Heat Wave

I had a week off at the cottage, then worked a week there.  That week was heat wave weather.  My part of the country comes with some insane humidity levels in heat waves. While the base temperature is not crazy, the humidity runs close to 70%.  Feels like breathing soup.  It also makes it near impossible to sweat to remove body heat, and your body dehydrates lightning fast.

So going outside wasn’t exactly pleasant, and working indoors staring at a window of people with smiles isn’t motivating either.  Still, I was able to wake up with the family, have lunch with them (most days) and see them in the evenings.  The alternative in the past few years is me working in the office and not seeing them at all for a week+.  This isn’t perfect, but it’s a massive improvement.

I did have to come back to the house this week.  Maintenance for one, but also cause the in-laws are staying at the cottage a few days.  I get along with them just fine, but it’s a LOT easier to ship the kids outside than the in-laws.  Walking into the house was a bit weird, like I needed to find my stuff again.

So I get to spent the next few days alone at home.  The silence is deafening.

WoW Class Mounts

I keep falling back into Legion content – there’s just so much there.  There was a large focus in that expansion on cosmetic rewards, which I think is a great horizontal incentive.

One of those rewards is class mounts.  Some of them are very unique (Monk/DH), while others are upgraded basic mounts (Pally/Warlock).  The method to acquire there is really simple – get the Breaching the Tomb achievement.  I did this with my Monk was back in the day, so I figured it would be account wide.

Yeah, not so much.  In fact, you need to do a PILE of stuff to get here.

First bit, this is only relevant if you are leveling an alt toady, on a class you didn’t fully max to 110 back in Legion.  My Shaman did 100-110 by only doing about half of a Legion zone (heirlooms + rested + war mode).  I put one toe into the Class Hall to start the journey, then never went back.

Complete Class Hall

This means getting your title, and unlocking Heroic Weapons.  Again, sounds simple.  In reality this means unlocking all of your spec weapons, running at least 1 dungeon, running 2 sets of 5x 1hr missions, then a whole pile of instanced content.

The painful part is the table missions, since you’re effectively time-gated.  If there are 5 missions, it’s more than 5 hours since you need to be logged on to select a new mission.  The mobile app doesn’t do Legion content anymore.

The fun part is the actual class content.  Some classes have really solid storylines, some have really good quest content.  Some have both, some have neither.  If you’ve unlocked Nazjatar content, then your ilvl is enough to face roll pretty much anything, so there’s no actual challenge. That does put a whole lot more focus on the actual content.

All told, it’s just under a week to get through everything, mainly due to the time gates.

Complete Broken Shore

This is the same for everyone, which makes is very repetitive.  Everyone will stall at the Champions of Legionfall step – it won’t show until you complete the entire Class Hall portion.

  • A Legion Assault (every ~2 days)
  • 2500 Nethershards (do all the Assault WQs)
  • 50 Sentinax tokens, which usually has a ship up
  • 8 World Quests (this will take about a day to get enough)
  • 3 rares, which should be up, otherwise you need to wait a bit
  • 10 chests, which should be up but you need to fly around to find them
  • an 8hr table quest (ARGH!!)
  • A class quest to get a new companion

The class quest varies in complexity per class.  Some are really easy and over before you know it, some are quite involved.  All steps together can be luckily done in a day, but most likely will be done over multiple.

Reward

The actual Class Mounts!

There are some beauties in here.  The Monk mount is top of list for me.  Ban Lu spends a fair chunk talking to you as well.  The Mage mount is certainly unique, though the looks is really similar to the Cloud mount from Pandaria.  Demon Hunter has a great mounting animation, where you jump up and crash into the ground.  Rogue spins around and summons the Raven.  The Shaman is also quite thematic.

Paladin, Warlock, and Warrior all look like existing mounts.  Druid is better than their basic travel form, but looks better when not moving. Priest and Hunter are in this weird spot where they look cool from up close, but you wouldn’t really notice it from a few steps away.  To each their own though!

I will say that this model is unlikely to work once Shadowlands launches, only because the enemies HP will be so low that every class will 1 shot everything.  There are some bits of this process that are in the open world, and some classes are at a huge disadvantage in terms of actions per second.  Maybe this will just become an account achievement.

WoW Expansion Content

Going through the leveling process a few times now on alts is certainly putting the various expansions basic content in focus.  Where it doesn’t do a great job is at the max level content, since it’s not really relevant today.

Leveling content, for a dozen reasons, is not a focus.  That there’s any quality at all is impressive given that 99% of the content is seen once per leveling stream.  The older hub/spoke model has turned into a storyline 3-5 quest node system instead.  You discover a zone, get some basic Qs, then branch out.  When you don’t spend half your time travelling.  The content from Legion is pretty much the same in BfA, even in terms of how much of that content is expected to be completed.

As the clock is turned back, WoD really was the kickstart for this model.  The hubs were larger/denser, but the bits were there.  Area bonus quests, hidden chests, rares, quest chains that culminate in a big showdown.  Pandaria had big hubs, but also a kick at a better integrated storyline to explore the world.  Cataclysm, WotLK, TBC are just… well they are just not good.  You pick up 5-10 quests, head out around the map, then come back for another wave of quests.

Now, once you’re at max level, things start opening up.  Dailies have been around for a very long time, but really took off in WotLK.  Pandaria brought in rep/rewards to a larger level.  WoD had the Apexis stuff, with rotations.  Legion brought World Quests and BfA just cut & pasted it forward.

Dungeons have been all over the map.  They were only ever relevant up to WotLK.  Pandaria had some at launch, but never tweaked them past that.  WoD’s were completely ignored as garrison rewards were better.  Legion tied a bunch of quests to them, and implemented Mythic mode for better rewards.  BfA has next to no reason to do normal/heroic dungeons – everything is mythic.

The system around Mythics is essentially a 5 person raid. It’s honestly a good system, allowing for difficult content in smaller chunks.  Long gone are the days of 40 person raids.  Now we have mythic raids and flex raiding.  These two systems really do focus on the core gameplay loop for WoW in the past few expansions – competitive PvE.  It builds a tiered community, and one that is always circling the drain.  Some bad flashbacks on the whole TBC keying mess.  If the carrot is a stat stick with slightly better stats, then eventually that horse stops running.  Those types of horses aren’t exactly common, so you end up with poaching/mergers of groups and the conflict that follows.  It’s not a sustainable model.

Tangent

I’ve gone back with my mage to get their class mount in Legion.  The class hall has no comparison in any other expansion.  The quest line, the exploration, the quests the characters… all of it.  The downside here is that characters only get to see it once, and it’s gated with table quests.  But it’s there!  Suramar as a zone had a pile going for it… and the daily zombie quest is much better than the Horrific Visions grind.  The Mage Tower was neat as it wasn’t power bases, but cosmetics.  There was depth and breadth in pretty much all the content.  The major gaps were around the proliferation of RNG.

On Track

The kicker for me is what is deemed worthy of “making the cut” from one expansion to another.  Some bits are so well used they can’t really be removed once added.  LFG is one.  LFR is another, stemming entirely from atrocious raid completion numbers in Cataclysm.  Transmogs aren’t going anywhere, and Pet Battles are a system that is screaming for the spotlight.  Mythics are now the content du-jour.

The concepts of invasions started in MoP, but really took hold in Legion.  The 8.3 version works for the most part (minus the bug variant in Uldum).  It’s somethign to do, every other day or so.  And provides another catch up mechanic.

But there remains a larger gap in the middle tier, the training wheels if you will to the Mythic world.  I’m calling back to the badge model of WotLK here, one where FF14 has done a tremendously solid job of making basic group content relevant.  Daily badge limits, and buy-ins to +10ivl upgrades is a start.  Piles of cosmetics.  Have pets drop.  Have mounts as a random reward for filling a specific role.  Make it a horizontal progress system.  I don’t see Blizz having the willpower to implement something like this.  I mean, technically it’s only a tweak to the timewalking system.  Pretty sure there are over 100 different dungeons WoW could re-use.

You’ll notice I haven’t even touched on professions.  The less said about them the better.  I am surprised that the fishing/cooking combo is still as valid today as it was in WotLK.

It will be interesting to look at BfA a month after Shadowlands has launched.  The paint is still relatively fresh on 8.3, and it’s already a massive improvement on 8.0/8.1. Yet, taking some time to take a solid detour in the Legion content really puts the variety and quality of content to the forefront.  Would be super cool to have a solid experience again.

 

 

The Hunt for Fun

At some point, the RPG went from ROLE playing to NUMBER playing.  Sure, the P&P games always had numbers (THAC0 was my bane), but they were more indicators than absolutes (the quad power gain of wizards is a thing long gone).  The dice had a major impact, and with a solid DM, you could act your way through a ton of content.  When’s the last time you saw a Bard trick a dragon to killing their mate because they thought there were planning to usurp them?  That sort of insanity is only found on paper.

There was a point of yore where even video games focused on the classes rather than the numbers.  They were simpler times, where zerg-rushes and tank/spank was the norm for challenging combat.  No we’ve moved into roles, where pretty much any class in a given role can fulfill that role to the 98th percentile.  Unless you’re aiming for a world first, you’d be hard pressed to only accept a priest instead of a pally to heal.  On one hand, this has provided a larger breadth of viable choice to the players, in that it’s practically impossible to make game breaking decisions.  On the other, this has homogenized the content where the player really isn’t relevant.  In WoW, the Proving Ground NPCs are pretty much as effective as any LFG group.

So if the choice is not the class utility, it becomes the class fun/constraint as the driver.  Mat Rossi (BlizzWatch) is a super example, where he only plays Warriors – always has, always will.  Not because of game utility, but because of his enjoyment of the class.  The “fun” aspect is the skill kit – what the class can do, and how it makes you feel.  In WoW, I have to say I absolutely love the Demon Hunter toolkit.  Double jump, eye beam, and metamorphis are used often enough to pack a visual punch.  I can only play a Panda as a Monk ’cause my brain can’t make that race be anything else, or that class be any other race.

Other classes, they have some interesting bits.  I love the concept of a Rogue, always have.  The implementation in WoW isn’t fun to me anymore.  Paladins feel like holy crusaders.  Hunters have the whole pet collection bit that is borderline obsessive (pet battles scratch that itch too).  The Druid utility kit is admirable, but the bear/cat rotation is just boredom.  Monks have a great toolkit and have that old martial arts movie feel to them (as long as you play a Panda).  I can’t seem to find fun in Warriors, Mages, or Priests.  Mechanically they are sound, but they feel like the archetype.  I mean, imagine if Mages had an avatar form, where they because the focus of their given element!  Or Warriors had a bladespin move that sucked opponents towards them.  Or if Priests called down a Valkyr (I know) for a major group heal.

Looking back, this is one of the best parts of Legion.  There are classes I played solely for the class halls (Shaman) and their story.  As much as it was largely about following Illidan about, I still felt like my character mattered and the smaller story did too.  Aside from hunting Sylvanas and then Azshara/N’Zoth, can someone tell, me what the character did in BfA?  If you didn’t raid, then there’s no actual character beats.

I’m picking on WoW here because it’s low hanging fruit.  What I find fun, others don’t, and vice versa.  WoW is a buffet of choice.  Buffets aren’t known for amazing cuisine, but they are known for pleasing a very large crowd.  If I look to something like Monster Hunter, the weapon choice is the most important factor.  I love Charge Blade.  Love it to death.  The bow guns are amazing for their utility, but nothing beats a SAED to the head of a massive dragon.  That the game tries to make all weapon choices viable – without forcing you to master everything, is a great achievement (and my largest gripe with Dauntless).

Now, I may optimize my character to be best at what they do, but my choice of that particular class is still based entirely on if it’s fun. And we can all use some fun in our lives.  Now if there was ever a fishing class… oh man.

Design of Meaningful Actions

Sid Meier is often quoted as saying that a game is a series of interesting choices. I think we can all agree with this in the foundational aspects. Slay the Spire is a supremely good example of this. Where I think the good and the great spread out is the design of meaningful actions.

Games are full of actions, some of which stem from choice, some of which are from being forced down a path. In a game of golf, you need to hit the ball with a club – that action is required. The choice is related to which club you select, and the method of the swing. You need to take into consideration the distance, wind, pitch, obstacles, your next shot, and the money you have bet that you’re going to win the hole! If you play golf and at 175yrd you always pull out a 6 iron, then that’s not a choice. You’re not there for the game of golf, you’re there for other reasons.

Video games are similar. There’s the presentation of choice, and then the act of a meaningful decision. Today, failure states are nearly non-existent in game design. Battletoads had a failure state. Fortnite has another match. Even in the MMO space, failure is simply a time factor (take longer to take down a boss). That impacts the choice, in that its either the “better choice” or the “status quo” choice. The value between these two is meaning.

I’ll use WoW as an example here since it covers such a wide swath of MMO design choices, but the concept is found elsewhere. Combat in WoW is mechanically bound to three concepts.

  • The damage/healing ouput
  • The resource cost
  • The time before re-use

The damage output is both simple and complex. Simple in that the numbers displayed can be easily compared between various choices. Complex in that designers throw in synergies that make a specific flow of skills more powerful than if randomly selected, of if there is more of a specific resource to use.

The resource cost is important because it is limited. Otherwise it would simply be “use the strongest ability all the time”. Design choices favor resource exhausting choices vs. resource building choices (e.g. mana > combo points) as there are more choices in that model. If I can pick from 10 skills and have full mana, there’s a choice. If I have no combo points, I only have 2 options, until I get to max points, then reset.

Time before reuse is cooldown related. This slows down the pace of combat. FF14 is a slower game than WoW because of the inherent global cooldowns. Designers often put the most powerful of skills (damage or resource generating) behind long cooldowns. In that sense, the skill has less choice, because it’s often so powerful you want to use it on cooldown. There are exceptions, such as progression raiding and burn phases (You don’t want Bloodlust on the first trash pull.)

Meaningful Actions

My definition here is that the action itself has a meaning that is larger than a single purpose. An action either has significant damage, significant resource impacts, or significant cooldown impacts. It is not possible to design a game with only meaningful actions. You only know they are meaningful because there are slower moments in between – the contrast is important.

So let’s look at a Fire Mage. Almost all their skills are locked behind cooldowns, and the priority is to use the one with the biggest number when available. You then fill in with Fireball (when stable) or Scorch (when moving). Fireball builds Heat Up, which boosts another skill. Critical strikes drive a lot of this build and make other options show up. Same with keeping enemies Ignited. This class is mostly reactive to situations, and the there is a flow of 1-2 actions between meaningful ones. I don’t think it’s possible for them to ever be resource exhausted. There was a time where this happened!

Healer next, and a Mistweaver Monk is up. They are a mix of HoT and direct healing, and also use a priority. You keep the HoTs up on the tank, throw a Vivify if there’s a spike, and keep Soothing Mists active so that you can throw an Enveloping Mists cast quickly. The HoTs are used to conserve mana, since chaining Vivify will drain you super fast. There are some cooldowns, but the majority of choices are about mana efficiency. The most healing, without overhealing, for the least amount of mana.

Rogue now. They are a feast or famine class where your most effective skills are either locked behind cooldowns or require you to be at 80/100% of combo points (resources). In order to build resources there is only 1 skill, which may trigger a reactive skill that can boost it further. The resource consumption skill uses all resources, and you need to rebuild. You end up with 1 meaningful action, followed by 2-5 meaningless actions. The kicker in this is that the meaningful actions are typically the most meaningful over time (Slice and Dice, Poison, Roll the Bones). Your most damaging direct abilities are actually bottom of barrel in comparison to other classes. Oh, and the class is resource restricted with Energy, which actually prevents you from building resources. Feral Druids (who have 4 specs) and Windwalker Monks are similar design choices (WW skills do not drain all combo points). DH and Warriors are also energy building classes, but they only have 1 resource to manage. Warlocks appear to be dual resource, but they never have mana issues.

Simplified View

The meaningful action is gated by 3 main factors. When more than 1 of those gates are present, then it’s not meaningful (e.g. double resource penalty, and low damage). It isn’t a question about being effective, that can be tweaked with numbers. It’s a question of rewarding. Is it fun to play a class that’s slow as molasses, continually restricted in choices, and has “dead time”? I recall a fundamental redesign of DKs as originally all their actions were rune-limited, with slow generation.

I am not saying that Rogues & Feral are broken. I am saying that their fundamental combat design seems archaic compared to every other. For damage classes, Blizzard has removed the mana restrictions almost entirely and replaced it with cooldowns. If the button is there, click it. For resource building classes, the “fun classes” have skills that consume a portion of resources and then are cooldown locked (short periods). The job of that class is not to continually rebuild, it’s simply to maintain (Hunters are mana maintenance).

Again, this isn’t a numbers issue. If they boost the resource consuming skills, then you get massive bursts of damage and periods of nothing – that actually makes it worse. Re-scaling of all skills to raise the filler damage and reducing the consumer doesn’t help either, since it muddles the actions to 2 buttons that do the same thing. Adding a cooldown skill that does similar effects to a resource consuming skill feels like a bonus, but both are already dependent on cooldowns to accelerate resource generation. Removing the energy mechanic completely would get rid of all “dead time”, but require some re-scaling of skill damage. It would still be feast/famine mode, but the duration of famine would be dramatically reduced. The final option is to rebalance the consuming skills to only use a portion of resources, so that you could potentially chain consumers.

I’m sure this is a watercooler conversation in Blizzard. Curious if there’s ever any action on it, as the focus seems to be on the “numbers” rather than the “fun”. And there are plenty of other “fun” things in WoW. It’s just too bad that that Rogues get the short end of that dagger.

It’s Only Crazy If You Let It

These past few weeks have been a rollercoaster of activities.  Hockey was full steam, across two teams.  More family activities now that Spring is here.  And work.  It’s end of our fiscal, a new financial model is being deployed, new authorities being granted – mostly a lot of paperwork and meetings.

But this health stuff.  Jeebers.  A lot of people at work were not paying attention, and this seems to have caught more than a few unawares.  The job I have supports key pieces that let a ton of people work remotely.  Snowdays, strikes, things of that nature usually push us to capacity.  But they are generally pretty rare, and localized.

Right now in Canada, we have an entire province on lockdown, and quite a few big cities.  So nearbouts 90% of my userbase, and pretty much my entire team.  Where we’d see spikes to say 30,000 – now we’re looking more like 300,000.  Fine enough.  Most of the pieces were built to work on agnostic networks (anywhere, anyplace, anytime).  Some require bums-in-seats to work, which is going to cause a lot of headaches.  Some support emergency health services… so that’s clearly top of pile.

Managing the regular workload + end of year workload + COVID19 prep work is bonkers.  Individual people are generally pretty good about it, but people, people suck.  One bad grape can ruin an entire bunch with stupid conspiracy theories, or irrational behaviors.

I have my own opinions about it, but the gist is that the people in charge of this here globe of ours are not dumb.  WHO is made of some of the brightest minds on the planet.  Governments are consulting like crazy, and not making decisions lightly.  (They may be lead by morons, but that’s over a beer or two.)  Everyone is acutely aware of the impacts of shutting down trade for a month.  Impacts that will be felt for 10+ years.  Making those calls is not easy, and it’s not simple.

For the next few weeks I’ll continue to work from home, same with the team.  Kids will be around for an extra break (some homeschooling will be needed).  And with every group activity cancelled and gathering spot closed, it’s going to be a lot of “back to basics” around the house.  Entirely manageable, and I’m quite looking forward to spending more time with the family.

Stay healthy.

New Job

Been a bit hectic here lately.  Fall is always busy, sure enough, but this year feels a whole lot of a healthier kind of busy.  It used to feel like a firefighter, with non stop crises going on.  This year just seems like there’s just a lot to do…and enough actual time to do it.  So either I am getting better at time management, better at those tasks, or simply enjoying it more.  No matter… feels good!

I started a new job this week.  It’s in line with my career goals and interests.  Took about a year to sort it all out.  The details don’t matter a whole lot (or really interest most people outside of my monkeysphere) but the main points are that my team, budget, scope, and user base has grown by an exponential number.

This week has been all drinking from the firehose in terms of learning.  I’m usually pretty quick on the upswing here, absorb/adapt as we go, and the field is somewhat known.  The biggest hurdle is the culture.

So let’s tie this back to gaming a bit.  Way back when I had time on my hands, I ran or helped run various gaming guilds.  I’m a coder by training, so building DKP engines was part of that in the EQ/WoW days.  Setting up rules, running raids, organising chaos.  Heck, I turned my personal notes into a decent income of writing gaming guides.   In that sense, I’ve got WAY more experience in leadership/management than my resume gives credit.

Think about all the times you may have wiped on a raid, looked at what worked and what didn’t, tried something new, and eventually succeeded.  That mindset… of allowing for failure, but learning from it as a group, that’s the foundation of a successful career.  There are plenty of folks who instead are super risk averse and afraid to admit mistakes.  Own up to it, learn from it, don’t repeat it.  It’s when a mistake happens and people try to hide it… that stuff festers.  When it does come to light, and it WILL, things are going to go sideways real quick.

The group I’m now working with does not have that mindset.  Some do!  But the culture is not one I’d consider positive or forward moving – more of a “this is the way we’ve always done it”.  So now I need to find the influencers in the group and figure out how to get a new vision bought.  I’m actually pretty good at that, but it’s a whole lot of effort.  Does mean that I don’t have to do it for everyone… those influencers will do it all naturally.

In my downtime… Dauntless is some good bite sized gaming (<5m sessions).

Dark Crystal – Age of Resistance

There’s a special place in my mind for Jim Henson.  Both Dark Crystal and Labyrinth came out when I was a child, and their mix of horror, fantasy, and comedy was just right.  Labyrinth is the story of character growth (and where I developed a crush on Jennifer Connelly), and the ending itself is finite.  Plus there’s no way to replace the Goblin King!

Dark Crystal though.  That the story about an entire world, and childlike discovery.  The Jim Henson Company had a contest for pre-quel books (in 2013) and eventually scored a deal with Netflix for a series.  It’s entirely puppets, with a few CG elements to blend.  It is rare that I watch something that’s related to my youth and I get quality flashbacks, or similar feels.  Age of Resistance had entire sections where you completely forget you’re watching puppets – and you’re just engrossed.

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Each of these is a life-sized puppet, with a person below the robes.

The series can certainly be enjoyed if you never watched the classic.  The lore setting is explained through various means – including a very important scene in episode 7.  It also doesn’t take long to get going on the main plot point… with only a few spots where the pacing feels a bit off.  I’m not sure how much influence Netflix had on the storyline, but the habit of “multiple character points, converging at the end” is certainly present.  Compared to the recent season of Stranger Things, Dark Crystal has some merit in every separate storyline.  And when it reaches the final episode, it ends on a note that allows both a second season and a fairly consistent line to the original film.

What really sets this apart though is the puppeteers.  In every other form of visual media, the actors with the voice provide the non-verbal structure.  Animations are filmed after voice recordings after all. Here though, the scenes are first filmed and then dubbed over.  The nuances in movement…small shakes, twitches, even the larger gestures all feel real.  Like you could reach through the TV and touch them.  We haven’t had that type of fantasy in over 30 years.

The set design, the puppets, the music – all of it falls into the classic style, with Brian Froud around for a lot of the art direction.  It feels almost like lost footage.  Highly recommended.

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!

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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.

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.