Here we are again and it only took me a month. As usual I hope you enjoy the read. :D
This is a big 'un, but not necessarily on the front as much as in the work I put into behind the scenes changes only to scrap them. Basically, I had everything converted to a button layout where you could actually collapse and open “tabs” at will. It got reverted because I did not like the fact opened sections stacked on top of each other rather than collapsing all but the one that's currently opened. This works just fine for smaller chunks of text where you can read them without scrolling. With my walls of text where you still have to scroll; first to read through them and then to select the next piece by pressing the appropriate tab button, I think current format works out better.
There are some other changes such as overhaul of the basic information layout which is more of a visual change for the sake of it. To be perfectly honest real intention was getting couple of extra lines to work with, but then I had to separate that from the main body of the text so it evened out. Real change lies in expanding my thumbs up, down or middle to a properly granular rating system at the end of reviews. Why the change? Because I wanted to separate my reviews from Steam's rating system. I simply applied it to everything else from there on out. One last thing is unification of all video game reviews under a single category now titled “Chronicles & Ventures” seeing as there is really no reason to keep Steam games and non-Steam games separate. Now I just have to figure out how to handle Steam games that don't have traditional box covers. Even with something like SteamGameCovers and other resources it's going to be tricky short of creating my own covers and I'm not that crazy yet.
Props to Shax for letting me steal his bolding-for-emphasis technique.
Chronicles & Ventures
The future is unwritten. there are best case scenarios. There are worst-case scenarios. both of them are great fun to write about if you’ re a science fiction novelist, but neither of them ever happens in the real world. What happens in the real world is always a sideways-case scenario. World-changing marvels to us, are only wallpaper to our children.
Why does this always happen to me? I procrastinate for a long time and then cram two games in under a week. Well, it's been almost half a year since I last dabbled in open world so I decided to give it a go once again and with the next Assassin's Creed game no less. For a change of pace I then decided to break it up a bit with something different and here we are. In retrospective it's kind of a shame Syndicate is still stuck on Origin if you want to play on PC.
Assassin's Creed Rogue
If I really wanted to be an ass I would re-direct you to simply read my Black Flag review because this one hits so many things established there, so much so it feels like a companion game. Yet I think that would be a mistake because despite obvious similarities in gameplay design and decisions aka shamelessly copying I'll get into later, Rogue actually serves more as a link between Assassin's Creed 3 and, from what I've gathered, Assassin's Creed Unity – a then-new Assassin's Creed game Rogue's release coincided with on different console generations because Ubisoft, I guess. Looking ahead one can only hope this will result in somewhat shorter review as I gloss over or briefly summarize some established points. A fool's hope, one might say.
Story-wise we're looking at a sort off retrospection opening for this one as our protagonist Shay Patrick Cormac narrates about what appear to be his youthful days and gameplay transitions to chasing a unknown figure. It doesn't take long for his friend Liam to reveal it all to be part of friendly banter and Shay himself to be an assassin in training. Right from the opening act Rogue has much more in common with Assassin's Creed established lore and story compared to Black Flag [take a drink every time I make this comparison, btw] and it takes even less time for us to see some old friends like Achilles and Adéwalé, former a younger version of himself while latter an elder incarnation of the Creed. I do wish many of these characters stuck around for longer periods of time or managed to at least make an impact as far as their personalities go. There's something morbidly humorous in Heytham Kenway yet again standing out despite his support role at best.
I will be honest and admit that despite initial hook and ties being much stronger this time around story itself isn't exactly what I would call well written. In the early parts of the game you're following a weak narrative dealing with Precursor sites and rubbing elbows with your usual historical figures the likes of Benjamin Franklin, but the REAL appeal comes when something so horrible happens that Shay can't help blaming the Brotherhood for and he ends up in inadvertently switching sides to build the world he believes in. This heel turn is helped by simple fact that it gets more screen time. If you look at the previous game Edward undergoes something similar but because it happens so late in the game you never really buy into it or his character development. Even if Cormac starts out with a personality somewhat comparable to everyone's favorite pirate captain his outlook on life changes in more believable ways. If I had to summarize I'd probably say the following: Black Flag's story suffers from being dragged out and poignant parts coming in too late to matter, while Rogue's is simply too condensed because of game's rushed nature considering Ubisoft's priorities at release.
Putting story aside you'll be glad to hear that gameplay is tried and true fare... which probably has you either rolling your eyes or gleaming with joy. No, scratch that, actually. I'd say it's an improvement over last game's take simply because it had more time to refine it. Someone noticed you were doing too much swimming between your ship and small islands so it was lessened with cold water slowly draining your health, which probably lead to tighter designs. There are also some additions which decisively feel like sidesteps, for example. You no longer have access to four guns for rapid fire and stunlocking but will rather have to contend with two and owning a brand new air rifle. Air rifle? You know, the best goddamn stealth tool any assassins could ask for. Multi-purpose darts and grenades reign supreme and you'll forget you even have pistols when formulating your approaches. Many among fandom, myself included, will also find themselves cheering as there are no eavesdropping missions in the game and in fact entire ground segment, while familiar, feels a lot non-intrusive as a result. I'd say there's a far better split between sea and ground segments. Ship play also seems some improvement with having an ice breaker, rapid fire mounted gun to make boarding actions easier than ever as you mow the deck clean, automatic reduction of your infamy level over time, etc. You will still be hungry for materials to upgrade your new ship the Morrigan, sadly. It's one aspect of the game I wish they overhauled significantly considering you're A) not a pirate anymore and B) because of your new affiliation you actually have a standing with the English. In practice it just means you don't attack English ships anymore.
You can hardly spoil something when you've based your entire marketing campaign for the game on said fact.
Was there a period we had mandatory “wounded protagonist shambles around for a while” segment in EVERY game or am I going crazy over here?
I don't think I've done on-foot section enough justice above so I'll comment on it here just a bit longer. Informed people may be aware of the fact that Rogue doesn't have multiplayer, and that's a big blow considering Ubisoft somehow found a way for multiplayer to actually be engaging in these games, but people in charge of designing Rogue actually looked to said multiplayer of all places for inspiration. That translated into enemy assassins looking to set ambushes for Shay and hitting for 90% of your health which can leave you in deadly situations when paired with actually decent new obstacles like gang headquarters you need to clear in New York to clear areas and claim real estate. When these two go hand-in-hand it can lead to great things. Detection ring indicates when an assassin is about and you can actually counter kill them if you act quickly, but they'll do more than just go for the kill. Gang leaders can retreat, fire at you and cover their tracks will smoke bombs. Eagle Vision sees [heh] actual use after a long while, not to mention assassination contracts are now turned on their head as you PROTECT targets and eliminate assassins before the timer runs out and they attack. All-around I would simply describe ground sections as not merely tolerable, but also rather enjoyable.
So far it's been story and gameplay, both offering a mixed bag of sorts that both build on earlier games and include additions of their own. Now let's delve into some of the negatives in-depth.
Major issue which permeates the entirety of Assassin's Creed Rogue is one of almost being an afterthought of a game made simply to capitalize on previous console generation. Which is funny considering it received a Remastered version later down the road. What does this mean, though? It's not like we haven't had games that were essentially addons for numbered entries before. Hell, that's how we got Brotherhood and Revelations and those ranged from great to at least good. So what's different with Rogue? I'd put it somewhere between those two except the problem is there is no emotional hook the likes of what players had with wanting to see Ezio's story play itself out. Naval campaign nonsense with story-gated missions and real-life timers ticking down are still in and I couldn't stand that, doubly so because best melee weapon is tied to progression. Brotherhood system is absent yet again... which actually makes sense this time around so that gets a pass, but the fact Shay switches teams is in no way reflected in gameplay terms. You are still an Assassin and play as one. From what I've gathered Origins underwent a huge shakeup in terms of how Assassin's Creed franchise plays from that point onward, but I think Rogue could've been the one to do it much earlier.
So much for that shorter review, huh? I would still recommend giving the Black Flag one a read because I totally skimmed over or overlooked things to avoid repetition.
Looking back on my reviews it certainly has been a while since I last played a first-person shooter so downloading Syndicate on a whim certainly made for a strange call at the time. I remember it not getting such hot reviews over five years ago and I certainly wanted to verify a game that has remained an Origin exclusive on PC since release. Is it as bad? Not really, but I think there's a lot to talk about in this particular case so rev up those Dart bio-chips and let's get into murky dystopian waters.
Which is sort of weird because for the overwhelming part of the game we see this world is anything but some kind of downtrodden hell. In fact, it all seems very shiny, sleek and sterile clean as we go through syndicate headquarters and other important places. What are syndicates? Mega corporations naturally and our protagonist Kilo works for one, specifically EuroCorp. This is a world where “hostile takeover” between syndicates has a very literal meaning and even raids to steal hard or soft assets are commonplace which is precisely what you're doing when the game opens up further enforcing ideas that these mega corporations have replaced world governments are now running the place. Before I go any further I would just like to stop and give my profound compliments to world building team because it's one aspect of Syndicate I seriously cannot praise enough. Legitimate effort must have gone into it, what with actually hiring Richard K. Morgan to write for the game, and it's a shame they're relegated to datalogs and collectibles you can entirely overlook and not miss anything tangible for it. Whenever I got brief snippets of actual lore delivered in-game through holographic guides and people chatting I was transfixed and wanted more. Fictional history on how syndicates came to be, invention of DART chip that made conventional electronics outdated, conflicts between these syndicates etc, is all there if you want to invest time and hunt for it.
But that's enough fluff and time to get into gameplay itself. If I had to make direct comparisons I would probably draw some to FEAR and Star Wars: Republic Commando. Keep in mind Syndicate is nothing like those really, but where their similarities come into play is Syndicate being a simple FPS without many bells and whistles that simply works due to low component reliability. You have your bullet time mode aka DART Overlay Mode where you turn into a damage sponge and deal increased damage, mode powered by your DART-6 energy bar which refills on its own. There are also merely three abilities; Suicide – make your enemy, well, commit suicide in explosive fashion which has AoE damage, Backfire – expose your enemies from cover, stun them and make them vulnerable to damage and finally Persuade – make enemies switch sides for a while attacking their buddies and finally ending their own life. These “breaching powers” that let you affect enemy chips are not created equal and have different recharge timers so something like Backfire will be almost always ready while Persuade is something you kinda want to conserve unless you're on a killing spree seeing as killing enemies reduces the cooldown quite a bit. And that's basically all you have access to in the game. There are also abilities and skills you invest in talent point style but those are largely passive and require you to extract enemy chips to upgrade. Having finished the game I can say there are nowhere near enough of these boss fights where you get chips from so make your investments count.
Thing is, as simple as this may appear, and it is compared to how many elements games tend to cram in these days no matter the genre, it's the whole breaching system that Starbreeze team managed to make incredibly immersive and satisfying as you interact with the world through it. Be it activating switches long distance, stripping away enemy's special armor to make them vulnerable, turning turrets to your side, etc. It all just fits perfectly into the setting where you're a special operative equipped with the latest DART chip and this new model gives you advantage over everyone else. Which brings me to combat and I love it. It's the kind of frenetic FPS gameplay where you're never idle and in automatic mode. Not like Serious Sam or Painkiller arena action action mind you, but combination of combination of gunplay, breaching options and not entirely idiotic enemies makes for a nice melting pot. Speaking of enemies I wish they had more variety because given the setting you will be just facing dudes armed with different guns and occasionally a boss. I found the latter way more interesting when you take into account they can counter-breach so it levels the playing field as you both have to keep track of your timing and regular shooty-shooty part.
You may have noticed I've skipped talking about Syndicate's visual style. There's a good reason for that. Game looks simultaneously amazing and horrible. Given its release year I'd say these are some pretty good visuals and pretty interesting implementation of near future look where in 2069 there's a whole lot more holographic technology around even going so far it's used for your HUD. This leads to a particular segments when you're off the grid and suddenly find yourself helpless as you have no idea how much ammo you even have, for example. But the flipside is where the real horror sets in – color saturation and bloom. That goddamn bloom. How someone thought this was alright is something I'll never understand. For most of the game it appears as if you're staring directly into a light source due to insane surface... diffusion, I guess? It's just so bright and only reason why you don't go blind is because you're focused on playing a decent game. I wonder what it must be like for bystanders just watching you play, though. There are multiple parts where game pulls visual tricks and especially towards the end I would seriously not recommend this if you suffer from any visual-induced problems.
I'm no expert on music but if you were around at the turn of the decade and some years later you may remember there was a period where WUBWUB became the norm and no one could stop laughing about techno being everywhere. Well, that's kinda the entire soundtrack for the game and surprisingly enough I did not mind at all. Maybe because I simply saw as an oddity and relic of the past at this point? It works for intense action and chase scenes which Syndicate has aplenty so no complaints. Just check out some samples to see if it's up your alley or not.
Beyond the Rim
If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.
Pretty light update as far as non-games go this time. Decided to re-watch some of the classics after many years and I can say I was pleasantly surprised. Even more than I expected after watching nothing but modern stuff for years. It can be jarring to go back and watch slower paced movies that seemed to have scripts infinitely superior to what we get these days. Well, I'll leave that to your judgement and whether you agree or not.
Planet of the Apes
If I can admire Planet of the Apes for just one among many things it does well it would be the movie's adherence to brevity yet also tempering with necessary buildup and appropriate pacing to set the mood as befitting. What this means in practice is I can scarcely imagine a movie today that would play coy and keep the audience in suspense for the first half hour or so as we don't even see the titular apes. This slow burn to the point when we finally see mounted gorillas results in almost surreal surprise equaling protagonist's own shock. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We open to a scene of four astronauts returning home to now foreign Earth following a certain mission that will have left them off-world for 700 years. Taking into account they're traveling at near-lightspeed it means going into cryogenic sleep and this hibernation is interrupted due to malfunction caused by crash landing somewhere far away from home if ship's machines are to be believed. Sadly, those machines can do nothing for the only female member of the crew who dies mid-transit leaving our three scientists to find their way out of a sinking space ship and making due with their different personalities and reasons for opting into what was obviously a suicide mission from the beginning...
Did you like any of that? Well, I have some good news and some bad news – good is that Charlton Heston is phenomenal in the role of George Taylor with his abrasive and dismissive personality, but still unbridled professionalism and keen intellect running underneath. He's the unlikely genius explorer opposed by more classical lab scientist and boy scout companions, and perfectly suited for what unfolds as he comes to realizations about himself and confronts why he choose to join the mission. Bad news? Aside from Taylor himself none of the above really matters as Planet of the Apes changes gears about a quarter way in and true survival begins. I haven't read the novel movie was based on, but from what I have read it only borrows premise and decidedly goes in its own direction. Low-tech society we see works and is largely believable, aside from a factoid on whether remaining humans are mute or as this movie's sequel will attempt to capitalize on, something different entirely. Fact we're not dealing with humans does not change the fact movie explores themes ranging from subtle, and not so subtle, racism, religious zealotry and obfuscation of knowledge that could shake one's world. Even observed today this is not some cheap movie to get people into costumes and cheer as our hero engages in fisticuffs. Respectable philosophical themes and nature of humanity are explored with plenty of emotions and reasoning alike to go around.
Taking into account when the movie was filmed you certainly have to adjust your expectations, but I would argue it stands the practical test of time. Sets and costumes are both well made, particularly prosthetic lips which are capable of alright to decent articulation. Facial expressions above all else took me aback at times with how lifelike they came across. As someone not native to US or familiar with Glen Canyon those shots alone made me feel like I was peering into a genuine alien world. Gradual shift and eventual total immersion in tribal music goes hand-in-hand with narrative's direction and you definitely feel a sense of belonging much to movie's credit. Or Taylor's complete and utter alienation, depending on how you look at it.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
I suppose it's funny how in retrospective The Day the Earth Stood Still subverts a lot of the usual “space men invade Earth, save the women” tropes despite effectively still belonging to that particular subset of SF popular during post-WW2 1950s. Coming from someone who has seen the remake and its ecologically bent message I far prefer a more original's takes with humanity potentially becoming a threat to the galactic civilization at large as matter of technological progress where ethics did not necessarily follow. Not to say what's being preached is perfect, and protagonist himself admits to that, but it's a very good hook to get the ball rolling.
This is where I'd talk about characters but despite quite a few in the support, I'd say far more of the attention is dedicated to random people worldwide responding to the fact an alien spaceship has just landed in Washington D.C. and everyone's on edge over what this mute edifice wants. In what would become a cliché we see reports from across the world, regular people sharing comments and the US military getting ready as they cordon the area and tensions rise. Difference between the way this movie handles it compared to modern takes lies in there being none of that forced human element we are meant to care for or identify with. There are relevant characters who get introduced later on, but make no mistake when I say this is Klaatu's story throughout as he emerges from the flying saucer under the watchful eye of his giant robot Gort... only to promptly get shot in a misunderstanding and taken away to get his wounds treated by the military. There he demonstrates some of his superior healing and seeming longevity, but also comes with a warning for the entire human race and demands to see our world leaders or he'll have to resort to drastic measures to get his message across because, in fact, things are apparently that dire.
At this point you could say the remainder of the movie is not that relevant as it deals with Klaatu's blending into human society and learning as he finds room and board, but that's really the meat of The Day the Earth Stood Still. He becomes friendly with a local boy and his mother upon whom he echoes many of his ideals and aspirations, he sets up a meeting with the world's most important scientists so he can deliver his ultimatum, almost dies and comes back to life as we witness some of his ship's interior and Gort itself is revealed to have a much bigger role. Message itself is significant, but it's the journey that matters more in this case. Michael Rennie gives something I would not call a mundane performance as Klaatu but rather one that almost comes off as normal. It's odd because you can see glimpses of not getting human society perfectly, but for the most part he doesn't play the stoic or alien ignoramus you'd expect. Imposing resolve and interactions with others establish him as a well-rounded figure with a mission. Only regret is that in the process no other character really gets that much attention.
Not everything is peachy, of course. Given the age of the movie you can expect various jabs at then current political situation in the world with the Russians and why world leaders won't come together. I was also not a big fan of the screechy soundtrack which is just a fixture of period's SF and takes some time getting used to. There's also this notion the way Klaatu's civilization exists is somewhat ridiculous because they do so by effectively handing away control and responsibility to robot overlords and relying on their mechanical benevolence. This is presented as an improvement over humanity's way of doing things and threat of atomics. I respectfully disagree.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
When referred to as a “funny movie”, audience should be aware that Dr. Strangelove falls under dark comedy and should be treated as such. I can remember genuinely laughing only once or twice throughout the entire movie, but I think that more general and “in your face” gag-based comedy is here largely overshadowed by dark humor and overall snappy writing that only occasionally pushed just a step too far to its own detriment.
We have three different points of view feeding into one story so let's break them down.
First and one to instigate the entire incident is General Ripper who initiates Wing Attack Plan R by going through RAF Captain Mandrake and putting 843rd Bomb Wing on alert during. Our second team is crew on one of those B-52 bombers who receive said orders, naturally double check them, only to set a deadly course towards their primary and secondary targets. And lastly we have the Pentagon's own War Room where another General Turgidson is quickly roused to attend a meeting where President Muffley and others are in panic over what they can do about a rogue officer who just authorized a nuclear drop on USSR. Officer who's also the only one holding a special prefix code that will enable bomber crews to receive callback orders and all attempts to get him to stand down have resulted in Ripper barricading himself his own base as US soldiers face each other in deadly combat to get through and save the world from nuclear fallout.
I wish I could say all of the above were equally as strong, but they're not. Which might just be me blowing it up somewhat. Only point of view I would argue is somewhat weaker is one dealing with General Ripper himself and that's mainly because we discover the mastermind who got the ball rolling, east and west in absolute panic as Doomsday contingencies are being weighted, etc did it all over... fluoride water and general being a loony. Make no mistake because USA vs USSR and conflicts between their ideology is central here so it make sense the story uses it as such, but Ripper's character concept wavers on silly and those scenes are largely salvages by some of the now most iconic shots of the movie and his character himself is balanced out by Captain Mandrake – seemingly the only sane man in the movie and one of three roles portrayed by excellent Peter Sellers. Most of the bomber pilot crew scenes are dedicated to them being en-route and eventually getting technically as hell breaks loose. I liked them as an every man crew and there's even some young James Earl Jones action there. Absolute meat of the movie lies in Pentagon scenes which attempt to tie it all together, though. Make no mistake because all these characters are very serious about their job, aside from Dr. Strangelove who is just... well, kinda mental and flashes back to MEIN FUHRER days from time to time, yet their personality and stereotypes come through perfectly. From a somewhat weak president, Russian ambassador always looking to make gains and general Turgidson portrayed by George C. Scott who against his own better judgment realizes this may be it purely because of US superiority. And they may lose because of it.
Going beyond what I already said about it earlier the cinematography is absolutely stunning and so many scenes have stood the test of time. Just some damn good camera work without much dramatic action you'd see nowadays in some elaborate CG fest. Some effects like superimposing background on a flying bomber is one of those effects that's sadly going to age badly no matter how you look at it considering it was a green screen, but what's there is cleverly used and attention to sets is insane. Bomber cockpits with the claustrophobia inducing tight quarters were especially unnerving.