Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Was on sale, so I picked it up.  I had played the other two in the series reboot, and rather liked the spoke/hub model on discovery/tombs.  Storyline… the series has way more in common with Assassin Creed’s “nebulous bad guy” motif than much else.

SotTB (huh) seems to have taken a turn from the previous “world first” model to “story first”.  There’s 1 main hub, then a smattering of other smaller locations that are attached.  Pretty much everything is accessible from the first pass through, which I guess is an improvement.  I personally enjoyed the backtracking in the other games, as it provided a sense of player progression.  Here, the skills/items you get within 10 minutes are the same used all the way to the end.  Which is fine I guess – it works for Uncharted.

The storyline here is a fair bit darker, with Lara having to face her own internal demons.  She’s clearly obsessed with exploration to fill in a gap.  And while the whole world is at stake with an apocalypse (that she triggers), apparently there’s time to find stolen dice from a child.  I don’t quite get it.  I do think this is the best villain the series has had in a long time.  You get a much better appreciation for his motivations than expected.  His 2nd in command doesn’t get that treatment.

Combat has been dramatically reduced in volume.  Fact, you barely have any of it until the last 20 minutes.  This split means that combat is more difficult, because you’re never really prepared for it and forget some bits.  The madness arrow in particular is only shown in the final bit, yet acts like a “god weapon”.  I can still remember fights in the 2nd game where I would need to restart a half dozen times due to shielded enemies throwing grenades.  None of that here.  Fact, the last zone I just rushed through with the assault rifle on full blast and ignored all the other mechanics.

Bows are so done.  I still think they are an amazing weapon, but here they are neutered by everyone having a helmet and not being open to a single shot kill.  Instead, the shotgun is king… which really doesn’t have a Tomb Raider fell, right?  I miss the more strategic planning for combat.

The world is very linear, but the puzzles therein are really quite good.  The mirror tomb made me put down the controller to really think about it.  The galleon puzzle looked amazing.  They are real highlights.  The rewards for each are additional skill benefits, which while cool, you rarely notice it.  Swimming faster… ok.  That said, the world looks amazing.  The world designers should get some serious kudos!

shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-5b7416c40dd7b-960x640

A) it does look this good and B) seems eerily swapable with Nathan Drake

The whole package comes out weaker than the previous two.  There are certainly higher highs here, but the lows bring it down.  Playing it again, I would drop the combat difficulty to super easy mode so that the focus can be instead placed on exploration/story.  If you can pick it up with all the DLC (tombs) attached, then that would be a really good deal.

Accepting Change

A long time ago I realized I was an agent of change.  In nearly everything I do, there has to be some form of change – and the status quo gets under my skin.

School was where it started to click.  I was able to get to the right answers, but my methods were quite a bit different than those taught.  I recall one math teacher who was sure I was cheating.  One of my programming teachers couldn’t figure out how the code was able to run, since it was nearly 30% shorter than the approved solution.  It’s kept through my career, where I seem to be drawn to complicated projects that focus on both tech and culture transformation.

Not to say I don’t like stability.  My daytime meals are really quite boring in that regard.  Simple, healthy, and all the macros I need.  Let’s me focus on things I find more important.  Like as if I’ve made the necessary changes and can move on.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that a few people in my social circle are going through what appears to be mid-life crises.  From my perspective (and lacking all the necessary context) it would appear that they just didn’t adapt to change over time, simply accepted that things were ok – up until the point they were not.  I mean, I get it.  Change is exhausting, and it never seems to end.  Figuring out what you can handle and what you can’t, that takes a lot of time.  But they do say that time waits for no person…

At a larger scale, I find it fascinating to see people’s resistance to change.  Like there are things that simply are not going to pass if we close our eyes enough.  Some quick thoughts.

  • Climate Change.  Ignore it if you want to, but it’s pretty damn clear that we have a problem.  Doing nothing is not an acceptable course of action.
  • Automation.  Who would say no to a machine that can work 10x as hard and never take a break?  Basic robots are here and going to stay.  We’re at the cusp of AI taking over more complicated analysis jobs.  Hell… day trading is almost entirely driven through algorithms.
  • GMOs.  We, as a planet, consume more than nature can provide on its own.  We hit the annual value last week.  GMOs provide higher yields, better nutrition, and require less chemicals.  This doesn’t negate the risk of single strains – see the Banana crisis for more.
  • Immigration.  This is a math exercise.  To keep an even amount of people in a country, you need to have just about 2.1 kids.  Right now, we’re about 1.7 in North America.  That gap has to be filled by immigration.  And that’s not even talking about the MASS of baby boomers who are retiring and turning into a net weight against social services (they pay into it less than they take out), meaning more people are needed to fill in the tax-paying ranks.
  • Vaccines.  Oy.  This isn’t hard.  There’s a reason people don’t have polio today.  Frankly, we’re a generation away from genetic modifications that can address birth defects.  The ethics of this… that’s a separate topic.

Each of these has an impact on people.  Some more than others.  Some appear simple, but are in reality quite complicated.  It’s natural for people to look for correlation in causation.  ex: Ms. McCarthy’s crusade against vaccines has led to more child deaths than should be reasonable.  We all but eliminated measles in North America up until a few years ago.

Adapting to change is hard.  If folks don’t understand their current value, it’s near sure they won’t understand their value after a change.  Natural reaction is to resist the change.  Ignoring that the change has these impacts makes for disenfranchised people, and can build a massive wave that seems to come from nowhere.  And when people are filled with this anger, they stop seeing clearly.  They stop wanting to talk about it, to perhaps tweak their ideas, to not see other people as enemies.  It’s a slippery slope.

And people who are in positions of power think they are in leadership positions.  They’ll stoke the emotional flames to stay in power or to try an attain more.  Why?  Because it’s the easiest thing to do.  And who doesn’t like easy?

There’s an old saying that goes:  If you meet an asshole during the day, you’re having a bad day.  If you meet nothing but assholes… you’re the asshole.

At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.  Change will never stop, no matter how much we wish it would.  And it’s certainly better to go through change with people than against them.  We’d all be better off trying to have some empathy for those undergoing change.  Can’t really succeed if we leave people behind.

Weekend on the Shield

Canada is a massive country, with amazing sights all around.  Each part of the country has something different to showcase, with it’s own unique lens.  There are few places however that are as uniquely Canadian as the shield.  A giant ring of rock, with practically nothing but coniferous trees.  The Group of Seven had an odd focus on it.

I am not dismissing the maritime’s colorful & stark views, the mountains of the west, the central plains, or the tundra of the North – but if you took pictures of each, most could be found elsewhere (‘cept Newfoundland…).

While my own cottage is on the outer limits of the shield, my father’s side is smack dab in it.  There’s a serenity that comes with the solitude.  Water, rocks, and pine trees.  Most of Canada was built on the fur trades through these waters.

voyageur-channel-french-river

Beautiful French River.

I spent the weekend up there, breathing the air, swimming the river.  Indoor and outdoor games.  Nothing but sun.  Kids laughing, family smiling.  It’s a hell of  way to recharge the batteries.

This may seem like a crappy tourism spot, but it’s really just an appreciation post for what we have in our (relative) backyard.  Get outside and enjoy.

WoW Speculation

We’re 1 year into BfA (feels longer) and a few months from Blizzcon.  So speculation about what’s next is due!

Few bits on Age of Darkness and Shadowlands.  There are certainly many others, all with varying degrees of wish fulfillment.  Which all this speculation actually is.

See, a leak is really only a leak if there’s some sort of bad news.  Even the Blizzcon announcements are not all rosy, there is always some trepidation around the various bits.  When you read something that is all good news, then you take a hefty spoonful of gullible along with it.

That said, wish fulfillment is thematic.  It’s focused on what people think is a problem today that needs to be addressed, combined with the perennial “more things”.  In that vein, these speculative posts seem to share similar points:

  • Old God themed expansion.  This one seems fairly obvious given the current state of the game.  That said, the current storyline is pointing strongly to a merger of the two factions after deposing of Sylvanas.
  • New classes.  Seems there’s a new class every other expansion.  The actual class…
  • Level squish.  Blizz have been upfront on this already.
  • Horizontal progress systems.  Fair to say that Blizz has not been able to make the AP system from Legion/BfA feel rewarding without a grind.  Which in itself speaks volumes about the challenges of system designers that 3 years of iteration still doesn’t work.
  • Full world revamp a-la Cataclysm.  This one seems far fetched as the resources are absolutely better used elsewhere.  People spent what, 4 hours leveling in vanilla content nowdays?  That the point is here at all I think focuses more on the fact that more recent expansions are much better designed than previous (duh).
  • Reversion of classes.  BfA removed many of the class-focused aspects found in Legion (through artifacts), and the general trend has been more and more homogeneous classes.  Really, there isn’t much difference between any of the classes in a given role (melee, range, heal, tank).  Class flavor is always a hot topic.

Most expansion speculation has had these points, with some minor variations, over the years.  Expected.  Some are more likely than others (level squish vs. world rebuild).

I have  low expectations when it comes to the next WoW expansion.  The primary reason for this is as follows:

Blizzard’s success is predicated on perfecting existing successful systems in place within other games.

It has been a long time since Blizzard has actually improved on an existing one.  Weapon artifacts came with a similar grind as found in LOTRO/DAoC.  Followers in WoD/Legion were +loot tools rather than an actual gameplay change.  Role-agnostic content (island expeditions) had no incentives.  Point being that Blizz can certainly spot successful systems, but their ability to perfect those systems is seriously lacking.  Which is fine… since it really means that the development talent across the entire market is no longer entirely found within Blizz.

(Side note.  Starcraft 2 has no competition, so is a weird side case.  Overwatch has done some really solid work.  HotS & Hearthstone…they appear to have leadership issues.)

Blizzcon is certainly going to be an interesting event, and I do fully expect a ton more “leaks” to come out between now and then.  Maybe some Diablo4 while we’re at it…

Darksiders 3

Or rather, Dark Souls-lite.  I like the series, and the lore.  The entire concept of Revelations & the Four Horseman is ripe for plucking.  Feels more like a comic book in video game format.

The first game played like an homage to Ocarina of Time.  The second was pretty much a 3D ARPG.  This one feels more like QTE + Dark Souls.  I can’t really think of any other series where the game mechanics are practically re-written with each game.  For better or worse.

Saying QTE isn’t really fair.  Rather it’s reactive combat, where you must actively dodge (button press) in order to survive.  Point of fact, there are some bosses that can be beaten with just two buttons.  Regular enemies are similar, and the challenge therefore comes from the fact that a) their timing of attacks changes b) their attacks deal 50% of your hit points and c) there are multiple enemies on screen.  There are at least a dozen areas across the entire game that are exercises in frustration due to this.  I didn’t feel good about finally clearing them, but relief that it was done.

You get a refillable healing potion, and a set of weapons and skills that allow for some minor puzzle solving – maybe a half dozen or so.  It’s nice to have the variety, and some fights do become easier when you use one weapon type vs another.  I was partial to fire attacks with their DoT effect.  Water was nice too, with a damage shield and slow effect.  There’s a minor upgrade process included, where you need to head back to camp (or remember to).  Frankly, until really late in the game, it had no practical effect.  When I had more material to upgrade with, I was able to apply a significant life leech effect as well as a heal over time effect.  Massive improvement to the enjoyment of the game.

The zones themselves are interesting.  Cityscape, subway tunnels, floral, underwater, hell, and Mad Max-zone. They criss cross over themselves, so that you eventually unlock shortcuts throughout.  The Wrath zone in particular… the boss is a few feet away from the entrance but it takes 2 hours to unlock all the things to open his door.  I would have appreciated more puzzle solving rather than a labyrinth.  There’s no map, and everything is accessible.  I’m sure there are completionists that would find this fun, but it’s stupid easy to get lost.

For the wide majority of the game I was having fun – think it was around 15 hours to complete.  The last area (Wrath redux) was extremely tedious, primarily because it overlapped over itself so much, and enemies were stupidly overpowered as compared to previous zones.  I just started skipping as much of the combat as possible.  All the bosses were a decent challenge – Gluttony excepted, more deaths on this than the rest of the game combined.  The story was decent, with strong showing from a single demon (Abraxas) for all of 90 seconds.

Overall, a decent game and found at a good price pretty much everywhere.  There’s 1 horseman to go…  fingers crossed that game gets made.

Let’s Go Meta

I remember reading The Forever War a while back, and the main point I took from that story is a person’s ability to adapt to a changing society.  It’s a sci-fi story where a soldier is under the effects of time dilation (e.g. he gets 1 week, earth gets 10 years) and when he comes back for shore leave, he barely recognizes the place.

Today’s pace of societal change is just absurd.  Go ahead and watch the Hangover (2009).  There are bunch of jokes in that movie that simply could not make it to the screen today.  Actions from 20 years ago are brought up and judged against today’s standards.  Those are pure time capsules, and to try and shoehorn today’s values on that time piece makes no sense.  As I’m sure in 50 years that society will look back on what we do today and think Holy Shit.

But that’s not to say that people are not trying to catch the wave of change, trying to make a buck.  There’s a reason they call it a wave, because if you’re not at the crest, then you’re done.  And it’s damn hard to stay at the crest, especially when that crest changes every other week.  The shock-jock stuff from the Logans seemed a somewhat natural evolution from the Jackass culture.  But as time has moved forward, it’s become less and less accepted, regardless of how much energy they put into it.  They need to change.

Then there’s the people who fight tooth and nail against the wave.  There are a million reasons why.  We all have relatives who seem like they live 50 years in the past and have no inclination to move forward.  Some for interesting reasons, others simply due to exhaustion of seeing all the non-stop change.

I remember being a kid in school.  There was a bunch of stuff I liked that my parents just didn’t understand.  At least is was physical (POG?) and tangible.  And the rate of change was moderate enough since it typically cost money to participate in a trend.  Kids today?  Trends are set on a daily basis, and almost entirely free to participate.  There were no ice bucket challenges when I was a kid, it simply wasn’t possible to have something that viral exist.  If I was to look at the top 15 Twitch Streamers (subjective, fine) I only recognize 5 of them.  Dr Disrespect is one who technically should be in jail right now (at least, he would be if it was in Canada.)  And that 6 month old list is now out of date.

One of the old school memes (2012 is apparently old school) – Overly Attached Girlfriend (OAG) – recently announced that she’s leaving the scene.  Technically she hasn’t been active in 2 years, but wanted a farewell.  It’s a poignant video, primarily due to the openness of the mental health issues that being a content creator imposes.  99% of those issues are created due to the internet culture.  I can only imagine how that impacts others who feel obligated to create non-stop. They get so involved in the lifestyle that they have no backup plan – just stream/create until they can’t.

I’ve been blogging for over 15 years now.  In that time, I’ve found side projects that paid a decent amount of money, and there were points where I considered doing it full time.  The problem then (more-so now) was that full time was many more hours than I’d work in normally.  I made a choice then, as I do now, to only do what I want to do and do it within timeframes I’m comfortable with.  Giving me a million dollars and making me work 200 hours a week… I’m good, thanks.  As a teenager, I don’t think I would have had that same perspective.

What a long winded post to get the the point where I simply shake my head looking at how society self-reflects today.  Wild swings of popularity, and the anonymity of the masses.  There are no mirrors anymore, just cameras.  Exhausting.

 

Stranger Things 3

Better than season 2.  Spoilers I suppose.

Stranger Things is an odd one.  Clearly, it’s an homage to the perception of the 80s, with very little basis on the actual 80s people lived through – so it comes across as super meta (anyone under 30 won’t get most of the references).  It’s also a mix of sci-fi/horror, of which there’s very little in today’s market.  Finally, it’s Netflix’s flagship series now that OITNB is on a downward trend.  That puts a LOT of eyes on it, and I can only assume a fair amount of pressure to deliver.

Season 3 follows the familiar formula – a bad force captures a character, there are bad scientists, Eleven has super powers, threat averted in final episode, cliffhanger.  What Season 3 suffers from is character bloat, or rather character redundancy.  Set in ’85, the kids are now 14/15 and Back to the Future is all the rage.

Let’s talk about the additions first:

  • Alexi – Used entirely for exposition as the portal can’t be closed without the information he provides over multiple episodes.  When the info is transferred, he naturally dies.
  • Murray – Was in season 2, but more as a nutso.  Still eccentric but the only real purpose here is to translate Alexi’s Russian.  Irrelevant otherwise.
  • Karen Wheeler – Mike’s Mom and used to project defeatism and regret.  Her chat with Nancy was tragic.  She does a great job representing “normal”.
  • The Russians – The super stereotypical bad guys, following every trope possible, including the inability to aim their guns.
  • Robin – Steve’s partner in slinging ice cream.  An older, female version of Dustin.  Stand-out this season.
  • Erica – Lucas’ sister realized she’s a nerd.  Audience surrogate for most of the story.

And the regular crew.

  • Eleven – fluent in English, goes through some self-discovery, loses her powers by the end.  Given that 99% of the heavy lifting is done by her powers, there’s no way to continue this series if those aren’t returned.
  • Steve – Honestly, he’s more of the star here than Eleven.  He rolls with every punch and has come miles from his start in Season 1.
  • Dustin – Same ol’ Dustin, though a bit more confidence. Most of the story triggers off his actions.
  • Max – Plays a ton of roles here.  Catalyst for Eleven’s growth, comic relief, voice of reason, Billy’s sister… a really strong role.
  • Lucas – Feels like he’s less present, though also the one who’s matured the most by the end.  His actions in face of fear are impressive.
  • Joyce – The derangement is gone and instead replaced by pure focus.  Sure, the focus was there before, but now it seems more tempered by her experience.
  • Nancy & Jonathan – It’s really frustrating to see kids act smarter than these two, and some seriously poor writing when it comes to their relationship.  Only saved by the fact the 2 actors clearly have good chemistry (and are dating).  I will say that Nancy with a gun is impressive.
  • Hopper – Episode 1 and Episode 8 are good.  Everything in the middle makes him look like a rageaholic.  Hopper’s strength lies in the excess of calmness, with odd bursts of emotion.  This season is the opposite and you lose a lot from it.
  • Billy – Episode 1 is great.  Then he becomes a blank faced bad guy until the last 20 minutes of the season.  His arc makes no sense, and the redemption even less so.  All he needed was a hug?  Really?
  • Mike – Even more useless than Season 2.  He’s the catalyst for many of the other character changes, but does little himself.
  • Will – Bad-guy detector, and only when the bad guys are 20 feet away.

The season splits up most of the crew into 4 teams, and has them join up near the end.  Which for story purposes I get.  The downside is that some storylines are really weak compared to others.  Steve/Dustin/Robin/Erica absolutely shine.  Eleven’s feels like Degrassi High.  Joyce/Hopper is like a bad rom-com.  The less we talk about Nancy/Jonathan the better (which is less about sexism than it is about a child in an adult’s world… which really seems lost on the writers.)

I will point out some scenes that have some great weight.

  • Nancy & Karen’s kitchen chat about chasing dreams.  Karen gave up on hers, and the pathos here helps drive Nancy to commit even more crimes in search of the story (which should be hyper obvious given the past 2 seasons).  If Nancy was smarter, then this would have had a different impact.
  • Hopper’s funhouse battle, as well as the basement battles are more rip-offs than homage to classic 80s action films.  Gregori’s Arnold/Terminator vibe really helps sell it.
  • Steve & Robin’s bathroom chat.  There’s an undercurrent that Stranger Things is just a story concocted from the imagination of the Breakfast Club to fill up time.  This scene really drives that point home.  Every beat here is well earned and dramatically changes the group dynamic forward.
  • Hopper’s letter.  This season is all about the transition from one stage of life to the next.  Seeing the kids understand that they are no longer kids.  The letter shows that Hopper understood that fact, and offered some solid advice.  Sure, overly sentimental, but it’s the Hopper than should have been there across the season as he was in season 2.

Frankly, if Stranger Things ended here, I’d be content.  There’s very little growth left for any of the characters, unless Mike & Will decide to actually do something.  The stakes can only get higher if it threatens more than Hawkins, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than a group of Elevens being purposeful in that situation.  The series needs less characters, and more focus.  There are stakes – since every kid is invincible.

Clearly Netflix needs a Season 4 more than the actual series does.