The most exciting trailers of the last seven days.

Television Tea Leaves

Hello, dear reader, and welcome back.

It’s been a few days; I hope you’re doing well.

In my *very* brief time away from the keyboard, the world of pop-culture exploded into a fervor of speculation and awards-show favorites. Make no mistake, I’m not contributing to that conversation (lest the Oscar’s find a decent host who actually wants the gig); no, I’m here to share my favorite new trailers for movies, television, and games – all released within the last week.

Why ponder over the best stuff of this contemptible year, when we could yearn, eager-eyed and full of wonderment, at the year(s) to come?

So here’s my list in no particular order.

Avengers: Endgame

Sweet Christmas ladies and gentlemen, there’s still reason to get excited about superheroes. Though this isn’t the only superhero trailer on this list, it’s by far and away my most anticipated. Thanos reshaped the universe with a snap of his fingers in the last outing, put simply: the Avengers crew took a loss. What’s most exciting, however, are the appearances of much-demanded Hawkeye and Ant-Man into the fold with other major players. Though, with Marvel’s penchant for misleading its fans to better hype up a film (HBO does the same thing with Game of Thrones), expect a great deal of speculation and little in the way of answers until you’re in the theater. MEANWHILE, there are other superhero outings to look forward to – and to decipher how exactly they fit in with the larger MCU narrative. One of which…

Captain Marvel

FINALLY, we know why Brie Larson so casually decked a sweet old woman in the face. Spoiler: the older woman is of an evil alien race of shape-shifters known as the Skrull, and absolutely deserves to be punched in the face by an academy award winning actress.

The trailer also helps to clear up a bit of what left me so confused after watching the first trailer – how did Carol Danvers wind up fighting these intergalactic beasts, but retains so many earthbound memories? Watch the trailer and see for yourself.

BrightBurn

Although I find it odd that Hollywood is referring to James Gunn as a “visionary director” because he can splash some colors on the screen around his wacky characters, this trailer is worth a watch for one reason alone: It’s a superhero horror movie. Borrowing heavily from the first trailer for Man of Steel, even down to the font and effects used leading up to the reveal, BrightBurn promises a darker, more satirical portrayal of the superhero origin shlock. Oh, your baby fell from the sky, imbued with otherworldly powers? Yeah, that thing is probably dangerous. Cue the scene where a woman, locked in a restaurant walk-in fridge, stares in horror as the child uses heat vision to slice through the door. This could be fun.

Stranger Things 3

The darling Netflix series returns in 2019. While this teaser is nothing more than the iconic synthwave intro sequence and what I assume are the titles of each episode flashing across the screen – it’s still worth getting excited over. Stranger Things has been on hiatus since 2017, presumably to age-up the characters for the next season’s setting of “the summer of 1985.”

Since then, the Russo Brothers have signed off on a Stranger Things video game taking place after season two, David Habour is starring in the next Helboy, Gaten Matarazzo is all over the commercial space, Finn Wolfhard starred in IT, and Millie Bobby Brown is literally taking over the world via social media. It’s time to bring the band back together.

Triple Frontier

Folks, Netflix is at it again. It looks like the wave of interest in cartel-related media is still rolling, though nothing has matched the ferocity and poignancy of Sicario. This film, however, led by an astonishingly talented cast, might be Netflix’s best attempt since the first season of Narcos. With marquee names Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal all directed by A Most Violent Year director J.C. Chandor, this has the makings of a solid effort by the subscription service. Though I should note how often Netflix’s original films fail on their promise (it’s quite often.)

Devil May Cry 5

We’re moving into video game territory now. As some of you may know, The Game Awards 2018 was held just a few nights ago. While the greatest moments of the night came from the stage [READ IT BOY] there were a handful of truly exciting announcements. Such as this, the return of the original Dante after the lackluster Ninja Theory soft franchise reboot DmC. Ninja Theory would go on to make 2017’s most dramatically arresting game, HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but latter success doesn’t excuse former failure. Aside from the return of Dante’s glistening silver hair, we have Nero returning, as well as a new character named “V” – all playable. Oh, and keeping in line with the confusing-as-fuck-all narrative structure of the franchise, Devil May Cry 5 takes place several years after Devil May Cry 2 – which follows Devil May Cry 4, which follows Devil May Cry 1, which follows Devil May Cry 3. So, if you think about it, Devil May Cry 5 is the only entry in chronological order. Make sense? Moving on.

The Outer Worlds

I don’t have to tell you, reader, that Obsidian Entertainment was royally screwed by Bethesda Softworks despite producing what is arguably the greatest entry in the Fallout franchise with Fallout: New Vegas – while only having eighteen months to do so. Bethesda denied Obsidian employees monetary bonuses by requiring that New Vegas receive an 85 or higher on review aggregate website Metacritic. When the game scored an 84, Bethesda denied the bonuses.

Well, Obsidian is back after a lengthy few years developing [nothing like New Vegas or what fans have been asking for]. Enter, The Outer Worlds, a first-person perspective role-playing game the looks like the beautiful bastard child of Fallout, Bioshock, and Borderlands (God I needed this trailer so badly.) Obsidian has emphasized that player-choice is paramount to their narrative experiences. Enhanced gun-play and mechanics are great, but should the narrative not amount to anything worthwhile (*cough* Fallout 4 *cough* Fallout 76 *cough*) then the game probably won’t resonate as well with the player. The timing of this announcement, a sci-fi RPG with Fallout mechanics, Borderlands zaniness, and Bioshock aesthetics, pulls the rug right out from Bethesda Game Studios’ feet – as their often teased upcoming Starfield, another sci-fi RPG, has had some doubt cast its way after the horrendous launch of Fallout 76 and the scrutiny levied toward Bethesda for watering down their storytelling experiences and relying too heavily on a seriously out-dated game engine. To that point, The Outer Worlds may not have Battlefield V levels of graphical fidelity, but it’s a great deal easier on the eyes than the play-dough abominations Bethesda’s been hawking as character-models.

Keep an eye on The Outer Worlds, it has all the makings of a truly exceptional RPG from a band of reliable, longtime industry veterans.


 

Well, those are the trailers that jumped out at me over the last several days. If there’s a trailer you saw and wished was on this list, I either didn’t see it or didn’t feel as strongly about it as you did.

Either way, have yourself a wonderful day, dear reader. If you’re among those currently snowed-in on the United States East Coast, I am suffering with you. Double up those socks and don’t forget your gloves.

Until next time.

REVIEW: Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) on PS4

[This review covers the main game only, not the recently released The City that Never Sleeps expansions.]

Late to the party.

Hello, dear reader. I hope your day is going well. Mine is. Why?

Because I just finished Marvel’s Spider-Man, the latest video game in the Spider-Man series, this time developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony exclusively for the PlayStation 4.

And you know what? It’s good. Like, really good. I know, the game came out a few months ago and already has a slew of downloadable content available for purchase, so there isn’t much I can say that you haven’t already heard, but I’ll give it a shot.

Some mild spoilers for the campaign after the jump.

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Get it?

When I first heard that Insomniac Games was assigned to create the next Spider-Man game, I was worried. This is a development studio that has, for a while now, been hobbled by a series of lackluster releases. Their attempt to reboot Ratchet & Clank (a franchise nearly dormant since the PlayStation 2 era) failed miserably as a game and even more so as a film. Several years ago, before the PlayStation 4 usurped the Xbox brand as the king of the console-space, Insomniac had signed a bit of an exclusivity deal with Microsoft – the result of which was the fun-but-forgettable Sunset Overdrive.

The once prodigious creators of Spyro and Ratchet & Clank seemed on the opposite trajectory to sister Sony in-house studio, Naughty Dog – who followed their popular early PlayStation titles with the stellar Uncharted series and masterpiece The Last of Us.

Now, with the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac seems to have taken its step-backs in stride. By adhering to some old-school design principles, creating the most beautiful rendition of New York City’s Manhattan Island ever used in a video game, and by doubling down on narrative; Insomniac has created what is arguably the greatest Spider-Man game ever made, and probably one of the very best superhero games, as well.

The Spider’s in the details.

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It starts with the world. Simply put: it’s gorgeous. Though there’s no true day/night cycle, the lighting is off-the-charts beautiful. Sony and its contracted studios have continuously made the case that the best looking games, in terms of graphical fidelity, can only be found on PlayStation. Playing this on the PS4 Pro, I was treated to vivid colors, deep shadows, reflections, enhanced draw distance, and a solidly stable frame-rate. Web-zipping across rooftops hasn’t felt this good since Treyarch’s groundbreaking Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Central Park is expansive, the buildings are massive and nearly photo-realistic in their representation here. But the map isn’t just enjoyed from the air. Stick to the surface of any building and you’re likely to be surprised that you can actually see inside them. Each exterior window of each building has a fully modeled room on the other side. Granted, they’re low resolution and procedurally-generated, but swinging through Manhattan at night, with each of its skyscrapers suddenly given the added depth of interiors behind all that reflective glass? A marvelous experience. It’s a small detail with richly immersive rewards.

Fall down to street-level (there’s no fall-damage) and walk around the city for a bit. You’ll notice varying textures on the sidewalk, people chatting on benches, a few fans to high-five or take a selfie with, or maybe an emergent game of basketball on a court in Harlem – in the shadow of a dark-splotched brick apartment building.

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I’m not saying that the city feels as alive as, say, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, but this comes damn close. It’s leaps-and-bounds more lively, varied, and technically impressive (in a true-to-life sense) than Spider-Man 2 (2004).

There are also plenty of collectibles and Easter-eggs to be found, tucked away under bridges or offered as rewards from challenges. Not to mention the many famous buildings of the Marvel cinematic and television universes that appear. It’s a great map for scavenger hunting, and Insomniac has stuffed as much as they could between every expertly modeled building – though finding everything is, at times, a chore (looking at you, Taskmaster.)

This wonderful map would amount to nothing, however, if traversing it is a chore, and that’s where its abundantly clear Insomniac was the best choice to make this game.

A Spider about town.

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Though there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially to those of you used to Spider-Man 2′s hold-and-release web-slinging, getting around Manhattan is a breeze. It’s intuitive, both the button layout and heads-up display, which allows for muscle memory to dictate how you move within an environment. Very rarely was I stuck wondering which button did what. Speed is everything, something Sunset Overdrive couldn’t master, and Spidey’s agility is on full display here. The number one rule when making a game like this is to focus on the feeling of being the superhero. The player should never feel inhibited in a way that contradicts the character they are playing. Only very rarely, in the heat of some intense and (unfortunately) camera-locked scenarios does the web-swinging feel restricted in this game.

Insomniac was clearly influenced by two games. One, Spider-Man 2 (the previous standard-bearer in the franchise) and Batman: Arkham City. The web-swinging and radiant crime mini-quests carry over from Spider-Man 2, whereas the ability to scan environments, the arsenal of gadgets, and the combo-chain combat system are owed to the Arkham series. Combat scenarios and boss-battles don’t feel tremendously fresh, especially considering the amount of quick-time events (QTE’s) that appear, but – and this is important – the mechanics feel right for a Spider-Man game. Also, it’s standard operating procedure at this point to have your open-world game require the character to climb to a vantage point and unlock segments of the in-game map, so of course that’s in here, too.

The gameplay isn’t especially innovative, but that doesn’t damn the consumer to a lackluster experience. These mechanics have persisted for so long for a reason.

And the story?

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You often play as both MJ and Miles Morales – photo mode works for both!

This is what elevates and what occasionally ails this game. Insomniac’s brand of witty dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humor, and visual gags are all here. The story was obviously written and executed with a genuine love for Spider-Man as a character, and a total understanding of what makes him such a compelling character.

Spider-Man has superpowers, but they do not enrich him. His power is a burden on him and those he’s cares for, but he assumes his role as the city’s protector nevertheless. Insomniac was wise to focus their narrative on not only Spidey, but on Peter Parker and the responsibilities of both. That said, Peter is still a twenty-something, and this game may just be the greatest 21st Century adaptation of the character.

He has a Twitter-esque social media feed and 15.3 million fans. He rides the subway and flips through his phone as he does so. The texts he sends are sometimes misinterpreted. He can be incredibly anxious around Mary-Jane (who is thankfully given plenty to do in the story). He’s a sarcastic millennial with a heart of gold, and the bad-guys are just as well-written.

Every villain has a motive, every hero has a weakness. Every character, when given the appropriate screen-time, shines in this game. It’s easily the best narrative that Insomniac has ever produced, and is bookended by some of the most thoroughly entertaining stuff currently available on PS4.

Where it struggles, however, is during the second act. After a bombastic opener, and a quick introduction to Manhattan and the games’ gallery of characters, the player is essentially left to deal with petty crime and side quests until the narrative decides that it’s time for something explosive to happen. There are a few too many perspective changes, a few too many “stealth” missions, and a few too many narrative elements too obviously foreshadowed. That isn’t to say that the game’s story lacks surprise, because there are quite a few genuinely incredible moments in the game, they just happen far too late in the narrative. That big fuck-all prison break showcase at E3 over the summer? That’s nearer to the end of the game than it should be.

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When you fast travel, you take the subway.

I was asking myself at around hour twenty of my play-through, “where are the villains?”

This is an older Spider-Man, more so than the Tom Holland interpretation currently dusting around in the MCU. This is a Spider-Man game where the villains have been in jail for a bit, people have moved on, Peter has left the Bugle, everyone is working and behind on rent, and the High-School antics are a distant memory. The world is seemingly calm after the opening sequence of the game – Fisk was the last big fish to catch.

And that’s the only element that Spider-Man 2 can still lord over the rest of the Spider-Man games – it rolled out and handled its rogue’s gallery at a blissfully consistent pace. Here, due to the game’s focus on Peter Parker’s personal life and the aforementioned scavenger-hunting, the narrative is driven more by personal drama during the second act. Which is NOT a bad thing. This game has some of my favorite Peter / Mary-Jane moments, by far. However, it does feel a bit too often that you’re just waiting for the story to really kick into gear.

What that helps with, though, is underscore a point made by Fisk after his arrest early in the game – that with him out the picture, crime will slowly rise and reach a boiling point. It does do that, and the city transforms accordingly to stunning effect, but the fact remains – all those villains in the trailer? That’s just a small handful of boss fights and a frustrating dream-sequence in Act 3. There are other fights, such as with Tombstone and Taskmaster, but neither are related to the narrative in any significant way.

When the narrative is firing on all cylinders? It’s the best damn Spider-Man property, period. I mean that.

Oh, but there are the occasional bugs…

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There are two bugs in this screenshot

The Verdict

Marvel’s Spider-Man is a smart, surprising, deep, and graphically impressive title. It’s more than I was expecting, and as far as I’m concerned, has finally toppled Spider-Man 2 from its perch atop the franchise.

The combat is fun, traversal is fun, and the photo-mode is utterly addicting – it helps that the game looks so good. There are difficult challenges and heart-felt moments, some trademark Insomniac hilarity, and a startling level of detail everywhere you look. However, the game is far from groundbreaking. Consider this the perfection of the open-world third-person formula.

Don’t hesitate to pick this up, play it, and love it. You deserve to be happy, dear reader, and this game will do the trick.

4/5 – Must own.

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Stay tuned for more entertainment news, reviews, and commentary!

For video game content you can watch, check out Black Beanie Gaming on YouTube.

Until next time.

GAME NEWS: What the hell is going on?

Strange Times

In case you needed a reminder, Video Games are the highest grossing entertainment medium per product – ever.

And if you’ve been living under a rock the last year, you’d be forgiven for missing out on what has been the nearly unprecedented success of Rockstar Game’s Red Dead Redemption II. Which, as reported by Polygon, just surpassed 17 million units sold in it’s first twelve days of release.

Those numbers are insane. For perspective, Red Dead Redemption sold fewer copies in its first eight years of release than Red Dead II did in its first eight days.

Incredible. Assuming the bare minimum price point of $60 USD for a copy of the game (which ignores the various deluxe editions’ extra costs), that means that as of November 7, 2018, Red Dead II has earned upwards of $1.02 billion. An impressive feat, make no mistake, but developer Rockstar is no stranger to this kind of blow-out success, seeing as Grand Theft Auto V has earned – as a single product – over $6 billion in revenue with nearly 100 million copies sold.

Meanwhile, it’s been a terrible week for Activision Blizzard. Bear with me, please, and rejoice if you must, because it looks like everyone’s favorite big bad game publisher is receiving its comeuppance – in a way only Activision would care about. Their stock price has fallen a massive 17% in just one month. Why? Well….

Treyarch’s Black Ops 4 earned decent review scores from critics, many praising the new BLACK OUT battle royale mode. BUT, the game currently isn’t selling any better than last year’s Call of Duty: WWII. Investors expect growth, people, and the Call of Duty brand has been slipping since the massive sales of 2011’s Modern Warefare 3. Though Blops4 isn’t outselling previous entries, it doesn’t look like Battlefield V will be much of a threat – delay or not.

If that wasn’t enough to give investor’s cold feet, the announcement of Blizzard’s new installment of the legendary Diablo franchise, Diablo: Immortal, went over about as poorly as possible. At the annual Blizzcon event, developers rode a wave of hype up to the stage and announced that Diablo was going to mobile devices, and not to PCs. The audience in attendance? Almost exclusively PC gamers. This prompted audible boos from the audience and for the trailer video posted to YouTube to receive upwards of 400k dislikes. Ouch. A full rundown of how Blizzard and Activision are handling the situation can be read here.

Add to that the under-performance of Destiny 2, a game beleaguered by a rabid fan-base full of conflicting and self-defeating demands of its overburdened development studio, once-prodigal creators of Halo, Bungie. Despite rumors of a more “hardcore” sequel in the works, Destiny as a franchise continues to under-perform. This comes as no surprise to long time players (myself included), as both Bungie and Activision have prioritized monetization schemes and microtransactions, as well as partitioned finished game builds to create expensive DLC to be sold back to the consumer years down the line. If Destiny 2 goes down as a failure, and Bungie along with it – so be it. Well, I take that back, actually. No developer should lose their job because Bobby Kotick can’t be bothered to sell a quality fucking product.

OH, AND ON TOP OF THAT (no that isn’t all!) Activision is reporting that it’s average active monthly users across all platforms is down by several million: 352 million to 345 million. Their projected fourth quarter revenue is coming in below estimates, as well: $3.05 billion, short of $3.06 billion. Oh, oh no.

Schadenfreude.

Anyways. Bad news for Bethesda Game Studios. Overall response to new entry in the Fallout franchise, Fallout 76, has been met with scores of lackluster first-impressions following the game’s lengthy string of betas. The problem, first and foremost, is that in order to play test the game (MERE WEEKS BEFORE RELEASE), you must have pre-ordered a copy of the game. From Digital Foundry calmly decrying the game’s lackluster performance on all platforms, to Laymen Gaming not so calmly referring to the game as a steaming pile of shit – the reactions have been mixed to say the least.

If a consensus was to be made, and I’m in no position to suggest one, but I’ll try, it’s that Fallout 76 looks awful, performs poorly, has a desolate world devoid of much meaningful interaction (aside from the occasional run-in with other players), and is still a lot of fun to play. My issue? The game looks buggy as hell, the game engine is another revamp of the Creation Engine, which is itself a revamp of decade old Gamebryo technology, and it’s “beta” in no way guarantees a stable launch. Simply put, Bethesda Game Studios is offering something ambitious, unbalanced, unpolished, and philosophically at odds with itself. I’m not biting, but no harm to those of you who decide to buy it. Oh, and if you decide to play the game on PC and fiddle with the .ini files to unlock the framerate? You can cheat your way to a higher level. It just works.

Alright guys, that’s it for gaming news – at least the stuff that was on my mind. Sound off in the comments with your opinions on all of this. I’d love to hear them.

Until next time.

TRAILER: ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ will blow our minds

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about this game? Quite little. So, rather than drone on and on about the particulars of the upcoming, it’s-been-eight-years-where-have-you-been, Red Dead Redemption II – developer Rockstar Games decided to just, you know, show us everything.

Here’s the latest gameplay trailer.

Are those goosebumps? Yes they are, dear reader. They came to watch the trailer, too.

A shortlist of activities / immersion-elements confirmed by the trailer:

  • Heists
  • Bathing
  • Horse balls
  • Train robbery
  • Deep outfit customization
  • Dead-eye leveling, and perhaps character leveling, RPG-style
  • Stick up stores
  • Hunt bounties
  • Hunt wildlife
  • Watch shows
  • Play cards and other parlor games
  • The best looking graphics to leave Rockstar’s studio
  • Consequence and minute player choice
  • Grand vistas you and Roach your horse can meander through
  • GTA-style cinematic camera options
  • FIRST PERSON MODE

Reader, I can’t tell you how excited I am for this game. It seems now, more than ever before, that Rockstar has solidified its sterling reputation for open-world games. This is the culmination of years of hard work, undoubtedly. Can you even imagine the laboring hours spent coding the behavior of snow around Arthur Morgan’s feet? Or the dedication to realism that warrants rendering the testicles on his horse?

They do this for us, people. Hold your wallets close, because Broke-tober has officially begun.

But don’t preorder. Seriously, it’s time to stop. Once the game drops and the review scores are aggregated, then decide. Rockstar can attain a monster launch-week without all that premium mumbo-jumbo.

Until then, let’s just consider the trailer’s final parting words, “This world has its consolations.”

We may not be perched high atop a mountain, overlooking some expansive mountain range bathed in early morning light, but we do get to play Red Dead Redemption II on October 26, 2018 on PS4 and Xbox One.

Considering the tumult on rise in the world today, that’s a mighty consolation indeed.

(Sorry PC players. The master race might have to take the L here.)

Until next time.

INTERVIEW: Adriel Wallick, the mind behind Train Jam

Insights pieces seek out unique perspectives from members of the Game, Film, and Television industries. They aim to provide context for readers and an unfiltered platform for industry-insiders.


Imagine this. . .

The majesty of this nation’s most iconic vistas spanning out before you in all their radiant splendor, while you recline comfortably in the wide-windowed Amtrak California Zephyr train car. You can see rolling plains taper up into white-capped mountain ranges – a jagged line across the belly of a clear blue sky. There are clouds and animals out there, beyond the fog of breath on your window, and suddenly you are removed from yourself. Inspired, even.

Feeling motivated, yet? Are the creative juices flowing?

Good.

That’s exactly the kind of environment that independent game developer, Adriel Wallick, hopes to foster with Train Jam – the annual fifty-two hour, cross-country game jam on a train. From Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California, aspiring and veteran developers gather in several rented train cars to create games in an environmnet condusive to collaboration, networking, and creative inspiration. But don’t take it from me, take it from the woman behind it all.

Readers, meet Adriel Wallick.

Headshot
All pictures used with permission.

Where to find her: Twitter; Website; Train Jam; Train Jam Games; Square Bowl

I recently had the opportunity to ask Adriel some questions about Train Jam, about the gaming industry at large and the role of independent developers within it; the shifting trend toward equal representation in our media, and how she finds the time to both make and play games. She had plenty to say, so I have plenty to share with all of you.

This is, more or less, a transcript of our conversation, edited minimally for clarity, grammar, and format.

Do enjoy.


Game-Jamming on a Train

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“…fostering an adventurous and inspiring environment…”

The Murphy Media Blog: So, what is Train Jam?
Adriel Wallick: Train Jam is an annual game jam that occurs on a train. Every spring, game developers from all over the world meet in Chicago to ride the California Zephyr out to Emeryville, California while making games during the fifty-two hour journey. Train Jame always occurs the Thursday-Saturday before the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco – which means that we then get to show off all of the games that were made during Train Jam at the largest gathering of professional game developers in the world.

Train Jam’s goal is to take developers beyond their comfort zone and push for creative inspiration outside of a regular office environment. It strives to meet this goal by fostering an adventurous and inspiring environment where develops from diverse backgrounds and cultures are able to pursue new ideas in a safe, accessible, and empowering way.
MMB: When did the inspiration for Train Jam strike? What was the epiphany?
AW: The inspiration came from a train trip that I took back in 2013. I was living in Boston at the time and decided to travel for a while. I took the train from Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, and then Seattle to Vancouver. I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally. I started doing research into how Amtrak’s group-reservations worked, set up an Eventbrite page, made a website, and launched the first Train Jam just a few months later.
MMB: I’ve spent most of my life around trains and on trips. There’s a romanticism to those long journeys and feeling yourself float through the scenery. What an ingenious way to work with the inspiration of the outdoors, but doing so as a group still connected to the Wi-Fi.
AW: There actually isn’t Wi-Fi provided on the train! It’s one of my absolute favorite things about the train ride, because it really forces the developers into a completely different mindset than they’re used to working in. Everyone has to rely on their own innate knowledge OR the other developers around them. It’s also one of the reasons that I keep Train Jam completely non-competitive. I’ve centered so much of Train Jam’s core experience around collaboration and togetherness, and the forced reliability of the other developers on the train really helps solidify that.

“I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally.”

MMB: Now, the average person might never have heard of a game jam, could you explain how one works?
AW: A ‘game jam’ is where a number of game developers get together and work on a new game idea in a short amount of time. There are tons of different types, but most will last around forty-eight hours (usually over a weekend), will have a theme to base the game idea on, and will encourage developers to work in teams of around four people. The concept and motivations for a game are very similar to that of musicians getting together to jam – most times, it’s not so much about creating something that will be commercially viable, or the next “big hit,” but about exercising your creative muscles, working with others, and trying out new ideas.
MMB: The Comparison to music seems appropriate – collaboration and cooperation are key. What are some of the themes or new ideas that you have used for, or have developed from, Train Jam?

AW: The themes I give for Train Jam are always very loose and based on trains, journeys, or adventure. To get a good feel for what comes out of something like Train Jam, you can check out all of the games from the last five years at www.trainjam.com/games.

Breaking into the Industry

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“…I decided that I just needed to make a change and get into an industry that I was passionate about, which would allow me some creative freedoms…”

MMB: Your Twitter bio mentions that you used to work on satellites, why / how did you make the switch to video game development?
AW: Games have always been a passion of mine, and something I’ve been a huge fan of my whole life. After working as a software engineer for some big companies after graduating from college, I decided that I just needed to make a change and get into an industry that I was passionate about, which would allow me some creative freedoms while still being in a tech role.
MMB: Out of curiosity, which games were most significant in developing your passion?
AW: Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Thomas Was Alone.
MMB: How would you encourage others to approach employment in the industry? Any advice for those without a computer-technologies background?
AW: Everyone is different, so that’s hard. I’m self-motivated to learn things on my own, so I just started following tutorials and making small prototypes to learn tech skills specifically relevant to game development. I started attending local developer meet-ups in Boston and just kept networking and meeting people until I finally found an indie studio that was hiring for someone exactly like me.

For anyone wanting to enter the games industry, the best general advice I can give is to just make games. It sounds kind of silly and simplistic, but the best way to get the skills to make games is to make them. If you’re a writer, look into something like the Ink Scripting Language and write a few interactive fiction games. If you’re an artist, draw some character designs, animate some models, or mock-up some UI elements. If you’re a musician, play around with sound effects or practice different genres of music for different levels. People have the misconception that if you’re not a tech person you simply can’t make a game, and that’s just not true anymore. There’s always a way to work on your game development skills.

I addition, meeting other game developers is another good way to learn about game development and to get your foot in the door. If you can, attend local meet-ups in your area. Go and talk to other developers. If there aren’t any meet-ups near you, or you can’t attend, then join an online community. Look for developer forums and start posting. Ask questions, post your work, etc.

A Day in the Life

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“I see Train Jam as a great place for people to be inspired, to try to make games in a safe and non-competitive environment, and to simply meet other developers.”

MMB: Video games have never been more popular, and AAA production studios have never been larger. Do you, on the independent / freelance level, see the higher demand for entertainment and personnel trickling down?
AW: Definitely. I entered indie development just as it was starting to really take off, as a type of game development that people were taking seriously in a commercial sense. As the years have gone on, the line between AAA and indie (and everything in-between) has been increasingly blurred – which means it’s more accessible than ever to dip your toes into game development. Also, the type of person who plays games is so diverse. So, as games are getting more popular, the demand for every type of game is growing, as well. People want to play everything from a small artistic indie game to a huge AAA adventure game, and the fact that games have gotten so popular means that we now have the resources to make many different types of games.
MMB: Do you see Train Jam as a way to further propel the accessibility of gaming to both developer and consumer? Where do you see Train Jam in five years’ time?
AW: I hope so. I see Train Jam as a great place for people to be inspired, to try to make games in a safe and non-competitive environment, and to simply meet other developers. I hope that all of those things will help developers feel comfortable trying to make games or more confident with their current skill-level. I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined. I think we’ve grown to a size that I’m completely comfortable with. It’s big enough that I can use it to do a lot of good (e.g. by using our reputation to get more sponsorships that I can put towards our diversity initiatives), but that I can still organize the event with the help of just one other organizer and a small crew of volunteers. That’s kind of perfect to me.

“I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined.”

MMB: What does the average day look like for Adriel Wallick? When do you actually get a chance to play the next big release?
AW: Hahaha. As a freelancer who is working on three different game projects (all indie games), who plans a major annual game development event, and also travels a lot, there’s no real “typical” day. On those rare occasions that I’m able to settle into a routine, of sorts, it’s really no different from someone who goes to an office all day. Once I’m done with work I can kick back and play whatever game I’m playing through at the moment. Which, to be honest, is usually just Destiny. However, there are periods of time where I’m speaking at games events, or travelling, or just wrapped up in what I’m working on that I either don’t have access to my console, or just don’t have the brain power to sit down and save the universe. In that case, I just wait until I can.
MMB: Do you think it’s ironic that you work in game development, but have to search for the time to play games?
AW: A little! I actually think it’s a good reminder to find a better work-life balance. I should have more time to play games, and that I don’t is a failing on myself and my time management skills.
MMB: Can you share anything about your upcoming projects? Anything to get excited about?
AW: Most of the things I’m working on are unannounced indie games. I wish I could talk more about them, but I can’t! But, I am excited about all of them.

The State of the Industry

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“I think it would be almost impossible to have something like Train Jam before laptops. . . .before the level of knowledge-sharing that we have now.”

MMB: The industry is changing rapidly. Fortnite has disrupted the shooter-space and loot-boxes have disrupted everything else. As a game developer, what is your opinion on these emergent trends?
AW: Game development is a relatively new industry compared to other forms of entertainment. That, combined with the fact that games are also growing in popularity at such an incredible rate, means that everything has to change rapidly right now. The games industry is still finding its footing, still dealing with huge technological advances, and still figuring out what it can be. It’s interesting to watch these trends change so fast, and it’s terrifying as a developer, because the “stuff” that works for a game right now will probably be completely different from what works for a game in six months.
MMB: Considering the industry’s growing pains and all the noise about evolving technology or trends, Train Jam must seem even more like an escape – a back-to-basics event. Do you find that to be the case, or find it necessary to help tap into the passion that drew you to the industry in the first place?
AW: I never really thought about Train Jam like that, but there’s an aspect to it where we just get down to our basic knowledge and tools, and simply make games. However, it’s that growing accessibility of game development tools that make things like Train Jam possible. I think it would be almost impossible to have something like Train Jam before laptops, before free versions of game engines, before the ability to make builds at the press of a button, and before the level of knowledge-sharing that we have now.

Looking Forward

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“The majority of gamers and developers are happy to see diverse representation in media…”

MMB: The gaming industry didn’t have much of a “Me Too” movement. Rather, it had the “Gamergate” period, which was simultaneously a call for more representation in gaming and a significant backlash to it. Comments on Anita Sarkeesian and internet trolls aside, do you think representation is improving? Do you think it starts at the indie level (e.g. Gone Home) before it reaches the AAA – The Last of Us Part II kiss – level?
AW: Though we, as an industry, still have a long, LONG way to go, you can see small improvements everywhere. As there’s been a huge push for more accessible development tools, it’s now easier than ever for games to be made by folks from different backgrounds, countries, viewpoints, sexualities, etc.; which leads to more perspectives in games, more varied stories, and more opportunities to build empathy between people from different backgrounds. Because of this, and because of the push to actually talk about these topics, developers have also gotten more sensitive to the types of games they create, the people that they portray as the protagonist (or antagonist), the language they use, and the views they perpetuate. It’s been interesting to watch these changes slowly take hold.
MMB: It’s heartening to see that your outlook is optimistic about gaming’s future. Obviously, if Twitter and YouTube are to be believed, there’s a vocal backlash to what some view as “the politicization” of gaming. Do you feel this negative perception, and the reluctance associated with it, will change as our collective understanding of “normal” changes?
AW: The backlash that happens is awful, but in my optimistic view, it feels like the death-cries of an outdated way of looking at things. One that will hopefully be obsolete soon. It’s people who are resistant to change, people who are resistant to no longer being 100% catered to in every aspect, and greedy people who feel entitled to an entire industry. The majority of gamers and developers are happy to see diverse representation in media, are welcoming of new viewpoints, and are excited at the number of different games that we see now.

Honestly, who wouldn’t be excited to see a bunch of new and original ideas?


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Who, indeed. With people like her leading the charge, the future of gaming is very much worth feeling optimistic about.

My many thanks to Adriel for taking the time to answer my questions during her incredibly busy schedule. It was a pleasure.

Please, follow her on Twitter to stay updated on all things Train Jam, or just to follow the adventures of an independent, freelance game developer. Also be sure to check out the official Train Jam website for more information.

The next Train Jam will take place March 14 – 16, 2019.

As for you, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this, or that you learned something. There’s plenty more to come.

Until next time.

REVIEW: ‘Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads’

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads

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Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment; Published by Square Enix; Rated Mature; Released September 26, 2018; Available on PS4, XB1, Windows PC; Reviewed on Xbox One X


Three long years and one prequel later, developer DONTNOD is back with the long-awaited sequel season to 2015’s award-winning Life is Strange. Back is the teenaged angst, the hand-painted textures, the American Pacific Northwest, and the feels – dear god, the feels.

The first season of Life is Strange pushed boundaries, strengthened the case for queer narratives in games, and chose to highlight issues unique to the teenaged experience – all while operating within the framework of a supernatural sci-fi murder-mystery. It had a lot going for it based on its premise alone. As that season progressed, however, the narrative shifted from the murder-mystery in order to better develop the central relationship between heroines Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Develop it did, and I promise I’ll be reviewing that very, very special first season in due time.

For now, however, let’s see if DONTNOD have managed to follow-up on one of this generation’s most surprising hits.


Narrative

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Life is Strange 2 starts without much fanfare, or music in general. A soft Syd Matters melody plays-in our protagonist, Sean Diaz, and the differences between seasons one and two of this series begin immediately. It’s no secret that DONTNOD sought to leave Arcadia Bay, the setting of season one, behind in favor of a radically different approach.

Sean Diaz is no Max Caulfield. For starters, Sean is the son of a mexican immigrant, lives in Seattle, runs for the track team, has a job, plenty of friends, and a nine-year-old brother, Daniel.

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We don’t get to see his school, any of his teachers, and only get a vague idea of his classmates – aside from his best friend Lyla. And, like the first Life is Strange, the majority of the subtext within the game is found with selectable notes strewn about the many environments. Aside from those brief interactions, our narrative revolves almost entirely around Sean for the first half-hour to an hour (depending on how thoroughly you explore.)

No premonitions of deadly storms, or anything quite as iconic as Max walking through Blackwell Academy with “To All of You” by Syd Matters in her ears. All Sean has to do is prepare for a party at his friend’s cabin. Simple enough. Talk to your father, Estaban, talk to Daniel, cram some party-favors in your backback from around your house, and you’re good to go.

We are then thrust into our supernatural road-trip narrative. In an emotional scene, especially if you took the time to interact with your family before progressing, sixteen-year-old Sean and nine-year-old Daniel are thrust from their home and must flee south toward Mexico (from Seattle, Washington, no less.) Here, the politics of Life is Strange 2 rear their head, and do so occasionally to mixed results. At the onset, thankfully, the result is strikingly effective.

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One can commend DONTNOD for their willingness to approach issues such as immigration, racism, and police-violence so earnestly, but one hang-up I had – a carryover from the first season – is that the dialogue can at times suggest the reading of an informational pamphlet on the dangers of racism, and an adult-slanted understanding of how teenagers discuss the use of marijuana or alcohol. This isn’t much of a complaint, because where DONTNOD excels is in the writing of their characters.

And that’s an important strength to have considering the plot of episode 1, aptly titled “Roads.” This is Sean and Daniel’s story. They aren’t trying to save the world or find missing friends, or really even explain how Daniel has the ability to move objects with his mind – they’re in full self-preservation mode.

It’s a timely story, yes, one that I enjoyed immensely, but I need you, dear reader, to understand that the following statement may seem paradoxical. The narrative here in episode one is hours long if you decide to explore its every nook and cranny, find every hidden collectible or truly ponder the decisions you’re presented with. It’s an incredibly slow start, devoid of much lisenced music, an ecosystem of recurring characters, or the unwinding layers of complicated interpersonal relationships set against supernatural intrigue. No, this feels very long, frustratingly slow to develop, and damn it – it’s better because of it.

I’ll explain.

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This is clearly the start of something much larger, a road trip of epic proportions down to Mexico. If anything, episode one needed to present a state of normalcy before thrusting us into chaos and uncertainty. As well as adequately foreshadow the creator’s intended brand of politics. Oh yes, those politics. And, more importantly, to develop the bond between Sean and Daniel. And oh, buddy did they succeed there.

Sean is prideful, but sensitive to the needs of his younger brother – beyond Daniel’s nine-year-old impulsiveness. Sean can comprehend the racism he encounters, the otherness latched onto him by others – portrayed wonderfully in a scene where he is asked to justify his presence in a store, to prove his innocence in the face of assumed guilt.

And Daniel is, well, awesome possum. He’s everything he needs to be: an adorable foil to our playable character, but sympathetic and uniquely complex enough to sustain a compelling narrative. He has superpowers, an affinity for wolves and other animals, and loves chocolate bars. Love him already.

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Without taking time to truly display the bond between the brothers, and bond them to us, the audience, the beginning of this new season wouldn’t feel anywhere near as sturdy.

Considering that it ends in a motel, far away from where it starts, it’s obvious that DONTNOD has plenty more up their sleeve. We’re going to cover a lot of ground over these five episodes. Let’s get excited for it.


Gameplay

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As for the gameplay, it hasn’t changed much from the original. Meander through environments to find the answers to easily accomplished puzzles. Check your cell-phone to read texts from your friends and family. Find hidden notes and flesh out the back-story.

Narrative comes first here, and with it, plenty of complicated decisions.

Whereas the original Life is Strange had characters’ lives hanging in the balance with every decision, here it has more to do with how your actions reflect on your impressionable young brother, Daniel. He absorbs your behavior and reacts accordingly. The balance between immediate survival and the long-term consequences of your actions weigh heavily as you progress down the open road. What do you say to hide the fact you are wanted for questioning by police? How do you conceal the death of your father to Daniel? How do you gather adequate supplies with only a meager sum of money? These are the things you must consider while progressing through the narrative.

It’s an interesting, more immediate motivation when compared to season one.

One element missing in Life is Strange 2 is the ability to manipulate time. Your decisions here are permanent, unless you feel like loading a previous save or beginning a new playthrough. We won’t know how our decisions play out until the end. The flip-side to that is how it removes a sense of agency from the player. It’s an easy sin to forgive, as Sean doesn’t have much agency within the context of the narrative.

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There’s a bit too much walking, a bit too much sitting, a bit too much exposition, and a bit too little variation to the environments or the set-pieces – there’s one stand-out kidnapping sequence that’s worth not spoiling.

Honestly, seeing as the gameplay and narrative are so inherently linked, the greatest achievement of this first episode is placing the player in the shoes of an immigrant’s son. He doesn’t look like the predominantly white, rural northwesterners. It’s as overt as it comes, but I won’t be the white guy that argues to which degree racism is prevalent in the lives of minorities. It’s not my place, nor my inclination, but in Life is Strange 2 it’s difficult to look away from the systemic issues in the United States that would lead someone to accuse a young man of color of shoplifting, without proof; or for some of us to beg the necessity of a wall along the southern border.

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Life is Strange 2 doesn’t touch lightly on these subjects, as I’ve stated, but demanding that it should is insulting to the type of injustices on display. This isn’t a carbon-print of reality, here. Only a response to it.

And it works as well as it can.


Presentation

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Perhaps the most noticeable change between Life is Strange and its sequel are the graphics. It isn’t as striking at first, while you’re walking around the Diaz household or stepping off the school bus, but once the environment opens up into the forest of the Pacific Northwest? Holy shit. The assets on display is fantastic. The environments are lush with foliage and moving parts. Lighting is equally impressive, with god-rays flitting through swaying branches and glistening off of slow-moving water. It’s wonderfully serene.

Also, and I can’t overstate this, the character models look like actual people. Remember, all the textures in-game are hand-painted before being scanned in to the game-engine, so the fact that Daniel has a slight coloration under his eyes, in-keeping with his age and complexion, represents an astonishing attention to detail. Light plays off the angles of our characters’ faces and, holy crap, the lips are synced to the dialogue. What a time to be alive.

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If you have the opportunity to play this on a 4k screen, using either the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, you’ll enjoy a sharp presentation and near-consistent 60fps performance through and through. Truly the way it was meant to be played.

Sound is also phenomenal. Wind pushes through creaking trees, water babbles along a rocky shore, and voice-work is full of all the “uh’s” and “um’s” for increased verisimilitude. Everything here is convincingly realised. Whether it be papers strewn across a desk, trash spilling from a dumpster, or markings on trees and bathroom walls, it’s all in service of creating a world that feels lived in, real, and worth exploring.


Verdict

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Considering the lethargic, but cathartic pacing, sleeve-worn ideology, the bewildering attention to environmental detail, the beautiful presentation, and rock-solid character work, it’s hard not to consider this a flawed, but wonderful introduction to the next story in the Life is Strange universe.

I’m excited, optimistic, and totally invested. Just like the first time around. I will not, however, allow my enthusiasm to overlook what I perceive as flaws: some rough dialogue, pacing, and a lack of licensed music characteristic to the series.

Bonus points for the Arcadia Bay cameo, though.

3.75/5 – Well above average, but not without flaws. Fully recommend buying.

You can purchase Life is Strange 2 as a bundle on the Playstation Store, Microsoft Store, or from the Square Enix store for $39.99 USD.

Stay tuned for the review of every episode, and follow along on social media here and here.

Until next time.

 

‘Fallout 3’: Ten years later

Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias.


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I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, I’m not terribly excited for Fallout 76, Bethesda Game Studios’ upcoming entry in their blockbuster post-apocalypse franchise. Though there’s still plenty to see of the game in the coming months, I’m nevertheless left feeling tepid – apprehensive, even. Some of my hang-ups with Fallout 76:

  • Online only
  • No NPCs
  • Card-pack based leveling system
  • “Upgraded” Creation Engine
  • “Beta” being held too close to release
  • Pre-orders went live before any aspect of the game was shown to the public
  • It’s literally just the scrapped multiplayer component of Fallout 4 given new life and expanded upon

There are other, nit-picky things that have me worried, but the general fear is that Bethesda is taking Fallout too far from its roots – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Also in the news are a shit-load of mods coming for Fallout 4 (ostensibly available for console users through Creation Club after their respective releases). For starters, you have Fallout 4: New Vegas, Fallout 4: New York, and the massive Fallout: Miami – each of which feature enormous overhauls to Fallout 4‘s map or introduce entirely new maps, characters, weapons, music, etc.

It’s exhausting to keep up with all of this. It’s Fallout pandemonium out there. As if the chaos following the Jones Soda Co.’s Nuka-Quantum tie-in wasn’t bad enough, there’s a new Nuka-Dark rum, based on the beverage in Fallout 4‘s Nuka-World dlc, available for pre-order. Replica Pip-Boys are everywhere, cosplayers are making incredibly detailed suits of foam power-armor, and I’m left wondering, after seeing this franchise reach its apparent critical mass: How did we get here?

It wasn’t so long ago that the Fallout franchise was in limbo. Fallout 1 and 2 were a pair of well-received top-down isometric RPGs developed by Black Isle Studios in the 90’s. Following the financial fuckery of publisher Interplay and the subsequent shuttering of Black Isle, Bethesda Softworks saw fit to purchase the franchise rights in the early 2000’s. They then proceeded to sit on it for years.

It’s a long story, one that I can’t spend too much time writing about here, so check out this fan-made documentary detailing the franchise’s tumultuous rise to prominence. What precipitated that meteoric rise was Bethesda Game Studios releasing Morrowind and Oblivion to massive financial success and thinking, “Hey, uh, let’s make that Fallout game now.”

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What resulted was 2008’s Fallout 3. A magnificent game worthy of universal acclaim. It not only brought the franchise to 3D, but proved that Bethesda wasn’t a one-trick pony with their Elder Scrolls series. It thrust players from the relative safety of Vault 101 and into the dark and unforgiving Capital Wasteland – the ruins of Washington, DC, left to decay for 200 years after nuclear armageddon. It touted an unprecedented level of freedom for an open-world RPG: Go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone. On October 28, 2008, Fallout was reborn as a franchise and hasn’t slowed since.

But how does it hold up today? People are still playing it, creating enough demand for Bethesda to release it for Xbox backwards compatibility, and later a 4k update for the One X. I first played it way back in 2008, a full decade ago, and have returned to it countless times to continue logging hundreds of hours into new characters. I’ve done the same for New Vegas, and thanks to the settlement-crafting in Fallout 4 I’ve probably logged over a thousand hours into that title alone on my Xbox One.

I love this franchise. But, as with some others, I felt a tad burned by Fallout 4. It was too similar to Fallout 3, but without the latter’s sense of charted moral consequence or player freedom. Fallout 4 was missing . . . something. Something beyond its aesthetics. It’s hard to describe. Many have tried, and many are quick to draw comparison to Obsidian’s franchise-best entry, Fallout: New Vegas, which largely ignored a generalized karmic point-system in favor of uninhibited player choice and consequence. I, however, think it’s important to start at the source of the Fallout revival.

So, earlier this week I decided to dig up my old GOTY-edition of the game and pop it in the Xbox One X and, well, there’s plenty to talk about. So, without further ado.


War Never Changes

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War never changes; unless, of course, it receives a 4k-patch. PC players have long enjoyed the optimal playing experience for Fallout 3 (assuming they can tackle the game’s notorious Windows Live requirement), but no longer. If you own an Xbox One X and have an old copy of Fallout 3 lying around, you’ll enjoy a fairly sizable update that enhances the game from Raven Rock to Rivet City.

It isn’t immediately noticeable when you start a new game, seeing as your character is literally born into darkness. The silhouette of your father, James, voiced by Liam Neeson, coos you into picking your gender and name (I chose ‘male’ and ‘fig newton’), before your mother dies off-screen and you’re carried forth into a blinding light and Vault 101.

This was a clever conceit on Bethesda’s part, having Ron Pearlman insist that no one enters or leaves Vault 101, and then showing your birth, which leads you to presume that you were, in fact, born in the vault itself. You weren’t of course, but it plays out well once you spend a few hours growing up in the vault, taking tests and getting acquainted with the game’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and skill systems, only to have dear old dad start a rebellion against the tyrannical vault-overseer by simply leaving the inescapable vault.

Playing on a 4k television, old textures are suddenly given new life. Colors have been enhanced, objects are crisply defined throughout the environment – a subtle, but noticeable jump in fidelity from the 720p upscaled presentation used on the Xbox 360. It doesn’t match Fallout 4‘s lighting, not by a mile, but the level of detail in Vault 101 – from the environment to the ecosystem inhabited by the vault-dwellers – puts Fallout 4‘s terse opening sequence to shame.

It may be a slog to replay – allocating points and picking your S.P.E.C.I.A.L., taking the G.O.A.T. test, and escaping the vault – but it represents a design philosophy notably absent from Bethesda’s follow-up. From the jump, players are given a plethora of choices. Do you talk back to the adults at your birthday party? Are you kind and understanding to those around you? Will you help Amata by shooing away Butch and his Tunnel Snakes gang? Do you cheat on the G.O.A.T. test? Are you a dick to your father and the Overseer? Do you tell Amata to keep her 10mm pistol, which she eventually uses to murder a security guard?

Your actions, yours, have immediate and world-changing consequences within the first hour of the game, beyond just point allocation. NPCs live or die depending on your input. That agency within the game, the winding and wide-branching possibilities of your decisions, are notably absent from Fallout 4. In 4 you are restricted to a single personality until you leave Vault 111. Your objective? Son, go find him. And that’s it. You create your character, say hello to your family, coo your crying child, set up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and two minutes later you’re sprinting for the vault. Then you’re frozen, your spouse dies, yadda yadda, and boom – rush through the empty corridors to the exit and behold the Commonwealth Wasteland. It’s a far less nuanced experience, focused instead on expediency and a truncated role-playing experience.

Not so with Fallout 3. It takes its time, makes you take your time. When you emerge from Vault 101 it isn’t a map-marker or a voice over that guides you forward – it’s the map itself.


A World On Fire

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The game world is what sets Fallout 3 apart from Fallout 4, and maybe even New Vegas. I love New Vegas, but its eighteen-month development time shows with how cramped and clamped together so many areas feel – though, I’ll never forget my first nighttime glimpse of the Lucky 38 from afar, blooming with light. Wonderful stuff.

Fallout 3 is different, though. Like I mentioned earlier, after emerging from Vault 101, the eyes are drawn in different directions by the geometry of the map laid out before them. To the right is a metal-looking structure, what you learn is Megaton, and to the left are the battered homes of Springvale. In the distance, marvelously clear due to the added horsepower of the One X, is the Washington Monument. Three choices and one objective, find Dad, but how? Where do you go? Easy: left, right, or center.

Fallout 4 followed a similar approach to populating its map with locations, but offered very little in the way of actual wasteland to explore, a stark contrast to Fallout 3. As you can see in the screenshot above, my Winterized T-51b-clad Lone Wanderer has a choice to make. To the left is a power station, unexplored; to the right is a water tower and another structure; below-center is a bombed out building below the interstate. Between all of it is unpopulated, nuclear-ruined wasteland. Points-of-interests are decorated by terrain that accentuates them, differentiates them from other areas. All of which is meant to invite you, distract you, entice you forward to lose yourself in another dungeon full of Super Mutants or Feral Ghouls.

In writing there’s an element to the page that works for you without a single word being typed. It’s called “white space.” It’s a clever little tool that writers use to add emphasis to words by isolating them on the page. An example:

Fallout 3 still has bad graphics.

Still.

Notice all the space around “still”? Everything around it is white space. The extra millisecond it takes the eye to trace down the page creates a cadence – instilled in your mind by the writer.

Me.

See? Did it again. Anyways, my point is that sometimes the best elements of a game, especially a role-playing game, happen in the moments where the game isn’t telling us to do something. Forget dad, he’s in Smith Casey’s Garage, get to him when you can. Find the power lines north of Megaton and go for a jog. Stumble on some wastelanders fighting over some water, kill a few radscorpions. The guns are painfully inaccurate but the game has a means to compensate for it. It isn’t a shooter first. Not when you can hit the road, stress-saving every five minutes, and let the atmosphere absorb you in the space between those points-of-interest.

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Does the game world look any better? No. Not at all. No 4k patch is going to fix flickering or texture pop-in. You can see very far now, in certain areas both the Washington Monument and Tenpenny Tower are clearly visible. I’m not sure I like it, either. It makes the map feel kind of . . . small. Which is a shame, because we live in an age of over-stuffed, lifelessly organized open-world games. A game like Fallout 3, dripping with the charm of its own aesthetics, shouldn’t feel so unassuming.

It isn’t much of a complaint. After so many hours played, the game loses some of that freshness – the ability to toss a few surprises at you every now and then. With so much of the map being available to the naked eye, any elevated platform is going to show you how the game devs arranged the map. There’s a fairly uniform amount of space between important locations, jagged rocks are jutting out of the ground literally everywhere to create some variation, and no urban planner would ever sign off on the nonsensical infrastructure of the Capital Wasteland.

Cul-de-sacs are plopped in random areas, neighborhoods consist of three houses, there are maybe one or two schools, every church is identical, huge boulders are jutting from the national mall, highways have one or two off-ramps and neither are in the city. It’s a logistical mess. But, none of that really matters. Fallout 3 still has charm everywhere else.

It’s in the transatlantic accents, the thirties big band and swing, the atomic powered car carcasses littering the highways, the “die-commie!” jingoism, the retro-futurisitc stylings of every billboard and box of cereal, and all the notes and scraps of civilization left behind in desk-terminals in the derelict office-buildings. All of which is in every Fallout game, but it’s integrated more effectively in Fallout 3. You are small in Fallout 3, with an enormous world – seen and unseen – all around you. Everything is connected.

Caravans travel the wastes and stop at specific locations all across the map, then meet at Canterbury Commons, where you can invest in increasing their supply. NPCs have relatives living in other settlements, other settlements operating under different governments. Super Mutants threaten everyone, and the Brotherhood of Steel has fractured in two trying to deal with them. NPCs need you to fetch a document, which leads you to another band of NPCs who you can choose to help or ignore, or kill. Bump into a Scavenger trying to survive on their own, kill them for bad karma, and in an hour hear NPCs insult you or find yourself ambushed by Regulators. There’s a web holding everything in the game, and your actions send ripples everywhere.

The Witcher III this is not, but in 2008 is was a blast to experience.


Ten Years Later

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I’ve spent a lot of effort talking up this game. I love it, I really do, but it can be a frustrating mess of an experience. An experience exacerbated by my having played many other RPGs over the past decade.

The shooting is awful. Guns are horribly inaccurate, even with beefy stats, and V.A.T.S. isn’t always going to save you. Action Points regenerate quickly and stimpaks are plentiful after a few levels, so consumables are borderline irrelevant. Enemies offer no real challenge aside from wasting extra ammunition, larger creatures simply requiring more bullets.

The randomness of combat is always refreshing, though. Walking up to a grain silo and having a Yao Guai charge forward to tear your arms off really gets the adrenaline pumping – as does visiting Old Olney for the first time. It’s still fun to explore and survive, but it isn’t difficult anymore.

Caps are the name of the game. The in-game currency is easily obtained, I mean it. Cram valuable junk lying around every office or metro tunnel into your pockets and sell them to vendors. It requires very, very little effort to eventually have more money than you need.

Skill-checks aren’t as prominent as they are in New Vegas, but they’re still here. Intelligence and Science and other perks will offer unique dialogue options that can change conversations or unlock non-violent paths to completing quests, but the Speech requirement is a huge missed opportunity. It’s worse in Fallout 4, as there are no fucking skills in that game, but you are still given a percentage chance to pass any Speech-check. You aren’t meeting a previously withheld barrier and surpassing it, you’re simply raising your chance of success. All you have to do is save before a conversation and reload when you fail a check, then roll the dice again. Simple.

I don’t mean to insinuate that the game is in any way broken because there are ways to exploit it – [if a vendor has duplicate objects of low quality, buy and sell the same item repeatedly to eventually glitch the barter mechanic and take all of a vendor’s money] – I’m simply saying that it speaks to the quality of the vanilla experience if all I want to do is take measures to circumvent it.

And I do that a lot. Especially after playing Fallout 4.

It’s frustrating how slow the movement speed is, how glitchy all the rubble is, and how easily the game crashes. NPCs are mentally vacant, walking into one another or inhibiting quest-progress on multiple occasions. Dialogue is acted very poorly most times, and the four voice actors don’t have the range to differentiate the dozens of NPCs populating the game.

Most textures are muddy, even after the patch ramped up the resolution, meshes are low quality, there’s absolutely no interaction between light and the objects within an environment unless it’s from your Pip-Boy, etc.

Some may find the rag doll character models endearing, but the Gamebryo engine and its Havok physics don’t hold up by today’s standards. The player character floats across the map when running, arms and legs too stiff to adjust angles until the player inputs in a cardinal direction.

Saves get corrupted, easily, and at times my DLC won’t even be recognized.

But damn it, there was one thought that kept running through my mind as I encountered these problems. One thought that I had while diving into a flooded metro station, or the trenches of the national mall, or clearing out Evergreen Mills, or scouring the wastes for the Keller Family Transcripts:

I really, really missed this game. The game’s engine fails by today’s standards, and that’s okay. Yes, it’s rough around the edges – enough to give it a sort of jutting-boulder shape – but it’s immersive in a way that most modern games don’t even try to be. Only a handful of studios are concerned with delivering this type of single-player experience anymore, and few manage a game as consistently engaging as Fallout 3, from its world to the narrative within it.

While the story itself is a tad too earnest, it’s nowhere near the sentimental sci-fi that plagues Fallout 4′s worst missions. You can explore the main quest-line at your leisure, enslave some scavengers for profit, give a homeless man forty water bottles to offset the negative karma, hunt down all the bobbleheads, and blow up Megaton for money. Or maybe just grab your canine companion, a good rifle, turn on Galaxy News Radio, and head out into the wasteland. There’s plenty to do, in as many different ways as you please, and five stellar DLC expansions to play through. And I highly suggest that you do.

No matter what year it is, 4k upgrade or no.

Here’s hoping that Bethesda can match the storytelling and world-building standard set by their first forray into the Fallout universe. I don’t blame them for the lukewarm response to Fallout 4, they kind of had to make another Fallout 3 with more commercial appeal. That means dumbing things down. I just hope that isn’t the death knell for Fallout 76.

While games continue to evolve into multiplayer services rather than stand-alone experiences, as battle-royale modes are shoehorned into unrelated IPs, and impudent monetization schemes clutter user-interfaces and restrict content, one thing is for certain: In another ten years, I’ll still be playing Fallout 3.

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And that’s it for this essay. If you agree with anything I’ve said here, feel free to let me know. If you disagree, please do the same. Share this content with anyone you think would like it. Like and follow this blog using the widgets at the bottom of the page.

Any and all support is appreciated.

Until next time.

A Tale of Grinding and Grief: Returning to GTA Online

Backlog pieces cover media that I’ve always meant to play or watch, but for some reason have never experienced, until now. These articles will often be a blend of both review and commentary, but not wholly either. A verdict may be rendered, but more as an examination of quality weighted against reputation.

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I finally got around to playing GTA Online. I have thoughts, but first:
Some Backstory

Rockstar Games released their magnum opus, Grand Theft Auto V, five years ago this September. Since then, it’s generated well over $6 billion in revenue for publisher Take Two, and sold north of 95 million copies as of May 2018. That’s enough to make it the third highest selling video game of all time behind Minecraft and Tetris, and easily the most profitable – due in no small part to Shark Card microtransactions, but I’ll get to that.

I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there, waiting in line for four hours outside of GameStop for the GTA V midnight release with at least a hundred other anxious patrons. We stood and waited in the waning hours of a musky Virginia evening, until at last we were allowed inside to collect our pre-orders. I watched grown men clamber over one another, yelping and wild, throwing their money at pasty-faced teenagers, who buckled behind their registers. I saw them drag their deluxe editions across the parking lot in a frenzy, and screech away in a cloud of smoke to waste away the remainder of the night in the electric hue of their televisions. I was there, Gandalf, when the courage of men failed.

Alright, enough of that.

The midnight release was fairly routine, actually. The hype surrounding GTA V was stratospheric in its enormity. Everyone wanted the game. And people turned out to buy it. Until September 2013, Activision had been dominating yearly sales-charts with each new release of Call of Duty – since Modern Warfare 2 broke records by earning $310 million in it’s first 24 hours, each yearly release seemed poised to surpass the last. Black Ops released in 2010 to $360 million in 24 hours, Modern Warfare 3 launched to $400 million in 2011, and Black Ops II had a $500 million launch in 2012. It took each of these games over two weeks to cross $1 billion in total revenue. These are astounding numbers, and clearly evident of the market dominance that CoD had during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

But that was about to change.

Activision was in a tough spot after Black Ops II. Infinity Ward, which was at one point their premier studio, had been gutted beyond recognition after the departure of studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella – the two men responsible for CoD in the first place. The studio had two years to deliver something new after MW3, to build it from the ground up (conceptually), and hopefully start a new sub-series under the CoD banner. So the pressure was on, but Rockstar had been teasing bits and pieces of a new Grand Theft Auto for months prior to release in 2013 – as is their MO.

While Infinity Ward was showing off the artificial intelligence used for the fucking fish in their new CoD, Ghosts, Rockstar refrained from the exposition circuit and instead released new trailers for Grand Theft Auto V, and the exciting new game mode: Grand Theft Auto Online. It was unprecedented.

Both Red Dead Redemption and GTA 4 had online components, but now players could form gangs, stage heists, own apartments and garages and hangars to store vehicles. They could accrue their millions in dirty money and treat the hyper-realistic Los Santos as the digital playground of their criminal dreams.

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The hype paid off – sort of.

If you remember, the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One were both unveiled and released in 2013. They were new and powerful, but expensive. In a year of games that saw Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us release within several months of one another, the average consumer was content to let the year play out as the swan song for the seventh console generation. What better way to cap it off than with the most popular video game franchise of all time: Call of Duty Grand Theft Auto?

Both titanic franchises released in the fourth quarter of the year, but GTA V’s launch was unprecedented. So much so, that no video game or entertainment product of any kind has surpassed it since. It launched on September 17, 2013 and within 24 hours grossed $800 million. In one day it earned $300 million more than the launch day of BlopsII, and within three goddamn days it earned $1 billion in worldwide sales – something that had taken every single CoD release over two weeks to accomplish. A truly stunning opening, by an equally stunning product.

Metacritic (the Rotten Tomatoes of the video game industry), still has the game at a solid 97/100 aggregate score. So, not only was it a massively selling product, but a massively well-received product.

Rockstar and Take Two had retaken their throne at the top of the video game industry, and haven’t relented since, having sold over 80 million more copies worldwide since those record-breaking first three days.

Activision bowed out in November of 2013 with Ghosts, widely considered to be the game that severed Call of Duty from its prestige status. Ghosts sold well, yes, and Activision was quick to point out that $1 billion worth of the game was shipped to retailers on launch day, but the game itself didn’t actually sell (as in, to consumers) $1 billion. Sales were actually down compared to Black Ops II, which Activision was quick to blame on a shifting marketplace with the release of the PS4 and Xbox One – uncertainty which Rockstar avoided handily.

So, after such an impressive debut and dozens of hours of content bursting from the single-player campaign, and one of the greatest open world environments ever created, the world and all its gamers sat eagerly for the GTA Online servers to go live. That’s when the true fun would begin.


An Underwhelming Launch

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We had about two weeks with GTA V‘s single-player. We had to learn the map of San Andreas and the Los Angeles-inspired Los Santos – all the nooks and crannies, the hiding spots, the racetracks, the Ammu-Nations, the stores, stunt-jumps, the cars. Everything. And we did. We prepared ourselves for October 1, 2013, when GTA Online would go live.

The trailer promised fighter jets blazing past the windows of high-rise apartments, and gang warfare in the streets below. The whole map to use at our discretion, and the promise of participating in the campaign’s stellar heists with our close friends.

So what happened?

The servers went up and it was pandemonium. Players would get kicked as soon as they joined a session, glitches abounded, money and progress would be erased between missions or play sessions. The scope was there, obviously. The whole map was open to explore and contact-missions were plentiful. There were races and deathmatches, spontaneous mayhem and tense police chases. But after a week or so, we wondered: Is this it? Missing from Online was heists, or any elaborate and well-paying mission. Money glitches were common, and so were the people willing to exploit them. People would suddenly appear to have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal with no feasible way of having attained it.

Money was hard to come by, and so was the fun.

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Rockstar was planning on releasing new downloadable content via free updates. Beachbums released in late 2013, as well as the Deathmatch & Race Creators update in December. Good, more customization, but no heists. Aside from some snow around Christmas-time, and a rock-solid meta, the lack of deep gameplay was apparent. I didn’t know anyone to play with on PS3, so it wasn’t long until I quit GTA Online altogether. In fact, around the first time Los Santos saw snowfall, I was introduced to one of the more heinous pastimes of bored GTA Online players: Greifing.

Then in its infancy, GTA Online had bored players running amuck with their ill-ill-gotten glitch-money by buying high-level gear and rampaging against weaker players – especially solo players.

So I left frustrated and bored, wondering why I never bought the game for Xbox 360, and whether or not we’d ever see heists. I figured that once more content was released, I’d hop back in to check it out. And I did, briefly, once the game was re-released on November 18, 2014 for eighth-gen consoles. I bought a copy for my Xbox One, hopped on over a weekend with a friend, hit level 16, saw that aside from cars and matchmaking updates nothing had changed, and set it down again.


Four Years Later

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Here’s where I get to the “why” of my post today. The backstory was necessary, I promise. Because since I last set GTA Online down, there have been a plethora of industry-changing updates to the game. I’m not kidding. GTA Online saw regular updates and the implementation of Shark Cards, which – when purchased by the player with real money – grant their in-game avatar a certain amount of the game’s digital currency. Try and find a current multiplayer game that doesn’t have microtransactions of some sort – it’s impossible.

The reason that GTA V is such a sales-behemoth is due in large part to Shark Cards and exorbitantly expensive in-game status-symbols. What you own is what you are in GTA Online. You can now become a powerful CEO, VIP, Motorcycle Club President, Gunrunner, and . . . Club Owner? Yes, Club Owner! There are flying cars, fighter jets, and flying motorcycles. There are anti-aircraft vehicles, stealth-craft, radar jammers, and DeLoreans. Oh, and heists.

The content that has been added for players to grind for is astronomical. The barrier to success in GTA Online is money – plain and simple. The high-level gear costs millions of in-game dollars, and is required for many of the dlc’s material. There’s no cost to sign up for the new content, other than buying a retail copy of GTA V, but within the game you need to fork over serious cash to even participate.

So, understand this – it’s either grind pissant-level missions for $10-$20 thousand, or pay real money and get up to $8 million in an instant. That may sound absurd, but Rockstar has managed to emulate the status-seeking culture it so effectively satirizes in the game’s presentation. GTA V is a property that has earned $6 billion in revenue since its launch. Even if the game remained at the initial retail price of $60 US, its 95 million copies sold would only equate to $5.7 billion. Today, a new copy of GTA V will set you back $30. Trust me, the microtransactions are transactioning.

And it shows in the game world. Visiting any shop in the game will shock you with the exorbitant pricing. Thousands of dollars for haircuts and other customization options, with newer content being priced higher with every release. Cars that costs over $4 million, a jet-powered assault-motorcycle that costs millions of dollars. Mobile command centers, essential for certain businesses: Millions of dollars.

Working as a CEO or a Club Owner will net you at maximum a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s assuming you have a solid crew to play with and after the cost of running the operations to begin with. But, it is still possible to grind for your millions, even playing solo – which is what I did over the last week.

But, aside from all my griping over microtransactions, it’s apparent that there’s never been more content to explore in the game. There’s more of everything: Missions, races, vehicles, customizables – it’s deeper and more fully realized than it’s ever been, and it keeps getting bigger.


A Tale of Grinding and Griefing

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I hopped back into GTA Online and decided, once and for all, that I would commit myself to the game. I’d spent ages on Reddit and the Fandom Wiki studying survival guides and the payout-algorithms for missions. I did all the requisite homework as to how the game has come to operate in my absence.

Some things changed radically, but one fundamental truth reared its ugly head in every public play-session: Griefers.

For those unfamiliar with griefing, it boils down to this: A particularly deranged and undoubtedly lonely individual sees fit to assert their dominance in a game-world as compensation for the lackluster or embarrassing set of circumstances in which they live in the real world. If you’ve seen the World of Warcraft episode of South Park, griefers are the dude with the wrist-brace, alone in a barren apartment, suffering the cheeto-dust air and guzzling energy drinks until inducing kidney failure.

They come in all shapes and sizes, but their motives and motifs are the same. They have obtained an advantage in a game-world, either by grinding away their days and nights or by paying real-world money via microtransactions, and abuse that “power” on players of lesser status – namely by killing them repeatedly without warrant.

And that’s what I experienced.

I started slowly, booting up GTA Online in an Invite-Only Session – which means I would have the entire world to explore on my own. And that’s what I did to reassimilate myself into the meta. I relearned the cell-phone, the inventory menu, the missions, the driving, and jumped from level 16 to level 45 in a few days of solo-grinding.

And make no mistake, it was grinding. Sweaty armpits, red-eyed grinding. I repossessed cars, sold drugs, fought off rival gangs, and once I had the requisite funding, got a high-rise apartment and better guns and cars. I saved up to unlock VIP work, and would alternate between high-yield missions and VIP missions until I’d saved up my first million, then bought an office building to become a CEO. I’d accomplished so much in only a week, playing off and on and never skimping on vehicle upgrades and weapon modifications. I wanted to do it right. I knew that soon I’d be smuggling guns and drugs and cars, owning nightclubs and a yacht. The allure of all the game had to offer had consumed me, glazed over my eyes and focused my efforts in a single direction – toward wealth.

What a fucking rush. Even playing solo.

But once I was a CEO I knew that I’d have to switch to a public session to participate in all business deals. That’s the catch. In order to truly succeed as a CEO, as the President of a Motorcycle Club, as a NightClub Owner – you have to throw yourself at the mercy of the public and hope like hell that some level 940 player doesn’t insert the noses of his fleet of fighter-jets so far up your ass that your face could melt steel beams.

I threw myself at their mercy. I was wrong to do so.

I’d spent a fairly decent amount of time leveling up, raising my stat-levels and fine-tuning my skill. I was nothing, not even a minor nuisance to the aforementioned level 940 player.

My first mission as a CEO in a public session started well enough. As a CEO you can’t hide yourself from other players, but you can recruit them and pay them to help you complete missions. It’s a paltry sum compared to what they’d earn by killing you outright, but some people – some – are decent in their hearts.

After assembling a small crew of associates to help me deliver a package of illicit goods and turn a profit, Mr. 940 flew in like the angel of death and obliterated us. Time was running out, we had to deliver the package soon or we would fail to make the sale. So we spawned, not far from where we’d died, and 940 made another pass, killing all of us in a bombing run. Several of us tried to fight back, others ran (myself included), but the breadth of his destruction was inescapable.

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The mission was failed after several more attacks.

I’ve since tried a few more missions solo, in public sessions, but have often encountered the same problem. Griefers, enabled by wealth and tools of destruction (dubbed “grief-machines” by the community), make succeeding in the game an almost unbearable nuisance if they cannot be avoided.

I’m teleported back to my time as a solo player in October of 2013, with only a handgun and a few grand to my name. Those that didn’t accrue wealth quickly back then were punished by griefers. Those that would grind the hardest and the longest and obtained the best materials would occasionally devolve into a madman prowling the streets and skies of Los Santos.

So in many ways, no, the game hasn’t changed. There’s more to do, more to see and more to buy, but at its core the game remains a satirical slant on basic American idealism. It’s an incredibly potent capitalism simulator, and an intriguing element of the philosophical debate over which influences which, art or life.


The Verdict

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I’m still hooked. I can’t help it. I want the money and the cars and the yacht. I refuse to pay for them with Shark Cards, out of both principle and the fact I have bills to pay. In many ways I regret not sticking with it over the years, but I’m glad to have so much available right off the bat. It isn’t really that much once you examine it, though. There’s blatant repition and the meta is only as deep as you engage with it – drive, shoot, buy, steal, and watch TV. But what a product for $30.

As it stands as a cultural landmark, GTA V and GTA Online are impossibly well-realized. Rockstar hasn’t had to release a game in five years, surviving exlusively on the sales revenue of GTA V. Microtransactions are now a staple in the games-industry, and that isn’t changing any time soon. The game is proof-positive that the way forward is through both multiplayer-online, and in-game stores, whether we like it or not.

It’s fun, yes. Still fun, I should say. After five years, multiple releases, and continued support, there’s never been more to keep you occuppied or to spend your GTA$ on. But after experiencing heists – which are engaging and lucrative – and suffering the still too-spongey input and wonky car-physics, I’m left asking after all this time the same exact question.

Is this it? After every lost connection, grind session, and rage quit, is it still just cars and guns and money?

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Yes. Wonderfully so. It’s the untamed primal aspects of our collective psyche, blood-soaked and wild-eyed, driving supercars in the slanted shadows of skyscrapers in a flash of violence and sex. It’s both corrupt and pure, and is absolutely worth playing again and again.

Red Dead Redemption II gameplay looks incredible

“Hold on to your butts,” – Tom Arnold, booting up Red Dead Redemption II for the first time.

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Earlier today, Rockstar Games finally released gameplay footage for the feverishly anticipated Red Dead Redemption II, which releases on Xbox One and Playstation 4 October 26, 2018.

That’s two months from now. The balls on this company; skipping E3 and dropping breadcrumbs at us whenever they so please. And we’ll follow them like the carb-addicted waddling ducks that we are. We want this game. So very, very badly.

It’s been over eight years since we first got our spurs jingle-jangling with John Marston, on his quest for personal freedom from wild-west bandits and the nebulous precursor to American federal law enforcement. Now we play as Arthur Morgan, a full-fledged member of the Van der Linde gang, and it looks like Rockstar is hoping to deliver on one promising innovation after the next.

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The gameplay trailer begins in voiceover, with information delivered as if this were a press-conference at say, E3. The lovely voice goes into detail about the game’s setting, the very late 1800’s, and the changes that America was seeing. We hear talk of immigrants and burgeoning townships, and the people set to finally conquer the fronteir-elements of the west. Rockstar Games is trying to one-up their previous outing, Grand Theft Auto V, in terms of sheer scale, variety of locales, and the consequences your actions have within the game world. It’s all to make it feel, well, real.

Enter, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang. Rather than go at the fronteir alone, you’ll be part of a lawless tribe, a clan of bandits who camp out where the law can’t find them. You’ll have the opportunity to do jobs for and with every single member of the gang – if the trailer is to be believed – and there looks to be a lot of them. This is your crime family. And you’ll work with them in myriad ways to traverse the massive new game world.

Which looks stunning, by the way.

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Eat your heart out Skyrim ENB-modders.

We have dense forests, windy mountaintops, muddy towns, turn-of-the-century urban areas, marshes, and sun-soaked deserts. All of which are open for the player to explore. And you’ll need to as the law attempts to quell the last of the wild west bandits such as the Van der Linde gang. Hunt for them, perform tasks, swap stories by the campfire, loot trains and hold up banks – live with them.

As for gameplay, there looks to be marked improvements over Red Dead Redemption. Careful attention seems to have been paid to weapon management and recoil, as well as reloading animations and hand-to-hand combat. Rockstar’s games have suffered in the past with spongey controller input and physics-inhibited engagements.

Coming back is the signature V.A.T.S.-esque Dead-Eye mode, where time slows down to give the player ample time to line up and execute shots. Also returning is a fun mechanic from the San Andreas / Bully era of Rockstar games: Player responses. As Morgan, the player can engage in dialogue with npcs, intimidate them, or placate them. All of which is clearly in the hopes of creating a living, breathing world that the player can interact with and influence to a far greater extent than games like GTA V.

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Player choice makes a comeback, hopefully to greater consequence than other Rockstar games. A woman in the street cries that you killed her cousin, and in another instance you can save or let fall a man dangling form a cliff’s edge. It’s reminiscent of the blue-dot radiant missions from GTA V, where a woman is mugged and you can choose to either take the purse or return it. This, however, seems deeper.

Your basecamp will evolve over time. The more you do in the game, the more options you might have for expansion; resources at your disposal. Neglect your responsibilities to the gang and their may be consequences to your relationships with its members and the success of future missions. The camp needs food, which you can ostensibly hunt for or steal, and money. Early on in the trailer, the lovely voice made mention of multiple locations for camp, though it’s unsure if those locations are unlocked or forced upon the player through story progression.

And for all you sentimental shmucks who loved to keep your horse alive in RDR1, this is the game for you. It looks like the horse will need to be taken care of. You can tame wild ones, like in the first game, but not all horses are the same. Different breeds will have different personalities, some will be afraid where others are not, and you have to earn their trust. It also looks like you can use your trusty steed to carry some of your equipment, which could prove invaluable late in the game when you’re hoarding animal pelts to sell at the general store.

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On top of all the improvements, most noticeable is the game itself. My god, does RDRII look gorgeous. Vistas are enormous and well detailed, varied and alive. Rockstar, for all its oddities in the marketing department, never skips on the polish. I should say, though, especially after seeing this trailer, that in-game lighting has been the true revolution in graphics from this generation to the last. It’s astonishing the things they can do. Try convincing someone back in 1997, fresh off of a Half-Life binge that one day we’d see realistic fog in-game. Their head would explode.

No word yet on a PC release, so those of you with the Pascals, i9 processors, and 4k 144hz monitors may have to sacrifice fidelity for the gamepad. It could release similarly to GTA V – 18 months after the main release – but RDR1 never saw a PC release. I’ll keep you all updated.

Bottom line: The story of Arthur Morgan looks to be a compelling one. With new and familiar faces creating a deep cast of characters to interact with, and what could be one of the greatest game-worlds ever created. I am beyond excited to get my hands on this. This reveal did carry the subtitle, “Part I,” so maybe Rockstar will release another video soon. We won’t have to wait long, anyways, as Red Dead Redemption II releases October 26 of this year.

Load up your saddle-bags with caffeinated beverages and finger-foods, pardner, cuz it’s a-comin’.

Life is Strange 2 finally gets a new trailer; full reveal August 20th

DONTNOD Entertainment has released another teaser trailer for Life is Strange 2, the much-anticipated sequel to their episodic teenaged mystery / romance / drama / tragedy game, Life is Strange, which released back in 2015 to critical and commercial success. It follows the releases of spinoff / prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm, developed by Deck Nine; and DONTNOD’s own The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit – a free, standalone, sort-of prequel to their new game.

Granted, the teaser was released a few days ago, so I’m technically late to the party, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

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All 57 seconds of the teaser are police dash-cam footage, but looking at the heads-up-display in the margins we can see some useful information. The number and name at the top left probably belong to the officer driving the car. Not sure if this is a character for the trailer only, or if we might be looking at a future game cutscene, or if we’re looking at anything remotely resembling the end product.

In the bottom right we have, importantly, the date: October 28, 2016. If DONTNOD is to be believed and Captain Spirit is indeed a primer for LiS2‘s narrative, then the date fits continuity. Captain Spirit takes place around Christmas of 2016, with young boy Chris Eriksen navigating his weekend around the drunkenness of his father. Both still dealing with the trauma of losing Chris’s mother in a car accident several years prior.

So we have our setting confirmed, but this teaser throws a wrench into the swirl of speculation surrounding the ending of Captain Spirit.

*Spoilers for the end of Captain Spirit below*

If you played all the way through the small prequel, which would take you anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes, realistically, then you remember Chris had an obsession with superheroes and would indulge in his own hyperactive imagination in order to one: cope with the loss of his mother; and two: have some damn fun on a lazy day. His imagination manifests into the world around him in creative ways. In one instance he uses his “mind” to turn on his television, only to reveal the remote hidden behind his back.

Well, after all the trauma and drama comes to a head, Chris argues with his father and runs screaming to his treehouse in the yard, only to slip and fall from the top-step in slow-motion. But as he sticks out his hand, his descent is slowed, until he lands gently on the ground.

Ah! Real super powers! We get a little glimpse of this other kid in the neighboring yard, a smile and wave, then cut to black – roll credits. The audience then left to ponder what the hell just happened, and whether or not Chris is imbued with the supernatural.

This new teaser trailer offers an answer. Sort of.

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Officer down. Squad-car down. After seeing something suspicious, the officer hops out of his car to be met with a shockwave of some sort.

And if you take a look at that scenery there, it’s more akin to the rolling hills of LiS’s Arcadia Bay than the middle of the forest, where Chris and his father live. Not to mention that the date in the lower right corner says October – months before the events of Captain Spirit take place. So, this could be someone else with supernatural abilities, or it could be that Chris doesn’t have powers at all.

LiS left the future wide open regarding the ins and outs of who can be, uh, powered. After all, protagonist Max Caulfield received her time-warping abilities from seemingly nowhere.

There isn’t much to the trailer after this. Just a shot of the road, LiS’s signature hand-painted textures fleshing out the asphalt, trees, picket fences, and power-lines flanking the street. I, for one, am hoping this is in-engine footage, because it looks great.

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It’s ominous, for sure, but we’ll find out what happened soon enough. We then see the backpack with the game’s title embroidered across the front – imagery from the first teaser released in June – and a promise from DONTNOD that all will be revealed August 20th, about two weeks from now.

There’s plenty to reveal, as every aspect of the game – aside from Chris, Oregon, and mind-powers returning in some capacity – is a complete mystery.

Life is Strange 2 : Episode One is set to release September 27, 2018.