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

Continue reading

Review: ‘Just Another Week in Suburbia’

 

just-another-week-in-suburbia-187316436Just Another Week in Suburbia is the debut novel of Melbourne writer Les Zig. In it, Zig dares the reader to sit with one uncomfortable question: can you ever really know someone? The reader is encouraged to examine the enormous leap of faith it takes to be in a trusting relationship – a difficult but worthwhile venture.

Just Another Week in Suburbia spans seven days in the life of Casper Gray. Casper is a suburban everyman with a nice home, a secure job and a wife who challenges and complements him. Like many suburbanites he’s content (if uninspired) and comfortable (if a bit complacent).

One day a chance discovery upheaves Casper, leaving him questioning his marriage. At first, Casper struggles to find the courage to face this discovery, as doing so means dealing with the inevitable fallout. Instead he obsesses over it, and his preoccupations affect everything from his relationships to his professional judgement. Casper’s poor decision-making can be frustrating, but it’s what makes him such a complex and interesting character.

Just Another Week in Suburbia has some undoubtedly harrowing moments. It’s unflinchingly honest, particularly as Casper struggles to escape from his quagmire of insecurities. Throughout, Zig uses Casper’s ordeal to deconstruct the notion of traditional masculinity. He also explores the resentments that can form when two people with individual desires start a life together. But to label this a portrait of marital discord would be reductive; it’s a powerful cautionary tale about the importance of open communication. Zig’s writing demonstrates a great respect – even a reverence – for the union of marriage. Casper and Jane are well-written, believable characters with a flawed but complex relationship.

Outside of the relationship aspect, Zig authentically captures the malaise of suburban life. He also acknowledges the comedy of it: the way neighbours lose their minds scrutinizing property lines or how hauling garbage to the kerb at week’s end feels like a Herculean task.
Memorable side characters add further levity to the story, like Stuart, Casper’s pernickety vice principal; Luke, his affable womanising friend; and a slippery drug dealer nicknamed Jean Jacket. Then there’s Wallace, Casper’s scrappy fox terrier. Wallace’s every mannerism leaps off the page. He is a charming addition to this story.

Zig’s crisp prose and strong characterisation ensures the story breezes along at an enjoyable pace. The darker moments are perfectly balanced with wry humour and poignant observations about life. In one memorable moment, Casper posits that long-term relationships are like reading the same book over and over again. A dour assessment – until Casper’s co-worker points out that re-reading brings a new and deeper appreciation. “Some books you hold dear to you your whole life.

And so it is with Just Another Week in Suburbia, a relationship story with real heart and emotional depth. My appreciation for it grows the more I meditate on its themes. I look forward to revisiting it one day. I’ve no doubt I’ll discover even more things to appreciate about its narrative.

Some Thoughts on David Lynch’s ‘Catching the Big Fish’

So, I just finished this on the train and felt compelled to put down my thoughts while they’re still fresh (also I don’t blog enough).

catching-the-big-fish_lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

What I Expected From This Book:

  • A reasonably detailed dissection of Lynch’s creative practices.
  • A practical guide to meditation.
  • An entertaining/illuminating reflection on Lynch’s work.
  • Specificity.

What This Book Delivered:

  • Shallow, cutesy proclamations about the importance of meditation.
  • A lack of direction. These anecdotes are so haphazard in their delivery. It’s like Lynch waffled into a tape recorder (Agent Cooper style) for an hour and thought the results worth publishing.
  • Repetition.
  • Repetition.
  • An irritating sing-song prose style laden with clipped sentences.
  • Vagueness. Lynch seems to go out of his way to avoid offering any true insight.

Example of Lynch’s Disagreeable Brand of Pop Psychology:

“How does meditation get rid of negativity? Picture it this way: You are the Empire State Building. You’ve got hundreds of rooms. And in those rooms, there’s a lot of junk. And you put all that junk there. Now you take this elevator, which is going to be the dive within. And you go down below the building; you go to the Unified Field beneath the building – pure consciousness. And it’s like electric gold. You experience that. And that electric gold activates these little cleaning robots. They start going, and they start cleaning the rooms. They put in gold where the dirt and junk and garbage were. These stresses that were in there like coils of barbed wire can unwind. They evaporate, they come out. You’re cleaning and infusing simultaneously. You’re on the road to a beautiful state of enlightenment.”

Review: ‘Pet Sematary’

pet-sematary-coverThis book, alongside a discouraging handful of other King novels, begins with great promise, drawing the reader in with the kind of three-dimensional characters King does best. Unfortunately, it hits a slump halfway, from which it cannot recover, and meanders its way to a predictable conclusion.

The plot deals with grief, obsession and reincarnation. The Creed family (Doctor Louis, Rachel, and two children Ellie and Gage) move to backwater Ludlow, a small town in – you guessed it – Maine. Ludlow’s a dandy slice of American pie. It’s also the halfway point between two large townships and is frequented by huge trucks on shipping runs … See where this is going?

So, protagonist Louis strikes up a friendship with local old-timer, Jud, and learns about a makeshift cemetery that is situated near the Creed’s new home. Apparently generations of residents have used this ground to bury their beloved pets, and it’s become a sort of eerie community tradition. But this ain’t your grandpappy’s cemetery; the titular Pet Sematary is actually a front for ancient Micmac burial grounds. It’s a spiritual place with deep historic roots – generations of teenagers have fooled around here. Burying your pet here is said to bring about reincarnation, which is handy because, after some whacky hijinks, Louis ends up home alone with the still-fresh corpse of family cat, Church. Ruh-Roh!

So Louis is faced with that classic parental dilemma: tell Ellie (his daughter/Church superfan) the truth, or dabble blindly in the dark arts. The choice is clear; anyone who’s seen the Arnie classic Jingle All the Way knows only deadbeats disappoint their kids.isc080booklet.inddAnd so Church comes back — albeit a little dopier than before. His movements are sluggish and he permanently smells of the earth, which was admittedly cool. The prospect of a reanimated cat – possibly infused with a sinister Micmac spirit – is great horror fodder, but, in King’s hands, it amounts to nothing. The cover and blurb allude to some terrifying developments; a murderous four-legged zombie that perfectly resembles your beloved Mr Whiskers would make for an excellent monster, but nothing like this eventuates. The whole concept of the Pet Sematary is severely underutilised – unless your secret fear is slow, dim-witted cats that lumber around not hurting anyone.

Nice Churchy!

Nice Churchy!

Pet Sematary has a strong premise and solid opening. It’s great to see King sink into teeth into some serious subject matter and, as usual, he excels at inhabiting his characters. Rachel and Louis are particularly compelling (as luck would have it, Rachel has a debilitating fear of death – guess who’s confronting their fears tonight?), and it’s a pleasure to discover the intricacies of their marriage. Louis is a bog-standard King everyman; however, his profession does distinguish him (slightly) from others of this mould. Doctors are logically minded and less inclined to buy into supernatural mumbo jumbo. I enjoyed Louis’ early scepticism and stoic nature, but grew frustrated with the irrational behaviour he exhibits later on.

Pet Sematary also suffers serious pacing issues. It takes three quarters of the book for all the (obvious) set-pieces to come together (believe me: the signposts are as big as Maine itself). You know the Pet Sematary will cause major complications, yet it goes damn near unmentioned for the first half of the book. Instead, the reader is dragged through family drama subplots that, while mildly interesting, add squat to the narrative.

My biggest issue with Pet Sematary is its conclusion, which unfolds like a slow train wreck. Despite being cautioned by Jud on the dangers of the Pet Sematary, and learning about how a reported case of human burial went horribly awry, logical, level-headed Dr Louis jettisons all common sense and tries it anyway.

A sizeable portion of the novel’s conclusion details Louis’s inner monologue as he climbs up to the haunted burial grounds, his child’s corpse in tow. He openly admits it’s not the answer, that he’s clinging to empty hope. He knows whatever emerges from the ground won’t be his loved one, no matter the resemblance. He knows his actions will cause grief and heartache, and that they will destroy his remaining family’s chance of moving on. He also knows his actions will place everyone in very real danger – yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.

The ensuing bloodshed was senseless, a chore to read, and was all so preventable. King spends so much of the novel (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t short) building rich characters and relationships, only to throw them to the wind in the last seventy pages.

I get the suggestion that grief supersedes rational thinking, and that the Micmac burial ground had some sort of supernatural pull of Louis, but that doesn’t justify this frustrating, limp-wristed ending. Here, King rejoices in kicking his readers in the teeth. The fact that Louis is aware what a dope he is adds insult to injury. God awful – and this is coming from someone who defends and understands Cujo‘s macabre ending.

Read The Shining instead.

Some Thoughts on Bird by Bird and Writing Advice

Bird_by_Bird_LR_titlecoverBestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.

I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.

Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.

A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.

Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians. Continue reading

Review: ‘The Girl in the Flammable Skirt’

the-girl-in-the-flammable-skirt smallThis collection, originally published in 1998, was on my to-read list for ages, but my local libraries and bookstores never carried it. Fortunately, with the recent popularisation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender’s older works have gotten the reissue treatment (slash they’ve made it to backwater Australia in the first place). Even with the reissue, though, this was still a difficult find. I had to grab the LARGE PRINT edition from my local library. Ever read a large-print story about a promiscuous librarian during the morning train commute? Didn’t think so. Don’t scoff.

Fortunately, it was worth the trouble. Although The Girl with the Flammable Skirt feels a bit like the work of a writer still developing their voice, its stories were loaded with entertainment value. Bold, eccentric and dripping with originality, Bender’s short fiction contains highly memorable plots with unconventional subject matters. She trades in the sort of quirky surrealist style associated with writers like Francesca Lia Bloc and Miranda July. A strong sexual undercurrent also permeates these works, further accentuating this comparison.

Still, I enjoyed this way more than Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Though they’re aesthetically similar, I find July’s writing gratingly cute and too far removed from reality; Flammable Skirt was, oddly, more grounded in real human emotion, thus I connected better to the stories. (I say oddly because, like contemporary fairytales, Bender’s subject matter is pretty out there: an incognito imp, of high school age, makes an unwitting sexual advance while stroking the hair of an incognito teenage mermaid; a woman’s boyfriend, disillusioned with the state of the world, experiences – perhaps initiates – reverse evolution, eventually becoming a salamander; two young women experience the hardships of adolescence – with added elemental burdens: one has an ice hand, one fire.)

Reading these, I was delightfully forced from my comfort zone (realist literary fiction). The stories were often trés silly, but Bender sells them, establishing the parameters quickly and upholding them, honouring them. Universality grounds even the most outlandish story, and so they read like strange fables, cautionary tales. I’m intellectualising what doesn’t need to be: at their core, I must emphasise, these stories are just great fun.

I had several favourites, including: ‘The Ring’, a story about besotted thieves whose stolen ruby ring permanently dyes everything it contacts; ‘Quiet Please’, a story about a grief-stricken librarian who decides to have sex with every man who enters her library; ‘Dreaming in Polish’, a story about a prophetic old couple who dream visions of the future in unison; and ‘What You Left in the Ditch’, a story about a military wife who finds it hard to love her wounded husband after he returns from war without lips.

A couple didn’t quite hit home (the sprawling, overambitious ‘Marzipan’ and the ineffectual ‘Legacy’), but theses don’t tarnish what was an otherwise compelling debut. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading more of Aimee Bender’s work in the future.

Review: ‘Sweet Tooth’

ImageContrary to the way it’s been marketed, Sweet Tooth is not an espionage novel. Not really. Among other things, it’s a love story, coming of age tale and meditation on literature. By fictionalising elements of McEwan’s youth, it also works as a strange composite of fiction and reality. Long-time McEwan fans will enjoy the various nods to his past work. There are myriad references, and an interesting look at the relationship artists have with their work.

Set in the afterglow of the Cold War, Sweet Tooth details Serena Frome’s (rhymes with ‘plume’) unlikely ascent from plucky academic to MI5 agent. So far, so James Bond, but Serena’s mission is not to take down the irrepressible Jaws; she is sent, as MI5’s resident bibliophile, to covertly cajole promising young writer, Tom Haley. Under the guise of representing a national literary foundation, Serena commissions Tom in the hopes that she can get him to unwittingly pen novelistic propaganda. It’s the 70s, see, and an international war of ideas rages. Britain is facing industrial unrest, and MI5 are desperate to influence the national culture. One of their approaches is to use well-received fiction writers to lure left-of-centre European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective. Continue reading