Category Archives: Feature

Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Franchises tend to follow a somewhat depressing arc. Be it movies or video games or books, they have a habit of going through three distinct phases (especially if it’s a trilogy). The first, if it’s worth sparking a series at all, is usually full of surprise and life. It’s like a low-key discovery of fire, like holy shit we made something.

The second stage is when all the ideas that were too big or too ambitious make it in, hopefully with the creators’ ability to manufacture their desires keeping pace with their heads in the clouds. This means producers learn how to produce better and developers learn how to use their tools better while directors aim for big set pieces and game designers throw in gem after gem they had to throw in the trash the last time around.

It takes a mild step down, however, at the third part. It’s not quite a too-comfortable situation, but it’s close. All the gold got mined out of the brains for the second bit, and now they’re running on empty. They’re trying to paint bags of rocks rather than digging like they had for years before, pining for this project to be made. It’s more competent than ever, but the spark is gone.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

You’ll probably want to argue that last one—and rightly so—but the crux of it is true: it’s a step down. Take a look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Or what about SCE Santa Monica’s God of War or BioWare’s Mass Effect or Naughty Dog’s Uncharted?

With the exception of The Godfather, the third installment was still quite good and worthy in closing out a trilogy, but they also felt…sterile. Like a sigh of deliberating how to get through this. They’ve done it before at quite a remarkable level, so the blueprint is right there. Now they just need to get it done as opposed to wanting to get it done. (True or not, that’s how it feels playing or watching those things.)

The reason I bring this up is because of the Batman: Arkham series, the latest entry of which came out this week. It’s been doing quite well with review scores (we’ll have one up shortly), but it has been begging the question with a lot of writers and fans alike: was this game necessary?

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Perhaps not for any of us outside of Rocksteady Studios, the developers behind the franchise, but for them, it sure seems like it. The interesting thing is that while there have been four main releases in the Arkham lineup, the third one was actually made by Warner Bros. Games Montreal and is the only one not directed by Sefton Hill.

Before that, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City certainly fit the mold. Asylum was a tight little package that flowed well within itself, telling a taut story with an impeccable (and revolutionary) set of mechanics and gameplay. And then City blew it wide open by turning an island into a full-blown city and taking much of what players loved from before to another level.

And then Origins was, well, just kind of okay. It kind of just made the city bigger and added perhaps the single most unnecessary multiplayer component ever conceived. It wasn’t the usual third step down because the series runners ran out of steam or got complacent or whatever; it was because the reins were thrown into hands that had never ridden this horse before.

Batman: Arkham City

This is where I begin to believe that yes, Knight is necessary. It breaks so hard from the typical franchise quality arc that that single-handedly makes it noteworthy. It’s not developers diving back in for a fourth go-around as they figure out what new IP to cultivate and iterate on but is instead a studio reclaiming their title of steward to Batman.

I’ll get into more detail in the review, but Knight is both a refinement and an expansion on what we liked and didn’t like from City that Origins just seemed to miss, neglect, or actually exacerbate. The story is deft and drums up legitimate drama. Combat has new layers of complexity but streamlines it into a speedy little missile of rewarding, buzzing thinking of the frantic variety.

This is just as the stealth sections have entirely new wrinkles that make sneaking around vantage points and floor grates come across as simultaneously reengineered and reinvented. And they way they are presented to you through various framing devices, they actually affect how you tool around with it all. The encounter design, specifically, shames Origins as that game seemed to support pugilism even in the midst of choking someone out.

Batman: Arkham Knight

And that’s even while Rocksteady saw fit to add an entirely new and substantial thing to the game: the Batmobile. There are dexterity-demanding races and navigational puzzles and tank combat and bits that mesh Batman and the vehicle together as separate entities in the same environment for race-puzzle-combat scenarios. There are a lot of design concessions to fit the narrative and vice versa and the reception for its sections will be divided, but my goodness is it ambitious.

That is the quality that seems to always lack after a series goes past the second entry. It lacks the punch—that swing at a weight class far higher than its own—that makes the first two so potent. Rocksteady, however, didn’t get a third one and instead had to go for the fourth. While no artistic endeavor may ever be necessary from the viewing side, it seems that it can be for the artist. They’ve still got more to say.

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Let’s Talk About Apple Music

Apple Music

The One More Thing coming out of Apple’s WWDC this year was a doozy, and not perhaps in a good way. Prolonging the already interminable keynote by over an hour, we were treated to the long predicted reveal of Apple Music, the company’s broad response to no longer being the dominant name in the online music space.

Apple rightfully earned that title back in 2001 with the advent of iTunes, a simplified listening and purchasing system for music both local and online. But then they pretty much lost that it somewhere in the mid to late 2000s when it bloated into some mess of mixed downloads and faded glory against competitors.

This, seemingly, is where Apple has seen fit to attack the world anew with Apple Music. The recently announced subscription-based streaming/social network/radio/recommendation service is supposed to unify the world of fans and artists into a single ecosystem while sitting the Cupertino-based company back at the top.

Unfortunately, this is also perhaps the worst move Apple could make. It feels just so scattershot and unfocused like a mess just waiting to happen and, worst of all, like a decision based on hubris rather than value.

Do you remember the last time Apple tried to make a social network? Yeah, it was Ping and it lasted just under two years after accruing and promptly losing about a million users. (A great deal of that probably had to do with Facebook being in its heyday.) And what about the streaming part of Apple Music? That comes across as more of a “me too!” than a “we can do this better,” a defining quality to Apple products and services.

Sure a lot of detractors and fanboys would love to pin this on the lack of Steve Jobs’ oversight, but even Tim Cook or Eddy Cue could have said no to the pressures of Jimmy Iovine and crew. By saddling up with him and Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre (and, strangely, Drake?), Apple has locked itself into a process that has found unwarranted success in leveraging names and marketing and not objective quality.

Eddy Cue and Drake

The Beats brand is precisely that: just a brand. They throw around 14 dollars at a time to get a pair of good-looking headphones, mark them up to a few hundred bucks, and watch the company value skyrocket to $3.2 billion. They’re so bad at being headphones there’s even a whole website dedicated to getting you to not buy them.

That is what they specialize in, despite being formerly known for individually making great music. They see a space, see their names, and think they can get a foothold there. All right, truth be told, that may or may not be the actual origin of Beats by Dre, but after the announcement of Apple Music, it’s hard not to see it that way (especially with the revelation that the service would top out at 256kbps, a notch down from the 320kbps of Spotify, Google, and Tidal).

What horde, exactly, was clamoring for a globally synced and available radio station? Basically no one. There’s local radio; there’s satellite radio, which SiriusXM has undoubtedly dominated; and there’s Internet radio, which a simple Google search reveals dozens of solutions. It’s strange that Apple views this as a win.

DJ Zane Lowe and Kanye West

Who was poking around YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and thinking, “Wow, I really wish there was one place for all of this”? Once again, no one. Instagram is a great space for sharing visually while YouTube is great for sharing and exploring videos. Twitter is fantastic for quick dissemination of information while Facebook, well, is kind of a mess nowadays. A consolidation doesn’t strengthen each of these attributes but rather weakens them.

Iovine, though, also focused on the concept of humans over machines, where people curating playlists and recommendations is vastly more powerful than a machine learning algorithm that produces guesses at related artists and songs. But there’s a whole tab for computer-based offerings in Apple Music, not to mention Spotify has been curating playlists since its inception (and more recently by paid employees).

Speaking of Spotify, what Iovine decided to highlight and ignore was strangely…non-competitive. There was a big splash late last year when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify. But do you know who has that catalog? Apple. Do you know how many times they bragged about her and the rest of their library during the Apple Music segment? Five. No wait, the other one. Zero.

Taylor Swift

And while Apple boasts 800 million iTunes accounts, that actually includes every person who ever synced an iDevice or bought a single song. Spotify, on the other hand, just announced 20 million actively paying users for their service, a figure double that from a year ago.

It might have been just that, though, that persuaded Cue and Cook that expanding their music industry connections (read: purchase) with the Beats by Dre founders into a music service was a good idea. There’s a lot of money sitting around waiting to be taken away from Spotify and Pandora and Google and everyone else.

That, unfortunately, was not what earned Apple its modern recognition, nor what tore it out of 90s decline into near-obscurity and matching lack of profits. And while there’s nothing with refinement, this video lays out quite neatly the theory that the company has gone from innovator to imitator. It’s too early to tell where on the spectrum Apple Music lies, but it’s easy to say what it feels like.

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How Fallout 4 Can Win

How Fallout 4 Can Win

“Win what?” That’s probably you asking a strangely rhetorical question to no one in particular as 1) you’re most likely all alone right now and 2) you can safely assume that I’ll be answering that question posthaste. Or as close as possible as I do have a tendency to go on.

As you know, Fallout 4 was made official last week. Over the course of 24 hours and several mini announcements, we got a trailer, a website, and someone who sounds like Troy Baker perhaps offering the first voice protagonist of the series—a rarity for Bethesda in general, actually. And then the Internet went wild.

Turns out that Fallout 4 wouldn’t technically have the first voiced protagonist. And then some savvy sleuths figured out exactly where Vault 111 is located in Boston. Oh yeah, they all took a stab and placed the game in Boston based on the landmarks. But oh wait, does the Troy Baker-esque VO mean we won’t have the robust character creation options we’ve come to expect? Nope, maybe not.

I tended to shove all that aside. There was a bigger question that loomed over the announcement, one posed by another game that was recently released: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not to say that they’re the same game, but they do have similarities and scratch a lot of the same gaming itches.

They’re both huge, sprawling open-world action RPGs with deep lore and worldbuilding, for instance, something Bethesda has prided itself on for over a decade now. But with Wild Hunt out now to great critical and commercial acclaim while Fallout 4 sits in development for at least another year, how can the storied studio set the story straight that they are indeed still the visionaries of yesteryear?

I’ve had a week to stew on the matter and I do believe I’m done percolating. After putting in considerable time into Wild Hunt (still haven’t beat it) and going back to explore some of Bethesda’s more recent offerings in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3, there’s really only one conclusion to come to.

Fallout 4

Personal consequence. Not to mean the consequences of playing need to be more directed towards the player such as in moment-to-moment gameplay but rather that the fallout (ha!) of choices and actions need to be more personal and more impactful.

Bethesda does a great job with worldbuilding. There’s not question about that. However, they’re not so great at making it matter after the fact. It all comes across as an immensely static diorama in which more things are set, not that the people and the world react as one to the outcome of your story.

Consider the mission early in Fallout 3 where you find yourself in Megaton with the option to either facilitate its destruction or disarm its decidedly more crumbly fate. And aside from the big explosion that happened after I said, “Fuck this town,” I don’t remember much of anything of what happened.

Fallout 3

Sure, it did make a huge mark on the land in a literal way. That town is, like, super gone. And former Megaton citizens are likely to recognize and attack you. It certainly does change the way you handle that part of the world.

But that’s just it. It’s only that part of the world. For all the negative karma you get for blowing that dingy hole up with a nuke, you can actually come back from it and end up a half decent fellow. And so long as you don’t go wandering around that freshly irradiated crater, you tend to forget you even did it. It feels massively inconsequential despite being massively terrible.

Blow up the city or save it. Kill the quest-giver or save him. Fight with the farmer or fight against him. Those sorts of choices feel exceedingly mechanical in Bethesda games, where you can almost see the boolean bit being set in the memory space saying you did this thing, as if you were directly input hex values like some drastically simplified Super Mario World credits warp.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The problem is that the effect of all your gun-toting and sword-swinging causes are simply too direct and too predictable. Of course everyone hates you for blowing up Megaton. Big whoop. There’s no depth to your choices. You don’t care what’s at the bottom of a puddle because you can see it, but the bottom of the ocean is a lot more mysterious and interesting.

When you play Wild Hunt, though, you feel like there’s a far deeper web than you can possibly predict (maybe even comprehend) as you make choices. The immediacy is very apparent but everything down the road is murky and full of fear and paranoia.

Not even all your choices are purely systemic. If you head over to Vice and read this story about how neglecting Gwent, Wild Hunt‘s in-game card game, cost the life of one of Geralt’s companions, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not just about the binary options you toggle between when choosing what quests to accept but also how you go about being yourself within the shoes of this Witcher.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Of course, Bethesda games can and have achieved the same thing. Their games offer you a myriad of tactics towards accomplishing your goals or shirking your responsibilities, but they all still arrive at the same terminus with just a smattering of complexity and intrigue.

There’s also the problem of combat. While Skyrim skews closer to the setting of The Witcher series, its fighting mechanics are overly simplistic. But that’s retro-fantasty and Fallout games are future-fantasy. But they’re still failing there as well as this Forbes piece points out with the V.A.T.S. feature.

Writing also tends to be an issue, opting for dry info dumps rather than the mature and layered stuff of The Witcher games, but truly the great divider and most inviting space for Bethesda to once again innovate their style is in the worlds they build and how they feel against the coarse actions and choices you do and make. Here’s hoping, fellas.

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Surrounding Google Spotlight Stories

Google Spotlight Stories

Break the rules. It’s a mantra that can land you in a pile of fun or a heap of trouble but it’s always tempting. Unfortunately, in many of our entertainment endeavors, we rarely get to indulge in this simple pleasure. More so, it’s often an impossibility.

Enter Google Spotlight Stories, a semi-released project from Google Advanced Technology and Projects. You might better recognize the group as Google ATAP, a group within the search giant that specializes in seeking out and developing new ideas that may or may not have commercial, social, or even just any base level of practical value. As ATAP Lead Regina Dugan puts it, they are “a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.”

While perhaps getting more headlines this past week for things like Project Tango and Google Jump, they also produced Spotlight Stories. Granted, it originally started out as product with Motorola devices like Moto X, but now it has wormed its way onto the greater breadth of Android devices and will soon be on both iOS and YouTube.

The gist of these stories is that you get some folks that like to tell tall tales and let them do it in a way that few have gotten a chance to before. By utilizing technology like Google Jump (as well as more traditional or computer-generated animation), these creators can craft fully immersive, 360-degree experiences in their narratives within these mobile devices. As you turn or look up, the viewpoint presented to you will also turn or look up.

From the static methods of visual storytelling in movies and television, Spotlight Stories attempts to instill within you the idea that doesn’t have be the way you ingest entertainment. You can break that rule and look wherever you want. You don’t even have to resign yourself to picking apart scenes at a ferocious pace at the price of taking in the overall plot. These were made to be watched over and over again, each time with you behind the wheel.

And you know what? It works. Help! is the latest story, created and released in concert with the ATAP segment in last week’s Google I/O event. Helmed by Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, it’s the first of the project’s live action venture and tracks the events of an alien crash landing into the middle of Los Angeles.

Justin Lin Help!

It is quite disorienting at first. The first thing to accomplish is to even just recognize that you control the camera. Turn around, look up and down, and try to step forward and back (that, actually, does nothing). It works fantastically but you can’t shake the feeling that you’re breaking the rules.

More than that, you can help but feel like you are missing something. As the creature chases our human friends around, half of your brain is dedicated to the sensation that this is super neat, but the other is constantly wondering if you are catching all the action, which there is a lot of.

However, this isn’t supposed to be a traditional viewing experience. (Or at least I don’t think it is.) It became a lot more interesting once you engaged with the idea that you are building the whole story one run at a time. It’s a rather short film coming in at just a few minutes, but each time you watch you can fill in gaps you left from the time before. Slowly, it all comes together, as if you were solving a puzzle broken and left behind by the creator.

Glen Keane Duet

While there’s nothing particularly innovative about the story itself or the smattering of acting we are privy to, it’s something worth indulging in. Glen Keane, the Disney legend behind characters like Ariel and Beast and Aladdin as well as the award-winning short Paperman, was one of the first to sign up with Spotlight Stories. Duet, Keane’s short that launched with the app last year, is the result of his belief that there’s something to this thing. (It’s also worth watching.)

And more are signing on, including Aardman Animations, the studio behind Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; Patrick Osborne, the director of Disney’s short film Feast; and a few others that you’ll probably recognize.

Aardman will produce Special Delivery, a story about a janitor who chases an intruder around on Christmas Eve. “Viewers will have the option of following the janitor, the intruder, or peep into the homes of building dwellers.” From Osborne, we’ll have Pearl, which will “take place entirely in a car, and will use a musical format to explore the theme of ‘gifts we inherit from our parents, both tangible and intangible.'”

Patrick Osborne Pearl

Certainly it’s far too early (and far too insane) to call this the future of entertainment, but there is value here. It is a unique experience that provides a different kind of interaction from video games and a different kind of storytelling from movies. If you can, definitely give Spotlight Stories a shot. It might convince you of something else entirely, like maybe breaking the rules isn’t such a good thing.

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Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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Fearful

Fearful

They’re afraid. As consistently innovative as they are—even to the massive detriment of their biggest ongoing franchise—Ubisoft seems deathly afraid of making the big changes. The times when they should be swinging for the fences finds them tenderly dipping a toe into the water, reassessing, and then going with another toe.

Why hasn’t Assassin’s Creed, for instance, made it to the modern era? Sure, Desmond’s tale took place present day, but the bulk of the series has relied on the kindness of history’s lack of audio video surveillance. Even with Assassin’s Creed III, the game with the most Desmond bits, had him quarantined off in extremely linear, almost fearful gameplay sections.

But those parts were interesting. You were in environments that designers could wholly conjure up from their minds. You were fighting against enemies that you’ve never seen before in any past Assassin’s Creed game instead of the usual palette-swapped grunts, brutes, and elites. More than that, you were facing them in situations you’ve never faced before.

Assassin's Creed III

Since the very first game in the series, it seems like we were teased with the intrigue of a fully modern Assassin. They tested the waters with some fun stealth and subtle yet elaborate story shenanigans and quickly moved onto giving Desmond his full Assassin abilities, allowing him to freerun and fighting and whatnot. And he constantly evolved, leading any reasonable person to believe it would soon be happening.

After the culmination of the Desmond storyline, however, hopes were dashed. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag tried something new outside of the Animus sans Desmond, but it was still the story of a seafaring scallywag. Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t even have anything outside of Arno’s story. It wasn’t the assumption that followed Assassin’s Creed; it wasn’t the hope after Assassin’s Creed III; it was just disappointment.

It feels like fear. So much of what they’ve built relies on the lack of modern implements. And as they introduce more of them like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s grappling hook and carriages in an Industrial Revolution-era England, you realize how much they could be rid of by go further into the future.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

That’s not necessarily a good thing or a cure for the series’ ails. It’s a remark upon how much they’re afraid they’ll lose if they go full-bore on that concept, if they extrapolate out Desmond’s time out into a full game. Will they lose the core mechanics that many identify with the franchise? Will they lose the uniqueness as they skew too close to games like Watch Dogs or Splinter Cell, cannibalizing other Ubisoft lines?

They are entirely valid questions. When was the last time you saw a series reinvent themselves to such a degree? It’s just not how the industry works. You take a concept, give it a go, and if people latch on, you iterate to fix the flaws and juice up the working parts to see if they still like it. But eventually you have to call it quits.

If you look at Gears of War, Epic Games fulfilled the Marcus/Dom saga, gave it another go with Gears of War: Judgment, and called it when that failed to find traction and giving it up to Microsoft and Black Tusk Studios for something new. Visceral Games actually dipped out after a rock solid three Dead Space games.

Gears of War: Judgment

Ubisoft, however, feels content with taking a more Call of Duty or Guitar Hero—really Activision—approach: run it into the ground. For as long as people are buying, just have studio after studio go at it until they stop buying. It’s a solid strategy that responds to the essence of capitalism. After all, if consumers don’t want it, they show it with their money, or lack thereof.

That is perhaps the great virtue of indie game development. It’s not that they can’t employ the same strategy but rather that they choose not to. It’s a conscious decision and seems to be one based largely on guilt and internal obligation.

It’s not that there aren’t indie series because there totally are like Amnesia and Hotline Miami, but it’s rarely a triple-A farming situation. For all the problems of the insular, nigh incestuous component of video games that is the indie (those two descriptors, though, apply to the entire industry as well from development to press to players), it has imbued those independent devs to feel obligated to not be That Guy.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Instead we have multimillion dollar That Guys all trying really hard to be the Thattest That Guy in the biz, almost as if it were a point of pride. How many Hindenburgs have you piloted straight into the ground? Only four? Amateur hour.

Picking on Assassin’s Creed isn’t fair when there are a half dozen more just like it. But it did just make a recent and sizable announcement that was hilariously lukewarm in its reception. Even the most diehard of apologists could only tend to the crowd and say you could look away if you wanted while they sorted out their feelings. The well eventually dries up. Seems like Ubisoft finally found the bottom.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate And What It Means For You

Assassin's Creed Syndicate and What It Means For You

Innovation is dangerous. It’s a lesson that Ubisoft should be well familiar with by now. As one particularly and magnificently hairy Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Consider that the very first Assassin’s Creed was lauded for it’s fresh parkour traversal system (and, to be fair, it’s fascinating pseudo time travel conceit). In fact, that was just about all it was lauded for. And it remained largely the same for the next dozen or so games. Instead of refining its single biggest component, they became obsessed with innovation, often at the cost of excising additions that wholeheartedly worked.

There was a brotherhood mechanic of training and raising new assassins into the order; there was a vastly expanded property management system; there an interesting dip into two different types of multiplayer in two different games; and a lot more. There was pretty much only a single instance of refinement in the transition from Assassin’s Creed III to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with the naval combat.

Now, like clockwork, we stand on the precipice of another entry into the franchise based on excessive ambition and innovation. Yesterday morning saw the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I guess we really are done with the colons in the titles). It’ll throw us into the Industrial Revolution in London as Assassin Jacob Frye.

If you watch that archived bit of announcement stream, you can see a lot of interesting bits that are worth mining. The first is a protracted segment lauding the single greatest folly of the franchise. The next is a categorical admission of the failure of Unity while simultaneously shifting the root cause of the problem from rampant, unfettered innovation to overflowing ambition.

They’re similar qualities, but the nuanced difference is the key here. It wasn’t that they saw a world far more grand than they could build (the world they built was actually a saving grace for the game), but rather that their failure to refine caught up with them the invention was thrust upon them. Unity was the first of the series to be totally on the next generation of consoles, so time spent drumming up new things went into making sure the old things still worked.

The loops were still as tired as they ever was. Enter a new area, climb a tower, ignore all the icons on the map, and start a mission. And during the mission, you would climb a building, sneak around, get spotted, and fight your way out. And during the fight, you would mash a button, counter, and then mash again. The random events in the water surrounding Nassau transformed into interpersonal encounters on the streets of Paris and your real estate endeavors carried a miniature narrative, but it’s mostly old mechanics trying to find value in a world built beyond their scopes.

With a settling into the new consoles, Syndicate is free to fall back into the trap. While it feels more considered in this turn—if the developers’ words are anything to go by—we’ve been burned before. Combat was never a highlight of the series, so it’s great they made it faster, keeping everything closer and more brutal. It still looks like it takes way too long to beat a brute into the ground.

The new grappling hook system allows for even more facilitated ascension, no longer restricting the skyward zip to cutting loaded lines and hauling up. But there’s still the problem of getting back down, something Unity moderately addressed but never quite resolved. And external locomotion sounds cool, but riding that horse in the smothering confines of Florence was an absolute nightmare. How is a full-blown carriage supposed to handle the increasingly narrow streets of 1800 London?

Without a doubt, though, the absolutely most impressive thing the franchise has consistently pulled off has been integrating their Assassin-Templar war into the real world. This has a great deal to do with the artistic direction of the assassins themselves. Connor’s garb looked unquestionably colonial and Arno’s kit was decidedly eighteenth century French. (I don’t know how, but even Arno’s running looked French.)

The spectacular trend appears to continue in Syndicate. Jacob and his sister Evie Frye both look 100 per cent like nineteenth century scoundrels. Better yet, while integrating Arno’s quest for vengeance into the French Revolution was cool, Syndicate seems to be building its systems directly into the settings.

From the Gangs of New York-ish street fights to the segmented districts of wealth and poverty, it world has hopefully and finally transcended the mere place of deciding what clothes should look like. And speaking of Evie, it seems like that much deserved derision from excluding women from Unity as made an impact. She will be a playable character alongside Jacob, utilizing a sort of Grand Theft Auto V-type switching mechanic.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

So it seems like after eight main series releases in as many years, they’re finally learning. But the question is if there’s even room for this kind marginal kind of growth. The framework is old and creaky that surely stuffing it with more grandiose ideas would surely cause it to crumble. It’s still standing atop eight-year-old systems of annoying traversal that only sometimes provides moments of “god damn that was cool.” It still forces a laundry list of activity down the player’s throat that has been hated since 2007.

Is there a fear of true change? At the end of the first Assassin’s Creed, it was assumed (or, perhaps, just hoped) that the next game would throw us into solely the modern age. Assassin’s Creed but with guns and a greater exploration of the Abstergo conspiracy? Oh hell yeah. But then we were only tossed slightly forward into the fifteenth century Renaissance. Granted, the Ezio trilogy was fantastic, but it wasn’t the monumental shift we’d all hoped for.

Now we are so tantalizingly close to the true modern era. The Industrial Revolution is basically the catalyst for much of what we take for granted today as token conveniences instead of the world-shattering advances that they were. How much further can the series comfortably go until they are forced to take the plunge into today or beyond? (Yes, the Desmond stuff was the future, but it was superficial.)

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

But how much more patience does the public have for Assassin’s Creed? By virtue of switching between drastically different eras and studios that tell relatively contrasting stories, Call of Duty has lived far past its Old Yeller time. But Assassin’s Creed has been lead by a single creative vision and a single studio since 2007. It is exhausting.

Not just for the developers but also the players. We finished the Desmond saga and now it feels…gluttonous. Maybe not that. Perhaps just excessive. Like a shotgun blast of ideas that never quite made it when the lone view was laid out. Only last year with Assassin’s Creed Rogue and with Syndicate do we see new studios try their hand at leading the hooded charge.

Rogue was somewhat more well-received than Unity and it was led by Ubisoft Sofia instead of Ubisoft Montreal. With Syndicate, we have Ubisoft Quebec taking the lead instead of just contributing and porting. There’s a pang of hope in that exchange. Ill-advised or not, only time will tell.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

I don’t want Syndicate to fail. That would just be crazy. It’s far more fun to have more stuff to like in the world that stuff to hate. But free of the veil of cynicism, there is skepticism, earned and valued, just as there is reason to hope. Based on the reveal, though, there isn’t as much as you’d want. Let’s all find out on October 23rd.

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Revisitation Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

Revisitation Hours: Assassin's Creed Unity

At the time, it felt foolish. Asking if I wanted to download 8.6GB of patches to play Assassin’s Creed Unity seemed like the most effective way to make anyone turn the other way. Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of me.

Its myriad of frame rate issues and crashes and bugs were enough to stop me and many others from playing more than five minutes upon release. Now the question is whether the patches worked. Unity actually fell into two camps of terrible practices from 2014 including shipping prohibitively broken or unfinished games and Ubisoft’s seemingly nefarious dissemination of open world game design.

Luckily (I guess?), one of those two things could be fixed post-release. (The damage, however, had mostly been done at that point in terms of player trust. Not even a free Dead Kings DLC could help the situation.) Right out of the gate, yes, those problems are fixed. Somewhere in all those gigabytes, there was a solid combination of solutions that turned a burning heap of hard locks and falling through the floor into a real game.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Now that simply navigating the world isn’t a chore (a task which is at least 99% of all video games, let alone Assassin’s Creed ones), it is truly hard to deny that this is one of the most beautifully realized virtual environments ever seen. It feels often far less like a video game and more like a real tour of Paris during the French Revolution.

The streets are overflowing with people. It’s coming up on Dead Rising numbers, to be honest, and it’s spectacular, especially because Arno seems to have overcome his ancestors’ inability to run into people without falling over. But these people are also living their fully Revolutionary lives.

They are rioting, soapboxing, and amassing all over the place. It gives the worldly historical context more meat than ever before. This is in addition to the fact that most of the buildings you’re clambering over have fully realized interiors with hidden artifacts, treasure chests, and folk. Actually, it’s not most of them, but it certainly feels like that, which is just as important.

Assassin's Creed Unity

This seems to have the biggest consequence on the gameplay (right after violently shoving you into one of the most violent parts of modern history). For the first time in the series’ history, there is genuine stealth. Black Flag tried its hardest with systemic bits of hiding in bramble and bush, but holy moly, Unity has a crouch button, y’all.

More than that, Arno has the ability to take cover behind objects and walls. Being able to stick to a flat surface no longer gives you the lingering question of “can they see me” while you uncomfortably shift about under a doorframe. And now missions are designed around those two improvements, offering you the ability to finagle around guards on rooftops and shifting inside to come up behind and shiv them in the most satisfying ways.

It’s also worth noting that imbuing the world with an early modernism is that fact that your opponents are far more deadly. Instead of throwing rocks or firing arrows, they will straight-up gun you down from a few dozen yards away and you will die. It—and the random in-world events—offers a glimpse into the lethality of this and the coming age.

Assassin's Creed Unity

But for all the self-awareness of the time and place, this is still in escapably an Assassin’s Creed game. Whenever you do anything, you just wish it was easier, and not in terms of difficulty but rather in terms of implementation. Some things have been improved from past games and it’s still not enough.

It’s easier to avoid accidentally jumping to your death, but you still wish it was faster—or at least more fun than just holding a button down. And even when I could just eagle-dive down, most of the time I just wanted to stop halfway and stay on the rooftops.

And when you just want to run straight ahead, there is invariably a chair to stop you. Or a wall that Arno simply can’t figure out what he wants to do with. I found most of my time not just holding the freerun button but also the freerun up or freerun down button as well, though the down one has height limitations while the up one takes longer to get past basic structures.

Assassin's Creed Unity

It’s really just a staple of the series. Since its inception, the games have been just as much about fighting yourself as it has been about fighting the Templars. Every step is rife with opportunity to screw yourself over simply by playing the game as it was designed because for all the chances for joy it carries in its mechanics, they are also the sole source of its greatest frustrations.

I guess it really comes down to one singular sensation that defines Unity: a total and abject lack of surprise. From its story to its new mechanics laid on top of old ones—hell, even the degree to which it was totally busted to hell—there was nothing surprising about the game. Reactions span from “about god damn time” to “oh come on” to even a rock solid “meh.”

Even after coming back to the game half a year later, it’s hard to suss out any answer to any amount of why.

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A Marvelous Notion

A Marvelous Notion

Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will soon draw to a close. The first of the Netflix deluge released one month ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron came out last week, and we’ll see in two months whether Ant-Man was a good or bad idea.

The interesting bit, though, is that we won’t know if the MCU was a good or bad idea until the end of Phase 3. There’s more than likely three more years until the next Avengers film—the first of a two-parter involving Thanos and the Infinity Gems—and that is also likely to be the capstone of Marvel’s massive tertiary operation.

That’s a lot of time for a lot of things to change, and by “things” I mean contracts. But let’s back up a second. When someone says “Captain America,” you probably have Chris Evans already in your head. When someone says “Iron Man,” that will almost certainly kick out the sugar plums and bring in the Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man

Marvel’s marketing as worked so well that their faces have become the brand name for the otherwise genericized mantels of heroes like Band-Aid and Kleenex. The mere visage of them and Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow are money makers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But the problem, like I said, is contracts.

These aliases are just that: name tags shuffled about between those that are able to don them. Iron Man is just a suit that anyone can wear, as proven by War Machine. Thor doesn’t have to be Thor so much as someone worthy of wielding Mjölnir. But the faces and names under those facades are irreplaceable.

Downey 100% is Tony Stark and vice versa. It’s not that they’re kind of the same person; personality-wise, they are the same person. And to lesser degrees, after a decade and a dozen movies (almost two dozen at the end of Phase 3), these other actors have been cemented as these characters.

Thanos

Captain America: Civil War is going to be the last film on Evans’ contract. Downey barely renewed into both that and Infinity Wars. By the end of Age of Ultron, the setup for a new bunch of Avengers had been laid. Marvel is carefully and studiously transitioning to a future without their core stars.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t ever see our old heroes again. Give Cap’s shield to another All American super soldier and now he—or she!—is the new Captain America. (It seems, though, that Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes could be poised for that.) It’s a classic comic book move. The question is if the general populace is willing and able to take that.

By some mysterious, perhaps supernatural instigation, they nailed casting, which is at least partially why Marvel’s “these are the faces” marketing worked so well. And they all are stars in their own right, making the willingness for ensemble work so remarkable. But then it’s a question of the ones they picked up along the way like Anthony Mackie and Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are able to hold the same indomitable position.

Ant-Man

More than that, there’s the visions behind each individual film to consider. While Kevin Feige might be the man holding the reins on the overall MCU, each entry is a personal statement from the writers and directors. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, was basically a James Gunn film that happened to have MCU ties. And certainly the Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd team up in Ant-Man can only lead to one very particular perspective on the character and story.

Joss Whedon has bowed out of the game. Jon Favreau couldn’t find a middle ground to come back. What happens when Gunn, arguably the most perfect tonal match for Guardians material, and the Russo brothers can’t/won’t return either? Will it turn into a Spider-Man/Batman reboot-a-rama situation?

But like I said, we won’t find out until the end of Phase 3. We won’t know if this was just a great run, churning out an inordinate amount of high quality films in three filmic chunks, or if it was the start of an experiment that Marvel would eventually drive into the ground. It would be neither of those things or something in between. And what does it say of DC’s attempts to keep up?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s really just a lot of questions right now with no answers. Not even Feige could tell you if it’ll work, only that it’s worked so far. See you guys in three years, I guess.

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Cowherd’s Words

Cowherd's Words

“Oh fuck this guy.” I turned my head to my friend as he said this. It was an understandable reaction. He’d just read the bitter words from ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd. And I get it. After reading Cowherd’s view on televising competitive video games—more commonly known as eSports— I wanted to say the same thing.

Let’s back this train up, though. The starting point of all this is ESPN2 airing a special called Heroes of the Dorm on April 26th, a college-focused tournament for the game Heroes of the Storm. The winners would get their entire college tuition covered, so who wouldn’t want to give it a whirl?

And a lot of people tuning into the channel were surely confused. I actually got texts and Slack messages about it, asking me what this was. It’s a fair question since 1) Heroes of the Storm isn’t officially out yet and 2) video games haven’t gotten huge broadcast coverage in American since G4’s Arena (and WCG Ultimate Gamer before that).

Many of them came around to the idea and actually enjoyed the program. MOBAs aren’t inherently difficult to understand the basics of, though mastering them is a much larger challenge, much like any physical sport. The scoring scheme is straightforward and it’s visually easy to understand, a one-two combo other competitive games fail to achieve like StarCraft and Call of Duty.

But not everyone seemed to like it. Here’s the first relevant pull quote from Cowherd’s segment.

Here’s what’s going to get me off the air. If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait. You want me out? Demand video game tournaments on ESPN because that’s what appeared on ESPN2 yesterday.

Of course, that’s all entirely his call. If he doesn’t want to work a job any longer, then that’s perfectly fine. No one should have to do something they don’t want to, so if video games on ESPN is going to make Cowherd leave the network and pursue a career in the fishing industry, then good for him for having that kind of conviction.

Never mind, though, that ESPN has covered video games before. He, in fact, was the one that did it, as Own Good over at Polygon pointed out. Cowherd willingly provided coverage for Madden NFL 11, 12, and 13 as part of SportsNation. And it seems the great culmination of these team-up was MCing the vote tallying of Madden’s cover athlete.

He also was a member of the unlockable SportsNation team in 2010’s NBA Jam for Wii. (Apparently Ad Rock is one hell of a dunker.) So really it seems that Cowherd doesn’t have a problem with video games in general. It’s more that he doesn’t have room for anything beyond football and basketball.

Cowherd made a strange and broad implication as he talked about listening to the commentary for Heroes of the Dorm.

I tagged out at Harry Potter … I tolerated Donkey Kong, okay? I’ll tell you what that was the equivalent of there … Of me putting a gun to my mouth and having to listen to that.

He might have something there with the facet regarding commentary; it’s not always grade-A stuff. But he’s lumping Donkey Kong in with Harry Potter. He’s looking down upon two vastly different thing in the same sweeping view from atop his highly perched nose. There’s stuff he likes and there’s stuff he doesn’t like, sure. But apparently the stuff he doesn’t like all exists in one giant bucket.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

That is inherently disrespectful and ignorant. It doesn’t matter whether he appreciates a sport or understands the nuance of ballet or the beauty of a piece of code; they all exist without his approval and have all the finesse and power and impact they would have regardless.

Not recognizing that is absurd. It’s like when characters in movies close their eyes and cover their ears to ignore bad news, as if those simple and childish actions would make it all go away. Cowherd’s tone itself is condescending, using his massive radio platform to disseminate his dangerous and bitter philosophy among his listeners.

More than that, he goes beyond wildly slinging personal opinion and goes to attacking those that play games. “Somebody lock the basement door at mom’s house and don’t let ’em out,” he says, a personal taunt to people that play games, one that ignores the fact that he horrendously broad label of “gamer” can apply to Angry Birds enthusiasts to professional League of Legend athletes. Also, video games? $21 billion in 2013.

Colin Cowherd

Cowherd goes on with, “You know what the funny thing is? Listen to how intense they are. These guys are totally into it.” He’s now making fun of people for enjoying something. Britton Peele over at GuideLive laid out a perfectly succinct response: “Forgive them for apparently having fun incorrectly.”

Perhaps he has the same fear those behind the threats and insults of Gamergate have. It certainly has that same flavor, of an instinctual counter to the feeling of something being taken away from them. As James Dator of SBNation puts it, “Here’s the secret: eSports doesn’t need you to care about it. This is a thing that will continue to grow, with your validation or not.”

It’s coming whether Cowherd wants it to or not. He’s attacking the inevitable. He’s attacking the fact that everyone has different tastes. Even if you overlap with Cowherd and millions of others in liking football and basketball, you likely have views and opinions that differ from him as well.

Lumberjack World Championships

Think about the people that likely celebrated the televised broadcasting of competitive eating onto ESPN. Or lumberjacking or spelling or any other niche competitive sport. They are validated by those that like it, not torn down by those that hate it or don’t understand it (and aren’t willing to try).

Certainly there are growing pains with eSports. Raphael Poplock, ESPN’s Vice President of Games and Partnerships, put it plainly in an interview with Kotaku in 2013. “Look at what [ESPN] has done for the sport of poker. We really revolutionized it, made it to a place where fans really could understand what was going on.” eSports needs a production scheme that allows intuitive consumption, not diving further down the rabbit hole of jargon.

But that’s not even what Cowherd is saying. There is legitimacy in his words—personal obligation, the strides that still lay before eSports, etc.—but his message is not one of insightful criticism. He is spouting hurtful, vitriolic, opinionated ignorance as if it were fact.

Heroes of the Dorm

Cowherd’s words are playing directly into the human inclination to either retreat or lash out at things they don’t understand, things that are foreign to them. And given that he has a massive audience, he’s not just looking into his mirror with his positive affirmations but instead influencing thousands of listeners. (Potentially 23 million according to the ESPN fact sheet.)

On the basest level, it’s fine for him to think and hold these opinions on his own. But the fact that he spreads them so willingly and recklessly to a substantial audience makes him dangerous. It’s a poisonous viewpoint, one that diminishes and inhibits human and cultural development. Whether you agree with eSports belonging on ESPN, his words, like everyone’s words, deserve scrutiny. And his don’t pass muster.

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