Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Year in Review: #2 Far Cry 4

The Year in Review: #2 Far Cry 4

You like Far Cry 4. I know you do. You know you do. Even if its ostensible aim (open world shooter) isn’t your cup of tea, there’s something in there for you to do. It is, impressively, an absurdly wide ranging game. Granted, the majority of the time, you’ll be shooting people, but the ways in which you can best accomplish that are manifold through the most delectably insane methods.

That’s kind of the key word here: “best.” It can, in this case, mean any number of things. As opposed to pure stealth games where getting spotted is either some arbitrary demerit down to Fox from Fox Hound or an overwhelming physical accosting by surly guards, being seen in Far Cry 4 is very often a choice. It is a choice to embrace the world as it comes.

If you so choose, you can sneak around with a bow the entire time, ducking in and out of bushes to disable alarms and picking off patrols one by one until you face the last foe face to face. Out in the open, he will receive his sweet release and you will deliver it by way of steel and lead. Or, you can plant C4 on a car, drive it into a camp, and blow it up. Or you can storm in guns blazing, hopped up on so many syringes you can hardly see straight. Better yet, do it on an elephant.

Far Cry 4

But the important thing, oddly enough, isn’t just that you have choices. That’s simple enough; simple binary choices plagued video games not five years ago and still we find their grubby little hands on our stories and mechanics every so often. What you have here is a very comprehensive freedom to accomplish a finite set of goals in a nearly limitless way.

That interminable bucket of possibilities is meaningful. In the most literal sense, you can already do that in any game. Wait some random amount of time before stepping into a mission marker and most likely you’ve done it differently than anyone else before you. Far Cry 4 does this instead by offering an immersive range for which you to rampage across and explore to your trigger’s desire.

Kyrat, the setting for the game, is what makes it so worthwhile. It is full of wildlife that at any given point could drastically improve or utterly destroy whatever well laid plans you had. Or it can just add little joyous moments of chaos to your day, seeing a bear and a tiger fight as you soar over in your wingsuit. Or you can let loose caged and feral animals on your unsuspecting foes.

Far Cry 4

So much of what the world accomplishes can be summed up in the notion of a living world. Open world games attempt to make this happen to varying degrees of success—from Infamous‘ starkly empty and noiseless streets to Grand Theft Auto V‘s bustling urban life—and Far Cry 4 does it by imbuing a sense of purpose to its inhabitants. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the mountains of Kyrat, but all of it is there with a reason.

Townsfolk tell you stories and comment on your impact on the area. Animals hassle you but also let you craft gear and provide you with interesting fashion-oriented missions. Guards patrol and get in very real firefights with rebels. And when you take it all in stride, variety cropping up at every turn as you drive from place to place, it gives the world a very appreciable veracity.

There are the parts of Far Cry 4 that are old being presented as new again. Some of it has been refined and other bits are just new signage for old quirks. You can count of it handling the same, which is to say tautly and quickly. The component with which you directly interact is still superb, but the world in which that mechanical nugget is set in has been built up to a remarkable degree. It is a land full of life, both wild and otherwise, and it spans a beautiful, vibrant bucolic expanse, offering shenanigans, strife, and explosions. And it’s what makes Far Cry 4 my number two game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #3 Shovel Knight

The Year in Review: #3 Shovel Knight

This is what happens when you give a knight a shovel. You end up, curiously enough, with one hell of a game. The $311,502 from Kickstarter sure didn’t hurt, but most of the credit goes to Yacht Club Games for taking the old skeletons from the games of yesteryear and shaking loose all the good bits for you to play.

It was easy to overlook Shovel Knight. Retro as an aesthetic has been raging on for the past several years now and is unlikely to slow down until the end of forever. Retro as gameplay has coincided with that pixelated wave of nostalgia, but it so rarely gets executed with the care necessary to make it worthwhile.

And by that, I mean the game is being made tolerable. It’s the common fault of looking back on the past to gloss over the monstrously proportioned gaps in usability and intuitiveness and head straight to fawning over what used to be. It’s not just getting the pinpoint accuracy of jumping simultaneously over and between moving obstacles or figuring out the stoic patterns of oversized bosses that made those old platformers so identifiable but the way all those little avenues of ingenuity come together.

Shovel Knight

That aggregation of mechanical design facets included all the old faults as well, things that have been rectified and sorted out as the years go on and developers build upon older generations of experience and knowledge. Shovel Knight managed to infuse modern sensibilities into the framework of something distinctly older.

Its mechanics are undoubtedly ripped from the handbook of 8-bit sidescrollers: moving platforms, a DuckTales-esque pogo shovel, head-bopping enemies, etc. But then you get platforming puzzles that are definitely of a newer ilk, forcing you to alternate between traversal and combat all in a single moving breath or limited sight paths that require sustained spatial awareness.

There’s a fidelity to the movement that comes across as singularly of an analog control but the gradient upon which you move is of a digital era. It mashes up well against the amalgam of remixed gameplay, further deepening its seat on a throne of beautifully blended ideals. There’s the raw, almost reckless sensation of old school level and enemy design merging seamlessly with a current day concern of innate progression and smoothing iterations.

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight takes the pillars that so many other games take for granted and strips them bare, building instead with them rather than haphazardly on top of them. It steeps in the foundational essence of well-worn retro platformers and lathers up into a new, fresh-faced piece of the old and the modern. It manages to extract the utility from nostalgia instead of just a tiny palette of colors and shapes up into Shovel Knight, my number three game of the year.

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The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

This year has been a rough one. Compared to the past few years where you could go into January with high hopes and a belief that this industry was headed somewhere good, leaving 2014 also leaves an aftertaste. There are some usual suspects that always make us shift uneasily in our seats, but when they stack up high like a plate of endless pancakes, it’s cause for concern.

Concern and indignation, really. First let’s consider that this holiday season looked like a banger back at the turn of 2014. We had games like Batman: Arkham Knight and The Order: 1886 coming at us hard and fast. But Arkham Knight‘s October turned to 2015, as did The Order. The same goes for Mad Max and The Division. (Technically aimed at the next year anyways, even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suffered yet another delay, breaking promises and deadlines.)

This turned the end of the year from a gangbusters gameapalooza to a rather tepid end to a depressing year. (We’ll get into that in another TYIR.) While not terrible games, we are left with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Lara Croft: The Temple of Osiris for December. November was a little better off with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and LittleBigPlanet 3 along with Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (and the obligatory Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed releases), but still not the fresh bounty we’d been promised.

The Last of Us Remastered

Perhaps worse than that, we were fed stale (if refined) bits of bread and told they were good as new. This year was rife with HD rereleases, an invitation almost too obvious with the nascent years of these new consoles. The biggest and more recent titles of yester-generation came back like Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, both of which proved their objective quality and impressive aesthetics.

As devs figure out how best to milk the hardware of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we further received the announcements of rereleases of DmC, Saints Row IV, and supposedly Borderlands. It’s a marginally improved concession for convenience if you want to play these games, but the draw of playing on our infant nostalgia is wearing thin. It’s almost becoming annoying—insulting.

You probably noticed that there’s a big HD rerelease missing from the aforementioned 2014 litany: Halo: The Master Chief Collection. That’s because it leads right into the biggest trend of disappointment for the year. Case in point, one of the biggest components of the Spartan anthology—the online multiplayer matchmaking—simply did not work. This lead to both Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, to writing a personal apology to players and throwing an offering to the voracious wolves.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

The biggest and most advertised portion of the collection was, in a word, useless. It’s still a lovely and centralized way to play the campaigns of the main Halo series of games, but all that marketing about playing every map with all your Xbox One buddies just couldn’t be made true. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the only one with that problem.

Driveclub didn’t have its full capabilities until this month, a chasm of lacking features including weather and, most importantly, online play. Its launch popularity broke its own server infrastructure, rendering much of it useless to its players, which then drove Evolution Studios to delay the Driveclub PlayStation Plus Edition.

Then there was Assassin’s Creed Unity, a true debacle on almost all counts. Frame rate often fell to nightmare status and crashes were strewn about like sprinkles at a Baskin-Robbins. Missing faces were commonplace enough to question the veracity of general healthcare during the French Revolution. It was so bad that Ubisoft offered free DLC and a free game so as to surreptitiously attempt a legal dodge.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Ubisoft, actually, just hasn’t had a good year in general. It had a solid highlight with Far Cry 4 and South Park: The Stick of Truth, but its highly publicized and anticipated Watch Dogs turned out to be somewhat of a dud. The Crew also turned out to be quite the uninteresting product and not without its own fair share of technical issues.

Combined with putting out the single most broken game of the year in Unity, Ubisoft has a lot of ground to make up in 2015. (They do get credit, though, for putting out Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.) Quite a few studios coming out of 2014, actually, have a long road of ahead of them.

Bungie put out a similarly mediocre but functional game in Destiny. We thought they were just Halo developers and this would prove they could do more, but we ended up with Halo with odd bits of MMO mixed in and a mild proof that they do absolutely love pseudo-robotic space warriors with flying AI buddies.

Destiny

While not a broken or a bad game, it was disappointing. Much of the big, triple-A roster this year, in fact, was disappointing. Thief, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, everything just mentioned, and so much more failed to live up to expectations either set by studio reputation, past franchise titles, or even just good demos as past trade shows. You have plenty of reason to be mad about some of these and many other things, but really, I’m just disappointed at this point.

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Let’s Talk About That Sony Hack

The Interview

Yesterday was abuzz with twittering about The Interview. The film—once upcoming but now not so much—is a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco where they play two journalists recruited by the American government to assassinate Kim Jong-un after managing to book a rare interview with the North Korean leader. It features a rather gruesome death scene.

Or it used to feature. Or it used to be a movie. I don’t really know. Following a sternly worded threat regarding moviegoer safety should The Interview release, theater chains began to pull out until Sony cancelled the film altogether. But who’s to say it won’t get digital distribution?

So it might still be a movie. And with all this buzz, there’s no way people won’t flock to their computers and PlayStations to watch this, making the digital route a viable path to recouping the $44 million budget. It doesn’t seem like a terrible turn after a stark reminder of 9/11 and a claim that “the world will be full of fear.”

You might be asking yourself at this point why this is happening. And where that footage of an unreleased and technically nonexistent movie came from. If you recall from November 24 of this year, Sony was hacked and subsequently blackmailed by a group calling itself Guardians of Peace. Shortly after, things started to go online.

This includes sensitive corporate emails, planned film projects, and even nefarious schemes against Google. And journalists disseminated the information, which really riled up Aaron Sorkin, which then riled up journalists. (For the record—and rather predictably—I side with journalism, but not just because that’s what I do.)

Where does this all tie together? Well, signs point to North Korea having been the culprit behind the hack. Some of it is circumstantial, and other is pretty damning, but both are appropriately illegitimate when in the realm of easy targets like Sony. There’s a lot of passive aggressive tiptoeing happening from both the investigative and the defending sides.

The Interview

Let’s start off by saying the decision to cancel the movie’s release is not a bad one. Under massive threat (unsubstantiated, says the government while the LAPD says otherwise), it’s not a terrible idea nor an un-American one when “free market companies make decisions out of fear for their patrons,” as Mike Neumann put it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t set a precedent where unproven threats are enough to censor artistic freedom. The next time a theater gets a threat over a movie release, does that mean it will then once again pull out from the distribution? At some point, does someone stand up and accept the consequences if they do come blowing down the doors? That almost certainly is the only way break away from the chain now.

A lingering question, though, is why North Korea cares about this movie at all. Sure it features the death (and the plotting leading up to it) of a country’s current leader, but it also seems, for the most part, harmless. In the trailer released for The Interview on the same day as the hack, Jong-un actually seems pretty chill in this particular depiction. Rogen clearly makes him a villain, but he still manages to win over Franco’s character and gives a puppy to cuddle.

The Interview

And sure the death scene is graphic, but it mostly fits into the same vein of humor that Rogen and Franco have jointly produced in the past anyways. So it still lingers: why does North Korea care? It’s something called a “soft war,” a war with media and entertainment and propaganda that systematically dismantles the philosophical and cultural fibers of another country. Brian Crecente over at Polygon documents the issue rather well.

So now we have a (once again) hacked Sony with leaked corporate documents, social security numbers, and credit card information. We also have a confusing pile of proof that North Korea financially backed this bit of cyber warfare. And then there’s the fact that we won’t have another buddy comedy from Rogen and Franco (jury is still out on the pros and cons of that one). Where does that leave us?

That leaves us precisely where it sounds like: paranoia in our cyber and physical security; international espionage possibly masquerading as corporate espionage; and Sony at least $44 million in the hole, if not more after the deals broken and confidence lost in the leaked documents. And now we have precedence.

The Interview

Not of just actively but hostilely countering so-called “soft war” tactics. (Iran just made a video game of their own, but I guess that’s not good enough anymore.) There is a precedent being set for where the value of freedom of expression is set below yet another thing. No one could possibly come out ahead in this one.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Review: So Smaug

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a fantastic way to turn $250 million into a well-produced piece of mediocrity. For all its improvements over its predecessors in Peter Jackson’s second trilogy of Middle Earth, this third and concluding film is still problematic, sometimes for the same and sometimes for very different reasons. Whether it’s an issue with turning the source material into a cinematic product or it’s with the directorial vision, The Battle of the Five Armies is just an acceptable yet somewhat disappointing ending to The Hobbit.

This picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off—right down to the second—so going into this film cold is ill-advised. We’re left with Smaug about to bring ruin to the nearby village of Laketown while the company of dwarves (and one hobbit) sits up in the Lonely Mountain on a pile of riches. Thorin Oakenshield, however, is losing his mind with the greed of maintaining his recently reclaimed ancestral wealth.

And then Bard, the bowman with a disappointing familial association with Smaug, kills the dragon. Within the first 15 minutes, we have resolution from the cliffhanger of the previous film. This is representative of the biggest problem with the film, let alone the trilogy as a whole. The book was more or less structured as a traditional three-act story, but Jackson, in stretching the one book into three films, had to inject his own scaffolding.

This means that right off the bat, there has to be concluding action to the previous film simply because we have even more resolution to reach before the end of both the source and the movie. So something that otherwise was another step in the introduction and building of Bard as a character was built into a necessary cinematic climax that ultimately got squashed and swept in the opening scenes.

The title is also indicative of the film’s follies. We do indeed eventually arrive at a battle involving five armies, but everything preceding that clashing quintet is just more fighting. It eventually becomes quite tiring. Numbing, even, like a haunted house where nothing but people with chainsaws come jumping out at you around every corner.

Jackson, to his credit, attempts to throttle the nonstop action with some semblance of pacing in a few stealthy bits and the building of armies, but after having so many unbroken sequences of clattering and yelling, it becomes confusing more than anything. Instead of having a few highlight reel moments sprinkled as memorable treats throughout the movie, there is one every ten or so minutes. Do you like that cherry on top of your sundae? Good, because here’s a whole jar of ’em.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

For the most part, though, the action is massively improved over The Desolation of Smaug where everything felt exceptionally inconsequential. This is a suitably dark film with dread and weariness slathered all over it with evocative fighting to match. Things feel like they have heft and weight, as if everyone is truly struggling to make it, even at the hands of the most skilled fighters like Legolas and Thorin.

The one exception, once again, is the dwarves. More accurately, one specific dwarf who seemed more or less invincible in the middle of a bloody and body ridden battlefield. It definitely imbued right back into this grim entry a sense of cartoonish safety, albeit only briefly. Still, it’s a reminder of what the film is trying so hard not to be.

Action, however, is most certainly a strong suit for Jackson now. He was always adept at large-scale, sweeping frames of combat, but he now also has a more deft hand at specificity as well. If you recall the wizard “battle” between Gandalf and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you can remember how he made something so cool almost laughable. Now, Jackson capably turns personal physical conflicts immediately and intuitively compelling.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

He also carries and throws around a great sense of inevitability. That was the most impressive part of The Two Towers, where it felt like we were all arriving at a conclusion that we both wanted to see and hated seeing. It was so exciting while still we knew terrible things were going to happen. That feeling is capitalized a few too many times, though.

That sentiment also goes for concluding scenes. There are several bits and bobs established throughout the trilogy that get capped here in this last movie (along with major problems and events), and they all happen inevitable regularity. Tauriel and Kíli; Legolas and Thranduil; and Bard and Smaug coinciding with the dwarves and the Arkenstone; Gandalf and Sauron; and Thorin and Azog the Defiler. At some point, it feels like a checklist of loose ends being tied up and just as abrupt.

While this is a brief movie relative to the others at a sprinting, sword-smashing 144 minutes, it still has a tendency to feel as if it drags on. It is an artifact of Jackson’s inability to succinctly shoot large scale battles, but also some surfacing bits of inexplicable drama and romances that happens seemingly for little to no reason. It renders a viewer’s focus across several narrative planes that just shouldn’t be there.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

There are a lot of discrete problems with the movie, but make no mistake as the foundation of this and every other film of Jackson’s has a rock solid foundation. The acting, the music, the sound design, the production design, and the cinematography all come up to be top of the line, or at least close enough for such grand scale epics. But you can’t act away or build up enough orcs or conduct enough orchestras to overcome structural narrative shortcomings.

For all the basics that the movie nails (which anyone can tell you, it’s often the fundamentals that are the hardest to perfect), it is still a flawed film in its outset intent and the open ends left in its hands from An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a fine film (and the best of the trilogy to be sure), but it’s still not a great one.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

+ Great sense of circumstantial inevitably
+ Jackson learned how to shoot small scale battles
+ Improved feeling of consequential action
– Abrupt and tiring resolutions over and over again
– Inexplicable romances and drama surfacing all over the place
– Numbing exposure to nonstop combat

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Apple’s Censored Garden

Apple's Censored Garden

“Because I said so.” That is the hefty hammer of rule wielded by many parents and suffered by many children. Why can’t you buy this book at the book fair? Because I said so. Why can’t you stay up to watch one more episode of [insert show kids watch]? Because I said so.

Sometimes it’s for genuine protection. (Like, seriously, don’t stick that fork in the toaster.) But it becomes frustrating for the kid when an explanation doesn’t follow the denial. Or worse than that, the decision turns from a faith in logic to an arbitrary admonishment, a lack of consistency. Understanding makes us tick, but it also makes us unravel.

Just yesterday, Lucas Pope experienced this firsthand as he prepares to release Papers, Please for Apple’s App Store. The iPad version will have actually already come out by the time you read this, but there is one significant change from the original PC release: there is no full nudity option. Apple’s reasoning? “Pornographic content.”

If you recall from 2013, I really enjoyed Papers, Please. Well, “enjoyed” is an odd word for it. Papers, Please is a taxing game. It forces you to push aside your humanity—your empathy, your emotions—and do your job. Follow orders and get it done. All day, every day.

The nudity that Apple refers to comes up once you start using body scanners to determine if immigrants coming through your border station are hiding dangerous items, like bombs or guns. It is also a sharp, pungent reminder of what you’re doing. You’re violating precious privacy—personal privacy, too, one of the few allowed in Arstotzka—just to shuffle more sheep through the line and get more money.

It is, in a word, necessary. While you can still play and “enjoy” the game without it (the original had the ability to partially clothe people), a substantial gut-punch is removed in the process. Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku actually has already written about this, if you want to read about it.

Papers, Please

While important, that’s not the main problem with this censorship. It is, in fact, Apple’s application of it that is the problem. Firstly by their methodologies, it is frustrating. For the longest time, Apple has been viewed as a walled garden, holding tight to restrictions regarding its and others’ content when offered through or on their platforms like the App Store and iOS devices. It certainly has benefits (e.g. guaranteed interoperability), but it is also has huge drawbacks.

The most obvious, of course, is the opaque review process. Apple has very clearly stated guidelines, but there are significant gray areas that allow for things to get muddied. 16.1 of their guidelines state the following: “Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected.” Those two words. “Excessively objectionable.” Both of those are independently dependent on perspective.

Without context, it is certainly an app that provides images of digitized pixel nudity. With context, it is a contributing factor to the dehumanizing sensation that makes Papers, Please so affecting. Consider an image of two colors squares on top of each other. Half a tetromino, right? Now we give them names like Betty and Bob and play this music. Now it is sexual in nature and liable to be rejected from the App Store as well.

Papers, Please

What I’m trying to say is context is important. That’s the first problem with this censorship. This is a superficial rejection (or so we can assume, since we have no idea how Apple really feels about it other than “no”), but with the number of app submissions Apple gets a day. In 2012, they got 26,000 a week, and by 2013, they were adding almost that many per month. That’s too many to keep up with and subject each submission to in-depth analysis.

The next problem is the inconsistency. With that much input to go through, it’s a problem solved by throwing more bodies at it. This means a lot of different opinions of what is “excessively objectionable” get to say what gets through and what doesn’t. The end result is something saliently pointed to by The Guardian: an iOS app by very real porn star Rocco Siffredi was just released, an app that allows you to insert your face into an image of a woman being taken from behind and share it.

Apple even bothers in that article to refer to Jacobellis v. Ohio, the famous Supreme Court decision on obscenity where Justice Potter Stewart stated he could not define pornography, but rather that “I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to believe that this is not considered pornographic by Apple but this is. How can that be frustrating and defeating to everyone else but especially Lucas Pope?

Mass Effect 3

Then there’s also the whole bit about artistic expression and the value of wholly encompassing some creator’s vision. Remember the kerfuffle surrounding Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion(s)? While it shouldn’t be free from criticism, BioWare should also be free to create something as they see fit. And criticism is vastly different from censorship, let alone the absolutely absurd petition to wholly revise another creator’s product.

While we haven’t quite reached that point, it’s still telling of where both the App Store is and where it’s headed. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is Google Play where it’s like kindergarteners running around with scissors and glue and every once in a while you’ll see someone conducting business. One remedy, though, is simply to become even less opaque, a transition Apple has made even once before. Yes, they used to be more inscrutable. But I guess it’s not up to us. Why?

Because Apple said so.

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Let’s Talk About That PlayStation Experience

PlayStation Experience

Over the weekend, the industry saw two maiden voyages: Geoff Keighley’s independent The Game Awards and Sony’s for-fans PlayStation Experience. We can get around to the former later, but right now let’s talk about the latter. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation and announced back in October, this event was a two-day celebration in Las Vegas for the brand and the PlayStation 4’s current and upcoming lineup.

It is the closest to a winter E3 we’ll get, or really any industry event. It’s a little PAX in its timing (i.e. not during the summer) and in its structure (e.g. fully open to fans and organized around panels), but make no mistake that it’s skewing closer to an E3 or Gamescom than the fan convention. Most of the games available for play on the floor were largely just announced and not available for retail.

This strikes me as a prototypical move. Testing the waters, if you will. For the past several years, the utility of E3 has started to fade. It’s fun traveling and attending parties and certainly hanging out with basically everyone else in the industry all at once is pretty cool (and overwhelming), the actual benefits of the show are becoming dubious.

None of it aside from shaking the hands of PR people you’d only ever exchanged emails with and squeezing in unscheduled interviews with industry luminaries could not also be accomplished through Skype calls and Dropboxes of demo builds. Otherwise, it almost certainly is a bust for everyone. That’s a full week of being tired, getting sick, and getting great coverage getting swallowed up by a deluge of other great coverage. It’s numbing for developers, journalists, brand reps, and readers.

Similarly for the past few years, though, Nintendo has taken a slightly different tack. They don’t participate in the traditional keynote madness anymore, instead opting for a couple Nintendo Directs during the week topped off by a press roundtable. And instead of making the games exclusive to the industry folk angrily meandering the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, they let fans take part all around the country. Not only that, but those Nintendo Directs? They can happen whenever Nintendo wants, and they happen all during the year, albeit when convenient for Japan.

And guess what: Nintendo won developer of the year at The Game Awards. And do you know how many of the games that won their categories were Nintendo games? One: Mario Kart 8. (Granted it won in two different categories.) Then, when you consider the ratio of nominees as well, Nintendo falls far behind. Their win is…strange.

Mario Kart 8

But that’s if you don’t consider what they do. No, not release games. It’s about what they do differently, and it seems that Sony caught on, hence the PlayStation Experience. They’re testing the waters with this inaugural event. It’s just convenient that it managed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original PlayStation. Aside from a few obligatory mentions and the LittleBigPlanet 3 video, the anniversary might as well have not even been a factor.

Instead, we had a keynote packed with announcements—a few of them were genuine surprises, too—and premiere trailers. It felt an awful lot like the efforts and energy you’d usually feel at Day 0 of E3. And the floor definitely carried the teeming joy you’d find in the weeklong LA showcase. Certainly the timing of the event was a huge factor as well. With the holidays right in people’s faces and Amazon shipping deadlines looming, what better than to remind people that PlayStation has great games out right now.

Microsoft’s response was, more or less, Phil Spencer’s Twitter. He absolutely handled it with tact, but it’s very much an impossible world where Redmond execs didn’t see the response to the event (which coincided with the similarly major fan-based The Game Awards) and didn’t feel a pang of panic. Especially when prompted with a question about the X0 shows, it’s hard not to wonder why Microsoft wasn’t already riding this wave.

Xbox X0 Event

The answer, of course, is the fans. They carried Nintendo to the Developer of the Year award and they—straight from the floor in Las Vegas—made Sony the talk of weekend and certainly will make Sony the talk of the pre-holiday sale rush. You take the mix of fans finally taking in hand the journalist privilege of playing unreleased games and interacting with press coverage and YouTubers posting reaction videos and you get a storm of organic hype.

Microsoft has gotten off to a slower start this generation than Sony and now it’s falling behind in its media handling as well. Much like the overt use for E3 has shifted (though the secret E3 still goes strong), Sony and Nintendo have recognized not only the growing influence of fans in fresh coverage but also that they way they consume and interact with news is evolving. While Spencer is not wrong about having an important E3 and Gamescom, he fails to recognize that it’s not just about trade shows.

Nintendo has its Nintendo Directs. They sponsor SXSW Gaming. They showcased their games Best Buy locations all over the country. And Sony came storming out of the gates with the PlayStation Experience, riding the wave of their strong start of the PlayStation 4 to an equally strong holiday buzz. And where’s Microsoft? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the fans.

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Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris Review: One Fish, Tomb Fish

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

Sometimes all a game has to do is make you forget. For all the lofty goals we’ve attached to the medium as we elevate it to artistic discourse and social commentary and eSports careers, there’s still that very necessary niche that needs filling, the one that we dip into when we just want to have some a good time. That’s where Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris steps up. It is, quite simply, just fun.

Very notably, this once again lacks the epithet Tomb Raider despite the fact you’ll actually be raiding quite a few tombs. It follows in the steps of its Raider-less predecessor Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. You’ll play as Lara (or one of her three other cohorts including competitor archaeologist Carter Bell and Egyptians gods Horus and Isis), exploring pyramids and tombs while shooting a bunch of bad guys and solving some puzzles.

Temple of Osiris matches the blueprint for Guardian of Light pretty much one-to-one. Fixed perspective, co-operative play, dual joystick shooting, and engaging with ancient spirits on a personal level. Osiris’ brother Set has come back to take the world as his own, but Osiris’ wife and son have roped both Carter and Lara into helping them combat Set’s nefarious schemes.

The story is classically outrageous in true Tomb Raider fashion. It doesn’t really do much, though, other than set up the mismatched quartet to go to a bunch of underground and cavernous catacombs as you attempt to collect the parts of Osiris to resurrect the dispensed god. The plot is told through some nicely voiced and good-looking comic-style freeze-frames but mostly just stays out of the way.

Which is a good thing, considering how fun it is. From the outset, it seems exceptionally simple. You move with the left stick and aim and shoot with the right stick and right trigger. You can jump, drop bombs, light torches, and, most importantly, dodge. It feels a lot like Bastion in that way. Inclusive of the fixed perspective and dual joystick controls, the dodging feels as paramount here as it does in Supergiant Games’ title.

It certainly lends an appropriately and engaging chaos and speed to the combat. The dodge roll allows you to move faster and avoid attacks, and as a consequence, allows you to control the spacing, which is your greatest asset in this game. If you’re not paying attention, you will go down in the blink of an eye, irrespective of the health upgrades you gather.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

That material consequence makes the action much more engrossing. Especially once you get to enemies like flaming scarab beetles that scorch the ground and crocodiles that fire lightning at the ground and golden balls that spew out more enemies until you zap them with your magic staff, you’ll find it that much more important that you never blink and you keep moving. It’s impressive how well the game deftly spreads out your attention while you try to reconcile it back together.

To wit, it is imperative you find an appropriate distance to place yourself from the screen. The game has a tendency to scope out the camera at a frame where it’s hard to tell a vase from a lamp let alone the exact proximity of those ornery crocs. Similarly, it’s hard to attach any affection or personality to the characters. I didn’t do any co-op play, but I can’t imagine that adding more people would improve the situation.

This especially holds true in scenarios involving spiked floor panels that activate with pressure. Either one person goes and everyone stays behind (boring for everyone else) or everyone tries to coordinate the ambulation (frustrating for everyone). The combat seems like it would be fun in a Gauntlet kind of way with more people, but a lot of the layouts deep in the tombs feel far more geared towards solo play. (I’m told, though, that the puzzles scale up around the number of players.)

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

The puzzles themselves, however, are pretty good. Many of them involve at least some modicum of intermediate problem solving followed by two scoops of dexterity, satisfying both parts of your gameplay needs. This includes the portions where you have to accomplish certain tasks (or “challenges” in the game’s vernacular) like collecting skulls or pushing enemies into a pit or forcing a boss to eat one of his own minions.

From this and scripted portions of the game, there is some great variety. At one point, you have a boss fight on a giant flaming, rolling stone ball, forcing you to dodge falling meteors and rising lava pits while keeping a grip on your place on the sphere. And in another, you will fight a humongous, underwater crocodile while only managing to jump between floating planks of wood. The game switches gears and changes pace often enough that you never truly get bored with its rudimentary mechanics.

A problem, though, is, on occasion, the controls. While most of it feels fantastic from the moving to the dodging to the shooting, it becomes inconsistent with the platforming. Sometimes you can mantle up after catching a ledge by just pressing on the stick and other times you need to press jump, a confusion that has cost me my success on several challenges. And some ledges have stickiness to them to prevent rampant suicide. Others don’t. You don’t know what you can rely on.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

And then a lot of the puzzles and some of the combat rely on using Osiris’ staff, which is swapped to and fro like any other weapon while locked to down on the D-pad. You never want to stop moving to switch weapons, but having the staff out is always far handier. Up until, that is, you have to shoot things with bullets and shells. This led me to stumbling out of the starting gates in many battles by using the staff (which has unlimited and very weak ammo) and percolating with frustration rather than relishing in the surprise of battle.

A cool part of the weapons system is that you can spend all the gems you collect on opening chests, which will give you rarity-graded pieces of equipment like rings and amulets, both of which have a serious impact on your strategies. Amulets allow you to do especially power maneuvers once you fill a gauge that goes up when you dish out damage without taking any. This might mean you start spewing powerful scattershot or drop fire bombs or regenerate health and ammo. And the rings give you increased weapon damage or speed or reduce your bomb radius or reduce your resistance to poison.

They’re more or less randomized as you open these chests and get them from finishing challenges, so how you adapt to the gifts you’re given will determine how well you do in combat. With a greater bomb radius, I wanted my bombs to reload faster so I could drop more of them. With an amulet that refills ammo, I was free to use the more ammo-intensive and more powerful weapons. They’re meaningful and interesting wrinkles to an otherwise straightforward fighting system.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

I do mean it, though, when I say this is a fun game. It only took me about five hours to blow through the entire story, but I also did it in one sitting. It’s a rare game that hooks me that hard. Even though Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris does nothing new in the genre or even in its series with its limited aspirations for greatness or originality, it does what it needs to do. And what it does it something you would probably enjoy.

+ Moving and fighting is snappy
+ Spectacular lighting and overall great graphics
+ Rings and amulets are meaningful pieces of loot for a simplistic system
+ Puzzles are nicely demanding in just the right ways
– Inconsistencies and inconveniences in controls are frustrating

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris
Release: December 9, 2014
Genre: Action adventure
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Single-player, co-op, online co-op
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.laracroft.com/

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Late to the Party: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The idea of a S.H.I.E.L.D. series made me nervous. How could it not? The serialization of a sizable component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only ever be problematic. A television series nowadays survives on the ability to adjust both minutely and drastically according to viewer response each week. Movies, in contrast, are much more like monolithic, nigh immobile cruise ships. The two existing in the same narrative realm seems so star-crossed.

After watching the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, though, I am convinced. Not that the entire series will work but rather that this season proved it can work. Here’s the quick summary of how it works: following the events of 2012’s The Avengers, we discover that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t nearly as dead as we were lead to believe after being stabbed through the chest by Asgardian villain and Thor pseudo-brother Loki. Instead, he’s alive and well (sort of) and assembling a team.

To do what? That’s a very good question. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) more or less just gives him a giant plane to serve as a mobile base and tells him to take care of, um, things. The beginning parts of the series are, in a word, weak. The use of Gregg as Coulson and the guest star inclusion of Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill certainly help lend an air of legitimacy and familiarity to something brand new, but suspicions are otherwise immediately raised.

The way the drama is ginned up between a hacktivist group called The Rising Tide and a mysteriously overpowered fellow feels far too much like another take on procedural mysteries like Supernatural or Fringe, which isn’t a bad thing but also doesn’t inspire much interest in continuing. Luckily, you can see the immediate Joss Whedon influences.

The surrounding cast is far more intriguing than the plot. Just the fact that two people are continually referred to as one via Fitz-Simmons—two intelligence experts played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge—is a quirky enough bonus to keep things fun and endearing. Not only that, but the acting is commensurate to the pace, which is to say brisk and confident. It strangely makes a story about a man about to explode far less interesting than the people involved.

Coulson and Gregg, though, offer an odd contrast. Gregg’s acting is…fine. It’s not bad but I do wish it was more consistent. Sometimes it feels like he’s a powerhouse holding back for moments of refined emotional release and other it feels like he just forgot how to talk like a human being. Coulson, however, soon becomes the bonding material for the series’ general intrigue.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Don’t forget that this man was, like, dead. All the way. How can you not be curious about how that happened? Unlike Fury’s death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we actually saw Coulson die from a direct and fatal attack, so his revival is far more surprising. Whedon, though, is masterful at planting the seed and harvesting the crop. (Both Jed and Joss at this point.)

That’s really what this first season feels like—and also feels like Whedon rarely succeeds (commercially, anyways) at television. He loves the idea of liberally sprinkling seeds in your brain, watering them, and watching them grow. Coulson’s mysterious survival, the overlap with Thor: The Dark World, and the ominous outcome of The Winter Soldier. It all folds so nicely into one another precisely because of the efforts the show takes early on to put up a fascinating lattice that crumbles so beautifully.

A problem, however, is just how much the show depends on the films. A friend complained that it felt like early episodes were just biding time until the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a sentiment I sincerely disagree with and one that I feel is a gross misunderstanding of a narrative foundation, but it does tangentially raise a point that an understanding of the mythos laid down by the other Marvel movies is basically required. Otherwise you wouldn’t care about Coulson’s resurrection and you wouldn’t feel the oppressive and uneasy shadow of Hydra coming up over the horizon. It takes away a large part of the impact when the show kicks it into high gear.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It’s the smaller integrations with the encompassing universe that is problematic. Well, not problematic but certainly annoying. How many times can they mention Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff as the paragon of espionage? It doesn’t even count as fan service at that point. It’s just cloying. Pandering.

But the show does excel at exploring the smaller bits left by the wayside of the movies. Coulson’s love life—given up in a very Men in Black fashion—gets revisited in a compelling way. And there’s a satisfying reclamation of his death and rebirth. Even the closing bit is a great reminder of how well the show usurps assumptions and many conventions.

Each episode also ends with a tag, an end cap scene that incites further curiosity or merely provides closure. It feels very much like the films not because of the structure or the timing but because they actually achieve the same thing. It’s easy to just chop off each week’s story with a cliffhanger and let the tag just do what comes natural, but they very often come across as well engineered. The tags serve almost perfectly as a bridging epilogue and prologue to what you’ll see either immediately next or further down the road.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The seemingly high budget also can’t hurt. There is a lot of traveling around in this show, and even if there wasn’t, there was a lot of building or dressing sets to make them look like locations from all over the world. With the backing of the obviously and incredibly profitable Marvel and its further parent company Disney, it’s easy to see where the money can come from, and I’m grateful for it. The production value and ability to bring back direct characters and props from the hugely financed movies is a boon to the show.

For as good as it gets once the show finds its footing, it is a bit disappointing that it becomes ultimately predictable. Texting my friend as I watch it, I word-for-word say “I hope [redacted] doesn’t happen,” and then it happens. I even follow my concerns with the explanation that it would be too obvious to have this as a misdirect, and then it happens. It’s often that it’s never the true reason or outcome that is the reward but the further and deeper mysteries uncovered along the way. Of course, after Lost, we all know how that ends. (Poorly.)

I do, however, wholeheartedly believe that the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a winner. And from what I hear, the second season improves upon it. It’s just that it gets off to a shaky start just because of the higher aspirations for its narrative roadmap. Building a foundation is never fun when it has to happen quickly (and almost brutally on television), but the results simply have that much higher to climb because of it. Let’s hope it continues.

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Refining Value

Refining Value

The most common criticism leveled against the recently released Far Cry 4 is that it is basically just Far Cry 3, except more of it. While entirely valid, there is a lot of meat left on that bone to chew on. The most superficial counter—while still being significant—is that this is only the second of this style of Far Cry that has been put out.

Even if you counted the Blood Dragon DLC for Far Cry 3, that still is a fa—nope, not gonna say that joke—that is still peanuts compared to the saturating product Activision has been pushing for the past seven years. (I’ll give them that Advanced Warfare is interesting enough to warrant differentiation.) Creatively and commercially, it’s worth revisiting something successful to divine something’s true value.

It allows the mining of deployed tactics to determine more discretely what concepts and philosophies to carry forward with and what to discard. The first go-round is more or less a stab in the dark. Via the tried and true scientific method, variables can be tweaked to see if a hypothesis was correct. Was it worth putting in more missions like that one? Should we have brought back that one vehicle?

Far Cry 4

Of course, that means that even with entirely new ideas being injected into the resuscitated product, there is going to be some wholly unchanged and eerily familiar bits and bobs floating around. In Far Cry 4‘s case, it is the game’s entire structure. Missions take you all over an enclosed and expansive territory while you hunt animals to collect furs for crafting; you climb towers so as to reveal previously fog-covered parts of the map; and you take over enemy outposts to prevent bad guys from harassing you and your local war buddies.

It is Far Cry 3 except in the Himalayas. But important differences crop up when you hold that Venn diagram a little closer. A lot of this sequel felt like it was a test, an experiment to verify the designers’ beliefs as to what succeeded and what didn’t in its predecessor. The wingsuit, for example, was a super cool part of Far Cry 3, but it came way too late in the game to be of much use (or much fun). This time, you can get it pretty much right off the bat.

More than that, they tested the theory further by making Kyrat much more vertical than the Rook Islands. Not to say there wasn’t a lot to climb in the tropics, but Kyrat is much more obviously designed around the idea of moving up and down with purpose, not just to be higher for fun. The tools given to you such as the grappling hook and the buzzer both are additional litmus tests to see if it is indeed better being able to move easily in all directions.

Far Cry 4

It wasn’t just that the wingsuit was a neat idea and helps us fulfill an incredibly dangerous fantasy but it made traversing down cliffsides a breeze. It’s a message that surprisingly didn’t make it from the Assassin’s Creed hall in the Ubisoft offices. In that game, it’s fun figuring out how and then watching your character climb up huge structures, but getting back down when there isn’t water or a hay pile nearby is a nightmare.

Far Cry makes the descent exponentially worse by not having any purely dedicated mechanics for climbing downwards, save for falling and hoping for the best. These implements eliminate the nearly punitive experience of backtracking down to the ground after scaling up high for the absolutely necessary prep stage of scoping and tagging an entire outpost.

And then there are touches like allowing you to replay a whole outpost anytime you’d like, which is probably one of the best parts of the games. And automatically crafting syringes by culling the types you can create, which is quite literally a lifesaver when you have to hunt a bear with a bow. And speaking of that, allowing for clean harvests of furs and skins when you manage to skillfully kill critters with arrows and blades instead of bullets and bombs is a great change.

Far Cry 4

The game wants to still have the carrots in there, but these streamlined processes for either removing processes that add obstacles to gameplay (having to pause to craft syringes) or adding a layer to eventually bland activities (sniping animals for their fleshy interiors and valuable exteriors) improve upon already proven concepts. And they make such a sizable step up that it makes these old acts new again and, more importantly, more rewarding.

Far Cry 4 also takes more squarely compartmentalized bits and remixes them. For instance, the animals this time around don’t feel as intensely dangerous. Looking at a shark or a crocodile around the Rook Islands, you definitely get that they’re violent and should not be fucked with. Far Cry 4 has scary wildlife, too, in its tigers and wolves and bears, but it also has far more dickish critters.

Animals like dholes and honey badgers and eagles and definitely kill you if you come across them unawares and in dire straits, but they are generally just there to fuck with you. They take a well-laid plan and minutes of careful tagging and throw it out the window. Either you try to knife something to death while taking minimal damage (good luck) or you run like an idiot into the outpost with guns blazing and let the animals do some of your dirt. And try remaining calm when you hear growling come up behind you while peering through your binoculars.

Far Cry 4

They’ve become far more about mixing it up than being fodder for loot or making the rivers less than ideal to swim in. The same could be said for how the weapons are meted out this time around. Just as before, you get free weapons for taking back towers. This time, however, it feels like they are much more organized around the idea of engaging progression. You can still buy weapons if you have the cash, but finding and earning feels much more organic to the game.

By going the route of getting guns as I looted them or was reward them, I stepped into using a lot of guns I wouldn’t have used otherwise. Almost right out of the gate in Far Cry 3, I was stocked with an entire arsenal of silenced armaments including a potent and accurate assault rifle and an insanely powerful sniper rifle. While still fun for the majority of the time, it made every outpost the same thing over and over again.

This time, I was forced to use a crude bow for far longer than I would have liked for stealth. And once I got a silenced weapon (a pistol), the range was so short, I was still locked into close encounters. It forced me to take on the side missions that earned me more takedown skills. It also made me appreciate that silenced Z93 sniper rifle that I eventually got all the more.

Far Cry 4

It provided context and contrast for the luxury of being able to sit back and deal with those heathens from afar while making the early parts of the game feel appropriately raw and savage before allowing the refined ability to choose how you want to eliminate fools. And given the size and the scope of the game, it would have been hard to nail that sort of pace the first time around. Even the differences between the first and second Far Cry games were dipping toes into the waters of the extremes.

Then they found middle ground, and Far Cry 4 is the refinement of that calibration. Not to say they should continue on with this iterative production line for another five years, but this moderate repetition was well worth it if it means the designers gained insight for future games in the process. More ideas for how to make a game engaging is never a bad idea so long as innovation comes along for the ride.

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