Zen in the Art of Horse-Shit

Well, there’s one consistent thing about Rockstar’s most recent games: they’re markedly inconsistent.

Red Dead Redemption II has at least three buttons for context-sensitive actions (there may be more that I can’t remember). You pick up provisions by holding the X/Square button. You pick up weapons by holding LB/L1. You mount horses and take people into choke-holds by pressing Y/Triangle.

That last, calculated choice of controller setup caused me a couple of social faux pas that quickly developed into long elusions from the police.

There are a wide variety of care-taking activities in the game. Some are quick and automatic, while others are slow and laborious. Order some fried catfish at the saloon, and your character gobbles it down in a jump cut. Take a bath at the same saloon, however, and you need to mash three buttons to make him scrub each of his extremities, one at a time.

You interact with people, camps, and horses through menus at the lower-right of the screen. For people, these menus include options for robbing, friendly greetings, or masculine taunts. For camps, you can choose to sleep, cook food or craft items, or just leave. You can give horses tender pats, brush dirt from their hides, or feed them various vegetables. To actually perform some of these actions, you need only tap a button. To perform others, you must hold a button until a ring around the button icon fills. For some actions, the options differ from occasion to occasion, so pressing Y/Triangle will make you sleep for eight hours one night, and it will make you sleep for fifteen hours on another.

The game’s story missions involve a lot of horse travel, usually in the company of your gangster buddies. Sometimes, in the course of these trips, the game will draw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, meaning you can release the controller and just watch them talk and ride until they reach their destination. Other times, the game just keeps going, and you have to hold A/Cross and steer carefully while the characters talk and ride. If you don’t keep pace or follow the paths of your companions, they’ll yell and complain at you until you fall back in line. The game offers a “Cinematic Camera” for these situations, which helps keep your steed where it needs to be for the mission’s sake, but you still need to hold A/Cross for the duration of the ride.

The sum of this is that you simply cannot count on your character to do what you expect him to, without keeping vigil over the game’s prompts. The game involves a terrific amount of engagement and planning, in both the short and long terms. You can’t just gallop your horse through downtown Saint Denis, and then skid into the post in front of the barbershop. You might barrel over a pedestrian and wind up in jail over an assault charge. Besides, you need to position your horse just right, and then hold Y/Triangle for a couple of seconds to hitch it properly in the first place. No, no, you have to judge the road before you enter it, and then make your way along it with patience, just as you would in real city traffic. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind getting into a costly accident.

So, is all this just complaining? What do you think? The word “inconsistent” has a foul connotation, but I haven’t done anything other than describe the game’s details. When I began playing RDRII, I deemed its confusion as the mark of poor communication between a series of disparate design teams. Maybe that’s how it happened; I don’t know. Whether it was intentional or not, though, I find that I now appreciate it.

I rush through games nowadays. I was playing Skyrim a few days ago, when I felt exasperated at the repetitive combat, and the annoying characters who still gave me lip after I’d slain Alduin the World-Eater and saved their ungrateful butts. I asked myself just why in hell I was doing it. What, exactly, had compelled me to start the game up on that particular day? After some boiling, I got to the bones of my motivation, and discovered that I just wanted to get some of those god-damned entries off of my quest list.

When I manage my farm or explore a mine in Stardew Valley, I always fall into an efficient rut of behavior, always in pursuit of the most profitable wines, always seeking the next ladder to the unseen floors below.

Metroid games reward quick completion with images of Samus in varying degrees of nudity. People brag that they reached the final boss of Breath of the Wild within ten minutes of play. Online clubs devote themselves to speed-running. 

I understand that games are about goals, and that much of the joy of play is in building wise strategies to meet those goals. Of course you want a high score. Of course you want 100%-completion. Of course you want that rare achievement, so you find the quickest, most effective way to get it, and then you win. Right? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What RDRII is telling me is to slow the hell down. Its makers worked pretty damn hard to construct its world, and though it’s little more than a weaving of smoke, so is most of real life. Do you want to rush through that, too, without taking a moment to, you know, experience the moment?

Arthur Morgan’s actions, even in the chaos of combat, are all very deliberate. He saunters. He slurs. He peeks into chests and drawers with a languid, I-got-all-the-time-the-world casualness. Sometimes he doesn’t even act when you tell him to. Not immediately, anyway. He just isn’t a hurried man. He certainly doesn’t have the crisp, stimulated motion of a Black Ops character, I’ll tell you that. Now, you can scream at the screen about it if you want to, but if you just relax and have a little faith, you’ll see. Arthur’ll get to it. Sure.

The fascinating truth is that the button menus in this game force you to think about what you’re doing right now, not about what you’re going to do a few seconds into the conceptual future. They force you into the moment. Arthur’s ponderous nature keeps you there.

This might sound peculiar, but when I hear the creaks of Arthur’s footsteps, or the rustle of his coat, or the jingling of his horse’s bridle, I think about the miracle of my own movement. How the heck do I do it, anyway? Where does the will to move come from?

I think about the minor motions of simple, daily activities, and about the ripples they send into the void. Opening the cabinet, pulling down the coffee mug, lifting the sink lever, seeing the mug fill with ripples, waves, and bubbles. Moving the mouse, opening the software, clacking the keys to make symbols that others will interpret. I do this everyday, altering and expressing into the pattern at large, and I don’t even know how it’s done. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that tremendous? Isn’t that worth stopping to wonder about?

RDRII is full of beautiful things to look at. The trees, the birds, the horses, the horizons — they’re all strikingly depicted. But isn’t the real world infinitely more beautiful than a mere simulation? Isn’t a twenty-minute drive to work just as lovely as a twenty-second, imaginary horse ride? Isn’t the idea of controlling a magnificent contraption with incremental, reflexive motions, just extraordinary?

Then, when you arrive at work, you enter into a sea of people united in the process of providing for themselves, and for the community. You are involved in a thoughtfully devised social structure where everyone makes a difference, no matter how small. Everything you say to your co-workers changes them, and everything they do changes you. Just like when you greet or antagonize those random pedestrians on the muddy streets of Valentine, you’re adding to the pattern, expressing the process. All you have to do is…well, take the time to do it, and then watch what happens. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that empowering? Isn’t that worth living for?

So maybe they fucked up. Maybe Rockstar screwed a whole litter of pooches and didn’t wind up with the perfect product that Nintendo or Blizzard would have made. Maybe a wide part of their audience won’t like it, and the game will get a lot of flak for it. I like it, though. My time with Red Dead Redemption II has been one of the most Zen experiences I can remember, and it’s been very good for me. When you try it out, I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy it, too.

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V

**

Developed by Rockstar Games. Published by Take-Two Interactive. Available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One.

Guess what? Grand Theft Auto is back…again. Like other hits released at the tail end of the last console generation, the gaming event that was Grand Theft Auto V has received the “Definitive Edition” treatment: a next-gen coat of paint, some added features, and a re-release at full price. Should you shell out for it a second time? Well, a year ago I would have said “Hell yeah” simply because of the hype, but now I’d give a careful “Yes, so long as you tweak your expectations.” GTA has changed a lot over the past thirteen years, and its current focus might not be where you want it to be.

By now, you already know what GTA V is about: three criminals with very different backgrounds unite and perform a series of heists around the fictional city of Los Santos. You have Michael, a former bank robber who’s having a mid-life crisis. You’ve got Franklin, a repo man who’s trying to break free from his gang ties. Then there’s Trevor, a manic meth-head who dreams of a life of chaos. When these three get together, you get shooting, you get driving, you get carjacking, you get a whole hell of a lot of missions. You know the drill by now: steal cars, drive here, shoot that, lose the cops, torture this guy, blow up that guy, watch that woman get sucked into a jet engine. Typical GTA stuff. In fact, it feels a little tiresome by now. What puts the missions a cut above other games is the story. There’s a constant stream of social commentary flowing through this game, and you’ll love it if you can get on its cynical wavelength. I don’t usually care about story in games, but I care about this one. Of course, the plot isn’t sensical or plausible, and Michael and Trevor are such strong characters that they overshadow the rest of the cast, but there’s some heady, heavy stuff in here. The cutscenes are well-acted, dramatic, shocking, and they’re even laugh-out-loud funny. If you play GTA V just to screw around in the open world, you’re missing the best parts.

It helps that they look breathtaking. GTA V looked incredible even on consoles past, but now it’s even better. The characters have convincing faces and movements. Car interiors, the only aspect of the previous version that looked bad, now have full ridges and contours. The California sun bathes the world in beautiful, natural-looking color, and the northern deserts look like photographs. Never before has a game inspired me to stop what I was doing just so I could watch a freaking sunrise. Those bleeding pinks and grays…they really just nailed it. Los Santos isn’t just a place to make trouble, it’s a place to sightsee (an activity that works especially well with the new first-person viewpoint). If you look around long enough, you’ll find some cool surprises to look at, though that’s pretty much all you can do with them.

I have to say, GTA V is a strange product overall. Within the framework of its missions, it’s an excellent, story-based video game, but between those missions, it’s like visiting an amusement park, complete with the walks and the waiting and the expensive food. It is the latest step on a path that Rockstar started on in 2002 with Vice City. That was the point when they steered away from the development of groundbreaking gameplay, and focused on the construction of incredibly detailed worlds. I don’t just mean that their games have great graphics, either. While other game makers concentrate on stretching their environments to enormous sizes and packing them with slightly varied side quests, Rockstar pours its efforts into that less-tangible quality of atmosphere. Their mantra seems to be “deeper characters, smarter dialogue, more texture in the corners.” You can trace the rise of this design dogma as it threads through games like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3, with GTA V sitting at the pinnacle. No one else does world-building of this caliber. Even role-playing games, with their volumes of backstory and lore, don’t capture the sensation of BEING THERE as well as GTA V does, but that doesn’t mean it’s always exciting.

I’m just going to say it: there are a lot of parts of GTA V that are pointless, or just plain dull. Driving from one place to another can take a good long while, and it actually made me sleepy at times. The game has ATM machines that display your cash balance, when your HUD already does a perfectly good job of that. You can take a star tour, get a lap dance, hunt animals, run marathons, do yoga, play tennis and golf, and even go skydiving, and all these activities are surprisingly rich little mini-games, but, really, just…why? Isn’t this supposed to be a game about crime? Oh, and get a rubber band out of the junk drawer if you want to complete the cult storyline, because one of its missions requires Michael to WALK FIVE MILES IN A CIRCLE. I’m not joking. I know it’s supposed to be satirical of cult practices, but five miles? Wouldn’t one mile get the point across? No video game should ask such a thing. It’s like something Andy Warhol would come up with if he made games. If it’s a joke, then the joke’s on us.

What’s even more frustrating is that GTA V introduces some neat gameplay ideas to balance out the boredom, but then it leaves them half-baked. Michael can saunter around his mansion and say hi to his wife and kids, but he can only have conversations with them over the phone. You can take pictures with your phone, but you can’t record video. Franklin has a Rottweiler named Chop who can sniff out collectibles or run down bad guys, but he only features in one or two missions. Hand-to-hand combat is much more responsive than it was in GTA IV, but strangely enough, most of the people you fight will hit the floor after a single punch. You can swap characters at will during some missions, but it’s only useful at certain scripted moments. The famous heists appear full of emergent possibilities from the surface, as they allow players to pick their plans and allies, but all these choices affect are the branches in pre-determined events. You don’t get to post shooters, choose vehicles, draw escape routes, or anything like that.

Then there are the controls. Like the game’s design, they’re not exactly bad — they’re greatly improved over GTA IV’s — they’re just unconventional. Most games assign context-sensitive actions to a single button, but GTA V uses three. The buttons used for reloading weapons and taking cover also stubbornly differ from gaming standards. The game’s generous auto-aim makes most firefights too easy, but if you turn it off, they get too hard. There’s no cruise control option, in a game whose long freeways demand it. And you still have to hold a button to make your character jog at a reasonable speed…but not in multiplayer or first-person mode. It makes no sense. Just ditch the run button already!

These oversights aren’t deadly to GTA V, as they’re from the same vein of niggling problems common to most Rockstar games. It’s just that I think a lot of this stuff should be ironed out by now, especially in a second release. I also think this game would be better if it was structured like Max Payne 3, and if the game world felt, well, more like a game. The truth is, though, that this is a story-based game whose story is so good it makes everything surrounding it look lame and unnecessary, and sadly, most of it is.

The good news is that you have a lot of good options for open-world games now. GTA isn’t your sole choice. Get Far Cry 4 if you want a variety of activities with emergence and freedom of play. Get Sunset Overdrive if you want constant engaging action. Get GTA V, though, if you want to take part in a beautiful, well-produced, action-adventure story that’s on par with AMC’s best dramas. Just expect a little ennui dashed in there as well. Sorry, but you can’t have it all.

Kifflom!

Game Review: Diablo III Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition

****

Developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Published by Activision. Available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. Reviewed on Xbox One.

Diablo III is here…again! The best PC game of 2013 has arrived on consoles new and old, and it’s made the trip with only a few minor scratches. Now you can enjoy Blizzard’s addictive monster-masher on your HDTV, and I highly recommend that you do.

If you actually care about the storyline of the Diablo games (and you really shouldn’t), here’s the setup: this dude falls from Heaven and crashes into the backwater of New Tristram, causing assorted unpleasant creatures to run amok. You play a gifted warrior called the Nephalem who shows up to save the day. Of course, a grander plot opens from here, something about big bad demons taking over the world. D3 works hard to wax about its expansive universe, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. The design philosophy behind this ARPG was clearly “more A, less RPG.”

D3 has taken the traditional formula of gutting monsters, gathering gold, and gaining levels and whittled it into a sleek machine. At its core, D3 is pretty standard RPG stuff: you run through fields and caves and castles, slaughtering any critters you encounter. When your bags are full of the junk they drop, you go to town to sell it off or salvage it, and then it’s back to the death factory for another shift. By the end of the game, you’ll have cleared dozens of dungeons of thousands of bad guys. Kill-loot-kill-loot-kill is pretty much all it is. Now, this might sound dull and repetitive, but hallelujah, praise be, D3 makes grinding fun.

To accomplish this, Blizzard has worked hard to make those two verbs as enjoyable as possible. First, it pushes more presents on you than a happy grandma. Almost every encounter ends in a shower of treasure. The gold and gear flow endlessly, and your character is always improving. Second, the game does away with the sandwich combat of yesteryear. You won’t just be pressing A until the enemies die, though that’s still partly involved. Many of the battles in the game require you to dodge dangerous projectiles and areas of effect while positioning yourself for effective strikes of your own. The fights can become absolutely chaotic, and with all the flames, blood, shrapnel, and money flying around, it feels a little like Smash TV at times.

In most RPGs, your character’s equipment determines how he or she fights. Not so here. At least, not so much. In D3, weapons are pretty much just for show. They provide the numbers. What matters are the moves. Each of the six character classes has a vast set of fighting skills, each with five tweaks called “runes,” that suit their particular styles.

The Barbarian is the chop-chop-chopper of the game, using relatively simple bashes and smashes in an effective, if inelegant manner.

The Demon Hunter cripples and confuses foes with traps and acrobatics, and then picks them off with crossbow fire.

The Crusader is a wall of defense that soaks up enemy hits while holding the tide back with a mix of melee and ranged strikes.

The Monk leaps into crowds of monsters and bats them silly with martial arts combos and super moves.

The Wizard is human artillery: physically weak, but capable of raining hell and devastation from a distance.

The Witch Doctor commands an entourage of pets that rips monsters apart while flitting about and firing into the fracas.

The key to success in D3 is experimenting with your skills and runes until you find a load out that works for you. A good combination can be devastating to opponents, dazzling to your eyeballs, and oh so satisfying to your gamer neurons. All of the moves use hefty, chunky sound effects, as well as particles and physics. What’s more, most of the environments are full of destructible objects and decor, so every battle becomes a show. Sending a crowd of monster corpses sailing into the sky, or down a rocky cliff, is a greater reward to me than any number of experience points, though gaining levels does feel pretty good. Every level unlocks new runes, after all.

Once you hit level 70, which doesn’t take as long as you might expect, every level up nets you a Paragon Point. These points can be spent on stat boosts, and when one character earns one, ALL of your characters get one, even characters created afterward. It’s a nice incentive to keep playing even after you’ve hit the cap.

The game has plenty of other reasons to keep you on the monster hunt long after the story is done. If things get too tough or too easy, you can choose from TEN difficulty levels whenever you want. There’s the genius Adventure Mode, a sort of “open-world” mode that lets you go to zone in any act at any time, and take on quests that are randomized every time you play. You have Nephalem Rifts, weird nightmarish dungeons with unique bosses and objectives. Then there are crafting plans to find, optional missions for the party members you’ll meet, player-vs. player brawling, and even a sort of gambling where you trade special currency for items that may or may not be good. The game seems small in scope at first, but it quickly gets deep and expansive, with tons of ever-changing environments to explore.

So you should definitely get this game. I think it has a place on everybody’s shelf. But which version should you get? Well, that depends, as both versions have their pros and cons. The PC version is capable of extremely high graphical resolutions, and thanks to Blizzard’s fine optimization, it runs pretty well even on aged machines. The console version runs at 1080p, but it’s still clear that a lot of the UI had to be truncated or removed altogether. Still, it’s guaranteed to run at a constant 60 frames per second, no matter how much nuttiness is onscreen. The mouse controls of the PC version allow great precision and easy inventory management, but moving, dodging, and chaining attacks feels far more natural with a gamepad, which is only supported on consoles. The PC version requires a constant internet connection, even during single player games, and if your bandwidth is low, you’ll get rubber-banding issues. Worse, if Blizzard’s servers are down, you don’t get to play at all! The console version doesn’t have that issue with local play. Hell, the console version even allows on-the-couch multiplayer, which you certainly can’t enjoy on the PC.

The removal of the online leash is what pushes me to favor the console game. The only feature it’s missing from its PC cousin is “Seasons,” a peculiar online competition that Blizzard hosts. I don’t miss that, though, and I highly doubt that anyone but the most devoted fans will either. Here’s a game that gets both the short-term and long-term flows just right, that provides vibrant challenge and satisfying reward in just the right measures, and that can be as stressful or as therapeutic as you want it to be. Most importantly, it puts its gameplay ahead of its story, just as it should.

It also has a good sense of humor. Heck, I could have saved a lot of your time with this review by simply quoting one of the followers in the game, Lyndon the Scoundrel. He sums the whole game up when he calls out, “Look at that thing over there. Let’s kill it!”