Games I Finished in 2019 – Part Two

Click here to read Part One.

July

Rivals of Aether

Rivals of Aether

I remember this episode of Street Sharks!

Growing up, I loved Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube and always missed the series after migrating to Xbox (though Brawl and Smash 4 are pretty mediocre in my opinion; haven’t played Ultimate). I gave the free-to-play Brawlhalla a shot, but it didn’t gel with me. Rivals of Aether, however, is exactly my jam.

It’s ostensibly an indie version of Smash Bros. with pixel art and some wild original characters that feel like they were plucked from some Nineties Saturday morning cartoon. While not as feature rich as the series it imitates, Rivals is far better than you might think. The characters’ movesets a lot more complex and interesting than what’s offered in Smash. Some Rivals characters are insanely technical and mastering their mechanics is truly rewarding.

The controls are highly responsive, though the high skill ceiling makes it less accessible than Nintendo’s brawler. It seems to be aimed more at the esports crowd than casual audiences. That said, I still had a lot of casual fun with it. I just wish the Xbox version had a bigger online community.

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Games I Finished in 2019 – Part One

It’s time for my annual-until-I-get-sick-of-doing-it retrospective on the games I completed in the previous year. This time it’s in two parts because I like to waffle.

January

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3

Ah, the outside world. From the Before Times.

I’ve been curious about Far Cry 3 since playing through the fourth entry years ago on my brother’s recommendation. The tropical setting looked like a great place to spend 30 hours and I’d heard positive things about the charismatic villain, Vaas.

Far Cry 3 was a genuinely great time. The gameplay was super engaging, even coming at it some seven years after release. It’s basically a big, dumb action movie set in an inviting locale with hilarious physics and a fun array of vehicles and weapons to play with.

To my surprise, the story really grabbed me. In the beginning, protagonist Jason Brody is an entitled frat boy looking to partake in some consequence-free debauchery with his douchey friends (no doubt a commentary on how westerners treat South-East Asia like their personal playground). However, he soon discovers this lawless island has been seized by pirates and a drug-peddling militia. The pirate leader, Vaas, kidnaps his friends with the intent to extort ransom money. Jason narrowly escapes, aided by suspicious natives, and begins the insurmountable task of rescuing his friends.

Initially, Jason is driven to kill out of necessity, as it’s the only way for him to achieve his goal. However, he comes to realises he is naturally gifted at it and, over time, even develops a taste for it. When the gang eventually reunites, Jason’s friends are horrified by his disturbing new behaviour and attitude.

It’s not an especially deep story, but I loved Jason’s gradual descent into savagery. It’s a modern-day Heart of Darkness and I appreciated that the violence had thematic context. Like Vaas before him, Jason slowly surrenders his soul to the island. His transformation from selfish fratboy to ruthless killer suggests we all have an innate savagery waiting to be drawn out by the right circumstances. Pretty chilling stuff.

 

Star Wars Battlefront II

SW Battlefront 2

“Rad Leader standing by.”

Even after all the controversy I was determined to go into this blind and give it a fair shake. I genuinely think EA and Activision are a cancer on the industry with their cookie-cutter game design and egregious monetisation tactics. Star Wars Battlefront II looked to exemplify these flaws with early reports suggesting it would take a whopping 40 hours of grinding to unlock iconic Star Wars characters like Darth Vader. The idea here was to incentivise players to circumvent the grind (which the developers themselves had created) by encouraging them to buy in-game credits with real-world currency. Gross!

However, following an unprecedented internet shitstorm, ‘Good Guy’ EA rolled back this absurd monetisation model to ensure no facet of the game was ‘Pay to Win’. Two years later, the game has seen a lot of dev support and has virtually turned its abysmal reputation around.

So what did I make of it? Well, it’s beautiful to look at and authentically captures the spirit of Star Wars. Seriously, the production values are super-duper impressive and would’ve made my head explode if I’d played this as a kid. Instead of building off the previous generation of Star Wars Battlefront games, this one is basically a casualified sci-fi reskin of DICE’s other large-scale shooter property, Battlefield. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.

The biggest and most-touted new addition here was the single-player campaign. This tells the supposedly canon story of a group of Empire remnants trying to rebuild following their defeat at the end of Return of the Jedi. You play as hardened Imperial commander Iden Versio and some forgettable supporting characters. Playing as the villains was an interesting twist. I enjoyed learning about Imperial culture and was particularly interested to find there is honour in their ranks. Most Imperial troops believe they are doing something noble by stamping out rebels. They genuinely believe the Empire’s reign stabilises the galaxy and brings prosperity (a similar idea was presented in The Mandalorian). It was refreshing to see they weren’t all blind megalomaniacs.

Unfortunately, our protagonists quickly learn the error of their ways when the militant new Imperial leader starts destroying loyal systems to strike fear and reinforce the Empire’s might. Iden and co. have their predictable “Wait! We were the bad guys all along!” moment of realisation and the story devolves into the usual heroism fluff. I would have preferred if the game had shown the rise of the First Order (y’know, since Episode VII couldn’t be bothered doing that). As it is, this story is fairly inconsequential.

Gameplay wise, this campaign is fucking dull as dishwater. It’s just a string of pretty-but-lifeless gallery shootouts against thoroughly brain-dead enemies. There are a few scripted set pieces that exist solely to teach you about characters’ abilities. The whole campaign is an overlong tutorial. It’s the embodiment of beige with some nice window-dressing.

The multiplayer suite is a lot better. There’s small-scale deathmatches, large-scale wars with dynamic objectives, space battles and the fan servicey Heroes vs Villains mode, where you can mess around as your favourite Star Wars badass. I find all this moderately entertaining, if a bit simple. I’d rather play Halo, which has better maps, a much more interesting weapon sandbox and a more satisfying gameplay loop, but Battlefront 2 is fun if you want to switch off most of your faculties. The gunplay feels incredibly imprecise and never really gelled for me. Same with the movement and general physics. With such large-scale battles it sometimes feels like your individual contributions don’t matter, but at least this reduces the pressure to perform well (that’s what she said!).

My least favourite thing about this game is the Star Card system. Clearly, this system was engineered to encourage real-world spending until the devs hastily rejigged it. Every character you play as, from infantry to Jedis, must be levelled up to unlock buffs and abilities. The grind to do this is painstakingly slow, but you gotta do it if you expect to get anywhere in matches. In the beginning, you’re frail and have few tactical options. This means a player who’s played the game longer and unlocked better Star Cards will curb stomp newer players, even if those newer players outplay them in raw combat. There’s just no way to compete when the enemy has double the health and outputs more damage. I hate this system as it effectively creates an artificial skillgap, with new players assuming the role of lambs to the slaughter.

I feel like I’ve already wasted too many words on this game. It generally induces apathy in me. I can’t wait until EA’s exclusivity deal with Disney ends. I can’t think of two worse companies to oversee Star Wars

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Just Give Me Moments: A Retrospective on Bloc Party

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Bloc Party’s music has soundtracked most of my adult life. At eighteen, my pre-clubbing ritual entailed a few drinks and a listen to Silent Alarm. At nineteen, I left home right as Bloc Party dropped A Weekend in the City, a concept album about city life. Intimacy was a candid deconstruction of an intense relationship, which I’ve had my share of, and the band’s latest release Hymns fittingly explores growing older and the search for inner peace.

They’ve all been relevant to me, but Weekend felt especially vital. That album captured the exotic wonder of city life and tackled some of the more alienating aspects of modern culture. The lyrics seemed to personally address me, which is why I find parts of it hard to revisit. ‘Song for Clay’ is an anthem for a disaffected youth. The narrator of ‘The Prayer’ yearns for confidence and acceptance. ‘Uniform’ critiques conformity and the commodification of youth culture. ‘On’ examines the futility of escaping with substances. ‘Sunday’ captures the sense of renewal in a hungover morning. ‘Kreuzberg’ is a yearning for personal connection and highlights the dangers of conflating sex with true intimacy, while ‘SRXT’ explores the depths of a devastating depression (“A battle that lasts a lifetime, a fight that never ends”).

There’s plenty of catharsis in Bloc Party’s catalogue. In fact, this band has tunes to cover the entire emotional spectrum. It’s why I’ve amassed every recording, know virtually every lyric, and have been to four of their shows. I love and respect how sonically adventurous they are, how they reinvent themselves with each album (even though their most vocal fans would prefer they stayed in a box).

So, since I like to doggedly avoid cohesion or consistency with my blog content, I wanted to post my analysis of a few Bloc Party songs. These aren’t necessarily my definitive favourites, but they’re songs that mean a lot to me for one reason or another.

Let’s get lost in a forest.

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Games I Finished in 2018

Gaming is one of my big passions, alongside writing, music and fitness. To reflect that, I thought I’d share my impressions of the games I completed in 2018.

 Gears of War 2

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Scratch one grub!

I’m a long-term Halo fanatic but have never made time for Xbox’s other flagship shooter series, Gears of War. In fact, my introduction to the series (which began in 2006) wasn’t until 2015 when I played the first game’s excellent remaster, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. Gears: Ultimate had some cool ideas and memorable moments, but I wasn’t blown away. I thought the remastered graphics were incredible and that the cover-based shooting mechanics were solid (if a little stiff), but I really didn’t care about its generic action movie narrative. The saving grace, however, was the surprisingly nuanced relationships between the characters. These four neckless dudebros spent most of the game assaulting you with one-liners, but they also genuinely care for each other. Their brotherhood and affinity for shit-talking was endearing. I didn’t expect to warm to them the way I did.

In many ways Gears 2 is a typical action sequel. It iterates on everything that made the first entry enjoyable and generally offers more – more action, weapons, variety, and more bombastic set pieces. Surprisingly, the story was more affecting story this time around. There are a few surprise deaths and a real exploration of how these characters feel, and what they – and humanity at large – are fighting for. The set pieces are thrilling and varied, and the entire campaign is paced perfectly. You’re constantly thrown into new and exciting locations and combat scenarios. Something new lies around every corner and there’s no time for any of it to grow stale.

I thought the first Gears of War was just okay. But after blasting through its exhilarating sequel I’m can now see what all the fuss is about. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.

 

Oxenfree

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I really expected to like Oxenfree. It’s frequently compared to Dontnod’s 2015 title Life is Strange, a game that improved upon Telltale’s adventure game template by adding a memorable time travel mechanic. The similarities between Oxenfree and Life is Strange are obvious: they both star adolescent protagonists, feature time travel and offer branching dialogue options. But where Life is Strange felt sincere and intimate, Oxenfree feels strangely impersonal. Its dialogue was quippy and trite. Exploring was less enjoyable; I didn’t really care about the characters; and the mystery, which initially showed promise, devolved into an overwrought mess in the vein of Lost.

A bit of a disappointment. Maybe my preconceptions worked against me here.


Super Lucky’s Tale

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Want rad puns? This game’s got you, fam.

 

Super Lucky’s Tale is one of my personal gaming highlights of 2018. It’s a wholesome throwback to the colourful 3D platformers of the Nineties. It’s got it all: cute characters, fun dialogue and a banging OST. The controls are super responsive, the level design was solid and the DLC ramps up the difficulty to cap things off nicely.

This game exuded charm and was a much-needed palette cleanser after playing so many shooters. I even nabbed all the achievements for it, which took a bit of work.

 

Borderlands 2

borderlands2

Sigh.

Where to begin? I’m a huge fan of the original Borderlands (in my eyes it’s the definitive co-op experience, next to Left 4 Dead), so naturally expected a lot from its sequel. This game is regarded as one of the best games of last generation, but I found it a very mixed bag. Continue reading

Some Recent Impressions (or God, I Watch a Lot of Shit)

End of the Tour (2015)

endofthetour

“I’ll take the misanthrope salad with a side of psuedo-intellectual fries.”

I love movies about writers. I’ve read very little David Foster Wallace but still appreciated this movie as a character study. The film explores Wallace’s neuroses and growing disillusionment with fame and the literary world. Its highlights are the fantastic performances by Jesse Eisenberg (playing to type, as ever) and Jason Segel (who reveals some surprisingly solid dramatic chops).

 

Snowden (2016)

snowden

A solid primer on the most famous whistleblower in US history and a serviceable examination of Edward Snowden the man. Oliver Stone has constructed a tense, visually engaging techno-thriller that is held together by the always exemplary Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levitt’s Snowden is wracked with turmoil as he struggles to reconcile his humanistic worldview with his increasing complicity in the US government’s infringement on civil rights.

I liked this a lot, but it also had issues. Nicholas Cage and Shailene ‘wooden’ Woodley give jarring performances as Snowden’s respective mentor and love interest, and the film was clearly hamstrung by Stone’s reverence for his subject. In this portrayal, Snowden is deified – a savant with few faults. Where’s a trace of ego? Why is Snowden so tiresomely secure in himself and his abilities? Why does he never waiver in his resolve to Do the Right Thing? Without adequately deconstructing this complex figure the movie devolves into politically self-serving wank.

Snowden is superficially entertaining, but I wish Stone had taken a more nuanced approach.

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The Blog Hop: Four Secrets About My Writing Process

Today’s post is part of the Writing Process Blog Hop, which I was invited into by fellow blogger Setsu of KatanaPen. Setsu writes thoughtful posts about the writing and publishing journey, and loves to explore the nature of being an artist. She comes from a martial arts background, and so has many unique experiences to draw from.

Through her musings, Setsu likes to apply martial arts philosophies to writing so that her readership may learn from the parallels. Though immensely talented and dedicated to her craft, Setsu is also one of the kindest and humblest bloggers I’ve encountered. She is very receptive to other bloggers, so I urge you to drop by her blog, follow, check out a few posts and introduce yourself.

(In case this torrent of praise hasn’t made it clear, I think the world of Setsu and regard her as a sort of internet kindred spirit.)

Anyway! As part of the Hop, I’m answering four questions about my personal writing process and then passing the baton to three other bloggers whose blogs you will no doubt enjoy.

* * *

What are you working on?

Many things – too many things! This will make you think less of me:

I’m currently sitting on six or so short stories, each in various stages of completion. On top of these, I have an even dozen requiring further redrafting. I will typically pull these out when I’m hiding from more pressing projects, or if a relevant competition arises.

I’ve thoroughly outlined and put down about 15,000 words of a post-apocalyptic novella – itself just a small entry in a much larger fictional universe I have conceived.

For a class (and for Camp NaNoWriMo), I’m writing a long science fiction short (15,000 words), which, as per the assessment task, will be self-published in late May. Kind of nervous about that one. It’s my first proper dabble in genre-writing and my literal first foray into self-publishing.

Also for a school assessment, I am working on a single-issue digital horror magazine, tentatively titled Macabre Monthly. Then there’s this blog.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

I’m not sure. Questions like this make me uncomfortable. It differs because it stems from my experience and imagination, which are unique to me. I love tight sentences and rich, complicated characters. I describe my writing as literary fiction, but strive to keep it ‘fun’. I try to avoid writing anything dry or lifeless. Humour (when appropriate), pacing and dialogue are important to me. I love beautiful language, but hate the idea of alienating anyone. I guess you could say I like tackling literary themes with pop fiction sensibilities.

Why do you write what you write?

I write for personal enjoyment, and I write the things I write because the stories I want to read aren’t being told – at least not in the way I want them to be. In my more ambitious stories, I like giving voices to the marginalised.

On a deeper level, I find writing the easiest way to articulate my ideas. I’m a terrible communicator – so much so that many people I work or study with often misunderstand or underestimate me. It can be frustrating when people perceive a correlation between my intelligence and poor communication skills. Consequently, writing feels like the most natural and honest method of expression for me. I find it empowering.

How does your writing process work?

Still working on this. My processes are all over the shop, which is why I seldom see things through to completion. I’m ill-disciplined. I write frequently, but project hop. School and this blog have helped, but I’m hoping to carve out some regular, dedicated writing time. I also need to stop editing as I write.

* * *

Now, I pass the baton to three of my insanely talented writer friends:

Michael Patrick McMullen

Michael is a blogger, freelancer, artist, short story writer and aspiring novelist. His website is all about his projects and the writer’s journey. Phenomenally nice guy. I don’t think he’d object to me calling him a film, sci-fi, horror and video game enthusiast, either.

Vera Callahan

Vera’s a dear friend of mine and her blog, though still in relative infancy, shows huge promise. Vera writes about the writer’s journey. Her brilliant posts stem from her experience as a scriptwriter, film and music buff, editor, and avid YA writer and reader.

Dreaming Fully Awake by Amanda Kontos

Amanda is a recent alumnus from my Writing and Publishing course. (Weirdly, because we were in different years, we’ve hardly spent any time together in person, but have become good blogging pals!) Amanda is an absolute workhorse. Not only is she a hugely dedicated prolific writer, but she also fearlessly applies for every opportunity that comes her way. I greatly admire her work ethic, and her blog – which is choc-full of great writing-related content – is well worth checking out!

Worth Checking Out: Flash! Friday Micro Fiction Community

Flash fiction has always interested me. This could be because I’m a naturally verbose writer (see: every post I’ve written to date). To me, short short fiction has always seemed elusive and challenging. My attempts at it feel more like disposable exercises than fully formed pieces with arcs and merit.

Indeed, writing good flash or micro fiction requires a very specific skill set. So to get some much-needed practice, I’ve decided to join Flash! Friday, a flourishing flash fiction writing community.

It’s pretty simple: every Friday morning a prompt is given via Twitter and the Flash! Friday blog. Writers then have twenty-four hours to conceive a seventy-five word response and share it in the comment section of the blog, or by using the #FlashFridayFic hash tag.

Every entry is read and assessed by a judge (a different one each time, I believe?). Both the winners and the highly commended receive exposure and Glory!™. Crucially, there’s no pressure: from what I can tell Flash! Friday is all about having fun, getting some feedback and being held accountable for keeping a regular writing schedule. It’s also further supports the argument that Friday is the best day of the week.

If any of this sounds interesting, follow FlashFridayFic or visit their blog.

Also, watch this space: I plan on sharing some forthcoming flash fiction pieces on this blog. I figure it’s about time I subjected you to my fiction. Let the madness ensue.