Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Tad Bit Stale

A Tad Bit Stale

Open world games are tough. No, wait, hold on: open world games are tough to make. There we go. The thing about giving the player a huge sandbox to play in is that you have to be able to both give enough tools for them to find their own fun but also give them reason to use them to even start searching. That’s a hard thing to do.

Obviously that’s not the only solution, but the games that work are more or less a variant of that. Even games that seem to be wholly constructed by mystery have a facet of poking and retreating, showing and luring. Miasmata, for example, is designed around the idea that all of the experiences the developers conceived from the get-go will be discovered as the player starts to succeed more and more while its overarching narrative mystery compels you to even try.

Part of that is because the exploration of the who, what, when, where, and why are all tied into the mechanics of the game. By simply interacting with the world, you get more answers, and thus your desire to continue interacting is sustained. It’s a brilliant web they’ve spun.

Miasmata

The other end of the spectrum is something like Grand Theft Auto V (or any of the GTAs, really), though it still fits into the mold. Especially since its transition into a 3D world, Rockstar has been filling its games with more and more real life activity analogs such as bowling, drinking, and eating, but the crux has always been driving.

And in a world where, true to its realistic inspiration, everything is severely interactable via driving into it at high speeds, that can be enough to keep interests high. The “tools,” so to speak, that Rockstar gives you are actually scenarios that you begin to recognize and are able to influence on an instinctual level. Each story mission generally involves a sizable set piece that introduces you to a new “thing” to add to your shenanigan repertoire.

The simple act of ramming a cop car in the middle of a high speed pursuit is the start of a branching tree of possibilities that could end up nearly anywhere. It’s that element of emergent gameplay that allows the relatively simple actions of driving and shooting (simple in a game, anyways) to be all you need to make a fake Los Angeles a factory for Michael Baysian fun.

Grand Theft Auto V

But that and Miasmata and many other open world games succeed because they are built around the idea that an open world serves the player best as a platform for discovery and asking “what if” and then finding out. There’s an inordinate amount of simply going from one place to another in a sandbox environment, and unless you like the idea of what could happen as you traverse the landscape, you probably like all that walking/driving/flying/whatever.

That is largely the failing of Infamous: Second Son. It’s a decent game that seems to be set in a largely disingenuous real world setting, but its open world—and, truth be told, those of its two predecessors—is troubled precisely because it fails to make you wonder what could happen as you leave one rooftop and dash over to another.

Almost as soon as you start the game and get through the introductory sequence where Delsin discovers his powers and gets into Seattle, Second Son shows you its entire hand. And if not then, within the next hour or two, it will. You see all of the ambient karmic events, all of the side quest types, and much of what Delsin himself can do.

Infamous: Second Son

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there was more to do with Delsin’s abilities. You can shoot dudes in ways you’ve shot them before but with different elemental effects and you can traverse the world. The latter has substantial differences between the powers, but the shooting always has the same effect: someone goes down and you might earn some karma along the way.

You can also hit guys with your chain, but that often has the same result. You see, there’s never a question of what might happen when you set out to reach another waypoint. You know you will see some drug dealers and a few quadcopters and you know how they always end up, so long as you don’t die.

Truthfully, the only thing holding the staleness of the rote actions embedded into Second Son is the fact that the act of doing those things is fundamentally entertaining. Zipping around the world is especially fun as you flash over walls and through fences and up vents, challenging yourself to never touching the ground and never stop moving.

Infamous: Second Son

And the engagement of battles is worthwhile, even if a bit tiring in their length (those boss battles needed to be at least half as long). Moving throughout the world at a breakneck pace but with the tight, confident handling that Sucker Punch is pretty well known for is incredibly satisfying.

Satisfying enough, in fact, to overcome the problem of being in an open world. Second Son falls into the trap of being right in the middle of that sandbox spectrum, never giving narrative impetus to interact with the world (though enough to continue the story missions) and never giving enough emergent value to make you just experiment.

It makes you wonder what would have happened if it had been designed much like BioShock Infinite, building open arenas into a mostly linear world. Granted, that would excise the much lauded traversal aspect of Second Son, but it would certainly give the taut controls a chance to shine. But then again, what ifs don’t do much for retrospect but to generate regret. What ifs in open worlds, on the other hand…

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Backers on the Back Burner

Backers on the Back Burner

You’ve almost certainly heard the news by now. Oculus VR, the company behind the ever popular and impressive Oculus Rift, was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. (More precisely, for $400 million and $1.6 million in stock options, but who’s counting.) That is, if you can’t recall, twice as much as they dished out for Instagram two years ago.

The reaction has been, unsurprisingly, rather scathing. There have obviously been some good ol’ jollies to be had along the way, but it’s been overwhelmingly and purely negative from much of the Internet. Markus Persson—better known as Notch and creator of Minecraft—even announced that he’s canceling a deal with Oculus to bring Minecraft to the Rift.

An interesting question to ask, of course, is why, but the more important one is to ask is it justified. The reason is pretty simple: people are feeling cheated. Even if you weren’t a backer or even a fan of the virtual reality device, it’s easy to understand why you would take this news negatively if you were in a supporting role of the Rift’s meteoric rise.

Oculus Rift

For those that don’t remember, the Rift started out as a Kickstarter project. They asked for a measly $250,000 to bring to life a developer kit for this farfetched dream, but they instead got $2.44 million. That includes $10,000 from Notch’s own personal savings (not that he can’t afford it being 99% phat stackz now, but it’s an important part of the story).

Then, once they were imbued with legitimacy, hype, and fans, Oculus secured another $92 million in venture capital over the course of two rounds of funding during 2013. This enabled them to build an HD version, travel to give talks, and build better developer relations. Important steps to becoming a real, honest-to-goodness hardware company.

And that’s what many of the Rift’s backers thought they were doing: jumping in on the ground floor of a company they thought would do big things. Most of that statement is true, actually. They were there are the beginning, yes. Oculus is doing and probably will do even bigger things as well. But the jumping in part? Not so much.

Oculus Rift

The sourness from much of the Internet over the acquisition by Facebook seems to stem from the idea that they, by giving money to the original Kickstarter, gives me ownership over some part of Oculus’ enormous (and, let’s be honest here, ridiculous) success. Others thought they were explicitly giving money to keep the company as independent as the day it was born. Maybe some truly don’t understand the difference between crowdfunding and investing.

Regardless, the net result is the same: they feel cheated. They aren’t seeing a single dime of that $2 billion of Zuckerbloons, and for folks like Notch, they “did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.” And yet that’s exactly what happened.

Because it’s a fundraiser. Kickstarter is a fundraising platform, much like the ones that involve selling candy to your neighbors and quickly and poorly washing cars in your high school’s parking lot. When you make that exchange of either overpriced candy or terrible custodial services or even just freely giving away cash as a donation, you never expect to see anything beyond your immediate and discrete return.

Oculus Rift

You don’t expect to conduct a song at the orchestra’s concert during the tour you donated to. You don’t expect to be at the top of the pyramid at the cheerleading tournament you got the school’s team to. You don’t expect anything in return because you understand the transaction is nothing but a donation.

That is precisely what Kickstarter is. It’s even stated on Kickstarter’s About page: “Backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not to profit financially. Instead, project creators offer rewards to thank backers for their support.” That’s it. Every project on the site is a busker with a hat in front of their tap dancing cat and every once in a while, people throw money in there.

There’s obviously much more to the psychology of the response here (including distrust of Facebook and general disdain for change), but the crux of it is that. It’s that people feel used and abused because they gave to something—helped put in a brick on the foundation of something so grand and important—and only got a pat on the back.

Oculus Rift

We really don’t know much to understand where this is headed (Instagram has been, more or less, left to its own devices, but Facebook does have a pretty good track record of tinkering with its own products and then shelving them when they don’t fit into their expansive vision), but this and failed project and scams and grifters are good healthy lessons in the crowdfunding world. We are not investors. We’re just people with some loose cash and an overdose of naivety.

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Infamous: Second Son Review: Not Quite First

Infamous: Second Son

Sometimes you just want more, and sometimes you get it. Then you might ask for it to be better, and you get it. And when you finally get everything you ask for, you’re disappointed. It’s because you, despite having full agency over your body and mind, don’t know what you want. And if you don’t know that, how can someone else?

Case in point, we have Infamous: Second Son. It is the third in the series, replacing fictional cities and a gruff Cole MacGrath with a real(ish) Seattle and a rambunctious Delsin Rowe. It continues off the canonical “good” ending from Infamous 2, but that’s not really necessary to know to get into Second Son. Basically the US government is rounding up anyone with supernatural powers and labeling them as bio-terrorists.

Delsin, as it happens, is one of those people (a “conduit” in Infamous vernacular) and doesn’t take kindly to that label, especially when it’s causing the slow death of his Native American tribe. Brooke Augustine, leader of the Department of Unified Protection and a real dick, has used his own conduit powers to inflect a concrete-based malady upon Delsin’s people, and now Delsin has to find Augustine, absorb his powers, and reverse its effects.

That second bit is perhaps the most important, considering it sets Delsin apart from Cole and away from being just another parkour-capable, blast-happy dude with a lot of ostensibly deep philosophical and emotional problems to solve. Instead of just getting stronger abilities as you unlock upgrades, Delsin earns entirely new powers to play with.

Unfortunately, many of these new sets are analogous to the previous one. You start with smoke and eventually gain powers like neon and whatnot, but you always have something to facilitate traversal and a handful of attacks that are more or less variants of things coming out of your hands. The game tries to focus your malicious or heroic intent on how the powers operate (e.g. smoke incapacitates rather easily) but it all feels rather uniform.

Granted, the differences are quantifiable such that smoke can fire huge, splashy rockets and neon can fire precision shots, but given that they have familiar parallels to conventional shooter vocabulary (RPGs and snipers, in this case), it makes the variety feel much more homogenous than it actually is. And, while as gratifying as they are, the ultimate Karma Bomb moves are all basically giant area-of-effect attacks that have you fall from high above, further muting the contrast.

Infamous: Second Son

The combat, however, is still pretty fun. While you blast guys off of rooftops and smash them in the face with your smoke chains, you are reminded of what it feels like to have power but, with your quickly diminishing health, also are reminded of why that power matters. You can easily wipe the floor with all the grunts you encounter, but to come out on top and still smiling instead of panting and bleeding? That’s much more rewarding.

And while you shoot bad guys in the face with your neon hand bolts, you’re likely to simply destroy parts of the world. Granted, this doesn’t include whole buildings and such like in Red Faction: Guerrilla, but you can permanently eradicate whole shanty DUP establishments and even utilize such destructible environments in your quest. You could plan out a whole assault on a base and free its captives and put down its hostiles, or you can knock out structure by structure as you come and go. Your impact will be there waiting.

That, in addition to the good concept—if poor execution—of the multiple powers thing makes you fee like you have a great deal of tangible impact on how the game unfolds. Even with the incredibly easy-to-see and deliberately plain (and, consequently, inconsequential) design of good and bad karma, the trance induced upon you as you bash in bridges and barriers and faces, the gameplay feels fairly portentous, even if the narrative choices don’t.

Infamous: Second Son

It helps that the game looks absolutely incredible. It’s hard to express how impressive Second Son looks in motion without you actually playing it. Even a 720p HD trailer doesn’t do it justice because you simply lose out on the raw visuals of a pure render happening in front of you. It’s such a small thing (quite literally), but after seeing Delsin’s fingers simply gesticulate about as he moved in the world finally convinced me that we are in the new generation of games.

It’s not even the high fidelity or the advanced shaders or ambient light, but it’s the art, as well. As incongruous as some of it might seem at times, it all comes in at a high bar. Seeing neon blend into smoke in an organic way as you wander the night makes the world seem much more cohesive.

At least on an aesthetic level. As a Seattle, this is a fairly poor representation. It is overly flat and lacking any distinct Seattle flavor. As stated by a local familiar with both the city and the game, it comes across as a generic landscape with a few landmark features scattered about.

Infamous: Second Son

The most egregious thing isn’t even Seattle-specific, though it could be considering simply how lively the northwestern hub sounds on the streets. Compared to Second Son, Seattle might as well be the aural equivalent of Carnival. Carried over from Infamous 2 in the worst case of hereditary fealty, this game is deathly silent. It warps the natural atmosphere and turns it into something eerie and disconcerting.

An insistence to remain the same as its past versions, though, is most pervasive. You still collect shards and you still complete side quests to earn more goodies and you still progress almost wholly the same as you did before. The experience of going through story beat to story beat is different enough, but seeing the progression of Delsin is all too familiar.

This is especially disappointing considering the additional freedom afforded to the combat. Most defining of the past Infamous games where—aside from the parkour and supernatural gliding—was the stilted, obviously binary moral choices. I touched on it briefly before, but it bears repeating how mind-numbingly dull the seismic choices that you have to make actually are. They are as predictable as the sunrise tomorrow, but not nearly as beautiful.

Infamous: Second Son

I will say, though, that Delsin is far and away more interesting than Cole ever was. But that is far too little too late to make Second Son much more than a strange conglomeration of homage and incremental improvements. Its actual contents are far from terrible, but it’s also nothing revolutionary, and just barely evolutionary. Infamous: Second Son does what it does well, but we’ve seen it do its shtick before.

+ Graphics that make me believe we’re in the next generation
+ Delsin has a far more interesting character arc and foundation than Cole ever did
+ Combat choices, given the permanence through actions, feels important
– Story choices are as bland as dipping tofu in water
– The city, visual and aurally, is incredibly dead and inconsequential

Infamous: Second Son

Final Score 7 out of 10

Game Review: Infamous: Second Son
Release: March 21, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://us.playstation.com/inFAMOUS

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Something Missing

Something Missing

The weird thing about silence is that it doesn’t really exist. Or, more accurately, you don’t measure it. Instead, you speak about it in a roundabout way. You measure its absence in a quantifiable unit of sound. Silence is binary; either there is sound or there isn’t. Something doesn’t really exist when it nothing more than a void, right?

It becomes stranger yet when you consider that, in its infinitely less nuanced presence, silence is just as powerful as its vibrating counterpart. When music swells and you feel your heart pound in a cinematic cadence, you understand the importance of good sound to a film. Something like Garden State wouldn’t be half as good as it is if it didn’t have its soundtrack just like Transformers would be a totally irredeemable turd instead of a turd with one shiny spot if it lacked its impressive audio engineering.

And then consider the troll fight in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Stuck in a room deep in the Mines of Moria, orcs begin to attack the group. They pound away at the door while the fellowship steels themselves, huddling tight and drawing their bows. Drums slam in sync as an orchestra supports the staccato foundation. And then the orcs break through the door, and the music cuts away.

Now it’s just a cacophony of words slamming against swords, and shields smashing into heads. It’s loud and raucous, almost as deafening as the horns and strings preceding it. But when the troll trundles through, smashing the door along the way, it all goes away. For a moment, if ever so briefly, we hear nothing, and all we see is the troll.

The silence punctuates the moment. It strips away our aural senses to give way to our visual one, taking in the magnitude of the problem before our heroes. It makes the beast seem so much larger than it actually is, and the scene is better for it. Silence, in this case, is absolutely vital.

Then you consider something like Gravity, where silence is, instead of an asset to be used and traded between people for drama and emotion, a whole theme. The film turns the absence of a thing into an almost tangible object, contrasting it with the bombastic physical action of being thrown around space at the whimsy of physics.

Gravity

By and large, those two films are considered quite good. (They are two of my favorites, in fact.) That is partly due to them going for something as difficult as utilizing the hard-hitting impact of silence and succeeding. Many times, editors and directors go for that and fail. It happens about as frequently as a novice writer gunning for satire and falling into a half-committed bundle of ineffective words.

If you’re wondering what made me think about this, I’ll tell you. It was Infamous Second Son, the third of the franchise and the first to not feature the gravelly-voiced Cole MacGrath. It’s quite good and I have a review incoming, but something stuck to me that I just couldn’t let go.

It’s actually a problem that seems to have lingered from Infamous 2. In that and Second Son, the cities that our heroes find themselves in are disturbingly quiet. You may see people walking around, cars driving around, and bad guys beating down innocent bystanders, but, standing on a corner and observing the masses, it’s eerie.

Infamous Second Son

Set in Seattle, you don’t hear anything resembling an urban pulse. There’s no hum from cranking infrastructure, there’s no slow grind of cars and their tires into the asphalt, and there’s no muted gibberish bleeding through the walls of busy restaurants and stores. It’s just…quiet.

Which would be fine if that was what the game was going for. Consider something like Alan Wake. Large portions of the game have you wandering darkened forests, only hearing your crunchy footsteps over the fallen leaves and sticks of the trees all around you. It sets the tone for the game as a strange, detached world of horrific malaise.

But Second Son establishes a real world (literally real, as opposed to the fictional city analogs of Empire City and New Marais in the past two games). Its silence serves no purpose. At least no intentional one. It does make you feel strange. You see the busy, active streets of downtown Seattle and the surrounding areas, but you don’t hear them. It’s as if the game has put cotton balls in your ears, making you lean in to the soft spoken world but hearing nothing.

Infamous Second Son

It feels as if I’d stumbled into a modern performance art piece. It’s a warehouse of finely choreographed dancers and stuntmen and actors, moving without making a sound and reacting in melodrama. It’s as if a warped version of The Truman Show had emerged, skewing reality to make someone believe they are extraordinary instead of overtly ordinary.

Granted, Seattle isn’t like walking around Midtown in New York. It’s not an ear-rattling experience of angry cab drivers and frustrated locals yelling at tourists. But ginning up audio is not wholly about accuracy. When audio engineers and Foley artists create sound effects, they will go out to record the real deal. An explosion here, a car screeching to a stop there, or whatever they need.

Once they get back to the studio, however, they show off their skill, exhibiting the differences between good and bad audio production. They’ll amp up a blown up car with big, bombastic bass so the audience feels the shake of the world in their seats. They’ll mix in a subtle splash the crunch of a two-by-four to make a broken bone feel more fleshy.

Infamous Second Son

That is the element of precision, matching up with accuracy to be what both sounds and feels right. But both precision and accuracy are missing from the streets of Second Son. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it does make the moments when you want to soak in the incredibly beautiful world around you feel rather hollow. It exemplifies the power of silence. It’s just unfortunate it does so by showing what not to do.

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Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes Review: Briefing in Brief

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

There’s a concession you have to make if you’re going to enjoy any bit of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. This is not the full, rambling, probably-going-to-be-good Metal Gear Solid V you’ve been waiting for. No, that’s going to be Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ground Zeroes, instead, sits somewhere between a demo and a traditional, full-length Metal Gear game. But as oddly sized as it is, there’s a lot to like.

Ground Zeroes puts you back in the shoes of Big Boss/Snake, albeit with Kiefer Sutherland voicing the gravelly, one-eyed spy now instead of David Hayter, throwing you into the fray between Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and the aforementioned, upcoming The Phantom Pain. Set in 1975, you’ll be infiltrating an American base called Camp Omega, aiming to retrieve a handful of assets.

If you need to know the context to any of that, well, I’m sorry. Unless you want this review to be something around the size of three to four Harry Potters, you’ll have to hit up Wikipedia for that. Or check out the 11-page Backstory thing in the game. It’s just pure text, but it is, if nothing else, accurate. This should tell you that for as much as this is an oddity of retail, it is as wholly committed to the series’ mythos as any other game before it.

It also lavishes in its inanities. Or rather, its creator’s inanities. Hideo Kojima’s relatively toned-down narrative approach to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has gone full-on, well, Kojima. The 10-minute cutscene that opens the game, while incredibly gorgeous, exemplifies how well the designer takes the overly melodramatic and barely comprehendible elements of the franchise’s insane plotline and makes it seem like duh doy, this is how the world works.

In terms of gameplay, however, Ground Zeroes is quite the departure. It drops you into what is basically an open world and tells you to go accomplish some tasks. Past Metal Gear games are fairly open as well, but they put you in open areas that belong to discrete levels. Ground Zeroes is a single island, all of which is open you to, and throws in a day-night cycle with weather variability.

The switch from explicit levels to a fully, more traditional open world is surprisingly beneficial to the familiar stealthy mechanics of the game. The radar has been removed and been replaced with the soup du jour of open world mechanics: enemy tagging. But this allows you to take advantage of Snake’s greater maneuverability so that when you sneak your way somewhere you’re not supposed to be, you can reward yourself with increased awareness of what’s around you.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

This also means that much of the tedium of waiting under a table or in a locker in the games of old (which, admittedly, were designed around those moments) gives way to facilitated travels. It makes sense, given that you now could potentially have an entire island to traverse, and inching your way across a whole base isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but it also gives the game a much faster feel, like this younger Snake is brasher than his more aged iterations.

A gimme to this is that Ground Zeroes is somewhat built around the idea of getting caught in an open world. One neat aspect of this is that if you do get spotted, time slows down for a bit, allowing you to give it your best to resolve the situation before reinforcements are called. It can make the game much too easy overall, but it also takes away the problem of getting spotted and being forced to vacate a whole section of the base while the open world AI resets.

After that, when you do get caught and alarms are sounded, is when problems are revealed. To solve the same problem, though from a different perspective (“you’re busted” instead of “you’re about to be busted”), Ground Zeroes integrates a more traditional third-person shooter scheme. Action has always been an option in the franchise, but now it’s been commoditized into something that wants to be familiar.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Except that it’s not. Shooting always felt off in Ground Zeroes. Either you’re lighting up a dude with what seems like three too many bullets or wishing you could get closer to CQC him or running away to let their meager ambition wither away. Obviously this is and probably always will be a series about stealth, but that doesn’t mean the moments where you’re caught should be unpleasant. (I will say, however, that driving a tank and blowing up huge fuel reserves is a lot of Bay-sian fun.)

The good news is that the stealth bits make up for it (also you can just reload a checkpoint when you are busted so you can avoid shooting or running your way to freedom). The additional bits that Snake is capable of now makes moving him around much more enjoyable. He’ll automatically cozy up to corners and whatnot if he’s close enough. CQC is no longer an arcane practice of hoping for the best but now intuitive and easily made to do what you want.

And it is such a smooth game. It feels fluid and looks fluid. The engine, previously boasted in an impressive GDC video, is capable of some insanely beautiful things. Rain and nighttime, two of the hardest situations to accurately portray in video games, both look exemplary here, and somehow even better combined. Facial animations and character models look straight-up out of a pre-rendered cutscene, but nothing here is; it’s all real time.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

It is, however, a very short experience. You can probably finish it in less than two hours. Eurogamer actually beat it in ten minutes earlier today while CVG did it in 18 minutes with an S rank. And once it’s all over, you’re unlikely to feel fulfilled by the narrative. It touches on a lot of what was compelling about The Phantom Pains‘ (unbelievable) trailer, but it is ultimately lackluster.

But for those scant few hours you’re playing Ground Zeroes, it’s quite the ride. Experimenting with an open world of familiar but refreshed and refined mechanics is a ton of fun, and getting this little appetizer of Kojima narrative nonsense is titillating. As long as you’re aware of what you’re getting into, which is to say a brief, half-demo, half-full-length game (and priced accordingly) that doesn’t go far beyond whetting your appetite, then you have a lot to look forward to in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.

+ Absolutely gorgeous game with incredible effects and sound design
+ Moves like butter, like a game you wish every other Metal Gear would move like
+ The open world works amazingly well
– Disappointing in its narrative arc, ending somewhere between getting started and getting there
– Action bits don’t feel great

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Release: March 18, 2014
Genre: Third-person stealth action
Developer: Kojima Productions
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $29.99
Website: http://metalgearsolid.com/‎

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Her Spots

Her Spots

You already know what I think about the Veronica Mars movie in an objective sense. It’s decent, thriving more in its legacy than in its feature length strictures. It has its noir roots glowing just under the surface as its trademark shadowy frame was left in the CW graveyard. The film’s context often overshadows its content.

I also have a great deal to say about it as a fan, though. A newcomer to the journalism game once asked me for advice in finding success. I told him two things: 1) be kind, and 2) watch Veronica Mars. I was mostly joking about the second part, but there is some truth to it.

It’s just an incredibly die-hard series, delving into the matters of doggedness and fearlessness in an urban noir jungle of ruthless animals. It doesn’t extol the virtues of being either but rather explores the consequences of swaying too far to the end of either spectrum. Veronica Mars is nothing if not a show about consequences.

Veronica Mars

So it kind of turned into a truthful bit of advice, and while they ostensibly come across as skewed towards journalists and other such careers involving investigative slants, it actually applies to large swaths of people. Being able to embody much of what we love and envy about Veronica makes you stronger. Smart, determined, strong, self-aware, passionate, resourceful, loyal, and so much more (mostly sassy).

But we also learn through her example where those things fall apart when we become waterlogged with the flowing qualities of independence and emotion. She ruins relationships and throws away friendships because of her stubbornness. Bodies and blood lay in her wake precisely because she lacks the foresight of personal consequence.

It turns out Veronica actually is kind of not a great friend but just someone who so desperately wants to rectify inequities that we also want to see addressed. She’s a good person, but she’s unreliable beyond the boundaries of solving a mystery. She won’t show up when you need her and she won’t leave emotion at the door when subjectivity is obviously the most damaging thing you can bring into a room.

Veronica Mars

We still love her because that’s just who she is. And, perhaps most importantly, because the timeline of events during Veronica’s reign in Neptune is so decidedly neo-noir. An oppressive, uncaring, pessimistic world standing on her shoulders. While never quite diving fully into the realm of nihilism and moral ambiguity, it does present a compelling case for the lack of change (and lack of desire for it) in the franchise’s characters.

(Spoiler Warning: From here on out, there will be spoilers for both Veronica Mars the show and Veronica Mars the movie. Those for the show will be less severe than the ones for the film, but if you plan on watching either of them, maybe just stop right here.)

It’s why we love when Veronica and Logan get together and fall apart over and over again. They’re so perfect for each other because they’ve both unwittingly entrenched themselves in the idea of not changing, trying to fit incongruous pieces together in a puzzle that has no finish. Their combination is so volatile, it has a very literal body count.

In the film, Logan describes their story as an epic. It spans years and continents. Lives are ruined, blood is shed. It’s a direct reference to S2E20 “Look Who’s Stalking” when Logan opens his heart to Veronica at the alterna-prom. They almost kiss but Veronica turns away and leaves at the last second.

The movie, however, throws that reference into a much happier light, putting the words into a scene where they actually are together and, it appears, happily so. Nothing has changed about these two characters. Veronica has left behind her promising career as a lawyer in New York. Logan is still a punch-first, ask-never fellow who broods better than he supports.

Only the veneer has changed. Throw some United States Navy dress whites on Logan if you want but he’s still the explosive, impetuous guy he was nine years ago. Put Veronica in a pantsuit in Midtown Manhattan but down deep, she’s still the addict she was before.

Veronica Mars

An addict to danger. An addict to mystery, to the things that hurt us. She admits to being an addict in the movie, and you know we never really admit or become addicted to things to the things that are good for us (then it’s called making a good decision or developing good habits, for some inscrutable reason).

This is why I think many viewers of the film who are not fans of the show will miss the painful, lingering sentiment at the movie’s conclusion. It appears to be a happy ending: girl gets with the guy she was meant to be, bad guys are behind bars, and friends are once more together again. But it’s not.

In all honesty, it is a supremely depressing ending, which is appropriate to the genre, I guess. We finally saw growth in these characters. Or at least in Veronica. She’s dating Piz, a guy never fully enmeshed in the trials of growing up in Neptune. She’s not even living on the same coast as the one where so much of her life fell to ruin and barely connected to the career that put bodies and blood at her feet and on her hands.

Veronica Mars

And then we see, over the course of 107 minutes, her slide back into the toxic environment. Her father warns her to get out, don’t let the town take her down like it has so many others. But she can’t help it. She can’t help being a sleuth and she can’t help being with the man that only enables her penchant for risk and staunch characterization.

It’s emptying. It’s gutting. We hate ourselves because this was exactly what we wanted at the (admittedly unintended) conclusion of the series. The star-crossed lovers together at last and Veronica continuing her father’s and her legacy in the town that made her what she is today, taking her naivety, throwing it in a blender, and serving it up with the ice in her veins. But we see what could have been and now we feel selfish.

It’s like when you see people in movies regret the last thing they say to someone before they die. We feel as though we were responsible for this downfall. She was happy. She was out. And we had to drag her back down to the dirt.

Veronica Mars

As great as the movie is and as perfect as it is for fans of the show, we have the context to understand why it hurts to see Veronica back where she started, Weevil kicking his picturesque life to the curb, and friends we used to know now dead in the streets. It eschews growth, but it turns out they were just creatures of habit all along. Animals.

These leopards, man. They love their spots.

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SXSW Gaming 2014: A Change in the Wind

SXSW Gaming Expo 2014

Not much has changed since last year. There’s still the massive GEEK stage near the entrance, tented for an unintended air of mystique. There’s still an inexplicable collection of people congregating around the corner where an inscrutable collection of Lego bricks exists. There’s still a bar where of-age adults buy overpriced beers and forget their 12-year-old burdens.

Well, I guess the giant Mario Kart racing track outside is new.

It’s a largely inconsequential addition, though. Texas’ fickle weather patterns saw fit to drench Austin with a mild downpour half of the SXSW Interactive weekend, ruining the Nintendo-Penzoil dream collaboration(?). It’s also incredibly boring. Walking by the track, it dawned on me that the racers I was passing weren’t warming up but already in the midst of a heated competition.

Mario Kart racing at SXSW Gaming 2014

At least it looked cool. And the idea is quite interesting, translating the items of Mario Kart to patches on the track that actually affect a kart’s speed. But given that you had to also pass a breathalyzer to suit up, I’m sure insurance was a huge factor in making sure nothing too exotic happened. Unfortunately, that also meant nothing fun happened.

For as bombastic as putting a real life analog to your video game product in front of an expo hall is, it still wasn’t the most noteworthy change, though it did make shuttle access kind of a chore. Surprisingly more remarkable, actually, was that the second floor was reserved for LAN-centric activities.

There was still the gaudy display of hubris and yelling at the tournament stage in the main exhibit hall, but the consequences of this move is interesting. Many of the Gaming panels were held upstairs before, but this year they’ve been upgraded to the main and surrounding halls in the Long Center, which is an incredibly classy performance hall for the arts.

Dumping the Alien panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

Though I’m sure it’s likely because the organizers didn’t think it would be kosher to have a bunch of rowdy gamers in the gorgeous Dell Hall, but it does send a subliminal message: the industry has grown up. We’re no longer gaggles crowding around glowing, blinking screens and subsisting entirely on pizza and Bawls but instead hold intellectual discussions about digital literacy and advancements in artificial intelligence.

There was a talk about accessibility for disabled gamers from the founder of The AbleGamers Foundation; HopeLab and Games for Good discussed a game aimed at fighting cancer within the realm of brain science; and panels regarding racial and gender diversity in the industry were hits of the weekend. We are growing up, and it shows.

Of course, this sentiment was here last year, just dormant. Local indies like White Whale Games and Minicore Studios and Stoic Studios were among the heavy hitters then with Nintendo and Xi3 dominating the expo floor. But joining them this year were what can only be referred to as major out-of-towners.

Tales From The Borderlands panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

That and major indie developers. Brendon Chung of Blendo Games was there with Quadrilateral Cowboy, which, if you haven’t heard, is exceptional. Josh Larson and Ryan Green were there to show That Dragon, Cancer and give a talk about what makes its interactive cutscenes so compelling and engage the audience in existential discourse.

(Son Joel Green, the inspiration for the game, passed away last Thursday, and if you’ve played any amount of That Dragon, Cancer, well, you know. I can tell you in that moment of discovery and this one of writing, my eyes are far from dry and my heart far from empty.)

And they go alongside Gearbox Software and Telltale Games breaking new tidbits about their previously announced Tales From The Borderlands. And Palmer Luckey discussing the future of virtual reality with his trademark confusingly grounded yet hyperbolic zeal. Marvel put on display its upcoming slate, Geoff Keighley talked with Microsoft Studios’ Phil Spencer, and Noah Robischon interviewed EA CEO Andrew Wilson.

SXSW Gaming Awards 2014

So it may not just be that gaming is growing up but it’s also just simply growing. SXSW Gaming last year was littered with apathetic crowds, unsure of what to make of the incredibly tiny local developers and their booths. This year, I rarely found myself not at the end of a four or five-person line just to see what was being shown, let alone play it.

It’s weird saying I loved waiting. But it told me that more and more people were starting to care. And more than that, people were starting to care about the right things. Emblematic of both of those were the first SXSW Gaming Awards, hosted by Justine Ezarik of iJustine and Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of Smosh. Pretty big gets, sure, but check out the winners.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons beat out The Last of Us and Super Mario 3D World for Excellence in Gameplay. Tearaway overcame BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V in Excellence in Design and Direction. And Papers, Please won for Cultural Innovation while the nominees included Gone Home, Guacamelee, and Year Walk, more than a smattering of niche awareness.

Naughty Dog's awards at SXSW Gaming 2014

While we still have our problems as an industry, failing to diversify and include rather than exclude, this marks progress that other, much older mediums have enjoyed and endured long before. It is a sign that we’ve grown to a critical mass and vital core that we are capable of nuance and no longer only make headlines for games about hidden sex and overt violence and psychotic lawyers on Fox News.

For as little changed from last year, the things that matter have shift course. We’re headed for somewhere good, and I’m glad it’s SXSW that gave me that feeling. Of course, it might also just be that I’m still full of Franklin Barbecue and Shiner.

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South Park: The Stick of Truth Review: Stick and Carrot

South Park: The Stick of Truth

The core of South Park: The Stick of Truth is good. It’s functional, first and foremost, perhaps far more than you’d expect from a game delayed two years and thrown between publishers, and also quite fun. There’s pedigree coming from both the mechanical side of things through Obsidian Entertainment and the narrative side with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker heavily involved in its development.

To get to the point of understanding and enjoying its layers, though, you have to break through a top-level carapace. You have to not only like South Park but you have to get South Park. You have to break through this admittedly high barrier (lowbrow poop jokes often stand side-by-side with biting, laser-precise satire) to get to the meat.

The Stick of Truth takes a page from Ghostbusters: The Video Game and puts you in the shoes of a silent newcomer, in this case one only known as The New Kid, or Douchebag. In the midst of your arrival, there is a citywide game of violent and impressively comprehensive make-believe where Cartman has assumed the role of a grand wizard, leading the humans against Kyle’s elves in a battle for The Stick of Truth.

Which turns out to be really just a stick, as it is presented to you in the early moments. This is part of what makes The Stick of Truth work so well. It, much like the show, leans so heavily into its own oddly cobbled mythos of reality and parody and absurdism that it sucks you in whole. It has just enough of grounded truth (these kids are whacking each other with sticks and casting fart spells) but expounds out into the imagination that you relate to some nostalgic component of your aging, wrinkling brain.

For instance, one of Butters’ special abilities is to turn into his alter ego Professor Chaos, but a highly stylized version, one akin to the overly anime slant of the “Good Times With Weapons” episode of the show. And he lays waste to enemies in this form. It’s obviously just how he sees himself and, thus, how everyone else sees him while playing this game, but it reminds you of what exact type of world you find yourself in.

It’s also one of the game’s primary problems in that that’s actually all it does. Don’t get me wrong; it does it incredibly well, and far better than any other show or video game has or probably will for a long time. But it only digs its heels into what it has previously established and doesn’t go into new frontiers of social commentary, something the show itself has become known for after shedding its desire to only curse and kill Kenny as much as possible.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

This is why having a deeply rooted and established foundation of South Park appreciation is essential to playing The Stick of Truth. The story itself is original and quite a fun romp through a world you’ve always wanted to explore of your volition, but all the struts and beams between the walls are made of old references. Mr. Slave, Mr. Hankey, Underpants Gnomes, etc. If you don’t remember, you will, and if you can’t remember, then, well, too bad?

Of course, it doesn’t need to make any apologies for now being an introductory piece to the franchise. (Besides, it’s still really quite funny.) It’s been around for 17—seven-fucking-teen—seasons, so if you haven’t gotten in on it by now, you probably won’t, but it is disappointing it doesn’t explore beyond what it’s already marked on the map, as if it were afraid to add this game to its 200-plus episodes of television canon.

Luckily, the gameplay is there to put these worries at ease. Obsidian, known for developing high-water mark RPGs like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Fallout: New Vegas, has crafted a combat and customization system far deeper than you’d think would be attempted for a South Park game.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Battles operate very much like the active systems of Mario & Luigi where you take turns attacking enemies and defending from attacks with timed button presses to respectively boost and mitigate damage. It’s a simple twist that keeps you mostly engaged as you float between battles. But then there’s the difference of stances.

Enemies can assume different stances such as riposte and shielded or might be taking shelter on the back line. And each situation must be dealt with accordingly, forcing you to switch up tactics. It’s like rock, paper, scissors but with a lot more armaments and matches added to the fray. It keeps you on your toes.

At least in theory it does. When you force yourself to play with vigilance, you are engaged with the idea of call and response. But the game is actually ridiculously easy. As the fart-based magic attacks and other systems are added, the difficulty is reduced as if it were afraid to overwhelm the player. I honestly think I could have just kept mashing A and gotten through most of the game’s encounters. It never gets boring or anything, but it is disappointing because the potential is so tangible, so near.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Outside of combat, there’s a surprising amount of interaction. Ability-gated areas hide collectibles and treasures as well as the eventual (and satisfying) conclusions to many side quests. You can direct and aim farts to take out whole swaths of enemies, allowing you to skip entire battles. You can whack people just to see what they’ll say. And you can even deposit money in the bank for, uh, well, you’ll see.

I think that’s where The Stick of Truth eventually wins you over if it hasn’t already. It starts off rather low-key, indulging you in the whimsy of childhood games, but soon ramps up into an unforgiving onslaught of South Park-isms. It is deafening in the same way you get closer to the stage at a concert, the energy of the die-hard fans infecting you to your core. Nazi cows, flaming hobos, straight-up aliens, and so much more.

And you so rarely encounter the same thing twice. I was actually surprised when I heard repeated barks or see copy-pasted elements. Nearly everything is completely unique to its particular location and utility in the game. It reminds me of how the show is, which is to say custom-crafted for its own myriad reasons. It’s actually quite impressive and further supports the idea of being part of something as storied as South Park.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Part of that is the audio and visual aesthetic. It looks like a picture-perfect recreation of the show, which isn’t terribly hard in static images, but everything—including flappy Canadians and the wobbly walk—moves like you remember or would expect. And the voice actors of the show bring to life their video game counterparts, keeping the entire experience whole from screen to screen.

There are, however, some legitimately broken parts to the game beyond the subjective portions of South Park jollies. This is a buggy game, popping characters in and out of cutscenes at random, stuttering to a remarkable degree, erasing save files, and muting out audio. And then the tutorial, which might have been buggy or simply inscrutable. Parts of what it tries to teach you aren’t even employed in the rest of the game.

When it works, though, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a stellar product. And I don’t just mean “works” in the technical sense, but in its attempt to be a South Park video game. You have to fight through its offensive veneer and realize that when everyone and everything is fair game, it starts becoming something barely attached to reality. It may not try anything new, but it is a truly, honestly funny game and, just as importantly, a fun game to play.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

+ Legitimately funny (so long as you already find South Park funny)
+ Robust and technical RPG mechanics
+ Immerses you via audio and visual elements that wholly recreate the show’s aesthetic
+ Really commits to the sweded fantasy world
– Broken in parts and limited PC options
– Disappointingly unwilling to explore new South Park territory

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth
Release: March 4, 2014
Genre: Role-playing
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.stickoftruth.com/

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Titanfall Review: Rising Above

Titanfall

As hard as the Titans come crashing into the earth from above in Titanfall, a moment of clarity is likely to hit even harder. Somewhere between sliding under your mechanical behemoth and up into its canopy and riding an enemy Titan straight to hell, you’ll pause: this is a good game. And then you’ll punch a dude out of his ambulatory carapace and think, “No, this is a great game.”

If none of this is ringing a bell (and I can’t imagine who hasn’t heard of Titanfall by now; my retired “get off my lawn” neighbor asked me about it today), then let me catch you up: Infinity Ward and its founders had a fall—no, too far. Backed by the original creatives behind the mammoth-sized franchise Call of Duty, Titanfall is an online-only first-person shooter that pits six players against six other players and mixes in building-sized mechs for added shenanigans.

There isn’t a singleplayer component (not in terms of a traditional campaign, anyways), but there is at least some semblance of a story. Humanity has expanded to space, but those on the frontier are tired of bowing down to some out-of-touch, corporate government. It’s a real “history repeats itself” situation—consider the American Revolution, et al.—but it’s serviceable, which is to say it’s a bevy of sci-fi staples that support a massive, Titan-sized multiplayer design.

For the most part, it is a very familiar design, too. The controls are almost identical to any modern shooter you’ve played including moving around, reloading, aiming, and firing. But it helps the differences easier to intuit. For instance, you take your basic understanding of platforming in games like Mirror’s Edge and reduce it to the simple scheme of Titanfall. Double jumps, wall runs, and mantling are as simple as pointing and going. The freedom of movement and its responsiveness is overwhelming at first, but soon becomes comforting and liberating.

There is a somewhat MOBA-ish slant to the game. In the standard game mode, you start out as just the human pilot half of the mechanized terror. At any given time, there could be a few dozen dudes out on the field to shoot at and with, but only 12 of them will be actual human players. The rest are grunts, and each one you kill will give you points, but more importantly, take time off your Titan timer, turning them into a mineable resource instead of a nuisance.

It’s an incredible addition because it makes you feel like you’re always doing something important. Granted, many of these AI foes are complete dummies (you can often walk up to them and shoot them in the face with little recourse), but when the necessary steps to get from where you are to where your opponent is involves running up a wall and jumping 20 feet down onto a rooftop, it feels cool. And then you are precious seconds closer to your Titan.

Titanfall

And once you have your Titan, your options expand even further. You can order it to stand its ground, operating like a traditional turret. Or you can order it to follow you, effectively doubling your firepower at any given time. And, of course, you can clamber inside and do your dirt with your own two hands.

You would think that being in a three-story tall robot armed with missiles and machine guns would be an unfair advantage, but Respawn Entertainment has masterfully balanced the experience. I actually prefer to be a pilot most of the time, but the Titan affords you the ability to shield up and rebound incoming armaments or crush other players under your armored feet or simply shoot big fucking rockets at other Titans.

The true joy comes in once you begin to mix the two experiences. When you call your Titan and spend your few seconds of pre-fall ascending a roof to take out a pesky player and then jumping down to take solace in the landing shields of your robot buddy as another mechanized foe appears. Then you dart out into a building where it can’t hound you, order your Titan to fight it out, and ascend once more.

Titanfall

Dropping out of the sky, you rodeo this enemy until it blows, launching you into the sky, only to have your Titan catch you and load you up into its cozy cabin. It’s remarkable how often these “holy shit, did you see that?!” moments occur in Titanfall. Coming out of the beta and past preview events, my primary concern was that these moments would eventually run dry or wear out their welcome.

Erroneously concerned, I would say now. It feels like the entire game was based around the idea that people never stop talking about the amazing things that serendipitously happen in Call of Duty and Halo like cone deaths and cross-map knife throws and instead decided to ease the creation of those moments. The minutia included is incredible. You can board your Titan from any angle, your speed only seems to accelerate as you freerun around the level, and a selection of auto-aim weapons facilitates your badassery.

I’m not a terribly good player when it comes to first-person shooters, though I’m also far from the worst. There are just a lot of twitch-attuned people out there that have a knack for moving fast and killing faster. And taking that into account, I still managed to have more fun in Titanfall than in any other online multiplayer game in recent years. These auto-aim weapons can help pro players pull off crazy moves like headshots midair between walls and less skilled pilots with simply landing contributing hits to zippy enemies.

Titanfall

There are just so many little touches that complete the feel of the game. The animation of the HUD loading up once you board a Titan, for instance, is one of the best things I’ve seen. It’s just so god damn pleasing. And the way the ground shakes when you stomp around and how grunts call out enemy pilots. It congeals into a tight, cohesive package that reminds you of how it felt when you first played Modern Warfare.

This leads to a sensation that the lack of variety in parts of the game is purposeful. That are scant few weapons, but they operate so uniquely that they cover everything you’d want anyways, ignoring the growing concern of other shooters over additional six-inch spread of a shotgun at 20 meters or something. And the three gameplay modes would seem to leave you wanting, but the traditional deathmatch and capture the flag modes are good enough on their own and Last Titan Standing and Pilot Hunter really lean into the uniqueness of Titanfall as a whole.

Last Titan Standing puts everyone in a mech from the beginning with no respawns, turning the fast-paced shooter into a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse. It’s incredibly tense when you play with people that understand the utility and inherent risk of being in and out of a Titan. And Pilot Hunter is just like deathmatch but where only kills on other pilots count, so it becomes a constant assessment of absorbing errant shots from grunts and opening up a window for a meaningful kill.

Titanfall

Variety is also built into the game from its character customization setup. As you play the game, you’ll collect Burn Cards. These are one-use items that you can equip in your loadout (think Call of Duty for that part) and you can activate them during the match, each one giving you some temporary advantage. This can be anything from causing your Titan to blow up, like, real good upon death or moving faster or even permanently cloaking your character.

They seem only kind of useful at first, but they add an important wrinkle: whereas without them, you know how every pilot and every Titan moves and is capable of, but with such a wide swath of Burn Cards available, you always have to approach any given situation with at least a modicum of vigilance.

And then you throw caution to the wind and dive head first, because Titanfall is largely about going for, doing the bombastic because you know you are fully capable of it. There are, of course, problems, like an occasionally unstable framerate or rampant server outages (and given EA’s track record with Battlefield 4 and SimCity, this could lead to more problems down the road), but Titanfall does so much and so much well, you’ll be having too much fun to notice or care.

Titanfall

+ Incredibly accessible but varied control scheme and gameplay
+ Complex but intuitive balance between pilots and Titans
+ Wide range of capabilities in and out and around the Titans and level
+ Impressive mobility that turns a tired, flat genre into a textured, multilevel experience
– Lacking traditional (read: expected) features of online games like spectator mode and customization

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Titanfall
Release: March 11, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Singleplayer (ehhh kind of), 12 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.titanfall.com/‎

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SXSW 2014 Chef Review: Full Course

Chef

Being a movie about food, it’s not surprising that Chef leaves you feeling full. It’s kind, easy to take in, and luxuriates in the fact that it isn’t what writer/director/actor Jon Favreau has been known for in the past, namely the first two Iron Man films and Cowboys & Aliens. It packs in the stars, but it spends its time making sure you slow down and enjoy its offerings.

Favreau plays Miami-born Carl Casper, a celebrity chef working for a terribly disagreeable restaurant owner. The boss, played by Dustin Hoffman, wants Casper to play it safe with his dishes while he wants to try new things when a food critic comes to sample the chef’s fare. Long story short: Casper gets panned, has a meltdown, ends up basically unemployable, and flies with his amiable ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) back to his hometown to find his roots, which includes opening a food truck and deciding to embark on a sizable journey.

This is the setup, and Chef takes its time getting there. It last, honestly, about 50-percent longer than most other films would let its first act linger, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. Or it will be what you absolutely hate about it. If you find yourself thinking about what you’re doing after the credits before Casper even makes it into a food truck, you probably won’t like what else Chef has to offer.

But it makes sense. You may find a lot of other people noting that this slight indie turn is a return to Favreau’s roots, a parallel to his character’s rediscovery of what he lost working as a big shot in Los Angeles. Opening the premiere in Austin, Texas, for SXSW, Favreau took to the stage to say it is a very personal film, though not specifying why.

Taken in this context, of course he would take his time getting where he wants to go with the story. Perhaps a response to his own time living and working at a breakneck, triple-A pace of Iron Man‘s adventures and cowboys fighting aliens and his output being manipulated and panned in a single, deft move by a broken industry, it only seems right Favreau would dwell on the things he finds important this time and not what anyone else does.

This includes the aforementioned, protracted introduction to the crux of the plot; steeping scenes in the flavor of local establishments in places like New Orleans and Austin; and just reveling in a performance by Gary Clark, Jr. in a barbecue joint in the Texas capital. (And seeing the SXSW crowd cheer for Franklin Barbecue was a great joy to be had.) It’s like a long missing friend taking you by the hand and saying hey, let’s find what we lost. It’s a powerful notion, albeit a divisive one when put into practice.

Chef

Part of what makes the dawdling so agreeable is the performances by the noteworthy cast. Perhaps the most prominent is Emjay Anthony as Casper’s 11-year-old son Percy. He looks up to his father, and despite his desire to fulfill whatever ideals his son holds of him, Casper realizes a connection has been lost in lieu of his then-growing, now-ruined career. Anthony just feels natural, slotted into an already personal film as if he was an internal consideration of relations manifested.

His ability to riff with Favreau and John Leguizamo, Casper’s sous-chef and friend, is remarkable. In fact, if you recall Iron Man, Favreau imbued the humongous project with a decidedly indie flair by relying—somewhat by necessity, some by choice—on improvisation. And he has filled Chef with more actors that seem perfect for Favreau’s brand of “let’s see what we can do” production.

Among them, of course, is Robert Downey, Jr., who provides another entry into his collection of scene-stealing roles as Casper’s ex-wife’s first husband. Scarlett Johansson is impactful and charming in her rather brief appearance as a hostess at Casper’s old restaurant. Bobby Cannavale as the ostensible antagonist brings depth and humanity to the whole proceeding. And Amy Sedaris, well, does what she does so well.

Chef

The plot of the movie itself ends up almost exactly where you’d expect, but that doesn’t stop it from accomplishing what Elf showed Favreau was capable of; instilling a big heart into an even bigger film. And now he has put a huge heart into a small film, and it’s bursting so good. Much like Frozen from last year, most of Chef is geared towards positivity. The bad guy isn’t even that bad and, on the occasion, charming.

Most telling is Favreau’s actual performance. For as much renown as he receives for being a great director and writer, we often forget he has some impressive on-screen chops as well. Casper could have easily been a bumbling sack of sadness, but he turns him into a resolute, broken-but-fixable, intelligent, emotive fellow.

That’s important to note, seeing has how this is possibly a more or less direct line to Favreau’s heart of recent years. This is not a vindictive take on the criticism of his big budget work or that a studio guided his hand so much in his vision. It’s that he was frustrated with his prolonged stand against such harsh, uncaring winds. He’s not angry at them; he’s angry at himself.

Chef

And then we watch him show us this discovery and his heart, filling little by little with a spirit long dormant. We have a predictable story and a lingering, nigh sprawling film, but it’s a plate upon which we are served a heartfelt nod to what we miss from the Favreau of old. Swingers. Made. And now Chef. Take the time to make the trip with him, and you’ll find one of the best Favreau has to offer.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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