathetic, and then I get mad at myself for being apathetic, and then I get mad that I’d rather get mad at myself than stop being apathetic, and so on and so forth.  So, yeah – writing about one of my college friends and collaborators has turned into something a bit uglier.  That doesn’t mean I intend to give up on it, though; it means that I need to approach it in a different way.

3.  Switching back over to games: I beg your forgiveness for all the Xbox One bashing I’ve done this year.  I’ve been playing Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 just about every night since I bought the damned thing, and I’ve become rather enamored with it.  So much so that I haven’t decided which platform to play Dragon Age on; frankly, I’m waiting for the Digital Foundry people to get their hands on it (especially once the PS4 patch is in place that supposedly fixes a lot of what was broken during the review period).  Because unless the PS4 version is noticeably and markedly better-looking and performing, I might just stick with the XB1 – even though I have a $15 credit on the PSN store.

4.  And now switching back to books:  I’m trying to keep my good-book-reading streak alive, and so I’m still trying to figure out what to read next.  In addition to the list of 10 as-yet-unpurchased books I put up the other day (as well as the countless already-purchased-and-still-unread books on my Kindle), I’m now tremendously intrigued by Michel Faber, who I’d never heard of until yesterday, when I flipped through this week’s New Yorker and saw his newest book mentioned in their Briefly Noted section.  David Mitchell, writer of this year’s “Bone Clocks” (which is my personal Book of the Year and might end up in my all-time Top 10), calls Faber’s new book “his second masterpiece”, and so I had to find out what the first masterpiece was, which is “The Crimson Petal and the White”, which a few Facebook friends also raved about; and it turns out that he also wrote “Under the Skin”, which is also a movie I’ve been wanting to see all year.  So, then:  if you’ve got anything to say about him, please let me know.

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