How Not to End Your Videogame

Posted: October 19, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

 

I recently played The Evil Within 2 and it followed an unfortunate trend that’s been bothering me a lot recently. The majority of the game was pretty enjoyable, but the last couple hours of the game were basically a rehash of all the earlier mechanics with increasing challenge. This is something we were used to in the days of the original Mega Man games, but doesn’t fly so well today. Recent games like Prey (2017) and Mass Effect Andromeda were just as guilty. In a post The Last of Us and Tomb Raider (2013) world of gaming, an ending to an action game that is anything less than mind-blowing just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Recently I’ve been calling this the “Colonial Marines” fallacy. Many will remember Aliens: Colonial Marines as the game that dramatically under-delivered on years of hype and fan expectations. Objectively, the first 3/4 of the game is just a mediocre shooter that isn’t even the worst among Alien games. It’s the excruciating final 2 hours that leave such an awful taste in your mouth after playing it. That game is probably one of the worst examples of developers just throwing waves of enemies at you, mixed with mini-bosses and cheap deaths, just to add length to the game. It isn’t fun and it’s obviously not something they intended in the planning stage. It’s just a clear cop-out when developers can’t come up with a fun way to ratchet up the challenge, so they just reuse all the work they’ve already done until it’s hard enough.

The Evil Within 2 and Prey are serious offenders in my opinion, because they start out so good. Prey made me feel like I was playing a Bioshock game, right up until the end where it suddenly felt like one of the bad Call of Duty games (or Colonial Marines, ouch). The Evil Within 2 starts out with open environments that encourage creative play, not unlike The Last of Us. Right when you’re feeling like this is the Silent Hill/Resident Evil game you’ve been missing for years, a really cheap and Mega Man like boss battle is the first sign the fun is about to end. After that point, the end of the game is just the developers forcing you to do the same things you’ve been doing, just in extremely narrow and arbitrary circumstances, removing all of the freedom that made it fun before.

Seriously guys, do not do this.

It would be better to put a good ol’ endless tower full of boss battles in the game than this. Hell, even turning the parts of the game you couldn’t finish into low-budget cinematics ala Xenogears is better than this. There is nothing that ruins a game that would be good (or even average) more quickly than taking everything that made it fun and ruining it. There’s no quicker way to do that than by making the player endlessly reuse their cool upgrades and powers in a series of repetitive rooms, with no options for creative play.

It’s especially bad if this is the last few hours of the game. You see, there’s this funny effect on review scores I like to call the glow. People usually sit down to put the conclusion in their review right after finishing the game. So the bottom line opinions about it, from both players and critics, is going to be heavily influenced by how they felt right after finishing it. If the end of your game makes people hate the things they liked about it, the word of mouth is not going to be good. It doesn’t even matter if the first 35 hours of your game were excellent (here’s looking at you Mass Effect 3), if your ending sucks you will get blasted critically.

 

My hope is that the negative response to these endings will give developers ammunition when negotiating more time and money from publishers. It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of these “cookie-cutter” endings are the result of men in suits saying “just ship it”. As we’ve seen with these games though, it can make a big difference in how the game is perceived. The early press for Prey was all very good. I myself was ready to call it the spiritual successor to Bioshock. Then we all got to the super lame ending and badly paced plot twist and the metacritic plunged below 90. Not enough to make it considered a bad game by any means, but immediately removing it from any comparison to better games like Bioshock. That’s the sort of difference that can make or break a franchise. Bioshock was a good game, but it was the dramatic ending that made it so legendary.

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Sombrero_john

I think I stand with pretty much everyone when I say there is really only one XB360/PS3 era Rockstar game that we want on current consoles. If you aren’t thinking Red Dead Redemption, you must not have played it (go fix that). I could join the chorus of people asking why, but I would rather try to answer why RDR was so much better than L.A. Noire. Both were period games, built with the Rage engine and each was based on a currently unpopular genre of movies. Besides preferences for the characters, soundtrack or specific gameplay mechanics, Red Dead Redemption was just a magical game in a way that L.A. Noire never achieved. What was it that made them feel so different?

 

Watch your Tone

One thing that everyone can agree about RDR, was that it was like an endless snapshot of the cover of a Western novel. No matter where you looked or what you did, every moment kept the tone of a slightly romantic version of the American West. Every character was a clearly fictional version of a Western trope, but with just enough real personality to make the world feel alive.

L.A. Noire fails at this on a fundamental level. It’s like they wanted to pay homage to both the cheeseball dime novels like Dick Tracy, but also the proud heritage of gritty noir that drew influences from classics like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. This results in a very disjointed experience that sometimes feels like Serpico and sometimes feels like Rush Hour.

A big part of this is the characters. Cole Phelps, his superiors and most of the suspects are these larger-than-life cartoon detective characters. Jack Kelso, most of Cole’s partners and many of the supporting cast on the other hand, belong in the latter category of gritty noir stories. While Cole’s backstory is like a scene from Full Metal Jacket and his police career is like a Brian DePalma movie, playing as Kelso is almost too down to Earth by comparison. Jack Kelso actually cares about other human beings, so he wouldn’t do something like beating up a suspect in front of their family. This suddenly grounds the game in a real world that had been largely ignored up until that point and is a little jarring to the player. Am I playing The Untouchables or Road to Perdition? Make up your mind L.A. Noire.

 

The Journey vs. the Destination

The biggest gameplay difference between the two games has to be how enjoyable the open world is. In RDR, wandering the Wild West is at least as exciting as doing story missions. Sometimes just going on a hunting trip with your horse is the best gameplay experience you have all day. Part of it is definitely the authenticity I already mentioned, but it also comes down to how much fun stuff there is to do. RDR is a game where you can barely walk 50 paces without encountering something fun and Western-y to do.

In L.A. Noire I would be kind to say that the open world is just a chore between the much more exciting interrogations and chases. If I were to be fully honest I would have to say that the open world of L.A. Noire is lifeless and boring, more fitting of a “me too” game like True Crime or Watch Dogs than a game published by Rockstar. Most of the side quests are just less interesting iterations of the things you do on story missions, just without the amazing facial capturing that makes the plot so compelling.

Even the detail of the world is pretty marginal outside of areas where missions take place. While RDR makes sure that every single canyon is epic enough looking that you aren’t taken out of your John Wayne fantasy, you will often find yourself tackling perps in L.A. Noire in front of cut-and-paste 1940s buildings.

 

Balance in Everything

The part about just wanting to get to each interrogation is a good way to describe the whole experience of playing L.A. Noire. I’m not sure if the rest of the game is actually boring, or if the fully motion captured interrogation scenes captured from real actors are just so compelling by comparison. Whatever it is, you will spend most of your time in L.A. Noire doing everything you can to advance to the next conversation, just so you can see the amazing performances.

This really hurts the game overall. In RDR, the cutscenes were cinematic and exciting and all that, but the most memorable moments were created by emergent gameplay. The moments that felt the most out of a Western movie were often just the result of me attacking a bandit town under the right lighting and weather conditions. This meant that at any time I could experience one of the best parts of the game. This constant stream of fun surprises was what really made the game great, not the scripted moments in the main story.

The best moments in L.A. Noire were scripted by the writers, performed by actors and carefully tested over and over. The only unscripted moment I can recall as truly amazing was when I was driving with my partner and suddenly drove off a bridge, landing the car perfectly on a pair of power lines and riding them across a river and landed on the other side. He interrupted his story to scream “COOOOOOOOOOOOLE!” before resuming as if nothing had happened when we ended up safely on the other side. It was magic, but unfortunately it was a rare moment.

 

These are the same things you will find in most reviews of these two games, I just wanted to put them side by side. When you really compare how RDR did some of the things best that L.A. Noire did worst, it shows how two games that are solidly constructed can be so different to play.

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A casual observer might look at someone playing Elite Dangerous and mistake it for a more action-y space game like No Man’s Sky or Starlancer. While Elite puts you right in the cockpit and is more up-close and personal than games like Eve Online, at its core the Elite series has always been a deep simulation of galactic life and politics. Frontier Developments have spent over 30 years putting sci fi situations out in an open galaxy and seeing what players do with it. Elite Dangerous finally realizes the possibility of uniting the worldwide player base online and truly allowing a simulation of how humans would behave with a bigger sandbox.

If you aren’t aware, the title of this article is referencing the 1938 live broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” At the time, the book was new and not widely known and the broadcast was designed to sound like news reports in parts, so some people really believed aliens were attacking. In Elite Dangerous, we know it’s a video game, because we are sitting in front of our PCs and game consoles, so the structure of the experiment is quite different. We have encountered the hostile Thargoids in the past Elite games, so we know they are a real threat. What’s interesting though, is how the playerbase is responding and how it gives me hope for humanity so far.

 

The Faceless Enemy

The Thargoids were originally the generic evil space aliens. They are insect-like, with a hive mind, much like the generic bads of movies like Aliens or Starship Troopers. They would show up and immediately attack us, so there was no question what we were supposed to do. While it was interesting in a sense, it provided no depth to the simulation. The Thargoids were basically like the ghosts in Pac-Man, where they exist to create a threat, so you can’t just screw around all day.

At our current state in Elite Dangerous (a few days before patch 2.4 and presumably the start of an interstellar war), the Thargoids are still basically a faceless enemy. We know very little about them and they still appear to be universally hostile. Over the past several games though, Frontier has dropped hints that there may be more to the Thargoids and their culture and our conflict may have even been initiated by one of the human governments. I’ll go into this a bit more below, but whether or not this turns into “another bug hunt” or not may have a lot to do with the scientific relevance of this video game event.

 

Childhood’s End

I am starting to have a sinking suspicion that Frontier is trying to Arthur C. Clarke us. In the novel this section is named after, humans are invaded by aliens with a sinister appearance, that are actually wise and benevolent. Some of the hints dropped in the lore are making me question if Elite Dangerous is taking advantage of our exposure to the Alien franchise and trying to trick us.

There have been hints that there are at least two factions of Thargoids. There have also been rumors that one faction has been fighting a losing battle against another, possibly aided by a debilitating virus engineered and deployed against them by humans when we feared they would invade us. If this is the case, it’s quite possible that the fleeing Thargoid faction is hoping to use us as a shield against their pursuers. In that case, it could have been the first faction that attacked our ships, counting on us to counterattack their imminent pursuit, not realizing the two were different.

This is even held up by the footage from the 2.4 trailer. When the human ships approach the Thargoid cruiser to test their new weapons, the Thargoids do not initially attack as they had when they previously encountered military ships. They only attack once the human ships have inflicted damage on them. It also seems relevant that the Thargoids have interdicted and scanned multiple player ships without attacking, but have attacked numerous military targets.

This could all just be part of the slow tension build-up for the invasion, but Frontier has been pretty into using the game as a social simulation in the past.

 

The Sound of Inevitability, Mr. Anderson

Our species guilt has been prominent in the past 3 decades of pop culture. Starting with the late 80s and early 90s movies about how we were killing every beautiful and endangered thing. At this point, movies and television have pretty much convinced us that we are awful, destructive savages who can’t be trusted to encounter peaceful aliens, because we’ve ruined our own world. I imagine then, that Frontier Developments expected us to react to the return of the Thargoids by forming one big torch mob.

Except we didn’t. Now I want to be clear right off the bat, we were not able to damage Thargoid ships with our weapons previously, or even scan them properly. They were even able to disable our ships if we got close to them. So it’s not like there was really anything we could do before next week’s patch.

But the interesting thing was that players did not foolishly rage and gnash our teeth, like a bear in a trap. We did our best to gather information, we put in thousands of player hours into researching their technology and we debated on the forums if it was possible to make peace. Overall a very unexpected response for humans, especially trigger-happy gamers.

Don’t get me wrong, there has also been much discussion about new weapons and potential tactics if things go sideways. We aren’t fools and we haven’t forgotten that the Thargs were just evil bugs in the past 3 Elite games. The fact that the overwhelming desire of the community seems to be to have aliens to talk to, rather than shoot at, is very encouraging for the human race.

 

A Brighter Tomorrow

All of my common sense is telling me that Frontier is just giving us bugs to hunt. There is a lot of evidence in the game already that there are other species besides the Thargoids out there. Since the Thargoids have always been hostile in Elite lore, chances are pretty good that all we can do is fight them and benevolent races will appear in future patches.

My deeply held hope though, is that Frontier sees that we don’t just want to shoot up the galaxy. The development of Elite Dangerous has been largely driven by player desires. The things we show the most interest in tend to get patched in sooner. So here’s hoping that if we continue to seek understanding and communication with the Thargoids, Frontier will allow us some path to diplomacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind fighting some aliens. I was a big fan of Wing Commander though and I loved how in later games, the Kilrathi became your allies, much like the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek. A lot of us grew up on the Star Trek concept of turning enemies into friends and seeking common ground to pursue a greater good.

 

Here’s hoping that Elite’s massive simulation of humans in space allows us to show our better nature. The broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938 nearly caused a national panic in the United States. I personally believe that we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. In no small part thanks to shows like Star Trek. I guess we find out next week.

 

 

iOS-vs-Android

If you have ever bought a thing that was popular and had any competition, you have probably encountered hardware fanboys. These are the internet asshats that will respond to your post about liking your new phone’s camera app with a lengthy battle over the merits of the company that makes it and their entire history. Recently we’ve been subject to a double dose of this as we are in the middle of both 4K Xboxes vs. Playstations, as well as bezel-less iPhones vs. Android devices. It’s almost impossible to just go to the store, pick one, go home and share it with friends, without starting a debate in your living room over whether your purchase is gold or garbage.

I have to say that objectively, only the corporations making the things are getting anything out of your fervent loyalty. In reality, this Cold War of manufacturers exists only in your mind. Apple and Samsung trade patents and technologies constantly. Both of them use dozens of parts ordered from the same third party manufacturers like LG as well. When it comes to Xbox vs. Playstation, both are almost exactly the same AMD chipset, with different feature levels based on price point. You are buying the equivalent of one laptop vs. another in the same line, by the same manufacturer. The concept that any of these devices are innately superior to each other based on hardware is downright preposterous. They are literally the same thing in different outfits.

For my wife and I, the debate is especially tired and tedious. Working for various tech companies, we are often issued our devices. We are also expected to be generally competent with all of the major operating systems. So it isn’t an option for us to just say that Windows/MacOS/Android/iOS sucks, so I’m not going to bother getting familiar with it. The thing is, once you get familiar with all of the operating systems and use them in parallel while they evolve, the differences are far less pronounced. They feel a lot more like different routes to the same goals, each with more and less difficult steps along the way at different points.

People in one camp or the other like to cite specific examples of why one thing is so different from the others. Most of these things fall into two major categories: things most people don’t care about and things that you can actually do on both, but it’s more difficult. For example iPhones are notorious for not allowing you to run custom software, but it’s actually about a 10 minute process to make your account a developer account. From there, learning to deploy custom apps with Xcode is actually fairly simple for a layman (compared to some things) and you can be using emulators and loaders like Kodi in a matter of hours on a non-jailbroken iPhone. Didn’t know that? Pull your head out of your ass and stop being mislead by fanboy nonsense. Apple makes it harder, because most people shouldn’t be doing it, but it’s still quite possible. I have loaded Kodi on numerous Apple TV 4s and had them playing all file formats and accessing Amazon and Google content in a process that takes less than an hour. It’s completely legal and allowed through Apple’s own services as well. I used not one single tool to do it that was not provided to me with my Apple developer account, or shared by others on the official forums.

When it comes to video games, brand loyalty becomes even more absurd and unrealistic. If you are a hardcore gamer with a moderate budget, you will most likely own at least one PC capable of gaming and at least one console in each 5 year or so cycle. Over the course of a gaming console generation, you may even end up buying all of them as they become affordable, just because that is the only way to play all of the amazing exclusive games. It’s one thing to say that the PC is the absolutely superior platform on specs alone and refuse to buy a console, but that will completely deprive you of some of the best gaming has to offer. You may be able to give up Mario at a certain age, but to be a gamer without ever playing games like Shadow of the Colossus, Uncharted, Halo, The Last of Us, Zelda, Smash Brothers and more is missing out. That’s not to even mention great games like Persona 5 or Red Dead Redemption, that release across multiple consoles, but never come to PC. If you really want to experience the best of what gaming has to offer, only going with one platform without variation is really shorting yourself.

I could go on and on with examples like pickup truck manufacturers and brands of carbonated soda. I think the point is pretty clear though, you as a consumer do not gain anything by blind loyalty to companies that make stuff. You just blind yourself to other alternatives, to the point of sometimes staying with something even when it is no longer the best option in any objective terms. As an early adopter of the Sega Dreamcast, believe me, I know what that feels like.

I recently went through that realization with Windows and Android vs. Apple products for work and everyday use. I had long used Windows and Android for my computers and phones respectively, while using Apple devices for entertainment and casual use. So while I enjoyed the simplicity and reliability of Apple for my comic book reading and Netflix watching, I always wanted the freedom to treat the rules as “guidelines” that Microsoft and Google allow me on the devices I rely on for anything serious. This all changed when I realized recently that my usage had changed and started researching what would fit my needs. I decided I wanted to do more projects and work with my tablet, but less techy stuff on my primary laptop and phone.

After actually purchasing and returning two more reasonably priced Windows tablets and balking at the price of a Surface Pro vs. my old Android work tablet, I eventually found that only Apple offered something square in the middle of my needs. The iPad line covered a range starting slightly above what Amazon and LG had to offer, with products at every level up to what Microsoft and Samsung were offering. With Android and Windows, I had either a lot of good options on the low end, or decent options that only started in the very high price range from Microsoft, Samsung and Lenovo. The iPad I settled on of course ran iOS, not a full desktop operating system, but the point became moot as the iPad actually remotely operates my desktop faster than the Windows tablets ran Windows locally. So if you think about that for a minute, there is truly no point in running Windows on a tablet if it’s slower than doing it through a remote connection to your home PC. To do any better than that requires something in Microsoft’s Surface Pro line or the very best Samsung and Lenovo 2-in-1s, at a price range starting around $800. It’s not like any of those tablets, even in that range are capable of any real gaming or 3D work, so the benefits vs. having a better working tablet overall are minimal. I didn’t even consider Android tablets honestly, because for professionals, the Android options are really not that great when compared to an iPad or Surface. Not a matter of brand loyalty, just better engineering and software. You can do more with a Surface or iPad than with a Wacom tablet running Android of comparable performance. Also the Wacom is much uglier and I don’t want it in my briefcase.

Once the iPad had become both work tool and primary entertainment portable, there started to be a lot in the plus column for switching my phone and PC as well. We had always had a split household, with my wife’s company issued Mac computers and my gaming-focused PCs sharing streaming, backups and networking very awkwardly. When examining my usage, I realized that all of my projects that required a little ‘ahem’ freedom, were happening on my primary gaming PC in the basement. I couldn’t honestly remember the last time I installed an emulator on my tablet or burned a Dreamcast game on my laptop. When only considering what I had actually done with these devices in the past year, I realized I didn’t need my disc drive, most of my ports, or pretty much anything that made my PC a PC and my Android an Android. Since I was replacing these devices anyway and looking in the middle price range that would allow cheaper Apple products, switching completely became the logical decision. I still have my gaming PC and PS4 downstairs and they stream just as well to my MacBook as they did to my Windows laptop.

 

So this is a rational, real-world scenario of me switching back and forth, for not one reason that is emotional or based on my opinions of those companies. I switched all my primary use devices to Apple this cycle, I may switch back 2 years from now. I’m not going to delete all of my Google services, sell my gaming PC or cancel our Amazon prime either. There is absolutely no reason for me not to stay current and reap the benefits of those services as well, even while I do my daily tasks in Apple’s walled garden. The reason for this is that all of these companies are just entities trying to create profits for their shareholders. When that aligns with what I want in a product, they serve my goals, but THEY DO NOT REPRESENT ME AS A PERSON. Apple is not me, Google is not me, Microsoft is not me. I may share an industry and a similar technical lifestyle with the people who work there, but they are not my friends and neighbors. They are strangers, doing their jobs and looking out for their own best interests. I am not for one second going to identify my personal self-image with some tool they designed for my use. I use it when it suits me and discard it when something better comes along. That is, in my opinion, the only rational way to look at technology.

 

So then why are we, as rational people (giving us all the benefit of the doubt), getting duped into something irrational? Simple: corporations hire psychologists in their marketing and they are tapping into a powerful little instinct called “us and them.” This is basically the function deep down in your brain that tells you a rampaging bear is not a friend and should be avoided. You brain takes the info your senses are giving it and makes a very deep-level, knee-jerk decision on whether something is friend or foe. Since this is a very deep-seated instinct that is necessary for survival, it’s something that your brain does without a lot of rational thought and lengthy consideration. We use things like body language, color, sounds, smells etc. to determine quickly if something is an outsider to be shunned and avoided.

Corporations that sell competitive products have become masters of exploiting this instinct. An excellent example is Apple’s “Mac and PC” ads. PC is not a traditional “enemy” in such a basic sense. He’s portrayed as that bumbling, always disheveled guy from records that always submits his reports late and wears the same stained, brown suit every day. So he’s not a monster by any means, but he’s the perfect outsider. That person at the office that isn’t ‘cool’ and is outside the group of people you think of as friends. That ad campaign was one of the most deft manipulations of “us and them” ever. Apple even felt guilty about it after a while and made PC more likable, showing that even the biggest of corporations are not beyond shame at their own exploitation. Apple has always been quite shrewd at marketing though, so it’s also quite possible they exploited the trick and then intentionally burned it down on their way out so nobody else could. Either way, terrific use of market psychology.

It’s really that simple. Companies put some attractive person up there and say “this is you.” Then they take something undesirable and say “this is you if you buy our competitor’s thing.” You want to be like that attractive person, not in that undesirable category, so you join their “us” and help them create a “them” out of competitors. Then you go out and do their job for them by evangelizing their thing and criticizing the other thing. All this time, you get nothing more for your loyalty than the thing you already paid them for in the first place. Since you have in fact parted with hard-earned money, you naturally feel the need to defend that decision, giving you even more incentive to forgive shortcomings in the one you chose, while focusing on them in competitors. You wouldn’t want to feel like you “chose the wrong side” would you?

Let’s take a step back for a second and look at how absurd that is. Chose the wrong side? How and why am I on the side of people like Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook? They live in mansions, I live in a WIP mid-century bungalow with a spider problem. They and their products do not in any way come from a place that I can identify with. In fact, if we didn’t have employers and phone companies subsidizing our purchases, average folk like my wife and I could not even afford all of these products. If you look at how these companies function, you will probably find that they actually are nothing like you and your family. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft keep building bigger apocalypse compounds and Samsung literally exists in a city that they own and exerts influence on the South Korean government not unlike a mafia. These are not average Jills and Joes, living a life not unlike your own. They are designing these products to separate you from your money, not because they go to public parks and jog with a shitty armband, just like you. Don’t let any ad campaign showing models riding real bicycles, without the aid of personal trainers fool you.

 

I am against the concept of “us and them” in general. While I recognize that it’s a little deeply rooted to just tear out of our brains, it is something we can recognize and choose, just like jealousy and territorialism. No matter how compelling it may seem to go on social media and blast people in the other camp, they will always be more like you than the guys swimming in their gold vaults like Scrooge McDuck with your money. Really, the differences between Xbox and Playstation, Mac and PC, Android and iOS are getting smaller and more picky with each generation. Really we would all benefit most of these companies released all of their software for each other’s hardware. There is no technical barrier preventing this, as they all share more and more parts under the hood. That would never happen, but never forget that if it was really about you, it would have happened decades ago.

Our economic system relies on competition and having proprietary technologies is central to this. We should expect and demand that competing products be different, but never be fooled into thinking those differences mirror that of you from other people. In my experience there are a lot of Android users who don’t even know how to change their background and iOS users with programming degrees. So stereotypes don’t mean squat when we’re talking about which device you choose and relating it to who you are. We should all choose what suits us most at that moment and not feel the least hesitation to sell it on eBay and buy the competitor’s product the second that makes more sense.

To put in bluntly, you don’t own me tech companies and I am not gullible enough to let you convince me otherwise.

 

If you have been reading me for any length of time, you know I am one of those die-hard Sega Dreamcast hipsters. I was “there man” on day 1 to pick up my pre-ordered DC and experience the online console gaming revolution from the beginning. Every year, on 9/9, I celebrate the Dreamcast’s birthday by busting mine out and playing whatever new homebrew software or unreleased game has popped up in the past year.

This year was kind of a disappointment, not gonna lie. Don’t get me wrong, there was an unreleased, almost complete DC game dug up this past year. Millennium Racer is in fact a real game that never came out. It’s also pretty not-fun to play. I remember seeing this game in E3 videos when the DC was new and really not caring. The devs may have just decided not to release this fully playable game out of apathy.

So after giving it a solid 45 tedious minutes a few months ago, I considered and rejected the idea of putting a video up playing it. I nobody likes lame birthday parties. The Dreamcast turned 18 this year and is now an adult, so here is your list of fancy grown-up things you can do with it. I’m totally not talking about watching porn online, don’t be gross.

 

New and Improved Version!

Several games have had more optimized, user modified backups created in the past few years. If you are not aware, almost all Dreamcast systems can play games off self-booting CDs. So if you have a DC, you too can burn and play these games. If you have the original version (or honestly, even if you don’t), Sega is not likely to come after you for playing modified DC rips that allow you to go online again or speed up loading times. Search for all of these on theisozone.com

Resident Evil: Code Veronica Complete (adds the bonus features only seen on PS2 and newer versions in the U.S.)

Phantasy Star Online ver2 Enhanced etc. etc. new update (fixes a bunch of bugs that have existed for years, finally almost perfect version if you want to play on DC vs. Windows for some reason, connects to private servers automatically)

Frame Gride in English (similar to Armored Core, same devs, more swords)

Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate updated (I can’t even stand the annoying voices long enough to be creeped out by the boobs, but apparently they fixed more stuff)

 

Modified DC Bios and Consoles

I’m not going to summarize modifying your DC bios here, because I don’t want non-experts going out and wrecking their precious Dreamcasts. I’m pretty hardware savvy and I’m not doing this to my DC. I’m going to do what I recommend you to do (unless you are one of few, you know who you are) and buy a finished one on eBay. Systems with a modified bios can do simple things like play foreign games without a boot disc, or amazing things like support physical mods like an add-in hard drive or SD card slot. Depending on how many of these physical mods you want it to come with, modified DCs are going for about $100-200 right now. A fully loaded one will have built in VGA out, 3.5mm headphone jack, HDD or SD slot, a custom loader and switches on the back to go between VGA/AV and another for bios setting.

As a method of enjoying your DC games without wearing out your original hardware, these modified systems are pretty primo. The ability to load games from a hard drive completely eliminates drive wear and the risk of scratching disks. If you do have some rare game that is not backed up online, you can always play it, regardless of region. This frees you from going the other (previously most authentic) way of buying a drive capable of ripping and burning DC games and just playing full backups of your own games on very expensive gigabyte discs. Since CD backups available to most of us are often incapable of holding full-quality rips, this is now a better and cheaper route to playing your DC games authentically without wearing them out.

 

Best time ever for a Mouse and Keyboard

Since dial-up internet is mostly dead and the DC broadband adapter is nearly unobtainable, the Dreamcast mouse and keyboard peripherals are near rock-bottom value. They are nice to have as a collector, but more importantly, you can actually play many of the FPS games like Outtrigger and Quake 3 with them. I picked up a sealed DC mouse for $10 in a local shop that is normally overpriced vs. eBay or Amazon. It was the first sealed DC peripheral I have opened since a VMU about 5 years ago. Very satisfying and I now have the set to have a few nostalgic bot matches.

 

That’s really all I can think of at the moment for DC developments this year. The Dreamcast is still far from dead, with new homebrew software still being developed and unreleased games still popping up from time to time. Hopefully next year we’ll see something a little more exciting than a game that is to F-Zero like Dante’s Inferno is to God of War.

Although DC’s Vertigo brand now features quite a few TV shows and movies existing or in production, the ones I’m talking about are the series that share characters and mythology. So mostly The Sandman, Lucifer, Hellblazer and other series taking place in that shared world of magic and myth. While series like Preacher and iZombie may occasionally make references to other Vertigo series, they don’t really share much. At the moment that’s Lucifer the TV show and the movie and brief series starring John Constantine.

 

As much as I’ve found things to love about each new live-action Vertigo thing, I’m starting to get very worried that we’ll ever see a shared universe, which is pretty much required if there were to be a Sandman show or movie. It would be extremely disappointing if there were an ongoing show in the Sandman universe that was locked out of dozens of characters that had originated there, just because other studios had already re-written them. This becomes more and more of an issue as first Constantine and now Lucifer have used many of these characters in very different ways already. It’s not just cosmetic things like Constantine having different tattoos, or Mazikeen having a complete face. Lucifer the show has completely re-written the politics of heaven to be the central conflict of the show and the universe in which it takes place. This is a complete departure from the DC comics Vertigo universe, where each of the supernatural conflicts are going off and on in the background constantly. Not only are events like wizards dueling in the streets apparently commonplace, it is implied that characters like Superman and Batman exist out there somewhere too, with all of their issues.

This can start to become an issue on a huge scale when you get to the point where the Marvel cinematic universe is. The little changes to characters and stories make ripple effects, that cause other characters and storylines to be written out. The entire Planet Hulk story arc (one of the most popular Marvel has done in recent years) has now become a subplot to the third Thor movie because of this. Characters and scenes loved by fans will have to be cut left and right, to make the entire story fit into one act of a movie about Thor. I would really, really hate to see characters I loved from The Sandman, like Hob Gadling or Rose Walker, become that to some random crappy episode of Lucifer.

Hellblazer and The Sandman are kind of the original backbone of the Vertigo universe and bring with them the largest baked-in fanbase. So with the success of other shows like Supernatural and American Gods, you know DC is going to want some of that mythology show gravy train with a Sandman show and something based on Hellblazer that is actually good. They will run into problems though, if they keep retconning or killing off those characters in front of TV audiences before they get there. Since many of the characters in other Vertigo series originated in Sandman or Hellblazer, that’s going to leave them having to reboot, or do a huge re-shuffle of timelines and characters like Marvel.

if I were DC, I would be thinking very hard right now about an anthology show, similar to The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt, based in the Sandman universe. Basically the “Sandman Presents” comics that Vertigo has done over the years. Those shows aren’t very common or popular at the moment, but it would be about the only way to control the budget and cast of a show like that on the week to week. An adaptation of The Sandman regular series would be almost impossible on TV, because in the Dreaming, simple scenes like walking down a hallway involve tons of CG and set design to be authentic. Also characters pop up almost at random, making it very hard to coordinate actors. You would sometimes need the actor playing Cluracan to show up for two seconds while you where filming in Ireland, then be in 20 minutes of an episode filmed in Tanzania. It would be a nightmare for lack of a better pun.

Any show like that is going to run into huge problems down the line if they keep borrowing characters. Even a not-crappy Constantine show would require him to have run-ins with various demons who now have different motivations and relations on the show Lucifer. Not to mention the random characters that have been changed or re-written in the past movie and show, that you want people to forget about.

DC has made a big push into Television recently, pulling not only from the main library, but now increasingly from the Vertigo line with shows like iZombie and Preacher. At some point, there’s going to have to be a big story meeting where they draw lines between bubbles and figure out ahead of time which shows are going to intersect. They seem to have no trouble doing this with Justice League characters, but the Vertigo TV universe is currently utter chaos.

The Dark Tower Review for fans of the books.

Posted: August 27, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

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WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS TERRIBLE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE DARK TOWER SERIES. IT IS MEANT FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE READ THE BOOKS AND ARE WONDERING ABOUT THE MOVIE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

It’s always really funny to me when media will try to chime in on behalf of fans of something they haven’t taken the time to read. If I read an article claiming Dune fans might be offended by a TV series that abandoned the prequels, I would die laughing. No, no we wouldn’t. Star Wars fans who haven’t read the entire Dune series, have no idea what prequel pain can mean or how long it can endure. My point is that in the case of The Dark Tower, journalists were quick to point out how the movie obviously diverges from the plot of the first novel, The Gunslinger.

If you have actually read all 7 Dark Tower books though, it becomes immediately apparent that the movie is a sequel, picking up immediately after the end of The Dark Tower. The story immediately diverges from the novels, because as we learned, Roland is less of an asshole each time. This time he almost immediately takes Jake as his apprentice and trusts the benefits of Jake’s psychic abilities. This results in Jake not dying, Roland immediately following him into Keystone Earth and a significant showdown with Walter, instead of Walter tricking Roland and making him sleep for many years.

I can’t imagine any fan being upset by this, especially because the Horn of Eld is shown sticking out of Roland’s bag in his very first scene, making it clear that this is the kinder, wiser Roland that has already made the cycle around the Tower that we read about. He makes that apparent throughout the film, by abandoning his vengeance and resuming the mantle of Gunslinger in the equivalent of the first book, instead of at the end of the third. If the TV series goes ahead, I can only imagine how much better Roland will mentor his other two disciples when he meets them.

This acceleration of the plot is extremely gratifying for the first 3/4 of the movie. Scenes like Roland drinking soda for the first time and going to the gun store happen earlier and are translated perfectly. It’s hard as a fan not to enjoy this movie just for giving us the Roland that should have been. Instead of him being a jackass for the first 5 books, he immediately becomes the father Jake needs and the hero the universe expects him to be. It’s a little rushed if you don’t understand that this is a reincarnated Roland, who fucked up really bad last time and learned from it. As a fan though, it’s really fun to watch him get with the program and start living up to his heritage as an honest-to-god descendant of King-effing-Arthur.

 

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Before I get to the flaws (and there are definitely some of those), I want to really emphasize how fantastic the cast in this movie is. Idris Elba and Mathew McConaughey clearly read up on the source material before filming and it pretty much saved this movie. The uninitiated will have a hard time noticing any of the nuances they put into these performances for the sake of us fans, but I definitely saw it. Idris Elba plays Roland pretty much the way I always imagined him. He comes off as a little boring, but that’s exactly how Steven King describes him; as somebody who is most interesting to watch when he’s killing people. Elba nails Roland’s slow, methodical behavior and his dry, unfunny jokes. McConaughey really put himself out there in his portrayal of Walter Paddick, the Man in Black. It was a performance that non-fans and critics will completely pan as awkward and misdirected, but fans will know was intended for us. He makes the MiB completely genuine as a cinematic Satan with an otherworldly feel. People who aren’t up on the King-verse won’t realize, but the same character has actually been portrayed in several other movies, like as Randall Flagg in The Stand. These are all the same villain and McConaughey actually does him more justice than his previous on-screen iterations. Bravo to both actors.

The supporting cast is also fantastic, but not as much for being right from the pages of the novel. Tom Taylor’s Jake is much braver and more adventurous than the Jake introduced in The Gunslinger, making me think that Roland’s companions also grow from their repeated journey. While he’s definitely not the same Jake we remember, making him a more assertive character moves the story along and works very well. Many of the other characters will go over the heads of the uninitiated, but were cast well for us fans. Minor novel character Pimli is portrayed by one of my favorites, Fran Kranz, who makes the character jump right off the page. Most of the minor roles are given to talented actors who you have probably seen before, even though they only briefly appear in the movie.

I have to dedicate a whole paragraph to Dennis Haysbert as Roland’s father, Stephen. Stephen Deschain is a very minor character in the novels and likewise gets very little screen time in the movie. He pretty much just recites part of the Gunslinger’s Creed with Roland and tells him to keep hoping, then dies. It’s the casting of Haysbert that is so perfect, though. If I had to name an actor on the spot to play King Arthur/Mufasa/Cowboy Dad, I would probably say Dennis Haysbert. From his stint as the most loved TV president ever on 24, to being the face of Allstate and making us all feel safe in his big, strong hands, Dennis Haysbert is like the comforting voice and face of fatherhood. He only appears on screen for about a minute, but he makes a scene that would feel too-rushed-to-be-important have all the gravity of Obi-Wan dying in Star Wars.

 

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Now I have to dig into this movie a bit, which I feel a bit bad in doing. For the budget, I feel that Lionsgate did a pretty admirable job, especially in pleasing us fans. The budget did become an issue though, especially because the film tried to draw in too many elements from the series. Baddies like the Taheen are much more human and less terrifying, most likely due to the cost of prosthetics. Jake’s psychic battle with the house demon lasts less than a minute, making his triumph seem a lot more trivial. My guess is this had a lot more to do with the cost of CG, than the concept that Jake’s powers have improved this cycle. As a fan you know that the Taheen are supposed to look like freakish hybrids, barely concealed under human skin, but at times it’s hard to imagine that on top of the bad makeup effects. Besides Fran Kranz’ excellent portrayal of a rat in human skin, it’s almost impossible to tell from the movie that the Taheen are human/animal genetic hybrids. Many of the special effects suffer similarly in the interest of getting as many series monsters and magicks in as possible.

It’s really hard to decide how I feel about the extremely short length of the movie. It really feels like it was designed as the pilot of a TV series and if that happens, I like it. If people can even digest it, I have to say it is the quickest possible way to get you into the series and does a pretty good job of explaining the who’s who and what’s what. The only flaw I can see in the length, is I feel like 10 more minutes of explanation could have done a lot. While touches like graffiti throughout the film referencing the Crimson King are cool, 2 minutes to explain who that was would have made it clearer that Walter Paddick was an arm in a larger effort to destroy the Dark Tower. That is kind of explained by the final complaint, which involves the ending and is very hard to judge, all things considered. Overall though, it does a much better job than the books at explaining quickly what is going on. For example, all of the characters seem to be aware of the portals and the existence of Keystone Earth from the very beginning. The structure of the Tower and how it holds the worlds together seems to be much better understood by the common person and this moves things ahead a lot faster. In the books you get the impression that Roland ignored everything but shooting in his education and has no clue about anything or anywhere, until he actually goes there and gets a few fingers chewed off by crab-like-things.

 

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I have to finally address the ending, which to me was the biggest point of contention for the whole movie. You see, the way I look at it there are two ways to make a movie based on a long series of books. You either do like Dune or The Golden Compass, where you make the first one self-contained under the assumption sequels will never happen. Or you go the other route and be like Narnia or Percy Jackson, where you forge ahead on the blind hope that you will be able to make 6 or 7 movies, risking leaving the story unfinished. With The Dark Tower, director Nikolaj Arcel decided to go with the former. Since The Crimson King is never explained, the Man in Black is the film’s ultimate villain and his plan to destroy the Dark Tower boils down to shooting it with a giant cannon powered by the nightmares of psychic children. While that is really freaking cool and Stephen King AF, it totally doesn’t make sense within the series lore. In the novels, the Breakers were just one part of the Crimson King’s plot and were only attacking the beams that supported the tower, not trying to destroy the tower itself.

(SPOILER ALERT AGAIN if you for some reason made it this far but have not read the books)

We learn at the end of The Dark Tower, that the Tower is actually sustained by Roland repeating his life eternally. The only way to truly destroy the tower would be to make Roland lose hope so completely that he fails to complete his quest on one of the cycles. So Walter’s mission is to fuck with him as much as possible in every cycle, with the goal of making Roland so despondent that he will not complete his journey. Walter completely fails to do this in every way during the movie. Not only does he not engineer Jake’s death at all, he tries to use him to power his stupid gun that would not work anyway. So at the end of the movie when Roland “kills” Walter and destroys his machine, it seems like the Tower is saved, at least for this week’s episode.

From a lore perspective, this leaves them in a terrible spot. No matter where they go, they lose. If they start a sequel or television series by attempting to right with the books, they have to resurrect Walter (because we fans know that he can easily assume another form) and then reveal him to not be the big bad. It would feel like the lame villain rehash of every Resident Evil movie and that is not the company you want to be in as a licensed adaptation trying to please fans. It also makes the conflict of the movie seem like a trivial weekly battle, which in the scope of the series, it really is. To book fans, this is a movie about Roland getting it right and adopting Jake as his predecessor immediately, instead of totally failing the first time. That doesn’t seem as significant if you didn’t read it the original way where Roland sacrifices Jake for revenge and gains absolutely nothing from it, then has to go and bring Jake back from the dead because he fucked up.

The other option is to remove the whole reincarnation and destiny aspect, revealing the Crimson King as a sort of Skeletor villain, hatching a new plot each week to destroy the Dark Tower. Walter could return without it being terrible, because he would be joined by other weekly baddies, like Blaine the Train, who would be sent out by Skeletor-Crimson-King to harass our heroes. It would be kind of a lame trivialization of a serious plot, but I loved that same thing in The Shannara Chronicles and the first season of BBC’s Robin Hood. A Dark Tower series dumbed down for TV, with a kinder and gentler Roland, is still a show I would totally watch. I just feel there could have been a lot more options with a tiny bit more careful exposition of series lore during the movie. A 100 minute movie would still have been short enough for our millennial attention spans.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed The Dark Tower. I understood the sacrifices Lionsgate had to make to bring a less well-known series to the silver screen. The Dark Tower was a popular series for Steven King, but with timeless classics like Narnia failing to make it through a long series, expecting any studio to shell out 500 million is a fantasy. The movie makes a clear admission to fans that it knows the lore and makes sure to show off the good casting. We see Roland do his reloading trick, we see Jake do shining stuff and we see Walter be super creepy. The ending will leave a bad taste in your mouth at first as a fan, but once you think about it you’ll see it was necessary. If this movie is all that ever releases, somebody else besides fans have to enjoy it enough to see it and buy it. A movie about reincarnation, where all victories and defeats are merely learning experiences, might be a hard sell as a middle-budget summer blockbuster. If that’s the only Dark Tower movie we can see made, I’ll take it with this cast.