Blackout

I’m not sure when I stopped caring about previews of video games.

Every gamer on Earth wants this. Please don't suck.

I still read reviews and follow the news updates for most games, but I no longer watch a lot of preview videos, most trailers, or in-depth developer commentary. I’m certainly aware of those items, and I’ll glance at one or two to get a sense of whether or not the game’s interesting, but I quickly stop. Then I wait for the reviews and make my purchase judgement at that point.

This is happening with No Man’s Sky. I’ve seen two trailers, read a few news posts, and barring 6/10 review scores I’ll certainly be picking it up.

It’s a new phenomenon, and it’s not something that thrills me. I used to devour PC Gamer magazines cover to cover. Watched everything on YouTube, went to every developer site, lurked in message boards.

But now I don’t care. Just… here. Here’s my $60, make me something nice.

Landing gear deployed

Elite: Dangerous is as close as you’ll ever get to being Han Solo.

I’ve been waiting for this game for years. Well, at least a year. My last post pining for its release was published exactly one year before the game’s launch. Perhaps I have more power than I thought (I credit Frontier: Elite II’s map hanging in my living room).

I love the advertisements in front of stations

I actually bought the game during its beta phase in August to have someting to play on the Oculus Rift DK2. Even in the early days it was totally worth it. It’s one thing to see ships and stations and planets on your monitor, but being in virtual reality with them is unbelievable. Or, not unbelievable. The opposite: utterly credulous. There are grab bars to the upper left and right of the Sidewinder cockpit. Everyone who tries the Oculus Rift attempts to pull on them. Watching the menus pop up as you look at them gets a comment every time and feels like future tech, but it’s probably the simplest computation in the game.

if player_vision_angle > 30 && player_vision_angle < 40

Dogfights in the Rift are thrilling as you track the enemy ship just by moving your head. Jumping into a new system often causes players to yelp as the star bursts into the viewport. Even sitting in a station is entertaining, watching the ships dock and undock, a graceful ballet accompanied by a hydrogen sonata.

Some things are worse in VR. Any text smaller than 20 point might as well be invisible, so you find yourself remembering numbers rather than reading them. Until recently there were some bugs with cockpit focus, but it’s been smoothed out and menus are much more forgiving and versatile (thanks devs!). Scale for heavenly bodies is almost there. Stars in the experience Titans of Space feel bigger than they do in Elite, but given how jittery I get in Titans that might be for the best.

I’ve been having a long correspondence with my friend Kelesis about Elite. He kept asking what kind of game it is, and many of my comparisons have felt inadequate. It’s open world like GTA… but there isn’t a whiff of a story or character to be found. You can buy and sell in a universe like EVE Online… but there’s no crafting and margins are thin (plus you can directly fly the ships).

In the end I have to rely on two comparisons: Elite feels more akin to Minecraft crossed with a detailed racing simulation.

Wars in Elite are supposed to look like this. They don't. I think.

Like Minecraft, the game world is enormous and procedurally generated. The developers don’t have a story campaign for you to advance through, you’re just set loose to make your own fun. This requires setting your own goals: travel to the center of the galaxy, buy a big ship, earn the Elite rank in combat, gain entrance to special star systems, have a dogfight in an asteroid belt, become a pirate, whatever. Technically the quests you take can shift the balance of power in systems, but that never really comes to anything.

This dovetails with the racing simulation comparison. In Forza Motorsport you’re not there to become Racing Champion of the World and then retire, as though it’s a traditional end to a video game. You race to buy cars so you can race more. The pleasure is in the simulation of the car, of learning its strengths and weaknesses, of comparing yourself to others.

So it goes in Elite. You buy ships to fly around to buy more ships. They have individual detailed cockpits, though you’re welded to the chair and don’t have an external view. Strangely, some ships look “old” when they’re bought new, like the starter Sidewinder and the combat-focused Viper. Each one sounds distinctive. I bought a Hauler and quickly dumped it after listening to its engines whine. You can upgrade each component of the ship, from the power plant to the thrusters to the life support (hint: buy that one, it’s cheap and it’ll save your life). The feeling of investment is great, though I can’t think of something more clever than “she’ll make point five past light speed” when talking about my Eagle.

During Elite’s beta I was a happy trader. Combat worried me; I was okay at it, but it seemed hard to find a good rhythm and payout. But now I’m fully invested. I learned how to scan targets for warrants, camp out at resource extraction sites, and deal with interdictions (hint: submit immediately and then boost away). Combat is… easy? I guess? I’m only “Mostly Harmless” but I’m finding a lot of Sidewinders, Eagles, and Cobras being pirates without having their shields up. So I fly in with a gimballed minigun and go to town. I’ve only been killed once when the NPCs at a resource extraction site ganged up on me. That $20K bounty loss was humbling, but I’ve recovered and am saving up for a Cobra.

I’m not sure what my goal is past that. I’m slightly addicted to the discovery process, and with a fuel scoop my range is effectively limitless. I don’t have a nebula to visit nor does the center of the galaxy interest me. All the stars have boring names like “Central Quadrant System 134-A” so there’s not much romance out there. I do like the sense of ownership you get over the planets you scan, and how even something like two planets orbiting each other feels special. It’s great to find brown dwarf stars and ring systems, though I’m disappointed that asteroids belts are completely invisible.

Here's one where the concept art barely does it justice. Being inside Saturn's rings feels incredible.

Much has been made about the accuracy of Elite’s star generation. If that’s true, our solar system is a real anomaly. Planets are significantly spaced out from each other, making travel in Sol a chore. Granted that has some advantages, like how you can find missions to take cargo from Mercury to Saturn’s Titan. But there’s not a single unguarded station with a black market, so I stay away from Earth.

Maybe you fancy yourself a swashbuckling space pirate, a smuggler and bounty hunter who answers to no authority. Well, hate to break it to you, but so does everybody else. There are a few chaps grinding reputation to afford faction-specific ships, but the rest of us steal cargo and life from NPCs to feed our habits. That’s one thing to keep in mind if you’re eyeing Elite: once you’re over the joy of the game’s mechanics, legitimate sources of money are rare and boring. Trading is dull. Mining is dull. Missions are either dull or impossible. Exploring, however much I enjoy it, is dull. That leaves piracy, selling stolen goods (i.e. smuggling), and bounty hunting. Smuggling sounds cool, but it has all the lows, lower lows, and low mediums of trading. You’re just cruising around looking for goods that fell off someone’s space truck, scooping them up and taking them to your black market contact. It’s nice because there’s no initial outlay as in legitimate trading, but you shouldn’t expect the kind of crazy payday that comes from station missions asking about illicit materials.

Even though I have a huge ton of games in rotation (Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Smash Bros. for Wii U, Halo: The Master Chief Collection), I keep coming back to Elite. I love its permanent world, like a thin soup of EVE Online cooked especially for me. I love the sound of mundane activities, from the discovery scanner to fuel scooping to the docking experience. I love flying into ring systems, exploring moons, ducking through capital ships, and finding binary stars. I love how the game’s constant development feels like I’m unlocking new features (route plotting is a huge help).

No Man’s Sky is vaguely on the horizon, and there’s still Star Citizen, but for a space game you can play today, Elite: Dangerous is the zenith.

So Wildstar

I was hooked on Wildstar for exactly a month. It was beautiful, fun, bouncy, and had deep house customization.

Then I fell out of love. I’m not sure why. The game gets better on the higher levels, but I think I realized that even the best MMO isn’t for me. I’m done on MMOs, subscription or no. Even the exceptional Guild Wars 2 sits abandoned on my hard drive.

While watching Wildstar’s lore videos one day I got tired of the notion that there’s some moral ambiguity to the Dominion. There’s technically some sympathy in their backstory, what with the Mechari and all, but in Wildstar proper they’re a ruthless bloodthirsty creepily religious empire. They’re evil, screw them.

So Wildstar, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb

It's that very special time of year, Greendale

Family Guy sure has changed over the years. Stewie no longer wants to take over the world, Peter isn’t obsessed with television, Meg has gone from a figurative punching bag to a literal one. And Brian, straight man and voice of reason, is now a liberal douche.

Is this how Christians feel watching Ned Flanders on The Simpsons? Seeing your own views espoused, mocked, and twisted is really awkward, though there’s some evidence that Ned might be a fair example. But watching Brian Griffin is painful, and not just when he’s having sex with human women.

I find Community’s Craig Pelton far more enjoyable. He’s taken political correctness past its extreme limits and sometimes bobs back on the other side. It’s possible to identify with a tiny speck of his sincerity while the rest of it blows far past your own values.

It's that very special time of year, Greendale. When your school acknowledges no specialness to this time of year.

iPhones and lizard brains

A friend in Tallahassee broke his iPhone and wanted me to talk him out of buying a Samsung Galaxy S5 Active. I failed, but he likes the phone. Here’s how he rationalizes his purchase.

I feel like with the money spent I am getting a new toy per se to play with, whereas the iPhone I kind of think of it like this, you have this pretty, reliable, and safe girlfriend that you know won’t let you down (iPhone), and then you meet this exotic stripper (Samsung) and your practical side says “stay with the reliable” but your lizard brain is telling you to go with the stripper, and you know it can cause you some heartbreak down the road but it might be worth it in the short term haha!

I love it.

From the context it is clear what you mean

Futurama is another favorite show of mine. This is the Donbot, head of the Robot Mafia, whose unappreciated catchphrase I use to excuse typos in text messages.

From the context it is clear what you mean

Do you still want to meet?

Sometimes I want to play hardball when dating.

Do you still want to meet? Then go to the Adams Street bridge. There's a really good noodle place nearby.

Kill meeee

Another in the saga of Memes Nobody Asked For.

This is a friend’s iPhone 4S after a drop from shoulder height. Is it possible to pity inanimate objects? You wouldn’t feel bad for a floor lamp that somebody knocked over, but this, well.

iPhone kill meeee

Dark Souls II playthroughs

Sometimes I think I was born on the Internet. I remember tweaking settings on my 28.8k modem to improve latency. I remember 56.6k modems and their amazing throughput that let you download an MP3 in the same amount of time it takes to listen to it. I remember being excited for college mainly because of their mythical T1 connection, a blazing pipe of video game demos and Napster.

But images on the Internet always mystified me. How did people go from physical camera to printed picture to scanner to image processor to FTP program to web page? Too many steps! I remember hoarding any pictures I could find (and using them to build an “award-winning” X-Files fan site circa 1997).

Now we have memes and image macros - which anybody can make - but not just anybody can make good ones. So I’d like to toss my hat in the ring. In lieu of the quality journalism and punditry this site is unknown for, I’m going to post some memes I’ve created. You put up with this, and I’ll continue to pretend you exist.

Dark Souls II playthroughs

The Amazing Spider-dope

I was amazed that I liked the first Amazing Spider-man. The subplot with the construction workers and the cranes was unbearably cheesy and Dr. Connors’ underground lab made no sense, but the action was good, the stakes were clear, and Peter and Gwen had a great dynamic and some real chemistry. The high school fight was authentic, I’m told, given the way Spider-man moves, improvises, and cracks wise.

Now for the sequel to ruin everything.

Warning: spoilers. But they’re all dumb, so you might be better off knowing this nonsense in advance.

Who was Peter's mother? You never hear her name.

Amazing Spider-man 2 opens with Peter Parker’s father, Richard, and his mysterious double life that everyone figured out while watching the trailers for the first movie. Big shock, he was a researcher at Oscorp labs and responsible for the radioactive spiders that basically ruined his son’s life. Hey, that’s supposed to be a big shock. I don’t see your jaw on the floor.

Richard Parker discovers that Oscorp is going to sell its biological weapons to a foreign power (PROTIP: this is treason, only the Secretary of State can authorize international weapon sales) and flees Snowden-style with his research (PROTIP: grab yo kid, grab yo wife, call the FBI and go into witness protection). He leaves his son with his sister or sister-in-law and takes a private jet with his wife to God knows where. Oh neat, your jaw’s on the floor now.

What was Richard’s plan? If he felt so threatened by Oscorp that he fled the country, did he really think they wouldn’t target his son? He did absolutely nothing to conceal Peter’s location or identity. They sent an assassin on the flight, I don’t think an after-school kidnapping is out of bounds. For that matter, what was Oscorp’s goal? If Richard just made a copy of their research, then sure, killing him ties up that loose end. Strange that they didn’t do anything once the assassin failed to check in after the flight. That seems like something worthy of a follow-up.

A connector-less protocol that delivers USB 3-level bandwidth. Sure.

I’m trying to be good and ignore the outrageously unrealistic use of technology in this movie, like the circa 1999 private plane whose Internet connection remains steady while an engine is on fire and the cabin has lost pressure and they’re dropping out of the sky; the magic data cube Norman Osborn gives Harry that contains gigabytes of video and turns his desk into a Microsoft Surface (couldn’t just encrypt a folder on the network?); and the Oscorp internal employee search that displays faces of non-matches, takes more than 500 milliseconds, and lets a security employee enter commands to stop the search in progress (hey Oscorp: fire your database admin).

Whoops, I failed.

Speaking of Oscorp, why did Norman send his son Harry away to boarding school for over a decade? Norman recognizes his son’s scientific genius, why not keep him in the family business trying to solve the hereditary disease? I appreciate that Mr. Osborn values a liberal arts education, but if Harry’s going to turn into Darth Sidious the moment he graduates, shouldn’t you put this highly motivated child prodigy in a lab where he can do some good?

Maybe Harry could help Peter Parker with his priorities. I know the premise of Spider-man is that being a superhero affects Peter’s normal life, but I don’t blame Gwen Stacy one bit for leaving him. Petty criminals stealing plutonium seems like something the local police could handle. Or not, considering their pursuit-modified Crown Victorias can’t accelerate past a tow truck dragging an armored car. So Peter’s late for his graduation, late for dinner, and possessing Phillip J. Fry’s capacity for pursuing women, where the strategy is to write “I love you” in a large enough font that she never leaves you. I’m kind of surprised that Max Dillon didn’t think Spider-man was talking to him.

Jamie Foxx is awesome.

Max is a nerdy scientist who’s saved by Spider-man and is then his biggest fan. He becomes Electro, the electricity supervillain, after Oscorp flouts OSHA safety regulations for the fifty billionth time and Max falls into a vat of electric eels.

Now, if you’re Oscorp and the last employee who was affected by your biologic research turned into a supervillain and threatened Manhattan, what would you do with Max as he lies charred on the floor? Would you clean up the mess, erase all records of the employee, and send his corpse to the morgue to be cremated?

You would? Excellent! Who did you send to take care of that? Brock Hardass, your trusted no-nonsense henchman, who would personally oversee every step of the process? Oh. You didn’t. You sent Joe the Intern, who couldn’t convince your systems administrator to purge Max Dillon’s employee file immediately and just dumped the corpse at the morgue and told them to take care of it whenever. Ugh. Well, the CEO’s secretary is your boss now, maybe this can’t be helped.

Oh look, it's Infamous' Cole McGrath.

Don’t ask how, but Electro gets loose and terrorizes Times Square by doing his low-rent Dr. Manhattan impression. With the help of Spider-man and the police and fire departments, Electro is subdued. And then, for assaulting police officers and endangering the lives of hundreds of civilians and causing millions of dollars in property damage - all on the national news - Electro is put on trial and sentenced to life in prison.

Hah! Just kidding. He’s returned to Oscorp no questions asked. The cops don’t monitor his location, Spider-man doesn’t keep tabs on him after realizing he’s Max Dillion, nobody from the news investigates the biggest story since Dr. Curt Connors turned into The Lizard.

Meanwhile at Oscorp (motto: Come And Get Us, Trial Lawyers!) Harry Osborn discovers the company’s secret projects, codename Project Secret Projects. The guy who wanted to call it something innocuous like “Janitorial Wastewater Analysis 2003” must have been voted down. It’s there that Harry discovers the radioactive spider venom his father thought might cure their hereditary disease. He seems to know that Spider-man was bitten by one of Oscorp’s radioactive spiders, so he reviews security camera footage of the lab before Spider-man appeared in New York and deduces it’s Peter Parker.

Hah! Sorry, kidding again. Oscorp uses proprietary data storage blocks that connect to transparent capacitive office desks for their secret projects but doesn’t invest in things like security cameras and tape backup.

Anyhoo, Harry believes Spider-man’s blood will cure his disease and asks Peter Parker to convince the web-slinger to donate some. Spider-man’s being remarkably thoughtful as he turns Harry down, worrying more about the billionaire’s safety than the fact that Spidey’s blood will identify him as the son of Richard Parker. Unfortunately the webbed one doesn’t consider how a doomed, emotionally stunted billionaire might retaliate when denied what he believes to be a life-saving cure.

Harry has some awesome blue curtains. Sorry, what were we talking about?

You might answer “by throwing the vast resources of his company at capturing Spider-man” but Harry is booted out of Oscorp after Evil Businessman faked a file somewhere. This seems as logical as any other corporate action given that Harry can force his board of directors to answer directly to the secretary. Technically powerless but probably still in command of millions of dollars, Harry bluffs his way into the Ravencroft Institute to rescue Electro and take revenge on Spider-man.

What follows is a predictable fight-the-villain-in-his-lair sequence where Spidey confronts Electro in a power plant. Our heroes win after a lecture about eighth-grade science, the kind of thing you’d think Max Dillon - who designed the power plant - wouldn’t fall for.

Confession: I didn’t know Gwen Stacy was going to die. I didn’t realize she had to wear that specific outfit when she died, so it was kind of a shock. Peter’s grief seems appropriate, and throws into relief the whole “Peter Parker is just like me because he has normal person problems.” Yeah, like paying the rent, worrying about his relatives… oh, and being hunted by an infinite number of monsters and/or gangs and causing the death of at least one member of each family he’s close to. Sheesh.

It’s amazing he’s still sane.