Battlefront II, or, Star Wars Holiday Special II: This Time It’s Pretty Much Malicious

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You would think it’d be hard to put everything cool about an entire video game into one not so cluttered image. You would think that.

Were developer EA’s game Star Wars: Battlefront II not a licensed Star Wars game the sum total of its offerings would be unacceptable to the casual gaming public. More acceptable than its predecessor, if we’re splitting hairs, but unacceptable nonetheless. It represents the worst in licensed games: a mediocre product using its license not as a crutch, but as a straight up couch, knowing full well that it doesn’t even need to stand up for some dumb fanboy like me to traipse over.

EA’s handling out Battlefront II isn’t just a lazy “screw you” to consumers and fans, it flies in the face of the entire spirit of the Star Wars sequel era.

Disney is a business and it knows the goose it has in the Star Wars franchise. The embarrassingly obnoxious terms it’s set for theaters to play The Last Jedi make that abundantly clear. But despite Disney’s cold, calculating business mindset, the hands that are actually crafting Star Wars in this new era are passionate ones. Whether in the two newest films, the Star Wars: Rebels television show or the various Marvel comic books, there is continually a sense that the people who are given the chance to directly interact with and build upon the Star Wars universe have a respect for that opportunity. That sense of respect, of appreciation, is sorely lacking from EA who has twice now used the Star Wars license to drag down what can reasonably be considered the bare minimum.

While EA’s second Battlefront is more than just four maps (fan outrage dragging that bare minimum upward kicking and screaming) it still limits the amount of maps available offline to the generous total of six. And why wouldn’t it? EA can’t get any of your money through it’s infamous micro transactions offline.

Needless limitations are the name of the game here.

During gameplay you’re limited to one weapon in your loadout. Why? And the selection of blasters, while movie accurate in site and sound, feel consistently unwieldy, each efficient only in specific circumstances. To tout my own credentials, I managed to platinum Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but I never managed to feel particularly lethal, or even vaguely dangerous with Battlefront’s flailing controls and decorative weaponry, no matter how much I tinkered with the controller sensitivity. And those frustrations are only amplified when playing as any of the game’s hero characters from the Star Wars films. Though the cumbersome gameplay certainly extends the life of what would otherwise be a movie-length campaign mode.

A single player campaign mode is the biggest addition to Battlefront II, and though it’s existence is a win for fans, EA still manages to get away with putting in as little material as possible. There are no jaw-dropping moments in this campaign, no sense of excitement. It is point and shoot to the extreme, particularly during any of the admittedly gorgeous dogfights which have players flying X-Wings and Tie Fighters around in circles blowing up wave after wave of opposition just long enough to realize how little they’re actually doing.

The campaign follows the story of Iden Verzio, played by Janina Gavankar, leader of Inferno Squadron, an imperial special ops team. Starting at the end of Return of the Jedi, the campaign exists in a period in the Star Wars mythos that, despite a few novels and a comic book miniseries, still feels a little vague, as if being left open for films or a TV show. Battlefront II’s story similarly only manages to penetrate the primary Star Wars narrative in the loosest ways. Sold as a look at the fall of the Empire from the perspective of the Empire, the story it sells isn’t the one it tells. Without divulging too much, Battlefront II’s plot throws it’s characters down the most convenient, most obvious narrative escape hatch pretty much as soon as possible.

But now that I’ve gotten that mid-sized aquarium full of hatorade out of the way…

Despite its disappointing brevity and predictable narrative, the focal point of the game’s campaign, Gavankar’s Iden Versio, is nevertheless compelling. Gavankar’s enthusiasm for the project shines through in her performance, making the game’s cutscenes substantially more enthralling than the game around them. It’s a shame her story isn’t given the same sort of nuance or thoughtfulness other expanded universe characters have received, but Versio feels like a character destined to be cosplayed in conventions for years to come and with any hope her story will be placed in more passionate hands in the future (her origins have already been detailed by author Christie Golden in the book Battlefront: Inferno Squad, currently sitting at a cool 3.8/5 on Goodreads).

Like Boba Fett’s debut in the Star Wars Holiday Special, Versio is a bright spot that manages to shine despite the nonsense going on around her. But also like the Star Wars Holiday Special, Battlefront II as a whole is a woefully counterintuitive misstep that entirely misses the spirit of the popular culture around it. Add to that the sense that the proceedings all too often feel like a granted wish wrapped in technicalities and loopholes by a swindling genie and you’ve got a frustrating game on your hands.

But what do I know? I bought the damn thing.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider, or, History: Friend of Frenemy?

riseofthetombraider

Brr, brrrrr y’all.

Throughout the course of Rise of the Tomb Raider, the latest entry in the Tomb Raider series, archaeological adventurer Lara Croft has to learn all kinds of badass things to survive the harsh, unforgiving Siberian tundra. By the end of the game playing as Croft had me feeling like an expert Katniss-AF marksman and an acrobat who flows through the environment like a force of nature. The games’ controls will have you moving through gorgeous environments like the wind at some points, and scrambling to beat the life out of an armed-to-the-teeth mercenary the next, keeping you invested in each moment whether Croft is in complete control of her surroundings or hanging on for dear life. The engrossing gameplay, coupled with returning actress Camilla Luddington’s performance, make stepping into the role of Lara Croft a delight, something I’d forgotten you could feel in a video game somewhere between Dark Souls III and No Man’s Sky.

Though it’s the bow and arrow shooting, shotgun reloading, mountain climbing lessons Lara learns that make the game so fun, the narrative of Rise of the Tomb Raider really only demands Lara and the other factions in her orbit learn one thing: be mindful of your interactions with history.

A band of mercenaries, Trinity, find themselves obsessed with history and its promises of undiscovered glory and power.

The tundra’s indigenous population and their leader, Jacob, find themselves at once afraid of history and responsible for the guardianship of it.

Croft herself is out to rewrite history. To correct it. To legitimize it for the sake of her late father, who history has warped and distorted into a raving lunatic for his insistence upon the existence of the same mysterious power Trinity now seeks.

It’s a particularly fitting focus for the Tomb Raider franchise. 2016 marks the franchises 20th anniversary. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s predecessor, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, did some heavy sifting and sorting of the franchise’s own antiquated, over-sexualized history. And of course, there’s the whole Lara Croft being an archaeologist/adventurer thing. It’s easy to forgive Lara for not understanding the detriments of clinging to the past when every other step offers up a collectible artifact for her to exam and assess. The juxtaposition between Lara’s archaeological pursuits and personal shortcomings adds a welcomed depth to a protagonist who, five years ago, was arguably defined by her appearance.

That juxtaposition is central to Rise of the Tomb Raider’s narrative, which makes a point of differentiating between healthy analysis and haunting obsession. On one hand, while titularly tomb raiding Lara might gleam a hint as to how to proceed from some old journal stuffed in a corner, on the other hand Lara might let herself be swallowed by oblivion in the pursuit of justifying her own personal history.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is fun as hell, and its examination of our relationships with history adds that certain Je ne sais quoi to lighting a bear on fire with a flaming arrow.

 

SIM BULLY 3000, or, No Man’s Sky: Second Impressions

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The sky is the limit. And you can literally get to the sky in 30 seconds.

After over a month since its initial release I still haven’t beaten No Man’s Sky, the universe-trekking exploration game that tasks players with making their way through near infinite unique worlds, inhabited with their own unique flora and fauna.

No Man’s Sky was pretty immediately bashed for not being particularly substantive, which can be hard to argue. Despite boasting a reported 18 quintillion plus planets to explore, the things you do on whilst exploring those innumerable worlds are entirely identical from planet to planet, on top of being pretty mundane. Mine for minerals, walk to checkpoints, discover new plants and animals that will either attack or ignore you. It doesn’t take long for the onus of entertainment in No Man’s Sky to fall on the player.

Which is how I discovered that No Man’s Sky doubles as a hauntingly accurate, guilt free bullying simulation. As detailed in a previous post, I kept myself entertained for countless hours discovering one functionally-deplorable creature after another and, as is my right as No Man’s Sky’s space-faring colonialist megalomaniac, naming them whatever I want for all of eternity. Bipedal wolves with no elbows, hulking cows with gorilla arms and dainty little deer legs, running coat hangers with bird beaks, none of them fared well under my bullying gaze. Deep in their genetic roots perhaps these creatures had some primordial identity, but to me (and now to the entire universe of anyone who might ever discover them) they’re “Whoops” Said Something Omnipotent, or THX 4 PLAYING I GUESS, or Something Ugly With a Case of Something Bad.

And that’s okay, because they’re not real. I’m allowed to bully them. They aren’t gonna do anything about it.

And therein lies the aforementioned haunting accuracy of the bully simulator No Man’s Sky’s shortcomings forced me to make it.

People who aren’t currently being bullied say you’re supposed to deal with a bully like you deal with a bear attack – you just kind of ignore it and they’ll eventually stop, the idea being that a bully bullies to get a reaction. It’s a sentiment I always figured was sappy, Chicken Soup for the Soul nonsense. An old wives’ tale at best.

And then, long hours into my intergalactic reign of nominal terror, I saw a very, very dumb looking Toucan monster, went to name it and thought “eh, what’s the point?”

And I haven’t picked up No Man’s Sky since.

In the sprawling universe of No Man’s Sky bullying eventually proved to be just too much work, for pretty much zero payoff, which is pretty indicative of the game as a whole.

You mine resources and discover new locations so that you can craft and buy enough items to get to the next planet and… mine resources and discover new locations. The payoff for your efforts in No Man’s Sky is essentially an opportunity to revisit the setup. If No Man’s Sky were a joke it would be “Why did the chicken cross the road? Why did the chicken cross the road?”

I had hours and hours of fun contemplating why that chicken crossed that road, but eventually, just as all the initial reviews of No Man’s Sky that I was so intent on not taking to heart insisted, it just got old.

Maybe if I could just shout names at the screen instead of having to type them out with a PS4 controller?

As I said, I haven’t beaten No Man’s Sky yet, so consider this less a final verdict on the game than a second impression for which no follow-up is currently planned or ever intended. And what is that second impression?

No Man’s Sky is precisely as fun as being a bully.

SIM BULLY, or, No Man’s Sky

nomanssky

Bout to straight up CLOWN some fauna and/or flora.

No Man’s Sky,  developer Hello Games’ procedurally-generated space exploration game that concocts millions of planets (complete with similarly generated plant and animal life) using deterministic algorithms, doesn’t lend itself to quick assessment. I’ve played it for longer than it takes to beat any Call of Duty game and still sense that I’m on the prologue of my adventure to the center of the universe. Though it’s thus far been dinged for its repetitive gameplay features, at this point in my playthrough I maintain that No Man’s Sky is a sight to behold, one that I’m still having a blast playing.

But it’s not the potential to explore a fraction of a reported 18 quintillion procedurally-generated planets that keeps me coming back for more. It’s the fact that No Man’s Sky is the guiltless bully simulation the world has been waiting for.

No Man’s Sky doesn’t just let you explore 18 quintillion planets and take in the exotic flora and fauna. It lets you name them. And aside from the understandable inclusion of a language filter, which has only heightened my own creativity, the sky is the limit for naming these goofy, inexplicable organisms.

In real life, if I saw some sort of gorilla/dog/deer hexaped with devil horns and a baby face I’d be frowned upon for teasing it. In No Man’s Sky I don’t only get to think it looks like God’s greatest blunder, I get to straight up name it “God’s Greatest Blunder” for all eternity, ensuring that anyone else who ever runs across it in their travels knows that of all God’s blunders this flailing, misaligned doofus is numero uno.

No Man’s Sky hasn’t just let me explore the heavens, it’s challenged me to think of as many safe-for-work synonyms for “phallic” as humanly possible. It’s taught me not to name some short, fat thing “The Very Dumbest Ottoman” unless I’m absolutely sure, because something shorter, fatter and dumber might come along the very next second.

I don’t think I’m playing No Man’s Sky right. I’ve reloaded the game because I submitted an animal’s name with a typo more often than I’ve died. The gameplay mechanic I’ve used most frequently is probably the keyboard and the gameplay mechanic I’ve used the second most frequently is the Playstation 4’s ability to take screenshots of my playthrough so that I can remember which heinous names go with which genetic disaster.

And the best part? All these dummies are fake! No harm no fowl! Bully them to your heart’s content! I know I have. Just like playing Call of Duty doesn’t make you a real soldier, giving horrendously cruel names to make believe creatures doesn’t make you a real bully.

My first impression of No Man’s Sky is that it is fun for the whole family. Just not for the reasons it was intended to be.

ROMANTIC AF, or, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

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<3 <3 <3 Rated T <3 <3 <3

The recipe for a blockbuster these days is essentially a concoction of action, drama and comedy. For example, you’ve got your Marvel movies, which tend to ratchet up the comedy to great effect, you’ve got the grandiose films of Christopher Nolan that crack up the drama, you’ve got the James Bond franchise, which more often than not seems to be written around action sequences and you’ve got The Force Awakens, which is arguably a near perfect cocktail of the three. But there’s more to life than action and drama and comedy.

Where’s the romance, gang? Where is the romance?

Romance almost seems like a bad word. At its best it conjures up adjectives like “sappy” and “mushy” and at its worst it disproportionately marginalizes women, turning them into tired variables within the machinery of the story. Both are reasons I could see used for straying away from romance in storytelling. Not every story needs to have romance. There’s an endless list of movies that suffer because of the misguided notion that every protagonist needs to have a love interest. Not every hero needs to have a love interest. Captain America: Winter Soldier is proof of that.

But I suspect the real underlying reason that romance is a waning presence in blockbuster storytelling is a lot more straightforward. It’s hard to do.

Films like Jurassic World or Captain America: Civil War sprinkled in a romantic seasoning to jarring, arguably laughable effect. A kiss in Civil War between characters who’ve shared maybe 13 minutes of screen time is particularly peculiar given that the film is built on the poignancy of relationships thirteen films in the making.

Inversely you have the likes of Deadpool, which some have argued is a straight up romance, in which the female love interest, while certainly charming, ultimately feels like little more than a MacGuffin.

Then you have Amazing Spider-Man 2, which does the romance so, so well and everything else so, so poorly.

For a storyteller I can imagine it wouldn’t seem worth it to inject romance into your story. Too much and you turn characters into plot points, not enough and it feels disjointed and silly. Why bother?

Enter Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a flowing banner for romance done right. It may be a video game, but make no mistake Uncharted 4 is undoubtedly one of the biggest, most exhilarating blockbusters of the year.

The fourth installment in developer Naughty Dog’s action/adventure video game franchise, Uncharted 4 continues the story of Nathan Drake, the most charming collection of pixels and soundbites in all of gaming.

Uncharted 4 finds the former thrill-seeking treasure hunter living a quiet, routine life with former globe-trotting documentarian Elena. We spend time in their quainter life, wandering the relics of the attic, perusing the fridge and generally bandicooting about. It’s a nice, relaxing segment early in the game, but it’s hardly something you’d want to spend ten plus hours playing through and similarly it becomes quickly apparent that while Nathan and Elena’s life is perfectly lovely, it hardly seems like a routine they’d want to keep up for any extended period of time.

It’s that tug of war between nice enough and genuinely fulfilling that serves as the backbone to Uncharted 4’s story, which gets off the ground when, as expected, circumstances drag Nathan Drake back into his old life.

Every set piece and action sequence and headshot in Uncharted 4 is heightened because of Nathan and Elena’s relationship to each other and their respective perceptions of their shared life. I didn’t want Uncharted 4 to end because it was fun as hell (particularly after having spent a month with Dark Souls III) but often enough I found myself wishing the adventure were over because I wanted Nathan and Elena to go back to their life together and find some resolution to that aforementioned tug of war.

Nathan and Elena love each other, but neither of them is being honest with the other or themselves. It’s a compelling enough narrative in its own right but between the dutiful writing of Neil Druckman and Josh Scherr and the untouchable motion capture and voice performances from Nolan North and Emily Rose it’s so good and so poignant that I found myself ruminating on it when I should have been paying attention to the mercenary army I was running over with a jeep.

Every time I entered a new environment or hid at the precipice of an inevitable firefight I found myself at once thinking both “oh hell yeah, let’s bust some skulls/climb some rocks/use some winches” and “Nathan you should not be here, what are you doing with your life.”

Inversely, when Nathan and Elena communicated with each other and got along I found I had a certain spring in my thumbs while I shot antagonists in the chest with a shotgun.
Uncharted 4 is a testament to the power of romance.

I’m really pulling for Naughty Dog to use that blurb for the Game of the Year edition.

Romance is not a mandate. It doesn’t belong in every story. Sometimes you just want to watch a dinosaur eat people, or Nicolas Cage infiltrate Alcatraz, or Harry meeting someone else. But Uncharted 4 goes to show that when romance is injected into a story thoughtfully, with honest consideration paid to all the characters involved, it can throw new colors and cast new shades onto even the lushest, most vibrant pallet.

Romance doesn’t have to be Hugh Grant or a baseless kiss over the corpse of a pterodactyl. It can be so much more. Among the towering heap of praise Uncharted 4 has been amassing, its handling of the romantic should be near the top.

More Like Dork Fools Pee, or, Dark Souls III

Dark-Souls-3

Well now aren’t you just the fanciest little pain in the ass.

Power is a fickle little bitch, so sayeth Dark Souls III, the purported final entry in developer From Software’s unforgiving dark fantasy franchise.

Once again Dark Souls III drops you off in a decaying world devoid of both happiness and exposition and sends you off into battle against twenty or so juggernauts and leviathans with the power to utterly destroy you physically and emotionally. When you are inevitably destroyed you don’t respawn at your last save, you die and come back to life. It may seem like a trivial difference but no matter how many times you may have died playing Mario, Mario has never died. So far as the world and mythology of Dark Souls is concerned, when you die, you die. You just keep coming back.

Mechanically, you’ll lose any souls (the in-game currency used to upgrade your character and acquire resources) you had on you, but you’ll respawn to fight another day. You’ll die and come back over and over, your own patience the only truly dwindling resource in your character’s battle against the powerful. And when that patience finally pays off and you slay one of Dark Souls III’s many goliaths they, unlike you, will stay dead.

It’s one hell of an insight into the dynamics of power. All that is necessary for the destruction of power is the destruction of the powerful. You kind of have to be alive to hold dominion over anything. The power of your daunting adversaries depends on their survival. But you? You are the powerless, the subjugated masses personified in a single avatar. You control nothing, you have not castle or kingdom, but you can die and die and die. There will always be more of you. You’re older than even your most ancient opponent and you’ll long outlive even your most vigorous.

You’ll far outnumber them too. You are countless. You are everywhere. The status of your oppressors depends on their location, confining them to only the principalities and arenas over which they hold sway, but location means nothing to you. Whether you stand atop dizzying castle heights or slum through poisonous abyss your status remains the same.

You can be a lot of things in Dark Souls III. Lady. Dude. Fat. Fat on top skinny on the bottom. Magician. Magician with floppy hat. Fat on top skinny on the bottom dude magician with a floppy hat, two shields and a dress. But regardless of the form you take on your adventure into Lothric, you are in your very marrow, the 99%.

Those you defy stand taller and hit harder than you can, but where they are finite you are endless and ultimately shackled only by the limits of your own persistence.

Where the precise story of the latest Dark Souls remains characteristically elusive, the game mechanics and lavish art direction communicate a narrative of railing upward against bloated, corrupted power in a world that’s been poisoned by it.

As has become expected from the franchise, Dark Souls III is a piece of master craftsmanship set in a world as shallow or deep as your engagement with it.

As has also become expected from the franchise, Dark Souls III is a pain in the ass.

Star Wars Battlefront, or, When Licensing Goes Wrong

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Enjoy the view, it’s exactly 1/4 of what you’re paying for.

Star Wars Battlefront is the proverbial bare minimum.

It’s the equivalent of telling your jackass son to “cut the grass” and then watching him clip a few blades with a pair of scissors before going back inside to snapchat. Star Wars Battlefront stares at you smugly from its air-conditioned basement layer, nose deep in a burrito it bought with your money, and says “you said cut the grass.”

It’s a shooter. It has online play. And it looks and sounds like Star Wars.

“You said you wanted an online Star Wars shooter.”

Different game modes and slightly larger and smaller variations of maps do nothing to change the fact that Battlefront is a $60 game that lets you run around on four different planets shooting people. That ain’t nothing, but it is all Battlefront has to offer.

It’s a particularly noticeable shortcoming given all that Battlefront II (don’t let the title fool you, it’s the new Battlefront’s predecessor by ten years) on PS2 and XBOX had to offer. It would have been lazy to have simply updated the graphics on the last Battlefront, kept all of its features intact and called it a new game, but developer EA DICE didn’t even push that far.

Battlefront disguises itself as a better game than it is by offering content that legitimately looks and sounds like Star Wars. The amount of that content, however, is insulting. It feels like the developer was taking bets on how little they could get away with actually offering consumers while still turning a profit.

EA DICE had the opportunity to make a Star Wars game at arguably the fever pitch of Star Wars fandom in popular culture and rather than use that opportunity as a springboard to make an exciting game worthy of the Star Wars license it used the opportunity as a coattail, brandishing a logo in exchange for offering less.

If you bought Star Wars Battlefront, as I did, you were taken advantage of whether you ultimately enjoyed the game or not, because you asked EA DICE to “cut the grass” and they took out a pair of scissors, knowing full well where the lawn mower was.