Thursday, November 19, 2015

Yeah, wow, Star Wars Battlefront is totally not my thing

I'm pretty relieved right now that I didn't agree to review Star Wars Battlefront for anyone. I did it purely because I never played the original Battlefront games, but I'm not sure if that would have colored my opinion in any questionable manner. Frankly, the longtime fans seem to dislike this thing even more than I do.

I dedicated a solid chunk of my day to playing Battlefront - not enough to form a thorough critical take on it, but enough to determine that this is pretty exemplary of what I don't like about modern online shooters: unbalanced progression systems. You know how Call of Duty isn't actually a bad series in and of itself, but kind of ruined games forever regardless? This is one of the ways. It popularized this competitive multiplayer model wherein success is determined less by skill and more on total play time.

To put it in simple terms, the more time you spend with Battlefront, the better your weapons are. You start with absolute garbage, and as you rank up and earn credits, more powerful equipment is made available. There must be appeal to this system, because it's worked wonders for Call of Duty on an annual basis, but I can't for the life of me see why. It creates an unnecessary blockade for newcomers, and there's no reward in overcoming that. If I'm doing well in a multiplayer game, it want it to be the result carefully honed skills, not free time blindly dumped into a progress bar.

While I wasn't fond of Halo 5: Guardians, something I've consistently liked about the Halo series is its level playing field. The progression system in those games (with the exception of the slightest chaste hint of unlockable loadouts in Halo 4, thankfully not something that threw the balance of that title off) is purely cosmetic. Unlocking new armor doesn't give you an unfair advantage; it's just a trophy.

If nothing else, it's not a bad idea to follow Titanfall's model, wherein most of the equipment unlocks don't make you more powerful so much as they change your strategy. Would you rather be able to deflect bullets for a limited amount of time or deploy smoke that kills mounting enemy pilots? Neither is provably better; they're just different. Blowing more time with the game expands your options, but it doesn't make you a better player by default. You've got to work on that yourself.

Speaking of which, I just booted up Titanfall, and it turns out that there are currently fewer than 400 people playing it worldwide. Worldwide. What the hell, people? I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is the most acutely balanced multiplayer shooter since Team Fortress 2. It's brilliant. Why didn't it stick? Why does no one care about it anymore while nonsense like Destiny is still making Game Informer cover stories? I know that another EA shooter just released, but Jesus.

Anyway, Battlefront takes this progression system to its logical extreme, where the starting weapons have zero range (in a game that's generally unfolding on a massive scale, where being able to take out enemies from a distance is kind of important) and even less power. I've been in situations where I've stood only a few meters away from an opponent, pumped nearly a dozen rounds into him, not killed him and then watched him down me in two shots. I can even the odds by putting more time into the game, I guess, but I'm not enjoying myself enough now to continue playing. I'd rather go and play something like Titanfall, but I can't, because y'all are playing this instead.

The presentation's solid, I guess. Very Star Wars-y. I'm not hugely into Battlefield, so I'm not the authoritative voice on whether or not Battlefront is simply the reskin that people are labeling it as. What I can say is that, despite EA's pleas, I will not be playing any more of it, not when there are so many games that provide more immediate thrills.

P.S. Yeah, whoever voices Vader in this game is really, really bad at it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do that thing where we rank Halo campaigns

Yesterday, Halo 5: Guardians was released. Yesterday, I finished Halo 5: Guardians. My new job hasn't started yet, in case you're wondering.

While I'm not even close to being finished with the game yet, given how much I'm enjoying its multiplayer modes, the simple truth is that I've been a Halo fan since long before I was playing console games online. Given that I've now played every campaign from beginning to end, I figured I'd put that expertise to use my doing that thing we always do whenever the latest entry in a long-running franchise is put on the market.

7. Halo 3: ODST

I'd call it unfair to hold this release up to the standards of mainline entries had Microsoft not charged $60 for it, an admission on their part that they believe ODST to be just as worthwhile a purchase as anything else on this list. Some seem to agree; I know people who were clamoring for this to be included in Master Chief Collection, disappointed when it initially wasn't and uplifted when it was later thrown in as DLC. I can see why, too, because this was Bungie's boldest experiment with the series, a sandbox game that dials back the space opera in favor of a more intimate, character-driven campaign exploring the aftermath of a major event earlier in Halo canon. (That the main characters were all voiced by Firefly cast members didn't hurt nerd cred.)

And yet this remains the only Halo game that I've never replayed (with the exception of Halo 5, which just came out yesterday, so give me a bit). In retrospect, I'm indifferent to ODST's open-world focus for the same reason I never took the bait with Destiny adding RPG elements and social play to the series' tight combat. The slower pace only gets in the way of what Halo does well, and still ODST has the distinction of being the shortest game of the franchise to date. It's a noble effort, but I'm not so enamored with these new characters that I'm happy chugging through a relatively inconsequential plot to get to know them better. This is the most forgettable title of the Halo series.

6. Halo 5: Guardians

My full review is on its way, but while I only just completed Halo 5 yesterday, I'm confident that no level of meditation on my part will push this latest release to a higher spot on this list. It's not just that Halo 5 disappoints in and of itself; it actually undoes much of the goodwill built upon in 343 Industries' previous game. In retrospect, the quasi-romance between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 4, which was far more effective than it had any business being and established a level of narrative maturity that Bungie never showcased, now just feels like hollow setup for a bunch of schlocky, D-grade character twists that are only surprising in that they're irrational even by Halo standards. And the game has the nerve to end on a jarring cliffhanger, when the series should have learned the first time it did that.

Still, aside from some major lapses in judgment in the final two missions (the nadir being a battle against three overpowered bosses at once), Halo 5 can still claim to being generally fun to play. In fact, it's the first game in the series to natively run at 60fps, making this, to my mind, the best-playing first-person shooter on a controller to date. Seriously, I've become a PC fanatic since the last Halo game was released, and I'm still finding this thing silky smooth on thumbsticks. Unfortunately, while the polish is here, fresh ideas aren't; with Halo 5 somewhat lacking in new toys and new baddies to use them on, all we get is the same solid gunplay as always, in service of Halo's most disappointing story yet.

5. Halo 3

Typically in trilogies, the first entry establishes the basics, the sequel ups the ante, and the final chapter just sort of scratches its head and curses the previous entry for leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. It's telling that after Bungie made us sit on such an infuriating cliffhanger for three years, the resolution itself was criminally uneventful. How is this situation resolved? Uh, through space magic, I guess. The gang gets together to essentially push a button that wipes out the Flood, ends the war and, sure, I guess strands Chief and Cortana in space just so things don't get too convenient.

I understand Bungie's desire to dial things back a bit after Halo 2 drew criticisms for collapsing under its own world-building weight, but Halo 3's nine-mission campaign essentially brought nothing new to the table while underlining some of the series' long-running issues and Bungie's refusal to address them. I'd often said that my ideal Halo game would be one in which the Flood never show up, and while that did eventually happen, that plot thread still dangles at the start of Halo 3, and the need to resolve it results in an endgame stage that very nearly rivals The Library for tedium. I'm glad that this wasn't the last we saw of Halo, partly because I just like the franchise, but also because this would have been a meager note to end on.

4. Halo: Combat Evolved

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that Halo, for all of the ways in which it revolutionized console FPSs, hasn't aged well. It's such a shame given how much the first half of the campaign is still exemplary of all of the things that Halo does well: the AI, the vehicles, and the massive outdoor battlefields. Had Bungie kept that momentum going, the game's status as a classic wouldn't constantly be second-guessed as it is today. But then the Flood shows up and everything goes to hell.

It's not just the Library, either. While that level is the series' most maligned moment, the entire latter half of Halo, with its repeated interiors and huge stretches recycled from earlier in the campaign, feels like the product of Bungie being pressured to get the game finished in time for the original Xbox's launch. And maybe that was a good thing, because who can say that whether the Xbox brand would still be around today had Master Chief been representing from day one? Regardless, we're left with a shooter that, despite all of its advances for the genre, feels frustratingly imperfect.

3. Halo 2

While Halo 2's influence in online console gaming is irrefutable, its campaign tends to be the least popular of the series, and I can see why. It's overlong, the ending is a crash course in how not to write a cliffhanger, and it delves too deep into its own self-serious mythology, with around half of the campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. But it ranks among my favorites simply for correcting the big issue with the first Halo in that it's consistent. Even when the Flood shows up early on, its appearances are staggered in such a manner that it never becomes tiresome to the same degree that it drowned out the entire second half of Combat Evolved.

So while none of Halo 2's best moments quite feel as liberating as, say, taking to the beach of the Silent Cartographer in a Warthog for the first time, it moves swiftly and to many places, holding my attention more firmly than its predecessor despite being considerably longer. And I actually like the Arbiter; he's a far more fleshed-out character than Master Chief, and his timed invisibility trick lends his missions an additional layer of strategy, particularly on higher difficulties when you need every advantage you can get. That's another thing - if you're the sort who likes to play these games on Legendary, Halo 2 offers the toughest (and thus most satisfying) challenge of the entire franchise. It's a terrific and very replayable game, and if that puts me in the minority, well, more for me.

2. Halo: Reach

This was the Halo game that I always wanted, one in which we never fight the Flood and never set foot in a single piece of monotonous Forerunner architecture. It sounds weirdly non-progressive to say that Reach is great for removing more than it adds, but this was the game in which Bungie finally addressed longtime series issues and gave us the best, most consistent Halo experience of their decade-long run with the license. When we play Halo campaigns, we want sprawling battles against intelligent Covenant AI, and that's exactly what Reach gave us, no strings attached.

And while I certainly wouldn't call Reach's storytelling a masterstroke by any stretch of the imagination, it earns points for its straightforwardness while still feeling like a vital component of the Halo equation (compared to ODST, a story that didn't need to be told). Since the original game began with a single human ship fleeing after the invasion and destruction of Reach, we already know how this prequel will end - not happily - but Bungie still wrings some surprises out of the manner in which Noble Six's story is concluded, and the level of participation that players have in closing this chapter. This was Bungie's last Halo game, and in my mind, they went out on the highest note realistically possible.

1. Halo 4

But embarrassingly enough, whereas it took Bungie a full decade to truly grasp the strengths of their own franchise, 343 Industries got it right on their first try. In jump-starting a new trilogy, they've wisely kept the aggravating Flood out of the equation, opting for a new enemy faction in the Prometheans, who are utterly fearsome but also organized enough that their presence doesn't turn Halo into a mindless shootfest. Halo 4 stands as a terrific example of how to breathe new life into a series without robbing it of what made it popular to begin with. It has no real lulls. It's outstanding.

Most impressively, though, it's the first Halo game that makes Master Chief and Cortana out to be more than simply a player avatar and an exposition machine, respectfully. In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason Halo 4's emotional payoff doesn't quite stick the landing is that we're already so used to these two characters being so one-note; for them to suddenly experience conflicts and express feelings is almost hard to grasp. But that's Bungie's fault, not 343's. Despite the many wrongs committed by the next entry's plot, Halo 4 stands as an excellent standalone experience and the series' finest hour.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

SOMA is totally a metaphor for euthanasia

Note: This article contains spoilers for SOMA. If you haven't finished the game yet, it'll still be here when you do. And if it's not still here, you'll have no evidence that I promised otherwise.

So you've finished SOMA, then, have you? I know this because you would have heeded my warning if you hadn't. So how about that ending? Real gut punch, right? I really do think this'll rank as one of my favorite games of this generation, even if it's got a couple of pacing and narrative issues that I couldn't ignore in my review. Because despite my qualms, this is the sort of thing science fiction was invented for -- to explore important human themes in situations we have not (yet) been confronted with. And while SOMA leaves you with a lot to think about (which is why I love it), I want to talk about one thing that I briefly touched upon in my write-up, which is what I perceive to be the developers' stance on euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing.

Let's briefly recap the plot. In the early 22nd century, Earth's surface is destroyed by a comet, and the only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a research facility at the bottom of the ocean. Resigning to the futility of the situation, the scientists devise a plan to "preserve" the human race: by creating digital copies of the remaining citizens, compiling them onto a device called the Ark, and then launching it into space, allowing humanity to continue its existence in some form regardless of what happens to the survivors' physical bodies. The protagonist himself, Simon, was the first subject of such a brain scan, and nearly a century after his death, he's been reinstated in a mechanical body for initially unknown reasons.

This is an oppressively bleak game, in large part due to the hopelessness of this situation, and how well the developers sell it. It's bad enough that most of humanity has been wiped out, but the remaining members are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, completely removed from sunlight and under constant danger of being crushed under the tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, a rogue AI called "WAU" is using a biomechanical substance called structure gel to transform anyone it can find into half-human, half-machine abominations. Humanity is, in its physical form, completely screwed. The Ark really is the only thing we're clinging to.

Near the end of the game, we meet a human named Sarah, who is untainted by structure gel but nevertheless in very poor health. She's in possession of the Ark, and she hands it over with one request: that we pull her life support, putting her out of her misery.

So, yeah, that scene obviously, unambiguously deals with euthanasia. But let's look at the broader picture here, and why I believe SOMA is also making a more nuanced statement. What makes this decision so complicated is that throughout the course of our entire journey, which spans the complete length of the PATHOS-II facility, Sarah is the only living, breathing human that we encounter. Which means, yes, she is literally the last human on Earth. She's already dying, and she wouldn't be able to reproduce and perpetuate the human life cycle by herself anyway, so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the species is doomed. But to kill her is to make the human species extinct with our own, bare hands. It's a heavy, burdening moment.

Let's fast-forward to the ending. The Ark has been launched, and in a post-credits scene, Simon awakens in the simulation, portrayed as a lush, calming forested area. He reunites with Catherine, his companion, and expresses his relief that the plan came together and that the fate of humanity has been secured for potentially thousands of years. If you watched the scene out of context, you'd think it was a happy ending.

But it comes after the real conclusion, in which Simon successfully launches the Ark and watches in disbelief as it takes off without him. Catherine explains, as she had already done earlier in the game, that a human consciousness cannot be transferred from one location to another; it can only be copied. So while a new version of Simon is safely aboard the Ark, the one we've been controlling is stuck, left to wither away and die, alone at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, if you cater to the belief that machines can have souls and that a digital copy of a human can be human itself, this ending can be interpreted as, uh, not a complete loss, since we completed our mission and some form of Simon is indeed safe, sound and headed far away from this planet. To me, though, this ending punishes both Simon and the player for succumbing to a false sense of hope in a world where all hope is lost. Our failure to accept the fall of humanity leads to the hollowest of victories.

I mentioned in my review how vital SOMA's setting is to the effectiveness of its themes, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. We walk through unappetizing grey corridors. We hear the creak of metal as PATHOS-II bends under the pressure of the ocean. We see human corpses being reanimated into biomechanical monstrosities. We see the collapse of civilization. We watch the last human on Earth dying right in front of us. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: What's the use? Why preserve this? We've lost the battle. It's over. If turning humans into machines is an acceptable compromise, then the ending should be a happy one. But I'm betting that for most people, it isn't.

SOMA is, at the end of the day, a game that asks us what we'd do if we were in the position to play Kevorkian with the entire human race. I think it's got a powerful message about prolonging the inevitable. Especially if you read the Ark as some sort of spiritual afterlife and, oh god, that's a completely different blog entry right there.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a review: The point when I stopped playing Until Dawn

Had I actually been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn, I most certainly would have found the wherewithal to complete it. But I have not been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn. It is in my house because GameFly sent it to my house. I'm going to send it back as soon as I'm done writing this. I haven't beaten it and I never will. I value broad critical perspectives, but this time I'm taking a shortcut. I hate Until Dawn, and I'm fairly certain that if I continue playing it, I'll hate it even more.

It is relevant to this discussion that I also hate Heavy Rain, adventure titles in general and virtually any game that treats interactivity as an obligation. The only exception is when the driving narrative happens to be really good; Telltale can get away with it because the first season of The Walking Dead is the only piece of entertainment to make me cry, and that's significant no matter how you look at it. The characters in Telltale games are also capable of opening drawers without chaperoning; they don't, in contrast to Until Dawn's cast, reach for said drawers and await further instructions whilst we hold a trigger and yank the analog stick about. Again: treating interactivity as an obligation. Can we not just assume that these people know how to open drawers?

Maybe not, because Until Dawn is a tribute to the slasher film, specifically the kind in which a group of insufferable teenagers travels to a cabin in a remote location on the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of their friends and blah, blah, blah. I'd think the purpose of applying the David Cage formula to familiar cinema tropes would be to have a more personal stake in them, but I immediately wanted all of these smug, shallow, unfunny jerks dead. Maybe that's the point of a slasher movie, but then the David Cage formula dictates that we need to spend a couple of hours faffing about with no run button before we get to the juicy stuff.

By the way, this game is really high on itself for suggesting (repeatedly, through both an animated intro and abundant in-game dialog) that the choices you make will shape the narrative. Have you heard of the butterfly effect? It's the idea that something as insignificant as-- oh, you do know what the butterfly effect is, because of course you do? Sorry. The game really doesn't think you understand the concept, which is why it defines "butterfly effect" on no less than three separate occasions and uses butterflies as an indicator of whenever you've made a choice that will affect the narrative. One character even says, "Boom! Butterfly effect." The game replays this line later during a recap. I hate Until Dawn.

I made it as far as my first major encounter with whoever the villain in Until Dawn is. He'd set up a Jigsaw-like scenario in which two of my "friends" were strung up in front of a massive buzzsaw and I was forced to select which person I wanted to save. Since I know how horror villains think, I chose to sacrifice the character I wanted to save, knowing that the contraption would go against what I told it to do. That's precisely what happened, and it was a brief spark of triumph for being one step ahead of the game.

Then it hit me.

Oh god. Please don't tell me that the same character gets sliced up in that scene regardless of which way you turn the lever. I've known games that did that! The original Infamous had a dreadful sequence in which Cole had to make the classic "superhero choice" -- pick between saving a bunch of civilians or the woman he loves -- and it rearranged the circumstances behind the scenes so Cole's girlfriend would always die. That was another game that put a big emphasis on choices and consequences. Bunch of hot air that was, but at least we got a solid action-sandbox title out of it. If Until Dawn were to pull the same shenanigans, when choices and consequences are the only trick up its sleeve, that'd be a total deal-breaker. But they wouldn't do that, would they?

They did. No matter which "choice" you make during the buzzsaw sequence, the same character always gets cut in half. Which means I'm calling BS on this whole enterprise right now. Until Dawn, you're barely a game, you have no immediate thrills and your one claim to fame turns out to be a charade. A game that actually fulfills the promise of actions having consequences would be high on my list, but despite its big song and dance, Until Dawn is just like all of the others. You and David Cage should hook up.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: The Spoiler FAQ (with apologies to Rob Bricken)

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is great. This is not a point that many people will be willing to challenge. I gave it a relatively glowing review a couple of days ago, stating that it "makes an absolute mockery of every genre entry that preceded it." Oh, and also the plot is crap, which is a bit of a nag for a series that has largely made it this far on the strength of its plot. This doesn't prevent The Phantom Pain from being awesome, but it does warrant criticism, and since I can't spoil the specifics in the actual review, I figured I'd do that here.

For this post, I'm stealing Rob Bricken's popular "Spoiler FAQ" format, though I doubt it'll be an issue, since no one ever reads anything that I've posted on here. Nevertheless, here's my relatively complete take on everything that The Phantom Pain's story gets wrong (or, at least, everything that I could remember, since the game's narrative failure is long and winding.) Big thanks to David Roberts for proofing this and correcting a couple of things, because what a treacherous road Metal Gear's lore is.

So what's the Metal Gear series about?

It's about a soldier who led a successful mission in the '60s and the subsequent attempts to either replicate or kill him over the next five decades.

That's it?

Good heavens, no, but that's the gist of it. Though Big Boss's reputation as the greatest soldier who ever lived maybe be a little exaggerated, since it was revealed that his success in Operation Snake Eater was more or less orchestrated. But I digress.

So where does The Phantom Pain lie in all of this?

Well, after a disillusioned Big Boss left the military, he spent roughly the next decade assembling a private band of mercenaries with the help of a fellow named Kaz Miller. In 1975, his headquarters were destroyed when an inspection turned out to be a ruse. A guy named Skull Face leads the attack, which puts Snake in a coma for nine years. When he wakes up, he's, like, really angry about that.

So The Phantom Pain is just a revenge story?

Not quite. Skull Face has an evil scheme, i.e. he's engineered a deadly parasite that that's only triggered by specific languages. His intention is to use the strain to wipe out all English speakers on the planet.

Jesus. What's the point of that?

Well, he seems to think that the English language is some sort of ethnic cleanser. He's Hungarian, and he believes that the spread of English is some form of psychological warfare used to erase cultures, or something to that degree.

That certainly sounds like something Kojima would come up with. But why did he go after Big Boss specifically?

He hated Big Boss stealing the spotlight, I think?

That's weak.

Honestly, the only reason his plan fails is because Big Boss gets involved, and that only happens because he makes things so personal. He's a bit of a bumbler, really.

So who is Skull Face?

He's a guy whose face looks like a skull.

I know, but like, what's his backstory?

Remember Major Zero, your commanding officer from the first game? Turns out he actually ran a second unit that functioned as a sort of invisible cleanup crew for FOX. This unit was called XOF, because it's a mirror of FOX or something.

So Skull Face is working for Zero, then?

Well, no, actually. In fact, Skull Face is the one who eventually induces Zero's vegetative state. Turns out he was secretly building his own influence in the military to carry out his ulterior schemes.

Anything else I should know about this guy?

He's been using Huey Emmerich to build a bipedal nuclear launch platform called...

...Metal Gear?


Oh. So wait, why does he need that thing when his plan revolves around vocal cord parasites?

I've spent almost a hundred hours with this game and I can't answer that. And the funny thing is that the creation of Sahelanthropus is the other thing that leads to Skull Face's defeat, since Psycho Mantis winds up taking control of it and using it to destroy his base and kill both him and his most intimidating subordinate.

Psycho Mantis is in this game?!

Don't get excited. He kinda just shows up from time to time and does the "Psycho Mantis pose" before disappearing again. He never talks and it's never really established what his motives are. It seems like he's working for Skull Face, but then he just kind of turns on him without any apparent reason.

So he possesses Sahelanthropus, which I'm assuming Big Boss must then fight?


And that's it?

No, that's not it. We may never know what was going on between Konami and Kojima behind the scenes, but it honestly feels to me like Kojima had planned for Skull Face's defeat to be the finale of the game but then rushed to include more connective tissue between the Big Boss and Solid Snake stories once he realized that this would be his final Metal Gear. So after what feels like a conclusion, up to and including a full credit roll, Kojima then introduces a bunch of additional plot threads that he doesn't have the time to properly address.

Like what?

Well, like a character named Eli, who is pretty much the worst thing about The Phantom Pain.

Who's Eli?

He's Liquid Snake, i.e. one of Big Boss's clones. The evil one, specifically. And you'll know it the minute you set eyes on him if you're even a casual fan of this series.

How does he figure into this?

He's initially known as the White Mamba and has been leading a group of child soldiers in Africa. I'm pretty sure he was only included because Kojima read Lord of the Flies right before he began writing this.

Sounds like you're jumping to conclusions.

The first time we see Eli, he's literally sitting in front of a decomposing pig head surrounded with flies. Also, the deleted ending reveals that Eli eventually forms an adult-free sanctuary on a desert island. Also, the script for said deleted ending literally refers to him as "Lord of the Flies."

Kojima's such a nuanced guy. Wait, there's a deleted ending?

Right. So after Big Boss defeats Sahelanthropus, he has it airlifted back to the new Mother Base to serve as some sort of trophy. Eli gets it running again and recruits his fellow child soldiers, who have all been taking refuge on Mother Base, to abscond with it.

Then what?

Then nothing. The proposed final mission was supposed to resolve that particular plot thread, but it was never finished. So instead, Eli just fucks off with his own doomsday machine and that's the last we hear about him.

Why does he steal it to begin with? Can you at least answer that?

Honestly, nothing about this character makes sense. His arc seems to revolve around his relationship with Big Boss, but we never actually see the two of them interacting aside from a couple of contrived boss battles in which the game's usual rules involving tranquilizers and knockouts suddenly don't apply. He seems astutely aware of the fact that he's a clone of Big Boss, since he keeps referring to him as "father," but anything driving his apparent daddy issues happens off-screen. And even before he hijacks Sahelanthropus, he's constantly wreaking havoc on Mother Base, to the point that you wonder what Boss and company see in him, why they keep him on.

Are you having fun spelling out "Sahelanthropus" over and over again?

A blast. Also, Eli has the vial of the remaining vocal cord parasites. Again, in the final game, this goes unaddressed.

How does Eli get Sahelanthropus operational again, anyway?

With the help of Huey.

What's he doing here?

Big Boss, Kaz and Ocelot are suspicious of him, partly because he's working for Skull Face, and partly because the "inspection" that led to the original Mother Base's destruction was his idea. So they kidnap him and torture him repeatedly.

Aw, poor guy.

Actually, they're totally right. He's evil, though the specifics shine a light on one of The Phantom Pain's biggest problems, which is that it relegates some of its most important chunks of lore to easily-missed audio logs, many of them unavailable until this aimless endgame bit.

Give me an example.

Well, like there's this whole subplot involving Huey's relationship with Strangelove and the child that they had together.

Ah, Strangelove! The scientist who engineered the AI in Peace Walker! What's she up to?

She's dead.

Oh shit!

Huey murdered her.

Oh shit!

They had a disagreement about using their son, Hal, for experimental research, and Huey responded by sealing her in an AI pod, suffocating her.

Oh shit!

Big Boss and crew discover this by extracting the pod and finding her skeleton inside.

Oh shit! So why do they even keep this asshole around?

Well, they coerce him into building a new unmanned tank called Battle Gear.

I bet that's fun to pilot!

We'll never know, because even when it's complete, you never actually get to use it.

Does it serve any sort of plot relevance?


Bummer. So Huey's useless, huh?

Well, in addition to assisting Eli in escaping with Sahelanthropus, he also orchestrates an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites on Mother Base, long after Skull Face has been dealt with. This forces Big Boss to shoot a bunch of his own men to prevent the parasites from spreading.

That sounds intense.

It's a powerful sequence, but it's just sort of anecdotal in that it comes up after the parasites arc is completed and doesn't go anywhere. It's just one of many things that happens after the central story has been resolved.

But maybe seeing Big Boss having to kill his own soldiers is an important step in his transformation into the villain he'd eventually become in the original Metal Gear games?

You'd be on to something there if the character we're controlling was actually Big Boss.

I... what?

The character we're controlling isn't actually Big Boss.

Wait, what? Who is he, then?

He's a medic who works for Big Boss.

But he looks exactly like Big Boss.

He underwent plastic surgery to make himself look exactly like Big Boss.

Um, why?

So the real Big Boss can go undercover and... do... stuff.

When is this revealed?

In the very last story mission of the game. See, the very first chapter has a character who we assume is Big Boss awakening from a nine-year coma and then being led out of the hospital by a guy named Ishmael as it comes under attack by soldiers. Ishmael's face is covered in bandages, but he has Kiefer Sutherland's voice, which obviously sets off some alarms. But whoever he is, he's clearly not Big Boss, because Big Boss is the guy we're controlling.

But Big Boss isn't the guy we're controlling?

No. The final story mission of the game has us replaying this entire sequence, but with an additional cutscene that reveals Ishmael as the true Big Boss, who's actually totally intact and isn't missing any body parts.

Whose plan is this?


I thought Big Boss and Zero were enemies now?

They are.


And the weird thing is that this mission is buried deep in the game, to the point that the internet seems torn on how to unlock it. You basically just have to do optional stuff until it just unlocks itself.

So wait, which Big Boss is the one who shows up later in the series?

They both do. The fake Big Boss was the villain in the original Metal Gear, and he actually did die at the end of it. The real Big Boss is the one who then shows up in Metal Gear 2 and, eventually, Metal Gear Solid 4.

What's the point of all of this?

Now there are two Big Bosses!

So do we ever actually see what caused Big Boss to take an antagonistic turn?

No. If anything, it's an even bigger mystery now, since any major developments that happen in The Phantom Pain can be dismissed on the grounds that we're not actually following Big Boss at all. We're just watching the exploits of some fuck who's convinced himself and the rest of the world that he's Big Boss, and who will die the next time in the series that he shows up.

How do you know that Zero's in on this? Is he in this game?

Not really. He's just featured in a handful of audio logs that establish his connections to every character and event in this series. Honestly, this character's entire contribution could have been written and recorded in an afternoon. Shame, too, because I actually think Zero is a fascinating character, but he's constantly given the short shrift.

Is there anything else I need to know? You mentioned that Skull Face had a subordinate?

Yeah, Volgin.

Wait, what? The main villain of Snake Eater? That Volgin?

Yeah, although it's not actually revealed that he's Volgin until the endgame stretch. Apparently, he wasn't actually killed in Operation Snake Eater, and further experimentation resulted in him developing pyrokinesis. He's nicknamed "The Man on Fire."

None of Kojima's creative juices went into character names, I'm noticing.

Want to guess what the Man on Fire's weakness is?



I was joking, but okay.

There's a boss battle against him, and it is the biggest anticlimax in a game full of them. You literally just knock him into a pool of water that's maybe one foot deep. You do this once and he's dealt with.

That's how he dies?

No, he get trampled by Sahelanthropus when Psycho Mantis goes insane.


And it's only well afterward, when you have to hunt down his remains, that it's communicated through audio logs who he actually is. "Big Boss" retrieves his body and brings it back to Mother Base.

Then what?

That is the conclusion of Volgin's plot thread.


Have I told you about Quiet yet? The sniper who wears a bikini and never talks.


Actually, she's largely a really cool character. Her reason for not talking is that she's carrying the vocal cord parasites from the beginning and doesn't want to trigger them. She's initially one of Skull Face's agents, but defects after she spends some time with Big Boss and develops feelings for him.

Aw, that's sweet.

She's actually one of the few components of The Phantom Pain that gets a satisfying send-off, too. Big Boss gets badly injured while the two of them are out in the field, and he needs to be picked up, so Quiet directs the helicopter pilot by, y'know, speaking, presumably activating the parasites and dooming her. So she sacrifices herself to save Big Boss. It's a beautiful scene. Unfortunately, it too is pointlessly difficult to actually find.

Do tell.

Firstly, you need to get her bond rating to max, which involves bringing her along on a bunch of missions. If, like me, you never used her, you're in for some grinding. This unlocks her final mission, and for as much fun as the rest of The Phantom Pain is, this one mission is a crash course in bad game design.

How so?

Well, for one, it's a Horde-style endurance level in a game that largely goes through great lengths to allow players to avoid combat altogether, and this is the one time when The Phantom Pain decides that stealth is completely off the table. Enemies are in constant combat mode and know where you are at all times, even when they shouldn't, as per the game's rules. Also, you're mostly fighting tanks, and they're unfairly buffed to the point that many of their shots are one-hit kills and several of them took me a couple dozen rockets to destroy.

Sounds like you've just got terrible equipment. Why didn't you just ditch that mission, upgrade your rockets, and come back when you're better prepared?

Because (a) I don't want to spend 90+ hours in a non-RPG only to settle for grinding to oblivion to clear the final mission, and (b) for whatever delightful reason, you can't actually exit this mission until you've finished it.

Is it worth it for Quiet's conclusion, at least?

I mean, kinda. It's a great scene, though it's undermined a bit by her perverted attire.

Dare I ask why she's wearing it?

She's photosynthetic. She breathes through her skin. Clothes would suffocate her.

Are you fucking kidding me?

And Kojima apparently thought this was really clever.

This game sounds awful.

It's fantastic. Seriously. It's just not great for the reasons that Metal Gear games typically are, and that's understandably thrown some fans for a loop. You should absolutely play it, but with the expectation that you're getting a revelatory approach to freeform stealth mechanics and not a cohesive, satisfying story. Because, I mean, just look at it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A selection of negative bullet points about the horrible new Fantastic Four movie

I left a screening of Fantastic Four (which I will no longer be jokingly referring to as Fantfourstic because at least the movie's own title card doesn't do the stylization seen on the posters) earlier tonight dizzy with anger and frothing to put my complaints into words. Since I don't have the energy to write a formal review of this, I'm just gonna list the things I hate about this movie as eff-you bullet points. I was considering stealing Rob Bricken's Spoiler FAQ format, but I'm still holding out hope that he'll write one himself. With a mess of a movie such as this, it'd be a wasted opportunity if he didn't.

• Okay, first of all, why are we doing the dark-and-gritty routine with a superhero franchise in which the main character is a stretchy man and the lead villain is named "Victor Von Doom"? Did Fox not learn this lesson over a decade ago when they downgraded the X-Men's attire to a bunch of boring black leather suits? Call the Marvel movies formulaic all you want, but at least they understand their source material.

• Also, no, Mr. Fantastic is never once referred to by that name.

• And on the subject of names, I noticed during the opening credits that the title was never revealed, which led me to guess that the movie would cut to it at the end just before the credits, Nolan-style. This led me to guess that the title would flash right after the four are discussing what to call themselves as a superhero team. And then I guessed how the scene would play out: One of them would casually use the word "fantastic," and another, eyes agape with inspiration, would turn and say, "Could you repeat that?!" I was more or less correct.

• So Miles Teller, then. I'd only seen him in Whiplash, and he was excellent in that, so he's got value as an actor, but man is he miscast here. He handles being a gawky teenager well enough, but anytime he's tasked with carrying an action scene, he looks completely lost. I realize that the movie's climax was basically shot entirely in front of a green screen, but he seems to be making no attempt to even guess what's going to end up around him in the scene.

• The rest of the cast is fine, I guess, albeit given absolutely nothing to do. The characters in this movie are only ever mildly anything. Sue Storm is mildly standoffish. Johnny is mildly hotheaded. Ben Grimm is mildly a tough guy. Jamie Bell is decent enough when he's not covered in CGI rocks, though the movie wants us to believe he's a bruiser even before his transformation, and he's kind of a shortass.

• So Reed Richards is a whizkid depicted here as having invented a teleportation machine by fifth grade. Nobody cares, which is kind of the opposite of what would happen in real life if a fifth-grader made an earth-shaking scientific discovery, but okay.

• Reed spends seven years perfecting this technology, then, rather than becoming a goddamn billionaire, he flaunts his invention at a high school science fair, where it works, but not without shattering a basketball backboard. His teacher (the same teacher he had in fifth grade, I'll add) dismisses the teleportation thing as an illusion, charges him for the backboard, and disqualifies him. Which is weird, because even if the teleportation bit was just a magic trick, he'd still have a machine that can shatter a backboard from a considerable distance, which has got to be at least kind of impressive.

• But! As luck would have it! Dr. Franklin Storm and his daughter Sue just happened to be at this science fair, just happened to be within earshot of Reed's demonstration, just happen to be working on a similar teleportation device at this very moment, just happen to be carry a small sample of sand from the same alternate that he's been teleporting things to, just happen to have the authority to offer him a full scholarship at a fancy school, and just happen to want to offer him one on the spot!

• So now the team comes together. Johnny is a hothead, so of course he's a street racer. Sue listens to Portishead and Reed asks, "So you like music? Is that, like, your thing?" Because that's weird for someone to like music.

• Also, Victor Von Doom is just some weird guy who hangs out in a dark room playing video games all day. Apparently he founded the whole teleportation project, and it's suggested that he's super-smart, but everything bad that happens in this movie can be blamed on one incredibly stupid thing that he does, so I'm not so sure about that. I get the sense that the people who wrote this script didn't realize that Dr. Doom being a freaking dictator is one of the things that traditionally makes him cool. This character is actually spectacularly mishandled from every direction, but we'll get to that.

• There are a couple of fake-out moments in which the other characters appear to be impressed with Reed and then finish their sentences. So, Victor walks in and takes a look at Reed's work and says, "It's amazing." Reed thanks Victor, who then says, "Amazing that you almost destroyed the world with that thing." This happens a couple of times.

• By the way, this movie apparently cost $120 million to make, and I have no idea where that money went, because the CGI is both weak and minimal, and most of the film takes place in these drab grey labs.

• Reed and Sue are traditionally romantic interests. In this movie, they smile at each other a couple of times.

• In fact, you know what? I don't buy any of these people getting along. One of the defining characteristics of the Fantastic Four is their togetherness, the sense that they're a family, that their individual powers are pieces of a whole. Here, the only thing even remotely resembling chemistry is between Reed and Ben, and only because they're childhood friends. Their relationship makes less sense as the movie goes on, but again, we'll get to that.

• They get a full-scale teleporter up and running, and they test it using what is very obviously a CGI chimpanzee. The chimpanzee doesn't actually do anything, so I have no reason why they couldn't just use a real one. Come to think of it, I think I know where the budget went.

• The machine works! But while Dr. Storm promised the kids that they'd be the first human subjects, the military steps in and insists that trained experts will be the first to go through. Which is, like, completely rational, but the kids are understandably disappointed and rectify this by getting piss drunk. Victor notes that while Neil Armstrong is world-famous, nobody remembers the engineers who actually got him to the moon. He uses this nugget to encourage Reed and Johnny to sneak in, fire up the machine and be the first ones to set foot on Planet Zero. It's maybe the only solid piece of dialog in this movie.

• Ben hasn't been involved in any of this, by the way, but Reed invites him to come be part of the experiment, uh, just because. Also, Sue knows nothing about this and doesn't travel with them. Get your feminism sticks ready.

• Now, up to this point, I considered the movie dry, dull and a bit dumb, but not nearly as awful as the hype had suggested. Then, at around the 40-minute mark, Reed, Johnny, Ben and Victor travel to Planet Zero and Fantastic Four just goes to hell.

• So firstly, there's a big pool of mysterious green fluid right in front of them when they exit their pods, and Victor, who's hyped to be even more intelligent than the guy who invented teleportation by fifth grade, just sticks his goddamn hand in it. This creates a chain reaction that results in the entire place erupting. Victor falls into the green goo and presumably dies (ha!), while the other three barely make it back to the lab alive. It's during the warp back that they obtain their powers.

• But wait, how? It's suggested that Johnny and Ben gain their abilities by merging with whatever else got caught in their pod during the warp (fire for the former, rocks for the latter), but then what did Reed come in contact with that made him all stretchy?  And how does getting zapped upon re-entry result in Sue (remember her?) being able to turn invisible and cast force fields? I guess it's for the better that the movie doesn't try to explain all of this. Just roll with it, I guess.

• So here comes one of the most bizarre tonal decisions in the film as the Fantastic Four are confronted with body horror. That kind of makes sense for Thing, especially since his appearance being so drastically altered is one of the driving points of his character, but like I said before, Reed is a stretchy man, and that's just silly. Trying to make the effect look horrific only amplifies its silliness. We can either laugh at you or laugh with you, movie. Take your pick.

• Reed catches a glimpse of Ben, aka Thing, and then escapes the facility through the air ducts, as one does. He promises Ben he'll help fix this, but he just kind of takes off and doesn't seem to have any interest in returning. The government suit guy breaks this news to Thing, and then offers to continue their research and help cure Thing of his ailments if he'll work for the military.


• Wait, what the fuck?!

• Are you serious? These people just got their powers, and we didn't even really see how Sue and Johnny reacted to theirs, and now you're just jumping ahead a year, to the point where the three still in the government's hands are totally adept with their powers? Has anything important happened in this time? Where the fuck is the entire second act of this movie?!

• So yeah, now the Fantastic Three are still stuck in the same grey labs, occasionally putting their powers to military use. The government guy (who's played by Tim Blake Nelson, by the way) explains what all of their powers are and runs through some TV footage of them using their abilities on missions. Seriously, where is the entire fucking second act of this movie?

• Also, why doesn't Thing where any clothes? And why doesn't he have a penis? I get that sex would probably be out of the question no matter what, but like, how does he urinate?

• Presumably, Thing has resigned to the fact that his appearance will leave him shunned from society, and it's suggested that being a military tool is the entirety of his life until they can rebuild the teleportation device, go back to Planet Zero, and hopefully study it enough to find a cure for Thing's condition. I say "presumably" because, again, the movie kind of skips all of that.

• Sue explicitly says that she's only staying here to help figure out a cure for her condition, and that she will not become a military weapon. She says this literally a couple of seconds after completing a military training exercise for her powers. Also, she can free-fly now, for some fucking reason.

• Johnny seems okay with powers. He has daddy issues with Franklin, see, because he was always getting himself hurt in street races while Franklin wanted him to explore scientific research, and now Johnny is doing something scientifically incredible and Franklin doesn't want it. Johnny also suggests that it's Franklin's fault that this happened since he forced Johnny to work at his lab, but it was kind of Johnny's own fault that he got drunk and went for a joyride in a prototype teleporter that the fucking government told him not to use, so hey.

• When Reed fled the facility a year ago, he was naked and stranded in the mountains. Now he's in Panama and living independently because he's smart, I guess? Also, his stretchiness allows him to shapeshift into other people. What?!

• Sue locates him by doing whatever.

• Thing airdrops in and knocks him out by headbutting him. How does this still work on a person who is made of rubber?

• Earlier in the film, we saw Reed use his stretchy-man powers to escape restraints, but this time he just kinda rolls with it. I would try to figure out where this entire team stands with one another emotionally, but like I said, the entire second act of this movie is missing, so let's just move on.

• Also, Reed justifies his abandonment of his friends with his guilt over the accident. He blames himself for their conditions and wanted to distance himself from them to prevent further trouble. That's vaguely true for Ben, who only participated in the experiment because Reed invited him along, but come on. The trip went fine until stupid Victor stuck his stupid hand in the stupid green goo and screwed everything up. You could blame him, but he's dead, right?


• No. Fucking no.

• Give me a second to collect my thoughts on the final act of this movie.

• Okay, so they find Reed and get the machine rebuilt because they couldn't do it without his help, and everyone instantly forgives him for running away because we was scared or whatever, boo-hoo, but hey! The machine has been rebuilt! And this time they're sending actual trained experts in like they originally planned! Experts who won't stick their stupid hands in stupid green goo and screw everything up!

• So they teleport in and Dr. Doom's just standing there, I swear to god. After surviving a whole year on a supposedly inhospitable planet, after falling into a pool of boiling green goo, he's just standing there waiting for people to teleport back. What was he eating this whole time? How was he breathing? And where the hell did he get that cloak that he's now wearing?

• But whatever. I'm sure the other characters are just as confused as we are. The scientists recover Dr. Doom and bring him back and he looks just as stupid as he is. They explain that his protective suit has fused with his body, and the result is one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time looking like a fucking cyberpunk crash test dummy.

• And while I won't try to understand exactly how he got his powers since we've already covered that this aspect of Fantastic Four is a bit muddled, I'm confused about what exactly his powers even are. He can apparently just make people's heads explode whenever he wants provided they aren't important characters; we see him strutting through the lab nonchalantly popping people's brains, which would maybe be scary if he didn't look fucking stupid. He can also deflect bullets, put out lights and, okay, fuck it, he's just got telepathy, okay?

• He kills Franklin, by the way, because of course the father figure must die, but I can't figure out how he kills Franklin. Dr. Doom looks at Franklin, and Franklin's skin turns a bit sickly-looking, and then Franklin just sort of falls over dead and that's it. Again, what exactly are Dr. Doom's powers?

• And seriously, what the fuck? Why is Dr. Doom evil now? How did he survive on that planet for so long? What happened to him? Why is he evil now? Why is the landscape on Planet Zero different than when they first arrived? What is Planet Zero? Where is it? What happened there while they were gone? What was that green goo? What does it do to people? Why did drowning in it graft Victor's suit to his skin and give him psychic powers? Why is he now condemning the human race as having doomed Earth? Why does he need to destroy Earth if it's already doomed? Why does he want to destroy Earth anyway if all he wants to do is fuck off back to Planet Zero? And why does he want to fuck off back to Planet Zero? What does he do there? What's this giant energy beam that he's building on Planet Zero? How does it work? How is it hitting Earth? What the fuck is going on?!

• I swear all of these developments are just as sudden and slapdash as I'm making them sound. I know this movie went through production hell and endured reshoots, but how did anyone look at this final act and think that this movie made any sense or was fit for release?

• So the Fantastic Four pursue him and a bunch of CGI happens. Dr. Doom pins them all down with telekinetically-propelled rocks, obviously, but Reed is able to break free because the movie needs him to take the lead, and then he uses his stretchy powers to punch Dr. Doom from a slightly farther distance than a normal person would be able to.

 They try to talk Dr. Doom down at one point by addressing him as "Victor," at which point he says, "There is no Victor. There is only Doom." I feel like I've heard that somewhere before.

• Also, I guess they no longer need protective suits on Planet Zero because Dr. Doom changed it or whatever the fuck? But it's still cold enough that Dr. Doom insists on putting his cloak back on as soon as he returns. Either that or he's ashamed of looking fucking stupid.

• By the way, this confrontation with Dr. Doom on Planet Zero is essentially the only action sequence in the entire movie, though most of the marketing stills depict the Fantastic Four battling in a war-torn cityscape, which is, like, kind of a lie, you know?

• They manage to knock Dr. Doom into a big crevasse, but Reed postulates that he can't be dead because the energy beam is still running, which, what? Do you know something I don't know?

• But yeah, Dr. Doom is still alive. The team notes that he's more powerful than any of them, but Reed counters this by saying that he's not more powerful than all of them, because now, after 100 minutes of these characters having absolutely no chemistry, this is the part where it needs to be hammered home that they're a team.

• So Sue turns Thing invisible, whereupon Thing sneaks up on Dr. Doom and defeats him by punching him once. He precedes this with "IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME!" and for exactly one second, Fantastic Four is unashamed of its comic book heritage. By the way, even after his transformation into a giant rock monster, Thing is portrayed as an extremely reserved figure, in stark contrast to his traditional personality, so it doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense for him to bellow a cheesy one-liner just before delivering the deathblow.

• So Dr. Doom disintegrates in his own energy beam that he was using to I still don't know what the fuck was going on there. In that whole time, the beam only managed to produce a medium-sized crater in an isolated forest area, so no biggie.

• There were bystanders, by the way, who saw trees and cars being sucked up into the portal, but the government guys (not Tim Blake Nelson, because Dr. Doom made his brain explode) insist that this was a covert affair and that the world doesn't know what the Fantastic Four did for them.

• Then they have the scene that I predicted at the very start of the movie and then the credits roll. Then there's a post-credits scene. Or maybe there isn't. I don't know. I left pretty quickly.

• Then I checked my phone and read on Twitter that cops shot someone in Ferguson on the anniversary of Mike Brown's death. Eat a dick, universe.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Play-by-play revisit: Shadow of the Colossus

The recent social justice eruption in nerd culture has left me feeling extremely privileged for being straight, white, male, non-religious, and whatever else isn't popularly segregated. There is, however, one cold matter of prejudice that I face on a regular basis, and it's the chilling truth that the gaming environment presents a harsh climate for those who do not like Shadow of the Colossus.

The Last Guardian was officially re-unveiled this weekend during Sony's E3 press conference, just as I astutely predicted. Now, I don't like to be the curmudgeon. I really don't. I love video games, and to see so much sudden, passionate outpouring for various projects that many of my fellow nerds long dismissed as lost with the Library of Alexandria (we also got Shenmue III, don't forget) is heartwarming to me. But I look at the excitement for a game that we've known virtually nothing about for eight years, and I look at the universal respect that Team Ico commands for a mere pair of games (the most recent of of which released a decade ago), and I develop concern and bafflement over the fact that I, a hardcore gamer and resolute champion of all things artsy-fartsy, didn't enjoy either of those games.

Shadow of the Colossus isn't merely popular among the gaming community. It's sacred. It's untouchable. Speaking ill of it on the internet is like expressing discontent with Kim Jong-Un in Northa Korea; everyone in the room nervously twitches and then the offending individual is erased from the consensus the next day. You can call Ocarina of Time a feature-length fetch quest, or Final Fantasy VII a typo marathon, or Half-Life 2 a dull series of one-way conversations. But not liking Shadow of the Colossus? Whoa, man. Whoa.

Which is why it's always struck me as kinda bizarre that Shadow of the Colossus isn't very good. Oh, sure, the soundtrack is incredible, the creature designs are exquisite, and the title as a whole is an ambitious benchmark for interactive storytelling. By all means, when I first played it years ago, I expected to love it. And then, like a punch in the face: awful controls, hideous framerate problems and a succession of would-be epic moments dismantled by adventure-game-logic puzzles. I admire the hell out of the game, but at the end of the day, I'd rather play something fun. And yes, to turn the footscrew just a little tighter, I think Watch Dogs is a bazillion times better.

This isn't normal thinking. That's what I've been told to believe, and that's what I started believing myself just yesterday when, in rare form, I decided to give Shadow of the Colossus a second chance. And since the game is rather cleanly divided into parts (sixteen battles), I figured I'd try something new and record my thoughts as I play. Except for this intro, of course. I'm writing this after the fact. But never mind.

Colossus #1: Big humanoid guy with a hammer

This one's pretty inoffensive, as it's meant to introduce you to the concept of colossus-murdering. I should mention that since I did play through this game to completion once, I do remember quite a bit of it, and I don't recall having any problems with him the first time. Actually, on this run, I got a bit frustrated when I settled on the idea that I'm supposed to be climbing his hammer after I stun him, but I guess that's my own fault for being dumb. Okay, well, I don't hate this game yet.

Colossus #2: Bull

You know, I can't say it won't grate on me by the time I'm finished, but I'm actually A-okay with the open-world treks in between fights, even though there's very little to do in Shadow of the Colossus. It's atmosphere-building, and despite the dated technology, the art direction for this game will never lose its luster. Just look at that giant bridge towering over you as you travel to this arena. Terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure, which sums up a lot of this game well.

I specifically remember a friend of mine instructing me how to beat this colossus the first time through, so I have no idea how obvious it would be to shoot the bottoms of its feet otherwise, but I guess this fight went smoothly enough. I'm beginning to recall that a great deal of Shadow's gameplay is just spent holding the R1 button while the colossi try to shake you off, which makes this battle feel unnecessarily prolonged, and I don't see that changing.

Bigger problem: Oh my god I forgot how bad the horse controls are. It hasn't figured into the combat yet, but I know it's going to and I'm dreading it. Probably doesn't help that I've been playing so much of The Witcher 3 lately, and the horse tends to actually go where I want him to go in that game.

Colossus #3: Big humanoid guy with sword

I mentioned that I had a friend coaching me the first time I played Shadow. This was the battle where he forgot the solution, and I spent (I swear) two hours running around this platform in the sky trying to figure out how to climb this goddamn guy. The ethereal voice keeps pointing out that there's a weakness in the colossus's wrist armor, but neither of us could determine how to use that to our advantage. Eventually, we looked it up on GameFAQs.

The answer's etched into my brain now, of course. You need to get the colossus to strike a big stone plate on the ground, and the impact causes the band on his arm to break, I guess, and then you climb it. This battle is the first (though definitely not the worst) instance of a recurring nuisance I recall through Shadow: getting the colossi to maneuver in such-and-such way. Not only does that make you a slave to the AI, but these big, elegant creatures almost come across as bumblers who more or less bring about their own destruction.

This battle went smoothly enough, I guess, but I'm remembering now why I hated this game's controls. They're awfully sluggish, and the physics surrounding whether or not Wander keeps his balance while standing on a colossus seems unreliable.

Colossus #4: Horse

Okay, this is what I'm talking about when I say "adventure game logic." You have to lure this thing over to a structure that you encounter earlier, draw it close to one of the openings from a certain direction, enter the structure, exit from a different door, and then jump on its back while it's crouched over in a scripted position. Never would have figured this out initially had my one friend not given me the answer years ago. Another battle that's straightforward once you know the solution, but the solution itself is obtuse and unsatisfying. Blegh.

Colossus #5: Bird

First of all, I was stuck while looking for this one because I didn't know you could hold R1 to dive underwater. Did the game ever formally tell you that? If not, shame on Team Ico. If it did, hush my mouth.

Anyway. Yeah, this is a terrific battle. They came to work this day. I think there are only two flying colossi in the game, and my memory is that they're Shadow's highlights. It's just exhilarating to lead a battle at great heights and high speeds like this. Also, it's smart that you need to shoot the bird to officially commence the battle, since that move is vital for "boarding" it. The first genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #6: Big bearded guy

Okay, I'm really starting to get sick of this R1 function. Yeah, I know it adds a strategic element to battles, since you have to actually conserve your energy and make gambles regarding how much you're going to charge a stab, but it's a waiting game. I swear, 95% of the time you're actually riding a colossus, you're just sitting there, holding R1 and waiting for the damned thing to stop shaking so you can get on with the game. This is boring.

Colossus #7: Eel

Okay, another good one. I actually remember naming this my favorite battle after my first run, though I did find it a bit tedious having to just sort of sit on the surface of the lake waiting for this colossus to finish his breakfast and come pick a fight with you. There's a very narrow window for actually boarding this one, and if my reflexes had been slower today, I may have grown frustrated with him.

But yeah, another battle that more or less equates to a highway chase as this thing speeds through the water with you climbing along its back. The main threat, its electricity, is easy to read but also difficult to maneuver. Satisfying and thrilling. The second genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #8: Lizard

Another one where I enter with the advantage of remembering the solution from my previous play, not that its glowing feet are subtle. The thing at irritates me about this fight is the insanely small window that you have to nail its weak point after knocking it off the wall. Seems like the only efficient thing to do is just leap off from several stories, and I find it hard to do that after so much of The Witcher 3 (a game with some of the most punishing fall damage I've ever seen).

Unremarkable fight, and probably the first one that's not even visually impressive (a reminder that not all of the colossi are indeed colossal). Also marks the first appearance of the lasers, and yes, I remember the lasers.

Colossus #9: Turtle

Forget if I mentioned this, but the first time I played Shadow, I ranked all of the colossi in terms of enjoyability, and this one came in dead last. Yeah, remember how I said I hated the horse controls and was dreading when they'd become necessary? They're necessary now. Remember how I said I didn't like having to wrestle with the AI? That's required for this one. Also oh my god why are the colossi shooting lasers.

So you have to draw this guy over one of the generously-spaced geysers in the area, shoot the bottoms of two of its feet to knock it over, climb its belly, vault over onto its back, and run up and stab it in the head once it stands back up. The thing I hated then and now about this battle is that Shadow's physics engine can't keep up during that transition; I'll get most of the way through the process, and then when the colossus is flipping back over while I'm standing on it, Wander goes haywire and topples off. And not in the bumbling, least-physically-competent-video-game-protagonist-of-all-time way that he usually does, but in an unintentional-physics-malfunction way.

Also, my god, these horse controls. What I hate is that they seem to change depending on which way the camera is facing. If you're just riding forward, fine, I guess. But if you're riding with the camera facing backwards or to the side, there's no science to it. Sometimes tilting the analog stick left means the horse runs in that direction on-screen; sometimes it means the horse turns to its left regardless of which way it's facing.

I've been told that the unwieldy horse controls are deliberate, "realistic" and part of the experience, which is ridiculous because (a) controls always need to be consistent regardless of the intent behind them, (b) realism has no place in a game like this, and (c) they're not realistic controls, anyway, because no actual horse would just crash dumbly into walls like this.

I don't like this game right now.

Colossus #10: Sand snake


I have no memory of this, which is surprising, because when you consider how much I hate the way your horse controls in this game, you'd think a horseback battle would be branded onto my brain. I remember that the horse dies at the end and I can't wait.

So it turns out the horse actually can be steered in a consistent manner, but for some reason, it's only when you're using L1 to look at the colossus. That's required for this fight because you need to actually lead a chase and then fire an arrow backward when it reveals its eyes, which it only does after it's seen your horse's rear end for a while. Aiming's a bit too springy when you're using L1, and you can't actually see where you're going, so this one took a lot of trial-and-error and I did not enjoy it at all no sir not one bit.

Colossus #11: Bull pig

I was wrong. The turtle was not the worst boss in Shadow. This is the worst boss in Shadow. Unless something comes along that's even more tedious, and I shudder at the thought.

So first of all, this colossi is tiny. Like, this could be a boss in any game. Secondly, it's the only time in Shadow (to my memory) in which you need to actually pick up and use an environmental object; there's no indication that you're supposed to be doing this, or even suggestion as to how. And it's silly adventure game logic again: climb pillar, get bull to ram pillar, pillar drops torch, pick up torch with R1, climb pillar again, light torch that for some reason wasn't lit even though it just fell out of a fire, wave the torch around until the bull backs off of a ledge and breaks its armor. A contrived, linear sequence of point-and-click misadventures that probably made sense in the designers' minds.

Also, if you miss leaping directly onto the bull's weak point after it falls, it's basically impossible to jump back on from where you are thanks entirely to wonky physics. And when you do board it, again, it shakes like mad and thus begins the R1 waiting game again.

Colossus #12: Water buffalo

First of all, I don't know what else to call this thing.

Second of all, more adventure game logic! This time, board a nearby platform with a roof (the ones without roofs won't work!), shoot the colossus in the horns until it lowers its head while it's firing goddamned lasers at you, climb the head, then guide it around by striking the teeth sticking out of its scalp (?!), jump onto one of said roofs, get it to pull itself up onto the roof by shooting its horns again, strike exposed belly.

I want to go into more detail about how much I hate this game's controls but I'm really tired.

Colossus #13: Flying snake.

Yes. Finally the good one.

Drawing the snake down to ground level is a concise process, since the sacs on its underside make for very clear targets. Once it dips its fins down to your level, that's when you need to race up beside it on your horse and grab on. Yes, this battle does require some horseback maneuvering, but you have plenty of room, and thankfully, most of the danger comes when you're actually riding the colossus.

Again, Shadow's two flying colossi are amazing, and this battle in particular combines the two previous highlights on the game, #5 and #7. It's fast-paced, large-scale and visually magnificent. You can see why it's the favorite. The third genuinely great colossus battle in the game. [Edit: Also the last.]

Colossus #14: Bull pig returns



You know something I forgot to mention about the bull-pig the first time around? It has this one ram attack that knocks Wander out for at least five seconds, and it's actually quite easy to get locked into a loop of such attacks. Thankfully, this time you actually have to spend most of the fight off the ground, avoiding the thing, so it's not quite as painful now.

This may, however, be the game's most contrived and drawn-out battle. You have to get the colossus to knock down, what, a dozen of these pillars? All of which fall down in precisely such a position that they allow you to continue maneuvering along a series of linear platforms? And then it's the same bucking-bull nonsense where you spend an eternity holding R1 while waiting for Wander to decide to maybe attack the thing that's trying to kill him?

I hate this game.

Colossus #15: Big humanoid guy with cleaver

It's more of that thing I love where I have to get a colossus to do a specific thing. This one's dopey, too; I had to absolutely pop him full of arrows throughout the fight to keep him from just wandering off. I actually thought that destroying the bridges would actually break his sword (since I remember that he loses it at some point), but no: that's just a way for Shadow to reset your progress and pull you back to ground level.

Also, his final weak point is on his palm, and you can only get to that after he does a very specific ground pound move that it took me forever to trigger.

I'm tired.

Colossus #16: A mountain wearing a dress, basically

I'm tired.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bloodborne review postscript: Chalice Dungeons, replays and final thoughts (no spoilers)

So I finished Bloodborne in about four or five days, partly because I enjoy being something of a pathfinder when it comes to Souls games, and partly because I had a review to write. And write it I did. You can read it here, if you care enough and didn't catch me linking it a billion times on Twitter.

It was never going to stop there, though. I still had to investigate the Chalice Dungeons (purported by the developers to be a major component of this new IP) and play through the game at least once more to take a closer look at the story and pick up on any details that I naturally missed on my first run. Just the other day, Bloodborne earned the distinct honor of being my first platinum trophy, meaning that I have essentially done everything that there is to do in this game. I've seen all three endings (which involved completing NG+ and then doing NG++ with the skip trick), seen basically all NPC subplots unfold and spent an ungodly amount of time in the Chalice Dungeon. So, I'm now writing up this blog entry to summarize my final thoughts on the game.

Well, firstly, the opinion expressed in that review hasn't changed. It's a fabulous game, and if anything, replaying it (and subsequently reading numerous fan theories) has only boosted my appreciation for Yharnam as a fount of rich but ambiguous history, recapturing what I loved so very much about the first Dark Souls. The load times were literally the only thing preventing from awarding the game a perfect score, which underlines just how bad they were and how magnificent the rest of the game is. While it's not quite my favorite Souls title, I'd say it's the best by measurable standards, meaning it's the Souls game that I have the fewest complaints about.

My overview of the series is as follows. From Software were still getting into their groove with the first two Souls games. Demon's Souls suffers from a lot of design issues that continuously make me surprised that I seem to be the only one not fond of that game; Dark Souls perfected Miyazaki's design formula and minimalist storytelling style but still contained an awful lot of technical issues. Dark Souls II cleaned it up and was the most stable of the bunch, but it's also got the least interesting, most nonsensical world (not surprising, since it's the only time Miyazaki didn't direct). With Bloodborne, we finally get nuance and polish on top of fresh, fascinating lore. It's exactly the game that I wanted it to be.

Good thing I consider the Chalice Dungeons to be a separate entity, then, because they're pretty lame, sadly. The very idea of having procedurally-generated Souls dungeons is a bit odd, since the series' articulate and very deliberate design, in conjunction with lore that's shrouded in mystery, is what makes it work so well. Reducing that formula to formless dungeon crawling, mainly in nondescript underground tunnels, is kinda the opposite of that. I suppose we can thank the gaming industry's current obsession with roguelikes for this addition, but it doesn't mesh well with Souls intrigue at all.

The only reason I stuck with it was a thirst to see everything that Bloodborne has to offer, and the Chalice Dungeons do indeed have some bosses unique to this mode. Unlocking them, however, is beyond a chore. There are four different "worlds," several types of dungeon per world, and three or four levels to a dungeon. The ritual involved in opening a new dungeon requires materials found in previous stages, and thus the process of opening new content becomes an insufferable grind. The dungeons themselves have virtually no variety, either in aesthetic or design. After a few trips, you'll have seen all of the variants.

As for the bosses themselves... eh. Most of them are rather straightforward in that they return to Dark Souls II's "big guy in armor" trend that the story bosses do a solid job of steering away from. They're repeated often, too, and feel a bit cheaply accelerated as you progress deeper into the labyrinth. One of the required dungeons, the "Defiled" variant, halves your health, which results in probably the most frustrating boss encounter of the entire series thus far (against a big fiery dog with an outrageous amount of health).

Weirdly, while the Chalice Dungeons can easily be ignored, they contain a couple of details somewhat important to Bloodborne lore. Specifically, the "final boss" is actually a big piece of the Yharnam puzzle, in ways I won't spoil. I guess it's in keeping with Miyazaki's principles that an important story nugget would be buried in a place where most players will never see it, and it does make me feel somewhat proud to have seen this particular aspect of the game through to the end, but the journey there was easily the least fun I've had with the game. I'd only recommend the Chalice Dungeons to absolute diehards, and even then, be warned that you're in for a rough trip.

Like I said, though, the opinion expressed in the review needs no real updating. While Bloodborne is smaller and more linear than previous Souls games, it's no less full of intriguing little world-building elements that you'll have missed the first time, and gaining a fuller understanding of Miyazaki's fascinating universes is one of the big reasons his games are so rewarding. And now that I'm finally finished with it, it's time to finally dive deep into Pillars of Eternity and see if March brought any other GOTY hopefuls.