Final Space & Dragon Prince

In fits and spurts, I’ve watched both Netflix series.  They only have 1 season, and they are relatively short episodes at 20 and 30 mins each.  They are both worth the watch, but for different reasons.

Final Space

This is more like 2 series in one, and that really swaps over in episode 7.  The first part is a near absurdist buddy comedy, with what amounts to verbal diarrhea.  The second part is more of a mix between Voltron and Cthulhu.

Where is lacks in consistency, it makes up for in sheer drive.  Gary Goodspeed is half bumbling idiot, half hero… and when he does go idiot, he goes full bore.  He ends up befriending some interesting folk along the way; a time travelling captain (both versions), a cat and his son, a demented robot, a lisping nutjob, and an army of cloned robots.

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The typical joke

Where the first part is more US comedy fare, and simple at that, it’s when it tries its hand at larger things that the story really splits off and has trouble holding on.  The overall arc that a bad guy is trying to open Final Space is passable, but the reasons why make little sense.  The ability to prevent it make little sense either, as it feels more like a McGuffin chase than much else.  It doesn’t take itself seriously, as much as it tries to make emotions come to the font.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch Gary’s dad die before it just doesn’t have any real resonance.

Side note – Fry from Futurama was is a good comparison in this.  Futurama earned those heart felt episodes, because you saw the characters develop.  Find me someone who didn’t have a tear at Jurassic Bark and I’ll show you someone who’s dead inside.

That said, the overall arc is well framed with a 1 minute countdown at the start of each episode which foreshadows the final one.  Or I guess 1-9 are each flashbacks.  Pick your poison.  It has solid pacing, and that to me is worth more than gold.  Other Netflix series all seem to want to pad an hour with nothing.  Final Space takes the 20 minutes, and fills it to the brim with forward movement.

Curious as to how season 2 will take this.  Either the galactic storyboard that was alluded, or a more episodic approach.

Dragon Prince

Lead by the same guy who brought Avatar (animated) to the screen, Dragon Prince is the story of, well, a Dragon Prince.

The backstory lasts a couple minutes, and generally revolves around nature vs man conflict.  Humans found a new type of magic, that steals life force from the other natural magic sources.  A war breaks out.  The king of dragons (feel I should capitalize that…) defends the border between humans and elves (at least 6 kinds of elves).  Humans manage to kill him, and destroy his only egg.. the aforementioned prince

Elves want revenge, plot a coup to take out the human king and prince… things go wrong.  Seems the egg wasn’t destroyed, but taken.  Who knew?

The elf assassin sees that this would stop the war, and leaves with the prince and the prince-in-law (that will be an interesting backstory I’m sure), and shenanigans occur.  Still the 3 character party + animal companion from Avatar, just no demi-god in the ranks.  Each character has strengths and flaws, hidden secrets.  The team dynamic works well, and it doesn’t take long for it to seem more like a family than a party.

The humans though… that’s a rough bit.  The king had an advisor who is an expert in the evil magic.  He appears to be his best friend… and when that friend proposes using said magic to protect the king, the king decides to go all righteous.  Where was that righteousness for the years where he was the advisor?  The king maybe dies?  I don’t know.  Then the advisor goes full evil mode for the rest of the series.

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My favorite human character.

The advisor has 2 kids, a not-too-bright knight and a smart-ass mage.  They are tasked by the advisor to kill the princes and take the egg back.  They apparently have zero moral struggles with this… but then again there’s maybe 5 minutes total across all episodes between the two.

The Dragon Prince deals with theme of loss and growth.  All good stories do.  There are hints of a much larger world, and this feels just like the initial journey of a grand adventure.  That final shot really isn’t a cliffhanger as much as an “ok, time for the real stuff to start” message from the writers.  It follows the book format of avatar, with a potential of 7 seasons of episodes (if 1 per source of magic).  Avatar was 61 episodes, so it’s pretty close.

The head team is open to audience feedback too, which is a mixed bag of risk, but certainly a novel *cough* way to pick a direction.  Should be an interesting journey.

Morally Grey

There is a big difference between and idea and the execution of that idea.  Great idea to go to the Moon but it took a very long time, and some really smart people to make it happen.

The idea of a morally grey character is a good one.  It fits in with the times of leadership trying to make the best of a bad situation.. and society’s fascination with anti-heroes.  We understand altruism and evil, but it doesn’t interest us anymore.  We need the complexity.

I’ll refer to a memorable character for me, and that’s Mark Purefoy’s portrayal of Marc Antony in HBO’s Rome.

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Smug bugger

The question of why he’s interesting is the point.  He is an anti-hero… in fact often times he’s simply a villain.  His quick to emotions, egotistical, violent, and will hit on anything that moves.  His is the embodiment of borderline control… as clearly he’s moved up the Roman ranks.  The audience can empathize with his situation in nearly all cases, if not outright support his actions.  When he does die, he does it on his terms.

His arc is known well in advance, given that there are still records of his actions from history.  It’s still an interpretation granted, and writer’s discretion does exist for some steps.  The point is that even we he makes reprehensible decisions, things that clearly will not work out in the long run (like his perpetual bender in season 2), viewers are still interested and wondering what will come next.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.

In comparison, no less well written is Augustus, who represents technocracy and lack of emotion.  He goes from petulant child, to isolated adult with world domination in mind.  By the end, he’s lost all his close allies.  Which again, is based on historic records.  He makes the same difficult decisions, and without emotion.  He cuts off his family when he believes they won’t help the longer game.  Essentially the other side of the coin to Marc Antony, who acts with this heart.

In both cases, regardless of the actions taken, they are always in the scope of their character. They may not make rational decisions based on the viewer’s set of moral/ethics, but they do may them based on their own.

It’s a real testament to the writers and to the actors that this is pulled off.

HBO Factor

No question, in the short term most HBO shows that are green lit have solid writing for the first few years.  Few can keep going past 3 seasons, arcs are generally done.  And they get a lot of pitches over the years, they have the luxury of picking the best ones and going forward.  It’s not like we’re raining Sopranos.

Blizzard

I think the downside here is the lack of consistency and direction.  Story arcs are years in the making.  They clearly knew that Teldrassil was going to burn in order to allow their CGI team time to make the video, and build an expansion around it.  They are often 2 years in the future.  It’s based on concepts.  Great!

Then you get shoddy execution.  Yrel is very good example.  She’s a freed slave to start WoD, then becomes the world leader at the end.  No idea how that actually happened, since the middle act of WoD was never released, and it seriously looks as if Blizzard is ignoring anything that came from that expansion (except Garrosh’ death).

Relating to Sylvanas and her actions, Rohan has a good point:

In my opinion, the problem is the writers’ use of emotion. Emotion must be anchored in reason. If emotion is divorced from reason, the character is irrational. And no one likes following irrational leaders. It’s especially bad for Sylvanas, who’s basic character is the cool, calculating, ruthless archetype. A night elf talks smack to Sylvanas, she gets mad, and burns the tree in a fit of anger? That’s so far out of character that it’s just senseless.

Legion had plenty of morally grey stories, along with lot of redemption.  It feels real and rational.  Suramar works in particular because of this… the story is just a bunch of bad options and people trying to make the best of it.

The bridging novel and comic have some interesting threads.  It’s a good thing that they brought Christie Golden to help with the overall story arc.  It’s jarring to have such quality provided in a consistent fashion, and then have the past few weeks of delivery that are rough.  Time will tell if that improves.

 

Mage Tower and Gated Content

I will start off by saying that gated content makes sense, as long as there’s a catch up mechanism and that it is not obtuse.  Burning Crusade was neither of these things and had one of the most convoluted key-ing structures, so much so that it required a large guide to get through.

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Seriously.  Look at this thing!

FF14 isn’t a whole lot better, as you must go through every single group event to get to the recent content.  Not so bad for people that have been away, but for new players it’s a massive slosh through content that people are facerolling through (yay relevant groupfinder!).  It’s not complicated or difficult, just long.

The old-TSW had a gating mechanism where you needed to beat a single boss given, with a given role (tank/heals/dps) in order to enter group content with that role. I thought it worked rather well, as it was a test that you have both the proper gear, skills and situational awareness to do more than just press 1-2-3.

Mists of Pandaria brought the proving grounds.  A tiered challenge system where you fought waves of enemies, using a specific role (tank/heal/dps) and received a rank at the end.  Bronze was to check if you had a pulse, silver that you were paying attention, and gold that you understood all your class abilities.  It’s been in the game since, though more as an afterthought in order to allow people to test more than just combat dummies.

Mage Tower

Since this goes away on Tuesday.

There are good things and bad things about the Mage Tower, and that changes depending on your personal view.  It was very challenging, requiring a high level of skill or a high item level (sometimes both).  It was time gated, so that you only had a limited time to try it out, until the next window appeared.  It rewarded cosmetic weapon upgrades (of varying quality).  It required a significant investment of time to even scratch the surface. It was 100% solo, so you were left to your own devices to improvise.

If you think about it, this was really Proving Grounds 2.0.  Can you play your class and role at top tier levels?  The rewards couldn’t be power, since you needed power to actually beat the challenges – cosmetics are a great alternative.

And it was a pretty solid success, all told.

Forward

BfA does not have class-specific raid gear.  All plate wearers are going to look the same.  Which is a bit of an odd one, since top-tier raiders often pride themselves on the look of gear others cannot acquire, and the class that they picked.

Still, it’s an option for a new Proving Grounds mechanic to offer cosmetic rewards.  It’s a further opportunity for these proving grounds to be used as a gating mechanism for group content (LFG/LFR), and allow the difficulty of group content to be pushed up a tad.

The downside to this is that it doesn’t allow for coordination between real people.   But at least it brings up the skill floor to something past “just breathing”, and can help people better understand their class and overall game mechanics.

Complexity and Fear

I am not a rocket scientist, or a brain surgeon.  I work in systems architecture, which is  fancy way of saying that I work in puzzles without pictures, and pieces of different sizes.  My job entails taking an idea, breaking it down into smaller chunks, finding or making things to accommodate those chunks, then bringing it all together.  I make things that are hard from the inside, look easy from the outside.

People, in general, are irrational.  They make knee jerk decisions, and the majority of the time it is based on fear.  Fear is a good emotion, it’s what’s kept us from being eaten by spiders and snakes and alligators.  But we don’t (generally speaking) have that problem anymore.  What we have now are taxes, people who are different than us, massively complex bureaucracies, and dozens of new inventions that connect us to each other without us understanding how.

It is a rather simple matter to explain to someone why a snake would bite you.  It’s also acting in fear and self-defense.  Trying to explain to someone where taxes go and what they do… that’s a challenge.  I had a gentleman ask me why his phone automatically recognized a caller that wasn’t in his contact list.  I had to explain to him that he had shared his LinkedIn and Facebook account, the other had done the same, and the system just linked them.  He immediately went back and set it all to private, then started diving into other applications he had used.  I’ve talked to my wife numerous times about online presence and the mindset of her students that simply cannot disconnect.  Without her experiencing that firsthand, and the insomnia and externalized self-worth that accompanies it, there’s no real empathy.

I read a lot of news, from various sources.  There are some articles that are good, most however are quite poor.  To reduce an argument to a single line, or a single idea… that’s unfair.  Even in this connected age, there is not enough material to fill in 24 hours of fear-mongering news.  Most of it has to be made up, spun up, and screamed about.  Apparently everyone is out to kill me, everyone who doesn’t agree with me should be locked in jail, I should be immune to all arguments, and I should never change my mind.

I do get the flipside.  Issues are complicated.  Like a giant house of cards, you can’t just take one piece on it’s own and remove it.  It’s being supported by, and supporting other pieces.  Ignorance is bliss and people don’t ever want to have a hand in the game.  That’s the worst part about fear.  The thing is, without that knowledge, it’s a slow death.  Everyone has a hand in the game, whether they realize it or not.  By sticking your head in the sand and pretending nothing is going on… there’s only one part of your body left to take advantage of.

I want my kids to grow up understanding that fear is a good thing, it’s a daily challenge. By facing that fear, by diving into it and understanding why it exists, we can make greater changes.  It will be hard going.  There will be failures.  Other people will try to pull them down.  But it won’t matter.  They will ask questions.  They will have sympathy to the plight of others.  They will have empathy to better understand why people act the way they do.  And they will grow smarter and stronger for it.

For that to happen, I have to be better.  We have to be better.

 

 

 

Horizon First Impressions

PS4 is all set up and good to go.  Relatively painless install, which was nice.  I picked up Horizon, Uncharted 4 (in the package deal), and a used FF15.  Horizon was the first kick at the can.  I even got to play a bit with my eldest daughter, who did a pretty good job navigating.

I’ll assume most people know what the game is about.  Futuristic pre-history, open world, robotic dinosaurs, tribes, and bows.  That sums it up somewhat well.

The game is stunning to play through, where I find myself just moving the camera to enjoy the scenery.  It’s also one of those games where if you can see it, you can likely get to it.  It starts off in a relatively small part, then you actually look at the map and the sheer size of it all is amazing.  I’m sure there are other games that are as big, but few that share the same scale on a single unified map.

Running around (or on a mount) is a lot of fun.  There always seems to be something to catch your eye and I find it difficult to stick to the beaten path.  The first large quest has your run something around 2000 distance to the next target.  If I had ran straight, it would have been under 10 minutes.  It took me something like 5 hours instead.  Animals to hunt, gear to craft, bandits to clear, flowers to find, statues to find, cauldrons to explore…there’s always something going on.

Cauldrons in particular feel like tombs from AC2, combined with some stealth combat.  They allow you to unlock converting more and more difficult robots.  Each follows a similar structure – move through a puzzle area, with a few enemies around to make life hard.  Then a final massive battle.  They allow you to explore the lore of the world, which seems very well integrated.  I’m always looking for more.

Voice and sound are all top notch.  The lip sync can be off a bit, but the voice acting itself is superb.  Aloy feels relateable.  Her banter and self-thoughts make sense.  Conversations are about more than the simple stuff.  It’s quite well done.

Combat though, I think that was the real genesis for this game.  The enemy robots all have specific weak spots.  Most of those spots are covered with armor.  Nearly all have a specific elemental weakness that provided an additional effect.  Burn the fuel tank, take off 50% of the HP.  Remove the generator and no more stealth.  Aside from Watchers (the simplest of robots), most can kill you in 3-4 hits.  Some are massive. The first fight against a Corruptor felt like the hardest fight in years.  Then I realized he’s only mid-range difficult.

Most combat games you can stick with a single weapon.  You might upgrade range and damage, but you stay with the same.  Maybe God of War is one where you’d swap between 2 or three weapons.  Here though, you have to swap.  Either you do 10 damage a shot on a 10,000 hp enemy, or: you swap weapons, detach the armor, swap weapons, shoot a fire arrow, swap weapons, stun the enemy, swap weapons and deal a killing blow.  It’s sounds like a lot, and at first it is.  Eventually you get the hang of all the various bits and combat flow.  You turn into some kind of super human archer, pulling off moves that would seem ridiculous an hour before.

Gear itself is upgraded, though only marginally.  My 15 dmg bow is now an 18 dmg bow and “very rare”.  Skill is the differentiator here, and that’s a lot of fun.  Input controls are solid, and you don’t have any lag between what you want and what happens.  It feels like there’s move cancellation, which is more important than if it’s there or not.  My only gripe is that the camera can be a challenge, especially on larger enemies.  In particular in the very hectic battles.

So far, I’m feeling like this game alone was worth the console purchase price.  It hits all the right notes.  Combat, exploration, story, growth.  Extremely impressed.

Console Considerations

The last console I bought was a PS3.  Way back when.  It’s served me rather well, though I will be the first to admit that my game catalogue was rather small compared to when I was younger.  Such is life I guess.

I have been, and continue to be, an avid PC gamer.  These past few years, the portability of a laptop has been the largest boon.  It certainly helps that there are thousands of more games, and that each game is arguably cheaper than on console.

That said, there are particular games on consoles that attract attention.  I am not a FPS fan, so that rules out nearly every XBONE exclusive there is.  I prefer the strategic/rpg type game, and that’s where Playstation lives.  I don’t have, nor do I plan on purchasing a 4K TV anytime soon, so that certainly helps with some decisions.  No need for a PS4 Pro.  And the PS4 slim is $50 off for a few more days.  FF15, Horizon, Uncharted, Last of Us, Last Guardian… all of interest to me.  All at crazy price points.

Anyhoot, let’s compare for a minute.

PC

Pros

  • Mobile (with a laptop)
  • More games available
  • No monthly costs
  • Used for more than games, like banking, picture editing, browsing, etc…
  • Individual games are cheap ($10-$50)

Cons

  • Expensive initial setup for gaming ($1500-$2000)
  • Local multiplayer is complicated
  • Requires a lot of configuration/tweaks to make it work

 

PS4

Pros

  • Exclusive game titles
  • Lower initial cost (~$300)
  • Limited configuration requirements
  • Can be used as a media hub/center
  • Playing with kids is easier
  • VR?

Cons

  • Multiplayer has a monthly cost
  • Smaller game selection
  • Not mobile
  • Individual games are more expensive ($70-$80)

 

When you get down to it, the comparison boils down to “do I want to pay $300 for the chance to play specific games?” I’ll be honest, given the amount of money saved on other hobbies, that’s not so much a barrier to entry right now…

WoW’s Legendary Gambling

I’ve played my fair share of Diablo 3.  That game is based on two main concepts – stats and specific gear bonuses.  The RoS expansion went full bore on this theme, with good success. Some specs cannot be played without a specific number of specific items.  There is very, very little strategic gameplay past that point – for most players anyway.

Getting those pieces of gear is the main challenge, and there are 3 main ways to achieve it.  Random drops from farming runs.  Cubing some items to have a chance at something better.  And Kadala shard-trading.  Kadala shard trading is the best way to get armor, while cubing is the way to go with weapons, from a cost perspective.  You get shards, trade 25 or so to Kadala, get a random piece of a specific slot – say a chest piece.  The optimum gearing path with a new character is to farm shards for gear.  A couple hours is often enough to get all the pieces needed, then it’s a grind to upgrade those pieces and get the complementary ones.

WoW’s Version

This is where things go sideways, since WoW is not an action RPG.  For a very long time, strategy won out over stats.  Set bonuses took a while to acquire, and stats bonuses were not massive increases in chance of success.  Except for legendary items.  These have always been coveted, as anyone with a legendary (a current one) was significantly more powerful than others.  The ring in WoD is the last example, but it required a significant amount of hoops to acquire.  The path was known.

Legion kept the same “game altering” legendary item system as before, but took out all controlled mechanisms to acquire them.  Not only was getting one a rare and random event, the actual item you received was random as well.  You could easily get a crappy legendary.  But the power benefit of a good one was massive.   All you needed to do was grind endless dungeons.

This reminds me a bit of the tuning done for Burning Crusade.  Raids past the first tier were all balanced against fully-gemmed gear, stacking Shamans, and everyone using Battle Drums.  If the raids were balanced against “regular raiders”, then those using the above strategy ran through without challenge.  Legion raids are not nearly as bad as thing, but the perception from raiders is that good legendaries are required.

Plus, let’s be honest.  For every person in your guild that gets a legendary, there are many more that feel disappointed that they can’t get one too.  Especially when the player has ZERO control over getting one.

Patch 7.2

Here things change, as Blizz is introducing the same Kadala mechanic from D3.  Trade in shards, get a random item for a specific item slot.  Any legendary will be for that slot.  This addresses the full randomness of acquiring one, in that you now have another method to try your luck.  It’s still RNG.  We don’t know how many shards, or the chances, therefore how much time expected.  But it’s an improvement.

Blizz also wants to tweak the legendaries to bring them closer together in terms of power.  That’s good.  It doesn’t really address the fact that legendaries completely change a spec’s playstyle… but it’s something.

Closing

I get what legendaries are trying to address.  I don’t personally think this was the way to go about it.  Adding the effect as a top-tier artifact trait would have accomplished the same thing.  Having legendaries be simply big stat boosts with unique art would have been fine to me.  I’ll be quite curious as to see how the shard dealer works in 7.2, and even just the analytical data that Blizz will collect on how people are spending them.  My guess here is that after a month or so, legendaries will be tweaked again, as the majority swings towards specific ones.