(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]

[WARNING: SPOILERS INCLUDED IN THIS ARTICLE.]

I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

Gameplay
I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

Conclusions
I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

I haven’t quite finished the game yet, but I’m far enough in I think I can give a good review. Here it is.

First, the ugly. Feel free to skip these minor rants if you’d like.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the historical aspects of them: running around in reconstructions of places I’ve studied but can never truly visit, hearing at least a palatable effort at ancient spoken languages (the Old English of Valhalla being the one I’m most familiar with, as it happens), and living an adventure–if overblown and grandiose–in another time. But I hate the framing device in which all of the Assassin’s Creed story takes place. If there weren’t so many people out there trying to peddle some version of historical belief in ancient aliens (an idea I find to be demeaning to historical peoples and often invoked as a matter of racism), I might not mind it in my fantasy games. But there are, and I do.

I’m also not a huge fan of the use of Templars and Assassins as factions for what is (at least in part) supposed to be a “good versus evil through history” struggle. Both factions are too nuanced and problematic for such use, and employing them in such a way, I think, plays too much into the conspiracy theories about them. From the narrative perspective, it’s sloppy writing to resort to them. From the historical perspective, its dangerous pseudo-revisionism thinly guised by fantasy. At best, their use makes unintended assertions about history that, while placed in a fictional environment that logically has no bearing on actual history, blends enough of the semblance of history into the setting to make that easy to forget. This is only partially side-stepped by the fact that the factions we’re dealing with in this game are the “Hidden Ones” and the “Order of Ancients,” the precursors, respectively, of Assassins and Templars.

So, I try to skip through those parts of AC games (though not all the Order hunting–I’m not a philistine) and focus on the “historical” portion of the games. Thankfully, they historical portions are by far the greater part, and I’ve only really had one cut-scene of the present “Animus” framing device in many hours of play.

Gripe #2: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no singlehanded swords for player use. Given that the early medieval sword (those that fall under Peterson’s typology rather than Oakeshott’s) is an iconic image of the Viking, it is nothing short of a travesty that they are missing from the game. This is exacerbated by several factors: (1) many enemies use a single-handed sword, so the assets and animations are at least partially present, and the “why can’t I just pick one up” question looms large; (2) you are given several ahistorical two-handed swords to use; (3) it’s just such an obvious oversight.

A further comment about the two-handed swords (with the caveat that I’ve mostly been using one in the game): my supposition is that the choice not to include dedicated one-hand swords arose out of a perk that allows you to use large weapons in a single hand (thus pressing the two-handed sword into service as a one-handed sword). Yes, it’s a video-game, but that choice strikes me as dumb anyway. From a mechanical standpoint, it reduces the value of choice of weapons, with the realism sacrificed for the “cool” value a bit over the line for my taste (which I admit is a personal matter). From a historical perspective, it pushes the problem of the lack of historicity even further.

You see, there really weren’t two-handed swords in the 9th century (when the game takes place). There are several reasons: first, the metallurgy of the time was not a precise science by any means, and making a durable blade of two-hander length wasn’t likely enough to succeed to be worth it. Viking blades, like katana, were created through the “pattern-welding” process of steel-making, which relies in turn on “forge welding.” In forge welding, several slats of metal are heated until they begin to fuse and then wrapped and twisted together into a cohesive whole, where the flaws of one original piece of metal are hedged by the presence of the other pieces. Because of the differing carbon content in the finished piece, a blade could be acid-etched to reveal the patterns in the twisted metal. The result is what the Vikings purportedly called “the serpent in the steel” and is often mistaken for Damascus steel.

There are a handful of photos sometimes claimed to be of archeological finds of two-handed swords, but these photos make their argument based on the length of the grip. That itself is problematic for two reasons: (a) these photos are not of complete weapons in useable condition, and it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know how much of the blade’s tang that would extend into the pommel is being touted as space for a hand, which it is not; (b) without full provenance and scholarly descriptions of these blades, the photos aren’t really that helpful anyway. The second and third reason two-handers weren’t common are related to the style and nature of early medieval warfare.

Valhalla never demonstrates this (missing some interesting mechanics, I think), but battles in the 9th century (and surrounding centuries) were largely fought based on the shield wall (as since ancient times with Romans and Greeks before them). For the shield wall to work, your shield is responsible for protecting part of your body, but also part of the body of the man standing beside you. That means that everyone in the rank needs to carry a shield. That leaves no place for two-handed swords.

There are anecdotes about brave warriors moving in front of their shield wall, exposing themselves and demonstrating that bravery, while throwing spears, collecting the gear of a fallen enemy, or undertaking other exploits, but it is the fact that this is extraordinary behavior, not common behavior, that makes these descriptions part of sagas (with parallels in Celtic literature and probable other cultures’ tales of the same period).

The two-handed sword largely (but not solely) developed in the high and late middle ages for a single reason–plate armor. The reliability of plate armor meant that a shield became unnecessary as a weapon of war, and that new weapons were needed to confront the threat. The acute-pointed, two-handed blades of the late 14th and the 15th century were a response to changes in armor, allowing a weapon that could be “half-sworded” to find the chinks in an opponent’s plate at close range and that could be wielded with greater speed, power and precision generally.

There is debate (and perhaps some consensus that the answer is “no”) as to whether a single-handed sword can break through the riveted maille used by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it doesn’t, though the force exerted by a blade hitting mail can break bone and cause significant internal injury (of course, a padded gambeson was worn under mail to help resist this). Regardless, the single-handed sword (as well as spears and axes) where largely seen as sufficient to address this problem (or the metallurgy issue trumped all in preventing two-handed swords).

Okay, enough of that.

My third issue really has nothing to do with the game proper, so I’ll keep it short. I am concern about the idea of the “modern Viking.” I’m seeing an increase of clothing brands using that kind of terminology (on them or in advertising) in soliciting buyers in the tactically-minded, survivalist, or militia-type categories. This disturbs me because: (1) Vikings were not people to be emulated; (2) our society has no place for the kind of behavior for which Vikings are seemingly idealized; and (3) identifying oneself in such a way (except for a very small minority of people, perhaps) is not realistic. Even where it may be realistic, I’m not sure that it’s healthy. It’s essentially saying “I’m someone who thinks violence is the best answer.” I cannot disagree more. Alright, that’s done and done.

Now, what do I actually think about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? A few things, in fact. Is it fun? Yes. Is there a lot of content to play through if you want it? Yes. Is it a beautiful game? Yes. If you liked AC Origins or AC Odyssey will you enjoy it? Absolutely.

All of that said, I have some reservations about Valhalla as an “Assassin’s Creed” game. This game has added some great elements to enhance the Viking side of things, but I think that this comes at the cost of the “Assassin’s Creed” heritage. The Raiding mechanic (in which your longboat crew assists you in attacking and pillaging monasteries to steal supplies and materials used to build and enhance your own settlement) is fun and, at least on a stereotypical level, emblematic of our ideas of Vikings. Likewise, references to holmgangs, weregilds and althings help immerse one in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The reliance on tales of Ragnar Lodhbrok may lean too heavily on the recent History Channel (which, ironically, isn’t usually that great in its historicism, preferring in both documentary and fictional programming to serve entertainment over accuracy).

As an admission, I’m playing on “Normal” difficulty. I tell myself that this is because I don’t want to devote the additional time required to play at a harder difficulty level, but you’re free to substitute whatever rationale or psychology you’d like. On normal difficulty, there quickly becomes little reason to resort to stealth, as you become powerful enough to wade into even the most heavily-guarded fortresses and take out everyone without breaking a sweat. Very Viking saga, yes, but not very assassin-y.

Overall, the game has a lot more in common for me with the Witcher 3 (although less well-written, less complex, and generally less interesting than my travels with Geralt) than with the early AC games. Gone are the desperate roof-top escapes from guardsman in a world where everyone is inexplicably a parkour master. Gone are the hit-and-run tactics. Gone is the aching for the time when you unlock the second hidden blade to take out those pesky pairs of door guards. Do I really miss those things? I miss the Florence of AC 2 and the pirate shenanigans of Black Flag, but I’m not sure I miss the stealth gameplay as a whole. It is, though, notably deficient. Again, a higher difficult mode may sufficiently remediate that problem–at the expense of no longer feeling like a powerful Viking warrior in a saga. But, given my complaints about historical accuracy above, maybe I’m just not someone easy to please, and the fault lies more with me with the game. As you know from my last review, I just came off of playing Watch Dogs: Legion, so maybe I’ve been stealth game-played out for little while. Or maybe that’s just not my style of game, much as I’d like to think it is.

But there is an aspect of the game that leaves all of the rest by the wayside and has kept me coming back to sink hour after hour into it: the setting itself. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you know that my own historical study has more to do with the late medieval and early-modern periods than the time of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. But I took a semester of Old English in grad school; I’ve read Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, some of the sagas and the Norse mythologies. I know enough not to think of the 9th century as a “dark age.”

As with both Origins and Odyssey, the ways in which the culture, art and architecture of the setting are brought to life amaze me and put me in awe. In addition to the pure pleasure of dwelling in the setting for a while–what I’d argue is the game’s biggest draw–it’s actually helped me discover and think about some flaws in my own historical conceptions.

Some of these are part of our general culture, I think–our movies and books tend to conflate the material culture of the late medieval–knights in shining (plate) armor, palace-like fairy-tale castles, etc.–with oversimplified cultural concepts derived more from the late Viking age and early medieval.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in parallel to playing Valhalla, I spend some time re-reading through The One Ring roleplaying game books (impressed again at how well this system in particular captures the feel of Tolkien’s world without layering on other fantasy ideas and fandoms) and watching the Hobbit trilogy with K (we also got halfway through LotR, but some unexpected demands–mostly work in my case and football in hers–prevented the completion of the second trilogy). They reminded me how much Tolkien’s world should be conceptualized in light of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than later medieval ideas. The armored characters should be in maille, not plate, wielding Carolingian or Viking-style weapons rather than later-medieval ones. The Rohirrim embody the Anglo-Saxon feel within the films fairly directly (aside from having stirrups and cavalry), but that aesthetic, or riffs upon it, should extend far further. I wonder whether and hope that the impending Lord of the Rings reboot will follow that tack.

Since the films released, Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, relying as it does on elements of Kallervo from the Kalevala in the story of Turin Turambar, serves as a reminder that Middle-Earth belongs in the early-medieval more than the late in terms of material culture and style.

That, ultimately, is what I’ve come to love about AC Valhalla: that it makes me feel a nostalgia for a period of time I’ve discovered that I find far more enthralling and fascinating than I previously knew. I guess I’m going to have to start looking for a Great Course on the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, or go back to reading Tolkien and Norse sagas.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of review you were looking for–with its diatribes and digressions, that’s perfectly understandable. But I’d like to conclude by saying that I think the praise I’ve given here, that the game immerses one in an amazing historical milieu, is about the best I can give. Except that, if you haven’t played The Witcher 3, for God’s sake, go play that first. Then you can play Valhalla. On the other hand, if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla makes for an easy entry point, if one that won’t prepare you for the early titles in the series.

Review: Watch Dogs: Legion – Good Timing?

I picked up Watch Dogs: Legion on something of a whim, if I’m to be honest. I played the first one but passed on the second. What piqued my interest and put me over the edge was the fact that there is no “chosen one” central character and that you recruit your resistance against the forces that have overtaken near-future London from the general populace.

I probably spent as much time recruiting characters to DedSec as I did actually playing through the story. Certainly, I devoted much more time to recruitment than I did to side missions–about halfway through the game I decided I just wasn’t interested enough to spend that much time playing.

The situation in London is bleak at the beginning of the game; a terrorist group calling itself Zero-Day (or maybe lead by someone calling themself Zero-Day, this wasn’t quite clear to me) uses a spate of synchronized bombings across London to allow the city to largely turn over authority to a private military company, ironically named Albion. At least it’s leader isn’t named “Arthur.”

This puts London in a condition that represents some of my worst fears for the direction the U.S. is headed. I should mention that my father lived outside of London for about two years while I was in high school, so I spent a good deal of time in the city and, being too young to drive in the States, I learned to navigate the Tube long before I learned how to navigate Houston’s congested highways. So, in my mind, there’s a personal link between London and my own experience that perhaps made its familiar places (I always knew I’d gotten myself lost in the West End when I found myself walking between the adult-themed shops of Soho) feel like a strong link to my present concerns.

If you’d like it laid out for you, here are some of the aspects of the collapse of London’s (the country as a whole is rarely mentioned) democracy in the game: Albion patrols the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with the kit expected of a warfighter, not a peace officer (blurred as that line is in the U.S. right now). Normal people are stopped and harassed as the already-prevalent camera system and the personal data captured by our smart devices turn London into a surveillance state. The vestiges of British democracy–the Home Office, the Parliament, etc., still exist, but only to provide cover for the authoritarian leanings of those really pulling the strings (the game explains that Parliament has been suspended and that the Queen–no indication of which Queen that is, mind you–has not been seen for some time since the bombings). Albion is disappearing its detractors left and right, the news stories that come up in your feed are often manipulated propaganda rather than reporting with integrity, and the current administration has formed unofficial alliances with the city’s largest criminal organization to facilitate its ends.

This is the situation in which your resistance hacker collective is formed. In today’s day and age–not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Britain as well, where the specter of conservatism dangerously flirting with fascism and/or populism raises its frightening head as well–there is a definite catharsis to be had for players needing to sublimate the angst they feel at the current political climate into imaginary action. I count myself among those players.

That’s why the recruitment missions feel so powerful–the need to bring in allies of similar mindset, who confirm and justify your beliefs that there’s something wrong with the current situation that calls for action, even of the direct and aggressive variety–is something many of us feel right now, whether or not that’s a reasonable mindset.

There are plenty of reviews talking about how cool it is to search out the various abilities (or weapons) different characters have as you build your team; I’ll acknowledge that aspect of the system but not dwell on it.

I will mention that the game has an option for permadeath for your operatives, and I can’t imagine playing the game without this option. The consequences, the drama of recruitment and selection of a particular character, make the whole system of having no single protagonist worth it; if you can’t lose the characters you recruit, that system loses much of its narrative weight. I lost about a half-dozen characters in my playthrough, most of them being “specialist” operatives with better skills and equipment than the average recruit: I lost an anarchist (one of the best character “classes” if you’re focusing on less-lethal tactics), a spy (my particular favorite character), a professional hitman (I thought that an amateur hitman was just a murderer, but, lo and behold, I did later recruit an “amateur hitman”), a deputy director of the Met, and a few others. Their losses–especially in otherwise successful story missions–were keenly felt, and that was the point, wasn’t it?

Otherwise, the gameplay was nothing unexpected for a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/Etc.-style of game. Less free-running and more hacking, but otherwise in line with expectations. Admittedly, I played the game on “normal” difficulty which, despite my losses, seemed easier than I should have selected for optimal enjoyment. If you liked the previous Watch Dog games, you’ll like the way this one plays.

Ultimately, the game’s narrative was less satisfying than I’d initially expected. I called the nature of Zero-Day a mile away, and the plot points of the missions hit a little too hard on the tropes and cliches of the genre: the THEMIS idea essentially rehashed Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the Skye Larson plot played out the typical mad scientist trope (while sidestepping all of the actually-interesting philosophical and practical issues of mind-uploading by making her a monster), and Mary Kelley played an unnuanced criminal mastermind the likes of which have starred in many a poor detective story. The most emotional point of the story’s ending is immediately undone after the credits roll. Part of me liked that, but it was a cheap happiness to be sure.

Fortunately, the nature of the game itself, rather than the plot, brought some nuance with it. As with Watch Dogs 2 (so I’m told), the game pushes you toward a less-lethal approach to combat. You can only unlock less-lethal weapons for your characters (some recruits come with lethal weapons, but that’s the only way to get them) and even the “takedown” animations that show a neck being broken or the hitman garroting a victim to death are revealed to be less lethal attacks in the game’s treatment of them.

As a brief digression, I found the distribution of lethal weapons on recruitable characters–especially in London–to be ridiculous. It’s at least plausible that the Spy has a silenced pistol, or that the Professional Hitman comes with a pistol and assault rifle, but that’s not the half of it.

One of the first people I passed in the game was a “Tourist” with an M249 light machine gun. I chalked it up to satire of Americans, but then I also added to my potential recruits list a Chef with the same weapon. And then a University Researcher with a silenced pistol. As it turned out the number of people casually packing in dystopian London–heavy weapons no less–mystified.

But that aside, the game’s push toward less-lethal weapons made me continually ask myself about the morality of using lethal weapons in the fight. And this is particularly where I’d wished I’d set the difficulty to a higher level. As it stood, there where many missions where I could send in a Professional Hitman and run-and-gun my way through Albion personnel, stopping shooting to hack only when necessary. I wished that the difficulty had been higher so that the hero fantasy of blasting one’s way through faceless neo-fascist bad guys without a care in the world might have been less accessible, along with all of its accompanying problems. But, ignoring the moral question within the game, I continued to ponder the point at which armed resistance becomes an acceptable approach–it is never a “good” approach. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think violence can ever truly overcome evil–only delay it–and that thought reverberated for me as I confronted my programmed “enemies.”

It was certainly the fact that the setting of the game resonated with current fears and concerns about the future of the U.S. that led me to all of these thoughts, and it was morality and politics that traveled through my brain while playing the game far more than any consideration of privacy or technology issues. Even now, as I write this review, I’m continually refreshing the AP’s report on 2020 election results, full of some hope for the presidential results but mostly dread at the stark divide in my nation, the number of people who seem to value their own economic prosperity (manufactured as that may be) over ideas of democracy, justice, equality, or any of the other things I see as the ideals that justify the messiness and difficulty of our political system.

I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or at least before I’m too far behind. I’ll conclude with this: I enjoyed playing through Watch Dogs: Legion, but it was far from an amazing experience. More important, I came away from this game wondering (in all sense of the word) how the cyberpunk stories and games of my youth seemed to be more prophetic year after year. As much as I enjoy playing games like Shadowrun, or Deus Ex, or Watch Dogs, that’s not a direction I would consciously chose. Which, in turn, made me a little embarrassed to play this game after all, feeling like I was turning my angst to video games rather than getting “out there” and doing something that might help incite meaningful change in the world. Do I feel like that’s even possible, or have I turned to a game like this because I’m beginning to feel powerless? Or is the coincidence of this game’s release with the 2020 election simply a serendipitous synchronicity of memes and fears as to put me in existential angst?

I don’t think any of that was what Watch Dogs’ creators intended it to be. But for me, that was my Watch Dogs: Legion: a self-inflicted reverie about my place in and responsibilities to the world. As I look back at this article, weird as it turned out to be, I think it reflects the course of my experience with the game–a journey from light-hearted escapism into contemplating much tougher questions and concepts. Was that worth my sixty bucks? Maybe.

Review: Fallout 76: A Good Start

It seems that I’ve started most of my recent reviews this way, but the Fallout universe has a special place in my heart. I came of age in the late 90’s, and isometric RPGs were my video game of choice (surprised?).

I spent countless hours playing and replaying Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: Tactics (I even played Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, despite its many flaws). I lamented when the “Van Buren” project was cancelled and rejoiced when Bethesda announced Fallout 3. The nostalgia factor and fanboyness runs high with this title, so be warned.

And here we are now with a new offering in the Fallout universe, one that divurges greatly from that to which we’ve become accustomed. Multiplayer. Is it the Holy Grail of Fallout gaming, a despicable money-grab by Bethesda in recycling the core of Fallout 4, or something about which we should feel a little bit less extreme and a little more ambivalent?

Multiplayer is a strange thing for me. As an introvert, I’m far more inclined to adventure by my sullen self than to link up with some randos who do or say things that do not recommend themselves to further association. The anonymity of the internet, and multiplayer games, draws out the worst in people. I just don’t have time for that in my life.

On the other hand, playing video games with people I know and have built relationships with away from the glow of the LEDs is something I very much enjoy. In this hectic world, online gaming is sometimes how I best keep up with certain friends–we play and we converse while we play. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of those long telephone calls I used to have in high school, before texting made such obsolete for high-schoolers.

I love open world video games and the hours of exploration that come with them–truth be told, that’s probably my favorite aspect of video games altogether, though at any other moment in time I might say that it’s strong and meaningful narrative, a well-crafted story.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending hours walking through the West Virginia wasteland as a lone wanderer and as part of a team with my friends–even a complete four-person team. None of us have had the time to hit the “end-game” activities yet, and I’m not fully certain what they are at this point. Did I mention I lived in West Virginia? Only for about two years when I was in kindergarten and first grade, so my memories of that part of my life are fragmented and vague, but this perhaps adds another touchpoint for me.

Okay, background to review complete. Now on to what you really came here for:

The Good

Fallout 76 is like getting a whole ‘nother Fallout 4 worth of locations to explore. That alone piques my interest.

There are new enemies (Mole Miners, Radtoads, Gulpers, the Scorched, and more), new weapons (my favorite for its weirdness is the “death tambo,” a tamborine with the cymbals replaced with blades) and a greatly-expanded crafting system.

The use of SPECIAL and hot-swappable Perks is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of different character builds–both within one character and those that necessitate running multiple characters for different SPECIAL arrays. The theorycrafting of character builds fascinates me in Fallout 76, much moreso than any other MMO-style game I’ve played.

Fallout 76 is, by default, like “Survival Mode” in previous Fallout titles. Not only must you manage your health and radiation levels, but you must manage hunger and thirst, disease and mutations! Your gear deteriorates relatively quickly, so keeping things maintained and finding plans to build new equipment or CAMP (the mobile equivalent of a settlement) items gives the player a lot to do without even interfacing with the quests. These needs create emergent narrative, the kinds of stories that begin, “So no shit, there I was, knee-deep in spent brass and hand -grenade pins, having drunk my last purified water and then a Deathclaw shows up.” I love that, even if no one else wants to hear my stories–especially my wife.

The consequences of dying are scaled well–you lose the junk you’ve been carrying but not all of the other precious items you’ve spent so much time finding or building. If you’re fast enough (or there are no other players around), you can return to the site of your death (if you dare) and retrieve these parts. There’s a cost, sometimes fairly steep, but not one that makes you want to ragequit anytime you die. Good job on this balance, Bethesda, that’s not an easy thing.

Another well-thought out idea is that you can change the sex and appearance of your character at any time. A minor thing for some, but a great convenience for those who may want to change up their character’s visuals every so often.

The Bad

If you’re reading reviews of Fallout 76, you’ve likely come across the complaint that it “feels empty.” I think that that’s a misleading statement (there’s another Location to scavange over every crag and just a short ways down every road), but it’s true that Bethesda’s choice not to include human NPCs in the game is a massive let-down. The self-conscious weirdness of characters in Fallout is one of the main draws, and finding the corpses of these characters and listening to holotapes to give you their background just doesn’t match encountering and dealing with the characters in life.

Yes, this simplifies a number of things for the designers: there’s no need to craft dialogue trees, to manage faction reputation, to deal with conflicting narratives and closing off certain quests to certain players, etc. But it misses one of the best parts of Fallout.

At least Bethesda had the good sense to write the narrative around this concept–there is a reason everyone in West Virginia is dead. But the idea that this approach accentuates player importance by making every living human you encounter a PC just doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it deprives players of a sense of agency. There’s no one to really save, no cause or ideal to support, no settlement or character to get attached to (as much as is psychologically healthy for a fictional character, I suppose). There’s no choice between the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel or the Enclave or the Institute. There’s no choice of dialogue options. There are choices in branching quest lines. There are no choices.

As with any online game, you also have to deal with the jerk gamers on occasion–and they are legion. I’ve gotten into several PVP situations and had about half of them also involve the other player sending me insulting messages over Xbox live and other assorted jackassery. That is, I suppose, unavoidable.

The Ugly

Bethesda stubbornly resists logical physics in a number of ways. No, I don’t mean the super-sciency stuff, I can suspend disbelief for that. But despite many games in this series, Bethesda still thinks the average rifle weighs about 20 pounds (unless the weight units are not pounds–I’m honestly not sure). This is somewhat mitigated by the starting carry weight without penalty being 150 lbs (and Perks that allow certain items to be reduced in weight by up to 90%), but the numbers in weights across the board still bother me. I’m trying to remember back to Skyrim about whether this applies to their concept of medieval weapons as well (a real two-handed sword should weigh between about 3 and 4 pounds–though the massive zweihander could weigh 8 or 9, that’s a very specialized weapon for a very particular purpose and was used in the fashion of a spear as much as a sword).

There are a number of bugs in the game, some leading to program crashes, others causing questlines not to advance, items to suddenly disappear or other minor but infuriating issues. I have not found a glitch that restarting the program (or just logging out and back in) hasn’t fixed.

Hope for the Future

Bethesda has indicated that they intend to support Fallout 76 for the long haul. What exactly that means is unclear, but I assume that it means something like Destiny 2–at least a few years of support with new DLC quarterly or so.

If that’s truly the case, Fallout 76 could have legs–provided that Bethesda has realized that it needs to add human NPCs and everything that comes with that (factions, etc.). If not, it’ll be fun while it lasts; maybe it will tide me over until Fallout 5.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

Review: Far Cry 5: No There There

As a writer of both fiction and theology, the premise of the latest Far Cry game (creatively entitled “Far Cry 5”) quickly piqued my interest. Where the previous games in the series played upon the otherness of exotic locales, the latest installment brings the action close to home, setting us in (fictitious, though the geography is based on real geography in the southwest corner of the state) Hope County, Montana, a strange community of traditional heartland folks, stereotypical “preppers”–and a mysterious and dangerous cult calling itself the “Project at Eden’s Gate.”

The premise of such a location is full of narrative possibility, particularly in the current political and religious background of America. Here are some of the things I hoped to find within the game:

  1. Some investigation of the interplay between certain types of Christian fundamentalism and the Prepper mentality. Though entirely unscientific, my own experience with Prepper culture (some of which is through personal encounters, but most of which is through the admittedly not-entirely-trustworthy media of the internet and reality TV) seems to indicate a strong correlation between pre-millennial dispensational theology and Prepper culture. On the more disturbing end are those with even more extreme spiritually-based conspiracy theories that create within them the fears that lead to prepping for the end-times. Here, I should mention an unsettlingly-common belief that demons or fallen angels have infiltrated American government (and/or foreign governments) and are purposefully driving us to apocalypse. Yikes! This whole subject merits a post of its own, I think, but that’s for another time.
  2. Narrative that deals with the interplay between Trumpism and Christianity–the ways in which Trumpism distorts Christianity into a self-justifying parody of itself and the ways in which more honest Christianity defies the values of Trump and his compatriots.
  3. Tension between cult beliefs and traditional Christian beliefs.

Was I naive to expect any of these things? Of course I was. On the other hand, as video games are pushing into a more maintsream and respectable narrative medium, we should be expecting our games to push the envelope, to make philosophical arguments and investigate both theological ideas and political ones. Spec Ops: The Line is an excellent example of a game that’s already done this, as are the Bioshock series (is there much that’s more interesting than a well-crafted video game that investigates a philosophical system like Rand’s Objectivism?) and games like Heavy Rain.

And to be fair, the game starts off in a misleadingly promissing way for my hopes. You play as a rookie deputy sheriff in Hope County, Montana; the game starts with you in a helicopter as part of a joint sheriff’s office and federal agent task force to arrest Joseph Seed, the “father” and prophet of the Project at Eden’s Gate. Walking through the Eden’s Gate compound, surrounded by tense believers with automatic rifles, knowing what you’re there to do creates a great dramatic moment with which to launch a story.

It gets better. You approach Joseph Seed to arrest him, and he does not resist. He does tell you that God will not let you take him. Exactly what you’d expect a cult leader to say. But his prophecy becomes reality. As you return to the helicopter and it attempts to take off, fanatical cultists swarm the vehicle, with some even throwing themselves into the rotor to cause the chopper to crash. Joseph leaves the wreck remarkably unscathed and with the obligatory, “I told you so.”

That’s where the narrative peaks, unfortunately–right when it poses the following fascinating questions:

  1. Was it divine intervention that Joseph Seed walked away from the crash, or was it simply fanatical human action combined with coincidence and luck? This search for an understanding of whether some felt but unprovable synchronicity lurking behind human events is real or merely imagined is a fundamental existentional question.
  2. As a corrollary to the first, is Joseph Seed right? Is he a prophet? Of course, we never really get a clear view of the theology of Eden’s Gate, so this question falls quickly by the wayside.
  3. Has America, through its recent history, culture and politics created a landscape ripe for the likes of extremist cults?
  4. What do you do when faced with a violent cult using the trappings of Christianity but promoting patently non-Christian courses of action (Eden’s Gate are murderers, thieves, abusers, drug pushers, kidnappers and a whole slew of things that you’d think would give some of its members pause, but this is never really addressed). Is violence a legitimate means for the Christian to resist evil being done in the name of Christ (though I don’t think that Joseph actually ever mentions or alludes to Jesus in the game if I remember correctly). Under what circumstances? Can a cult like this really be taken down by violence, when the expectation of violence and aggression from external sources feeds directly into their eschatological expectations?

Instead, we are treated with a two-dimensional bad guy, a stereotype onto which the elements of religiosity have been crudely grafted. Joseph Seed is made to look distinctly like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, complete with 90’s-style yellow-tinted aviator glasses. He quotes (paraphrases, really) the Book of Revelations, but never mentions any other part of the Bible and never makes any concrete theological assertion–only claiming that the end is coming and people must repent and be cleansed of their sin. By sin, he apparently means the extra-biblical “seven deadlies.” One minor caveat to this–the signboard of the church in Fall’s End (the one non-Eden’s Gate church in the game) does have a reference to a verse (but not the text of the verse) in Jeremiah that warns to beware of false prophets.

The game sends you on a blood-soaked path of murderous resistance to Eden’s Gate without sufficient self-awarness to question what that really means, underlining it only with a repeated chorus of “America, Fuck Yeah!” The other characters in the story are likewise various survivalist and prepper stereotypes that bleed into a muddy morass that deprives the game of any real humanity.

And the cultists aren’t really even that convincing. Turns out, it’s drugs, not beliefs, that create the fanaticism of the “PEGgies,” as the game calls them. The enemies are dehumanized and the bodies in your wake only a tally of progress. This may be lamentably American, and perhaps that disturbed me most about the game (kudos to the writers and designers for that if it was intentional and not a sad symptom of our culture).

If you came to this post looking for a review of what gameplay is like, I’ll have to direct you elsewhere, as there are already a plethora of reviews to handle that. But I will admit that, if you like the previous Far Cry games, you will enjoy playing Far Cry 5. It’s the “theme-park” experience to be expected in this line of games and it does have a humor and gameplay style deep enough to entertain. I played through the entire campaign and–so long as I didn’t think about it too much–enjoyed it.

But I finished the game disappointed, as is common when some narrative promises us great ideas and interesting story in the previews but fails to adequately exploit and explore those ideas in the actual doing of the thing. In my struggle to ideologically bolster the lackluster storytelling, I even watched (yesterday) the half-hour movie teaser that Ubisoft made for the game (it’s on Amazon Video). This did nothing for me (though I did like the one they put out for The Division some time back).

And maybe that’s the greatest commentary about current culture to get from this game, whether the creators made the commentary intentionally or just happen to magnify this running theme. And that’s the idea that much of American Christianity is really only the cultural stylings of the faith appended to ideas that may be “American” but almost certainly aren’t Christian–the idea that Christianity is a style of doing things rather than a substantive approach to existence. Then again, that could be a concern of mine fully projected onto the game in a desperate attempt to create some meaning where I could find none.

That ultimate emptiness and sense of unfulfilment was all that remained after I finished the game and when I think back on the hours I spent playing it–a great opportunity lost by the writers, either because they did not understand the subject matter well enough to intelligently comment on it while coopting the trappings for the style of their game or because they opted not to make any particular commentary for fear of hurting sales. That’s understandable in a commercial sense, and money often influences all forms of art. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a cop-out anyway.

So, for the TL;DR (I know, it should be at the beginning, not the end): Far Cry 5, a game to play for mindless fun and a few cheap laughs, but don’t expect any depth. There is no there there.

For the Love of the Game: Sea of Thieves (Mini) Review

I love to sail, but I have few opportunities to do so. K’s not a fan, and I do not own a sailboat. We probably live close enough to water where I could rent a sailboat, but it’s something I’ve never really thought to do (though I’m thinking about it now!).

As you well know, I also like to play video games. I have to admit, though, that this is a guilty pleasure. Most of the time I’m playing games–though I’m enjoying that time–I wish I was doing something more productive (like writing). Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I recognize I’m often falling victim to the addiction cycle purposefully designed into modern games–do repetitive acts to be rewarded with more prestigious (but ultimately meaningless) rewards for your efforts.

This is what I like about Sea of Thieves. It has the typical multiplayer online game addiction cycle, but it’s just not that addicting. The game content is relatively limited and will certainly need to be expanded for the game to survive (I have some recommendations if Microsoft or Rare would only ask), but for now, I think it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit because I find only one good reason to play the game: because you enjoy it.

The “analog” feel of the game is its strongest point. Want to read a map? You have to hold it up to your face and read it. Need to count paces to buried treasure? Hold up your compass to count your steps. Need to sail the ship? You need to work the anchor, the wheel the length of the sails and their angle to the wind. I certainly wouldn’t call the physics perfect, but it provides enough realism that you can gain advantage when attacking another ship by holding the wind gauge, can use the anchor to execute a bootlegger turn, can (and sometimes must) effectively tack into the wind and generally get the feel for sailing.

If your ship takes damage, you’ll need to get out your wooden planks to patch the hull, and then you’ll need to get out your trusty bucket to bail out water.

Although I’ve been completing “voyages” (the games version of missions or quests), it has been the enjoyment of sailing, of searching for treasure, of moving around the ship to do all the things that must be done to effectively sail or fight, that keeps me coming back to the game.

I’ve been a big fan of the game “Artemis,” in which you and friends operate the various stations of a Star Trek-like spaceship to accomplish missions (mostly defending space stations and destroying enemy ships). I love the necessary cooperation of that game, and Sea of Thieves hits that sweet spot in a more polished game. Working with my friends to effectively sail a galleon has been great fun and–sometimes–realistically frustrating.

It’s the game for the game’s sake that is so refreshing. Play of the game is player-driven and somewhat open-ended. Will this keep me coming back over the long term? I don’t know, but I hope the immersive style of the game that begs you to play just to play becomes a future trend in games as a whole.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Playing at History (an early review).

I backed Kingdom Come (KC:D) a long time ago–maybe more than two years. An open-world historical medieval RPG? Yes, please! Just the sort of thing that pulls at the desires of a person whose favorite video game is the Witcher 3 and who, for a time, was a professional student of the medieval.

There was, of course, a long roller-coaster of development that followed–teasers, delays, the realization that my computer wouldn’t be able to run the game, the revelation that it would be released on console and so my computer didn’t matter, etc., etc.

Finally, it arrived this week, and I’ve spent some significant time becoming immersed in the Bohemia of 1403. With the caveat that I’m nowhere near finished with this game, this is what I have to report to the present:

If you are the type of person who plays Fallout and Skyrim on survival mode, this game will appeal to you. You must sleep and eat. Your food rots over time, and spoilt food will make you sick. Eat too much and you’ll be sluggish. Take an injury (whether in combat or not!) and you might begin to bleed. Fix it with a bandage quickly or prepare to die. Keep your weapons and armor in good repair or they’ll become ineffective. Get your clothes bloody or dirty and people will notice–and they don’t take you as seriously when they do. Carry weights are (relatively) realistic, and you improve your skills by using them–not easy to do when it comes to using a sword.

The game is relatively “on rails” for the first few hours of play–while you can do your own thing for long whiles at a time, only advancing the main quest will get you to the point where you can seriously begin to play the game. It’s a slow start that left me, at first, with an unfavorable impression of how gameplay with develop that is still being dispelled as I move through the game.

So far, the game doesn’t feel as “open world” as I had hoped. It is true that there are sidequests (and perhaps I just haven’t discovered many of them yet) and you can easily spend hours just “living” in the medieval world–practicing a trade, acting as a merchant, traveling and fighting bandits, etc. In a certain way, I think you could ignore the quests altogether and simply view the game as a “medieval emulator.”

Further, there seems to be an intimation that the world will be expanded and even more opportunities for self-directed tasks will become available as the game progresses. Despite my several hours of play, I’m sure that I just have no gotten that far into the story yet.

And that main story is, at least, an interesting one. Set within a discrete historical event–King Sigismund of Hungary’s invasion of Bohemia on “behalf” of his half-brother King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”), who Sigismund had kidnapped, you are thrust into the world as the son of a blacksmith and the vassal of a lord loyal to Wenceslaus and targeted by Sigimunds’ invading army.

The attitudes and motivations of the characters seem deep. You get the expected behavior of some nobility toward the peasantry (particularly in Sir Hans), but this is never flat or without nuance:you earn the friendship and respect of Sir Hans as the story progresses and he is–in private at least–willing to admit his own faults and the shortcomings of his behavior. The struggle between adherence to duty and ideals when faced with the grim necessities of the day plays out on multiple levels, both personal and political. No assumption of medieval life is treated as straightforward, with a range of different lifestyles and living situations that more accurately portrays the era in a way we often miss in movies, dry history books and, especially, fantasy roleplaying, where the “medieval” is more often a pastiche or a facade than an actual description of setting.

Despite this, at least as far as I’ve played, the real joy of the game is in the way it immerses you into the historical world with a sense of realism and reasonableness. For instance, fighting several poorly armed bandits by yourself is difficult; attacking multiple well-armed or well-trained enemies (to say nothing of those who are both) is near suicidal. Unless you use tricks, like stealth, surprise and ambush, weakening the enemy with ranged weapons, hit and run tactics and any other approach that generally makes the fight less fair. This was the reality of the middle ages, just as it is today–no matter how good you are, fights are brutal and deadly, and fighting honorably will likely just get you killed.

Each fight is, however, very interesting. As a student of historical medieval martial arts myself, as both scholar (my Master’s Thesis was entitled “Shakespeare, the Sword and Self-fashioning”) and a martial artist (mostly with the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts or ARMA), I’m especially keen on in-game fighting that captures something of the speed, grace and precision of actual swordplay–something very difficult to do in a video-game because of the infinite array of techniques, maneuvers and responses in combat with a blade. KC:D does the best I’ve seen yet, with the combat not only accounting for the directionality of attacks, but incorporating parries, feints, grappling, counter-attacks and animations that perfectly capture some of the techniques used. This is no clumsy hack-and-slash; the only video game that has even come close to this kind of swordplay was Mount & Blade (whose new edition should be out later this year). While satisfying, this also means that combat is difficult and partially based upon your own twitchy-skill. It should be noted that there is only one difficulty mode for the game (so far as I’ve discovered): realistic.

As a side note, I am note a fan of the Dark Souls games. I just feel that should be said when I communicate how much I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the game.

For the first few hours of the game, I was very frustrated by the save system. The game automatically saves when you sleep, complete an important quest step, or drink Saviour Schnapps. Saviour Schnapps is expensive, takes up inventory space, and can get you drink. At the beginning, when your skills are low and the game is at its most difficult, you will die a lot and have to replay moderate sections of the game (at least I did). As I progressed into the game and got into the mindset, I actually began to enjoy the save system. In a game that strives for immersion and realism, this save system reinforces these without becoming full-on rogue-like. You cannot get lucky for a minimal gain, save, and replay until you get the next minimal gain and save again. Three men in armor down that path? Best just to go a different way. This goes a long way into breaking the hero mentality we usually carry with us into video games; I particularly respect that.

This is not to say that playing heroic (or superheroic) characters in games is not appropriate, good design, or fulfilling–it certainly can be. But the occasional game that makes us live in an alternate world as a regular person–even one who may be an exceptional fighter (though still clearly mortal) provides a truly rewarding exception as well. In some sense, I do wish the game had some aspect of the fantastic to it, but that’s really only because I’m such a fan of fantasy. Realistically (and more sensibly), it’s great to see such an enjoyable game and interesting world and narrative created without any need to resort to the “unrealistic.”

As is probably indicated by the amount of words I’ve dedicated to this preemptive review, I’m really enjoying this game. If you’re willing to devote the time to acclimate to this game’s approach to play–and you’re willing to accept the design principles on which the game was built–I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

In some ways, at its heart, this game is a history lesson you play–one about everyday living in the medieval world.

Destiny 2: A Horror Story in Reverse

I’d fought my way through waves of countless enemies, scaled strange landscapes and tracked down my quarry, a Fallen Captain supported by underlings, powerful Servitors and other baddies all determined to end me.

Getting to the point where I’d finally cornered my prey and he could no longer flee had cost me dearly–I had no ammunition for my Power weapon, only a handful of rounds left on my Energy weapon, and my Super would not be charged for what seemed like an eternity.

Desperate, I charged in, Kinetic weapon blazing. Return fire shredded me to pieces in milliseconds, my body ripped apart. I died.

Seconds later, I was back, resurrected by my Ghost companion. Seconds after that, I was dead again, but so was one of the Captain’s minions. This process repeated in multiple iterations–I respawned, I took out one more enemy, I died.

But respawning in Destiny is not merely a handwaved mechanic–it is a conceit of the gameworld. As a Guardian of the Light, your Ghost has the ability to reconstitute your body infinitely. There is no death for a Guardian.

As I whittled down the my enemy through sheer will, pure attrition and an unending supply of lives to throw at the problem, I began to think how that Fallen Captain must feel, watching as he repeatedly defeats an enemy who simply returns a few seconds later to destroy more of his brothers-in-arms. Movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween immediately came to mind–the unstoppable, unkillable force who relentless pursues his vengeance.

The terror and helplessness the Captain must have felt surely became too much to bear. I shortly relieved him of his worldly worries, but I can’t say that I felt good about it. Certainly not heroic (no matter what the difficulty level told me).

That’s when I realized it: Destiny 2 is not sci-fi; it’s a horror game where you play the role usually referred to as “the bad guy.” While the world does set things up as a struggle between Light and Darkness, and you are told that you’re on the side of peace, truth and justice, and your enemies do some despicable things, I’m not sure that the gameplay bears that out.

Destiny 2 was not a game I expected to give me some sort of existential crisis; I was only looking for some fun co-op with friends or a mindless activity for my hands while I listened to an audiobook. But what I got was a great uneasiness about the setting, one I can’t seem to shake.

 

What Tom Clancy’s The Division Teaches Us About Humanity

I’m a big fan of Tom Clancy games in general, but The Division really hit a chord with me. I don’t usually devote much time to MMO games, but I’ve remained steadily involved with the game since its release back in March. This is partially because I have good friends to play it with; friends make everything better.

But this is not a review. Instead, I want to talk about some of my observations in the game.

If you’re not familiar, the game has a place called the “Dark Zone”, a smallpox-contaminated part of Manhattan quarantined from the rest of New York City. The Dark Zone is the game’s PvP (Player versus Player) area. Some of the toughest computer-controlled bad guys are in the Dark Zone, as are some of the best rewards. To eliminate these bad guys and reap the rewards, one typically needs to form a group with other players. Once you’ve grabbed the loot, you have to go to a special area and call in a helicopter to extract the items before you “own” them. They are contaminated, after all.

Before you’ve extracted items, any other player can kill you and steal those items. Lone wanderer players make easy targets to teams of other players and—especially when you get the drop on them—are often easier to kill than the non-player character bad guys.

This is supposed to be part of the draw of the game—the cat and mouse of stalking and evading other players, the team-on-team direct combat against player opponents and, most of all, the tension the system creates. There are few people you can actually trust, and I’ve had more than a few encounters where, randomly encountering another player, we both have to scope each other out, not wanting to fight, but unsure of the other’s intentions. That nervousness is in some way satisfying because it is so immersive; it brings you into post-disaster New York in a personal and experiential way. I like that.

On the other hand, particularly because I’m introverted and often avoid linking up with random players (only joining teams of people I actually know in real life), I often find myself navigating the Dark Zone by myself. Consequently, I often find myself getting killed and my stuff ganked because I’m outnumbered, outgunned, or simply stabbed in the back by an opportunist while I’m trying to defeat the Zone’s tough computer-controlled hostiles.

My time playing has taught me that there are three groups of people when it comes to the Dark Zone. The first is where I find myself, reluctant to “go rogue” to kill and steal from other players even when I’m in a group and confident I can get away with it. I’ve encountered only a few other players with this view. The second group is probably largest. They understand that this is a game—there are winners and losers, and those who play have agreed to the rules that govern the game. This group probably enjoys the game the most because they fully play out the game’s possibilities—sometimes going rogue and killing other players in ambushes or pitched battles. But they don’t strike me as the type who would probably act that way were the game real life. They know the difference in the stakes and consequences of a game versus the real thing.

The last group is the one that I find so simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. These are the bullies, those whose primary joy in the game is picking on players less powerful than themselves. These are the ones who, having killed you in an unfair fight (usually extremely so—four to one odds and they strike when you’re otherwise occupied) come up and stand next to your body to laugh and mock you until you’re able to respawn. These are players with malice aforethought.

At the end of the day, it’s still a game, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to make a presumption about a stranger’s moral capacity in the real world based on behavior in a digitally-manufactured world. On the other hand, I’m a believer that the anonymity of the internet (including multiplayer games) allows people a release from the social conventions that normally restrain their baser selves.

When playing the game (admittedly, perhaps more to relieve my own frustration than any objective reality) I am constantly reminded that maybe there really is a fine line between social order and the chaos of those with more power and less restraint.