Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

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Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 2 of 2)

I was ready to finish this post back in September, but a lot of other things came up. Another interesting thing happened before I finished it; I decided I’m not going to get in on the Gran Turismo 6 bandwagon. Still, I feel obligated to finish this, especially since the first post did pretty well with respect to site traffic.

6. Better Driving Tutorials

Back on the PS1, the great tutorials offered in the License Exam segments really made the GT series stand out against other rivals. The License Exam segments came back in GT5, but in the context of the content as a whole, they weren’t adequate.

But for a game that really, REALLY prides itself on being such a simulator, GT5 did a very poor job at offering guidance in a lot of key areas. Major aspects of the game, like Formula One were not part of the licensing tests at all. The “NASCAR” academy was equally unsatisfying given how different and challenging the NASCAR segments of the game were.

7. Kill B-Spec

B-Spec should actually be a lot higher on this list. It’s not only that a major aspect of the game is frankly terrible, it’s that you’re positively forced to do so very much of it if you want to unlock some really important cars.

B-Spec operates essentially as a counterpart to the driving part of GT5, which is called A-Spec. You’re required to pick a rookie driver from a set of personality types, and eventually build a team of drivers who will go out and use your cars to win the A-Spec races. B-Spec seems like a simple proposition, but the execution is completely flawed. What B-Spec requires you to do is issue a very limited set of instructions to a bot that must gain experience using your cars.

There’s a whole bunch of problems with this system of playing. First, you’re required to do pretty much nothing to win races. At lower levels, drivers don’t really respond to your commands as it is, and the computer may lose even if it has a car that completely outclasses the other computer bots. This makes the actual races less like a coaching exercise, which I think is what it was supposed to be, and more like just a passive watching exercise. It’s boring. And there’s no tutorial or guidance on how to be proficient at being a racing coach. Generally you can tell your driver to speed up, or be conservative, or do a pit stop. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say skill or actively trying to manage the drivers really does much to outcome. Second, the game doesn’t offer any sort of time compression, meaning you’re watching computer race versus itself in real time. Unlike sports games which shorten the length of passive play styles, there are usually MORE laps in certain B-Spec races. I think practically speaking I used these long B-Spec binges as a great opportunity to catch up on my ironing. The AI for your race team is usually terrible; I guess this is because GT has always had pretty lousy AI anyway. But perhaps the worst requirement of B-Spec is requiring the player to build and level an entire team of racers at the same slow pace as A-Spec. Leveling the drivers usually just requires you to win the races, which isn’t especially difficult given you probably have the overpowered car you used in A-Spec to win the same series. The catch is that your race team only has a limited amount of “endurance,” meaning longer races the AI will basically just give up on driving and blow a huge lead. The endurance state builds up very slowly though, making multiple losses in endurance races necessary to get better. Remember, this is a game with the real-time endurance race “24 Hours LeMans.”

It’s not hard to see that B-Spec isn’t fun in any sort of way. It’s a driving game that requires no skill to complete, just an insane amount of time. That’s why is maddening that the game offers a gigantic number of cars that can ONLY be unlocked by winning B-Spec races.

To mitigate the insane time requirements B-Spec, a novel “Remote Play” feature was added in a subsequent patch. What did this feature add? The ability to manage B-Spec races taking place on your PS3 remotely from a PC. This feature doesn’t fix the root problem that you shouldn’t have to watch 500 hours of racing just to earn a car to do something in A-Spec mode. The B-Spec achievements shouldn’t be tied to A-Spec at all. A racing game shouldn’t put some much emphasis on waiting around. It’s anathema to the actual draw the game is supposed to offer.

8. Fix Formula One

Formula One, despite recent controversies and shaky financial support, is and likely will be the king of auto racing for the foreseeable future. Despite being the pinnacle of the A-Spec mode of play, GT5 offers little support.

One clear problem with the Formula One racing was the inability of GT5 to actually allow you to buy the car you needed. In addition to needing over $4,000,000 of race money in the game (average race payout maybe is $100,000), the Formula One car had to purchased USED for some reason. Compounding this problem at launch was that the used car inventory was populated randomly over the course of the game. Effectively, it was impossible to advance in A-Spec because you could never buy the next car. Eventually Sony corrected this problem by creating an “Online Used Car Garage,” which was prepopulated with the bottle-neck race vehicles that couldn’t be purchased new. Still, it was a sloppy execution and not necessary.

I suspect the problems with Formula One dealt with licensing issues. It’s not technically a Formula One car you’re buying anyway, it’s a “Formula GT.” Whatever. The lack of support in teaching you how to drive these cars though is perplexing. Although GT5 makes you appreciate the difference between a family sedan and a true sports car, the leap of performance the Formula cars make over even the Le Mans class racers is significant. If Sony couldn’t get the licensing issues, this feature should have been scrapped altogether. After all, would it have been so bad to just get Indy sponsorship and use similar Indy cars?

9. Create a Tutorial System For Tuning

Although most of the tuning aspects of GT5 and its predecessors is straightforward (spend as much money as possible to make your car more power and lighter), other aspects of auto-tuning were never adequately explained. In particular, the intricacies of suspension tuning are incredible. Without the exact right setup for even individual legs of racing series, it’s not possible to win at the higher levels. If this is such an important feature of the game, why not have some sort of instruction available? I’ll confess, the best way to figure out how to make a perfect tuning setup seems to be typing your car and “Gran Turismo 5” into Google.

Other aspects of the tuning system are equally perplexing. For example, in the customization section of the garage (which is NOT where you purchase upgrade parts for some reason) there is an option for something called “racing modifications.” Despite the 1000 cars in GT5, only a literal handful can receive these modifications. What do they do? Well, they make the car really good, but it’s hard to say exactly how or why. Most importantly, it’s not possible to see which of the cars in the game can be subjected to these modifications. I guess you can use Google to figure this out too.

10. Introduce Horsepower Limitations Into Single-Player Mode

The critical flaw in any game that has RPG or leveling style elements in it is that those run counter to the aspects of the game that require skill. This has always been a problem with Gran Turismo; winning races is based on having more power than the other cars on the track. But this doesn’t really let you learn how to race any better. It’s a big loophole that this game doesn’t address in single-player mode (multiplayer has such limitations though). There isn’t an obvious explanation as to why limitations on tuning aren’t implemented, especially because GT5 is usually very specific about needing a very particular car or limited set of cars for each race challenge.

Closing Thoughts

I could easily criticize the fact that Polyphony is releasing GT6 for PS3 when it arguably should be a PS4 game, but if the last console generation has taught us anything, it will be a long time before any next-gen console makes it into 100 million households. But given the phoned-in nature of GT5, and the fact that a lot of obvious improvements or design flaws weren’t addressed, I’ve lost faith that this installment will really take things to the next level. Going back to all those lost weekends where I was doing laundry and having B-Spec run in the background, I have come to realize that this franchise needs to some time in the penalty box. I expect the initial reviews for GT6 to be good, but that’s only because there’s always a release bias. I learned my lesson though. If GT5 is any indication of the way GT6 will be, I’ll be able to drive the exact same cars when they’re imported over to whatever the PS4 version will be anyway.

10 Things You Want to Know About GTAV

I feel like I learn more about this game every day. Here’s a short list of 10 noteworth things you want to know about GTAV: 

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1. Rampages Are Back

Rampages are back. GTAV accommodates the senseless violence by attaching it to a character that is the most unstable; Trevor. Each of the five rampages all follow the standard GTA format, unlimited use of one weapon against an infinitely spawning enemy. Trevor’s uncontrollable rage actually makes this exercise in destruction sort of make sense, especially considering each rampage now comes complete with a brief and funny backstory. Kudos to Rockstar for preserving GTA’s sadist roots. Again, this is only possible because each character seems to bring something to the table personality-wise that is different, but still ultimately identifiable as classic GTA.

2. Missions Now Have Checkpoints, Are Not Part of Busted/Wasted System

This is a huge improvement that makes the missions significantly easier. When you start or accept a mission, failure, either due to missing a key objective or by death, results in a replay or quit option. Although this sounds fairly straightforward, it’s a first for the GTA series. Previously, when you were killed during a mission or missed an objective you would need to start all over. At least GTAIV helped mitigate this inconvenience of having to drive back to the start point by having a cab parked outside the hospital or police station. Still, multi-part missions were very frustrating. There would be missions where you would have to drive somewhere with no time limit, then kill 100 gang-members, then evade a NOOSE Team (GTA’s own version of SWAT). One of these things was not like the other; there were lulls or portions of the mission that were just filler between harder portions. Obviously I can do the driving part where there is no time limit and nothing to chase or evade. It made the action sequences repetitive, especially considering how bad the shooter mechanics used to be. GTAV abandons this format and puts frequent checkpoints into each mission, and keeps you out of the hospital if you die. It’s a huge improvement that makes things flow easily. 

Does this ruin the experience by making it too easy? Not really. Passing the missions is no longer the only objective, getting all the subsidiary objectives for a “Gold” trophy adds replay value here. In other words, it accommodates two different styles of play. The missions are so diverse and generally do not lean heavily on exactly the same mechanics over and over again that I think I’ll probably replay all of them at some point. Still, I appreciate being able to move along without being bogged down with a lot of busy work in between story segments. I can always come back later if I want more trophies.

3. Auto-Aim

Auto-aim is back, although there are multiple settings where it can be completely disabled. Despite looking very different from GTAIV, the auto-aim functions essentially the same. Aiming for a new target sets you up at center of mass, and fine tuning the controls sets up a headshot. Likely the online version of the game will force you to use free-aim entirely. Other aspects of the HUD are also customizable (always a good move in my book). 

Aiming is now a lot more precise as well, and is accomplished with a very tiny white/grey reticle. Functionally it works a lot like Resident Evil, only without the laser pointer assistance. Although higher levels of play are clearly possible now (the sensitivity can also be adjusted), the reticle is way too small and frequently blends into what you’re shooting. In a nutshell, I don’t see how the free-aim mode would ever work well. I mentioned Resident Evil because the laser in that series lets you very easily mark up what you’re shooting without having a cartoony bullseye logo on your target. It looks realistic while aiding the player effectively. I honestly think that’s the gold standard in 3rd person shooters right now. If a laser-sight isn’t an option for at least the pistol or carbine rifle in either DLC or future updates, I would be EXTREMELY disappointed. It seems like an especially natural modification as a number of guns have the option to attach a flashlight already. 

You can’t see where you’re shooting at all right now. This is the only genuine thing that’s irritated me about this game so far. 

4. Hang Outs Far Less Annoying

One frustrating aspect of GTAIV was that you were constantly being interrupted by calls from friends to “hang-out.” The hang-out and social function in GTAIV was integral to the spirit of GTAIV, although ultimately you didn’t need to spend time with your friends, and if you did, you didn’t get much out of it. I thought it was a good feature in GTAIV because it helped develop the characters more. It also gave meaning to a convoluted moral tale about revenge and loneliness. After all, most of the sites and sounds of Liberty City only existed when you shared them with a friend. Maybe there was a deeper meaning there for the sandbox genre. But at the same time you constantly had five or six people calling you and interrupting you from something you were trying to do. Worse yet, if you declined a hang-out, you would lose respect and potentially abilities from your friends. It’s like you had a gun to your head to waste time doing the same task over and over again. It was a good concept that was poorly executed. The only thing worse in this series to date has been GTA: San Andreas’ requirement that you eat periodically (despite not having any grocery stores in the game). 

GTAV does not do this to you. Although you’re bombarded with text messages and emails from properties you own, the gun store, and parts updates from the customization shops, you never are forced to address these until you want to. Although calling people and setting up hang-out trips to bars or tennis outings is still possible, it’s only under your own initiative that these things happen. You’re not constantly being solicited for activities. And there’s good reason for this; each of the three playable characters will have at least 20 names in their contact list half-way through the story, including multiple copies of the same contact for the other player. It would be overwhelming to keep track of these. Even without the hang-outs, there are plenty of other things to get distracted about in GTAV as it is.

5. Cars Are On Point Clones

There was an article in Forbes about this already, but I think it really downplays the fact that MOST of the vehicles in the game are direct clones of actual vehicles. Rockstar has even gone so far as to make very obvious knockoffs of corporate logos. The GTA series has always had cars that could be mistaken for real life models, or were two models glued together into some sort of vague resemblance, but there are so many in this game that are spot on that it stands out. There are both the new Taurus style cop cars in addition to the classic Crown Victorias (in the more rural areas only). There is an identical Town Car. The new Corvette is in there as well. And I mean the Corvette that was just revealed a few months ago. It’s not just the cars either; it’s right down to the actual logos (see below).

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I’m wondering if there is some sort of backdoor advertising deal in here. Certainly that’s not an alien concept to Gran Turismo 5. On the other hand, you’d figure if you were a carmaker you wouldn’t want people using your car to mow down pedestrians or pick up prostitutes. And especially you wouldn’t want to be GTA’s own Vapid Motor Company; there is a mission where you have to assassinate the CEO. 

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6. It’s More Amoral Than Ever

As soon as the general public catches up to the middle of the story in GTAV, there is definitely going to be some controversy. Aside from the pervasive swearing, there is a good deal of sexual content that isn’t that far from the whole hot-coffee incident that really hit GTA:San Andreas. In addition to the strip club content though, there are also some disturbing instances of violence (aside from committing literally hundreds of murders of course).

One thing that especially stood out for me is a mission where you have to torture a suspected terrorist to get information. The mission setup and resolution offer incredible commentary to the way we’re doing things in a post-911 America (“I got him, I think?”), but the actual mission itself is disturbing. In torturing the target, you the option of using pliers to remove a healthy tooth (it’s a mini-game where you have to use the joysticks), and also engage in waterboarding (I don’t mean surfing either, I mean the bad kind). Granted GTA has always been a lightening rod, but I can’t remember doing anything like this before. It honestly made me a little uneasy. As did murdering a kidnapped celebrity locked in the trunk of a car who was pleading for his life. Torture is not a common part of GTAV from what I’ve seen in the other missions, but it’s in there in a key story mission you need to complete. Absolutely this is one game that is truly M for mature. If you have younger kids in your house it would be hard justifying access to this game. 

7. Drafting and Driving

The driving really works well in GTAV. I’m not sure if I’m getting so much better at it, or if the driving skills of my characters is helping as well, but the movement and physics (including collisions) are greatly improved. In addition to tweaking, a slip-stream system has been added, although most missions are not straight-forward enough for you to really feel the difference because you’re swerving through congested traffic or bounding up the side of a desert dune. 

Driving is also greatly aided by the fact that the map is gigantic. It’s good fun running a super-fast Infernus or Comet car through traffic, but it’s a lot more fun to be able to get onto the highway and actually speed over to another county. I would actually like to see some straightforward racing missions, other than the racing around obstacles that the game normally presents. GTAV could be a competent racing game if it were setup for that though. 

8. Car Customization Is Comprehensive

What’s great about the car customization features is that it’s not limited to fast cars only. There are speed and cosmetic upgrades like tinted windows or turbocharging, but also upgrades for suspension, armor, and even roll-cages. Other obvious upgrades; brighter Xenon headlights.  

Car customization is aided by a design decision to create certain “owned” cars by the main characters. You start out with a ride that will follow you around on missions, whether it’s in your garage or not. The mods you put on this car will stay. There is also the ability to park cars in a central garage. Obviously dropping $100,000 worth of car modifications on something that doesn’t stay with your character wouldn’t make sense. 

9. Stats Less Invasive

I mentioned in my post last week that San Andreas-style stats have returned. What’s great about these stats is that you probably won’t know they’re there. Only after upgrading a full 20 points out of a maximum 100 will you be given an alert that your stamina or shooting skills have improved. It’s less invasive than in GTA:San Andreas where minor updates were constantly being dropped.One small gripe though; I’m not sure how much these levels are actually influencing game play.  

10. No Bugs or Updates So Far

A major, major launch and there have been no updates in the first week of play. I’ve never seen this before in a big game. Usually somebody has found a bug by now. I haven’t had any hangups of freezes on this game. And this is exactly the type of game that should freeze. It’s got a pervasive world with all these things going on and all this data being constantly loaded and dumped. Bethesda would be wise to learn a thing or two from the gang at Rockstar. I’ve never seen a game that is so hard on the PS3 (as I mentioned last week, the optical disk is constantly being read), but without any problems. 

GTAV(PS3): Spirit of San Andreas Alive and Well

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First Impressions

I’m unlikely to find a spare week lying around anytime soon, but I managed to get in on the launch here and play GTAV for a few hours. GTAV is already getting strong reviews on MetaCritic, but considering the breadth of the endeavor, there is a risk that preliminary reviews might be a little misleading. I’ll try and give my thoughts as they develop.

First off; great work by the Rockstar folks. GTAV looks to be the real deal. The game functionally looks like a heavily updated GTAIV, but feels like the spiritual successor to GTA:San Andreas. By that, I mean the RPG-style elements of play and crazy emphasis on customization have been reintroduced. Driving, shooting, and strength stats have been added for each of the three playable characters, and all are increased through player utilization. Customization doesn’t just extend to cars and clothes, but also to weapons. There also seems to be the return of endless mini-games and odd-job type ways of making money, in addition to completing missions. This is on top of the GTAIV “hang-out” features. Finally, the internet is back, but this time it’s accessible on the go through the character’s phone.

Other common sense updates have been made. Returning home to save is no longer required; outside of a mission you can do a quick-save on your smart phone. Also, as predicted, health below 50% now replenishes over time. There is less invasive auto-aim system now, and shooting mechanics make action scenes feel like an actual game. The “Wanted Level” system has again been modified, this time relying on line-of-sight as a prerequisite for escape, as opposed to just outrunning a radius. Action cut-scenes also have an actual score, in addition to the ridiculous amount of traditional radio station content. All these are really good tweaks.

In a nutshell, everything from prior GTA games is here, but then was multiplied again by 100. It’s really amazing. It’s also what the company promised to deliver. But more volume of content isn’t the only way replay value has been upped. Completing missions now gives the player a rating, and reveals additional bonus objectives at the end. Why this is significant is because there is FINALLY the option of replaying missions. GTAV does everything the other games did well (great characters, story, expansive content; extreme player freedom), but also focuses on the aspects that rewards skill and higher levels of play. No doubt the deficiency in requiring players to have a lot of skill was identified as a problem for a company that wants to base a significant part of this franchise’s future on multiplayer online content.

Other Neat Stuff

GTAV is a serious multimedia effort. In game content can be added or unlocked by downloading the “iFruit” smart phone app on an actual phone. There are also invitations for players to join the Rockstar Social Club to continue modifying endeavors. Finally, the connection to the wired world appears to be pervasive in the story mode; go to an Ammu-Nation and there is an option to go to the PlayStation Store. Although as of this morning there was nothing in there, I am excited that there will be some great updates down the road (although I’m also a little fearful Rockstar will introduce some “free-to-play” dynamics in).

And of course the strip club is back. Interacting with strippers can be increased by flirting, adding a challenge element to the outing (try your luck too hard and you’ll get booted out by the bouncer).

Problems

I’d be hard-pressed to find any real problems with this game, but I have noticed the PS3 really seems to be stressed running it. The optical disc is constantly being read and it’s loud. Some menu inputs also look a little sluggish. I’m wondering if it runs better on the XBox360. This is in addition to a solid 30 minute installation that takes up 8gb of HDD space. Given the amount of content, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best expression of the limits to the current console generation.

Finally, the additional features added to both car and on-foot mechanics are a little overwhelming. In either case, the D-Pad is used to add a whole bunch of actions that are introduced gradually during the story missions. The tutorial isn’t overly paternalistic, and clearly a significant part of the story is going to be dedicated to getting all the basics down. But now there are a ton of additional options. Guns can be equipped with flashlights which have to be turned on and off, stealth elements have been brought back (arguably a little clunky), and there a whole bunch of new things to do in cars like lower the top or flip on the lights. These are all welcome elements, but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be a logical road map as to how to do some of these things with the controls. I just know I’m going to forget how to do something on the D-Pad at some point with the way it’s laid out.

All in all, my first impressions are that Rockstar has delivered even more than it promised to.

Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 1 of 2)

I feel a little nostalgic talking about Gran Turismo again; my first posts dealt with that game (and it’s significant shortcomings) way back in 2011. I’ve played all the main Gran Turismo titles and I’ve already come to the conclusion that I will almost certainly be playing GT6 when it comes out in December. Maybe it’s some sort of battered-gamer syndrome I’ve developed, but I’ll keep coming back to this franchise. Rest assured though, come December 6, 2013 I won’t bullshit you if this falls short of what it should be.

And GT6 SHOULD be Sony’s hallmark game.  Polyphony Digital is Sony.  It’s a subsidiary. So this is what Mario is to Nintendo. It’s a flagship franchise. It’s also coming out on a console that’s mature. There’s no reason to have a chunk of coal here. With that said, here’s what I think are the top “needs improvement” areas for GT6 (the usual five items turned out to be woefully inadequate unfortunately).

1. No Misleading Advertising

There’s a good chance you didn’t read about this in 2010, but the marketing with GT5 was incredibly misleading. Take a look at this commercial I managed to dig up on YouTube.  See that Subaru spinning out?  Super cool!

Here’s the problem though; that’s not in the game. At least it wasn’t when GT5 was released. The Subaru’s in the game, sure.  But that door coming off, the car spinning out like that? Not so much. There was basically no cognizable damage system in GT5 at launch. The fact that the commercial says there is “realistic damage” is a huge stretch. Here’s a video of some car crashes I found. You can be the judge as to how good the damage system works.

The problem is compounded by the fact that GT5 actually hides the damage features until relatively late in the game. Damage isn’t turned-on until level 20, a feat likely to take at least 50 to 60 hours to reach. It’s not fully turned on until level 40 apparently, an amount of time commitment likely to rival most part-time jobs given that the levels are usually exponentially apart from each other. Without the aid of Google, the conclusion for most players is that damage just isn’t in the single-player game until you’ve sunk in significant hours. Considering how long it takes to reach level 30, level 40 is just simply ridiculous.

Occasionally, and unpredictably, visible damage would pop up on a car after a bad hit. This is usually a hood dent or messed up lower spoiler. But GT5 doesn’t kick you out of races if you slam into the wall at 200mph. It arguably should; by not punishing huge mistakes the game doesn’t force the player to develop the driving skills you actually need to advance (regardless of whether you are “leveling”). I can remember an old Playstation 1 Need For Speed having both a comprehensive damage system for each car, and a cost of repairs deducted from each race winnings after every run. Although this was frustrating, it’s certainly doable.

I obviously understand why there is no comprehensive damage system in GT5, at least for non-standard cars (I’ll talk about that below).  Such a system would significantly increase the amount of work per car and would never be perfect. That Need for Speed game was able to get away with it because it had 10 or 15 cars and PS1 graphics. Certainly this falls short of Gran Turismo’s 1000 car standard. The cost of repairing the cars would be oppressive in a lot of instances too, especially during the Ferrari, Formula 1, or NASCAR events. I can remember having to an awful lot of farming in that Need for Speed too. These are legitimate design decisions here to leave these features out. What’s not a legitimate design decision is to put into advertisements a feature your product doesn’t have.

I think the gaming review industry really screwed up not calling out Sony on this back in 2010. It’s not like this was a feature in the game that everyone was excited about because of a press release or Q&A session at E3. It’s in the commercial! It’s not ambiguous as to what they’re showing. Polyphony put this issue front and center. I suspect that part of the reason the damage system is hidden is to cover up the fact that maybe it doesn’t work so well, and instead reflect the blame onto a player who hasn’t invested the time. It was obscured and basically unavailble at launch, and didn’t seem to work right after. The “you’re not ready for my game” attitude is paternalistic nonsense. This was both a bad design decision and a really bad marketing decision that the franchise managed to avoid being stained with. Honestly, I could care less if the door falls off my Subaru. Just don’t tell me that it might if it won’t.

2. No Imports

No, I don’t mean non-Chevy/Fords/Dodges, I mean imports from PS2. Part of the amazing roster of modeled cars in GT5 came from the fact that 3D assets were imported from prior Gran Turismo installments. Given that this was the first PS3 Gran Turismo (I think it’s fair to exclude the essentially incomplete version, Prologue), I can see that maybe the number of assets to be produced was burdensome. Would fans criticize GT5 if it had only 200 cars instead of the normal franchise setting 1000? To be honest, I think there’s a chance they might.

The solution that was developed was to recycle old body graphics, which clearly have lower resolutions and look out of place. What bothers me the most about this is not that Polyphony did this, but that they did it in a half-assed way. Key races needed to advance the main objectives in single-player mode restrict the player to the use of certain makes or models of cars. Take the “Tous France Championnat” for instance. At the early parts of the game there are only a few cars that are reasonably affordable that you can get to do this race. All are “non-premium” cars, meaning they have these terrible graphics. It’s jarring to buy this game which is supposed to be a quantum leap in graphics over the last installment, and be back to PS2 graphics that just look out of place. The pixels don’t look good and don’t respond to the lighting effects and other environmental image factors the way the premium cars do.  Simply put, GT5 delivers you GT4 graphics in instances you can’t avoid. These non-premium cars also have lame damage modeling (already a pretty low bar for GT5).

There’s some sort of tension with the Gran Turismo series as a whole as to whether it wants to be a complete car encyclopedia, or whether it wants to deliver a stock experience. It’s cool having the car you drove in high school in this racing game, even if its not very good. But at the same time, does it really add anything? Is driving a souped-up 1991 Accord or 1986 Corolla anybody’s fantasy? I don’t know. My only point here is that if you want to be known for doing a great job, you can’t do a great job half the time. Again, Gran Turismo got a pass on this. Those non-premium cars look terrible though.

3. Better Menus

A cardinal sin here. Thou shalt not have terrible menus! There are two huge problems with the menus in GT5: 1. They’re too slow, 2. They’re poorly organized.

In typical Japanese fashion, GT5 with all its statistics, custom-tuning options, and general philosophy of any-way-you-like it, means that Gran Turismo must be stuffed to the brim with menus. The load time on these menus takes forever though. It’s not so bad individually, if it wasn’t that you’re required to change so much at the higher levels in between races. Most importantly though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense as to why the response time is so slow. The graphics in the menus aren’t why people are clamoring to play Gran Turismo, and they’re not that impressive anyway. The slow speed makes the tedious process of buying each racing part option on a new car in the tuning menu excruciating (why can’t I just buy the car with the race parts on it to save me 15 minutes?).

A problem that is compounded by the slow load times on the menus is the fact that they’re poorly organized. Granted a home button has been added so you can get back to your digital garage if you’re trying to enter a race with the wrong car, but it’s a tedious process to have to go back to the start and then have to drill down all over again. Please, if you really can’t make these things faster, at least let me switch cars without having to go all the way out of the menu first. The menus become oppressive in late game where settings need to be adjusted with every different leg of a series of races. I honestly wouldn’t be so bothered by this if there was some sort of obvious reason why these menus are so slow. But they’re just menus. They should do their job well.

4. Improve Collision Physics

Gran Turismo has always really tried to pride itself on being a great simulator for all things driving. But one key area that this racing series has always consistently under-delivered on is car crashes.  GT5 is no exception.

You will know something is wrong the first time. Do these car crashes look right? There’s no way you can say yes to that. What that means is that GT5 is a great simulator, provided you don’t hit anything. The real problem I have with collision system is the lack of penalty imposed by making mistakes. Mistakes aren’t tolerable in the license test portions of the game, they probably shouldn’t be in the Formula 1 races or NASCAR races either. There’s no real downside to being super-reckless in these races. Moreover, multiplayer updates after the initial launch actually had to be aimed at introducing driver penalties because the administrators felt that players were using barriers in order to actually increase their lap speeds in some instances. In other words, the pinball physics were being used to cheat.

If there is any indication that the modeling isn’t right, it’s when causing an accident can be used to create an advantage. If Polyphony Digital wants players to earn the right to have damage and real consequences, it needs to impose at least some sort of penalty early on to prevent bad habits from forming. The lack of cars flipping over, catching fire, or otherwise being disabled is a gigantic blind spot for this series.

5. Dull Environments

I wish I could find a blog post I read back in 2010 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Pausing the game during the very long straight-away on the track, a blogger took some images of the bushes on the side of the track. Now this is a real track in France. Sarthe is where they hold 24 Hours of Le Mans. The photos clearly show the same bush has been copied and pasted over and over again along the side of the straight. This is straight-NES BS. Granted, this a portion of the track you’re likely to be topping out at +200mph, but the poor attention to detail was right there in the photos.

It’s not just that bushes look bad, it’s that stands look empty, that crowds don’t come out for Grand Prix races, and that the environments look soulless.  There’s no activity going on in the background. Pit stops to change tires and refuel are uneventful. The AI doesn’t get desperate. There’s no sense of drama or urgency being conveyed to the player outside the ever-ticking clock.

I can remember the game Pole Position for Atari having a little blimp fly over head announcing race updates. And the Nintendo series Cruis’n’ USA game having scantily clad bikini girls wave the starting flag. This is the playboy lifestyle that’s obviously part of what we think about when when think about auto racing. Professional racing is a brutal meritocracy; a high-stakes game the well-off play that’s akin to professional football for the less physically inclined. The dangerous celebrity lifestyle of a dare-devil race car driver is drilled into our consciousnesses by mass-media. We think of superstars like Senna or Michael Schumacher. It’s inescapable when we see a $250K sports car drive by.

Gran Turismo has always eschewed from having any sort of excitement other than what happens on the track. I can remember the same kind of blandness from the Microsoft flight-simulator, or alternative from Jane’s F/A 18. There’s just no sexy in GT5, other than the beautiful cars. Gran Turismo doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, it makes you feel like you’re grinding away in a basement playing an MMORPG hoping to get some magic sword. It’s all just stat tracking and leveling. Maybe the concern is that fans or funny pit crews would be distracting, or alternatively would sap precious processing power from the actual driving. These are fair points, but Gran Turismo is supposed to be fun and it often makes simulating a race feel like a desk job.

An Unfunny Thing Happened to Me the Other Night: Dave Chappelle Sucked

I went to go see Dave Chappelle at the Oddball Curiousity and Comedy Festival on Thursday night in Hartford at the Comcast Theater.  As you may have read in the local internet gossip column or even the local newspaper, Dave Chappelle refused to perform a majority of his set.  The reasons for this bloggers have put forward seem to be either that Dave refused to perform due to crowd noise, or alternatively he had what is known as “a celebrity meltdown.”  Both those explanations as to why Dave refused to perform are wrong.

I was there, and I really want to make clear to the seven friends I have on Twitter and Facebook that actually read my blog, the real reason things blew up on Thursday night was because Dave Chappelle showed absolute contempt for his audience.  After mulling this over for two sleepless nights (I started writing this at 5am on a Saturday), things finally became clear to me; Dave’s hatred of the audience, and presumably his fans at large, is so intense that he deliberately torpedoed his own act.  Moreover, it seems equally clear to me that Dave never intended to perform when he stepped out onto that stage.  Right away he sabotaged it.  I have never been that disgusted by a performer ever in my entire life (and I saw a lot of comedy shows when I was in college in Los Angeles).

In the interest of correcting the various uninformed responses I’ve read to this night on Twitter by other stand up comedians I follow and love, as well as addressing a ridiculous article posted in Ebony Magazine, I am going to try and give you as complete an account of what I saw happen, and why I think it did.  I’m also going to apologize in advance for making yet another marathon long post.  If you really, really want to know what happened on Thursday, please read this entire thing.

I didn’t know about the comedy show on Thursday night until the weekend before.  My friend sent me a link on Facebook to a Groupon deal that looked like it was half off tickets for a comedy fest, the headliner of which was Chappelle.  There were a lot of other acts as well.  HBO’s Flight of the Conchords did a few songs, Kristen Schaal did some stand up, and the night was MC’d by frequent Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross .  I was really impressed by Hannibal Buress’ set.

I paid $60 for indoor seats, although a coworker who also went to the show got tickets the day before, awesome box seats, for $40.  Clearly the show did not sell out, otherwise there would not have been a lot of Groupon and last-minute deals out there.  The theater looked mostly empty until around 8:15 (the show started at 7).  Dave went on at 10.

The event was held at the Comcast Theater, which alternatively used to be known as the Dodge Music Center, or the Meadows.  Despite selling the naming rights every two years to a different terrible company, I think for local residents it will always be known as the Meadows.  The Meadows is a large, open walled amphitheater located less than a mile outside Hartford.  It’s a mixed arena with both indoor seats and a lot of outdoor seating.  It’s open-air, and a large part of the 30,000 person seating capacity is out on the “lawn,” cheap seats where people sit down with blankets and maybe before the corporate days coolers.  Because of the lawn seats, the Meadows has always been a preferred destination for all-day rock festivals or jam bands.  Infamously, it was also the host to a riot over a decade ago where the crowd was teargassed following a Dave Matthews Band show.  I can remember in high school half my class went to go see DMB every year for the Woodstock-esque feel those shows brought to town.  Necessarily this involved a lot of drinking and pot-smoking.  This is the real reason for the DMB riot (as opposed to the alternate theory regarding the inherently violent nature of Dave Matthew’s lyrics).  This is your day-drinking venue.

Thursday night was no exception to the norm.  I had three different seat-squatters next to me during the night, the last one was not so discreetly smoking a bowl ever two minutes.  I have a 9-5 job, so naturally that’s a little annoying.  Security guards were checking peoples tickets when they went into a section, but the rotating cast of characters sitting next to me during the night indicated a less than complete commitment to excellence.  Then again, the arena wasn’t full and this is where people usually go to smoke pot and watch the Allman Brothers Band.

Naturally, this was not a crowd that was going to provide the kind of the zen-master like silence that Dave Chappelle apparently needs to perform.  I will agree with frequent Twitterer and great comedian Patton Oswalt that heckling is bad, that most audience outbursts other than applause are unwarranted and disruptive, and that it doesn’t matter if the people interrupting you like you or hate you, as long as they are doing so they’re a bunch of assholes.  I imagine a great stand up comedian feels the same way when the audience is trying to add to their set as I do when my family tries to give me, the only one who’s a licensed to practice law, incorrect legal advice.

And Dave was absolutely heckled.  There was no way with that many people that the audience could have stayed church-mouse quiet though.  There was probably 20,000 people in the place.  There is also just something about Dave Chappelle’s voice that make people want to imitate his punch lines.  I’ve seen this ever since his show got big in 2004.  I can remember hearing an imitation of Dave’s Little Jon or Rick James impression randomly shouted out during the halls in between college classes at Cal State LA.  White, black, Hispanic, Asian; the appeal of this guys stuff is pretty broad.  But the Comcast Theater was filled with a lot more clumsy love of this performer than any kind of ill-will.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about Dave’s performance.

After a 10 minute intermission after Flight of the Conchords, a silver screen was raised in the back of the stage and intense reggae was played.  This was the big moment everyone had been waiting for.  Three hours of admittedly lackluster acts (Hannibal Buress killed though) were not enough to take the edge off everyone’s excitement.  Chappelle walked out and was met with just intense applause and a standing ovation.

The audience did not immediately quiet down.  “This guy’s been gone for eight years!!!”  I heard more than a few “we love yous.”  I also heard what I think was some references to his Rick James bit (heckling).  Hey, I’m annoyed by it too.  At no point was I unable to hear Dave over the audience though.  The excitement level of the crowd died down a little and Dave started his set.

I think part of this was due to the fact that there appeared to be a microphone set up designed to pick up the crowd noise.  Maybe if Chappelle didn’t want to hear the crowd this should have been turned off.  I just didn’t hear like anything other than background noise to me though.  I never couldn’t hear Chappelle.

Something was wrong right away though.  He didn’t seem drunk or high, but Dave looked tired when he walked out.  Not the usual manic intensity that I remember.  He mentioned how he just turned 40 and that it sucked (he had a great joke about how he even lost interest jerking off half-way through the other day).  One thing that really struck me was that Dave actually did somehow look older.  Chappelle always looked like he was in his early 20’s.  I’ve never seen him with hair, but his shaved head looked like it was balding now, rather than just being shaved like it was in his earlier days.  He’s gained maybe 30 pounds from where you probably remember him being.  This isn’t really indicative of anything other than the fact he’s actually eight years older and that’s how time works.

The rest of the material Dave did do, maybe five or ten minutes worth, centered around his high-profile hiatus from what appeared to be the pinnacle of his career.  Of course, after being gone for such a long time the obvious questions are where were you?  Why did you leave?  That must be tough after such an abrupt and high profile exit.  It’s the Paris, Texas problem.  It must be hard to come back from that.  The same shame and embarrassment of having to deal with things when you get back from running away is the same reason I don’t think I’ll ever see my friend Benson again.  It’s tragic when someone with such great gifts Atlas Shrugs their way off to Colorado or South Africa.

Dave said he traveled the world.  That he visited China and saw the Great Wall (“It truly is a Great Wall”).  He said women in a Japanese night club were all over him (“He indicated the reason may have been he was dressed up in a Hello Kitty suit”).  But as he went through some of this material, it was clear even as he delivered his punchlines something was bothering him.  The audience was laughing ( I laughed very hard for that first ten minutes or so).  He kind of dropped off at the end of that one though.  I get the impression that it was sort of like Dave was embarrassed of the joke, or upset the audience found it funny.  He then segued into a bit on celebrity meltdowns, Michael Richardson’s Laugh Factory rant into comments on the recent Paula Deen revelations.  This is maybe where he started to deviate from his set in response to something someone in the audience said.  Dave’s take on it was that he would love to hire Paula Deen to both be his personal chef and also say racist things to him and his friends.  The Paula Deen stuff I thought was part of the plan.  But somewhere in there, Dave veered off course.  After delivering a pretty racist punchline (N-word plus fried chicken), it’s almost like he was expecting the audience to laugh just so he could confirm his own bias.  At some point he straight up told everyone that they were a terrible audience.  He said this more than a dozen time.  The first time he said it everyone laughed.  Then it grew old quickly.

At first this commentary on how bad the audience was appeared to be part of the act.  It became obvious he careened off course though.  Ten minutes into his set Dave explicitly stated that he had a plane at the runway and was ready to go back to Africa.  Dave attempted to control ambient noise and randomized shout outs by holding out how great he was over the audience and trying to shame it at large.  The jokes stopped, he sat down and opened his cigarette pack.  He said: “I have a pack of cigarettes, a glass of water and a towel, I can stay here for hours.”  Ok, that one’s not as funny.  He said one girl on the balcony shouted to him “I’m in college I paid money to see this show.”  Dave’s response, “I don’t care, I didn’t get to go to college.”  Wait what?  He’s had eight years off, he could have done a PhD if he wanted.  Is he honestly upset about this?

And what he said got nastier.  Dave lamented that he could have done the third season of Chappelle’s Show and gotten the $50 million if he had just went on the air and read the phone book, but that his ego wouldn’t let him.  He said to the audience repeatedly that he was getting paid anyway, whether he told jokes or not.  He said he learned his lesson to take the money and run.  He immediately went to his trump card; I’ll never do stand up again, I’m just going to smoke a cigarette.  Ok.  Right.  Totally reasonable.

And Dave told the crowd his story about how he opened for an MS-addled Richard Pryor.  And how Richard Pryor had to cut the show off half-way through saying he couldn’t go on, and that the audience gave him a standing ovation and said “we love you” because the audience knew it was the last time they would ever see him (Pryor) again.  Dave told the story of a Damon Wayans set he saw where an audience member yelled “do homey the clown.”  Dave indicated that Damon Wayans responded by farting into the microphone, then said “homey don’t play that,” and walked off the stage.  Heroic maybe, but certainly not diplomatic.

The word is contempt.  Dave sees these rebellions by performers as preserving integrity.  I understand, you’re doing your craft and you want to be able to do it without distraction.  You don’t do jokes on command.  Even Hannibal Buress had a good one in his bit about how he responded to someone asking him to tell a joke at a bar after hearing he was a comedian.

The problem is, he could never possibly get what he wanted in the venue he was at.  The problem with all this vitriol is that when he started protesting the audience, it made what looked to me like a minor distraction into a revolt.  Dave demanded absolute attention and silence.  He had commanded it.  The response turned into booing.  There was no turning back.

Dave attempted to have the crowd police itself by saying if the person next to you was yelling, to just punch that person in the kidneys.  As pointed out in the Hartford Courant article on the performance though, this just contributed to the creation of more noise.  And it was after he was silent or drifting for fifteen minutes after he had stopped his act.

One distinct flavor I keep getting from that night was that Dave wanted to punish the audience, wanted to shame everyone.  To what end?  I really got that feeling after he looked ashamed after the Paula Deen jokes he told.  It’s almost like he wanted to catch the audience laughing at a really racist joke and then make them feel bad for it.  BUT IT WAS HIS JOKE!  Why did Chappelle’s Show have so much racial humor in it if Chappelle is disgusted by racism?  It’s a double-standard.

Another thing that I found odd was his response to something an audience member apparently said about Half-Baked.  This stoner comedy is how most people probably learned about Dave Chappelle.  Dave said he would never do another Half-Baked, and that if he did, everyone would really know he was out of money.  Alright, fine.  I’m sure Andy Kindler’s not proud of being the Disney Channel Wizards of Waverly Place, but that’s still something he did.  It’s like Dave Chappelle wants to do racist and pot jokes, and then doesn’t like being identified with them.  Its an uncomfortable self-hating dichotomy.  Maybe the way to bill it is, if you think my old stuff was good, you need to see my new stuff.

Arguably, Dave shouldn’t have been there.  Although the show was billed as an ensemble festival, it clearly would have had a significantly smaller draw if it was just the other acts (I think if Hannibal Buress ever does a show I’ll go see that one maybe).  He could clearly sell out the Bushnell like Louis CK did last year by himself and probably make more money.  There was three hours of beers on top of a venue known for country music tour and jam band parking lot tailgating.  The Bushnell by contrast is a real theater; no cheap seats, less emphasis on drinking, no rock bands.

The most obvious thing Dave could have done to keep the crowd quiet was continue his set.  Everyone was quieter because he was paralyzing them with laughter.  I think if I was in the same situation, if the sound bothered me I would have dealt with it in either one of two ways.  1.  I would have given the audience some sort of warning my expectations were different.  If he had said up front: “I demand absolute silence,” or “we’re filming this for HBO,” he could have started out on the right foot.  2.  Ten minutes in, Dave probably SHOULD have just walked off stage.  He could have gone away for a minute, and then come back to standing ovation again.  He could have made his point in a way that wasn’t so blatantly insulting to the huge mass of people that were just quietly sitting so they could see the show they paid for.  Contrast this with Louis CK at the Beacon Theater (on Netflix).  His show starts up with a warning, and at the first heckle, “sir, shut the fuck up.”  There are no more outbursts.

What bothers me the most is that this guy is a stand up master.  He knows how to control the crowd, had a lot of tools, and opted for the worst possible choice.  A performer taunting 20,000 people that he took their money and doesn’t need to perform.  Constantly stating that he didn’t need the money.  That’s messed up.  It’s condescending.  It turned from being kind of a funny commentary to a jeer.  We had a choice of correcting things or making a selfish stand.  Great job, you just lost 29900 fans asshole.

There were other clues Dave was ready to go nuclear right away.  In response to the noise, he kept stating that “you guys didn’t do this for the other acts, right?”  Truth be told, the audience didn’t.  But a lot of those acts were hours ago, and they weren’t the real draws.  Again, perhaps Ross could have come out before introducing Chappelle and told everyone that they REALLY needed to be quiet.  Likely you won’t get their perspectives however, because it would be bad for business.  They’re under contract, and they know what their obligations.  After all, contracts ARE obligations.  Both parties are expected to perform their end of the bargain in good faith.

At the end of the thirty or forty minutes Dave was out there Jeff Ross came out and sheepishly told everyone to have a good night.  A few minutes of material might have smoothed things over.  Honestly, I would like to hear what the other comedians at the festival thought of Dave’s behavior.  They won’t tell you though because they understand they’re working for a company and they’re under an obligation to do a good job and what’s best for everyone.  Dave made everyone else on this tour look bad.  I’m sure his co-comedians understand that him dropping a highly visible bomb probably hurts their prospect of the show continuing.  It’s absolutely selfish.

There is Chris Rock special from a few years back.  The catch, and the truly amazing part (other than great entertainment from a great entertainer) is that Rock is doing the special as an amalgamation of three separate performances.  It’s the same set, taped in three different locations, perfectly synced up (better than Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz).  I didn’t know about this when I first saw the special, and swore I was hallucinating.  It looked like Rock’s outfit kept changing, even though his sentenced were fluid.  Amazing.  Rock could absolutely not done that without a very disciplined audience though (actually three audiences).  To have an A+ set you need a better audience.  That is 100% certain.

I can remember being in 6th grade and my class not being able to calm down, and my teacher making everyone grab a dictionary and start copying as a punishment.  I remember this teacher being pretty cool, but that this was an arbitrary and unfair punishment when applied to all the students when a big portion of them weren’t acting up.  It was an authority exercise.  And it’s humiliating when you’re drawn into that mess because of someone else.  It also makes the disciplinarian look bad.

The reality of the situation is that Dave Chappelle did have a meltdown, but that that happened eight years ago.  He never came back from Africa.  It’s unclear what he wants, maybe the last eight years he’s been looking for a way to articulate it.  The problem I have is that this guy took my money.  Yes, conditions were less than ideal.  But ask yourself this: If Drew Brees or Tom Brady walked off the field because some fans were yelling at them, would you lose respect for them?  Dave is a hero only to himself.  His behavior wasn’t just selfish, it was contemptuous.  Dave Chappelle went out of his way to insult over 20,000 people on Thursday night.  If he doesn’t want to do stand up, he shouldn’t do stand up.

Rockstar Games: Masters of Suspense

I’m late to the game writing about the GTA:Online game trailer that dropped some time back, but I’m kind of glad I went over to Rockstar’s GTA5 launch site because they are apparently adding content on a regular basis.  Masters of suspense as always, the seven remaining tiles of content boasting as to the unique culture of the game remained locked, presumably unlocking one by one until the launch  slowly creeps closer.  The added content is much in the GTA style of humor is present, complete with riffs on California politics, legalized pot, new-ageism, and country club exclusivity.  I really hope they bring back the huge fake internet featured in GTA4.

But what does the GTA:Online trailer do?  Most impressively, it resolves all the obvious issues with the GTA franchise and promises to bring it back to the forefront of gaming.

First off, the trailer demonstrates exactly where Rockstar is on the spectrum of player control and narrative integrity.  The stories of the three main protagonists (as much as there can be a protagonist in a game that revolves around car jacking) appear to be well thought out.  But having great characters with personalities runs afoul of mass-customization.  These characters are maybe  so well thought out that that it threatens the very soul of the GTA:San Andreas legacy; the any-way-you-like-it style of game play.  GTA:Online is the missing link between this rich story mode (which also could cleverly serve as a very entertaining tutorial) and the RPG elements that GTA:San Andreas was based on.  GTA:Online is the Skyrim and open world aspect that the games have always, at least theoretically represented (although maybe with less clunky menus and a bloated inventory system).  Focusing on all the mass customization elements, it’s goal is clearly to have players addicted to playing the game long after the three main stories are completed.  And some sort of persistent online world clearly is critical to growing the franchise.  Having a character that is your own creates some of the incentive to continually improve (and therefore play) enhancing replay value.  This is the breakthrough the series needs; to separate the funny, satirical stories about lovable antiheroes from the otherwise king of the world sandbox experience.

The trailer also clearly shows off that GTA knows it needs to get with the times in terms of player interface.  The perennial third-person shooter looks a lot like an FPS during shootouts, complete with a weapon selection wheel.  Is this game finally going to bury auto-aim?  I certainly hope so.  The action appears more fluid, and as always seems to integrate shooting with some of the other mobility elements like parachuting or dirt-bike riding.  The menu interface seems to be intentionally minimalist.

One thing is certain: Rockstar is intent on making Online a phenomenon separate from GTA5.  It has its own trailer and is being prominently advertised separately on the PS3 home menu.  The trailer straight up tells you that in addition to custom player-created content, they are intent on updating regularly.  This could be another leap forward for an already well-storied franchise.