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A Bridge Too Nier

I have completed Nier: Automata (N:A) all the way.

NieRAutomata_Castle

Again, the visuals were extremely good.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the major impetus for my buying N:A in the first place was the seemingly unrelenting stream of praise it received. “Best game ever!” “GOTY 2017, if not of all time!” Those sort of proclamations immediately actives my Bullshit Sense, honed as it is after the Bioshock: Infinite debacle. That was almost five years ago now, and I’m still mad that it gets any praise at all. Seriously, people, that was not a good game.

Suffice it to say, Nier: Automata is not Bioshock: Infinite. In fact, it is extremely good.

But does that mean N:A lives up to its hype? Well… yes and no.

When I look back on the games I view as true epics with moving storylines and compelling characters, I see games like Xenogears. FF7. Chrono Trigger. The Mass Effect trilogy. In this context, I did not feel that N:A’s plot achieved a spot on that pantheon. At the same time, I can also recognize that Xenogears was released in 1998, which is possibly before many fans of N:A were even born. So, in a sense, I can see how someone can view N:A as being the best story they have experienced.

However, pure epic story-telling is not the only prism through which a narrative can be judged. When I think about my experience with Far Cry 2, for example, I found it deeply moving and incredibly clever from a meta-narrative perspective.

NieRAutomata_BossDead

Robotic hearts in the darkness.

Far Cry 2 was a slog of bloody, seemingly pointless firefights against interchangeable factions all the way to the very end. And that was the point. The gameplay itself was being used as an emotional vehicle for the player to show them experience the pointlessness of the conflict firsthand, and feel your own culpability in perpetuating a cycle of violence for ultimately selfish ends. When I was finally given the option at the end to either escape Africa or stay and sacrifice myself to save some refugees, the weariness and resignation I felt via the protagonist was real to me too. Staying behind to manually blow the bomb came as an immense, cathartic relief.

It is in this sort of reference point that Nier: Automata actually deserves the praise it receives. N:A is no Xenogears, but it is a Far Cry 2. Or Metal Gear Solid 2. Or Spec Ops: The Line. Not in the content of its message necessarily, but in its clever use of gameplay mechanics and subverting expectations to elicit emotions rather than relying on plot alone.

Indeed, one of the most poignant and moving sequences in the game occurs during the closing credits of the E ending. I went from rolling my eyes, to mild interest, to frustration, to finally… an emotion I had not experienced since Journey. And right at the very end of it all, the game asks a final, devastating question of the player, that I was not expecting nor prepared to answer.

And I blinked. Days later, I still feel somewhat guilty.

You would be forgiven for wondering why the above is not enough for Nier: Automata to take a seat next to Xenogears. I might just be obstinate. Or it may simply be as banal a reason that those PS1 classics came first, or were experienced in my more formative years, or both. But still, I hesitate.

Honestly, it is probably better for everyone to temper their expectations anyway. If you go into Nier: Automata thinking you will experience a 10/10, or something far and away better than whatever you view as your favorite game, you will probably be disappointed. If instead you go in with eyes open, acknowledging the fact that you will essentially need to beat the same game twice (from two different perspectives) before the “real” game begins, you will likely be more open to the emotional notes that the game elicits.

Plus, I hope you like action games. And twin-stick shooters. And… you get the idea.

NieRAutomata_Hacking

And hacking! Can’t (ever) forget that.

Speaking of notes though, the soundtrack is every bit as amazing as they say. It is a complete aural experience, with familiar themes expanding during epic moments, or contracting when the action inverts for a hacking mini-game. Some soundtracks have a few good songs, but Nier: Automata is good the entire way through, at every moment. Haunting, melodic… perfect. It absolutely deserves a seat with Mitsuda’s Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, even if thematically they differ.

So, yeah. Nier: Automata is worth playing. It’s not perfect, but it’s so goddamn ridiculous and bold and eccentric and sometimes horrifying and sad. And, ultimately, meloncholy. There are bad bits, some boring parts, and some questionable design decisions. Yet, more than anything, this is a game that ignored what everyone else was doing and shot for the moon. That ain’t nothing.

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Review: Far Cry 3

Game: Far Cry 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~18 hours
Buy If You Like: Far Cry series, mostly-open world FPS

Some seriously nice graphics.

Some seriously nice graphics.

Far Cry 3 is the latest entry in the mostly unrelated, Heart of Darkness-esque Far Cry series. The game follows Jason, a trust fund frat boy who is violently thrust into a hideous underworld of slavery, rape, and torture on an otherwise pristine island paradise when his friends are captured mid-vacation by pirates. Much like the other two games, FC3 features a long string of story missions set amidst a wide-open island sandbox.

Far Cry 3 has a lot going for it. The game is unbelievably slick, from top to bottom, in almost every respect. For example, it is easily the best-looking Far Cry, with graphics and sweeping vistas that rival the likes of Skyrim. But the slickness permeates deeper still, down to character animations too. Stealth kills start off brutal and in-your-face, only to escalate further once you unlock the ability chain them together, use the target’s own knife to score a long-distance secondary kill, and so on. This sort of Ninja Gaiden feel is on top of the many layers of weaponry that impart similar visceral thrills, be they sneaky bow sniping or front-door grenade launcher-ing.

Another thing that was extremely well-done are the missions, dialog, and general plot. Missions flow well, the various tasks you are given feel substantial and necessary, the characters are absolutely unique, and there is a general sense of gravitas to your actions. In comparison, the mission structure in Far Cry 2 made less sense, or at least, it felt less impactful.

But therein lies the rub.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

As I have mentioned over the years, I view Far Cry 2 as one of the more sublime gaming experiences I’ve ever had. That game knowingly used its own flaws as a vehicle for storytelling, such that by the end of the game, you felt exactly how the in-game characters felt: weary, despondent, and resigned. Far Cry 3 attempts to recall the same lightning, but it can’t quite pull it off, for several reasons.

One of those reasons is that Far Cry 3 feels a lot more “gamey” than its predecessors. Part of the progression system involves hunting and skinning various animals to unlock additional weapon slots, a larger wallet, and so on. By itself, the mechanic is perfectly valid. However, it feels more artificial, especially given the fact that you are straight-up using cash in the stores to buy things. Why do I need to skin goats to expand my $1000 wallet? Couldn’t I just, you know, pay the $50 for a new wallet? Does this store really sell sniper rifles but no wallets?

That might sound like a little thing, but it’s precisely the little things that can break immersion. Far Cry 3 features a normal sort of game map, for example, but it’s a, ahem, far cry from the in-game map you had to actually glance downwards to see in FC2. More jarring to me though, was the crafting interface that necessitated crafting via the menu screen. Popping syringes felt pretty smooth, but effectively pausing the game with bullets in mid-air to pump out another half-dozen healing ampules just sorta felt wrong. And I haven’t even mentioned the interface riddled with perfectly usable but undeniably busy UI elements, mini-maps, quest trackers, and so on. Far Cry 2 didn’t even have crosshairs on by default, for god’s sake.

I didn't start the fire...

I, uh, I didn’t start the fire…

It is worth mentioning, in a general sense, that Far Cry 3 also continues the series penchant for wildly oscillating difficulty curves. If your natural inclination is to try and be as stealthy as possible when assassinating targets, you will experience some nice challenges. If you instead realize that a single flame arrow can burn down the hut your target is inside, or your bafflement towards unlocking infinite grenade launchers so early in the game leads to always equipping it, well… the game is remarkably easy. There are still a few missions where you can lose by raising the alarm or by letting an NPC die, but damn do you feel silly sneaking around after bombarding outposts with grenade fire and/or regular fire. Same outcome, minimum effort.

Overall though, I still feel like Far Cry 3 deserves top marks. Recommending that someone play FC2 carries a bit of baggage, as it doesn’t really become “worth it” unless they stick through it the entire way. In contrast, someone could play Far Cry 3 at pretty much any given moment in the game and feel like they experienced the best bits. I have seen some reviews that lament FC3’s later half for being less noteworthy, but while the main antagonists are less interesting at that point, it is somewhat offset by gaining a wingsuit and ample means to use it everywhere. Far Cry 3 is not particularly long, but I believe it’ll be worth the lower purchase price for most anyone… or at least FPS fans.

Review: Spec Ops: The Line

Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 6 hours
Buy If You Like: Kane & Lynch-esque cover-based military shooters

You said it, Lugo.

You said it, Lugo.

Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder cover-based military shooter that seeks to subvert the tropes of its genre. You control Captain Adams, tasked with commanding your two Delta Force squad mates in search for what happened to Colonel Konrad and the rest of the 33rd Battalion. The search leads them into the ruined city of Dubai, which appears to have devolved into anarchy after a series of epic sandstorms cut it off from the rest of the world.

After killing some insurgents whom had taken members of the 33rd hostage, the mission starts to go pear-shaped when the very soldiers you are trying to save confuse your team for CIA operatives who have been riling up the insurgents. From there, things just keep getting darker and darker as you continue taking completely rational steps towards a line you did not realize you already crossed hours ago.

I was interested to play Spec Ops precisely because I heard about its subversive themes. What I discovered though, is that I have seen this all before in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In fact, Kane & Lynch is the perfect analog here despite approaching from the opposite side of the legal spectrum: both games are over-the-shoulder cover-based shooters whose scenarios start off as reasonable before relentlessly veering into the absurd. What seems like a natural progression or escalation of violence suddenly sickens you once you realize what exactly you are doing. How did I go from killing insurgents to killing Americans? Why am I looking forward to the next cover-strewn environment so I can use my grenade launcher to kill even more soldiers?

This joke never gets old.

This joke never gets old.

The eponymous “Line” referred in the game title probably refers to one specific incident (that I won’t spoil), given how long it was dwelt upon, but I personally found it curiously ineffectual. At first, I didn’t even realize that my actions caused the incident in question, and even after I wasn’t particularly convinced player agency was involved. In spite of that, the game does a great job in fostering a sense of nihilistic fatalism. The situation becomes so FUBAR that it almost doesn’t matter what else you do at that point. And then you, the human player behind the screen, start to realize what that means for soldiers in real situations out in the world.

I am sympathetic to the argument that perhaps some reviewers give Spec Ops: the Line too much credit. While the gameplay doesn’t noticeably change, I absolutely felt fatigued by the end of the six hour story campaign. Construing that fatigue and feeling of pointlessness as being intentional artistic designs, might be a little too clever an excuse to take seriously; it sort of hand-waves away any possibility of bad game design, and feels a bit too convenient besides. If you are willing to give the designers the benefit of the doubt though, it is certainly an effective plot mechanism… just as it was in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch.

Ultimately, I feel Spec Ops: the Line as an experience is worth a bit more than my usual limit for these shorter games. The visuals are amazing, the interaction with your squad is superb, and the setting is both unique and artistic. You might feel drained and depressed by the end, but at least you felt something – a feeling that might actually persist beyond turning the system off. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have played.

Interesting Choices

Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:

My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.

First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.

Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?

The green one. Always the green one.

The green one. Always the green one.

Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?

Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.

What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?

In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.

¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.