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

battlefrontii

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, 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.

Call of Duty: Advaned Warfighter, or, Hey Look! It’s Kevin Spacey

CODAW!

CODAW!

.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Call of Duty is football. It’s a regularly scheduled bout between two rotating colors with just enough flexibility in its variables to differ from installment to installment. But there’s a reason people watch football. It’s familiar and somehow, someway it manages to evoke excitement in spite of that familiarity. You know what you’re getting with a Call of Duty game and depending on your taste that can be great or horrendous.

I don’t watch football. But man do I look forward to shooting my way through a six hour campaign one and a half times every year. Yeah, yeah, “Call of Duty sucks, it’s the same thing every year.” Well so are you so’s football ya nerd.

That being said, I wasn’t exactly sold on this year’s Call of Duty installment when it was announced, primarily because Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is being unapologetically promoted as Call of Duty: Kevin Spacey.

Cashing in on the actor’s recent critical praise from the Netflix series House of Cards, Advanced Warfighter somehow managed to get Kevin Spacey, and neither the promotional materials not the game itself will ever let you forget it. In pre-mission briefings, rather than showing you a snapshot of Kevin Spacey, you’ll get an entire collage of snapshots of Kevin Spacey, as if the game is bragging over having the rights to use the actor’s likeness.

Rollo Tomasi.

Rollo Tomasi.

It seemed really, really dumb. It seemed gimmicky. It seemed like a desperate attempt to feign relevance by plastering a recognizable face over tired gameplay. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly sold on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. But as I do every year I quickly found an excuse to get it: I just got a PS4 and I wanted something to look pretty on it.

Graphically and conceptually Advanced Warfighter is not for this generation of gaming what Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was for the last. The cutscenes look nice but the graphics fall short under even minor scrutiny. The newly introduced exosuits let you hop around like a bunny, which is fun, but the set pieces and action movie tropes I hopped through were never exactly jaw-dropping.

For all intents and purposes Advanced Warfighter is just another football game. Maybe an arena football game, but even that would be a stretch. That’s not to say it was bad or that I didn’t like it, but this year’s Call of Duty is essentially more of the same.

Except this year’s Call of Duty has Kevin Spacey.

It seemed dumb. It seemed so, so dumb. I don’t even watch House of Cards. But hot damn, two-time Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey provides a compelling and thought-provoking performance in a video game in which I used magnet gloves to ride on the top of a bus like it was a skateboard while chasing a terrorist with an unironic Mohawk.

In the words of Kevin Spacey’s Christopher Walken impression, “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Some spoilers for the first act of Advanced Warfighter follow.

Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the owner of Atlas, a private military that, by 2060 or so, has become the largest standing military force on the planet. Countries across the globe call upon Atlas to prop up (get it?) their governments and provide infrastructure, which is all well and good until Irons and Atlas go rogue.

Pretty by the numbers, yeah? I mean I put a spoiler warning above but I imagine few even considered Spacey wasn’t going to wind up the villain in this installment. But his performance in this Advanced Warfighter highlights a deficiency in all of the series’ previous entries: villainy.

The villain in the last game was, like, your dad’s friend or whatever? And before that it was a Russian guy? And there was another Russian guy? And an older guy? And Fidel Castro? And another other Russian guy?

Call of Duty villains suck.

Until now.

Not only does Kevin Spacey bring an undeniable gravitas to Irons, Irons is an inherently interesting villain.

Spacey Vader

Spacey Vader

Jonathan Irons is a villain who is legitimately relatable. He wants to get stuff done, to make a better world, and he sees the government as standing in the way of progress, going so far as to deem the very concept of the nation outdated.

It’s telling that while the protagonists in Advaced Warfighter obviously oppose Irons’ villainous plot, no one ever provides a counterpoint to his underlying argument. At no point does Irons have a moment of grand realization in which he grows to understand that his premise was flawed and misguided. Because it isn’t.

Jonathan Irons is a man infuriated by bureaucratic gridlock, and in the midst of fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns who among us can’t relate to that? But Irons isn’t just an infuriated citizen, he’s an infuriated citizen who commands an expansive private military which he utilizes to live out a power trip fantasy many of us have probably had while reading one news story or another.

Jonathan Irons is a man disgusted by the likes of Frank Underwood.

I had a jolly old time shooting his minions to death.

I suspect every football game has some little flourish that makes it distinctive and exciting for ball fans. Maybe someone kicks a three-pointer or grand slams into the touchdown. Call of Duty is no different. Last year there was a dog. The year before that there were divergent endings. One of them had an airplane level. Another one had Russian roulette. One had Jack Bauer. And who could forget the one that leaned in to our collective cultural phobia of a second 9/11?

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is still a football game, but Kevin Spacey is one hell of a quarterback.

Liberal Arts, or, Shadow of Mordor: A Quest for Enlightenment

I went to college, so I know all about culture. I love culture. Culture is great. Culture is the best. I’m well rounded. I know about things.

That’s why I found Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a new video game set in the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so endlessly fascinating. Because culture.

Specifically, orc culture.

The orcs are an ugly, ugly people. But Shadow of Mordor taught me about their intricate, lavish culture.

Mordor is basically a cultural melting pot.

Mordor is basically a cultural melting pot.

I watched orcs engage in power struggles to rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army. I watched some go berserk at the sight of fire and others run away crying at the sight of bees. I learned their myriad motivations, be they social insecurity, cannibalism or just straight-up, old-school blatant racism.

It can be easy to stereotype orcs, to hide them from the cleansing rains of personhood under a singular umbrella of collective ugliness. But Shadow of Mordor refuses to paint this regal, ugly, ugly people with a single brush stroke, instead showing orcs and their culture for the gross canvas of mud brown and renal-failure yellow it is.

And it lets you just murder the hell out of it. There are orcs everywhere, orcs of all different shapes and sizes with all kinds of names and personalities, and you just kill the shit out of all of them and they die dead, each extinguished life a small subtraction from the aggregate sum of a breathing heritage.

Shadow of Mordor unapologetically lifts it’s gameplay from the Assassins Creed and Arkham series, as such moving through Mordor will feel pretty familiar to some. But in Shadow of Mordor you don’t watch henchmen from above, perched on a gargoyle, and you don’t hide from Templars amongst hordes of nuns or on discrete benches. In Shadow of Mordor all of the henchmen and Templars and gargoyles and nuns and benches are orcs. And they all have names. And you just murder their butts real good.

Its basically Gorillas in the Mist up in here.

Its basically Gorillas in the Mist up in this mess.

In fact, orc culture in Shadow of Mordor is so diverse and varied that if you play Shadow of Mordor my arch nemesis, Mozfel Half-Breed Lover, probably wouldn’t even exist in your play through. Because orcs and their culture are so expansive and distinct you’ll wind up duking it out with some other orc who loves some other gross thing. And then you’ll chop his ugly head off, just like I chopped off Mozfel’s ugly head and watched it spew thick, black, subhuman blood all over his horrified constituents, whose heads I also gave a good chopping too.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor probably should have just been called Mordor: Mordor of Mordor. You aren’t traversing Middle-Earth, you won’t be spelunking in Moria or taking in the beauty of Rivendell. You’ll be exclusively in Mordor, whose bleak and barren lands only serve to further illuminate the vivid pantheon of its indigenous, ugly people, whose throats you just slit into oblivion like nobody’s business.

The orcs in Shadow of Mordor are such a hearty people that sometimes they will even survive your violent onslaughts and overcome their cuts and bruises and handicaps, triumphing over adversity to confront you once again. And then you can just straight up feed them to a living wild animal. And if they come back again you can straight up burn them alive cause screw ’em.

I did a lot of stuff over the course of my time with Shadow of Mordor, but chief amongst them I explored and appreciated the many facets of a unique and vibrant culture, treating its practitioners with dignity and respect. Because I have been to college, so I know all about culture.