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

uncharted4

<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

battlefront

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.

New Lap Record, or, More Like Bloodboring Am I Right? (The Blog Post)

bloodboring logo

It only took me a twelfth of the time I spent beating Dark Souls to beat its spiritual sequel Bloodborne. Which is to say rather than roughly four years it took me roughly four months. And even then the ending I got this weekend, while “truer” than some, was not the absolute “truest” of them all. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna waste time hunting down the final third of an umbilical cord (don’t worry about it) while the Batmobile is just waiting to be driven in Arkham Knight.

But, should you play Bloodborne?

Well, on the one hand I hold a deep intellectual and literary reverence for director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games. Their particular brand of storytelling, one deprived of exposition to the point of being malnourished, vying for scraps of half-truths in item descriptions to concoct some semblance of a narrative meal, is captivating. Depending on the amount of digging and extrapolating you’re willing to do Bloodborne can be a kiddie pool or the Marianas Trench and whether you want to splash around a bit or explore the abyss Bloodborne insists you take an active effort in divulging the secrets of its mythology, flat out refusing to draw a line from any one point to another.

It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, one that keeps me intellectually engaged and curious even now, as I look back on the world of Bloodborne from the rearview mirror of the Batmobile. But, that curiosity starts to fade around the tenth time you drop into a bottomless crystal moon lake to get clobbered by a slug with a million legs and a rock head who is supposed to be a spider and its pack of relentless goons who actually are spiders.

Spiders have EIGHT LEGS! GO TO HELL!!!!

Spiders have EIGHT LEGS! GO TO HELL!!!!

Much like its Souls predecessors, Bloodborne prides itself in punishing anyone arrogant enough to take it on. While the challenge is often just engaging enough to bait you onward at some point you’ll hit a wall. It might not be the wall your friend hit or the wall(s) I hit, but it’ll be a big old brick wall and you’ll hit it and hit it and hit it. On several occasions I found myself wishing I’d never bought Bloodborne. I contemplated the blissful ignorance of never delving into Yarnham, the games werewolf-infested, Victorian hellscape. I’d fall asleep at night with a smile on my face, drifting off into a dream world in which Bloodborne didn’t exist. But always, always Bloodborne would gnaw and nag at me, unfinished, whatever wall I hit standing defiantly in the forefront of my mind like a Kubrickian monolith.

Bloodborne holds the distinction of being the only game to illicit a physiological response from me. When health bars of certain bosses would dwindle below that final quarter my arms would tingle and my hands would start to go numb. It was weird.  And the dopamine rush when that health bar emptied? An iron corset taken off of my soul.

But the joy I got from Bloodborne was more often than not purely out of spite for Bloodborne. And boy oh boy does Bloodborne spite me back, various threads and unexplored nooks and crannies still tugging at my cape while I patrol Gotham’s rainy streets, reminding me of prey slaughtered valiantly with my hunter’s axe.

I’ve seriously contemplated shattering the game disc with a hammer and framing the splintered shards like a trophy so that I can’t return to Bloodborne.

Bloodborne is the kind of game you’ll only truly love after you learn to truly hate it.

So should you play it?

Nope. You shouldn’t.

And if my word is enough to discourage you, you absolutely shouldn’t.

 

For in depth, in character coverage of my entire Bloodborne playthrough check out the audio diary of my character, Butt von Fart, on Pony Tricks Podcasts, available on PodBean and iTunes.