Subterranean Fallout Shelter Blues

1. Remember last week, when I was excited about getting new glasses and we weren’t living in a constant state of anxiety wondering if our President was gonna livetweet about Crooked Hillary in an attempt to distract us from the coming nuclear apocalypse with North Korea?  Well, my new specs still haven’t shown up, and at this point I’m actually kinda hoping everything goes to shit so that I don’t have to pay off my credit card debt.

Seriously, though, now might be a good time to reach out and say hello to people you haven’t talked to in a while.  Even if we aren’t about to die in a blaze of hellfire, you should touch base with people you might’ve lost contact with.  I’ve been trying to get back into lyric writing, and it occurs to me that an idea I’ve been toying with for years – songs as letters I never got around to sending – might be the key to finishing this goddamned thing sooner rather than later.

2. I’m not as up on current TV as everyone else, but I am happy to report that the wife and I were able to finish the new Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later thing.  And we loved the shit out of it.  It is weird and random and breaks the 4th wall all over the place and Chris Meloni is fucking AMAZING.

3. I’d love to be writing about Tacoma right now, but I appear to be one of the people affected by a nasty bug in which I can’t get past the “Press A to Start” screen.  So instead I’ll offer some very brief first impressions of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which I can load properly.  I am intrigued by it, certainly; I’m a fan of Ninja Theory’s previous work and would give them the benefit of the doubt anyway, and at first glance the game’s presentation is outstanding – both visually and aurally.  The idea of exploring psychosis and mental illness through gameplay is novel, to be sure, and while I’m still only in the game’s opening hour I’ve already seen some subtle yet mind-bending things.  Tonight I hope to get to it while wearing headphones.

4. Hey, whaddya know, Spotify is now available on Xbox One, and it’s about goddamned time.  Now I can feel a little less sad about continuing to play Clicker Heroes, because I no longer have to play it in silence.

5. Kotaku says there is no longer a best time to play a video game, and I agree with most of the points in that link even if my primary concern (Fear of Missing Out / Fear of Being Out of the Loop on Twitter) is still valid.  In any event, ever since I finished Watch Dogs 2 I’ve been in an open-world state of mind, and I’ve been revisiting some older open-world games just to stay with that vibe.  GTA V continues to be the best open world I’ve ever seen, even as the story continues to be repellent and repugnant; Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate continues to be my 2nd or 3rd favorite game in the franchise (while also being a useful refresher for the upcoming Origins) and I’m also finally getting around to giving Mafia III more of a real look.  That game is pretty good, even if all the controls feel backwards.

6. I’ve also had a strange pull towards revisiting Headlander, of all things; I wrote about it briefly last year and while I haven’t gotten far enough to encounter those boss fights, I am still loving the hell out of that game.

7.  I finished Patti Smith’s “M Train”, although I should admit that I kinda skimmed through the back half, as it mostly seemed to be the same as the first half.  I’m happy to read about a real person’s idle hours, watching detective shows and drinking coffee and taking naps, but there wasn’t much more to it than that, and even though her prose remained gorgeous it just lingered on and and on and on, like a very slowly deflating balloon.  Not sure I would recommend it to anyone that isn’t a die-hard Patti Smith fan, though if you’ve got a library card you could do worse than read the first third of it or so.

scenes from a mild mid-day panic attack

OK – I started this post last week and never got around to finishing it.  It’s not a particularly difficult post or anything; if nothing else it’s a collection of scattered E3 thoughts that I was trying to write down before my short-term memory said “fuck it, you don’t need this.”

Today, as I attempt to write this, I am feeling very anxious.  It’s the sort of anxiety that I’m recognizing as if it were from a bad dream – I feel like I’ve forgotten something terribly important, and there will be terrible consequences if I can’t remember it.  This feeling could also just be due to me drinking a very large iced coffee and taking a Claritin-D for allergies – so my heart is racing and yet I’m feeling spaced out.  For whatever it’s worth, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually forgotten anything; today is my wife’s birthday, but that’s already been sorted out – gifts received, dinner reserved, etc.

So I don’t really have any E3 thoughts, as it turns out.  All the big press conferences happened when I was unable to watch them – I mean, I did watch a little bit of the beginning of Microsoft’s presser on Twitter on my iPhone, because I needed to get some Scorpio info – but that was probably about it as far as paying direct attention to the event itself.

Before you ask:  yes of course I’m getting an Xbox One X.  I’ve been saving money in a special savings account ever since it was first announced for that very purpose, and by the time it comes out I might even be able to pick up a 4K TV, too.

I’ve been spending most of my gaming time on the Xbox One lately, as a matter of fact; during their last big sale I ended up buying a bunch of games I already own on the PS4, because I’m an idiot who has started to feel the burn of Achievements again.  Truth be told – and I may have already said this here, but I’m too lazy to go back and check – I really do prefer the user experience of the Xbox far more than the PS4, even if the PS4 is the technically superior machine.  (Will I get a PS4 Pro if I do end up getting a 4K TV?  Probably/eventually, if it gets a price drop, and if I can easily swap in my 2TB hard drive.)

And as it happens, if you were to ask me what it is I’m playing these days, I’d be hard-pressed to give you a quick answer.  I’m kinda playing at least 10 different things all at the same time, some new stuff:

  • Dirt 4: kinda ugly, and has an unusually shitty UI (which is especially odd considering how glorious and pristine previous Dirt UIs have been), but very fun and contains possibly the best rumble technology I’ve ever felt – I mean, you can feel the curved grooves in the road.  It’s extraordinary if only for that specific reason.
  • Lego City Undercover: I bought this hoping my son would play it with me.  He’s sorta interested, sorta not.  As far as the game itself, it’s Lego GTA, and it’s quite charming.  It suffers from the same horrific platforming bullshit that has plagued every Lego game since the dawn of time, and it has a weird tone issue wherein it’s clearly aimed for young kids, but filled with references to movies that no young kid would ever go near.  But whatever.  Sometimes you just want to screw around in a consequence-free environment and break stuff into littler stuff, and this game does a really good job at that.
  • RIME:  Alternates between being a beautiful, serene exploration game and a frustrating, obtuse platformer.  I’d like to see this to the end, but who knows.

as well as a bunch of backlog stuff:

  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: because I got a little jazzed seeing the forthcoming Origins and wanted to remember what those games feel like; this is the first time in a long time that I can remember actually looking forward to a new AC game.  I remain hopeful that the 2-year break served the development well.
  • Fallout 4: because I stumbled across a fantastic video analysis of the game by Joseph Anderson, which does such a remarkable job of articulating everything I hated about FO4 that I kinda want to go back and play it again.  No, that does not make any sense, but does anything make sense these days?

 

I have more to post, I think, but I’m not quite in the navel-gazing mood at the moment and I’d prefer to save that stuff for a different time.  In any event, I’m alive and the Ativan has started to kick in.

(exhales)

the fall release calendar

1. I keep waffling on how personal I can allow myself to get on this blog.  But since other social media avenues are closed to me at the present moment, and since it’s been at least a week since I last posted, I might as well explain – I’m on some new head meds, and even though it’s only been a week, I seem to be doing rather well.  So that’s good!  It’s not necessarily an easy thing to admit, but I don’t want to create the impression that I am somehow ashamed of taking prescription medication for depression or anxiety; the quality of my life was not good, for a long time, and it seems to be getting better, and that’s the most important thing.

2.  I am nearly halfway through Nathan Hill’s “The Nix”, and it is amazing.  I’d read reviews that compared the author to both DFW, DeLillo and Pynchon, and so I bought the book almost immediately, like some sort of reflex had just been triggered.  I suppose I can see a bit of that comparison – there are occasional passages in which Hill articulates a particularly neurotic train of thought that covers every conceivable base, in much the same way that Wallace did in “Infinite Jest”, but beyond that the book is very much its own thing.  And while I’m only halfway through, it’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.

3.  I found myself listening to Jane’s Addiction’s “Up The Beach” not too long ago, and I decided to declare it the best opening song on an album post-1985.  (Why 1985?  I don’t know, but I knew that going back farther would make any discussion impossible to reconcile.)  I started a thread on Facebook about it, and got some other very worthwhile candidates, and so I’ve created a Spotify playlist with most of the suggestions that cropped up.  This is by no means definitive (nor is it sequenced in any particular order beyond where they appeared in the original discussion thread), and it is obviously a bit too white-guy heavy, and so if you’ve got further recommendations, by all means send ’em my way.

 

4. I’ve been trying to finish most of the games I play this year, but I decided to give up on finishing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.  This is mostly due to the fact that I was right near the end of the game and I was suddenly asked to make a choice, and I realized that not only did I not care about either of the options presented to me, but that I had literally no idea what the hell was going on.  I’d been content to find sneaky and non-lethal ways to infiltrate buildings and do whatever task needed to be done, and had stopped paying attention to the why at some arbitrary point that was, I realized, too far back to return from.  There are a lot of interesting critical analyses of why DE:MD’s story is fucked up and/or irresponsible and/or bad and/or misses an opportunity to take current political issues and do something interesting with them, but I never got anywhere close to seeing the game’s story in that sort of detail.  I instead found myself focused on the mechanics, because that was the thing that was enjoyable; the story was never particularly engaging, and then by the time I realized that the story mattered, it was too late.

5.  We are about to enter the fall release schedule, which means shit’s gonna start getting real.  I’d already bought the ultimate edition of Forza Horizon 3, which means I get to start playing it tomorrow.  (Possibly tonight at midnight?  If I’m awake?)  But I’m not sure there are any must-plays that are grabbing my attention more forcefully than others.  I mean, I’ve got a bunch of these upcoming games in my rental queue, and I did pre-order Gears 4, but I’m not quivering with anticipation.  Maybe it’s the meds?

I did stop myself from ordering the Bioshock remasters; I still might get them, but I’m waiting for a Digital Foundry verdict first.  I’m currently replaying Batman: Arkham Knight on Xbox One, because (a) cheevos and (b) procrastination.  That game still holds up, though I can say definitively that the PS4 version looks better.  If that matters.

Anyway, as far as the schedule is concerned, Kotaku posted a release calendar; my personal picks are in bold.

September 23

  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided System Rift | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Story DLC

September 27

  • FIFA 17 | PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One | Sports
  • X-COM 2 | PS4, Xbox One | Strategy
  • Forza Horizon 3 | PC, Xbox One | Driving
  • Dead Rising 2 HD | PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure
  • Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice | 3DS | Platformer
  • LEGO Dimensions Wave 6 | PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U | Action Adventure
  • Darkest Dungeon | PS4, Vita | Dungeon Crawler

September 30

  • Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits | 3DS | RPG
  • Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls | 3DS | RPG

October 4

  • Warhammer End Times: Vermintide | PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure

October 7

  • Paper Mario: Color Splash | Wii U | Action Adventure
  • Mafia III | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure
  • Five Nights At Freddy’s: Sister Location | PC | Horror

October 10

  • 100ft Robot Golf | PS4, PS4 VR | Robot Sports

October 11

  • Gears of War 4 | PC, Xbox One | Third-Person Shooter
  • Dragon Quest Builders | PS4 | Action RPG, Sandbox
  • WWE 2K17 | PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One | Sports
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Definitive Experience | PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider | PS4 | Action Adventure
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider Blood Ties/Lara’s Nightmare | PC, Xbox One | DLC
  • Duke Nukem 3D 30th Anniversary World Tour | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Memories

October 13

  • PlayStation VR | PS4 | Hardware  [I will obviously need to read some reviews and/or determine if I need to upgrade my OG PS4 to the Slim or the Pro before plunking down any money on this.  People appear to be having cathartic, out-of-body experiences with Rez Infinite, though, and who am I to say no to something like that?]
  • Batman: Arkham VR | PS4 VR | Action Adventure
  • PlayStation VR Worlds | PS4 VR | Action
  • Battlezone | PS4 VR | Action
  • Harmonix Music VR | PS4 VR | Music
  • Hustle Kings | PS4 VR | Pool
  • Rez Infinite | PS4 VR | Music Action
  • Shadow Warrior 2 | PC | First-Person Shooter

October 16

  • Skylanders Imaginators | PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U | Action Adventure

October 18

  • Batman: Return To Arkham | PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure
  • Lego Harry Potter Collection | PS4 | Action Adventure

October 21

  • Battlefield 1 | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Horse Simulator
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization VI | PC | Strategy

October 25

  • Dark Souls III: Ashes Of Ariandel | PC, PS4, Xbox One | DLC

October 27

  • Just Dance 2017 | PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii, Wii U | Dancing
  • Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Fighting
  • World of Final Fantasy | PS4, Vita | RPG
  • Harvest Moon: Skytree Village | 3DS | Simulation

October 28

  • Titanfall 2 | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Third-Person Shooter
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition | PC, PS4, Xbox One | RPG

November 1

  • Shantae: Half-Genie Hero | PC, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita | 2D Platformer

November 4

  • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare | PC, PS4, Xbox One | First-Person Shooter
  • Mario Party Star Rush | 3DS | Party

November 7

  • Lego Dimensions Wave 7 | PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U | Action Adventure

November 10

  • PlayStation 4 Pro | PS4 | Hardware

November 11

  • NES Mini | Nintendo | Retro Console
  • Dishonored 2 | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure

November 15

  • Watch Dogs 2 | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure
  • Road Rage | PS4, Xbox One | Racing
  • Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection | PS4, Xbox One | Action Adventure

November 18

  • Pokémon Sun | 3DS | RPG
  • Pokémon Moon | 3DS | RPG
  • Killing Floor 2 | PC, PS4 | Survival Shooter

November 29

  • Final Fantasy XV | PS4, Xbox One | RPG
  • Star Trek Bridge Crew VR | Oculus, Vive | Simulation

December 1

  • Syberia 3 | PC | Adventure

December 2

  • Gravity Rush 2 | PS4 | Action Adventure
  • Steep | PC, PS4, Xbox One | Extreme Sports
  • Super Mario Maker 3DS | 3DS | Mario Maker

December 6

  • The Last Guardian | PS4 | Action Adventure
  • Star Trek Bridge Crew VR | PS4 VR | Simulation
  • Dead Rising 4 | Xbox One | Action Adventure

Midweek Meanderings: Witcher v Fallout, Picross Praise

(Props to my buddy Greg for helping me find a temporary alternative to Random Ramblings.)

1. My future as a professional games journalist is, obviously, going nowhere.  So I’m grateful that Patrick Klepek keeps saying what I’m thinking, and saying it much better than I can – in this case, about how The Witcher 3 has ruined Bethesda RPGs for us both.  As he notes, I think the biggest reason why I couldn’t get into Fallout 4 – a game I’d been anticipating like crazy, a game I was so excited about I spent an extra $50 or whatever for the special Pip-Boy edition, which I’ve used exactly once – was because Witcher 3 raised the bar for open-world RPGs so incredibly high that FO4 was doomed to be a disappointment from the get-go.  Fallout 4 doesn’t feel particularly different from Skyrim or Fallout 3 or anything – nor does it even look that different, for that matter – and it suffers for it, I think.  I never felt the pull to just go in a random direction and explore the way I did in previous Bethesda games, and I think it’s because, for whatever reason, Fallout 4 felt particularly uninspired.  The whole thing looks and feels very last-gen – which is not necessarily a bad thing, given how much I adore Fallout 3 and Oblivion – but I couldn’t help wanting something new and fresh.  Bethesda owns iD, right?  Shouldn’t it be able to use their graphics tech?

2. I am reminded, yet again, that I need to get back to Witcher 3 and finish Blood and Wine.

3. OK, so have I mentioned yet that Picross 3D – Round Two is one of my favorite games of the year?  I have only two complaints, and neither of them are necessarily the game’s fault:

  • I’m about 180 puzzles into it, and I’m playing on the hardest difficulty, and I’m usually able to finish every puzzle with 1 error at most.  And that 1 error is, 99.9999% of the time, because I hit the wrong button, not because I made a mistake in deduction.
  • The 3DS is murder on the wrists after more than 20 minutes, especially when lying down in bed.

Other than that, it’s easily in my top 3 for GOTY.

4. For the bulk of this current console generation, my platform of choice has been the PS4.  As I’ve mentioned, however, I’ve been hoping to crack 100K on the ol’ Achievements by year’s end, and so I’ve been mostly playing Xbox One games of late.  And I must say – while it’s true that multi-platform games look better on the PS4, I really like the Xbox One experience.  For starters – the Elite controller is, bar none, the best controller I’ve ever used.  The Xbox One’s interface is so much more enjoyable to navigate – sure, the store could use some work, and neither of the two consoles has quite figured out the ideal way to look at your cloud-stored games – but, by and large, I’ve really enjoyed using the Xbox One over the last few weeks.

Remind me of this paragraph when the PS4 Pro comes out in a few weeks, by the way.  I don’t have an HDR-enabled 4K TV, nor do I have any inclination towards getting one at this particular moment in time, so there’s literally no reason why I should get the PS4 Pro beyond having a marginally better experience with PSVR (assuming that PSVR is worth picking up in the first place); and so if Microsoft’s upcoming Scorpio console is as amazing as they’re touting it to be, I kinda feel like that’s the upgrade I should continue saving for.

5. My 3-year-old has started being interested in games.  And I’ve been struggling to figure out what to let him play that he could actually make sense of.  I bought Minecraft: Xbox One edition because I figure that’s an inevitability, and he liked chopping down trees and such, though he can’t figure out the controls.  So I’m opening up the floor here:  are there any good games for 3-year-olds with super-simple control schemes, where he wouldn’t necessarily need my help in terms of moving around?  Is 3 too young to expect that sort of thing?  Do I have to buy a Nintendo console?

The First Few Hours: Deus Ex Mankind Divided

Current Status:  Let’s say about 5-6 hours.  I’ve done 3 or 4 main missions, 2-3 side missions.  I am attempting to play as stealthily and non-lethally as possible; in other words, I’m mostly just crawling through ducts.

I have some conflicting thoughts about  Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but first I need to provide some context.

I have vague memories of playing the first Deus Ex game on my roommate’s PC.  I know I finished it, because I remember using a walkthrough in order to see all the endings (I also remember printing the walkthrough out at work and having it be this absolutely gigantic document); I remember certain levels better than others (i.e., the Statue of Liberty); I mostly remember the feeling of intense intimidation.  Deus Ex was billed as “the thinking man’s shooter/RPG”, which to me really just meant that it was incredibly complicated to learn how to play; you couldn’t simply WASD your way through a level.  And I dimly recall hearing that there were multiple ways to approach each objective, though I’m pretty sure I just killed everybody I saw, because the stealth controls were complicated and I always got spotted without knowing why or how.

I played Invisible War on console, and made it about 2/3rds of the way through before getting stuck.  All I remember about that game were its obscenely long loading times (which felt very much at odds with the relative smallness of each new zone) and that I had a little bit more success playing stealthily, though – again – I got stuck towards the end because I was pinned between some massive robot enemies and I had almost nothing useful in my inventory that could help me get un-stuck.

I played and finished Human Revolution, and enjoyed it (for the most part).  I was glad to see the franchise revived and treated not simply as a cash cow, but as an attempt to modernize the gameplay and keep it relevant.  The ending(s) were junk and the boss fights were awful, but I did enjoy sneaking around.

So, then: I am coming to this new game with the casual familiarity of someone who’s played the previous games but can’t necessarily remember if there’s any relationship between JC Denton and Adam Jensen; who is aware of the storied history of the franchise (or, rather, the high regard of the first game) but who isn’t necessarily going into this one with high expectations; and mostly as someone who desperately needed a palate cleansing after the existential, solipsistic despair of No Man’s Sky.

To that end, I am of two minds regarding Mankind Divided at this early stage of the game:

I do not feel that it’s necessary to have played any other DE game in order to enjoy this one; but I also feel that it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary to have played at least one other DE game in order to know what’s possible in this one.

If I’m being honest, most of what I know about how to play this current DE is from my previous experience, coupled with what I’ve read in pre-release previews and final-release reviews about the game. The game itself is not particularly explicit in letting you know how much freedom you have.  The tutorial level is heavily combat-focused, and while it teaches you about non-lethal takedowns and certain stealth mechanics, it doesn’t necessarily do the best job of showing you that you can sneak through vents and bypass rooms of enemies entirely, and that it’s often more beneficial to do it that way.  More to the point, I get the sense that there’s an expectation of the player to already know this stuff, and that the tutorial is mostly there to acclimate you to the controls, rather than the game’s philosophy.

And I should also point out here that by the phrase “game’s philosophy” I’m talking about the thought process that guides each individual player through their own individual gameplay experience, rather than the game’s narrative.  Because as far as the story goes, I mean, whatever.  Mankind Divided‘s plot is convoluted and ridiculous and the main takeaway so far is that Jensen acts like he’s auditioning to be in a Kojima Metal Gear Solid game.*

Which is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself.  I’m making my own fun.  At this early stage in the game, I’m largely avoiding the main storyline and simply exploring this future vision of Prague, which reminds me an awful lot of Half-Life 2‘s City 17.  Any time I see a vent cover, I open it and sneak around just to see where it takes me, because invariably it leads me to a secret stash of something worthwhile and at the very least I get a few XP points.  Any time I see a locked door, regardless of where I am, I immediately hack the shit out of it or I start looking for an alternate route in, because there’s almost always an alternate route, whether it’s a structural weakness in an adjacent wall, or even just hopping out onto a window ledge and sneaking in that way (you will learn, if you choose to, that while people might have complicated locks on their doors, their windows are almost always unlocked).

The world is super janky in that regard.  Half a dozen people might be milling about in front of a coffee shop, and they do not react at all to me opening up a manhole cover and jumping into the sewer.  Then again, considering how many people hang out in the sewer, I guess they wouldn’t necessarily be surprised.  It is unclear why there are so many people hanging out in the sewer, for that matter – there’s obviously some sort of conflict going on that’s making the citizenry uneasy, but I’m not entirely sure why they’re hanging out belowground.

The only other thing I can offer is that… I kinda wish I was playing this on PS4.  I think I’d mentioned last week that I’m aiming to break 100K in Achievements by the end of the year, and so I’m choosing to play most of the rest of the year’s multi-console releases on the XB1 in order to make that happen.  The XB1 experience is largely OK, though there’s a bit of slowdown here and there and I know the PS4 version would look a bit crisper and cleaner.  (Facial animation and lip-syncing are awful, though, and I hear that’s the case across all three platforms.)  Nothing about the XB1 version makes it unplayable, of course; but it’s clear that it’s bringing up the rear in terms of smoothness and fidelity.

More to come later this week.


* I would ordinarily link here to my Unwinnable essay about MGSV, but I don’t think it’s online.  I’ll see what I can do about that.  In the meantime, it’s available in issue 70/71.

E3 2016: Microsoft presser impressions

I don’t know what I wanted out of Microsoft’s E3 presser today.  I barely touch my Xbox One these days as it is.  Nearly everything that looked halfway interesting had a 2017 date attached to it, and there wasn’t necessarily all that much that looked halfway interesting.

In this frightening post-Burnout world we live in, Forza Horizon has become my favorite driving franchise, and Forza Horizon 3 looks pretty spectacular – I’ll definitely be picking that up in September.

I was hoping for some Crackdown 3 news or footage, and we got absolutely nothing on that front, and I’m not sure if that means I should be worried.  And I suppose I’d also hoped for some big-name 360 games to become backward-compatible (*cough cough* Red Dead *cough cough*).  There were other, obvious things that I figured we’d see – Gears 4 (which looks very Gears-y) and Halo Wars 2 (which isn’t my thing, but whatever).

The Xbox One Slim is a nice deal, but who in their right mind would buy it if the Scorpio – “the most powerful console ever built” with the “highest quality pixels” – is coming next year?  And will developers have a collective nervous breakdown if they have to develop across all Xbox SKUs?

As per usual, the most interesting part of the press conference was the “indie showcase”, which is merely a montage of all the legitimately cool-looking games that I’m actually looking forward to checking out.  Hard to get a feel for any of them with that quick-fire editing, though.

I can’t tell if I’m disappointed, jaded, or distracted.  But I’m definitely not feeling as gung-ho as I’d like to be feeling right now.

As in E3s past, I will most likely miss the Ubisoft presser, just because of my evening commute.  But I’m certainly very interested to see what Sony’s got up their sleeve. I’ll most likely be live-tweeting when that starts happening, and a more detailed impressions post will follow shortly thereafter.

 

 

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: The New Year

1. In case you missed it, I wrote up some quick off-the-cuff thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night.  Now that I’ve slept on it, I can say with confidence that I still feel the same; it’s a very good Star Wars movie, and as far as rankings go I’d put it in my top 2 along with Empire.  In fairness, that isn’t necessarily saying all that much; the prequels are garbage, and both New Hope and RotJ have moments that we’d all rather forget.  Even if Episode 7 is simply a reboot of Episode 4, it’s really well done, and I feel like it’s OK to be excited for Episode 8 now.

2. My wife had attempted to buy me the Xbox One Elite Controller via Amazon, but even 3 weeks later there was no sign of it shipping any time soon.  As it happens, though, I was running some errands over the weekend and happened to be in a Best Buy and – lo and behold – there were three (3) Elite Controllers just hanging out, ready to be bought.  I bought one.  I had a tough time justifying the expense, especially since the XB1 isn’t my primary console, but.. I mean.. goddamn, once you hold this thing in your hands it makes as strong a case for itself as you can imagine.  It’s pleasantly heavy, the buttons and triggers have a remarkably more pleasing feel, and even if I never use the alternate buttons and back-panel triggers, I’m happy to know they’re there if I change my mind.

2a.  On a related note, I now feel contractually obligated to get back into Halo 5.

3.  I also bought Rock Band 4 for the XB1, and my old drumset and 1 of my 2 guitars still work, so there’s that.  I’m happy to have Rock Band back in my life, but HOLY SHIT the game feels barely half-built at this point.  How is it that in 2016, I can’t program my own setlist?  And the process of re-downloading songs I already own is beyond tedious; thankfully, I only have to do it once.

4.  I’ve read all the David Mitchell novels now, and so I’m back to re-reading Cloud Atlas, which was the first one of his that I’d read.  I didn’t necessarily see what all the fuss was about the first time out; I could certainly recognize his talent as a writer, and I appreciated how each story tied into the next one, but I didn’t really understand the point.  (I also felt similarly about Ghostwritten, his first novel, although the interconnected stories in that novel at least have a vague sort of butterfly-effect thing happening.)  This second time through, however, I’m feeling much more at home with it – and I also recognize many more of the characters from other novels, so that stuff makes it a bit more interesting.  All that aside, I feel like I need to read Bone Clocks again, and immediately.  I know I’m one of the few people on Earth who prefers Bone Clocks to Cloud Atlas, but what can I say?  That book affected me in a deeply profound way that few books ever have before.

5.  I’d been meaning to put up a Music of 2015 post – I even have a draft here, but I’m not particularly happy about it, and in any event all the navel-gazing I was doing about it is probably less interesting than all the other navel-gazing I do here as it is.  So, instead, I’ll cut to the chase and post two Spotify playlists:

 

 

2015: My Year in Games

It’s December 28 as I write these particular words, which means I’m beyond late in terms of getting this thing out the door.  And if I’m being honest, I should admit that I’ve barely started it.  Usually at this point I at least have my GoogleDoc template filled out with rough ideas of what I want to say, nominees for categories, etc., but it’s practically empty.  Indeed, it’s only because I’ve had to make some Top 10 lists for other people that I have even the slightest idea of what I might write here at all.

It’s hard for me to come to grips with this, but here it is:  my apathy towards games is starting to become less of an abstract threat and more like a very real thing.  I feel like I have more or less checked out in terms of keeping tabs on the “scene” as far as things like Twitter.  Nothing in my to-play pile is holding my interest.  I look at what I played this year and can only identify one true masterpiece, two better-than-expected games, two out-of-nowhere surprises, and the rest of my Top 10 is really just me scraping the barrel.  I look ahead to 2016 and while there’s certainly more than a few games I’m looking forward to, I can’t necessarily pick any that would cause me to call in sick.*


* For the record, the announced-for-2016 games that I’m looking forward to are as follows:

  • The Witness
  • XCOM 2 (especially if it eventually comes to consoles, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t)
  • Far Cry Primal (maybe?)
  • Uncharted 4 (though I worry that this game’s emphasis will be far more focused on action than exploration)
  • Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda (50/50 this comes out in 2016)
  • Crackdown 3 (see ME:A)
  • Dishonored 2
  • FF15 (50/50 for a 2016 release is very optimistic, I think)
  • Gears of War 4 (if only to give my Xbox One something to do)

What would I like to see in 2016?  I don’t even know.  I’d love to hear something about Red Dead Redemption 2, if only that it exists.  I’d obviously love to hear something about Portal 3, though that seems even less likely than Half Life 3.  I’m curious to know if the new Mass Effect will incorporate any save data from the original trilogy – if only in terms of the end-of-game state.  (This would also impact what platform I play it on, as I played the original trilogy twice on Xbox 360.)


In previous editions of this post, this would be the point where I’d spend a few thousand words recapping all the games I didn’t finish, all the games I barely started, all the games I consciously ignored; my favorite gameplay mechanic, my most irksome glitch.  But it’s too depressing to revisit some of that stuff, and in any event if I went through all the disappointments this post would be 10,000 words long, and not even I can bother with that sort of nonsense.  So I’m cutting to the chase.

I give 2015 a big fat “meh”, but – as with many things these days – I don’t know if that “meh” is directed at the games I played, or at myself for not getting into them.   In any event,  I humbly present my Top 10 Games of 2015.

10.  You Must Build A Boat (iOS)
An expansion on, and an excellent refinement of, the sliding-tile-based 10000000 from a few years back.  The recent addition of a new daily dungeon has brought this one back into my daily rotation.

9.  Alto’s Adventure (iOS)
I can’t speak for anyone else’s apathy as far as endless runners/scrollers go, but I’m still a fan of ’em; there’s a bunch more that came out this year that I still play regularly that didn’t make this list, actually.  Alto’s Adventure is a side-scrolling skiing game with an absolutely gorgeous graphical style and atmosphere, and I only wish I hadn’t gotten so terribly stuck on two of the three level goals at level 38; there’s still more to see and do, and I simply never got there.

8.  The Room Three (iOS)
I love the Room games; they’re magnificent showpieces for what mobile games are capable of.  More to the point, though, the puzzles are almost always fair; they might be tricky and obscure, but they ultimately make logical sense in order to proceed.  This edition is bigger and more complex than the previous two combined; I’ve only been able to solve one of the four endings, and the only reason why I’ve not been able to continue is that my iPhone’s low on available hard drive space.

7.  Lara Croft GO (iOS)
Yes, you read that correctly; this is the 4th iPhone game to appear in my top 10.  This is a puzzle game in the vein of Hitman GO, except that it’s a bit less frustrating to solve, and the art style is actually quite complementary to the Tomb Raider aesthetic.  I’m currently picking my way through the recently released DLC episode; it’s much trickier, but no less fun to work through.

6.  Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4)
If this is the end of Rocksteady’s Batman run, they certainly did a bang-up job.  I’m not sure that anything will ever top their first one (Asylum), but I still had a great deal of fun with this one; I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I recall the common critical consensus indicated I would.  The introduction of the Batmobile was surprisingly great, even if I still preferred to grapple/wingsuit my way around the city.  And it looked absolutely stunning; the decision to stay current-gen only was clearly a good one.  (Well, maybe not as far as the PC was concerned, but that’s a different story.)  It was exhausting, eventually – I can’t claim to have come anywhere close to solving all of Riddler’s challenges, nor did I feel any desire to try – but everything else was quite satisfying.

5.  Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4)
Here’s maybe the feel-good story of the year, as far as AAA development goes; fresh off the utter disaster of last year’s Unity, Syndicate turned out to be one of the best games in the whole franchise – and starred my favorite protagonist yet.  Evie Frye is a bad-ass, and more than redeemed her douchebag of a brother.  I should probably go back and check out that newly released Jack the Ripper DLC, actually…

4.  The Beginner’s Guide (PC)
I absolutely adored Davey Wedren’s Stanley Parable, and found this a uniquely compelling and emotionally involving follow-up.  To say more would spoil it; the game itself only takes about an hour or so to experience, and so I’d simply suggest you run out and pick it up.  (I’d also very strongly recommend picking up “Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist“, which is free and 20-minutes long and works as a very interesting companion piece to Beginner’s Guide, as it was created by one of the Stanley Parable’s other developers.  It too has quite a lot to say about game development, but from a much different angle.  Literally.)

3.  Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)
Like a lot of people I was initially irked that this was an Xbox-only release, especially since at the time of that announcement I hadn’t yet bought one.  All that said, I’ve grown to appreciate that the decision to concentrate development on one console was the correct decision; this game looks fantastic and runs incredibly smooth, and is an excellent showcase for what the Xbox One is capable of… even if I have no doubts that the eventual PS4 release will look even better.  Deeper analyses of the game’s narrative might reveal some unfortunate developments in terms of Lara’s character arc, but as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing it I found it quite wonderful.  It’s got everything I like in these sorts of 3rd person action/adventure/exploration games, especially with regards to the exploration/combat ratio; I spent far more time exploring than killing, which is exactly how I like it.  (And which, as noted earlier, is why I’m more than a little nervous about Uncharted 4.)

2.  Rocket League (PS4)
The feel-good story of the year, bar none; this little indie game came out of nowhere and became one of the most addictive multiplayer experiences I’ve had since the days of Burnout 3.  There was a stretch earlier this summer when I could do nothing but play Rocket League; it didn’t matter whether I was good or not, even just touching the ball was fun in and of itself.  It’s been so long since I picked it up that I’m probably too rusty to be an effective teammate… but a lack of skill didn’t stop me from having a blast earlier this summer, either, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go back as soon as possible.

1.  The Witcher 3 (PS4)
This was hands down the best game I played in 2015, and maybe one of the best games I’ve played in years.  Hell, I should probably revisit my all-time top 10 and see if I can’t fit this one in somewhere.  I’d dallied about in the first two Witchers but wasn’t at all familiar with the world or the lore, and it hardly mattered; each and every character was incredibly well-written and presented, and nearly every mission and side-quest was interesting, no matter how small or trivial; the attention to detail is second to none.  This game scratched all the itches I had from Red Dead Redemption, and so if we’re not getting Red Dead Redemption 2 any time soon, this is as worthy a substitute as we’re likely to get; and if anything I might’ve enjoyed this one even more.  An absolute masterpiece, and without a doubt my favorite game of 2015.

 

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