Jumping Too. There Needs to Be Jumping

every person who lives here wants me dead

Last weekend I finished Fallout 4. I’ll have more to say on that soon, but it left me trying to figure out what I wanted to play next, other than just restarting Fallout 4. The remastered version of Grim Fandango was free, and I grabbed it because of how many people went on about how good it was, but it turns out none of them really liked it, because it’s one of those adventure games with inscrutable puzzles. I got Metro/Last Light Redux for Christmas, but that’s pretty much the same as replaying Fallout 4. Sony had a sale recently and people recommended Assassin’s Creed IV. I bought it, even though I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed games (I was told that, story-wise, this would not be a problem.)

I started it up and was doing okay, but soon got overwhelmed. They threw me into Havana, where everyone wanted to kill me always. I couldn’t take five steps without 40 guards tackling me. It didn’t help that my character can’t keep his mouth shut and is an asshole. Frustrated, I turned it off.

For some time I’ve “joked” that I only seem to like a handful of videogames. It’s frustrating to me and to anyone who’s tried to help me figure out what I want to play. I’ve had to take a “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” attitude that doesn’t really help me find things I might like. Finally, Pal Andrew suggested Destiny as a sort of palate cleanser until I figured out what I wanted to do next, and that seemed like a good idea.

Subsequently, I played Destiny last night for the first time in months (it got thrown aside for Fallout 4). Now, Destiny isn’t my favorite game. There’s a lot of blandness and by-the-numbers to it. But it helped me focus my thoughts on it versus, say ,Assassin’s Creed IV.

Destiny is super easy to learn. Everything you need to know to mechanically play Destiny you can learn in, like, five minutes. There are only so many guns, and their differences are fairly obvious. You have only a handful of attacks: shoot, melee, grenade. You run, jump, and crouch. That’s pretty much it. Now, there’s a lot more to the game beyond that, but it all has to do with reacting to your environment and the different enemies (which could stand to be a little more different, but that’s another story.) It doesn’t make me learn a million different things to do, all of which can be employed in new and exciting combos to finesse into devastating attacks and counters and whatever. It is, and I also find myself using this term with regards to boardgames lately, very straightforward. Streamlined. That’s what I want, that’s what I like.

Look, I’m old, and I could drop dead at any moment. I don’t have time for three different buttons for swimming. Regular swim, fast swim, stealth swim…really? Within the first few minutes of Assassin’s Creed 4 I have three different swims to know. I have all this different junk to do when fighting: I can hold, I can throw, I can block, I can counter, I can parry — look, I just want to put this other guy down and get on with my life. I’m not here to learn how to dance, I’m here to drop this poor bastard and rescue that merchant. Ain’t no one giving me points for style. I realize there are people who enjoy chaining attacks and timing moves and all that stuff and they are okay because they have plenty of games to play. When I play for three hours, I want three hours of game, not three hours of this one boss fight. Remember, I’m married; I could be having sex instead.

As with boardgames, there seems to be this “more is more” attitude that you need to throw as much stuff into a game as it will fit. Can you craft? You need to craft! Can you sex up NPCs? Yes to sexing up NPCs! Can we have a sword, even though we have sniper rifles and shotguns? Get that goddamn sword in there with great speed!

I’m not saying everything has to be Pac-Man. And I realize that I’m unfairly picking on AC4 because it’s the fourth — or maybe ninth, I don’t know the series — game and they assume they’re just reminding you of all this stuff and not throwing it at you all at once. And I’m not saying every game needs to cater to me. I’m just getting more of a handle on what sorts of things I like and what sorts of things I don’t and why.

Also: I don’t like games where my guy is an asshole. That really bugs me.

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My Movies-to-Watch List for 2016

The Movies-to-Watch lists for 2014 and 2015 were a success, so let’s keep it up! Here’s the list for 2016:

The Great Dictator (1940)
On the Waterfront (1954)
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Breathless (1960)
Bedazzled (1967)
1776 (1972)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Valley Girl (1983)
Mansfield Park (1999)
Attack The Block (2011)

The previous two lists were heavy on noir and such, and I tried to go a little bit lighter on this one, as I’m a bit murdered out at the moment. Once more, though, it’s a mix of things I’ve wanted to see and suggestions from others, including a couple things I don’t know too much about.

Thanks to all the folks on Twitter who threw out suggestions. Gotta get these queued up in the old Betamax!

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I Played That! #39: Diablo 2 (PC)

Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, Diablo 2 is probably the videogame I’ve had the most fun with and gotten the most value out of. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my regular updates involving Diablo 2 games, specifically involving Uvula the Druid.

There’s nothing really to Diablo 2. It’s got some more going on than Diablo, as there are gems and runes you can upgrade and use on weapons, plus a Horadric Cube you can discover secret recipes for. But the gameplay is more or less the same: go click on monsters to kill them. Get loot, which makes you stronger, click on tougher monsters. Repeat ad nauseam.

Yet I’d argue that its mindlessness was the appeal. I could zone out with Diablo 2, just sort of have myself on autopilot. I could pay as much attention to it as I wanted, either focusing on it to accomplish some task within it (usually grinding for a specific rune) or I could just mindlessly click, letting my brain think about something else. It was relaxing.

There are a world of mods and strategy articles and other things for the game which I never really used. For the time I spent playing with it, I’m sure other players would be horrified to discover how inefficiently and wastefully I played it, but I still had a good time. I even played online at Battle.Net for a while, but only because supposedly the loot was a little different there; I almost never interacted with any other players.

The other appeal was that even when I moved to a laptop for my computer, I was still able to play Diablo 2. Sure, it couldn’t run any modern stuff, but as long as it played this old favorite, I was happy. Even when I upgraded my laptop to a newer one, the improvements in hardware were pushed aside as I just re-installed Diablo 2 on it.

And then they announced Diablo 3.

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Fallout 4: Bomb Craters and Massholes

I’ve been playing Fallout 4 for a week now. Jenny Biscuits crawled out of Vault 111 in search of her kidnapped child and last night made it to Diamond City. If you haven’t played the game, let me assure you, that isn’t very far. She’s had a lot of distractions along the way.

My current impression of the game is that it’s got a lot of new and fun things but the new things aren’t fun and the fun things aren’t new. That sounds harsh, but please bear with me.

I’m a Fallout fanboy, so “More of the Same” wasn’t going to be much of a criticism for me, since I loved the Same and would happily play More of it. Taking Fallout 3 exactly as-is and giving me a whole new area with different inhabitants, stories, quests, landmarks, and secrets is not anything I’m going to complain about, and Fallout 4 delivers. Unlike some people I’m too far west to go see how my house fared in the apocalypse, but I’m enjoying roaming around the Boston area. I’m glad the map has a little more color to it, and the little hints of the big story I’ve gotten so far are interesting. Everything I want in a Fallout game is here, and I’m into it. Plus there’s more!

It’s the “more” that’s kind of bugging me.

There are two major additions to the game. The first is settlement building. You can actually edit places to remove bombed out houses and debris and erect new crappy looking structures instead. You can also add defenses, food production, shops, and all kinds of other stuff to help turn the settlement into a thriving community. This is something I’m not super interested in doing even outside of a Fallout game, much less within one. And even if I were, the interface for doing it is just not very good. Last night I built Jenny Biscuits a house and just making this thing:

took a long time, and it’s garbage. I mean, yeah, it’s a ramshackle hovel in a ruined wasteland, but also its corners don’t match up and I can’t place a rug because I guess I had to do that first and it’s just a mess. I wanted to put an item in it that I don’t currently have the materials to build and instead of showing me an outline of the item so I could at least save some space for it, it just does nothing.

The settlement thing also does some real theme-breaking. One of the first, easiest things you can build for your settlement are pumps providing clean, fresh water, making the entire main plot of Fallout 3 even more dumb than it was before. And it doesn’t take long to ask why these settlers can’t throw lumber in a pile and call it a house and need you to do it.

Fortunately, apart from an early and easy-to-complete mission, you can ignore the settlement building if you want to. The game doesn’t seem to rely on it. The same can’t be said about the other new major element, weapon and armor mods.

In Fallout 4, there are hundreds of new weapons because there are weapons that each have dozens of different modifications to them. You can take a 10mm pistol, say, and trick it out however you want. On the surface, that seems like not a bad idea, but in play it’s not so great.

My first problem with it is that it requires me to spend far more time diddling around with different weapons than I ever want to. even in Borderlands, which boasts its absurd amount of guns, I can easily compare two guns and ditch one easily. In Fallout 4, every new gun has to be analyzed and deciphered to see if it in any way can be used to improve my overall firepower, and the system for doing so is not easy.

For example, suppose you find a pipe rifle with a modified stock. You already have a pipe rifle with a site you like, and you want to add this stock to it. Instead of just removing the stock from the new gun and pitching the rest, you have to “construct” a standard stock on it, which will then put the modified one into your inventory to use.

Armor works similarly. It’s divided into different parts and you assemble it however you want. So if you want your left arm to be really heavily armored but your right leg to be free as a bird, you can do so, but nobody wants that. And once again, if you pick up a piece of lightweight armor and you want your current piece to also be lightweight, you have to make the new one not-lightweight and then attach the lightweight to your old one, assuming you have the materials needed.

It’s a ridiculously convoluted system and for me it’s not worth it. I really don’t care about the possible incremental changes in fire rate or energy absorption. I just want a gun and some armor and to get out and shoot things. I don’t want to play with my inventory when I could instead be actually out and about in this world.

So yeah, the two big innovations in the game are a bust for me. Maybe on a future replay or later in this one they’ll win me over but for now I’m trying to avoid them as much as possible.

But back to things I do like:

* You can’t kill Dogmeat AND you can have him wear bandannas and things, which is fantastic. Also, he (or she, as xe seems to have no gender characteristics of any kind) can carry tons of items in some kind of pocket dimension.

* Travis, the DJ of Diamond City Radio, is a great answer to Three Dog, though he needs to give “Anything Goes” a rest.

* I’ve already come to the aid of one same-sex, biracial couple.

* There are still these calling to me:

but now there’s the third big new innovation: pens.

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I Played That! #38: M.U.L.E. (C64)

Electronic Arts is now considered The Worst, but it started its life as one of the most innovative companies out there, and M.U.L.E. was an early release that showed this innovation. In a landscape of alien spaceships and road races, M.U.L.E. was an economic simulation. It reached into gaming areas that few others were looking into, including an innovative multiplayer system. It also had a great theme song.

M.U.L.E. didn’t sell well, apparently, but it is still regarded highly as a landmark game.

As for me, well…I owned a pirated copy of it and played it from time to time, but here’s the thing. There’s a boardgame called Planet Steam which I enjoy enough that I’ve bought it multiple times. Every time it’s brought up, someone mentions it’s basically “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game” and I always say, “NO. It’s an economic game but it’s not really that similar.” Well, in reading about M.U.L.E. for this post I have to admit yeah, Planet Steam is “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game”. I just didn’t remember M.U.L.E. that well. (But I don’t know if it’s more “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game” than M.U.L.E.: The Board Game.)

I played M.U.L.E., but it wasn’t a favorite and I wasn’t particularly good at it. Like a lot of Commodore 64 games, the fact that I had a bunch of them I’d pirated meant that there were few I really dug into, and something as subtle as M.U.L.E. couldn’t hold my attention as long. Still, I can hum the theme song from memory to this day.

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Weep for the Children of Northampton, Springfield

There have been a lot of stories lately about how, since heroin is now the drug of choice for middle-class white kids, we suddenly need a kinder, gentler War on Drugs. As long as it was just blacks and white trash using, we had no sympathy for druggies, but affluent white kids deserve a second, third, fourth, twentieth chance.

The other day my local news outlet ran a story of this ilk: How hidden heroin addiction is killing Northampton. I don’t even know where to begin with this thing.

Let me say right out the gate that I have a murky relationship with Northampton. Northampton (Noho) is a town about 25 minutes north of here, home to Smith college (and right next door to Amherst, where UMass is). It’s considered the hip, trendy, progressive capital of the area. Think Portlandia, New England style. And it’s true that this is where I used to go for my comics, for ethnic food, for fancy beers, for live music shows, and for offbeat movies. But gradually Noho kind of soured on me. It’s extremely smug and self-satisfied, far more impressed with itself than it’s really earned.

The “hill towns”, quaint little enclaves nestled in the Pioneer Valley north of Springfield, are all pretty impressed with themselves. If you’re moving to the area, it’s assumed that’s where you’ll want to live, since they’re so picturesque, quiet, and peaceful. They’re also way more expensive to live in and, as a result, are way more white than other areas.

Springfield and its “urban” counterparts, Holyoke and Chicopee, are sneered at by our northern neighbors. They all have problems…with drugs, with crime, with violence, with blight and ruin. They’re not safe. The schools aren’t any good. What’s more, even if you live in Springfield, it’s assumed that you agree with this, that you’ll find jokes about what a godforsaken hellhole you live in just as hilarious. I mean, good for you for trying to make Springfield work, but really I don’t know what can be done. The interstate between Springfield and Northampton seems to be strangely shorter in one direction than the other, where it’s no big deal for Springfield residents to come visit friends up there, but it’s just too much hassle for them to come down.

When I was hitting up bookstores in the area to promote Write More Good, I was told by one in Northampton that they “only work with local authors”. Seriously. Haven’t set foot in that shop since, and it contributed mightily to the downward slide of Northampton in my estimation. (In fairness, a different Noho book store welcomed me, and we had a great time.)

So let’s go back to this article about how heroin addiction is affecting the precious white babies of the hill towns. I know about this widespread drug problem, not because I personally know any addicts, but because I live in Springfield. Springfield is where these kids buy their smack. Heroin sales are part of why Springfield has a problem with crime and violence. When there are murders in this town, it’s not innocent folks getting shot randomly, it’s usually drug-related. We have gangs in Springfield fighting with each other over who gets to sell heroin to these kids of Northampton’s “affluent and prominent local families”. They come here, buy drugs and contribute to Springfield’s problems, and then go back to their enclaves and tsk-tsk about how awful it is down south.

This angle isn’t even mentioned in the article. Nor is the fact that the gangs aren’t only selling to North- and Easthampton kids, but to all over. Still, the real tragedy is the fact that drugs are wrecking Northampton! Our last best hope against the land of Mordor! And again, it’s assumed that this is disturbing to everyone within a 30 mile radius because we’re all pretty envious of the great lives being had by our wealthier betters. If heroin can go even to a well-heeled, progressive mecca like Northampton, small wonder that apocalyptic hellscapes like Springfield and Holyoke got hit too.

I hope things get better for the kids of quirky affluent Northampton. I hope so because addiction is awful and no one should be losing their lives to it. But I also hope things get better because then maybe we won’t also have to live with the dirty consequences of their habits, and be denigrated by them because of it.

But I ain’t bitter y’all.

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I Played That! #37: Fallout 3 (PC)

I am a huge fan of the Fallout series, but when the third installment was announced, I was crushed. The announcement and screenshot showed that instead of an isometric, third-person RPG, it was going to be a first-person shooter. As I’ve discussed before, the types of games I loved had all vanished and now one of the few franchises that had been there for me was going to the dark side. No, I was not happy.

For four years I sulked and had nothing to do with it. But then in 2012, out of the blue, I bought a PC game I’ll talk about later (I haven’t approached this series in even an optimal non-chronological fashion, sorry), and the fact that I enjoyed it and that it ran fine on my laptop made me think that maybe I could take a crack at PC games I’d assumed my machine couldn’t run. So I bought Fallout 3.

It was a revelation. I loved playing it. I loved the sense of exploration, I loved the immersion, and I loved the combat. Hunting down feral ghouls and raiders with a sniper rifle was exciting and fun. I couldn’t get enough of it. I DO like FPSes, Sam I Am! And I will play them on a boat, and I will play them with a G.O.A.T.!

Here’s a little something about people in the world: sometimes they change their minds about things. They get new information. They are turned on to a different point of view. They realize their old views were sheltered or prejudiced or ill-informed and re-evaluate past statements and decisions. Sometimes it involves something minor like realizing you actually do enjoy a certain type of videogame you had declared contempt for. Sometimes it’s something much larger and more important. But it happens. It’s the point of growing up and gaining maturity.

It helped that the actual game of Fallout 3 was a lot of fun, with an interesting mix of excitement, humor, pathos, and mystery. The world was huge, and interesting finds awaited the intrepid explorer. The main storyline was kind of dull, absurd, and had an unbelievably stupid end to it, but the side missions were excellent, fleshing out the world and giving lovely story beats without simply dumping a bunch of text into a “book” or a baobab-sized conversation tree. A lot of thought was put into it beyond the weapons and the combat, and the whole thing works very well. It’s a world where you just don’t want to be a jerk, unlike a lot of other games I’ve played.

Fallout 3 was a gateway drug for me, and before long I was trying other FPSes and then moved to the Xbox. In fact, this really should be the final entry in this series, since this game directly led to me jumping back to consoles and eschewing the PC as a gaming platform, at least for the moment.

As you know, Fallout 4 dropped this past week and while I haven’t played it yet (I foolishly “pre-“ordered mine from Amazon, and it only shipped out yesterday) I can’t wait. It looks and sounds great, and even the aspects of it that I’m kind of wary about I’m keeping an open mind about because hey, I’ve been wrong before.

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Master of None

Fall time is TV time, when you want nothing more than sit on your butt in front of the TV. And a show just dropped on Netflix that is a great addition to the season. Master of None is a new series from comedian Aziz Ansari. In ten thirty minute episodes it looks at kids, parents, death, old age, dating, Indian characters in Hollywood, relationships, sexual harassment, Nashville, adultery, and much more.

It’s amazing how much is packed into this series, yet it still has time to breathe and spend time with its characters. The writing is sharp and funny, and it goes into unexpected places (usually because it doesn’t go to the “unexpected” places most TV writing would go. I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me.) It’s also interesting because it starts out seeming episodic and self-contained, but as you go further in, there are multiple threads that are picked up again and reexamined.

It’s funny and is not afraid to go either towards the risque or the sentimental. The supporting cast is great, especially the laconic Denise (Lena Waithe). Two particularly bright spots are Ansari’s character’s parents, played by his actual parents, who are adorable.

It’s a great bit of TV, and I’m really hoping we get more of it. Even if we don’t, It’s got a great story arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion — a rare thing for shows these days. Check it out.

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