Saturday, February 8, 2020

I suppose these are my Oscar predictions

Best Picture: 1917
Best Director: Sam Mendes (1917)
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Best Original Screenplay: Parasite
Best Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 4
Best Documentary Feature: American Factory
Best International Feature: Parasite
Best Cinematography: 1917
Best Costume Design: Little Women
Best Documentary Short Subject: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Best Film Editing: Ford v Ferrari
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Bombshell
Best Original Score: Joker
Best Original Song: "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" (Rocketman)
Best Production Design: Parasite
Best Animated Short Film: Hair Love
Best Live-Action Short Film: Brotherhood
Best Sound Editing: 1917
Best Sound Mixing: 1917
Best Visual Effects: The Irishman

And just for fun, here are my preferred winners for categories in which I predicted something else, i.e. I hope I'm wrong about these:

Best Picture: Parasite
Best Director: Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)
Best Supporting Actress: Florence Pugh (Little Women)
Best Original Screenplay: Knives Out
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Irishman
Best Cinematography: The Lighthouse
Best Film Editing: Parasite
Best Live-Action Short: A Sister
Best Sound Mixing: Ford v Ferrari

Monday, December 30, 2019

My top ten for 2019 or whatever

Hey! I don't have much to say. It was an okay year. Here are some honorable mentions:

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4). The already sizable campaign is needlessly lengthened by a brutal checkpoint system, but the combat itself slaps, and the VR missions are magnificent.

Apex Legends (PC). I don't know if another damn battle royale game is a suitable replacement for Titanfall 3, but this is arguably the best of its kind, and ate a lot of my hours this year.

Luigi's Mansion 3 (Switch). I missed the second one, and the leap in quality from the original is astounding. Just wish there was more to do with all of this damn money.

Resident Evil 2 (PC). I'm only allowing one remake on my top ten list, but let's not overlook the fact that I played through this, like, seven times.

Untitled Goose Game (Switch). The memes were good.

10. Amid Evil (PC)

The overwhelming success of 2016's Doom reboot signaled a thirst for the sort of retro-style first-person shooter where there's no reloading and the main character moves at the approximate speed of a cheetah. While the mainstream scene has yet to catch on, the indie market offers plenty of options, and some of the same collaborators responsible for last year's joyfully overviolent Dusk delivered again in 2019 with Amid Evil, a medieval (GET IT?) homage to classic magic-themed shooters Heretic and Hexen. Enemy and environmental variety is strong throughout given the range of settings (from gothic to futuristic), and the visuals somehow look old and new at the same time, mixing limited polygon counts and pixelated textures with gorgeous lighting and reflections. (The game is supposedly getting a ray-tracing update soon.) Most importantly, one of the weapons is a staff that flings miniature exploding planets. Play this.

9. Blasphemous (Switch)

Although plenty of games have emulated the mechanics of the Souls series - the bonfires, the bloodstains, the stamina meter - a much trickier task is recreating the intrigue, and the slow drip of concrete answers that follows. The Game Kitchen, a developer from Spain, gets off to a good start by pulling imagery from their home country, resulting in a recognizably Western setting that nevertheless doesn't quite slot to grid, and overwhelms you in the misery of Christian self-flagellation, the belief that humanity is inherently unclean. In terms of play, it's a bit closer to classic Castlevania, with the one-on-one duels making for some of the most memorable combat encounters of the year. The platforming is way too harsh, and the developers themselves have acknowledged that they went overboard with the abundance of instant-death spike traps. But then in a game where the major theme is inflicting horrific self-harm, maybe that's appropriate? (Review.)

8. Ape Out (Switch)

A case of style-over-substance where, damn, this game sure has a lot of style. Although Ape Out does find amusing ways to switch up its combat scenarios - the power outage sequences, in particular, are wonderful - what you see in the first few minutes of the campaign is essentially what you'll be seeing for the rest of it, playing as a runaway primate who pops his oppressors like water balloons. But it's the game's unique audiovisual flair that makes it - the one-point perspective, the bright colors that turn the carnage into something resembling a Jackson Pollock painting, and the simple fact that all of the sound effects are actually percussive instruments, morphing the mayhem into freestyle jazz. It's possibly the most violent game of the year by simple virtue of what's happening on screen, but it feels more akin to creating beautiful art. I don't know if that's less or more perverse than if the same acts had been depicted realistically, but either way, Ape Out is damn satisfying. (Review.)

7. Slay the Spire (Switch)

A roguelike that fits comfortably next to Darkest Dungeon and Into the Breach among the best that the genre has to offer, though it's a slightly tougher sell due to the sheer simplicity of its premise. It's a deck-building game with no real story that consists entirely of turn-based battles arranged on a branching path, and it'll be quite a few runs until you get a sense of the game's depth, after you've expanded on the number of cards that can be unlocked mid-game. The three characters are wildly different and increasingly complex - the starting knight hits hard and heals frequently, the rogue focuses on stacking poison damage, and the robot summons little drones that unleash passive effects each turn. It deftly passes the "just one more run" test, and while success takes a lot of planning and more than a little luck, landing on a winning strategy has the sort of energizing effect that makes you want to dance around the room and tell everyone who know who's also playing Slay the Spire how you managed to reach the end.

6. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PC)

We FromSoft fans love to be given new challenges. In Bloodborne, they took away our shields, and now in Sekiro, the only path to victory is countering. What used to be a neat little party trick in Dark Souls to separate the masters from the peasants (and I say this as one of said peasants) is now mandatory. This direction sparked a fierce debate about difficulty settings and accessibility, and I can't fault anyone for finding Sekiro unbearably frustrating or even literally unplayable. But speaking as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki's playthings, it hurts so good. The Souls sequels got progressively easier as they offered nothing new to conquer, so it's a pleasure to be forced to learn something, and that process is the closest I'll likely come to feeling like I'm punching through the original Dark Souls for the first time again. I didn't connect with Sekiro's lore the way I usually do with these games (likely down to personal preference due to a setting that I feel has been done to death), but goddamn is this some of the tightest, most rewarding combat ever conceived. (Review.)

5. Reventure (Switch)

I avoided this for much of the year because I'm a shallow person and screenshots make it look so painfully mundane. It turns out that's the point, because Reventure is all about turning expectations for a generic action-adventure on their heads. Although not a roguelike, it is run-based, the hook being that it sports a hundred endings, and almost every single one pokes fun at a nonsensical gaming convention that we've been trained to take for granted. Reventure is the sort of game that constantly has you asking, "But will this work? Did they think of that?" And the answer is yes, time and time again, a fact afforded by the developers' smart decision to keep the scope limited, lest their vision exceed their reach. The funniest game of the year, and more challenging than it sounds, albeit not in the way you'd think, since the inventory weight system adds a neat little puzzle bent to navigating the world and getting the right tools to the right places. (Review.)

4. Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)

I never played the first Mario Maker, because I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm to spend hours putting together my own levels and then share them with the three or four other Wii U owners. Oddly enough, Mario Maker 2, despite being released on a far more popular console, never really became a social fixture like the original did, but speaking as someone to whom this was all new, I had a blast. Nintendo suckered me in with an actual single-player campaign this time (one that's not only terrific, but showcases all of the crazy things you can do with the creation engine), but the act of pouring countless hours into levels and then actually getting feedback wasn't just rewarding - it was new to me. Hell, I even got a couple of my levels played on a stream, and not only did the guy enjoy them, but one of the commenters even complimented me. While there were better games released this year, Mario Maker 2 was perhaps the only one to give me an experience I'd never had before.

3. Pathologic 2 (PC)

It's lovely that my three favorite games this year all do incredibly interesting things with interactive storytelling. Pathologic 2 misses out on a higher ranking by virtue of being a remake (albeit a confusingly titled one), but speaking as someone who'd only dipped his toes in the original, I was steadily gripped by Ice-Pick Lodge's relentlessly bleak take on the survival genre, set over twelve days in which society slowly collapses following the outbreak of a deadly plague. Pathologic 2 forgoes the sort of polish that would be demanded of higher-profile titles, immersing you not through production values, but rather reliable systems. The effect is a nonstop sensation of impending doom so overwhelming that to simply hit a dead end, a no-win scenario, almost feels like a canonical ending in and of itself. Miserable from start to finish, yet haunting and profound in ways that cheerier games couldn't be, Pathologic 2 may not sound appealing, but it's one of the year's most captivating releases for those brave enough to face it. (Review.)

2. Death Stranding (PS4)

Had any other person's name been attached to Death Stranding, labeling this the bravest AAA game of the year might have been accurate. Surely the "brave" move for someone with as outsized an ego and as reliable a following as Hideo Kojima would be to acknowledge his flaws and limit his scope. Thank god he didn't, or we wouldn't have been blessed with this crazy, overblown experiment in social gaming. Although I can't go into details about why the traditional story elements worked for me (and I seem to be in the minority there), the more important matter is the way Kojima integrates Death Stranding's themes into its play, in which the process of running long, drawn-out deliveries is made easier by structures left by other players. One of the year's greatest satisfactions was the constant reminder, in the bottom-left corner of the screen, that the paths I'd laid down were used and appreciated by others. These are difficult times, and they're easier to bear together. (Review.)

1. Disco Elysium (PC)

This was a difficult call. Death Stranding was the most important game of the year, the biggest conversation-changer. But I didn't treasure every single moment of it the way I did with Disco Elysium. Two decades ago, Planescape: Torment set a new standard for writing in video games that has still only been matched by a select few, but it didn't quite have the courage to focus entirely on that, with cumbersome combat occasionally getting in the way. Although its unofficial follow-up, Torment: Tides of Numenera, wisely made the combat optional, Disco Elysium (which throws a "special thanks" to the legendary Chris Avellone in the credits) removes it altogether, leaving us with an entirely dialogue-driven RPG that recognizes how strong its writing, characterization and world-building are, and doesn't let anything else stand in the way. Hilarious, poignant, absorbing, and unafraid to preach politics, Disco Elysium has a lot to say, and says it in the best way. (Review is in the pipes!)

Most overrated: Sayonara Wild Hearts
Most underrated: Rage 2
Most overlooked: The Stillness of the Wind
Most visually striking: Control
All-out best-looking game: Death Stranding
Best story: Pathologic 2
Best writing: Disco Elysium
Best character: Kim Kitsuragi (Disco Elysium)
Best performance: Norman Reedus (Death Stranding)
Funniest game: Reventure
Best original soundtrack: Outer Wilds
Best licensed soundtrack: Death Stranding
Biggest surprise: Tetris 99
Biggest disappointment: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Comeback of the year: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Best multiplayer game: Apex Legends
Most enjoyable bad game: Shenmue III
Least enjoyable good game: Outer Wilds
Best free game: Apex Legends
Game that I spent the most time with: Death Stranding
Game that I spent the least time with before dismissing: Dawn of Survivors
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Devotion
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but still haven't: John Wick Hex
Best game that I still haven't finished: Astral Chain
All-out worst game that I played: Where the Bees Make Honey
Best non-2019 game that I first played in 2019: Frostpunk
Best remake/re-release: Resident Evil 2
Most anticipated game this coming year: Half-Life: Alyx

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

How Joker's best scene renders the rest of the movie pointless [SPOILERS]

Hi! I didn't like Joker very much. And while I was initially content not to extend my takes beyond this brief tweet lest I contribute to The Discourse, I must confess that the movie has remained in my mind for the last couple of days. Not for the reasons I'm sure director Todd Phillips wants it to be, granted, but rather because it's such a fascinating failure, a quote-unquote "real movie snuck into the studio system under the guise of a comic book film" that ends up feeling considerably more shallow and less sure of itself than at least the recent upper tier of the genre it tries so hard to stand above. Maybe it's just because the only film to attempt something similar is Logan, and that one was, y'know, good?

But as much as I'd love to rail on Phillips for being a smug, insufferable toolbox on top of being a mediocre director, let's just focus on the "mediocre director" part. See, I do happen to think that there's one genuinely magnificent scene in Joker, and while it's a perfect microcosm of what Phillips is trying to do, the success of this scene only underlines how the film as a whole fails to justify its existence. This involves getting into specifics, but you're all adults and you saw the spoiler warning in the header, so let's get into this.

Arthur has just been (rightly) fired from his job at a rent-a-clown agency for bringing a loaded gun into a children's hospital. He's taking the subway home late at night, still in his outfit and makeup, when a couple of Wall Street douchebags on the train start pulling the "give us a smile" routine on a woman who clearly wants to be left alone. Suddenly, Arthur begins launching into one of his uncontrollable laughing frenzies, and the men turn their attention to him, because they think he's laughing at them, and if there's one thing that rich, white, smug, insecure bullies hate, it's being laughed at.

So they attack him. And eventually Arthur decides to use that gun that just lost him his job. The scene isn't shocking because of the violence; I've seen guys get shot in movies before. It's for how suddenly the tables turn. One moment, this asshole is stomping on a helpless Arthur. Only a couple of frames later, his brains are all over the window.

In that moment, we think we're seeing the beginning of a familiar character arc: Our lead is introduced to violence through necessity, but as they grows more comfortable with it, their acts become increasingly less justified. The obvious comparison is Taxi Driver, while the "I can't believe you actually remember The Brave One" comparison is the 2007 Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One. Arthur Fleck is on a sled, and he's just been given his first push, and he's only going to pick up speed as the slope steepens.

But then the scene takes an unexpected turn. Two of Arthur's assailants are dead, while the third is whimpering and stumbling away with a bullet in his leg. Arthur has emerged victorious. But instead of letting it go, he chases the final attacker off the train and executes him in cold blood on the subway platform with a distinct look of satisfaction on his face. And there it is. There's no slow boil, no gradual escalation. Arthur gets his first taste of the upper hand and he loves it.

If Phillips wanted to make a standalone examination of the Joker's psyche, this five-minute stretch of the film would have made a terrific short, because the character completes his entire arc within this single scene. At the start, he's at the lowest moment of his life, a figurative and literal clown who's been punched constantly and never punched back. By the end, he emerges a murderous vigilante. As a different interpretation of this character once said, all it takes is a little push.

The problem is that this scene occurs before the film's halfway point, and now that Phillips has told us everything we need to know about his Joker, there's nowhere else for him to go. From that moment forward, Joker becomes predictable. Once we know that Arthur has no remorse about killing, everyone who wrongs him is marked for death. When Arthur pockets a pair of scissors before meeting with the coworker who ratted him out, there's zero question that the scissors are gonna end up in that guy's skull. When Arthur fantasizes about shooting himself on the talk show, we know for certain that he will instead turn the gun on the host who invited him on just to mock him.

Even if Joker's story beats all play out exactly as I'd anticipated, I could still give the movie a passing grade if it had a point, but Phillips is too cowardly a filmmaker to take a stand on anything. He makes his main character an unambiguous villain, but ensures that said villain's only victims are people who "deserve" it. He notes the unfair stigma of the mentally ill, but paints them exclusively as murderers and domestic abusers. He portrays a society cheated by the 1%, but depicts the remaining 99% as a bloodthirsty mob spurred on by one random homicide. He brings up countless political issues but then just has the Joker proclaim that he "doesn't believe in anything."

Maybe Joker's muddy politics are the point. After all, some of the best portrayals of this character have dismissed the idea of his lust for chaos being some sort of quantifiable force. He's evil incarnate, and the fact that there's often so little motivation for his behavior is what makes him so scary (and such a fitting nemesis to Batman). But if the only explanation is that there is no explanation, why make a two-hour movie? What is the point of any of this?

I think it's pretty simple, honestly - a hack director, previously most famous for having Ken Jeong leap out of a trunk naked, got the idea that he'd become "respectable" if he'd just surround himself with a talented cast and crew and mix-and-match the plot threads from a couple of Scorsese movies. And given that it won the grand prize at the Venice International Film Festival - an honor previously awarded to Roma and The Shape of Water - his approach clearly seems to have worked for some people. But I walked away feeling like I'd just seen a very pretty, very well-acted waste of time.

Maybe a film that causes this much ruckus for this little reason is as fitting a tribute to the Joker as there could be. But that doesn't make it good.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review, plus some trendy discussion on difficulty

Sekiro released two weeks ago, and it has since consumed every second of my life that wasn't spent doing things that must be done as a person who is alive and intends to continue being alive. I get like this with FromSoft games. Initially, it's to beat the spoilers, to be among the first to discover the new world that this developer has laid out. Then it's to master everything. A FromSoft game, for me, isn't finished when the credits have rolled. It's finished when there are no challenges left to conquer. With nearly a hundred hours logged and every achievement unlocked, as of today, that's finally happened.

I say this for two reasons. The first is to underline that Sekiro is pretty much everything I want and expect out of a FromSoft game. The second is so nobody can throw variants of the old "git gud" argument at me when I say that I think every Souls game should ship with an easy mode.

The thing about Sekiro is that it's tough even by the standards of a company known for this sort of thing. Dark Souls, for better or worse, is universally recognized as the poster boy of hardcore challenge, yet FromSoft seems to have invested its time since in demonstrating just how good we had it back then, by stripping away failsafe options we once took for granted. Bloodborne took away our shields, and now in Sekiro, it's counters only, plus you can't summon, and dying gives every other character in the game the goddamn plague.

And look, I love it. Going from loathing the original Dark Souls to including it within my top three favorite games of all time is the sort of learning curve and reward you just don't get from any other developer. But when I imagine a game like Sekiro including an easy mode, the effects are only positive. It means more people get to love a thing that I love, because they can enjoy it on their own terms. It means that those who physically can't play Sekiro as-is -- because they're disabled or else just lack the motor reflex skills -- won't be walled off.

I understand some of the arguments to the contrary. This isn't generally a discussion we have with other mediums, and in fact, broadening the appeal of, say, a movie is generally frowned upon. Whenever a studio mandates that a film's content be toned down to secure a PG-13 rating, it's rightly viewed as the compromising of an artistic vision. And if the question was whether FromSoft should lighten the load for everyone, I'd object. These are obviously games designed for a specific type of player, and at some point we need to acknowledge that not everything is for everybody. I get that.

But let's say, for a moment, that Sekiro shipped with an optional assisted mode, given that such an choice hasn't stopped, say, the Bayonetta games from being regarded as hardcore character action magnum opuses. Let's also say that it wouldn't be possible to switch difficulties mid-game, putting to rest the popular argument that players overwhelmed with frustration would be tempted to bump it down in the heat of the moment rather than soldiering through. I still get the experience I want, and more people get the experience that they want.

To say that's not a good thing reeks of gatekeeping to me, especially now that so much of this discussion is being rightly framed as an accessibility issue. Not a lot of people argue that subtitles, colorblind modes, or rebindable controls compromise a developer's vision. No reason this should, either. And besides, I have a strange hunch that the same people panicking over the prospect of FromSoft losing its artistic license also boycotted Battlefield V for featuring a female lead, so I'll continue to point the finger at rush of being part of an exclusive "club" as the driving issue here.

Of course, the reason this argument has sprung up is because Sekiro is far and away the most difficult game FromSoft has ever released, enough so that even a number of longtime Souls fans seem to have been turned off by it. Even as someone who loves the game, I'll admit that it goes a bit too far in places. The final boss in particular is a four-phase marathon against a guy with a goddamn submachine gun where the most effective strategy is to just spend most of the fight running away and luring him into using a jump attack that leaves him vulnerable for a few quick strikes from behind. For as replayable as FromSoft's titles are, they have yet to make a game where I'm not dreading at least one segment upon revisit, whether it's the Bed of Chaos, Yahar'gul or (the newest entry) Snake Eyes Shirahagi.

For the most part, though, Sekiro worked like a charm on me, precisely because its relentless difficulty forces me to master new tricks. Countering is something I rarely bothered with in previous Souls games -- it was always just a showy move where the risks outweighed the rewards -- but here, it's mandatory.

See, while Sekiro is still very recognizably a Souls game on a number of levels -- from the way its world is laid out to the familiar mechanics it transplants from Hidetaka Miyazaki's past work -- the combat has received a massive overhaul to the point that even FromSoft vets will run smack into a wall for the opening hours. Stamina has long been the backbone of Souls combat, but here, it's called "poise" and it only applies to blocking, meaning that both you and your enemies can attack endlessly. So remaining on the defensive until your enemies inevitably need to recharge is no longer an option. They'll wail on you without relent until your guard is broken.

That's where countering comes in. It's a simple act of hitting the block button right when an attack lands, and doing so successfully will drain the enemy's poise rather than yours. Simply standing there, holding the block button and absorbing hits, will eventually break your guard and leave you vulnerable. Instead, the way to win is to redirect that poise damage back at your assailant. Breaking an enemy's guard opens them up to a finisher. It's possible to kill any enemy in the game -- including bosses -- without entirely draining its health meter. While it's a tricky system to learn (as it involves memorizing attack patterns to the point that you can successfully deflect long combos), nailing it is one of the most empowering experiences in any video game I've ever played. It feels absolutely incredible.

I mentioned that FromSoft has been slowly stripping away our options in combat, and it's evidenced in Sekiro's total lack of character builds. Not only are we playing as a named protagonist this time (with spoken dialog and everything!), but we only have one primary weapon and no real leeway over our attributes. Grinding isn't even really a thing anymore, since the means to improve both our attack power and defense come in the form of finite resources. You can slightly customize your play style with a skill tree and a set of limited-use attachments for your robot arm -- oh yeah, your character has a robot arm, by the way -- but for the most part, there's only one way to fight.

Where Sekiro opens up, and where it continues to diverge from its Souls brethren, is in the way players move about levels, and the number of options they have in approaching tough situations. The main character is a shinobi, and as such, you're given the option to jump, hang, wall-run, and otherwise just navigate levels in a more three-dimensional sense than we're used to in Miyazaki's games. There's even an Arkham Asylum-esque grappling hook that you can use to quickly sling yourself from various points around the impressively open levels.

The result is the introduction of stealth into a series that previously barely featured it. Sekiro was originally intended to be a Tenchu game. I've never played one of those, so I can't speak to the similarities, but I'm led to believe that there are clear parallels in the ways you can sidestep traditional combat by one-shotting wandering enemies from the shadows.

It's an important balance for a game as frequently rage-inducing as Sekiro often is, where the big climactic boss encounters funnel you into a very specific method of play. I don't think a game as brutal as Sekiro would survive as a straight-up boss rush, where we spend hours making dents in a seemingly insurmountable foe only to start the process all over again immediately for the next battle, but it's the moments of exploration and wonder that keep the Souls games from becoming exhausting, and Sekiro's stealth-centric main levels compensate for the increased challenge of its title fights.

Speaking of which, how does Sekiro stand up to the other Souls games from a world-building perspective? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag for me, though much of it comes down to preference. FromSoft's usual style of indirect storytelling is in full force, rewarding players who read between the lines and giving important contexts to areas that would be throwaway transitional levels in a game by any other developer.

On the other hand, Sekiro's feudal Japan setting is extremely genre, and it's a genre that I just don't find as inherently fascinating as the entropic fantasy of Dark Souls and the Lovecraftian horror of Bloodborne. Again, it's all just personal taste, but the warring clans and blood of dragons feel like well-tread territory among Japanese games, and so many characters in this game speak in the same solemn grumble that I found myself wishing the subtitles would label the speaker. The opening hours of the game also have the Nioh problem of repetitive, indistinguishable environments (pagodas for days), though Sekiro's second half is a massive improvement in this regard, with the gorgeous vistas of Mount Kongo and the Sunken Valley providing some memorably colorful sights.

But my general indifference to Sekiro's lore is pretty much the only reason I don't quite regard this game with the same awe that I reserve for masterpieces like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, because not only is it at least as tight and satisfying as those games, but with a revised combat system and a Tenchu-esque focus on stealth, it carves out a unique identity for itself even as it shares many recognizable qualities of Miyazaki's previous work. But having said all of that, know that this debate over accessibility hasn't sprung up for no reason. Sekiro wasn't my breaking point, but it left me wondering what will be.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

I've never cared less about the Oscars than this year, but here are my predictions anyway

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Best Actor: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Best Actress: Glenn Close (The Wife)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite
Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Documentary Feature: RBG
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
Best Cinematography: Roma
Best Costume Design: Black Panther
Best Documentary Short Subject: Period. End of Sentence.
Best Film Editing: Vice
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Original Song: "Shallow" (A Star Is Born)
Best Production Design: The Favourite
Best Animated Short Film: Bao
Best Live-Action Short Film: Marguerite
Best Sound Editing: First Man
Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War


My predictions last year.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Resident Evil 2 remake is great, but it flubs the two-character mechanic

So that Resident Evil 2 remake is damn good stuff, huh? Maybe that would come as a bit more of a surprise if RE7 hadn't demonstrated that, after generations of experimentation, Capcom finally remembers what made this series great to begin with. Nevertheless, the updated RE2 is a near-perfect cross-section of old and new. It's fluid, precise and gorgeous, but also confidently boasts the small scale that Resident Evil abandoned after this very entry. Most of the game is set in and around one (very iconic) building, and the claustrophobia is real - the more we try to claw our way out, the deeper into hell we fall.

The remake of RE1 famously consisted of roughly 70% new content, and while that doesn't quite seem to be the case with the new RE2 - the layout is mostly identical, and all of the major plot beats still happen in the same order - Capcom has rearranged enough of the familiar material that even those who have played through the original numerous times, as I have, will be on edge. I trust at this point that I don't need to explain why RE2 is a classic, nor do I need to detail how the remake preserves its legacy - the rest of the internet has you covered at the moment. Instead, I want to focus on one small but crucial way that the new RE2 misses its potential.

The original RE2 featured what was rather eye-rollingly referred to as the "zapping" system, wherein the campaign's full story was gleaned through two back-to-back playthroughs. You could choose to play as either Leon or Claire, and each would offer a slightly different perspective on the same general events. When you finished the game with one character, you had the option to start "Scenario B," a slightly abbreviated version of the same campaign depicting what the other protagonist was doing during all of this. Although Scenario B had you repeating many of the same puzzles and encounters, there were enough new beats to keep things relatively fresh, and the shared continuity between the two playthroughs manifested in surprising ways - say, if Leon doesn't pick up the machine gun, it'll still be around for Claire to retrieve.

On the surface, the remake offers the same feature - Claire and Leon are both playable, and you'll still need to complete what's now called a "2nd Run" in order to see the entirety of the story. Each campaign has a unique subplot, and the revisit is considerably shorter, mainly since getting out of the police station is a much simpler affair the second time. But the replay still felt a bit more arduous to me than it ever did in the original, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Firstly, to be fair, the zapping system was just an inherently strongly sell to me when there were fewer games to play. There are games from my childhood that I haven't touched for 15 or 20 years that I still remember more vividly than stuff I played months ago. With more time, less money, and a smaller overall market, we had to get the most out of what we owned in the days of the original RE2. So part of my indifference to the remake's 2nd Run system is a bias in how I consume games now versus two decades ago. I'm not looking for excuses to replay games. If anything, I'm looking for excuses to put them down.

But I can't fault RE2 for giving committed players a bit of extra value. Even without the double campaign, we still get multiple difficulties, letter grading, an in-game achievement system used to unlock costumes and bonus weapons, and some additional modes in which you use limited resources to escape the station as either the last surviving soldier or a block of tofu. There's a lot here, enough to keep diehards occupied for ages while still sticking to what should have been a lean base game.

I imagine Capcom feared that a lot of modern gamers are like me, content to play through a game once and shelve it for good after the credits have rolled. That's probably why, this time, they've refused to tuck some of the game's best material into a return visit that many newbies likely won't be aware of.

The idea of Leon's and Claire's stories syncing up was never going to be airtight. Realistically, in Scenario B, all of the doors would be unlocked, all of the puzzles would be solved, and most of the enemies would be the permanent kind of dead. (Not all of them, of course - in the original RE2, you literally didn't have the means to kill every single enemy in the game.) So you already have to suspend your disbelief a bit.

But in the remake, Capcom seems to have altogether abandoned the idea of these two stories even unfolding in the same timeline. Every major threat that the first protagonist deals with returns for round two. Entire rooms get demolished only to be meticulously pieced back together in time for the second character's arrival. Leon and Claire almost never run into each other, despite following almost identical routes and often witnessing the same events from the same angles.

So what are the differences? Well, as with last time, each of them has a midpoint tangent involving a supporting character - Leon teams up with Ada and we get some setup for the broader lore, while Claire helps a girl named Sherry whose parents shed some light on how this disaster happened. That's the bulk of it. They also have unique sets of weapons, and each has a different final boss. That's about it. Disregarding obvious differences in dialog, the two campaigns are at least 90% identical.

Originally, the biggest incentive for playing through Scenario B came with a name: Mr. X. While Nemesis often gets credit as the progenitor for "stalker" enemies in horror games - nigh-unkillable menaces that routinely hunt the player, an idea perfected with the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation - Mr. X actually arrived one game earlier, hidden away as an extra goodie for anyone who braved Scenario B. Having just completed the game, you think you've got the pattern of things, and then every so often, the towering Tyrant smashes onto the scene and turns whatever you were doing into tense chase sequence. It was a genius way of making a familiar environment foreboding again.

Mr. X is currently the talk of the gaming community, and rightly so, as his upgrade in the RE2 remake is spectacular. In their original incarnations, encounters with Mr. X and Nemesis were heavily scripted affairs. You were meant to feel like you were constantly being hunted when the games were very much in control of when that happened. In the remake, the restraints are off, and Mr. X is a persistent threat. Once he enters the picture, he systematically and unrelentingly wanders the station looking for you. You can hear his lumbering footsteps even when he's in another room. And he can hear you, and will make a beeline for your last known location whenever he does. Since he can't be killed, the only response to seeing him is to turn around and run the other way.

It's sustained horror, made all the creepier by his stiff expression, interesting choice of headwear, and complete lack of a voice. He's pure, unavoidable death in a leather coat. He's good. He's really good. He's so good, in fact, that Capcom didn't have the stones to save him for the second playthrough this time.

And that leaves the 2nd Run disappointingly bereft of surprises, which is irritating, because the game still ends in such a way where there are clearly pieces missing. If you play through the game with Leon, he achieves what he largely sets out to do. But how come we barely heard from Claire this whole time? Who's this little girl she's shuttling about? Where's that one major villain that we never officially dealt with? And weren't there parts of the station that we never found the key for?

Those questions get answered, but only by chugging through a lot of the same material with only the slightest variations. This would have been a perfect time to introduce Mr. X. We spent the first playthrough fearing what was around every corner - even if we'd already played the original, because Capcom wisely shuffled the most memorable scares around. Once we know the layout, RE2 could have put our knowledge to the test with an unkillable enemy that can only be outmaneuvered by knowing detours. We kinda get that when Mr. X arrives in the first campaign, but by then, we've already almost finished our business in the station, and the game's best feature gets less than an hour in the spotlight.

I love the RE2 remake. It'll likely be one of my favorite games of the year, and anyone with even the slightest interest in Resident Evil or survival horror in general owes it to themselves to check it out. But whereas the remake of RE1 was better on every conceivable, leaving no reason to ever return to the vanilla game in given a choice between the two, RE2 actually does lose a couple of minor things in the conversion. Mainly the intricacy of the two-character mechanic, but also that fourth wall-breaking scare where you get attacked during a load animation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Every 2018 release I played, ranked (and there were 100 of them!)

I've already posted my ten favorite games of the year on both GameCritics and my blog (both articles are identical, so I don't care which one you click on), but here I've compiled a list of every 2018 release that I played, ranked from worst to best. I played a hundred new games this year, which is probably a new record for me, and one that likely won't be topped unless I break my spine again this year.

* games I'm still working on
^ games I've shelved but may come back to
° games I gave up on

100: Immortal: Unchained (PS4)
99. Fallout 76 (PS4)
98. Extinction (PS4)
97. Castle of Heart (Switch)
96. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PS4)
95. Metal Gear Survive (PS4)
94. Underworld: Ascendant (PC)°
93. Agony (PC)*
92. Lust for Darkness (PC)
91. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)^
90. Seeking Dawn (Vive)
89. H1Z1: Battle Royale (PS4)
88. Secret of Mana (PS4)
87. Ash of Gods: Redemption (PC)°
86. Rifter (PC)
85. Outbreak: The Nightmare Chronicles (PC)°
84. Ambition of the Slimes (PC)°
83. Omen of Sorrow (PS4)
82. The Perfect Sniper (Vive)
81. Darksiders III (PS4)
80. BombTag (PC)
79. The Flood (PC)
78. Tesseract VR (Vive)
77. Guacamelee! 2 (PS4)
76. Just Cause 4 (PS4)
75. Robo Boop (Vive)°
74. Ashen (PC)°
73. All Walls Must Fall (PC)^
72. Call of Cthulhu (PS4)°
71. Jet Island (Vive)°
70. Infernium (PC)°
69. Iconoclasts (Switch)°
68. Pokémon Quest (Switch)°
67. Dawn of the Breakers (Switch)^
66. QuiVR (Vive)^
65. Laser League (PC)
64. Cold Iron (Vive)°
63. Shadow of the Colossus (PS4)
62. Warhammer: Vermintide 2 (PC)°
61. Overload (PC)°
60. Conjuror’s Eye (Vive)
59. La Camila (Vive)
58. Earth Wars (Switch)
57. Kirby Star Allies (Switch)
56. Roguemance (PC)
55. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (PC)
54. The Messenger (Switch)°
53. Donut County (Switch)*
52. Sacred Four (Vive)
51. Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption (PS4)
50. Vampyr (PC)^
49. Squidlit (PC)
48. Marie’s Room (PC)
47. Dead Cells (Switch)^
46. Sairento VR (Vive)
45. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (PC)°
44. Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS (Vive)°
43. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (PS4)*
42. State of Mind (PC)
41. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee (Switch)*
40. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (Switch)*
39. Picross S2 (Switch)
38. Downward Spiral: Horus Station (Vive)
37. Attack on Titan 2 (Switch)^
36. Pixel Ripped 1989 (Vive)
35. God of War (PS4)
34. Candleman: The Complete Journey (PC)
33. Youropa (PC)
32. Subnautica (Vive)*
31. Moss (Vive)
30. Shenmue I & II (PC)
29. Dusk (PC)*
28. Paratopic (PC)
27. Black Bird (Switch)
26. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch)
25. Ghost of a Tale (PC)
24. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice VR Edition (Vive)
23. Dandara (Switch)
22. The Council (PC)*
21. The Gardens Between (Switch)
20. Minit (PS4)
19. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise (PS4)*
18. Project Warlock (PC)
17. Return of the Obra Dinn (PC)
16. Octopath Traveler (Switch)*
15. Death’s Gambit (PC)
14. Gwent: The Witcher Card Game (PC)
13. Lumines Remastered (Switch)
12. Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (PC)
11. Dark Souls: Remastered (PC/Switch)
10. Tetris Effect (PS4)
9. Monster Hunter World (PS4)
8. Gris (Switch)
7. Spider-Man (PS4)
6. Firewall: Zero Hour (PSVR)
5. Far: Lone Sails (PC)
4. Yoku’s Island Express (Switch)
3. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)
2. Into the Breach (PC/Switch)
1. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (PSVR)