Revisions

You may notice a few extra blog entries! I’ll be republishing some of my game and movie reviews here. The vast majority of them have been published elsewhere before, but I want to collect them here. I’ll be tweaking them and cleaning them up a bit, but not likely to give them significant rewrites.

Who knows, maybe this will give me a reason to write more than reviews again.

In the process, I’m going to try cleaning up some metadata around here too. I’ve got a bunch of unnecessary categories that could be better served with tags.

Anthem

Out of Tune

Anthem is a mess. There’s no nicer way of putting it. I can’t recommend it in any form today. The good(?) news is that it’s essentially unfinished but it’s a part of EA’s games-as-a-service strategy. Like so many other games-as-a-service shlooters (that’s loot-shooters, games like Destiny and The Division), it’s being patched frequently with new features, quality of life improvements, and bug fixes. The outstanding questions are can they fix this game post-release and do they have the will to keep working on this game?

You play as a freelancer, someone who has a Iron Man-esque suit of armor and a partner to guide you through your contract missions. Beyond the usual wildlife threatening Fort Tarsis, an enemy nation is seeking to take control of the “anthem of creation”, the source of all life. You have to stop them and confront the deadly events that lead to the downfall of the freelancers.

This is a wild oversimplification of an overly-complex plot. In Bioware fashion, they’ve crafted a world and breathed life into it but this may be one of the clumsiest introductions they’ve ever done. This is, above all, an action game and you are thrust into the action first. All of the shapers, relics, anthem of creation, javelins, and other such periphery is either spouted by non-player characters that stand around in the hub world between missions or, more frequently, dumped into an in-game encyclopedia for you to read at your leisure. It’s all fluff but it makes the missions you go on really nonsensical. They throw all the lore and technobabble at you while you’re elbow deep in enemies and none of it informs your actions. It can all be ignored so you can safely enjoy the action game without thought. It’s really odd that Bioware, a company that built a reputation on its writing and characters, has made an action game that doesn’t need any of that.

The game itself is serviceable at the very best. The open word is big and you get to fly around it like Iron Man and that’s pretty cool. But the shooting doesn’t feel particularly great and the world itself would be extremely difficult to navigate if it weren’t for the objective markers. It all really looks the same. The missions themselves aren’t that different from other shlooters, but they lack flavor. I know when I land at an objective, I’m going to defend a spot, look for slightly hidden items, or just kill a few waves of enemies. There’s a distinct lack of compelling antagonists, so everything feels less like heroism and more like routine pest control. All of this is preceded and proceeded by terribly long load times. The load times so long that you can put down your controller and play with your phone for a minute.

Alright so there’s no flavor in the gameplay and the game world is both incomprehensible and utterly optional, but the game is also plagued with bugs. When I started this game (on Xbox One, on retail release day) I spent the whole series of opening cutscenes staring not at what was happening but at a tiny aiming reticle and a HUD compass that were obviously misplaced. The day after, I couldn’t login for a couple hours because they pushed out a patch that made it appear to many people as if they were banned from the game. That was fun to sort out on my own. Throughout the game, in the opening mission that was strictly single player and in routine coop multiplayer, I’ve experienced a lot of movement stuttering and rollback because the networking code can’t keep up with the action. I’ve started missions to find I’ve been added to someone else’s mission in progress, so I don’t even get a chance to listen to the briefing dialog, and the game is very aggressive about not letting anyone stray too far from the group. Fall behind for any reason (like picking up collectables or harvesting crafting materials) and it’ll give you 10 seconds to catch up before warping you to where everyone else is. I’ve even been dumped out to the start screen from the single player hub world for no obvious reason.

I’ve finished Anthem‘s main mission branch and I don’t feel like I need to see much more for the purpose of this review. Anthem, at best, is a functioning video game and too frequently it isn’t. Other shlooters have improved over time, and sometimes made radical changes to address problems. I don’t know if Bioware can turn this game around. They’ve communicated a roadmap that extends to May and beyond but it’s all new missions, items, and features to be added. Recall that Mass Effect: Andromeda also released in a disaster state with a slate of paid addons planned, and those plans were canceled. They made the game work and dropped everything else to do it. Anthem may never significantly improve on what they published on day one.

What they’ve released is a mess. I’m a glutton for punishment and I will be keeping tabs on Anthem‘s progress. I expect to come back in a year and revisit this review. Today, no one should waste their time with this game. I don’t hate Anthem or EA but I’m terribly disappointed that this was pushed out in the state it arrived. It feels like it needs another year in the oven to get to an acceptable state.

If you still think you want to brave Anthem‘s current state, here’s a selection of images and videos I’ve captured to highlight some of the bugs I’ve seen.

Stray HUD elements in the opening cutscene
Awful network hitching when moving from one area to the next
I can still see my team very close to my position but I have to be yanked out of the game to catch up.
I loaded in mid-mission and was forced to warp to the team’s position, adding even more loading time.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

In its own Shadow

Tomb Raider (2015) made me a Tomb Raider fan. Despite being a Playstation owner and playing lots of video games in the timeframe when the original Tomb Raider was popular and hugely mainstream, I never got into it. Never even played it. But Tomb Raider (2015) got a ton of positive reviews and it was a fun action/stealth/Metroidvania-ish game that I loved, so I’ve been onboard for the sequels since. But something about Shadow of the Tomb Raider felt off.

As in all Tomb Raider games, you are Lara Croft, archaeologist, anthropologist, indistinct researcher of some sort, and you are still fighting Trinity, the Illuminati-esque villains who were responsible for your father’s death. This time, Croft’s exploits unintentionally but directly initiate the apocalypse. As natural disaster threatens to destroy the world, Croft has to stop the apocalypse, stop Trinity, and regain the trust of indigenous people whose still-living culture she is maybe plundering and maybe exploiting.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider dodges most of the “Croft forgot how to use the tools she acquired in previous games” problem of most Metroidvania sequels, but not all of them. Basic traversal stuff that was learned in previous games like rope arrows and some new tricks like rope rappelling are given from the start, but she has to learn how to use a shotgun to blow open some debris-covered doors? The new gates to progress also aren’t very convincing as they’re just stronger versions of stuff you already know. For example, doors you can open with a rope pull from the start also come in a variety where they use braided rope and you need a special rope ascender to open them. Okay, but you never use that rope ascender to, I don’t know, ascend a rope. It’s strictly for busting doors open. Another example is your makeshift knife. In the opening areas, it’s all you have because Croft survives a plane crash. But you quickly get back into civilization and yet you still can’t get through some doors because your knife isn’t tough enough. It’s a bit incongruent.

The action feels a bit loose too. Every encounter with an enemy seemed to either result in me dying immediately or easily dispatching the enemies with an assault rifle. Once stealth is broken, there’s almost no point in trying to go back into hiding, so I may as well put away the bow and start shooting. It is more satisfying to achieve the stealth puzzle of killing everyone without being spotted, but there’s no particular penalty for running in and noisily shooting everyone.

This all might sound like the gameplay is crap, and it’s not. It looks great, controls perfectly well as far as the platforming and movement go, and it’s still fun to explore the world and solve platforming puzzles. But I merely enjoyed it because I’ve seen this game before. The previous Tomb Raider games have done much of the same thing and better. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good game, where its predecessors were great.

The Predator

Mindless Animal

I know what it means when a child is a prominent character in a R rated action movie. In the opening 20 minutes of The Predator, we’re introduced to Rory McKenna, a grade schooler on the autism spectrum and son of Army man Quinn McKenna, this film’s protagonist. Can you guess why Rory is here? I groaned out loud, which is okay because I watched this from the comfort of my car at my local drive-in theater. It didn’t get better.

The Predator is a sequel to the previous Predator and Alien vs. Predator movies, starting with a predator crash landing on Earth. After a brief encounter with the senior McKenna, it’s captured by scientists while McKenna tries to escape with some alien equipment stolen from the crash site. McKenna is captured by the government and put with a group of other “crazy” military veterans, but the predator escapes and starts to track down the stolen gear, which McKenna had accidentally sent home and are now in the hands of his pre-teen child. McKenna enlists the help of his new friends and one of the surviving scientists to track down the predator and save his son, but none of them are ready for a second, even more dangerous predator that has also come to Earth.

I saw the trailers for this movie and it did not look good. I should have trusted my instincts. The gaggle of damaged military veterans are obviously made to emulate the special forces team of the first Predator, except they somehow have even less dimension to their characters, and essentially no motivation to take on this suicide mission. McKenna’s motivations are so incredibly weak as well, mostly correcting for a problem he caused for himself by stealing alien artifacts for seemingly no reason. But the worst of these are the motivations of the first predator that crash landed on Earth. Without spoiling the weak plot, the reason for why the first predator is on Earth to begin with is nonsense, especially in context of its actions. The only character that makes any sense whatsoever is the super predator but even its actions can’t be reconciled with its motives at times. The ending is completely predictable, and how they get there requires so much hand waving and movie magic that it pulled me completely out of its fiction. This movie world does not make sense, and not in a whimsical way, just a thoughtless way. I cannot believe a single thought went into this script beyond the singular purpose of getting from one end of the movie to the other.

Even if it made sense, it’s a bad action movie. For unknown reasons, the whole movie takes place at night (with a questionable amount of fast forwarding through time at the start), and nearly every scene is poorly lit. This is good for the predators though, because they don’t seem to take much advantage of the benefits of being a predator, namely being able to hunt invisibly. You see so much of these predators that they may as well be slasher movie villains. This is Predator by way of Friday the 13th. No skilled hunters, just invincible killers brutally murdering anyone in the path of their (again, weak and nonsensical) mission until the plot dictates that they have to be defeated.

I don’t hold any franchise sacred, but this is worse than just a bad popcorn action movie. It belongs in the gutters with Terminator 3, Terminator: Genesys, and Alien: Resurrection. This is a movie so bad that it should put the franchise on the shelf for a very long time. I don’t want to see someone course-correct on this. Please, Fox/Disney, put Predator away and let us forget this horrible outing.

No Man’s Sky Next

Listlessly Drifting Through Space

No Man’s Sky wasn’t exactly a success on release. Sure, it seemed to sell well and generate a lot of discussion, but an overwhelming majority of that discussion was on whether or not the developers delivered on what they promised. Such an incredible number of words were written about what was or was not promised, and was or was not delivered, that the developers essentially dropped the game and disappeared from public eye, quietly updating and improving it until we reached this most recent update. It was enough of a leap to warrant a release on a new platform (Xbox One), and a new name, No Man’s Sky Next. However, it doesn’t exactly fix what made No Man’s Sky a disappointment.

In No Man’s Sky, you are a solitary explorer in an infinite galaxy. The game pushes technological boundaries by providing an almost limitless number of planets to explore, with almost limitless numbers of aliens, plants, and minerals on those planets. And before the Next update, that was about it.

Over the course of two years, and including the Next update, the game added the ability to build a base, manage a fleet of frigates, interact with other people through online multiplayer, and offered a handful of quests with storylines to follow. The base game just kind of pointed you to the center of the galaxy, but now there are things to do in this universe. Unfortunately, it’s still not much of a game. The bulk of my time was spent filling meters and watching them slowly tick down while I tried to accomplish the meager and sometimes unclear goals the quests gave me. There are so many planets to explore that none of them seem particularly noteworthy until you land on a nasty one that is hostile to almost all life and you’re low on resources. Then I spent too much time scraping enough bits and pieces together just to get off the planet and hope the next one I landed on wasn’t such a hellhole. Every planet has a universal system of space police that seem to serve only to annoy you. If you mine resources in front of them, they attack. If you fight back, they summon reinforcements, escalating in number and size, never backing down. The only way to escape them was to literally run into any building and hide.

I did this all for about 20 hours, on top of the 10 I spent on the original release, before I gave up entirely. I had built myself a sizeable base on the least hostile planet I could find, but I still couldn’t find the point in continuing to play this game. It’s barely fun and barely a game at all.

Brigador: Up-Armored Edition

Extremely Stompy

GREAT LEADER HAS DIED. SOLO NOBRE MUST FALL.

Neon lights, an authority violently overthrown, and buildings that crumble like they’re made out of ash under your mech’s stomping feet, all to a synth soundtrack. Brigador knows exactly what it wants to be. The good news is that it mostly achieves its vision, with a couple hiccups.

You play as a mercenary collecting a paycheck by completing missions in support of the Solo Nobre Concern. They’re offering a ticket offworld if you can help them overthrow the factions controlling the city of Solo Nobre. You’ll do this in an isometric action game from a variety of mechs, tanks, and anti-grav vehicles with dozens of weapons.

At first look, Brigador might remind you of the classic Strike series (Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, Nuclear Strike, etc) of helicopter action games, due to the vehicle selection and third-person isometric perspective. That’s not a terrible comparison, but Brigador offers a lot more. Not only are there more vehicles, weapons, and pilots, but more depth to the combat.

You’re armed with two weapons, and an auxiliary ability. Each weapon has its own fire rates, and their own behaviors. There are the standard machine guns and cannons, but also mortars, lasers, and shotgun-type weapons. Your mouse controls not only set the direction of fire, but also the range of fire, so you can launch mortars over walls, spray smoke canisters in semi-circles or lines, and shoot over or past enemies. This is cool in a lot of ways for the level of control it gives you over the destruction you’re going to rain down, but it complicates what is otherwise a fairly simple action game. Instead of just pointing in the direction of the bad guys and firing away, you’ve got to actually consider their distance and aim so that you’re not shooting in front of or over them. If you can’t get this and just treat it like any twin-stick shooter, you’re going to have limited, frustrating success.

The campaign mode offers a couple dozen missions with premade pilot/vehicle/weapon combinations that are fun, but it’s kind of training wheels for the operations mode, which is much more freeform. Operations mode lets you select any pilot, vehicle, weapon you desire, and go on a multi-map romp with an open set of objectives and building difficulty. Early options and low level pilots offer easy difficulty and a couple maps to stomp through, but unlocking high level pilots will greatly increase the resistance and later operations become endurance runs to see if you can manage to keep up your health and ammo count across several sprawling maps.

The music of Brigador is also notable for perfectly pairing this dystopian mech action with Makeup and Vanity Set’s synth sounds. It’s a beautifully drawn game with a moody soundtrack that comes together very well. However, some of the weapon sounds could use some work. In particular, big cannons don’t really sound like the size they are. They nail the whirring sound of very large machine guns though, which is great.

Brigador is a great action game after you’ve figured out its quirks. It’ll frequently overwhelm and stomp on you, but rarely to the point of frustration. Your implements of carnage come in a large variety, so there’s a ton of action to be had. It’s only slightly marred by disadvantaged by doing more than action games of this nature normally do when it comes to weapon control, but that’s a gift once you’ve got the hang of it.