Monday, June 19, 2017

E3 2017 Games I Want to Talk About

I think we've all come to agree that E3 2017 was one of the weaker shows in recent memory. Nintendo apparently "won"... though I've always been rather if-y on what mechanism actually determines "winning" E3. How do the points work again? Do you gain or lose field position when you trot out a pair of nobody English comedians for your soccer game? The point is that 2017 was a lesser show. The year blew its load early with all my biggest hyped games, like "Breath of the Wild" and "Persona 5" and "Horizon Zero Dawn" and "Nier: Automata" all out by April (I'll review the other half eventually). That left E3 to be a lot of filler.

Plus there just wasn't a lot of huge news even with new consoles to talk about. The Xbox One X or "XXbone" looks pointless to me unless you have a 4K TV in which case you're already so rich you don't need games. You can just hire poor people to fight to the death for exposure for you amusement. Sony was just killing time until 2018 when their new crop of exclusives will come out. And while Nintendo killed it, they can't exactly carry the games industry all on their own. We all know what the Switch is by now, that can't be the story anymore. And strangely there was also not a ton of indie presence, which I feel was a mistake. It all added up to a slow, weaker crop of games. But ironically also a ton of games that I think have promise. In fact, too many games I could see myself playing.

So for this year's E3 reaction I'm going to try to keep this as short and sweet as I can. We're going to use some triage and get right to stuff that I'm most interested in talking about. If a game is not mentioned here it doesn't mean I don't have hype for it, it just means there isn't anything to say. Here's why a lot of stuff got skipped:

1. It's just more of what we saw in previous years. This would include "God of War 4", "Detroit", "Cuphead", and yeah, even "Kingdom Hearts III".

2. It's new but isn't doing much that's really new. So nothing on the "Shadow of the Colossus" remake, "Far Cry 5", or that "Uncharted" DLC.

3. It used the word "loot" in the marketing. There is no faster way in 2017 to make me lose interest in your game then saying "loot". I hate loot. Loot is not a reason to play a game. Loot is an annoying extra chore. You of the "Minecraft" generation are killing gaming with this loot crap.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Persona 5: Last Impressions

The king is dead.

Let's face-facts. Final Fantasy is not the lord of the JRPG anymore. Outside of the MMOs, its stock has fallen rapidly over the last eleven years. People still play these games, "Final Fantasy XV" still sold veritable shitloads to what I think are pleased consumers, but the magic is gone. I still haven't finished "Final Fantasy XV", a game I obsessed about, begged for, and suffered over for ten long years. And in fact, I never will finish it. I care so little for it I cannot even find joy in hating it. So I've done the right thing with that game. I took it down to the Velvet Room, sacrificed it for a Fusion, and used it for a nice discount on "Persona 5", the latest game in the series that has become the new JRPG King.

All hail.

Persona is certainly an odd choice to rule the genre. It's shamelessly Japanese - an unabashedly niche title that tells the audience, "you're either along for my ride or you might as well not play". People in the West are generally not clamoring to be Anime high school students. Who wants a game where you have to put away the fun demon action to go to class, study, and take a bath? "Final Fantasy XV" bent over backwards to appeal to the West with realistic graphics and action gameplay, but ended up utterly forgettable. Meanwhile "Persona 5" with its turn-based battles, Slice of Life cutscenes, and baroque weirdness, is beloved by the Western press, its fanbase, and me.

The difference largely is confidence. "Persona 5" is a refinement of a refinement, improving on "Persona 4" which improved on "Persona 3". Everything in "Persona 5" shines with a clear style from the bright colors, to the jazzy soundtrack, to the plaid texture on the hero's pants. Atlus knows what people liked about the earlier games and amped up the power. Square Enix can only chase after trends, giving up any sense of identity in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. "Final Fantasy XV" wants to please everybody and pleased nobody. "Persona 5" know it can't win over every player so instead is a bold, uncompromising game, more subversive and fascinating than any of its predecessors, with a clear vision to improve on what worked before.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Did Secrecy Become a Fundamental Value?

There appear to be two universes at war in the United States and the media right now. Interestingly, both have become completely deluged in conspiracy theories and echo chambers. Right now the liberal universe sees Donald Trump as a dangerous Russian patsy, and everything he's done in the last two weeks has been almost designed on purpose to prove them correct. The right-wing universe sees every news story as an exaggeration and dishonest character assassination, built up by a government and media that wants to nullify the results of the last election. Both universes see the world as the direct opposite: what is white for one is black for the other. And there can be no compromise. However, both are relying on an assumption about America that is perhaps the most disturbing element of this whole Trump saga.

I don't really see much point in talking about the details of the Comey firing, or the accidental blurting out of Israeli intelligence to the Russians, or just the utter chaos that the Trump administration seems to create all across the government*. Because you know already what I think, and if you need my thoughts confirmed, read the footnote. You'll have heard whatever I have to say a thousand times and were probably thinking it before you read this article. I'm going to try to look at this another way. Both universes are making a fundamental mistake right now, which is something the larger discussion around the unraveling** of the Trump administration seems to be missing:

Why are secrets so important? Why are we so quick to defend the Deep State and despise all who fail to uphold its values?

What happened to this country which, theoretically is a democracy, where secrets and lies and darkness have become so key to the job of the president? Trump's run-in with the Russians is just the latest form of a story that's been going on for years now. Add it to the issues with Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Hilary Clinton's emails, the DNC hacks, and the leaks to the press from what remains of the White House. The issue of America and its secrets has become one of the central problems of our time, possibly above even healthcare, and apparently neither side wants transparency. It defeated one presidential compaign, and might kill the current administration. Breaking the dogma of keeping secrets is the greatest sin in Washington today. We cheer when our opponents are caught failing the standards of classified info. Yet those secrets which discredit our enemies do not benefit us, the people. We are actively working against our own knowledge.

So with the slim possibility of light at the end of this Trump tunnel, I want to look at the darkness in the government which we seem to have accepted. Because maybe that's not better.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Are So Many Americans Worthless?

I wish the Republicans voted on whatever healthcare plan Donald Trump thinks they passed through the House of Representatives yesterday. In Donald Trump's mind, this bill keeps protections for pre-existing conditions (outright lie), still grants insurance to everybody (at least twenty-four million will lose coverage*), would offer "great healthcare" (his definition of "great" varies considerably from mine), and it’s going to lower healthcare costs (for the young and healthy only - maybe).

Typically I’m just an idiot on the internet, but the AHCA/Trumpcare/Ryancare is one of the few places I can actually speak with some level of expertise. Health insurance is my day job, I work as an Insurance Analyst for a healthcare provider. (Not my dream profession, but it pays.) So for once, I actually know what I’m talking about. Personally cutting Medicaid is really bad for the company I work for, since we need those plans to stay in business. But beyond that I can also tell you that the healthcare system in this country is a goddamned mess of epic proportions - the fact my job even exists is testament to that. RINOcare is not going to make things any simpler, just more chaotic and segmented.

The reality, of course, is that the bill guts Medicaid and creates a roadmap for its eventual death, gives wiggle room for states to opt out of pre-existing condition restrictions, allows insurers to bring back crappy plans that don't cover a whole lot, and deeply increases costs for the elderly. You lose if you’re poor, if you're sick, if you're old, and you'll even lose if you’re young and healthy because the policies you’ll now get are much worse than the ones you need. And this bill has brought everybody in the healthcare sector together... to oppose it. Hospitals are terrified of it, the AARP hates it, doctors don't like it, and even health insurance companies have spoken out against it. The only winners in the immediate term are the upper class, who will get lower taxes. The rest of us are losers.

The AHCA seems like a bill for nobody. So why would this legislation even be considered in the first place? Why do so many Americans simply not count in the eyes of their Congress?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why Are We Starting a Fight with North Korea, Again?

Every year I hear the same news story: North Korea threatens World War III. You know the tale by now. The dictator of North Korea is a madman ready to end the world if he doesn’t get his Ann Takamaki body pillow on time. While Kim Jong-Un lavishes himself in luxury and delusion his people suffer, then he threatens to nuke the world because he's desperate for respect. Let’s all point and laugh at this pathetic nation and its weird dorky leader.

Right now we’re in the latest round of this semi-annual ritual. Kim Jong-Un is going to make some apocalyptic threats, the news will dutifully spin the story for maximum panic. Then in a week this will all pass over. So it goes year after year.

The eyes of the media are still focused on Syria thanks to a grand piece of theater on Donald Trump’s part last week. But while Syria has been a festering ulcer for years now, it isn’t an immediate danger. North Korea is. Kim Jong-Un's threats to nuke the United States are dubious but his threats on cities like Seoul and Tokyo are very real. North Korea has been the most dangerous flashpoint of the world for decades. Any time it heats up, no matter how ridiculous the threat, is something that needs to be a taken seriously. Taking things seriously is something our current president Donald Trump just doesn't seem to do. Now in 2017 you have the unpredictability of the Trump administration facing off against a nuclear state with its back against the wall. This is deeply worrisome.

North Korea is a terrible nation that rightly should be evaporated off the map forever. It’s one of the final evils that Communism has left behind. (Thanks, Stalin.) But no matter how bad the other side is, this newest crisis is one largely of our own making. For no good reason the US is suddenly acting very aggressively in the region. We now represent a considerable threat, even if we don’t realize it. Trump’s chaotic governing style is no longer just a problem for Washington, it’s a problem for everybody.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: First Impressions of the Wild


Some caveats: Technically this would be a "seventh" impression since I have now played "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" through seven sessions across approximately fifteen hours of gaming. I played deep enough to have beaten the first dungeon and boss, met a sexy fish prince, and gotten a good handle on most of the game’s systems. Most of the game was played on a WiiU but I’ve also played a bit on a new-fangled Nintendo Switch.

A little bit over five years ago “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” came out to what was then very high praise. I was in the minority back then when I called it "a game from the past, too restrictive, too structured, and too small". I didn't want to be in the negative camp, I really to love "Skyward Sword". But slowly all the little weaknesses tore it down for me, I still consider it to be the worst game in the series. "Skyward Sword" was badly padded between dungeons and story segments, it lost all sense of freedom, and it offered no new innovation other than motion controls. As it turns out, I was on the right side of history on that debate. Motion controls were not the future of the franchise, "Skyward Sword" was a mistaken dead-end. Thea actual future was in pure expanse, the adventure of an open world. Thank goodness for that.

"Breath of the Wild" is a game that borrowed ideas from a million other titles of this decade. It has "Assassin’s Creed" climbing, it has "Metal Gear Solid V" combat variety, it has "Dark Souls" ruthlessness, and it has the maddening scale of many other open world titles. But it also feels like a natural extension of Legends of Zelda past. I chuckled at gaming sites reporting that "Breath of the Wild" would be the "first open world Zelda". They forgot that Zelda was a pioneer of open world gaming back in 1986 along with things like "Hydlide" and "Ultima" and "Dragon Quest". Zelda might be borrowing concepts from other games. But those games are its grandchildren, and they owe Zelda a lot more. "Breath of the Wild" isn’t Zelda fighting to keep up with trends. It’s Zelda finally returning to what it was supposed to be.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Trump's Muslim Ban and Foriegn Policy by Imagination

What twitter hashtag should we use to describe this newest Trump executive order? #TravelBan or #MuslimBan? Which is more accurate depends on your perspective, I suppose. Opponents of the measure call it a Muslim Ban because that's the clear intent here. Trump and his supporters want to ban Muslim immigration, let's not dance around this fact. Yet his supporters point out that this order is limited in scope, does not cover all Muslim nations, and is "temporary". This is actually the kind of illogic that Trump and his government intended when they wrote this order. It's a cloud of dishonesty, creating confusion and nonsense.

Trump supporters believe that this executive order is both a Muslim ban and it isn't. To them, the president fulfilled his campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration, while arguing that he did not fulfill that promise because it is illegal. The left is overreacting in their eyes, yet Trump supporters really do want Muslims gone from this country. So the president is somehow both making good and not delivering, whichever is more convenient at the time. Trump himself has been pretty glib about the ban's intentions, saying "call it whatever you want". This is the kind of attitude that speaks volumes really.

So let's say for the sake argument then, this Travel Ban is not about targeting Islam specifically as a religion. Then what is it for? What are the operational goals of this Travel Ban? How can we measure success or failure? What is the strategic justification of banning travel from the sponsor of terrorism, Iran, and not the sponsor of terrorism, Saudi Arabia? Why target the civil wars in Sudan or Somalia and not the civil wars in Nigeria or Ukraine?

Consistent logic is not really a part of Trump's foreign policy. Trump has never made a case for why this ban is necessary because there is no case to make. It isn't about making a case, and never has been. Facts and strategy are too physical, they can be disproven. You can't argue against emotion and fear. How do you disprove foreign policy by imagination?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Long-Delayed Final Fantasy XV Review

It's incredible, looking back, at just how long I waited for "Final Fantasy XV", or "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" as it was known for most of its development cycled. I would have loved for that ten year saga of delays, false trailers, and terrible unnecessary CGI movies to have had a happy ending. But looking back now, it's actually the story of me and one of my favorite video game franchises growing further and further apart. Until we come to "Final Fantasy XV", a game that is definitely not something I can recommend, yet still not quite bad. It is a game that is just not for me.

When "Versus XIII" was announced I felt Final Fantasy was at a high water mark. I had just spent a couple years feverishly playing through the entire series. "Final Fantasy XII" was just around the corner, representing a huge revolution in the series. That was what I thought the future of JRPGs was going to be. (A decade later, turns out it was more of a dead-end.) I was so obsessed with Final Fantasy I would end up spending my high school years editing the Final Fantasy Wiki. Then came the disappointments. "Final Fantasy XIII" and "Final Fantasy XIII-2" were both awful experiences. I don't think any other games have made me as angry for as long as those two. But weirdly enough, I actually finished those. Months and months after starting "Final Fantasy XV" and spending an unwise $60 on it, I realize now I'll never bother to get to the ending.

See, I understand "Final Fantasy XV". I get it. If I were a game developer today who needed to sell six million units of a Japanese RPG, I would probably make a game just like "Final Fantasy XV". It's clearly following popular trends: it's open world, it's got beautiful graphics, it has very cool-looking fast action combat, and it's full of mindless sidequests to grind hours of freetime into. "Final Fantasy XV" is competent and safe. It is a huge step forward for Final Fantasy... into becoming utterly generic and nothing I want to be a part of anymore.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Do Not Impeach President Trump

Impeaching Donald Trump is going to be the Holy Grail of the political left in this country for the next four years. It is also, like the Holy Grail of legend, a complete fantasy. The Democrats in the Senate do not have the votes to achieve an impeachment. And also in what should be more a important detail: they don't have a crime. There is plenty of insinuation, and rumor, but no evidence of a law being broken. People have made phone calls, other parties were hacked, weird statements were made, Donald Trump has lied openly, and his positions have been contradictory. But it's all smoke, no fire.

Russia has returned to be a specter in politics for half a year now, at least as long as Donald Trump appeared to have a legitimate chance to beat Hilary Clinton. It seems that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to be president. (In the Cold War Khrushchev also bragged about "voting" for JFK, a vote he probably regretted by 1963.) As sexy as stories of Trump having wild piss parties with prostitutes on the bed that the Obamas slept on are, they're suspicious. These are exactly the kind of thing liberals were dreaming of. The story only could have gotten better if Trump had also used the N-word. National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn has been fired over what is, right now, a minor infraction. He's not going to jail for this, he isn't going to be tried for treason. He is not a Russian sleeper agent.

I've loved the idea of a giant "do-over" button too. One where Trump breaks the law somehow and he's stopped before he takes office or does real damage. But unproven conspiracy theories are not the answer, they're just a repeat of utter nonsense. We can toy with this idea that maybe this Trump thing can go away, that divine intervention will put Hilary Clinton into office (or if you prefer, Bernie Sanders or Michele Obama or Chef Boyardee). However, that intervention isn't coming, nor should it. President Trump is the, if not democratically elected, at least legally elected president. He will have his four years in office, barring actual proof.

The alternative is far worse.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Top 15 or 16 Movies of 2016

2016 was a bad year if you weren't looking properly. There was plenty wrong with the world and plenty wrong with the world of cinema. But that was only from a certain point of view. There will always be bad movies, and there will always be mediocre movies. A lot of the worst movies of the year were unfortunately also the most visible. "Batman v Superman" got a huge release while most of the movies on my Top 15 did not. That is not fair, but it also means you have to work harder and find things worth loving in life. Or in the theater as the case may be.

Unfortunately the Top 15 List this year is telling me something. The sad fact is that I am officially an Adult. You can put that word in brackets and a scary font. [A-D-U-L-T]. A lot of the movies on this list are indie or relatively unknown or just more artsy, and is that really a surprise? The fact is that most bad movies, or even most mediocre movies, are bad in a very boring way. I don’t need to see that "Ben-Hur" remake to know it’s awful. I’ve seen this kind of garbage before. I'm sixty-six or something (give or take forty years) come last week, I've lost count how many years I've been writing this blog. I'm not even interested in reviewing bad movies anymore. I saw something like thirty to thirty-five movies in the theater last year. I've done it all too many times already, and frankly am just too old to waste it on trash. A lot of the movies here are stuff I would not have recommended when I started this blog, or things I probably much interest in. However, there is also a lot of stuff that me, no matter age, would love.

The final list does not have a single superhero movie, or even a single sequel. Frankly, 2016 was a year where blockbusters held no interest to me – and I’m not alone  there. People were decrying the death of cinema at the end of the summer because nobody could work up the self-contempt to pay money for "Now You See Me 2". Most of the big budget movies last year just flew me by. There was a Tarzan movie last year?! How? Why?? So 2016 really left audiences with no choice. If you loved cinema, you had to go weird, you had to eat your vegetables. You had to really dig. And behind all the dirt of the sequels and the bad reboots and the utterly generic, there was a lot of gold to dig up. In 2016 you really needed gold at the movies.

2017 doesn't look much better, so this list is my small contribution to maybe making your year better. (And of course, utter egoism, as always):

Friday, January 6, 2017

Top 10 Games of 2016

I’ve never written a Top 10 Video Game List before. Seems way overdue.

Until 2016 I just never had the money or the time to play as many games as I could. I also was pretty stuck in my ways. I knew exactly what kinds of games I wanted to play and didn’t want to break too far out of that box. If it wasn’t some Japanese RPG or "Putt-Putt", I was probably not going to try it. At the beginning of this year Yahtzee wrote in his Extra Punctuation column that gamers should get out of their comfort zones in 2016. I took his advise to heart and spent the winter playing a filthy Polack gaijin RPG in "The Witcher 3". I spent the summer playing dirty western first person shooters. I really wanted in 2016 to try to see the full width and breath of what the gaming industry had to offer, both big and small. Here are my findings.

Now that said, I couldn't play everything. So many of the big budget games this year looked utterly boring, so I ignored them. Life is short, nobody has time to waste on regurgitation like "Far Cry: Primal". "Mirror's Edge" is a classic, "Mirror's Edge: Retaliation" has been turned into the standard open world game that everything else is now. (You'll notice, AAA open world games failed to make this list entirely.) But I also missed things I wanted to play, like "Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE", "Firewatch", "Superhot", "Dragon Quest Builders", "Oxenfree", "The Witness", and who knows, maybe "Titanfall 2" could have surprised me. I'm just one person, there seems to be an infinity of time at the beginning of year. By the end you realize there really isn't.

So without further ado, here the games of 2016 that I'm glad ate my time: