Survey of Star Trek – Part 1: Intro & The Original Series

Star Trek is ostensibly the kind of thing I should be really into. It’s nerdy, detail-driven science fiction more focused on ideas than action. It presents opportunities for a vast array of plots, characters, settings, and themes to be presented and explored. Reportedly, it has done those things and frequently done a good job.

But I can’t get into it. I’ve never been able to.

Every time I’ve tried to watch a Star Trek TV series I’ve come away with no desire to continue after an episode or two. The shows in actuality seem slow, boring, dumb, and inconsistent.

I like three pieces of Star Trek fiction I have seen: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek (2009), and The Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds.” Everything else has bored me or insulted my intelligence.

But Star Trek is such a mainstay of culture and especially nerd culture that I keep coming back to the idea of trying to watch it. And now, with the return of Star Trek to television (sort of), I figure this is as good a time as any to do a little experiment.

I am going to watch the pilot or first episode of each Star Trek series to see if any grab me this time around. Even if the actual episodes are still boring, comparing the different series of this vast and long running franchise should make for an fascinating trip through some television history.

The Original Series

As the oldest Star Trek show, this one has aged the worst in many ways. The style and culture of the 60s are dripping from it. It’s colorful, boisterous, and self-assured. Despite being incredibly progressive with a diverse cast for its time, there’s still a palpable air of 60s misogyny about it.

Looking at Star Trek with entirely modern sensibilities is probably wildly unfair. Clearly the show is special for its lasting impact and for the strides it did make in being more inclusive of minorities and other nationalities which is particularly notable in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Cold War. Its probably fairly sophisticated for 60s TV as well.

A simple Google search of “1960s TV dramas” returns a list of names that are only vaguely recognizable to this millennial. I’ve heard of Perry Mason, The Avengers (a British spy show, not Marvels superhero team), The Wild Wild West, and Adam-12, but haven’t seen so much as a single clip from any of them. Other shows from the time like Mission Impossible, The Twilight Zone, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have all had recent reincarnations (or lasting influence on other series in the case of Twilight Zone). But none of those have had the staying power of Star Trek. None of them turned into a massive TV and film franchise on that level.

Finding the “first” or “pilot” episode of The Original Series (TOS) is a bit tricky. Technically “The Cage” is the original pilot of Star Trek. It was rejected for being “too cerebral” which makes me kind of curious to watch it. I’m dubious about what “too cerebral” meant back then.

Even so, “The Cage” is listed on Netflix as the first episode of Star Trek which I have to imagine confuses a lot of people looking to experience the earliest adventures of Kirk and Spock. Kirk does not appear in that episode. The original protagonist of Star Trek was Captain Christopher Pike, but after the rejection of this pilot, the actor who played Pike dropped out.

Lucille Ball (of I Love Lucy fame) who ran the studio where Star Trek was produced liked Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, and convinced the network to give Trek another chance at life. William Shatner came aboard to play Captain James T. Kirk, the new lead character for the series’ second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

I thought about watching that episode instead since it’s the one that got the show greenlit. I actually did watch about 20 minutes before I got sick of the dumb ESP-related plot. Then I decided to view what’s broadly considered to be the “first” episode instead.

“The Man Trap”

People like to point out how Star Trek predicted cell phones. Pssh. Kirk’s got a lame old flip phone there. Get with the times, Jim!

“The Man Trap” was the broadcast debut of Star Trek way back in September of ’66. It features much of what’s iconic about the Original Series: the Enterprise, beaming, expendable crewmen (eventually known as “red shirts”), sick bay, strange aliens, and of course its memorable cast of characters (although Scotty and Chekov were still absent and Sulu wasn’t on the bridge just yet.)

This episode strikes me as pretty typical of the Original Series. There’s a strange, alien happening at the beginning of the episode which the characters gradually unravel through the rest of the runtime concluding with a fistfight or speech or both.

One thing that’s extremely out of step with modern television is a lack of setup. “The Man Trap” doesn’t do anything special to introduce us to the characters or the concept of the show. The only explanation we’re given is the famous opening monologue that was present in every episode.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Though I am no Trekkie, I could have written that from memory. It’s another iconic piece of the show.

No matter how dorky the show might be, the Enterprise is still a cool spaceship

In this episode, Kirk, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and the obligatory expendable crewman beam down to a planet to conduct a routine medical checkup of researchers Nancy and Robert Crater. Bones has a special interest in this mission as he used to be romantically involved with Nancy.

The mission goes awry when the crewman ends up dead. Kirk, Spock, and Bones launch an investigation. They eventually discover that a shapeshifting alien disguised itself as Nancy and then several Enterprise crew members in a fight for survival. The creature is the last of its kind, but eventually they are forced to kill it after it threatens the lives of several crew members and Kirk himself.

The plot itself is relatively uninteresting. I think it could have been more compelling to watch if the show had been directed differently. The audience knows far more than the characters know. We’re shown early on that the alien presents itself differently to Bones, Kirk, and the doomed crewman so we know something’s up. We aren’t solving a mystery with our characters, we’re waiting for them to catch up to what we already know. The director’s already showed us the answer.

That’s a recipe for suspense rather than mystery, but I don’t think the suspense works for a modern audience. It’s hard to be truly concerned about the fate of any of these characters. We know Kirk, Bones, and Spock are all going to be fine though I supposed the original audience wouldn’t have the same assurance. It’s also become a well-known cliche that Star Trek would kill off otherwise unimportant crew members to heighten the stakes. Knowing this does a lot to dispel the illusion of danger. You can see the scriptwriter pulling the strings all too clearly.

Regardless, the first half of the episode mostly works. It’s a decent setup and there’s ample opportunity for the leads to interact and show off their character traits.

Kirk is a confident, charismatic leader who’s much less brash than pop culture’s collective memory has lead to me believe (granted, this is a tiny sample size). Bones is a soft-hearted, down-to-earth kind of guy. Spock demonstrates his perceptive intelligence and, of course, lack of overt emotion.

The episode falls apart in the second half, however.

There’s a hamfisted “moral” to the story. After being questioned, Robert Crater reveals that he’s known about the alien creature. It killed the real Nancy years ago, but since it was the last of its kind, he spared its life. He was content to let the creature play the part of Nancy as the next best thing. That’s super weird and creepy. Fortunately we aren’t given much time to think about that before Crater draws an absurd parallel between the creature and the buffalo.

This is really funny now. The concept of species extinction must not have been commonly known because the word “extinct” is never used. The show literally has to explain it to the audience and thus to the “enlightened” 23rd century crew. You’d think explorers might understand that already.

It doesn’t work as a parallel either. Buffalo (by which they mean American bison) aren’t extinct although it’s true that they were nearly hunted to extinction. It’s a touchpoint for the show’s audience, not for the show’s characters.

This is just like the buffalo

I guess there’s supposed to be a message about conservation or something in there? It feels incredibly tacked on. Still, this was an example of how Star Trek would at least attempt to highlight social, political, and environmental concerns even if it didn’t always work.

It’s also frustrating to watch our lead characters slowly catch on to what we already know. There’s a good scene where the ship’s officers are discussing what to do about the creature onboard and how they can find it. The creature is present at the meeting disguised as Bones. The real McCoy (ha!) was lured to sleep earlier by the alien in disguise as Nancy. I thought Kirk was catching on to fake Dr. McCoy in this scene. They kept cutting to his and Spock’s faces like they might know what’s up and I thought he was baiting the creature into revealing itself which would have been really clever.

Actually, Kirk behaves rather stupidly in the end. Spock is assaulted by the creature. He tells Kirk that the alien was disguised as Bones. Kirk rushes to Dr. McCoy’s quarters knowing that he’s likely to find the creature there. Like a moron, he goes with no backup (not even a red shirt) and he nearly gets killed because of it. He only lives because Spock conveniently shows up at the last second.

There are plenty of other silly details too. While it makes sense for a starship captain to lead the away team on diplomatic missions, it’s pretty silly that Kirk beams down with Bones and the crewman at the beginning for this “routine” medical mission. It would set a precedent for things to come – high-ranking officers regularly getting involved in mundane tasks that would spin out into larger adventures.

Given that this was a TV show, I’m impressed by the effects for the time. Just two years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey would blow away everything that had come before it in terms of convincing space travel special effects. But TV has a much more constrained budget than feature films – especially features by high-profile directors like Stanley Kubrick.

2001: A Space Odyssey came out two years after Star Trek’s premier featuring special effects that would not be eclipsed for decades

I hesitate to call the acting outright bad. It’s certainly dated. Sure, some of it seems outright poor. But acting sensibilities have changed a lot. Dramatic acting today tends to be a lot more naturalistic and subtle. I don’t think they were going for that back then.

Nevertheless, I like the lead actors in their roles. Nimoy is great and judging by this episode, he was great as Spock from the very start. DeForest Kelley is charming as Dr. McCoy which goes a long way for a character that seemed to provide so much of the show’s soul and humanity.

Whether William Shatner can act is somewhat controversial. I’ll simply say that he seems well cast and comes off as capable, and charismatic apart from the dumb decisions at the end of the episode. I like him in the role.

The Verdict

If nothing else, the characters are iconic for a reason

According to contemporary retrospectives, “The Man Trap” is one of the worst episodes of The Original Series. Dull and pointless as it was, I can still see why Star Trek became beloved. The Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic really does work and, like I said at the outset, the concept of the show allows for all kinds of plots, characters, and themes to be explored.

If it’s true that most of TOS is better than this, I may give select episodes a watch, but I have no intention of going front-to-back through the show.

Unlike later series, TOS doesn’t have a ton of continuity to keep up with. I think its more episodic approach will allow me to pop in and out of the series at virtually any point and not be lost.

The episodic approach is a double-edged sword. On one hand, shows that don’t leverage continuity can feel weightless without significant consequences from one episode to the next or one season to the next. On the other hand, the serial approach necessitates viewers wade through most, if not all the previous canon, to get the most out of the show. That’s a high barrier to entry. We’ll talk about that next time.

LLAP

Gateway Dragon Boat Festival – From the Air

I mentioned a while back on the podcast that I bought a drone. I’ve had it for about 7 months now, but haven’t had as many opportunities to use it as I’d like.

I was pretty skittish about it at first. I started looking up drone regulations in the United States. Between reading about those and worrying about flying an expensive piece of equipment that could very possibly crash or fly away, I got to feeling like I’d made a mistake buying it to begin with.

Since then I’ve gotten much more comfortable with flying. It’s not the controls so much. Those came kind of naturally from years of video games and a history with flight sims. What I worry about is the connotation of flying a drone around. I worry other people will freak out or call the cops or something even though I’m extremely cautious and never do anything creepy or dangerous to others. Now, I’m feeling like I can actually fly without somebody coming over and yelling at me. I’m not saying they would. It’s my own insecurity more than anything. I don’t want to be the center of attention in public, really.

I really, really enjoy flying and the footage from these things is incredible all things considered. I’ve got a DJI Phantom 4 which is a nice drone, but still reasonably affordable for people who are into this sort of thing (and I found a good deal too). The features including object detection, tracking, and 4K video capture are remarkable. Just a few years ago this was unobtainable technology for the average person, but now you can capture footage that used to require helicopters and planes.

So this is my first drone video I’m putting out in public. It’s the first thing I’ve shot that can kind of stand on its own as something interesting to watch. Oh yeah, and it’s in 4K so take advantage of that if you’ve got a 4K display.

Continue reading “Gateway Dragon Boat Festival – From the Air”

E3 2017, Part 2

Well E3 is now officially over. Let’s run down the remaining three press conferences and the games shown off in them!

Ubisoft

Ubisoft had a surprisingly strong show, but I’m interested in only a small subset of the games. I was glad to see that they didn’t linger too long on known quantities like Assassin’s Creed Origins… Assassin’s Creed Snoreigins, more like! I hate this franchise. I’ve never had any fun with it except for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – y’know, the pirate one. The premise is really cool and I like the historical settings in theory, but the characters all suck, the controls suck, the mission design sucks, the open worlds suck, and the self-serious tone sucks.

The show began and ended with big stuff – that’s how you do it, Bethesda. Even though I don’t really know what Beyond Good and Evil is, I know there’s a excited fanbase out there for the game who were very psyched to get news about the sequel. So well done in that regard, Ubisoft.

Mario & Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Initially I was repulsed by the idea of putting Mario & Rabbids together. The Rabbids are something I have no prior experience with, but I look at the characters and all I think of is Minions from Despicable Me.

But you know what? This presentation won me over. It’s a great looking art style. The clash of goofy Rabbid characters with Mario playing the straight man seems ripe for physical comedy. The gameplay is tactical turn-based strategy that reminds me of XCOM. And they brought Shigeru Miyamoto on stage which is more than we’ll see of him in Nintendo’s presentation ironically.

Yeah, I might actually get this game. This looks weird and goofy and cool. I hope the gameplay is as solid as it looked from the short demo.

I also love this interview with the XCOM creative director regarding the similarities between the two games.

The Crew 2

Wisely this presentation focused on gameplay. The story of The Crew is not only completely forgettable, it’s annoying. It gets in between the player and what they actually came to do which is drive around the smooshed up little United States open world. I thought the sequel might go someplace else. Europe, England, Japan, Australia (except Forza Horizon 3 just did that…). Nope back to America again. That’s fine by me, actually. I’d like to see a take two.

The Crew 2 adds boats, planes, motorcycles, and other vehicles to the mix. It’s kind of like what Steep did with winter sports. If they can manage to make a better game around that core, I might be interested.

Skull & Bones

The pirate video game market is apparently more crowded than I thought. Skull & Bones looks like a sequel to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (a.k.a. the only good one) with the on-foot stuff stripped out and a renewed focus on the ship-to-ship combat. In Skull & Bones, teams of players will square off using different classes of ships to fulfill various tactical roles in their fleets. Players can also turn on each other to get bigger payouts. After all, what’s piracy without the ability to turn on each other?

I am skeptical that team-based ship combat can sustain an entire game, but maybe there’s more to it than was shown or maybe this won’t be a full-priced release.

Far Cry 5

Much like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft showed shockingly little of this game. That’s probably because we already know what it is – mostly. It’s another open world sandbox of mayhem where your mission is to shoot all the crazy people who have taken the land from the non-crazy people.

Like I said in my pre-E3 post, I don’t appreciate the overtly Christian imagery mixed with the white supremacist stuff. This brief trailer added a bad guy singing “Amazing Grace” to the mix. Ugh.

The game looks gorgeous and fun otherwise though.

Sony

Sony’s conference was a bit of a sleeper this year, honestly. It was a strange show. Only one person walked out on stage for two brief speeches; the rest was trailers accompanied occasionally by actual live things happening the theater like live music or performers dangling from the ceiling.

The games on display were mostly underserved by the presentation’s lack of context. Only two games that I recall got extended gameplay demos that gave us some semblance of an idea how they might actually play.

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wastes

I like Horizon a lot. I’ll play more of it! It’s coming this year too. I wonder if this will continue the story and follow up on the sequel bait at the end of the main game or if it will be a new side story. As much as I hate it when games “finish” their stories in DLC, I would kind of like to have the dangling story thread resolved.

Days Gone

Days Gone and all zombies games must overcome the question “do we really need another zombie game?” Days Gone looks very okay. At least the extended demo gave us an idea how the game plays. Will this be heavy on story like The Last of Us? It’s hard to imagine the narrative being anywhere close to that good. So what’s the hook of this game? I’m still not seeing it. It looks very well made though.

God of War

I never played any of the previous God of War games. Character action games aren’t my thing and I never owned a Playstation 2 or 3 anyhow. The new God of War (irritatingly and confusingly just called God of War even though it isn’t a reboot) looks to be changing the style of gameplay to something I could maybe get behind. It also seems to be putting the emphasis on a family story of Kratos and his son.

AND THERE’S FRIENDLY (maybe) SEA SERPENT! THAT THING IS COOL.

Destiny 2

Destiny is a really, really mechanically solid shooter that released without enough content and way too much grinding. The shooting felt great, but the game built around it was questionable. That’s far from an original opinion. I happen to agree with the masses on this one.

Destiny 2 is a chance for a fresh start that I’m excited to see. I like PvE shooters and since there’s no Borderlands 3 yet, I’ll likely give Destiny 2 a shot as a filthy casual player.

I say all of this based on my personal experience with the first game. Zero of my desire to play the sequel comes from its marketing which is a bunch of stupid nonsense. The trailer shown at Sony’s show was stupid, overwrought, and totally forgettable. I don’t want to play Destiny 2 so I can be a hero and save earth or take back the Last City or whatever. I want to play it because it has great mechanics. I will never care about the story in Destiny. Please stop acting like anyone does.

Spider-man

Spider-man really stole the show. For some reason I wasn’t expecting much out of this game. Superhero games aside from the Batman Arkham series have been pretty lame for the most part. Apparently the Spider-man developers thought so to because they’ve take a lot from Arkham. I’m fine with that. Those are great games and some of the mechanics fit Spidey decently well too.

What Spider-man offers that Batman doesn’t is, of course, web-slinging. Spider-man will reportedly feature an open-world which you traverse by physics-based webshooting and wallrunning. That sounds great!

What’s worrying is the abundance of quick-time events in the demo. What happens if you miss the arbitrary button presses? Do you have to restart the sequence? Hopefully this kind of gameplay is sparse and forgiving. Aside from those bits, Spider-man was one of the best games at the show.

Nintendo

I expected an underwhelming show from Nintendo. The rumor of a short 20 to 30 minute presentation was right on the mark. But Nintendo managed to pack more into 25 minutes than everybody else did in an hour or more. Nintendo blew away the low expectations announcing new major games – some distant and some coming a lot sooner than expected.

Kirby

I did not expect a Kirby game this early in the Switch’s life. Usually Kirby games come at the tail end of a system’s life, but this is slated to be out in 2018. I’m not for certain sold. Kirby games are fun, but light on challenge and kind of samey. But this looked delightful nevertheless. It’s the first HD Kirby and that alone might make it worthwhile. 4 player co-op is more at home with Kirby than Mario games.

Pokemon RPG for Switch

This was the block of the show about vague promises. Yes, we’re going to make that thing you want, the Pokemon Company assures fans… eventually. We kind of figured that would be the case, but it’s nice to have confirmation especially after the recent Pokemon Direct left fans wondering if mainline Pokemon would ever come to Switch.

METROID PRIME 4

YOU SEE HOW I CAPITALIZED THE TITLE OF THIS ONE? YEAH, I’M PSYCHED!

I thought a Metroid announcement was too good to be true, but here it is. Metroid Prime 4 is happening. Again, it’s a vague promise. No footage, no concepts, no release date or year. But it’s being made and that’s awesome.

Unexpectedly, Prime 4 isn’t being made by Retro Studios, but a new team. I think that’s great. The passion for a new Metroid might not have existed at Retro. They should make something else if they don’t want to make Prime 4. That means Retro’s new game is something else and we have a cool surprise from them still in store.

I hope the Prime 4 team isn’t afraid to break convention and make big changes. I am very much looking forward to seeing a modern (probably still first person) Metroid game. But it will probably be a while.

Yoshi

Yoshi’s Wooly World was a delightful platformer for Wii U. This is a similar-looking follow-up. Instead of yarn, the world is paper and cardboard. Like Kirby, I’m not sold on this one, but I’m glad to see it.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild DLC

I wasn’t expecting any info about the second DLC pack from E3 and I was basically right. We got some info: a name and vague concept, but that’s it. “The Champion’s Ballad” appears to be a prequel given the characters it features. That’s a neat idea, but we’ll have to wait for more info to get an idea of the expansion’s scope. Expansion 1 is out at the end of the month, but we already knew the features it would bring.

Exploration and puzzles were the strongest parts of Breath of the Wild. Expansion 1 doesn’t seem to building much on those aspects. Hopefully The Champion’s Ballad will find a way to recapture some of that magic.

Rocket League

Rocket League is an excellent game that I never play anymore, but the idea of having it on a portable system… yeah, that’s great. Plus it will be playable with players on the Xbox and PC versions of the game. Sony is the lone hold out there, but that’s their fault. Of course, like most third party games coming to Switch so far, the game will get the requisite Nintendo cosmetic items – Mario hats and such for your cars. The Switch version is targeting a smooth 60 fps at the cost of resolution. That’s the right decision for this sort of game.

Super Mario Odyssey

I was already sold on Mario Odyssey. The game looked incredibly creative and charming in its initial reveal and what was shown at E3 only increased my desire to see and play this game for myself. We’re getting it about a month before I expected – at the end of October rather than November.

Metroid: Samus Returns

I would never have guessed that Nintendo would drop not one, but two Metroid games at E3. While Prime 4 is probably years down the line, Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS is coming out at the end of the summer.

I’ve wanted a new 2D Metroid game for ages. It’s been 13 years since the last one: Metroid: Zero Mission on the Gameboy Advance. While I would much prefer this just coming to the Switch, a new Metroid game is one of the few things that could get me to bring my 3DS out of retirement.

Samus Returns looks strikingly fluid. I’m used to the spite-based animation of the older games which had few frames of animation. This is quite a leap from that. Gameplay is also updated with the ability to freely aim, perform melee counters to enemies and stylish finishing moves just to name a few additions.

Other Stuff

There were a couple things outside the big press conferences I wanted to highlight as well.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

XCOM 2 was my 4th favorite game of 2016. War of the Chosen is a hefty expansion to that game. I’ll definitely be curious when it comes out, but the latter half of 2017 is starting to look packed with turn-based tactical games like Mario & Rabbids and the next game…

Wargroove

Wargroove is another indie title that picks up the slack of a big company who’s no longer making a beloved series. The company? Nintendo. The series? Advance Wars.

Wargroove is the spitting image of Advance Wars but with a medieval/fantasy theme rather than modern/near-future military. I am so up for that especially since it’s coming to the Switch in addition to PC. It’s also shipping with a full map and campaign editor allowing users to create lots of new content. If Wargroove can live up to the legacy of Advance Wars, this might be one of the surprise best games of the year.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it. Another E3 in the books. I’m glad I watched. There weren’t too many really exciting moments, but a lot of what I saw looked very solid and many of the most exciting games are coming this year. I thought 2016 was one of the best years for video games in my lifetime, but 2017 is shaping up to be nearly as good. Who knows, maybe it’ll be better?

Sure, getting excited about all this stuff plays right into the hype that the marketing departments at these companies want. On the flip side, most games are made by passionate and creative people who desire to make great and stimulating experiences. We saw that passion and emotion clearly at times through the developers themselves.

So E3 isn’t just about advertising products. It’s about the collective wonder and excitement shared by people who love games. That’s why we pay attention to it.

E3 2017 – Part 1

E3 is still going on through this afternoon, but the press conferences are over and most – if not all – announcements have been made. My E3 thoughts got long and I want to include a bunch of trailers and photos so I’m splitting this into two (maybe even three) parts.

I’m only going to be talking about what I find personally interesting or worth commenting on. Video games are broad and there are whole genres and styles I’m not down with so this won’t be a comprehensive recap. That would be crazy.

Let’s run through the first three of the six major press conferences.

EA

As predicted, EA’s show leaned heavily into sports and celebrity. There were lots of camera shots of people playing games which is annoying when I’m tuning in to see the games themselves – not the people.  Still, it was overall a better presentation that I expected from EA.

Battlefield 1 DLC

I like this game. I wish the DLC wasn’t so expensive. I would enjoy new maps, but I don’t play it enough to justify buying them. New single player stuff would have been neat, but you don’t generally get single player DLC in online-focused FPS games.

Need for Speed Payback

I haven’t cared about this series in a long time, but the gameplay demo for this looked really sharp and fun. There was a definite Burnout vibe to it which is nice because EA killed the Burnout series almost 10 years ago. I suppose they’re also aping the Fast & Furious movies. Wouldn’t exactly know since I’ve never seen one.

I doubt I’ll play this, but I’ll be curious about the reaction when it comes out. It’s on my radar now and it wasn’t before. I could see myself picking it up when it gets cheap if the car takedown stuff is really fun.

A Way Out

This is a co-op prison break game from the creators of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which I’ve never played but heard great things about. It’s restricted to splitscreen co-op only.

Co-op is awesome in theory, but can often be frustrating in execution. I can’t tell how much A Way Out will let players off the leash to make and execute their own plans. It looks fairly scripted and linear to me. They talk about “scenes” and different ways to progress through scenes. Does the way you play affect the story or just allow you to accomplish the same goals in different ways? Donno. The concept is really cool though. I’ll be watching this one.

Star Wars Battlefront II

Right up front in the presentation, EA’s CEO acknowledged there was a fair amount of negative feedback for the first game which is a good sign. EA does indeed realize that Battlefront was thin on content and that fans (including John Boyega) want a single player story mode as well. We’re getting that, but none of it was shown. The demo focused on multiplayer – a map set on Naboo from Star Wars: Episode 1.

It looks as sharp as the first game. They’ve made a bunch more really nice looking Star Wars assets. The gameplay shown didn’t excite me all that much. There are different classes now which is a welcome change, but it looks largely the same.

What did entice me was the announcement that Battlefront II will be supported post-launch with 3 free seasons of DLC. It’ll likely just be maps, weapon, and class updates – not single player stuff, but that’s a pretty good way to win back fans who thought the first game lacked content. I’m looking forward to this one.

Microsoft

Microsoft needed to bring on the games at this year’s show and they delivered at least in terms of number of games. Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer declared early in the show that 42 games would be shown off and 22 of them were Xbox console exclusives.

Scorpio got an official name and price. It’s the Xbox One X which is a stupid and terrible name that’s easy to confuse with their other product, the Xbox One S. Oh well. It’s definitely not the worst name for a video game console ever. The One X is going for $499 which is $100 more than the PS4 Pro, but the One X has significantly more power and the capability to run games at 4K natively whereas the Pro uses an upscaling method.

I have a pretty nice gaming PC already so the One X does nothing to entice me, but the visuals shown off were very nice. The “exclusive” games are also coming to Windows 10 so that makes Xbox hardware completely irrelevant to me (except, maybe, as a UHD Blu-ray player).

It will be interesting to see how the market reacts to the One X. 4K TVs are still fairly rare from what I understand (I don’t have one yet either) and Microsoft went hard on 4K as a selling point.

Metro Exodus

I like the Metro series, but had kind of forgotten that the developer might be working on another. I’m up for it! Game looks really, really nice.

The portion shown was mostly above ground rather than in the titular Moscow metro system where much of the previous games have largely taken place. Metro has always had a distinct feel and ambition and I’m curious what will be emphasized in the game and what makes it different from the last two games.

State of Decay 2

We already knew this game was coming and the demo here didn’t really provide any new earth-shattering information. Still, I’ve got my eye on this one. State of Decay is a cool idea: a zombie survival game where you build up your base over time, recruit survivors, and push into new territory as you build up resources. The first game was neat, but a little unpolished. This looks better realized in every way.

Minecraft updates

They’re unifying Minecraft across consoles (sans PS4), mobile, and Windows 10. Players on different platforms will be able to play with each other. That’s neat. I have the game on Nintendo Switch, but I mainly play the “real” Minecraft – the original Java PC version that is built on a different framework. Probably none of these touted updates will reach that version so I don’t care for the most part, but it’s a neat update. Microsoft seems to mostly be doing right by Minecraft and its fanbase.

The Last Night

The trailer for this was an intriguing mixture of pixel art and modern graphics/lighting set in a Blade-Runner-but-more-colorful sort of world. Neat. Hard to tell what the actual gameplay will be, but it seemed like there will be a heavy emphasis on story. This is one of the most visually striking games announced at this year’s show.

Sea of Thieves

Rare’s much talked about new pirate co-op game was shown in an extensive demo. The demo was engaging while it lasted, but I have to say the game looks kind of boring to me. Fighting skeletons with a blunderbuss and carrying treasure chests back to your ship seems like it would get old quickly. In the words of an immortal pirate, I have to ask: to what point and purpose, young missy?

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. What do you do with the loot you bring back? Will you run into other players? Are there story missions and questlines? Probably this info is out there, but I don’t care enough to look it up right now. Since it seems to rely on you playing with several friends, Sea of Thieves probably won’t be for me anyhow.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a complete butchery of Tolkien lore, tone, and moral conviction, but it was a pretty well-made game. I lost interest after one too many super orc captains was immune to a particular type of attack for no good reason other than it was a video game. Still, I’m kind of interested in the sequel because the systems at play seem really cool.

Shadow of War allows you to fight orc chiefs and subjugate them as part of your army rather than kill them. You can then take that army and use it to assault enemy strongholds. There will also be counterattacks to contend with. It sounds like there will be some big strategy elements in what is otherwise an action game like the first.

Original Xbox backwards compatibility

Microsoft shocked everyone when they announced backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 games was coming to Xbox One. Now they’re bring original Xbox games. That’s a cool, consumer friendly move and that makes Microsoft the biggest champions of backwards compatibility at the moment. Weird. Good for them.

Anthem

The new IP from storied developer BioWare was Anthem, a co-op 3rd person shooter that reminded me a lot of Destiny. I’m extremely skeptical of BioWare in recent years. They’re traditionally an RPG developer. Action games, like this appears to be, are not their forte. And even BioWare’s RPGs have been of poorer quality lately. It’s way to early to tell what in the world Anthem is except a pretty gameplay trailer.

Bethesda

Bethesda’s show was brief yet padded with a bunch of minor announcements and self-adulation. They really didn’t need to have a conference this year. The few major announcements (there were only two big games announced) could have slotted into Microsoft or Sony’s conferences and made just as much of a splash there.

I think Bethesda annoyed fans with this presentation as much as anything. They brought back paid mods – sort of – in a program they’re calling Creation Club. They talked VR, card games, their Elder Scrolls MMO, and Skyrim on Switch. There’s also a sequel to The Evil Within which is confusing because I didn’t think anybody liked or bought that game. Ultimately I was interested in only two items.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

Confusingly this seems to be a standalone expansion of Dishonored 2. That’s probably smart. I don’t know that Dishonored 2 sold all that well which is a shame. It was very good despite some technical problems at launch.

“Death of the Outsider” is a very provocative title for those familiar with Dishonored’s lore. I’m intrigued. This will retail for $30 which is typical for standalone expansions. That suggests there will be about half the content of a full Dishonored game which is surprising if true given how quickly after the last game this is coming out.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

This might be the craziest trailer of the entire show. Wolfenstein: The New Order and its standalone expansion The Old Blood were both crazy games. Tonally they oscillated between over-the-top action and very sincere, off-beat character moments and somehow it all kind of worked.

The New Order took place in an alternate history where the Nazis won World War II with crazy sci-fi weaponry. It took place mostly in Europe, but The New Colossus moves the action to Nazi-occupied America making this the best Man in the High Castle video game we’re likely to get.

Warning: the trailer is a little more crude and violent than some of the others. And weird. It’s extremely weird.

Back tomorrow with impressions from the rest of the press conferences.

E3 2017 – Predictions/Anticipation

E3 is still probably the biggest annual event in video games despite a lot of developments that have made it far less important than it used to be. Those in the games industry and commentators adjacent to it have been asking “is E3 still relevant?” for years now, but the conference persists and I’m certainly still interested.

Getting excited about things is fun. Watching big new announcements and seeing how the big companies in the industry react to one another is fascinating and E3 is a concentrated dose of both. I would lament the loss of it.

While I’ve never been to an E3 and likely will never go, watching the press conferences (sometimes with commentary, sometimes not) has become an annual ritual. I guess it’s sort of the same as people who watch the NFL draft or the Grammys. I donno.

Continue reading “E3 2017 – Predictions/Anticipation”

Wonder Woman combines the best of the MCU & DCEU

While it’s not quite as genre-transcendent as The Dark Knight and not quite so emotionally resonant as Spider-man 2, Wonder Woman‘s a well above average superhero movie. The film manages to be thematically satisfying while also ticking all the usual superhero movie boxes. There’s a finely-tuned balance between humor and sobriety; action and character development. Oh, and there’s villain that actually works.

Wonder Woman is the DC Extended Universe’s first good movie. We’ve previously experienced the disappointing, sometimes laughable, sometimes lamentable Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. I guess fourth time’s the charm?

On the other side, we’ve got the Marvel Cinematic Universe sitting at 15 films (it’ll be 16 in July with the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming and 17 with Thor: Ragnarok in November). I like the Marvel movies less than your average person, but I’d say about 5 of them are pretty good. The rest are mostly competent if uninteresting to me personally.

What’s interesting is the different ways these studios (and I supposed comic book publishing houses before that) have approached their craft.

The Marvel film empire has found success from entirely competent films, but rarely good films. There’s not a lot of depth in your average Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Lots of times they function more as extended trailers for the next film in the franchise. But they get away with it over and over and over.

Marvel’s secret is likable characters. Not necessarily deep characters. Not challenging, complex characters, but really likable ones. I didn’t even realize how much I liked these characters at first, but they kept me coming back despite often being disappointed by the movies built around them.

DC, conversely, has done a notoriously bad job with its characters beginning with the absolute butchery of Superman in Man of Steel. And I think that’s the main and perhaps only real problem of DC’s films before Wonder Woman. Audiences forgive all kinds of ills if they are presented with likable characters to follow.

DC has been criticized widely for being dark, brooding, and generally lacking in fun. I would say last year’s Batman v. Superman was the height (or the low point) of this. It left me impressed by the visuals, but utterly cold otherwise. It presented a world not worth saving and superheroes who didn’t seem to believe in much of anything. None of them were likable (with the exception of Wonder Woman’s cameo – but she was hardly a developed character in that movie.)

While DC lacks in characters, there is a certain ambition on display in these films – a visionary flair. There’s a grandiose air about them. They skew closer to myth than Marvel’s utilitarian filmmaking.

DC movies desperately want to be About Something. This has lead to grander and more spectacular failure, of course, but you can’t deny the effort. There’s real vision and passion behind the messy final products.

Marvel’s lack of ideas and themes really bores me. Those movies don’t say much of anything about the world, human nature, history, politics, science, spirituality, or even about the heroes themselves. And on rare occasion that a Marvel movie does contain thematic elements (like the surveillance state in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or artificial intelligence in Avengers: Age of Ultron), they’re never developed, never fully formed thoughts.

Sure, sometimes it’s nice see a piece of escapist fiction that doesn’t remind you of real life. But I think it’s cowardly and disingenuous to keep making movies ostensibly about heroes doing good in the world if you’re never saying anything about the world.

Wonder Woman is comparatively a poignant statement about human nature while also being entertaining mythmaking. This film shows that likable characters and interwoven thematic content in a superhero movie works extremely well. I hope we see more like this.

A Shameless Minecraft Post

Minecraft post header

Five years ago I did a post about Minecraft. It’s by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written on this site not because it was particularly good (it actually kinda sucks), but because something like 35% of the internet is dedicated to Minecraft.

Incidentally, the second most popular post I’ve written was about Disney buying Star Wars, so, y’know. Popular things are popular. That’s SEO, kids!

In my old post I made this foolish declaration:

No, I haven’t started playing Minecraft nor will I. The game, if you can call it that, seems like a gigantic time suck. It’s the sort of thing I could get into if I had unlimited time on this earth and didn’t feel guilty about such things.

About a month later I bought the game.

A lot has happened in five years – even just to Minecraft. Notch did not make the game open-source. He sold it to Microsoft for buckets of money. The game has continued to receive updates and is now available on pretty much every electronic device with a color screen. Minecraft merchandise is in nearly every retail space that sells stuff to kids or nerds or nerdy kids. And apparently there’s a movie in the works possibly with Steve Carell.

I hope he’s playing Steve.

I don’t really care about any of that. Minecraft has become essentially one thing for me: a replacement for Lego, K’nex, and all the other building toys I grew up with.

You know what? I was right. Minecraft is a huge time sink. In five years, I’ve gone from not playing at all to building all of this.

Novus overview.jpg
My world from the “air”
Novus18-1000.jpg
A skyline view of the same – or most of it

Continue reading “A Shameless Minecraft Post”