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. 

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.

Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 1 of 5)

I somehow came across some rants on the Ultima series from this guy.  Ah the angry video game reviewer, a genre only the internet generation could have created.  America salutes you.  The trip down memory lane put me on another detour though, and I got to wondering if Ultima 7 had made its way onto GOG.  Fast forward a little bit more to installing Exult and Ultima 7: The Black Gate again for the second time in the past five years.  I’m writing about another ancient game here, but I have such strong and conflicted emotions from Ultima, I can’t help trying to hash some of it out.

Brilliant or Flawed? Does Ultima’s future depend on whether its past stands up to scrutiny?

When I finally saw Ultima 7: The Black Gate in action in 2007, I was blown away with the complexity and care that was put into making it.  I also got an intense  jolt of deja vu.  I was just as blown away when I stumbled upon Ultima 6: The False Prophet (or a watered down SNES version of it), at a video rental store sometime during the early-90s.  I think I was about 10.  The False Prophet sadly went back to the video rental store unfinished (I think most10 year olds don’t stand a chance against that game), but the experience never left me.  That experience sat dormant in the back of my mind until I started looking up the other Ultima games, and finally discovered Exult, a fan-based plugin that makes Ultima 7 run (without using DosBox).

I have never really been able to answer the question as to why this series just seems to resonate with me, especially considering that I didn’t play most of the Ultima games when I was younger.  There has to be something here that sticks.  Anyways, my second run U7 run through has been enlightening, especially after obsessing with the series, including a walkthrough-heavy struggle with Ultima 8 (DosBox and all).

Even as a child I recognized that Ultima 6 (even the SNES version) was just light years ahead of a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Warrior.  The NPCs in Ultima got up, did a full days work, gallivant about, and then went to bed to do it all over again the next day.  Night turned to day, inventory management was realistic, health was restored not by the act of resting, but the act of eating and camping out for the night.  Logically, caves were dark inside, and so was night.  And this is on top of the virtue/karma system, or at least a stripped down version of it, carried over from Ultima 4.  You can steal pretty much everything, but not without paying a literal moral price and potentially facing a rudimentary justice system.  Compare this to the NES Zelda where apparently everyone is just sitting in the dark cave behind a rock wall waiting for you to bomb your way inside.  The depth of what the Ultima series was attempting  just can’t be compared against anything else out at the time.

Ultima 7 continued the series trademark of offering immersive gameplay by doing all sorts of things just as big, but with some other improvements over its predecessors as well.  Ultima 7 (and I am not talking about the SNES version here), takes U6  a step further by casting off the cumbersome menus, distracting HUD-style data dumps, and rigid geometric tile grids.  These are replaced with fluid movement, greater object interaction, stackable 2D layers, and a generally simplified control schema.

In a nutshell, Ultima 7 is the Skyrim of 1992.  The world exists, with or without you.  Oddly enough, the fan base sort of exists off on its own as well.  Because Ultima is pretty much a dead series (other than MMO expansions there hasn’t been a new title since 1999, and some reboot I mentioned in recent post), there seems to be a sort of a love-it-or-never-heard-of-it dynamic going on.  And there is definitely a rabid fanbase.  Doing a Google search you’ll find as many pages with Ultima fan remake projects as pages with information about the actual games (as mentioned earlier, I’m using Exult).  But why is that?  What makes this game so appealing to some people, and at the same time so obscure?  The answer to both these questions is arguably the significant number of unique and extreme design choices.

Choice 1: Difficulty

It’s hard to determine what the right level of difficulty is.  It’s a double-edged sword; the developer can either completely alienate its potential audience or foster a rewarding sense of personal development.  Depending on which aspects of U7 you’re looking at, it’s either an incredibly easy game, or incredibly hard.

A large portion of U7 is geared towards combat.  Of course, this is unsurprising in an RPG with a medieval fantasy twist.  There is a familiar formula; kill bad guys, get loot, get/find better equipment, level up, do it all over again with tougher bad guys.   Leveling up in U7 is done by accumulating experience, then training with masters located somewhat randomly throughout Britania.  This method of increasing battle stats replaced a system where stats were increased by meditating at various “virtue” shrines.  You can buy equipment and weapons from merchants, but the best way to get great stuff is by finding it in random dungeons.  Spells must be purchased from merchants, and consume a form of MP, as well as other physical reagents that must be stocked.  With armor, there is a classic trade-off; better protection generally means less available weight to carry other items (although this is completely broken by the presence of rare Magic Armors, which are both superior in strength and have reduced weight).  There are plenty of weapons and armor to build a powerful team, which can include up to eight characters (including the player’s character, the “Avatar”).  Again, not that any of this is novel or uncommon for an RPG.

What really stands out about U7 though is the fact that the combat, the training, the awesome armor and weapons, the killer spells; all of these are just completely irrelevant.  Combat is generally absurdly easy.  The combat difficulty also fails to elevate with progression (with a few unexpected and frustrating exceptions).  The lack of escalation turns out to be a blessing though (intentionally???), because there is little control over what happens when combat starts, and there is essentially no interface available to manage it even if you wanted.  Basically you hit “c” and the AI takes you and your team over to the bad guys and just starts hacking.  I mean, really, that’s it.  There is not even a Diablo-style clicking on enemies to swing a sword, the computer just sort of does everything for you.  There are rarely as many enemies (being outnumbered by slime or rats does not count in my book) as you have companions, so you have a numeric  advantage at virtually every encounter.  Even fire-breathing dragons and fully armored paladins aren’t able to stand up to you.  If combat is so easy, why have all this other stuff in there to build up your characters?  The lack of control makes battle feel like a chore, as there is generally no need to create any sort of strategy to deal with different problems.  Some of these issues could be due to Exult, as it is an emulator using the game file, but I don’t think that’s the case.  For such a celebrated game, there is just this gigantic design hole.

As far as plot resolution though, U7 puts a great deal of emphasis, as did prior titles, on puzzle solving.  This is where the difficulty really comes in.  Fortunately, U7 disposes of many of the lever based puzzles of U6.  The reduced number of switch and maze puzzles (the ones in here are still pretty nasty) have been replaced with something either brilliantly better, or infinitely worse in the event you’re stumped though.   The plot, and uncovering it, is really the true puzzle of this game.  Although from a conceptual standpoint, I think this is a great feature that clearly is a crucial element derived from the main plot, it’s also incredibly maddening in the event that you don’t know where to go next.

After passing a well-disguised tutorial (and also an imbedded copyright check), you are immediately off on your own.   There is no channeling the player into staged events or encounters.  There are no “the only bridge out of town is closed” or invisible force fields contrivances locking things up.  You have the freedom to go off and do whatever, pretty much right off the bat.  There is a good indication that you need to talk to Lord British as far as direction goes.  Then you need to speak with Batlin, who is obviously important because he’s the author of the “guide” that comes with the game (it’s like the first day of school you’re expected to do your pre-reading).  Batlin indirectly reveals leads that lead to resolving main pieces of the Fellowship story line, but after that, things get more murky.

Case in point, a series of key plot objectives are revealed to the player by a fortune teller.  Maybe it isn’t a huge leap that you would talk to a fortune teller (seems like a Shakespearean literary device), but to even know that there is one out there, and where she is, you have to endure a frustrating and completely unrelated linguistic mini-game with Lord British’s court jester, Chuckles.  Chuckles will only answer questions if you respond with answers that are comprised of one syllable words only, but he won’t tell you that’s what “the game” is all about, leaving you guessing as to why he’s just instantly terminating the dialogue tree.  Not only do you know know what the rules to “the game” are, the TRULY frustrating part is that there is absolutely no clue anywhere telling you that you should bother to play it.  There is no logical basis to assume that Chuckles has any sort of useful advice.  Nobody tells you to speak to him.  So, the player is forced into a situation where it is stuck with a challenging riddle, and no indication that it’s even relevant to the story.  Given the open-ended nature of the game, most players rationally would just jump to another solid lead.  Because you should probably run into the fortune teller as part of another quest, and speaking to Chuckles isn’t a prerequisite to having your fortune told, I guess there is at least an argument that this is excusable.  Or possibly, the expectation is probably that you’ve played a prior Ultima, and that you know this guy is important to solving your journey, even if he’s truly a clown.  As far as strategy goes, what’s the lesson to the player though?

The logical approach to this kind of problem in U7 is to play as a perfectionist, and attempt to complete every possible objective you run into.  But this approach would also be flawed; many side quests are just totally irrelevant to the main story, so you’re likely to have lot more misses than hits.  Not only are the side quests generally irrelevant in terms of the plot, they are irrelevant in that karma is no longer a prerequisite to completing objectives.  What’s worst though, might be that the people only thank you, as opposed to offering some sort of reward.  Are all these extra side quests just false leads?  If important things don’t stand out, how are you supposed to know what to do?  Things eventually narrow and become linear as the game progresses, but the journey to that point can be very irritating.

Needless to say, resolving the plot without a walkthrough would be very challenging.  But not knowing what the rules are is really where U7 excels, or fails depending on how you look at it.  Take the teleporter or optical illusion puzzles.  When you first encounter these, it’s unclear what’s happening.  The fact that there are false walls, or in some cases completely transparent hidden walls, in the game is just something that probably happens as a result of trial and error for most players.  There’s no clues or cues to indicate when you should look for this sort of thing.  Again, you wouldn’t even know to expect that these things existed without playing prior Ultima games.

The minimalist approach to conveying to the player what the goals of the game are is refreshing.  It’s totally an old-school PC game thing.  In a game where you’re supposed to be a detective, even if you’re masquerading as a warrior, not having a mini-mark everything up for you is appropriate.  Contextually, you could also make an argument that the lack of direction is crucial to one of U7’s major themes; that of questioning authority.  But we’re back at the other end of the double-edged sword.  Would you rather be hand held and told what the right answer is, or would you rather risk having a defeated player return your game to the rental store with his head down (assuming this were still 1992)?  I think I know which way modern developers are going after having played Skyrim, but I wonder what the consequences are for game design integrity.  At the same time, I wonder if some of these choices were made to sell strategy guides.  That said, there are abundant walkthroughs out there, but that might just ruin U7 for you entirely.

Ultima: Synchronicity

Is the future of the Ultima franchise becoming less murky?

I don’t know how I missed this, because I’ve been Googling all sorts of Ultima stuff lately (I have a series of posts planned on Ultima 7 that I should be rolling out pretty soon).  But, wow, a BioWare Ultima game.  This might be what the Ultima series needs to get a reboot.  A good thing considering behind all the dated, clunky games there are really some conceptual gems.

Other research (happily) confirms it’s both free and also not an MMO.

Sign up for the beta. 

 

Bin Laden raider is ‘Medal of Honor: Warfighter’ consultant

Great stuff. I’d love to see who’s able to figure out what the next level is with the combat FPS format.

Hero Complex - movies, comics, pop culture - Los Angeles Times

There’s a reason why shooting games are becoming so realistic.

The Tier One U.S. Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year and identified by name Thursday by Fox News is a consultant for an upcoming game published by Electronic Arts titled “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” according to a person close to the matter. The person declined to be identified because of a confidentiality agreement.

Matt Bissonnette retired from the Navy last summer and wrote a book under the pseudonym Mark Owen describing the raid that led to Bin Laden’s death. The book, “No Easy Day,” is set to be released Sept. 11 by its publisher, Penguin Group.

Bissonnette’s name had been a closely guarded secret, both for national security reasons as well as his own personal safety.

Besides writing “No Easy Day,” Bissonnette did what many retired military personnel do — founded a…

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Watch Dogs

Second or third post I’ve seen on WordPress talking about Watch Dogs.  Take 10 minutes and watch this video.  It looks like it’s a missing link in bringing the sandbox genre to the next level.

Adding an open world aspect into a game obviously is a prized element because it has the potential to draw the user in, and create greater number of user experiences.  Why program objectives when you can let the player create their own?  I think this feature is generally done poorly in a lot of sandbox type games though.  Sure GTA is great, but does anybody remember True Crime, Streets of LA?  A bland world, or one where all of the encounters are scripted, and therefore limited, sets a winner apart from a loser.  More often than not the people are just in the game as animated shrubbery.

Where I see the real potential with Watch Dogs is that the world is both very organic in that it exists outside the player as a being in of itself, and also offers a more fulfilling connection through the hacking concept.  The character derives power from the access and control of information, not through a magic artifact or radioactive deus ex machina.  The impact of exploding digital information on our lives, and how it has changed our world really has taken place outside the game design sphere.

Take this bloggers observations for one:  http://zoyastreet.com/2012/07/26/phantasy-star-online-2-a-glimpse-of-the-future-through-the-prism-of-the-past/  A million years in the future and no Wi-Fi?  Please.  For god’s sake, the U.S. military has more advanced weapons than the Terrans.  Not that a video game ever will, or even should be realistic, but creating some sort of demi-god through the manipulation, disruption, and control of communication is an interesting paradigm.  Not necessarily because it’s realistic, but because it says something about our actual world.  I’d really like to see what the developers do with this great concept.

InFamous 2

I’ve been super busy lately, but managed to sneak in some time for another free PS Plus offering; InFamous 2.  I want to first note that game developers have been trying to develop high-quality, sandbox-style superhero games for, well, since Grand Theft Auto 3 proved to everyone that a sandbox city could be done well in 3D.  Unfortunately a lot of the effort has been put into developing games that are tie-ins to already successful franchises like Spiderman or Batman.  It makes sense from a developers’ standpoint; they get to use ideas that have already been fleshed out and proven successful (really incredibly successful) in other media.  On the other hand, it’s a risky bet because gamers have had 30 years of experience being victimized by bad movie and comic tie-ins.  The only real standout has been Arkham City, which I’ve already written about.  InFamous 2 breaks from this convention and tries to take its own path.  It’s refreshing that this game isn’t about some a 60’s comic book character.

Story/Environment

Welcome to New Marais (AKA: New Orleans)!  The developers of InFamous 2 have decided to relocate the action from a New York type metropolis (Empire City), to a post-Katrina New Orleans.  Considering the social and political baggage from the 2005 hurricane that might still be out there, it’s certainly a bold move.  I appreciate the originality.  Considering the world of InFamous 2 and it’s main character, Cole MacGrath, “the electric man,” it also proves to be apt in providing a backdrop to the story and action.  Music has a creole feel to it at times, but doesn’t feel out of place in an action game.

New Marais, like it’s real life counterpart, was devastated some years earlier by a massive flood.  Although there does not appear to be any specific references to a botched federal disaster response, the flood has apparently had a big impact on the lives of the citizens.  At least that’s what you’re told.  New Marais is now an island in the figurative, as well as literal sense; it’s run by a privately operated militia, which dwarfs the police in size and power.  The power vacuum is only tangentially connected with the flood however, the real story has to do with the destablizing effects of “conduits,” people with superpowers such as the main character.  Some sort of political point or message could have been made here, but it was left out.  The only impact it seems to have made, other than making a mess of some of the territory the player navigates, was that it fostered an isolated sense of community.  There is a missed opportunity here for some sort of message perhaps.  To come so close to saying something, anything, and then use then use the flood as anything more than a canvas for more challenging battles seems a bit callous to me.  Could you imagine if there was some sort of 9/11 reference in GTA’s Liberty City?  9/11 and “Hot Coffee” mode seem to be the ONLY two things out of bounds for GTA, and there’s a case to be made Hurricane Katrina is maybe off-limits too, at least to your average New Orleans resident.

The protagonist (or perhaps not depending on some of the choices you make), Cole, is likewise carefully constructed.  The opening video, in partially-animated graphic novel style, explains that prior to acquiring his superpowers, Cole is a bike courier who dropped out of college to piss off his parents.  That one sentence is really a perfect explanation of Cole; he makes his own decisions, he doesn’t always do what’s told or what other people think is right, and he’s comfortable with himself and the choices he’s made.  Cole easily fits into the description of either a total dick, or a badass with a heart of gold.  It’s ambiguous intentionally.  Part of the noncommittal nature of Cole is necessary from a narrative perspective.  InFamous 2 requires you to make choices between good and evil alternatives in a few key missions, and again at the end of the game.  By making Cole seem morally ambiguous, or callously indifferent, the developer’s avoided having to create alternative cutscenes, or creating a branching story path.  Sadly, as I’ll discuss later , the “karma” system in place here, and presumably is where the title of the game is derived, is underutilized and not really that good.  The lack of branching story missions essentially means that the only choice that matters is the last one, and that it’s the same set of options whether you’ve spent the entire duration of the game mowing down cops or healing wounded pedestrians.  Cole lusts for power, but his motivations remain unclear until the player makes that final choice.  Physically Cole’s former life as a courier also fits into the gameplay design.  He’s athletic, good at climbing, and wears a two-way radio in a pocket that’s part of a backpack strap.  Of course every superhero needs a handy two-way communicator.  His running looks natural, and meshes well with rolling dives or big jumps.  Cole’s outfit is just a shirt and pants and some tattoos, which change color depending on which way you’ve been leaning with your karmic activities.

Cole’s powers are derived from electricity, making InFamous one of the best vampire games out there.  Electricity is loosely your life, but mostly your ammo for attacks that include throwing thunderbolts, grenades, launching cars, and creating huge vortexes of energy.  Most importantly, the environmental design seems tuned to the actual gameplay.  There are ample sources of electricity that Cole can feed off of in a pinch, but attention has also been put into the effect that dropping all this voltage has on objects; transformers and light poles conduct blasts that don’t make contact, and fuses blow out.  Plenty of rooftops around to push militia off of.  Water, naturally is lethal, which probably explains why you never see Cole take a shower, and also why later sections of the game feature flooded sections to “amp” up the difficulty.  Locked areas of the map have to be powered up by activating transformers, a neat way of keeping some areas off-limits to earlier exploration.  There is a big 3D world just begging you to mix it up.

Other characters are not so well developed, and a few are only introduced by doing some annoying “dead drop” sidequests or having familiarity with the original InFamous.  The only real character other than Cole that isn’t just some sort of ethical foil or plot stepping stone is Zeke, Cole’s best friend and Elvis look-alike.  Zeke, a former courier like Cole, thinks for himself, and  has a way of grounding Cole to his human side.

InFamous 2’s story itself is a bit uneven, and clearly draws on some old X-Men story arcs.  Not that this is terrible, but it definitely struck me as a bit derivative.  The central conflict is between the existence of the super-powered “Conduits,” and everyone else.  Predictably, Cole has the power to determine which side survives.

Gameplay

The core of the game is good, what doesn’t work every well are the RPG and sandbox elements that have been added in.  Health regenerates slowly over time, but also can be stolen from the electrical grid or incapacitated enemies.  The two brightest elements of this game are the climbing dynamics and the physics.  Although climbing is not Assassin’s Creed good, it’s head and shoulders over many other games.  It looks a lot like Assassin’s Creed, in that advancement up a wall depends on the proximity to certain grapple points.  So, obviously this works because the environment has been designed to accommodate it.  Because Cole can glide, but not fly, getting up high is a big part of strategy in InFamous 2.  Fortunately some care has been put into how exactly you’re supposed to do that.

The physics are just great.  Although good 3D physics are available in a lot of games now, they stand out in InFamous 2 because they’re used so much.  Grenades, the ability to throw a wall of force, and levitating and launching passenger cars make the action BIG.  Ragdoll effects hit enemies right away, as opposed to only popping up on a deathblow like in Skyrim.  This mass destruction is also helped by the presence of a huge number of objects present that respond to brute force.  Wooden walkways shatter with explosions, transformers and light poles get blown out, and warehouse walls and ceilings get blown out.  Actually using your powers is fast-based, as most of the enemies have deadly weapons and quick reflexes.  I should note that the melee controls stand out in the “needs improvement” category though.

Where InFamous 2 suffers is the filler content; RPG side-quest style leveling.  There are no mini-games or other styles of play in InFamous 2, so every side quest deals with more combat.  These diversions are either very easy or very hard, depending on what enemies popup.  Usually there is some NPC that tells you to do something, and then there is some combat.  These quests have no relationship to the actual main story or plot.  There’s just not enough differentiation in the styles of play here to make these side-quests meaningful.  Most importantly, there is a bizarre experience system baked into unlocking stronger versions of powers in InFamous 2.  The only way to get significant experience is by knocking out the side-quests, forcing a grinding sort of drudgery into the process.  The whole XP system is arbitrary though.  A cutscene will give you 500XP just for watching two story characters talk, whereas the hardest side-quest will only give you 100XP.  Finding a hidden package gives you 3 XP.  Finally, doing the side-quests removes the appearance of enemies from the map; making the source of additional XP harder to come by later.  There are some side-quests that force alternate play styles, such as chasing an enemy down, or grinding on a series of powerline tightropes to get to another transformer, but these aspects of the game usually aren’t very difficult and always end with fighting a small army of enemies.  At first these seem like good departures from the normal story missions, but they begin to repeat quickly once new territories are unlocked.

Other sandbox style elements include multiple exploration elements, such as picking up “hidden packages,” called blast shards, and “dead drops.”  The dead drops explain aspects of the story through short excerpts of audio recordings.  I’m reminded of the monument puzzle games in Assassin’s Creed 2.  Unfortunately there are no monuments to mark where these story points might be, and I never got much out of completing them.  Picking up blast shards is a nice diversion, but getting all of them seems like a huge waste of time as they don’t offer much benefit or XP.  The obvious influence is GTA; InFamous 2 even copies GTA’s menuless automatic loading.  Where GTA4 is very mature, however, in that it really captures the existentialism of the sandbox genre (and perhaps life itself???), InFamous 2 uses the size and breadth as a ploy to make the game longer.  All this serves to do is make the total fun per minute ratio lower; a much better approach would be side missions that lead to some sort of tangible story realization, character development, or accomplishment other than a pitiful amount of experience points.  There is just no way to feel any emotional  investment in anything other than the main missions.

Lastly, and most surprisingly, the “karma” system in InFamous 2 is simply not that great.  This is because the method of earning karma (good or bad) is broken in the context of the main game, and also because the game encourages an all-in approach.  Because differing degrees of good or bad karma unlock more powerful versions of Cole’s superpowers, there is no advantage to be gained neutral karma.  You either need to be as good as possible, or completely evil.  You can’t get both mid-tier powers.  You can patrol the city searching for random muggings, or alternatively for patrols of police to silence.  But then there are opportunities to acquire blast shards, either by defusing bombs (good karma + blast shard), or by mugging (bad karma + blast shard).  If you just want a lot of blast shards though, you’re inclined to do both.  The karmic balance your character has doesn’t really have any other impact on the story other than changing some of the powers around, and changing your appearance.  Cole will look increasingly more pale and tattooed if you’re evil, but the developer’s did not change the story at all to reflect these choices.  You don’t lose anything of substantive value by picking one particular side.  There is no dark side of the force style temptation here, good karma just gives you a different set of awesomely destructive powers.  Finally, the gaining karma is pretty arbitrary as far as the side missions go.  A pedestrian will ask you to hunt down a monster, or stop a militia rampage, but these are karma neutral events (unless you kill some civilians in the crossfire).  It just doesn’t seem that well thought out.  Obviously ethics and morality aren’t cut and dry, but in InFamous 2 the implementation of the rules seems really arbitrary.

Final Thoughts

InFamous 2 is a familiar 3D person action format in a sandbox environment.  The sandbox aspects are decent, but the action aspects significantly outshine the former.  The RPG aspects of the game should have been refined.  A solid 8 with fun dynamics.  Hey, it’s free right now too.