Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 Is Perfect

Fly, Birdman. Fly.

I could just leave it at the headline. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 (henceforth abbreviated as 1+2) plays like a dream, looks like a painting, and sounds like a perfect, teeth-smashing punk rock concert. Though it does depend on who you ask, for my money this series of games hasn’t possessed a decent entry since Tony Hawk’s Underground in 2003. Yet 17 years later, 1+2 rolls over a half-dozen other failed series reboots and smashes through expectations at mach speed. 

That last part should stand out to even someone unfamiliar with this series. Multiple video game studios have tried rebooting this series for over a decade. They attempted focusing on racing downhill, or making the physics more realistic, or even manufacturing a special skateboard peripheral like the plastic controllers of Guitar Hero. Turns out that they all got it wrong. The developers of this reboot, Vicarious Visions, knew that the Pro Skater series didn’t need something different. It just needed more. More customization, more creativity, bigger levels, and a greatly expanded soundtrack. 

Make no mistake: that soundtrack remains critical to the success of the Pro Skater series. Strange as it may seem in this Spotify era, 1+2 would not take up top space on my blog or the sales charts if that soundtrack came in as anything less than stellar. The first few Tony Hawk games shaped the musical taste of a whole segment of Millennials and we looked at 1+2 as another cultural meeting place. As previously stated, 1+2 delivers. The classic tracks are here, alongside new tracks from old favorites, rounded out by songs from the generation that grew up with the original games’ soundtracks. The cycle continues.

Ventura Beach looks better than ever, especially with the addition of dozens of graffiti tags.

It helps that the game looks like a dream. The developers took what our sugar-addled 8 year-old brains saw in 1999 and extrapolated those fantasies with modern graphics. Even better, the game’s environmental storytelling proves more impressive than the graphics. The mall from the first game has fallen into disrepair, visually communicating how the culture has moved on since the first games hit shelves. Where once you skated across pristine floors and crashed through slick storefronts, now algae grows from the fountains and mannequins stand on wobbly legs with pieces missing. The game knows that the Nineties are over, but it does not morn. It simply remembers and moves towards the next hill. 

The game brings back memories without elbowing you and pointing at your nostalgia. The game never “winks” at you. You don’t get points for just showing up and saying “I remember that!” The game possesses a perfect balance between making beginners feel cool and making masters feel dominant. The skill gap remains massive after all these years, but never insurmountable. Chemicals in your brain still go off with every nailed combo and every incredible line of tricks. 

School II might just be the best level in the series.

From here, the developers could go anywhere. The easy route, remaking Pro Skater 3 and 4, remains the most boring. A new installment, freed from the constraints of remaking anything, might prove interesting and innovative. Selfishly, I want something different: a remake of Tony Hawk’s Underground. Underground took the setting from the skatepark to the streets with a full storyline. Level objectives gave you a sense of progressing as a skater from enthusiast, to amateur, to professional. More importantly to me, underground remains the Tony Hawk installment I have logged the most hours playing and whose soundtrack remains highly played on my iPod. It introduced me to Deltron 3030, Stiff Little Fingers, Rise Against, Refused, Queens of the Stone Age, NOFX, Jurassic 5, Hot Water Music, MF Doom, The Explosion, Dropkick Murphys, Bus Driver, Bad Religion, and a few dozen more. A new generation needs this music as well as the new songs the creators of 1+2 can inject.

But no matter where Vicarious Visions takes the series next, I know I’ll be there. Skate or die, my friends.

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DOOM: My Game of the Decade

Doom-2016

These demons don’t stand a chance.

I can no more describe DOOM to you than a priest can describe the Bible or a composer can describe Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Using the driest and most technical of terminology, DOOM hails from the genre of first-person shooters and utilizes a twin-stick control scheme. But talking about DOOM in such a way feels like saying the Sistine Chapel is a place where Michaelangelo used a lot of paint. DOOM defies easy categorization and mocks the English language’s limited scope. In a perfect world, I would write my thoughts on DOOM in the Infernal Tongue of the Tormented Hellscape, my flesh twisting into runes that promise a thousand torments should I fail a level again.  

Perhaps bit of context might help explain some of my insane love for this video game. As someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about narrative and how humans interact with the entertainment that currently floods our society, I know that I prefer simple stories told well to ambitious texts that perform unevenly. Star Wars over Cloud Atlas, Pride and Prejudice over The Time Traveller’s Wife, that sort of thing. DOOM does not possess a complex narrative. The main character, simply known as The Doom Slayer, never speaks a single word. Your enemies are literal demons; the legions of Hell in all their numberless, unfathomable horror. And that makes up the entire game. You go forth and kill demons until the credits roll. 

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This is the DOOM version of cracking open a crab shell for the meat inside.

And oh, how you do so kill demons. The digital space of DOOM runs red with the blood of the unclean. Every weapon you wield against them makes you feel as potent as the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Assault rifles bark, laser guns burst, and the chainsaw roars as your final testament against any foe that dares stand before you. In other video games, you fear the enemies. They represent the game over screen, failure, and defeat. Yet when DOOM locks me a room with demons, I roar with joy as I tear into their fleshy pulp. They are not the final boss of this world. I am. Demons do not serve as obstacles to my progress. They are the canvas upon which I paint my terrible and bloody artistry. My expression of love at point blank range. 

The developers of DOOM have spoken in interviews about using the Tony Hawk series of skateboarding games as a reference for how they shaped player engagement, which sounds absurd on the surface but makes complete sense to my violence-addled mind. Each combat area flows like a skatepark in Mr. Hawk’s series, with natural jumping-off points and sections where you can string combos together. No two people play DOOM the same way. My brother darts in and out of combat, weaving between enemies in a display of pure agility and resource management. I use rapid-fire weapons at range as a way of softening up my foes before closing in for the kill with either the Super Shotgun or a melee attack. I have witnessed other people online beat the entire game with nothing but their pistol or shotgun. An endless and varied parade of Doom Slayers arrayed against the equally infinite hordes of the damned. 

Every single piece of this game makes you feel like a god of death. I’ve already spoken about the weapons and gameplay, but Mick Gordon’s incredible soundtrack plugs itself directly into the nerve cluster of your brain and never lets go. Gordon’s vision never compromises, never relents, and never lets you forget that the legacy of DOOM does not lie in taking cover or cowering from challenge. His themes build in time with your actions. From the first pump of the shotgun to the final blast of the BFG, Gordon extolls you to greater heights until you feel like Icarus himself, except your wings are made of chainsaws and no sun can melt your power armor. Just watch this.

But why do I love DOOM enough to name it my game of the decade? Any one element alone from the soundtrack to the gameplay to the storytelling would make for a decent enough experience on their own, but when combined, they make DOOM utterly unique. There exists no other game like it. No other game with the same speed has the confidence in narrative that this game has. No other game with better storytelling has more engaging and responsive gameplay. And while plenty of games have excellent soundtracks, none of them actively remix themselves in time with you actions. DOOM takes the sum of its excellent parts and synthesizes them into an entirely unique product that could only have emerged from iD Software in 2016. More than a masterpiece, DOOM exists as a singular product of its moment and plants its flag in the ground. 

Nothing on Earth emerges perfectly formed though and the same goes for Hell as well. DOOM has some terrible platforming sections and by the time you get to the end of the game, very little feels challenging anymore. Yet these minor quibbles fade in the face of the game’s sheer enthusiasm for what it offers. You can feel iD Software’s passion screaming off the disk. They took an enormous legacy and sharpened it down to the finest point they could. Despite the gore and viscera, DOOM exists as a beautiful expression of love from one studio to its fans and the franchise they have supported for three decades now. I can think of no higher praise than the simple fact that I have bought this game four times and played through each level on at least 5 different occasions. Across consoles, across years, across miles of digital cabling, DOOM persists. 

Long may it reign.

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Star Wars is Dead, Long Live Star Wars: Part 2

Critics, even the ones who gave The Mandalorian good reviews, never understood the show from the reactions I saw. Every columnist looked at this first offering from Disney Plus and said “oh! It’s a premium television show like on Netflix or Hulu! I can’t wait for a deep character study and involved overarching plot!” They expected Breaking Bad. Instead, they got Kung Fu. And that makes me so happy.

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Pure art.

The Mandalorian doesn’t do anything incredibly original within the storytelling of Star Wars. The narratives from this franchise about bounty hunters and the lawbreakers they hunt could fill a library. What makes The Mandalorian different is the sheer confidence and quality that it exudes. I have always held the opinion that a familiar story told expertly beats a more original idea told poorly.

When you take the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub, mix it with the great Westerns of years past, add in the episodic storytelling of Kung Fu or Samurai Jack, sprinkle in a touch of the Parker novels by Richard Stark, then layer it all underneath the incredible possibilities of the Star Wars universe, you get something undeniably familiar but still incredibly wonderful. Star Wars is pastiche at its heart, so it makes total sense that Jon Favreau would continue this tradition and mash his favorite things together into a Star Wars story. The Mandalorian character himself works as a perfect stand-in for the archetypal “Man With No Name.” Favreau uses the imagery and mystique of Boba Fett without getting bogged down in the history of that character. 

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Jawas are a evil as you remember them. Little bastards.

 

At its core, The Mandalorian expands the possibilities of the Star Wars franchise where the Sequel Trilogy narrowed them. The show introduces new concepts to the universe, sometimes by showcasing new characters like former Rebel shocktrooper Cara Dune and other times through simple throwaway lines of dialogue. The show makes reference to a “Great Purge” of Mandalorians early on and teases out this idea over eight episodes. No character ever simply comes out and asks “what’s the Great Purge?” It gets discussed by characters in a natural fashion and the creative team trusts that the audience will get the gist through context clues. 

I still can’t get over just how much this show respects the audience and never insulted my intelligence. The show never dumbs down its characters so that they can wink at the audience and say “hey, we’re in a Star Wars show.” Hell, they don’t even explain the Force! None of the characters even understand what The Child (Baby Yoda) does! The show sets up concepts and ideas that sometimes only get paid off several episodes later. Favreau and company know that you’re paying attention and that you have invested yourself in the story of a little baby frog and his adoptive father who hunts other people for money. 

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Like this fish guy. He lasts about three minutes.

On that note, I should directly state that Favreau deserves every accolade this industry can give him. Failing that, he should get a blank check from Disney for life. After suffering through trashy rom-coms in the 90’s and later eeking out a career directing Jumanji spinoffs, Favreau launched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first Iron Man. Just a shade over ten years later, he has now saved Star Wars from itself. 

And he did it by caring about the universe. The Mandalorian directly refutes the thesis of The Last Jedi and reveals The Rise of Skywalker as schlock. Where The Last Jedi lectures you over and over that Star Wars must change and The Rise of Skywalker devalues everything that came before it with its Michael Bay stakes, The Mandalorian instead looks to the past with respect and simply brings the best ideas forward (you know, like Marvel movies did with their comics). The Bounty Hunter’s Guild, X-Wings keeping the peace after the New Republic gets established, ugnaughts enslaved by the Empire (and played by Nick Nolte), all amazing pieces of older lore that Favreau brings forward with a laser-like precision. Shame on all of the Lucasfilm for not doing it like this from the beginning of their partnership with Disney.

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Pictured: A moneymaking machine.

And no one can deny the success of this kind of storytelling. Critics raved about The Mandalorian, Baby Yoda memes and bootleg merch fill the Internet, and what little we know about the business side of things indicates that Disney is immensely pleased with the show’s performance. Despite crashing Star Wars into the ground, Favreau has cut the Mandalorian out of the wreckage of the franchise like a Jawa pulling sheets of metal off a downed TIE Fighter.

All of this makes me giddy for the now-confirmed second season. Favreau could take The Mandalorian in any direction and it would make total sense. We could get an entire season of unconnected, episodic storytelling. We could get an eight-episode arc that focuses on the origins of both The Child and The Mandalorian. We just might get 4 hours of Werner Herzog staring into a camera and monologuing about the Empire (that’s my hope).

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Professor Herzog, about to begin yet another lecture on the stupidity of chickens.

But wherever The Mandalorian wanders, it carries with it the spirit Star Wars: that sense of wonder and mystery that you get from the cantina in A New Hope. You can’t ask for more than that.  

 

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Star Wars is Dead, Long Live Star Wars: Part 1

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*Sigh.*

Recently, many of my friends have flattered me by asking for my opinion on The Rise of Skywalker. Shout outs are due to Meredith, Mary, and Raeonda for their impressive appetites for my nonsense. I initially thought of making this an audio review, but I quickly realized that would infringe on the media stream that my father and I have set up with our RE-View Podcast. So I decided that my blog deserved a bit more attention than I usually give it. 

Obviously, there are spoilers from here on in this piece. In addition, I do not ever purport to hold any sort of objective viewpoint. These are the thoughts of someone raised by two loving parents, a wonderful brother, and a media franchise about space wizards. My connection with Star Wars runs deeper than my connection to any other work of fiction, bar none. And we’ll start at the bottom, because from there we can only rise. 

The Rise of Skywalker marks the death of an entire era of Star Wars storytelling and perhaps shatters its unique place in our popular consciousness forever. Disney completely and utterly failed in every conceivable metric except the one they care about: revenue. They wanted a quick return on their investment in George Lucas’ intellectual property. Instead of taking care of the rich field of crops he left for them, they tore up everything out of the ground in a mad dash for product and did not leave any seeds behind for next season. 

Actual journalists from sites like Variety have already done excellent reporting on this topic. No doubt as the weeks and months stretch on from the conclusion of this trilogy, more fantastic journalism will come out about how Disney treated Star Wars like a piggy bank they could repeatedly break without consequence. Blame will shift from one person to the next in a mad passing of the buck. Did Bob Iger go over Kathleen Kenndy’s head and rehire JJ Abrams? Rumors say yes. But George Lucas handpicked Kathleen Kenndy as his successor at Lucasfilm and she played no small part in getting us to this point. Do I also blame Rian Johnson for his part in making The Last Jedi the most disruptive and insulting Star Wars movie in existence? Certainly. But to a small degree, I blame myself.

Just a shade over five years ago, I sat in a freezing cold Baltimore apartment hitting refresh on my laptop as quickly as I could so I could watch the first trailer for The Force Awakens. In an incredibly prescient move, I decided that I should record my reaction for posterity. 

 

Look at him. I can scarcely recognize myself in that video. The wide-eyed hope, the exuberance, the investment in a franchise that will ultimately never know who I am because it cannot. Corporations are not people and neither are their products. They do not care about 22-year old Samuel no more than they care about this column I now write. 

There exists only one moment in The Rise of Skywalker where I felt myself transported back to those days. When Wedge Antilles appears on the screen and has a single line of dialogue, I screamed in the middle of my packed theater: “Go get ‘em, Wedge!” My love of Star Wars now exists only for these characters, the misfit toys of the Star Wars universe, the little bits at the edges of the billion-dollar machine. The Jedi and the Sith and the Force itself have come so far from what they once were that I no longer recognize them. The Emperor shoots out lightning in this movie that disables a fleet of ships. Rey leaps around like a superhero. The deceased spirits of the Jedi that came before her don’t advise or guide her on her journey but instead serve as a video game powerup that helps her defeat the final boss. 

The Force should not work like that. All of Star Wars can get distilled into one single line from Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (which remains the best Star Wars movie, by the way). “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!” The strongest condemnation I can muster for The Rise of Skywalker lies in the fact that it entirely focuses on the “crude matter.” Bloodlines, superweapons, incredible Force feats, having two lightsabers instead of one, etc. These things are not what make great Star Wars storytelling for me. Does it sound too much like I want a three hour movie on what a connection to the Force does to a person’s ego? I hope not, since I don’t want that level of navel-gazing either. What I want is the sense that some sort of soul exists underneath all the action-movie trappings of this space adventure. 

The Rise of Skywalker possesses no soul outside of a few select moments between Ben Solo and Rey. Even those come in undercooked. Kylo Ren reforges his mask then promptly removes it when it becomes inconvenient. Rey finally finds love and acceptance in the arms of a man she once hated and feared, only so that he can die a few seconds later. Then she takes the last name “Skywalker” as a direct affront to the connection she shared with both Ben and his father.

We’re almost a thousand words into this mess and I haven’t even gotten to the fact that apparently Palpatine had ball-slapping, baby-making sex with someone during the Prequel Trilogy and so now, whenever I watch any Star Wars movie with Ian McDiarmid’s brilliant performace as Palpatine I will exculsively think about the fact that the Emperor probably has a foot fetish. To reiterate, Palpatine’s seed went into a woman’s cervix and impregnated her. I will never forgive JJ Abrams.   

Star Wars Episode Vi - Return Of The Jedi - 1983

This… thing has climaxed inside a woman.

The entire first act of this movie feels like it got put into a blender and someone hit “puree” on the speed settings. Things just keep happening and none of it makes any sense. We need to go to this planet to get the dodad that will lead us to the gizmo that will guide us into the Unknown Regions where we can confront Palpatine (on a planet that no one has ever heard of before, despite the plethora of planets in both the old Expanded Universe and the current Disney Canon that would work in this role). Side characters get introduced and then discarded at a rate that should have worried anyone who has ever constructed a narrative past the age of ten. 

Speaking of discarded characters, let’s talk about Kelly Marie Tran and Rose Tico! As stated previously, I absolutely hated The Last Jedi. But such hatred never, ever transferred to the actors who merely did what the script and director told them. The harassment, sexism, and racism that Kelly Marie Tran faced after the release of that movie should disgust anyone. Rose Tico did not endear herself to me in that movie but I a.) still thought they could build off what happened in that film and make her more interesting and b.) would never, ever think of bullying an actress! Kelly Marie Tran has a strength, intelligence, and grace that few in this world possess and she deserved better than the two minutes of screentime this movie gave her. They made the Asian woman do tech support. Jesus H. Christ. 

Rose Tico

If you stare at this picture for two minutes, you’ll have given her more attention than JJ did.

And while we’re on the subject of negative depictions of racial minorities, how about the absolute retcon mess that JJ Abrams inflicted on Poe Dameron’s backstory? After Lucasfilm threw out all of the old Expanded Universe, they promised us that every new piece of content would count equally towards the Canon Star Wars Universe. Cracks in that thesis started forming almost immediately but The Rise of Skywalker completely threw it in the trash with Poe’s new backstory as a spice runner. From the first bits of information we ever received about him via Disney, Poe Dameron has always been a career soldier. Born on Yavin 4 by specific request of Oscar Isaac and raised by two Rebel heroes, Poe Dameron represented a new archetype in Star Wars: the in-universe fan. Poe Dameron grew up idolizing the figures of the Original Trilogy, including my aforementioned favorite, Wedge Antilles. His mother let him fly an A-Wing at eight years old. Poe Dameron dedicated his life to securing the blessings of liberty that the Rebel Alliance made possible, only leaving the New Republic when they did not acknowledge the threat of the First Order.

Oh, but he apparently also ran spice because Disney needed a new Han Solo. Nevermind the racial implications of the fact that the only Latino character in this new trilogy smuggled drugs across the galaxy. He gets in some great moments in The Rise of Skywalker but none of them add to his character in a manner that balanced out the destruction of his backstory. 

This movie goes back and ruins a lot of things that came before itself, actually. Though I despise The Last Jedi for many reasons, I especially dislike the apparent unprofessionalism of Rian Johnson. He throws out nearly every tantalizing mystery of The Force Awakens and gives no regard for what might come after him. Yet even as angry as that makes me, I must apply the same standards to JJ Abrams and the creative direction of The Rise of Skywalker. JJ tosses out everything he didn’t like about The Last Jedi. He brings Luke back and directly contradicts his previous character arc. He makes Rey the granddaughter of the most powerful evil in the galaxy. Anakin’s lightsaber got shattered in the last film yet appears in this movie no worse for wear. On and on with this shit. 

He even goes back and ruins major parts of the Original Trilogy! The Emperor lives! How? No explanation offered besides a Prequel meme! Anakin’s sacrifice for his son now means nothing. So much for the Chosen One. Remember how the entirety of The Empire Strikes back revolves around the Millennium Falcon making one, just one, hyperspace jump and this movie starts with Poe Dameron using the hyperdrive on the Falcon like the fast travel system in a video game? And while I will always recognize the absurdity of building a second Death Star, the fact remains that planet-killing weapons in the Star Wars universe should not grow on trees. Even Starkiller base, another massive superweapon, presumably took the First Order decades to build. But Palpatine now just has a whole fleet of manned and ready Star Destroyers that can all fire planet-killing lasers. How does he have this, I ask? 

“Well Samuel, if you read the Essential Visual Guide you would know that Palpatine secretly funnelled men and material to the Unknown Regions for decades in anticipation of just this sort of thing–”  

Shut up! That explanation doesn’t count because the movie never even alludes to it! This fleet of hundreds of Star Destroyers just show up like magic!

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I wish this meant anything to me.

Stuff like this disrupts the scale of Star Wars. The actions of the characters possess less weight when you know that the Emperor can just return to life with no explanation after getting thrown down a bottomless pit and atomized in an explosion. A single Y-Wing can destroy a massive Star Destroyer by itself because a named character pilots it. Remember in Rogue One (the second-best Star Wars movie ever) when it took a massive investment of firepower and resources for the Rebels to destroy a single Star Destroyer? I’m not even comparing The Rise of Skywalker to some of the great Expanded Universe stories of yesteryear like the Thrawn trilogy or the Rogue Squadron comics. I can compare it to Disney’s own output and demonstrate how it fails. 

The Rise of Skywalker epitomizes the worst and laziest kind of Star Wars stories: the ones that ape the imagery of the Original Trilogy without commenting on it or expanding it in interesting ways. Many people have compared this latest film to fan fiction, but I think that does a disservice to the brilliant fan fiction writers who are working like the Dickens on fix-it fics as we speak. This movie feels more like a car crash between a 10-year old’s Star Wars roleplaying game campaign and a marketing team. It lacks any originality and can’t help but dip its arms into the better movies that came before it until you can no longer see its elbows. 

So ends the Skywalker saga. Disney accomplishes what legions of battle droids, platoons of stormtroopers, and several Sith could never do. They extinguish the Skywalker line and salt the earth so that nothing might come after them. Presumably, this means the end of my love for Star Wars, right? I mean, I just spent 2,000 words telling you that this movie drained me emotionally and spiritually. Surely nothing that Disney puts out could rekindle my love for Star Wars and certainly not within two weeks. Right?

“No,’ Yoda replied. ‘There is another…” 

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“This is the way.”

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Alien: Isolation: Fighting a Losing Battle

You cannot “beat” Alien: Isolation. The game resists that term with all its might. You can only survive Isolation, rushing from one corner to the next, desperately hoping that what little fuel you still have in your flamethrower can drive away the creature stalking you through the darkness. The sweat on your hands makes even the basic door opening mechanics a life-or-death situation, with every noise a potential dinner bell to your pursuer. Nothing in your arsenal can kill the alien, you understand– only delay it. Death stalks between the stars and it follows the child of Ellen Ripley.

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And it crouches for doors.

Obviously, I loved this game. Everything, from the script to the game mechanics to the level design makes you hyper-aware of your powerlessness against the alien and provides you with a constant sense of being hunted. The game follows a fairly standard design blueprint where you acquire tools that open new up areas as you progress through the game. But unlike in The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, where the tools you acquire mean player empowerment, the tools in Alien: Isolation only make you better at running away and hiding. Make no mistake, no power fantasy exists here. This game makes you excited about picking up flashlight batteries.

The only victory I can glean from the game comes from a.) surviving the experience and b.) seeing where the developers, Creative Assembly, made concessions to the second installment of the movie series, Aliens.

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Not pictured: duct tape.

From the outset, the game makes it clear that it draws its inspiration from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, not Aliens. No Colonial Marines, no pulse rifles, no queen alien. But there are times when the developers create a situation for themselves where they deliberately acknowledge the legacy of my favorite action movie. For most of the game, the alien stalks you from the shadows of the industrialized space station you share, much like it does in the original film. But when you descend to the reactor core, you open the elevator doors and see something totally unlike anything else in the game, a sight that horrified my character but made me roar with joy.

A hive.

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“Yeah, but it’s a dry heat!”

Just like in Aliens, your character goes into the hive armed with a flamethrower. Just like in Aliens, you watch the floors and ceilings for any sign of a facehugger. Just like in Aliens, the creatures blend in with the walls and stalk you inside their home.

But this amazing sequence makes the critical mistake that Aliens avoids: it treats this sequence as the end of the second act, a build up to the actual climax. Aliens uses this same sequence as a climax and structurally, it works much better. Why would I want to go back to the horror and fear of Alien when I just got a taste of the action and adventure present in Aliens?

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“Microscopic changes in air density my ass!”

Creative Assembly deliberately made an Alien game, not an Aliens game. And that works just fine, but they run into a choice when emulating that original movie. Either they don’t acknowledge anything from the sequel, making their game a more pure successor to Ridley Scott’s original but turning off fans of the sequel (like me), or they insert sequences like the hive assault and then try and return back to their original tone after those sequences.

But just like in the movie series, when you go from Alien to Aliens, you can’t go back. Alien 3 tried rewinding the clock and while I like that movie a good deal more than most people, it still feels like a step back. Some might argue that this sense of escalation leads to a Michael Bay system of upping the stakes each time, but I would say in response that the the threat of the alien doesn’t require expansion past Aliens levels, but it also can’t go back down.

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Easily the best hiding-under-a-desk simulator I have ever played.

Alien: Isolation tries de-escalating in the space of a single game. After you purge the hive, you see multiple aliens burst out and escape. But only one ever stalks you at a time, even after that point! Oh sure, the whole gang of them shows up in the final scene of the game just for the sake of a dramatic reveal, but once you give me Aliens in your game, you can’t go back.

I loved Alien: Isolation. Loved it. But I hope that for their next game with the license, Creative Assembly charges forward into the territory of James Cameron’s film, rather than sticking with the original. Because this time, it’s war.

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Survival Mode: The Unseen Difficulties of Making a “Hard” Game

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Thanks, Dark Souls. I get it.

Recently, I’ve found myself playing two games that appear quite different on the surface: Dark Souls III and Fallout 4. The first, Dark Souls III, comes from a team and a franchise that I had almost no familiarity with before setting out on the latest installment of their infamously punishing series. Fallout 4, on the other hand, may as well live in my disc tray. I’ve taken one character to level 90, but decided recently that I should start over and attack the game from the new angle provided by the developers in a free update: Survival Mode. In Survival Mode, your character must not only avoid death in the traditional first-person shooter manner (i.e. not getting shot), but also remain hydrated, rested, and fed. Dark Souls 3 constructs its difficulty in a similar way, rewarding resource management and punishing the unprepared. Both games limit how and when you can save your progress as well, meaning mistakes cost more than they do in other games. And therein lies the problem with both.

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My Survival Mode character, pictured here alongside her collection of dolls action figures.

You see, to have a game that people consider truly “hard” these days; you must make it so their progress can only get saved at select points. Too many games in the past few years had autosaves and checkpoints, keeping you perpetually unafraid of death. Deaths in those games usually led only to frustration, rather than an erasure of effort. Now, games like Dark Souls III, Alien: Isolation, and Fallout 4‘s Survival Mode make it so that any mistake or ambush sets you back minutes, if not hours, of your time. And I would accept that, if both games ran flawlessly. But they don’t.

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Just look at all the bugs! (I’ll see myself out.)

When your death in a game results in an erasure of significant progress, every death must exist as a consequence of player error. A player will see what they did wrong and feel a compulsion towards correcting their error. But when a death stems from the game’s mechanical failure, and not the player, that makes them shut down their console and consider tossing the game right then and there. For example, Dark Souls III has horrible, and I mean horrible, camera issues. The lock-on function of the game alleviates this problem somewhat, but I have suffered numerous setbacks as a result of the game’s camera suddenly running into a wall and deciding that it simply will not keep up with my character’s momentum, resulting in a loss of player control, a death, and thus an erasure of progress.

That’s abjectly unacceptable. I can wrestle with From Software’s striking enemy and level design or their terrible camera, not both. The same goes for Fallout 4. Though a vast improvement over Fallout 3 in terms of stability, Fallout 4 will still sometimes just decide that it does not want to be a video game today and would instead prefer life as a disc-shaped paperweight. It boots me to the dashboard, it no longer takes input, it slows to 5 frames per second. Ignoring the fact that I had just come across a brand-new armor piece I need to survive in the wasteland of the Commonwealth, the game simply says “no, I think I will erase an hour of your progress because- well, because.”

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My Survival Mode character, pictured here after a strong breeze.

So if you make a game like Dark Souls III or a mode like Bethesda’s Survival Mode for Fallout 4, I would demand that you test your game until it bleeds. Because I will not fight both your game’s enemies and you, the developer. My Survival Mode run has come to a halt for now and Dark Souls III will never touch my PS4 again, at least until I receive assurances from others that I trust that the game actually operates by its own rules.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have nuclear bombs that need disposing of on my level 90 character in Fallout 4. Bombs that I can watch detonate again and again, since I can save right before they go off and then load that save whenever I want.

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And you know I don’t look at those explosions as I slowly walk away from them.

Here’s to hard games.

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In Memory of Darwyn Cooke

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DC Essentials: DC: The New Frontier #1 cover art.

Writer and artist Darwyn Cooke passed away at age 53 today. Everyone will have their own favorite work by the man, because he had a lot of work and a lot of things that could easily become favorites. From his incredible take on the origins of the DC Universe with DC: The New Frontier to his reinvigoration of Catwoman with Ed Brubaker, Cooke’s too-short time with the comics industry changed it concretely for the better and leaves behind a legacy of both innovation and respect for what came before.

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Cooke’s variant cover for Wonder Woman #37.

Cooke’s art has a wonderful, almost indescribable life to it. It sometimes seems as sweet as a Coca-Cola ad, but with far more life than any advertisement could ever possess. Other times, he could plunge into the depths of pulp adventure, muting his color palette and subconsciously reminding his comics reader: “We started here.” But no matter what, his comics conveyed his passion, both in their art and in their word. One never got the sense that Cooke held any degree of animosity towards the medium. His characters never seemed like cynical parodies or ironic commentaries. He loved these characters eagerly and earnestly. Don’t believe me? Read Batman: Ego, where he plumbs the depths of Bruce Wayne’s psyche and treats it as a serious character study rather than a farcical examination of a man who dresses up like a bat every night.

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A teaser for Cooke’s creator-owned title, Revengeance.

The list of achievements goes on and on. In an industry still full of sexism, Cooke insisted on treating his female characters as equally capable. He championed making mainstream comics more accessible to younger readers. He always sought out new challenges, from writing prequels to the near-sacrosanct Watchmen to adapting Richard Stark’s Parker novels.

Cooke’s work affected me long before I knew of the man himself. I can still remember early Saturday mornings spent in front of the television, plate full of pancakes thanks to my father, and eagerly awaiting the start of Batman Beyond. The show seemed different than anything else on Kids’ WB, possessing not only a darker sensibility but an economy of storytelling that I still find lacking in so many shows today, animated or otherwise.

And it starts with this intro by Darwyn Cooke.

In the space of 15 seconds, Cooke and his team have laid every oppositional force out on the table. Apathy. Greed. Corruption. Power. These things still rule Gotham City because Batman Beyond exists in, as Chris Simms writes, “a world where Batman fails.”

But then comes hope. Courage. Honor. And finally, justice. Like Batman: The Animated Series before it, Batman Beyond contains an entire story arc in a single opening title sequence that lasts only one minute. By the time the show actually began, I had already gotten my sugar-addled brain’s fill of excitement and adventure. Then it ran another 22 minutes.

Darwyn Cooke taught me more than any college class could ever tell me about storytelling in one minute. His later works in comics only furthered these lessons, but added one more: Never be afraid to love the things you love for the reasons you love them. Darwyn loved comics because of the characters and the possibilities, not because he felt like deconstructing them or because he thought he could somehow leapfrog into another industry from there. Cooke had done design work out in the world for years before he joined Bruce Timm’s animation team. For him, comics represented the top of the mountain. We should all have such passion. I will leave you with this quote from his Wonder Con panel last year, courtesy of Comic Book Resources:

“There’s nothing like comics,” he said. “With comic books I’m able to create that fully realized experience without having to go to all that miserable trouble [as in film]. Comics is the only place where one man can sit down and put an entire visual story together all on his own and get it out to market for less than $80 million.”

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Call of Duty Black Ops 3: Not Far Enough Down the Rabbit Hole

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Plug in and play.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 has far more going for it than going against it. Treyarch have crafted an experience that feels rewarding across every section of the game, with the enhanced movement options lending each mode a sense of kinetic choice that other Call of Duty games have lacked. Even the simplest action, like jumping, feels satisfying with the new possibilities that each action opens up for exploration in combat. It also goes without saying that the game looks visually arresting. Treyarch’s animations and effects look better than ever on the new generation of consoles, no surprise there.

But despite the responsiveness and fluidity of the gameplay itself, the story mode feels like potluck dinner where one person brought chicken, one person brought tofu, and one person brought a bucket full of human limbs. Sometimes, I love media that messes with the audience’s expectations. Other times, like with Black Ops 3, I find myself wishing they had just not brought the limbs.

Full spoilers follow for the game, obviously.

Firstly, let me applaud the game’s writers, Jason Blundell and Craig Houston, for their work. Making a video game remains a grueling experience and that goes double for massive triple-A games. Even with media I don’t like, I try and remember that real people made it and just putting out a product deserves my respect. Only the absolute worst media makes me forget this and I never did that with Black Ops 3.

But my God, did they come close.

I find it doubly frustrating that the game begins on such a powerful note. Black Ops 3 starts with a mission that culminates in the violent dismemberment of your character in first person and while horrific, it works in the sense that you feel powerless before the robot that preforms the forcible relocation of your limbs. After you get your robot limbs as a sort of permanent power-up, you realize that whole first level makes you feel powerless in a brilliant merging of gameplay and storytelling.

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And then this guy shows up.

But the campaign never achieves that level of synchronicity again. Robots go from an unstoppable force in the first level to laughable chumps for the rest of the game. They bum rush you, fire inaccurate barrages of bullets while standing in front of obvious cover, and sometimes just sit in place booting up, as if you would just politely wait for their startup cycle before filling them with lead. The game flirts with your character having PTSD because of his or her robotic dismemberment, but it never commits to it in any way that matters.

Of course, one might argue that the player’s power fantasy requires that they no longer have that terror of the robots they encounter in the game. But I think that excuses too much. Before you become the cyber-soldier that the story makes you, the robots you see are dangerous but not invincible. Making the robots a more infrequent occurrence throughout the game could preserve the player’s sense of terror that comes from the excellent ending to the first level and still show that the player can beat them, if they try hard enough.

Ludonarrative dissonance aside, the game simply has some bad writing. Characters spout insanely awful cliches, like such gems as:”Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes.” Let me stop you right there, friendly AI companion. When I hear a character say something that stupid, it makes me put my controller down, fold my hands, and think over just why I’m playing this game. Character motivations remain incredibly unclear throughout the entire game. The player’s character name is… Player. The game’s antagonist, Taylor, who has participated in black operations across the world for 5+ years, suddenly gets a sense of “morality” just so he can become a self-righteous antagonist. Of course, the his sense of morality involves justifying why some criminals are lighting innocents on fire with gasoline, but whatever.

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The most offensive level in the game, no argument.

Honestly, the game misses two huge opportunities at extremely specific points. The first comes when you invade the mind of Sarah Hall, one of the bosses you face and a former friend of the player’s character. You learn that before she surgically inserted bullets into heads at 500 yards, she studied military history in college. Inside her mind, you participate in her version of the Siege of Bastogne. If you’re any kind of sane person, that sounds as awesome to you as it does to me. But then… they don’t push that hard enough! Treyarch has a series that now stretches back to 2007’s World at War, if we follow their own internal continuity. This canon has existed for nearly 10 years. If Treyarch sends me back to World War II, I expect that they will bring the Black Ops saga full circle. Have my augmented super-soldier fight alongside a digital Reznov from World at War! Pay Gary Oldman whatever he wants and DO IT. Treyarch, make the point you’ve built to for nearly ten years: humanity will always win wars. Not bureaucrats, not robots, but humans.

But they don’t do it. And instead you fight direwolves. Look, don’t get me wrong. I love direwolves. I love shooting them too. But I would have liked a thematic union of every Treyarch game for the past ten years just a little bit better. It strikes me as even weirder that the one other element of their games that Treyarch puts in this dream sequence is the Zombies mode that has become their bread and butter. Honestly, that moment gave me chills. Great! Do more of that! I can’t believe that in this day and age I must implore a video game narrative to indulge itself more.

At the conclusion of the game, you go fully into a virtual space that supposedly represents your brain, merged with Taylor’s brain, merged with all the other bosses’ brains. Oh and your “best friend” Hendricks, who has done nothing but act like an ill-tempered rhinoceros on fire the entire campaign. Look, if you go into a virtual space with your narrative, you should use that in a way that takes advantage of the lack of logic that exists in such a space. Give me superpowers, give me bizarre level design, give me horrific enemies-

Or give me every single past Call of Duty: Black Ops protagonist.

Just think about it. Sarah Hall, whose brain exists in this virtual space with you, calls up her research/memories of Alex and David Mason, Viktor Reznov, Dimitri Petrenko, Hell, even Frank Woods can come along for the ride. Picture it: every single protagonist you’ve played as, across two generations of gaming hardware, rushing down a snowdrift with weapons in hands and roaring their fury together, as one. Call of Duty has brought several these guys back from death before, so why not do it one last time in service of an unforgettable moment for fans of the series’ narrative?

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If only it all meant something more.

Black Ops 3 remains fun. One month in and I’m still regularly checking into the multiplayer, getting shot down by teenagers in the blink of an eye. But the narrative hasn’t stuck in my mind. It doesn’t make me think. Even worse for my money, it didn’t make me feel.

 

 

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