Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thoughts from the Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the Borderlands

Gosh, people sure do like Borderlands. When Tales from the Borderlands—the joint endeavor from Gearbox Software and Telltale Games—was first announced, I remember thinking that was an odd decision. Sure, Borderlands is fun and all, but Telltale games are about the investment in a story and its consequences. No one really came to Borderlands for that.

I guess I was wrong. As a row of cosplaying attendees stood under the screen of Dallas’ Alamo Drafthouse and Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch points out the tattoo of one Psycho, my mind is still absorbing the fact that some fans played the game for the lore. Maybe I am the crazy one for thinking that it was all the guns and the shooting that made it fun. I like Guardian Angel and Claptrap and all but not enough for these people.

Then, as the event went on, it seemed like I was doubly wrong. This premiere event where the entirety of the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands was played (by committee) showed that perhaps it’s not even the characters or the narrative bound to this alien world of Pandora that draws people back in, but the particular brand of humor. The sort of thing where referring to one of the leads Fiona or Rhys as a “meat bicycle” is one of the top jokes of the night.

Tales from the Borderlands event

And that’s strange, because there is genuinely so much in this episode that can provide a more complex chuckle than a base and childlike guffaw. Rhys, with his cybernetic Echo eye implant, scanned a taxidermied spiderant, for example, and latently described the frozen baddie as “also a racist and totally hates that restaurant you love” (or an approximation of that). That’s a good laugh. So is the part where Rhys tries to strangle a guard. The cheap laughs, though, win by sheer volume. (Acceptable, but we know they can do better.)

The story in Tales from the Borderlands—or at least in this episode—is that Fiona, a career conman, and Rhys, a cheated Hyperion employee, are reliving the circumstances that brought them together and into the harsh custody of a shotgun-toting nomad. As bits and pieces of their story line up and misalign, we piece together some version of the truth. While this is not a wholly unoriginal structure, it is ripe with intrigue.

I originally thought this would be the source of rapture where you would be attempting to reconcile the reality with one of two slightly skewed versions. Instead, this rarely came into play and then also provided one of the aforementioned cheap laughs. Not say it didn’t get a brief huff of humor out of me, but it still felt hollow, almost as if it was a cursory goof.

It did, however, get close to managing something even more interesting. The character’s stories quickly collide and provide fantastic elements of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-type situation where Fiona is hiding in the wings and goes through our reliving of the choices we just made as Rhys. And I quite literally scooted to the edge of my seat as my mind reeled from the possibility of having to merge the Telltale-ian decisions we are about to make as Fiona with the consequences of the choices we made as Rhys.

Unfortunately, it never quite got there, though it’s not an impossibility that it will happen in a later episode. It does, however, highlight one of the main differences of Tales from the Borderlands with Telltale’s other recent offerings like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us (and, in all likelihood, their upcoming Game of Thrones game). Those are far grittier and infinitely more steeped in the idea of consequence.

This, what with its source material, is intrinsically more lighthearted. Many of the choices never felt like they would lead to something I would regret for the months to come but more of the situation where I would snap by fingers, go “aw shucks,” and move on. Once again, definitely not a bad thing, but it does call to question why have the choices in there at all. As more Telltale games come out, a singular experimental possibility looms larger and larger: why not just put out a movie or an animated short?

Tales from the Borderlands

The interactions begin to seem perfunctory. This especially becomes the case in this game’s many (many) action sequences, which also seems to be a consequence of the source material. I didn’t find any added intrigue by swiping a direction to dodge gunfire when the other side of the coin was likely to lead to just trying again. And that goes for any similar scenes in The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. It always seemed like the weakest and most superfluous component of their games.

A strength, though, is definitely the voice acting. In addition to Troy Baker as Rhys and Nolan North as an enterprising thief/fence—both of whom you know you are going to get quality from, even if they are a known commodity at this point—you have Laura Bailey as Fiona and Patrick Warburton as Hyperion executive Vasquez. Warburton is, well, come on, he’s god damn Patrick Warburton. His voice is absurd and absurdly hilarious on its own. And look at Bailey’s Wikipedia page. That’s a lot of credits. She must be doing something right (and she is).

Tales from the Borderlands

As an aside, the whole format of the night was odd. There was really no systemic way or instituted mechanism by which the crowd of fans could decide together on the choices to make. Instead, it was just yelling, which really meant the people ten or 15 rows back were at a severe disadvantage in this ad hoc democracy. And the stick jockeys also quite often went with their own choices rather than the crowds, though something tells me that had more to do with the fact that people eventually got tired of yelling.

But that wasn’t the odd part. No, the strangeness emerged as I realized that this was the community playthrough that could ostensibly be extracted from those post-episode statistics Telltale likes to show off. These were the homogenized choices of merging many individual voices into a single vote of smacking someone in the face or attempting to tell a half-assed lie. Also that most people like to play like assholes for the inconsequential things, but for the big decisions, their instinct to be good still emerged. It was almost heartwarming if it wasn’t concerning conmen and thieves and more assholes.

It was an interesting night showcasing a pretty good game. Probably not many other games could succeed in this format, or at least those not in episodic form. And especially those that aren’t based primarily in storytelling. It’s an interesting contrast of what people do watching YouTubers and Let’s Plays where it’s the commentary that they look for. At this event, it was dead silent save for the crowd yelling their, uh, thoughts.

Tales from the Borderlands

I guess what I’m saying is if you have a chance to go back in time and go to that thing, it would probably be worth it.

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Far Cry 4 Review: Kyrat Me Home

Far Cry 4

Far Cry 4 is almost exactly what you’d expect, yet somehow it still manages to surprise you. It excels at placing a plethora of shenanigans and shenanigan-inducing items at your feet just as it dangles bombast and pyrotechnics right in front of your face. For all the games that manage to tell a heartbreaking tale or slather beauty on your eyeballs like gravy on a plate of biscuits, Far Cry 4 accomplishes the singularly incredible feat of never letting you be bored.

Once again in an open world of first person shooting, wild animals, and a semi-mystical and superstitious culture dealing with a maniacal bad guy, Far Cry 4 puts you smack dab in the middle of a Himalayan civil war between bat-shit crazy and moderately self-appointed Pagan Min and the local resistance called the Golden Path. You play as Ajay Ghale, the son of the late Golden Path founder Mohan Ghale, returning to his homeland from America to spread his recently deceased mother.

And very quickly, things go to Fucktown, USA. Ajay’s return does not go unnoticed by Pagan Min, formerly and romantically involved with Ajay’s mother Ishwari. This opening scene of going from casual bus ride to terrifying introduction to Pagan Min is utterly delectable. It’s like a hearty shepherd’s pie made from a demon cow: rich, filling, and altogether scary. It is gripping and engaging as anything you’re likely to see in a game this year.

It in fact almost wanted me to turn away from the Golden Path and go back to Pagan Min. He’s, like, a thousand percent more fun (and crazy, but hey, can’t win ’em all). While the writing is rather good across the board, it’s the performances that carry these characters from a nutso world to a grounded reality.

Troy Baker as Pagan Min is perfectly subtle and extreme all at once. James Woods, who was also Keith Ramsay in Far Cry 3, makes Ajay sound like a real person, a welcome departure from the all around caricature of Jason Brody last year. And from the intensely sensual designer Mumu Chiffon to absurd preacher/arms dealer Longinus, the performances give weight to otherwise objectively unreal characters.

That, however, is just the icing on the cake for most people. What many would like to know is whether or not you still do a dozen insane things a minute, and the answer is yes. All of the old things you can recall from Far Cry 3 like taking over outposts, climbing towers, hunting dangerous wildlife, and whatnot is all back. And with a setting like Kyrat where verticality is built into the environment, there’s a far greater sense of expansive possibility.

Far Cry 4

Most notable is that almost right off the bat, you have access to the wingsuit, allowing you to dive off of any cliff with little fear of dying at the bottom. There’s also the grappling hook, which allows you to quickly ascend sheer cliff faces and swing across massive chasms. It greatly removes the need to wiggle around slopes until you find grass to walk. Oh, and there’s the buzzer, a single rider gyrocopter that basically makes dicking around the best.

There is, however, a difference to be noted between dicking around and getting dicked around. The Rook Islands of Far Cry 3 felt dangerous, full of things that can kill you more or less in an instant. Kyrat, however, is full of dicks and assholes. Eagles will fly down from nowhere and pluck away a bar of health. Dholes and wolves chase you like it was one of the Ten Commandments. And don’t even get me started on honey badgers. Pardon my language, but they are what many would refer to as “some real fuckers.”

That is, though, a great component of what makes Far Cry 4 so compelling. At any given second, what once was a well-laid plan could go to shit. While settling into my old routine of scoping out an outpost before picking the guards off with my silenced Z23, I hear howling. It’s not from the Bengal tiger caged down below, but two shots into the schedule liberation, I hear footfalls. Might be hunters, a new enemy that evades tags and forces careful aggression, but then I hear snarling. Before I even turn, I know what it is. I just hadn’t expected so many of them.

Far Cry 4

Let’s just say one tiger, two ziplines, five wolves, and like 20 gallons of flamethrower juice later, the outpost was mine. Totally not what I had in mind, but certainly exciting. And that was probably the least crazy thing that happened that hour. Far Cry 4, more than anything, wants to make you do awesome things, and if that means charging a convoy with an elephant and a rocket launcher or crashing a C4-rigged buzzer into an enemy camp, then by golly it’s going to find a way to convince you to do it.

And among all these radical notions of turning reality-based action into the most supreme spectacles of nonsense and well-crafted havoc, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is a both great sounding and great looking game. While a few textures don’t play well up close, the vistas laid before you with vivid colors and sweeping mountaintops more than make up for such visual shortcomings. And little touches with the sound, like your assault rifle sounding increasingly tinnier as you use up a magazine, shine even among the roars of tigers and leopards.

Plus, if you thought you were doing fucked up things solo, try co-op. It is one of the best co-op experiences I’ve had all year, enabling you to do all of your stag tricks with a very human element of intelligence and dickishness. From executing premeditated battle tactics or coordinating a flawless outpost dismantling to not warning your partner about your penchant for unwarranted mines or driving their truck into a lake before taking off in your own, it’s all so unpredictable and all the way fantastic.

Far Cry 4

Far Cry 4 tries to do a lot of things. It throws an inconsolable amount of collectibles at you. It delivers a solid story of real and interesting characters. It even lets you paint an elephant. But what it does best it given you every possible reason to not be bored. It’s a surprise you knew you were getting all along but still surprised you anyways. Far Cry 4 might be what you expected based on its predecessor, but it’s also just what you wanted: an excellent game.

+ Great character performances and writing that craft an unbelievably gripping intro
+ More activities and variety in those activities than you can shake a tapir at
+ Intrinsic bombast and absurdity with the campaign and side missions
+ Beautiful and bright landscapes with excellent audio design
– Not a lot of originality going on here

Final Score 9 out of 10

Far Cry 4

Game Review: Far Cry 4
Release: November 18, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Single-player, co-op, online multiplayer
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://far-cry.ubi.com/en-US/

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Heroic Contrast

Heroic Contrast

Creating a hero is a tricky, subtle art. There are some ground rules that apply, though they’re more guidelines for generally creating friendly characters. For instance, don’t make them evil. That, in addition to making it very hard for them to be a protagonist, is just not very likable. Great starting point.

It’s not, however, an exact science. You can be the villain and still be liked. Loki as played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is by all counts a bad guy, but people still love him. And if you look at Gru in Despicable Me, you can be evil and still be the hero. (Though the argument could be made he was bad at being, well, bad.) The point is there are no hard and fast rules for this.

This notion comes to mind when comparing two somewhat recent game releases. The first being Assassin’s Creed Unity where, with Desmond Mason out of the picture, tragically abandoned and French Arno Dorian takes the full mantle of main character. And then there’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which is “recent” only in a technical sense considering it’s comprised of games all two to 13 years old. And we’re all familiar, whether you’ve played the games or not, with Master Chief.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Good ol’ Spartan 117 is fine place to start, actually. Chief is, more or less, without a personality. In fact, Halo 4 opens with a cinematic accusation that he is a broken man (with the additional supposition that is the reason why he’s been so successful). He’s nearly a silent protagonist, never speaking during gameplay but then making gruff utterances during choice cutscenes.

But people find this shell of a human agreeable anyways. It’s a curious thing that this would happen. How do you identify with something that has nothing to identify with? But there are two key components to Master Chief’s ramp up into an iconic character. The first is his chronically epic circumstances. There is never a moment where his existence does not the fate of humanity or the universe or something equally significant.

This plays into the universal and very human desire to be needed and validated. And by being silent—or at least nearly silent—it makes it much easier for the player to fill those giant Spartan-sized shoes. It’s a sentiment shared even by Frank O’Connor, currently Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries, in a 2007 interview. But that only works because of Master Chief’s inability to be insignificant. Otherwise why would we even want to inhabit that role?

Halo 4

The second component is Cortana, Master Chief’s artificial intelligence. She carries the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to voicing the opinions and concerns of our hero, which in turn should be the voice and concerns of us. Consider her a diegetic Greek chorus, if you will. She is largely the vein in which we tap to find grounding in this otherwise unrelatable and unattached world.

So then, when Cortana enters rampancy (a state in which AIs in the Halo universe go insane after accruing too much knowledge), Master Chief sets out to right this injustice. It is just about the first time we see him decide to do something for himself, though outwardly it’s to do something for Cortana. This is not just because he would be lost without her but because we see our connection to this silent, towering beast of a man slipping away.

Contrasted, then, with Arno of Assassin’s Creed Unity, the feeling surrounding the two characters is vastly different. Namely, Arno is a dick. Some people may disagree, but even then, it plays into the idea that creating a favored protagonist is not a surefire thing. His upbringing is doubly and predictably tragic what with first his real father and then his adopted father both being murdered (don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers; this all happens in the opening bits).

Assassin's Creed Unity

But perhaps the most tragic part—and the portion of Arno that is really dissociative—is that he’s dickish but fun the very beginning. He, in fact, has an almost Ezio-like feel to him, the best of the heroes the Assassin’s Creed franchise has to offer by a mile, a charming rogue hardened by hard times but retaining his core of plucky, puckish, and snappy personality.

With Arno, though, we are left with a husk. A mean, unidentifiable husk that, while being hollow, also leaves us feeling hollow. Feeling hollow and abandoned with this grim man who is still kind of a dick but is also now not very fun at all. More than anything, it feels like a bait and switch, as if we were deceived into liking Arno at all in the first place. No one is blaming Arno for his circumstances, but there is fault when we are asked to like him anyways.

On one hand, we have a silent, basically inhuman warrior that we all manage to like, even want to be. As a sole entity, there is nothing there to latch on to and yet we do grab hold. On the other, there’s a man full of personality and victim of consequence of dire actions. And he’s the one we cannot abide. He’s been bored out from tragedy and leaves us as hollow as it leaves him.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Circumstance directs our sympathies and relational capacity towards one in concept, but it plays out very differently. Maybe it’s not just heroes that are tricky. It’s really some gamble on an emotional payout. And based on fickle hearts and malleable minds, no one really knows how it’ll go until it happens.

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Big Hero 6 Review: Yaymax

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is painful. By the end of the movie, you will feel it in a very physical way with aches creeping up your side and into your head. And you will love it. This is a guaranteed way to spend 100 minutes laughing and smiling your big stupid face off and fill your heart with jollies and joys. True to its protagonist, Big Hero 6 feels most like the biggest, softest hug and is something truly worth seeing.

Based on a Marvel comic of the same name—albeit with a vastly different tone—Big Hero 6 tells the tale a young robotics prodigy name Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) in the fictional city of San Fransokyo. He first puts his talents to the less inspired venues of back alley robot fighting, but his similarly intelligent and robotics-inclined brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) convinces him to make a visit to his “nerd school” where students work on outlandish and impressive technology like plasma cutter beams and maglev rotational bearings. Tadashi himself is working on a big inflatable robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) that aids in personal healthcare.

After meeting the head honcho Professor Callaghan, Hiro decides he wants to attend the school as well and enters into an annual exhibition that showcases prospective students for admission. With the help of his brother and his friends, Hiro creates his microbots, a swarm of thousands of little widget robots that adhere to the directives of a headband-wearing user’s thoughts. A fire breaks out, though, and Hiro’s once redirected life heads back into the gutter after a sizable and wholly depressing personal tragedy.

You, however, can probably guess what happens. It is, in fact, strangely and wholly predictable. As the movie opens up, you think to yourself that it can’t possibly happen because it’s so cliché. But then it happens. And once you see where the drama is ginned up for the rest of the movie, you also find yourself saying in your head that this can’t possibly be where the film is headed, but then it ends up there as well.

So as a narrative, no, Big Hero 6 does not bring anything new to the table, which itself should not be surprising since by all means, this is a superhero origin story. It doesn’t, however, really need to do anything new because it does one thing and it does it incredibly well: it makes you happy.

You see, the dramatic impetus is a rogue use of Hiro’s microbots, but the true inciting action is the fact that Tadashi’s robot project Baymax even exists. He responds to anyone in pain, and one day Hiro accidentally activates Baymax, itself being an inconveniently large and clumsy but adorable inflatable entity. Designed specifically to maintain a huggable and helpful demeanor, Baymax just about perfect for generating ridiculous and hilarious scenarios.

Big Hero 6

As hard as you laugh watching the trailers where Hiro tries to adorn Baymax with armor or where Baymax attempts to patch himself up with tape, there is so much more to discover in the film where Baymax does absurd but lovable things. And that notion extends to the rest of the film’s roster as well. Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), with whom Hiro and Tadashi live, is fantastically yet eccentrically parental. And then all of Tadashi’s school friends are so identifiably energetic and welcoming, seeing them feels more like visiting old friends than meeting new people.

One of the most impressive things about Big Hero 6, though, is its ability to generate the sensation of being somewhere. Very often in animated movies, settings feel far more impressionistic than specific, leaving you with hints of an existence unknown. San Fransokyo, a mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo, feels entirely like its own place while borrowing with a creative precision that is to be admired. It’s both cities at once while being neither and it all comes across as impeccably complete.

It doesn’t hurt that it is a beautiful movie from a visual standpoint as well. Elements where you’re used to seeing as flat or tucked away in other computer animated films carry heft and texture and are more pronounced here. There’s one scene in particular where the haze of the shot’s depth of field looks genuinely atmospheric, lending drama and gravity to the moment. And the end could not look more like some wish fulfillment of exploring literal art and is just fantastic.

Big Hero 6

While not exploring anything new, Big Hero 6 seems to accomplish all it wanted to accomplish, and does with aplomb. It handedly creates tension and humor and an almost physical sensation of love and support through the cuddly and wobbly Baymax, though certainly it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. But with its brisk pace and deft charm, Big Hero 6 is hard to deny. Perhaps the only disappointment is leaving the theatre without a Baymax of your own.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Through the Day and Nightcrawler

Through Day and Nightcrawler

Not the X-Men’s Nightcrawler, though he certainly is worth talking about as well. No, this is Nightcrawler, a film featuring debut director Dan Gilroy and an eerily thin Jake Gyllenhaal. It is a tense, forcefully kinetic, and brooding yet energetic movie that you should undoubtedly see, but it has a supremely interesting concept at its center.

Before we get to that, you should know what Nightcrawler actually is about. Gyllenhaal starts out more or less as a thief. Our introduction to his character Louis Bloom is him stealing from a construction site, getting caught, and then attacking the unfortunately vigilant guard before stealing his watch. Oh, and then he sells material from the site for profit.

He then comes across a foreign situation: freelance video journalism in Los Angeles. They’re filming a car crash and selling that footage later to a news station. He wants to do the same, so he steals a bike to get money for a camcorder and radio scanner and hires an assistant in the form of a man almost unreasonably desperate for cash. The rest of the film is his descent into madness and our witnessing his fall.

Except it’s not. There’s something far more fascinating at the very base of this film concerning little ol’ Louis Bloom than this trite concept. We’ve already seen that story many times over. Sometimes in spectacular form like with Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia where we get to watch Al Pacino deftly, expertly, and recklessly go from composed homicide detective to a jumbled mess of guilt and insanity. And then sometimes you get The Number 23.

The point is we’re already familiar with that train ride down to Crazytown, which is what makes Nightcrawler so intriguing. On some fundamental level, it’s about the contrast between creation and discovery. Usually applied to a metaphysical discussion of mathematics, here we have human minds. Whereas you watch Pacino and Jim Carrey create their own madness, Nightcrawler is about the other side of that philosophical coin.

Instead, Louis is mad from the beginning and we simply (and thrillingly) discover it. It’s the small touches that do it. From the outset, we don’t see anything overtly crazy. Sure he steals to make a living, but that doesn’t necessarily make him insane. But when he steals that guard’s watch after he subdues him, it makes us uneasy. Not to any notable threshold, just that it was an extra shitty move to pull after assaulting the guy.

Nightcrawler

Then, at the scrapyard, Louis asks for a job while fencing his stolen materials. Describing himself, he says he’s motivated, driven. It’s a simple statement, but it feels too forward. As if it was more of a threat than a boast. And when he repeats it later on when trying to pull a job out of Nina, the station manager he sells his footage to, with an even more pressing force behind his words. This is the sort of person you slowly back away from outside a 7-Eleven.

Those are just little signs, though. They’re the little flags they throw down around a dig site when archaeologists think they’ve found a fossil. That turning point, as it were, of when he sees the freelance videographers covering the car crash and deciding he wants to do the same thing? That’s when we see the first hint of bone on the dig. We’ve discovered the madness.

The rest of the film plays on that very simple concept of discovery and what makes it compelling. We all want to see what’s under the dirt, no matter how hideous or grotesque that thing is that we’ve found. And in Louis’ case, it is revolting. We see absolute sociopathy. We see, to varying degrees, unchecked psychosis. We see a monster, but one limb—one claw—at a time.

Nightcrawler

And by the end, we see the whole thing. That’s where Nightcrawler excels. We see precisely the most affecting parts of Louis, the pieces that make us realize he wasn’t a thing created by the urgency of journalistic deadlines or competition or even voyeurism. He was crazy all along, and we happened to discover it.

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Overcharged and Overjoyed

Overcharged and Overjoyed

They try so hard. Studios, designers, developers. They all try so hard to tell you something. From the perils of imbuing the unprepared with power to the necessary heroics of all space marines, the net results is always supposed to be a sensation of revelation.

Perhaps you hadn’t played a platformer like this before or that was the only video game to make you genuinely laugh before. And when a game succeeds at conveying that simple notion to you, it’s quite remarkable. It’s how you end up with things like Gone Home or your own personal first outing with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. And as great as those moments are, the failures are just as painful.

It is, more or less, because they tried so hard to fabricate something. Whether attempting to play off of nostalgia or ginning up some feeling of urgency with a tight FPS aim-fire-duck loop, that all branches off as a secondary vein. It rarely taps into the foundation.

Sunset Overdrive

That is what makes Sunset Overdrive so interesting. It is thoroughly (or quite close to it) some representation of what pure joy is to its studio Insomniac Games. As much as any other developer—and perhaps more than most—Insomniac has always had its roots in being absurdly happy about what it does.

Starting out from making the Spyro series, a jubilant franchise about a little purple dragon spitting party/fireballs, they transitioned into what would become the mechanical foundation for Sunset Overdrive with the Ratchet & Clank games. An equally joyous series, this followed the spacefaring antics of an earnest Lombax and a perfectly sarcastic robot.

Oh, and you have a bunch of incredibly insane guns and whackadoo enemies. In Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, you have to fight a she-robot pop singer with backup dancers and disco balls. And then you’ll play as Secret Agent Clank, a James Bond-ian version of the mechanical half of the titular duo, and fight mini robot ninjas. And this is before you even get to the 2D side-scroller of Captain Qwark.

And the weapons. My lord the weapons. The series has the best gun, hands-down, of the entire video game industry. In Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, you encounter the RYNO V, a firearm (an incredibly inadequate term) that spewed an endless spiral of missiles out of overlapping miniguns also firing an interminable spray of bullets. And this is all while blasting out Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a song made famous by its literal use of cannon fire.

This was a studio made for making you happy by making itself happy. Just look at the childish in-jokes of the Ratchet & Clank subtitles. Their more serious fare has just never felt as natural. It felt like they were trying. With Ratchet: Deadlocked, arguably their first stone-faced outing, we didn’t get a terrible game but it also just wasn’t as fun as the other Ratchet games.

And then they transitioned into the Resistance series, which on some level sold the then-fresh PlayStation 3 as a worthwhile product. But it just wasn’t as interesting as even the first Ratchet & Clank; whether it’s true or not, it didn’t feel like they had fun making it. It felt awfully like a paint-by-numbers representation of a space/alien invasion FPS. And this continued with two more mainline, pretty good but not great franchise releases.

The final straw on the solemn camel’s back must have been Fuse. Debuting at E3 2011—then known as Overstrike—with just a pre-rendered trailer, it was an impressive showing for the formerly Sony-only studio. It showed personality and charisma and, most importantly, a fun take on a genre otherwise overstuffed with serious, furrow browed fellows.

Especially when thrown down in the same breath as Battlefield 3 at the same conference, Overstrike stood out like a bastion for the jovial with its blend of future tech and 70s(?) flair. But then an announcement came around the end of August in 2012 that Overstrike would be rebranded as Fuse. And things became a lot more serious. And a lot less interesting.

Whether or not it would have been good is a different question altogether and one we can’t possibly answer, but at the very least the milieu of Overstrike was on a fundamental level far more intriguing than the bland, everyshooter taste Fuse left in your mouth.

Sunset Overdrive

This is where Sunset Overdrive steps in. It is, by all measures, a game of absurdity. No amount of it is grounded in reality other than the fact that people have arms and legs. At every step, it seems as if the design was aimed at answering the question: how do we make this more fun?

Walking? Too pedestrian; let’s have people grind on rails. Not enough rails? Let’s have them bounce off of anything that is even a little soft. Oh, and they need guns? Here’s one that shoots out fireworks and another that has bombs strapped to teddy bears. And have everything explode in comic-style flourish and words and gorgeous color. And that doesn’t even include the part where even respawning is fun with homages to The Terminator, Portal, and more.

Beyond that, they successfully integrate all of that nonsense into systems that promote the active use of such nonsense. With a compelling combo system, the doomed fate of immobile players, and a plethora of activities to engage in, Sunset Overdrive both provides the fun and gives you reason to dive in headfirst.

Sunset Overdrive

Every bit of it feels like a direct line into the laughing, smiling faces of the people at Insomniac, and it’s comforting. There’s room for more serious fare like the recently released Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the like, but I’m always glad for things like Sunset Overdrive, games that seem to please me as much as the people that made it.

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Halo 2 and the 10-Year Itch

Halo 2 and the 10-Year Itch

There has been a lot of Halo in the air. It’s a bit like a roaming, free-floating sensation of Christmas jollies surrounding you, but it’s far more explosion-y. Halo: The Master Chief Collection is on the verge of release (it’s happening tomorrow), including a fresh launch trailer for the sizable aggregation. The reviews have already hit and roving around. And there’s that Halo 2 documentary.

Freely available on Xbox Video and the general Internet, it’s a roughly one-hour look back at the development of one of the most hyped games ever released and how 343 Industries went about remastering it for the aforementioned collection. The title—Remaking the Legend – Halo 2 Anniversary—is more than a bit presumptuous. There’s no denying the game made a huge splash both before and after release, but legend might be more marketing than fact.

It’s not that anything the people in the documentary said were entirely false. That would just be lying. In fact, Halo 2 did almost singlehandedly manufacture the now standard and widespread concepts embedded within current online multiplayer including playlists, matchmaking, and, well, playing shooters online with a console. It basically took the burden of justifying Xbox Live upon its green armored shoulders and plowed headlong into the future.

What it does manage to gloss over (besides other influences within the realms that Halo 2‘s multiplayer innovations dallied in) is what a colossal disappointment that game was. Okay, let’s dial it back: both “colossal” and “disappointment” are relative. It is, by all means, a great game and still holds up in most regards today, but you have to know the context with which it was released could not generate anything less than some degree of tepid nostalgia.

The two chief pillars to which critics will point first involve the Arbiter, the second playable character in the game’s single-player campaign. The impact upon the mythos this Covenant pariah has is conceptually solid, but it plays out within the rest of the story like a prequel Star Wars. It’s full of politics and not enough basely intuitive or intellectually stirring actuations the brooding conflicts and twists.

Not only that, but playing the Arbiter was far from compelling. For all the ire that the Flood drew in Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie saw fit to instead excise the entirety of that painful underground exercise into its own segment involving a character no one really wanted to play. Perhaps it was some twisted idea of redemption in proving they can actually make the Flood fun, but the net result was the same.

Halo 2: Anniversary

Then there is the ending, or lack thereof. It does, for all reasonable analyses, end only in the strictest definition of the word. It is the terminus of the campaign, yes, but it goes so far out of its way to be a cliffhanger that it must have been as inconvenient to write as it was frustrating to watch. The only way it could have been more insulting if Master Chief had actually been hanging from a cliff. (The real reason follows below.)

This makes the documentary—this 62-minute trailer barely qualifies as such when it so directly is aimed at wallets—a lackluster addition to the game’s history. It has some neat tidbits and behind-the-scenes clips (who knew John Mayer played on the soundtrack? That’s incredible.) but it also skips over the most compelling arc of all: an education.

It’s lightly touched upon in the part where some folks that worked on the game discussed its genesis, which was sloppy to say the least. It was a haphazard affair with a lot of guns pointed in a lot of directions that all hoped to cooperatively shoot down the giant sequel hype beast while not really planning ahead or even communicating all that well. It serves to highlight the true value of Halo 2, which are its contributions to Halo 3.

Halo 3

Put aside all of the multiplayer influences that linger about today and focus on the broad strokes. Halo 2‘s development was, by all means, a nightmare. Most, if not all, of what was shown as the first bit of publicly viewable gameplay in 2003 was scrapped and the game was not playable until a year later. And the subsequent and seemingly interminable engine work blocked production and design, rendering half of the team useless.

This led to the final year of development to be described as “the mother of all crunches” in an IGN retrospective. A split team structure resulted in broken lines of communication and a prototypical mess with an impending deadline. It was the paragon of poor planning and excessive ambition.

Yet we still ended up with one of the highest rated games of 2004 and one of the best selling games ever. But all it led to was the immediate production of Halo 3, which would eclipse its predecessor in terms of sales and ratings. And if you look at its actual development, it came across as a far more structured endeavor. Instead of spreading thin across arbitrary divisions of labor, Halo 3 worked between a single-player and multiplayer chasm, producing individual builds and weekly, publicly accountable updates.

Halo 3 Believe ad

The end result of this lesson in growing from a “messy adolescence” (as Halo 2 engineering lead Chris Butcher put it) to a legitimate organization and a superior product that had a metered and met ambition and expectation. And from that, we had several ensuing games of the same universe grace our gaming libraries.

It’s interesting to think of the material contributions Halo 2 had on the industry and its studio and our lives directly and in fact makes for a good sell to think fondly on and purchase the Master Chief Collection, but an equally compelling thought is how it shaped the studio that would come to continually pump out game of the year contenders. (And a somewhat average, derivative game about light and dark.)

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Changing Paces

Changing Paces

A massive shock to a dying system is what I consider Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. As much as I was over Call of Duty before with whatever notions of banality and boredom were infused into the franchise by its seventh(!) iteration of the modern era, this latest release has done something significant: it has made the series interesting again.

One of the biggest and most noteworthy games ever released in recent history—and possibly ever—is without a doubt Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the first in the neo age of military shooters. Its campaign not only set a then unbelievable but now unfortunate precedent of storytelling, the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare was the first of its kind.

Well, to be more accurate, it was the best of its kind, which made it the first military shooter to gobble up mass appeal like a Pac-Man dinner. The feel of playing Modern Warfare was and still is a paragon of what it should be to play competitive multiplayer shooters online. It was quick, impactful, and had a constant potential for exciting plays.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

And then that carried on for six years. It’s not exactly like Infinity Ward and Treyarch just sat back on their haunches all that time; there were certainly attempts at infusing interesting ideas. Call of Duty: Ghosts, for example, threw in map-centric killstreaks and alterable terrain/events. (It also had the Squads mode, which was novel but ultimately dispensable.) Call of Duty: Black Ops II went hard with switching from killstreaks to scorestreaks.

These integrations clung on with varying degrees of success, mostly depending on public reception as well as a failure to maintain consistency between studios as the annual rotation progressed. But even then, at its core, this was still the same Call of Duty we’ve been playing (by the god damn droves) since 2007.

It wasn’t that it played worse or anything. Far from it, the gameplay was as tight and snappy as it ever was. But after six iterations and six years of overlapping effect on the first-person concept, it became tired simply through the nature of existing. The rhythm of the game’s encounters became so deeply ingrained in the industry that there was an uncanny valley for games that skewed too close to the monolithic franchise.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

We felt the granular shift between games, but it didn’t mean much. At least not to the non-professional level of players. It still came down to check the map, sprint a corner, hold down RT just before snapping in with LT, get a kill, and then get shot in the back. That can sum up the vast majority of multiplayer encounters with not just Call of Duty but—because of its influence as a quality game and an enormously successful product—mostly every other online FPS out there.

Now, however, Advanced Warfare has come along. It has, though its nutso future tech, managed to bring about meaningful change. Its heightened focus on mobility is something that I can’t see following Call of Duty games not integrating. With the universal appendage of exoskeletons, we now have the ability to double jump, air dash, dodge, and generally just be more mobile and vertical.

This is extremely important considering that without this narrative conceit of being in the year 2054, we would still be stuck playing in a largely flat, two-dimensional theatre. These additional abilities of locomotion add much needed verticality to the game. The ability and necessity to move up and down quickly and efficiently is what made the multiplayer of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at all interesting and now the added dimension is doing the same for Advanced Warfare.

Titanfall

Very obviously, this is not the first game to do this in the industry, as evidenced by that first example. But even in the first-person shooter space, we have Titanfall from earlier this year that allowed much of the same to happen in addition to wall running and climbing into massive mechs. And seeing as how that actually came from the former heads of Infinity Ward (now Respawn Entertainment), this development feels all the more inevitable.

It’s not even just about the ability to move up and down in a new way but that in any particular direction, you now have an additional variation to the tired cadence. You can, at any point, change the pace of an encounter. It’s rare you die in Call of Duty totally unaware of your previously impending doom. It’s always the brief but gnawing and knowing sensation of being on the end of your current existence before you hear the snap of a near miss and the subsequent pops of your ongoing demise.

That is because, like most everything else, it is a numbers game. The probability of someone turning this particular corner with their head in this position is, let’s say, only 30%, but the probability of dinging any part of their body from this other angle is up to 60%. And we know the timing that it takes from the kerfuffle you saw on your map to your location is approximately two seconds, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, and…

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

But now there’s an additional wrinkle to account for. Those percentages drop drastically because now the ability for your enemy to come at you from above or below or in a quarter of the predicted time makes those numbers almost entirely worthless. And once you engage, boosting left or right or towards or away removes the now ingrained ability to make micro-tracking shots across 20-yard encounters.

It makes multiplayer far less of a knee-jerk reaction, twitch shooting (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and adds a level of variance that the series has been missing for far too long. And the fact that the longtime leader in the field of online FPS multiplayer gaming has taken the step to inject some life into its staple, stable, and flowing bloodline is an encouraging notion in the industry.

I’m not looking for more games to once more ape Call of Duty, but I am looking forward to the spread of the idea that change is good.

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Advanced Fragmentation and Warfare

Advanced Fragmentation and Warfare

I’m not sure it’s entirely safe to label a Call of Duty release the “biggest entertainment launch ever,” let alone the year. It didn’t happen last year and it probably won’t happen this year. Not only has that been on a downward trajectory for a while now (something Activision foolishly blames on the generational transition), but there is also sizable competition this year.

There’s Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue in about a week, though it’s possible the split console titles might also split total sales. Then there’s also the Halo: Master Chief Collection, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, LittleBigPlanet 3, new Pokémon and Super Smash Bros., and the PlayStation 4/Xbox One re-release of Grand Theft Auto V, the game that undoubtedly shoved Call of Duty: Ghosts from the top slot last year. (And let’s not forget earlier releases like Destiny and Titanfall.)

But what’s happening this go-round with the 11-year annual franchise isn’t the important part; it’s what happening in the future. With increasing development times and costs in resources, Activision has taken the logical and necessary step to maintain their yearly shooter schedule by moving to a three-year, three-studio rotation including Advanced Warfare‘s Sledgehammer Games, Ghosts‘ Infinity Ward, and Black Ops II‘s Treyarch.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

It’s been rumored and debunked that Treyarch is putting out World at War II next year, so math puts Infinity War down for 2016. (It’s absurd to me that games are being announced/assumed this far ahead, kind of like the nigh clairvoyant Marvel film releases.) This division of responsibilities raises some concerns, especially with some revelatory additions to Advanced Warfare.

First off, Advanced Warfare is a good game. I would say it’s a great game, but its redundancy as a franchise slackens an otherwise taut grip on exploding action into, onto, and all over our collective faces. And its most compelling changes have been more or less proven—and to a more extreme degree—in Titanfall: mobility. With the future tech of empowering exoskeletons, you and your comrades (and enemies) have the ability to double jump, dash, and dodge.

It makes the extraordinarily fine-tuned yet exceptionally flat gameplay of the Call of Duty series actually interesting rather than just precise. Being able to move at an additionally variable speed makes both the campaign and the multiplayer vastly more engaging, with the extra offensive strategies allowed by the currently nonexistent technology making the usually nominal, trite exchange of bullets and cover something genuinely original.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

The problem is that we’re unlikely to see this again. Or at least until we get another game from Sledgehammer. While the World at War II leak may not be true, it doesn’t necessarily tie Treyarch to making another World War II game. However, studios traditionally tackle their own era and their own sub-series under the overarching Call of Duty umbrella. Infinity Ward handles all of the Modern Warfares and thus anything with the current/pseudo-current fighting. Sledgehammer just established itself as the moderately near future studio.

And Treyarch has unfortunately locked away the stuff of the past. This means that we probably won’t be seeing the exoskeleton-induced mobility in next year’s release, and if Infinity Ward carries on with present day combat, 2016 will be without the compelling addition either.

It’s unfortunate because even with the small amount of time going back to last year’s Ghosts after spending a few hours with Advanced Warfare, I found the lack of future tech, well, dull. Uninspired, even, despite finding it acceptable one year ago. And it’s certainly not a new problem with the franchise either.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Black Ops II was the first of the series to contain a branching storyline based on player choice, and it actually made a not insignificant portion of the game’s narrative rather interesting. But then, with a different studio at the helm, it went missing with Ghosts. A large omission of a noteworthy improvement.

Also from Treyarch in the Black Ops pairing was the dolphin dive, an odd but useful bonus in the shooter’s repertoire. It also went missing in the intervening releases from Infinity Ward. Whether good or bad, it and the integration of player choice and the focus on player mobility represent the greatest problem facing the formerly monolithic and unstoppable franchise: fragmentation.

There is no cohesive or unifying direction of the series regarding these differences. And I don’t see how they could in the short term considering development of all three studios is all in parallel. But this actively hurts the franchise since no good ideas or lessons from poor experiments get transplanted to the following year. Worse than that, each studio may wholeheartedly revel in the idea of pushing back and being entirely unique, for better or worse.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

This wouldn’t be terrible if all three studios weren’t ostensibly aiming for the same goal. The interesting thing about, say, the Mission Impossible movies switching directors is that each one takes a massive detour in terms of tone, action, and general milieu. Every Call of Duty, however, tries to gin up categorical summer blockbuster action, hanging you from launch rockets and speeding busses and the like.

The end result is a feeling of petty conflict, and if not that, some degree of punitive ignorance. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a real enough sensation. Wouldn’t the combination of the best parts of three studios’ worth of ingenuity result in the best Call of Duty possible? Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth finding out rather than assuming it’s not.

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