My thoughts on Mass Effect: Andromeda

Foreword: Here’s an incomplete post from last year that I started as a way to vent my frustrations at Mass Effect: Andromeda, shortly after completion. I eventually abandoned it because work got hectic and coming back to it took too much effort, but since I went trough the effort in the first place and I kinda make up the rules as I go along here, I figured I’d just go ahead and post it and get it out of my drafts. I’ll leave it exactly as-is from the way it sat in my drafts, and let you decide how you feel about it. Sorry I couldn’t complete it.

I’ve never agonised on the exact way to start something quite as much as I have with this here Massive Effective piece. There are just so many feelings and I can’t quite figure out how to perfectly compartmentalise and process them. It’s a bit like meeting an old friend whom you adored and enjoyed many great hours with in the past, only to realise that you have grown apart from them and you are now radically different people. You reminisce on what once was, and are routinely and regularly crushed by the realisation of what is now.

And that’s not meant to be a melodramatic metaphor for a woefully underwhelming game that will be the subject of a pretentious critique.

But it is.

I want to first take a moment to address the point of this exercise. I am not writing a review. I do not want to provide purchasing advice or a spoiler-free, objective viewpoint. I want to dig into the creepy eyeballs of this game and yank until the ocular vein lies dangling on the floor of what was once my undying love for the Mass Effect series; gone, alienated, replaced by yet another “but at least it’s fun right?” cover shooter that has jet-packs as its big sell. This is not a review. This is a critique. This is my sincere attempt at exploding my severely backed up thoughts all over the exposed bosom of your visual spectrum. And if that’s not graphic enough, try this.

If you want to know what went wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda, it can easily be summarised as: Too much vision, not enough grounding. Hubris, essentially. Kotaku put out their own exposé on the game’s nightmare development cycle which a BioWare Montreal developer described as “painful”, coincidentally also a perfect descriptor for the final game experience. The article goes a long way towards explaining the so-called “near-miraculous disappointment” and after a few years of personal software industry experience, it all sounds scarily familiar. It’s a harrowing tale, but ultimately it’s also the story of how a triple-A developer squandered five years and $40 million, so if you think I’m going to give them a pass for this then you can guess a-fuckin-gain son.

If you think I’m going to harp on the animations for two thousand words, believe me I’ve considered it. But no, we’ll let that dead horse rot although I will mention that Cora’s sex scene is so beautifully animated that it is an oxymoron next to the rest of the game; seriously, go watch it and see for yourself. In truth the animations are just the tip of the titanic iceberg that shattered my hopes and dreams.

“But Cavie,” I hear you say. “Go back and talk about why you would use ‘but at least it’s fun right?’ as a disqualifier when in the past it has been your number one qualifier for enjoying games, and also please have my kids.” Well reader, allow me to oblige you with both my wisdom and my inferior genetics. The combat in Mass Effect: Andromeda is fun. It’s fun if and only if you play a Vanguard class. In every other instance, you will eventually tire of the repetitive, unimaginative nature of combat. Every, single, encounter, boils down to foot-soldiers and a few elites, but not in that super-rewarding challenging way like with other games. Here it’s just a case of fire until dead, and no interplay between that. The game gives the illusion of variety with different types of elites and abilities, but ultimately nothing is an outright counter to anything, the game doing its best to keep fights fair to any play-style. Save for the architect battles (which also become repetitive though thankfully short-lived) everything can be taken down by pressing the shoot button for long enough while occasionally pressing two of the power buttons to create a combo. Yawn.

The previous Mass Effect games were fun not because they had a variety of enemy types or because you had a variety of abilities per squad member. They were fun because those two things had interplay. You had to stop and think about what you were doing, and you had to carefully select a suitable squad composition for every situation. If you had to fight against a lot of vorcha, you took a krogan. If you had to fight geth, you took a quarian. And so on. This increased replayability because you could struggle through an area once, learn from it, and then adjust accordingly to practically walk through similar areas (or on a second playthrough). Do you think that happens in Mass Effect: Andromeda? Of course not. I just picked whichever squad member I wanted to without paying a lick of attention to their abilities because I knew it didn’t matter, and because I couldn’t control their inventory or ability usage I didn’t care what happened to them during fights. Hot-swapping ability profiles was fun for the first five minutes and then I settled on a preferred fastest way to kill the things that drop generic weapons I don’t care about because I already crafted the weapon I want profile AKA infiltrator. This style of combat is much better suited to shorter action titles, or, the way reviewers played Mass Effect: Andromeda… no wonder they praised the combat.

The combat is fun. If you’re a vanguard. And only for the first fifty or so encounters, and the handful of boss fights (dubious). After that, its painfully vapid lack of depth starts to show like the flaws on your life partner just after the honeymoon phase when you realise you committed your life to them but are only just getting to see the real them but it’s too late now because you’ve already given so much, how could you possibly have known?

And it doesn’t stop there.

When you aren’t shooting Kyle the Kett or Ronny McRaider’s entire family, you’re travelling the Heleus cluster of Andromeda. So in actuality, this game should be titled Mass Effect: (Small Cluster Within) Andromeda, but I guess that’s not as catchy? Within this cluster, you will find many systems to visit. These vary from positively breathtaking to thanking the gaming gods that BioWare patched in a Skip button for you to mash. Some of the systems have planets you can land on. These planets form the open world locations that one might compare to the Things To Do, Everywhere™ locations in Dragon Age: Inquisition. How it’s possible to travel to the different systems containing these planets is anyone’s guess, because the series previously established that Mass Effect Relays made interstellar travel possible, and we left those behind in the Milky Way. Somehow in the 600 years spent in stasis, they managed to figure it out (they also developed a natural resistance to the genophage, I repeat, in stasis — who did they consult with for this game, flat-earthers?). Whatever. Let’s just go with Sam did it for sci-fantasy reasons and move on.

The planets themselves are actually quite majestic, and BioWare did at least manage to capture that initial feel of landing on a completely alien world. Granted an alien world with agreeable atmosphere, gravity, and wildlife that is both eerily similar in morphology to Terran species and consistently found across the entire cluster (just like they are in our galaxy, gotta love those Martian ducks). But sure, let’s just say the Andromeda Initiative planned for all of it and only dark matter got in the way of aforementioned plans. This then brings up an inconsistency based on dark matter rapidly affecting planets’ atmospheres, but apparently not affecting anything living? So what are we afraid of in this game exactly? Whatever man, you’re on a planet and the evil dark matter done fucked it all up. Thing is, besides Eos, the other planets seem to have conditions that are already found on today’s Earth so perhaps Andromedans need to stop being little bitches and Milky Way up? Conveniently, a precursor civilisation left behind exactly the correct tools for terraforming entire planets, that are all located in exactly the correct area that you’ve landed on, and your AI through the power of Milky Way lexicography is able to achieve exactly the correct interaction that creates exactly the correct terraforming procedure to make the planet great again. It’s all very silly and nonsensical but it’s a means of achieving your story purpose, albeit by holding down a button three times, entering an underground basement, pressing another button, and then running the fuck away in order to completely (and perfectly) terraform an entire planet. I’ll allow it.

What makes even less sense is the story around one particular location (as well as encounters on other planets, but mainly): Kadara. Kadara doesn’t make a lick of damn sense, man. Even just in terms of game design, like why is there a random hub area and an open world location, and why can’t you directly land in the open world location from space? So the story goes that there was a rebellion on the Nexus in the year between the Nexus and Hyperion arriving in Andromeda, and most of the surviving rebels were exiled. These exiles then landed on Kadara and created a port which you visit during the story. Thing is, even if the exile happened on day one, I don’t believe for a second that a bunch of exiles managed to do, in a year, what doesn’t seem possible even with futuristic tech in ten. Even Mass Effect 2 conceded this as a story reason to reduce the size of the Citadel, stating it needed repairs after the events of the first game two years prior. What kind of futuristic super-engineers got exiled, exactly? Especially considering when you reach the Nexus it’s in shambles, but Kadara is thriving. How? It’s never explained, or even approached (I would even have believed that Kadara’s gravity meant time moved slower there). The writers want you to simply believe and not question it, but my time with LA Noire compels me to press X to Doubt on this possibility in any reality even if they somehow found a way to leverage Remnant tech for their ends, the way Ryder does.

Not that any of this matters, because in my time with the game I had effectively wiped out twice if not thrice the total count of Nexus exiles anyway, if not every single member of the Andromeda Initiative. See, the game doesn’t shy from spawning new enemies to fight you and you can stuff your logic in a supermassive black hole. But they expect us to believe this is the best the Milky Way had to offer in terms of productive colonists (they attempt to explain the hostility by claiming it’s a degenerative disorder caused by stasis but [LA Noire Doubt here]).

So yeah. The planets are majestic. They managed to leverage good sound and atmospheric lighting in a way that feels satisfying to explore, and despite its monotony every objective marker seems adequately focused on achieving that overall story goal of exploring and finding new homes in a new cluster within a galaxy. Pathfinding, as they so eloquently put it (we’re getting to the writing, don’t worry). For this reason, I’m willing to be a lot more lenient and excusing of the inconsistencies and utterly bizarre design choices mentioned here, than I am with say the combat or animations. Contriving story reasons is okay if it ultimately serves its purpose, and in this case I’m willing to accept that we may someday stumble upon ancient terraforming technology, or build an entire city in a week. But what I can’t possibly accept is how the character models never, ever seem to fit properly with everything else. Observe.

Think that’s okay, huh? Maybe I’m just making a big deal out of nothing and those krogans should definitely be lit in that way when standing in a barely-lit area on darker ground. Okay sure, how about this one.

I’m going to guess galactic stasis is really bad for the skin, or this man is doing a really shitty Horizon Zero Dawn cosplay, because his skin looks like a metallic alloy.

Compare this to the general atmospheric lighting in the game worlds.

Night and day, eh?

—————

Too many convenience sins: Remnant, terraforming, genophage solution, etc.
Story doesn’t resolve any of its biggest plot points – Who is the Archon? Where are the Remnant from? What are the Kett if not discount Reapers? What is the scourge? etc.
Only two (one) real new species and one of them is resolved poorly (Angara) – how does Andromeda even remotely compare to ME trilogy?
Conflict resolution for companions? Cora rivalry disappears? Drack does nothing if you let his scouts die? Automatically loyal after one quest regardless of resolution?
Romance is one-dimensional, never rejected by squad and just creep on them until they give it up?
Keeping minor species for DLC, blatant and unnecessary. Reminiscent of Javik in ME3. EA bullshit?

Viability/AVP/etc gives you a contrived reason to do monotonous quests. (Does it make it more worth it?)
Other quests worth doing? Tasks don’t give tangible benefit, just some dialogue “claiming” a benefit.
Horrendous quest-tracking, crafting and map management.

What is the point of this game? What is its essence? What do we walk away from this game having learned?

Advertisements

My thoughts on recent Assassin’s Creed games and why Ubisoft made the right choice

As far as narrative gold-mines go, Ubisoft hit the mother lode with the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The simple idea of a Matrix-like machine that could run historical simulations based on a person’s DNA is… well, it’s nothing short of fucking spectacular.

History is rife with vitally important, world-reshaping stories that would look alien to modern civilisation, and thanks to the ingenuousness of the franchise’s Animus, those stories could be told to a modern audience with virtually no restriction. And at first, this is exactly what happened. The first two Assassin’s Creed games were, well, nothing short of fucking spectacular.

Thinking back to why those games were so great brings two very important points. For one, you were placed in a period of great historic relevance and you actually had a role to play in that history, a far cry (no pun intended) from later games where the history became mere set-dressing. For two, the games presented a dichotomy of historical and modern-day conflicts in a seemingly everlasting battle between two factions, the Assassins and the Templars.

The series was originally touted as a trilogy, but following the runaway success of Assassin’s Creed 2 those plans quickly went out with the contents of Patrice Desilets’ desk. I don’t need to explain the entire history of the series because you probably already know it, but suffice to say, the likes of Brotherhood and Revelations did very little to add to the overall story, and after 3, they pretty much jumped the proverbial shark. But it was 3 that, at least for me, held the most promise and potential for the series moving forward.

Assassin’s Creed III, by virtue of its incredible introduction via presumed protagonist Haytham Kenway, and later through his interactions with his son Connor, presented the extremely interesting and thought-provoking questions of what it meant to actually be an Assassin, and how that differed from being a Templar. See, before that point in the franchise the Assassins were seen as the uncontested good-guys who killed for a purpose and always had a point to what they were doing. Meanwhile, the Templars were simply the evil bad-guys who had to be stopped at all costs. It wasn’t until Templar Grand Master Haytham Kenway’s fascinating introduction to the series that we were forced to really think about the role the Templars had to play in the… well, grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, and this begins proceedings for today’s rant, Ubisoft has never quite known what to do with such a powerful and interesting storytelling element.

Assassin’s Creed III presented an extension of the aforementioned dichotomy of historic and modern conflict between Assassin and Templar by putting you in control of a protagonist that, for all intents and purposes, you truly believed to be an Assassin. As the story went on doubts arose until finally it was revealed that you were in fact controlling the Grand Master of the freaking Templar Order. An absolutely masterful twist and an excellent reversal of the presumed norm, as the story then shifted places to Connor, the so-called true protagonist of the story (as portrayed in trailers) who would rebuild the Assassin Brotherhood, and put a stop to the Order you spent the first half of the story assembling in order to get revenge for what they did to his people during the Seven Years War (and later, American Revolution).

What Assassin’s Creed III succeeded in doing was planting the seed of doubt, regarding the true heroes and villains of the story.

It posed the quintessential idea that history looks different based on who is telling it.

From the perspective of Haytham Kenway, he was restoring order to a world filled with chaos. From the perspective of Connor, he was a weapon of retribution for his people who had all but been wiped out by a member of the Templars, and his followers. With those simple motivations, Ubisoft did something few other games have in the past: They took the primary villains of the franchise until that point, and made you question everything about them.

And in the time following Assassin’s Creed III… that’s about all they’ve managed to successfully accomplish with this brilliant twist.

I recently finished Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, and yet again I find myself infuriated with the sheer depth of missed potential present. Assassin’s Creed: Rogue had all the promise of something special by allowing you to play as a Templar, for once. Finally a chance to see things from the other side, and really get to grips with the motivations and underlying ethos of what it means to be a Templar Knight. Finally an insight into the inner workings of the Order and what exactly their role in this universe is meant to be.

The final product is essentially some young Assassin named Shay who questions the (admittedly uncharacteristically questionable) actions of the Brotherhood before they shoot him in the back and leave him for dead, but he survives and ends up joining the Templar Order and attempts to stop the Brotherhood by killing all of his former friends except for anyone who needs to stay alive for plot reasons given that this is the prequel to not one but two Assassin’s Creed games (III and Unity).

The thing that cuts deepest about Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is that it is quite literally a re-skin of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, only unlike the inexplicably over-powered Edward Kenway, Shay was actually trained to be an Assassin at some point. There is no great retelling of a previously established truth. Instead, the Assassins (including all main characters) are the dicks instead of the Templars, and the Templars are the heroes of this story. Only none of it fits, because in terms of story continuity the Assassins were never as reckless as they were here (it could be argued that the first game is an exception however in the first game, Al Mualim was a genuine threat to the Assassin way, whereas in this game Achilles is… just an idiotic man?), and the Templars were always outwardly hostile. Not here. And despite frequently questioning the motives of the Assassins (who at least have a purpose in this story, unlike the Templars who only seem to exist because “order from chaos” reasons), Shay immediately stops questioning the motives of the Templars once he joins, over and above a singular moment when he raises an eyebrow at Haytham’s motivations… and then nothing ever becomes of it.

So just like every game that followed III, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue teased the idea of genuinely intriguing political conflicts of thought and motivation, without ever addressing or resolving it. It’s a bit like the metaphorical carrot on the stick, only we never, ever, ever get to actually taste the carrot. You start to believe that maybe Ubisoft is just trying to make a donkey out of us all.

Or maybe they’ve just written themselves into a wall with their own accomplishment?

This is why I believe Ubisoft’s decision to stop annualising the series and give the Assassin’s Creed franchise a well-deserved break was exactly the correct decision. I am tired, honestly just exhausted, of playing through a series that takes so damn long to resolve pretty much anything even remotely interesting to me. I don’t care about sailing a ship or running through procedurally-generated (disappearing, let’s be honest here) crowds or heck even climbing historical monuments. None of that matters any more, not when you have presented me with the most thought-provoking discussion point of the entire franchise and you refuse to thoroughly explore it, despite hinting and teasing and poking and prodding at the idea with every subsequent release.

The tipping point for me was the concluding story sequences of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, where Shay experiences what seems like turmoil and genuine distress at having to kill his former brothers-in-arms, but time after time he manages to do so with very little discussion thereafter, resolving simply that they are wrong and he is right and that’s the end of it. Gone are the dialogues of the first game that force you to sit and really think about your actions. Instead, you are labelled a traitor and you apologise that it had to be this way, and you go about your merry damn business. Later on, once all the Assassins are dead including your former best friend who dies in a rather dismissive way given the alleged emotional connection you two had (and the extra weight of this character being the one who shot you in the back when you tried to stop the Assassins from making their mistakes), Shay begs mercy for Achilles, so that he can let the other Assassins know that they done fucked up, and Haytham allows it. The problem is that said fucking up only exists within the confines of this particular story, and does not in any way extend to the overall franchise (in this game, the Assassins were causing massive city-destroying earthquakes by collecting Precursor artefacts). In an epilogue that is teased throughout Rogue’s story, Shay kills the father of young Arno, which then connects Rogue’s story both to Assassin’s Creed III via Haytham Kenway and Achilles, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity via Arno. There is no reason for this death to happen, it seemingly only exists to connect the stories and for Shay to have a cool-as-fuck outro monologue for Rogue.

But what’s the point if yet again, we don’t have a solid character progression along the lines of Altair or Ezio, and once again we don’t actually know how the Templars’ motivations align or differ with the motivations of the Assassins. The game continuously promises and at times outright guarantees that the events of the game “will forever change your view of the world as you know it” only it never fucking actually accomplishes this in the slightest.

And that’s a crying shame because Ubisoft went from a genuinely adventurous and engrossing world to… well, some notable historic setting you probably learned about in school mixed with a modern plot that seems to consist of “whatever we contrive to fit best with this story” whether it’s Abstergo Entertainment from Black Flag and Rogue, or the Netflix-like recorded memories gallery of Unity, or… whatever the hell was Syndicate’s modern plot (hackers?). Ubisoft have completely lost the plot and shown that sometimes big ideas are just too big, and they never quite knew what they were doing. So for that reason alone, after yet another game that showed all the promise but left a bitter taste of disappointment, I am glad to be done with the Assassin’s Creed franchise for now.

It’s a shame because I really did enjoy Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for what it was. Hopefully whatever they’ve got cooked up for next won’t be spoiled by what I can only assume to be their over-eagerness to milk the franchise for everything it’s worth, without ever giving us something worthy of being a part of the franchise that started so damn well.

Or maybe like its setting, the time when it was just a properly good franchise is lost to history.

My thoughts on the gaming industry in 2016

It’s been just over a year since I quit the gaming industry. I miss it. A lot, sometimes. Being a contributing member of the gaming industry was important to me. It was one of just two things in the world (my beautiful girlfriend whom I categorically do not deserve, being the other) that I truly cared about, and felt a passion for. I revelled in it, and some might argue I let it consume me at times.

Quitting the industry was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.

Which granted is nowhere near the worst possible things one could do, but it still sucked a lot. After months of denying the factors in play and lying to myself that I could make it work, the decision was a swift one. An eventuality. An inevitable facing of the proverbial music. I no longer recognised the gaming industry that I so dearly loved. I no longer had the time nor the energy required to dedicate the kind of passion required. In the equilibrium of my life, the gaming industry and I were no longer aligned. Chaos in its place.

The reveal was something I saved for the entire world at once. Nobody knew, before that moment. You may have read it. It was the last thing I posted on EGMR, and proved to be the nail in the coffin of a site that was struggling along because the majority of its writers could no longer afford to put in the time and energy without something in return. A sad ending to an underdog story. Like waking up from a dream. Putting on pants and going to work.

And subsequently spending the next year hopelessly romanticising its return.

Somehow you’ll find a way to make it work. You’ll figure it out. You’ll reinvent yourself if needs be. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. You just need the right idea. You just need to spark your creative mind. You just need the time to work on something. Anything.

Suffice to say, the dream is over. It’s been a year, and though I deeply miss my short but glorious time in this wonderful industry, I’ve since accepted the harsh realisation that I no longer recognise the gaming industry I loved. In its place we have the mutated, amorphous tumour of corporate and social pandering. Sponsored coverage of games, carefully selected wording of articles so as not to incur the wrath of the publisher gods, and my personal favourite, a certain forced two-fold mentality of happiness and outrage, depending on your target audience and the flavour of the day. Something I playfully penned a few months ago as follows:

Gaming Website X: “We want more black characters in games!”
Gaming Website X’s fans: “Yeah! So tired of white men in all our games. Come on game devs, do better!”
Game dev A: *reveals games with black characters*
Gaming Website X: “So happy to see black characters in games.”
Gaming Website X’s fans: “THIS IS SO IMPORTANT.”
*game releases then performs poorly because pandering doesn’t work*
Gaming Website X: “Game devs need to stop making their black characters irredeemable criminals!”
Gaming Website X’s fans: “… erryeaah, what the hell game devs?!?!?!”

Perhaps it’s a consequence of most journalist types being Bachelor of Art graduates who were fed social politics at university and, being poor and depressed like only Bachelor of Art students can be, they lash out at anything they deem “problematic” and since we recently fought very hard to legitimise gaming as… *ahem* art… we are now under the micro-lens. But it doesn’t quite fit because gaming is more than artful expression. Gaming is more than ‘The protagonist of Mafia III is a ruthless criminal but because some white people use racist slurs against him you need to feel his pain and understand how he suffered and that’s why this game is important!’ Gaming is more than ‘Anyone who is unhappy or critical about this socially progressive game is obviously a gooblegarbler and terrible human being’.

When did we fall down this slippery slope? When did we reach the point when I can’t go onto a website without seeing at least three articles (per day) highlighting the toxicity and other irredeemable qualities of gamers? Are we really that addicted to drama? Meanwhile, please be as happy as you possibly can that Watch_Dogs 2 has a black protagonist, but pay no attention to its shitty sales and samey gameplay because those things do not matter in the grander scheme of things. We are about the art people.

It’s unfamiliar to me, because it doesn’t make sense. Like, logically, it doesn’t flow.

From the outside it looks like a bunch of toddlers proudly proclaiming to their parents that the sun is out, and then feeling a sense of pride and fulfilment when their parents nod and reply, “Yes my child, the sun is in fact out.” It is immature, one-dimensional, and honestly a bit shallow. I guess that’s also my fault for growing up a bit, and looking at the world through a few more shades of grey, but expecting an industry that used to focus primarily on graphics and expecting the same kind of growth. Perhaps being able to look at someone who is happy and think that maybe they aren’t actually happy does not compare to being able to look at a game that uses the colour of its protagonist’s skin as a selling point and think that maybe it has no other actual selling points.

Coincidentally, this is also why I’ve not been on social media much either. Everything is so fake. Everything. Nobody cares about people and their thoughts on matters beyond whether those thoughts align uniformly. Instead we surround ourselves with those that share our opinions and create cliques that then nosedive onto others who disagree with us. We relentlessly push our personal opinions as some form of “gotcha” without stopping to wonder what point we’re actually proving, and who our shared content is actually for. Are we posting to change the minds of others, and if so, how often do their posts change our minds? What is the point of it? Do we just post for virtual high-fives? Virtue-signalling for virtual belonging? Do we feel better about ourselves when we’re all posting remorsefully about a tragedy only to forget about it a day later, or get outraged at the Next Big Drama™ that leaves us “literally shaking” for a day until we go away and do other things? Are we so hopelessly addicted to being these fake people?

I’ve been called all sorts of awful names by people I respect and admire because of differences of opinion. It has never felt great, and it has never made sense to me. I am [awful name here] because… you don’t like what I’m saying on social media? Does that mean I am actually [awful name here] or does that mean you cannot make peace with our differences of opinion? Simultaneously, I am being complimented by others for speaking my mind and not letting myself be pressured into the socially accepted response. Does that make me a faux pas? Or does that mean I am simply an individual?

This is the nasty look of both the gaming industry and social media in general, recently. It is fake. It forces you to have X opinion or Y outlook on certain events going on in the world, be that in the gaming industry or elsewhere. You must be happy about the Ghostbusters movie. You must be critical of Donald Trump. You must be upset about Carrie Fisher dying. And so on and so forth. You must be happy to meet someone. You must joke along with others who make jokes, regardless of the content of those jokes. You must get outraged with everyone else the next time someone makes a racist or sexist post on social media and gets called out on it. You must. You must you must you must.

But what if I don’t want to?

Simple. I am wrong. I am an asshole. I am a cunt. I am the worst of the world’s populace, and I deserve to die. Inform my family and place of employment because they deserve to know just what an awful and inconceivably irredeemable person I truly am.

How did we get here? When did the internet get taken over by angry, repressed, social studies graduates with chips on their shoulders? Why is it obligatory to state your position on a matter before discussing its nuances or risk getting dogpiled by someone who misconstrued your discussion for a binary position either for or against the matter?

I miss writing. I miss it so much that sometimes, especially while playing games, I catch myself thinking up cool paragraphs and mini-articles in my head to discuss this, that, or the other cool concept that I just realised a game boasted. But the gaming industry I was so proud and genuinely happy to be a part of is gone, replaced instead by a bastardised, uglier, deeply flawed version of what it once was. I remember reviewing Dragon Age: Inquisition and spending multiple long paragraphs discussing the agonising intricacies of why I think that while a spectacular experience, it doesn’t quite live up to its promises as a game, but in the current gaming industry climate I could just as well have made a five minute video that says, “There is a transgender character so this game gets a perfect ten out of ten, go play it but don’t forget to like, share and subscribe” and put that on YouTube, then waited for the ever-important interactions so I can convince the distributors that yes, I am in fact worthy of those cool early review packs with the sexy loot that I can post on social media so everyone envies just how cool I am for being a complete and total sell-out before I look at the trends and decide what I want to be upset about today.

My overbearing hope is that somewhere in the world there exists the kind of people who also see just enough shades of grey that they don’t buy into the bullshit that the current social media driven world forces onto everyone, the fake happiness and insistence on promoting things that make them feel good about themselves without taking a moment to break down the actual honest-to-fictional-god merits of those things in an at least partially-objective manner. And for those people, I feel I can add some value to their lives. Perhaps I can be the last bastion of actually legitimate merit-based opinion.

Perhaps it’s time I went solo, and just wrote. On here.

So I guess in a way this is my hopeful declaration that you can expect more posts on here, time permitting of course. I want to talk about games, even if I don’t always have the means to do so. I want to recapture that passion I once felt for this glorious pastime. I may never feel about the gaming industry the way I once did, but at the very least I want to recapture the feeling of reading something gaming-related and not going, “Oh look, more social studies nonsense.”

This is my promise to you guys that I will try. Starting with a bit of a rebrand. While I do like “Thoughts of a former gaming journalist” perhaps it’s time to bring back an older title. Life, The Universe and Gaming, anyone?

In the meantime, play Overwatch you filthy scrubs.

My thoughts on Bethesda’s review policy

Bethesda recently sent out a press release regarding their new policy for game reviews, as follows:

cvxvao-wyaapa1n

Naturally, this triggered every gaming publication in the world.

I’m just kidding (but… yeah it kinda did).

The resulting discussion from this press release got my mind racing, and I thought I would use the opportunity to indulge the oft-ignored but ever-present desire to write about something. So, let’s talk about Bethesda’s decision to withhold game reviews and why I think it’s a perfectly reasonable statement on their part.

Bethesda are basically saying to the world: “We will not provide early review copies.” This is a massive risk on their part because anyone who bases a purchasing decision on early reviews will not want to preorder now (if they’re smart), and may never end up purchasing the game at all. Meanwhile, anyone who preorders without waiting for reviews will still preorder without waiting for reviews, anyone who waits for reviews to make purchasing decisions can still wait for reviews to make purchasing decisions, and anyone who watches gameplay on YouTube will very likely still have the opportunity to watch gameplay on YouTube on or close to the release of the game. And realistically, especially given the exorbitant price of games, ***gamers should not be preordering anyway***.

“Ah but preorder incentives, Cavie!” Preorder incentives are almost always available post-release for a small fee, and since you will probably pay less for the game if you buy it later, you may actually end up saving money this way. And you will not run the risk of purchasing a broken or doomed (no pun intended) game that was highly reviewed by reviewers. There really are too many reasons ***not to preorder a game, ever*** unless you were going to buy it anyway, in which case what do reviews matter to you?

“Okay but what about No Man’s Sky, Cavie? We could have been warned early!” Disregarding the hype factor reasons that No Man’s Sky is now considered a failure, I find this response interesting because many are criticising Bethesda for using the success of DOOM to justify their new policy. Granted it’s not the only game in recent memory to have released to critical acclaim with no early reviews, but I’m curious why Bethesda aren’t allowed to use DOOM to justify their new policy but you can use No Man’s Sky to argue against the policy. Furthermore, did Bethesda make No Man’s Sky? No, but they did make DOOM and Fallout 4.

“But Cavie, this sets a precedent for all publishers to follow suit!” What gives you that idea? It sounds a bit like propaganda, actually. But okay, I’ll play along since this has happened with a few other games in the past (at least Bethesda had the decency to make it official). So every publisher will see what Bethesda does and do the same, meaning every publisher takes on the business risk that little to no early coverage will be available prior to a game’s release… and then gamers will become more wary of preorders and the culture of preordering games will start to wane? Hey, if you can live your life by hypotheticals then why can’t I?

“Cavie, what about protecting the consumers!” There you go, now you’re on the right track. Games journalism, in recent years, has become something of a shit-show when it comes to advocating for gamers. Gamers have been frequently attacked or criticised by publications that claim to speak on their behalf, and recent editorials have been guilty of injecting personal politics into game discussions (I’m immediately reminded about the VICE writer who infused his personal politics into an article about Forza Horizon 3) or providing paid coverage of videogames (clearly labelled, granted), and this creates ethical questions (legitimate or not) about the underlying intentions of games press in many situations. So I’m not entirely convinced that the gaming media still serves the protection of consumers in the way they claim they do.

Please note: I want to emphasise at this point that there are some gaming sites that do indeed treat their reviews seriously and provide solid purchasing advice for consumers in their reviews. I respect and appreciate these sites for doing so. I read their reviews, and share those with others. There is no shots fired element in this post, I am only using verifiable examples to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. In other words: trigger warning.

Publishers seem to be taking note of this, as well. Recently, Kotaku was allegedly blacklisted by Ubisoft which Kotaku claims is because they leaked unreleased game details. Questions can be asked about who the leaked details actually serve if Ubisoft would have revealed the game long before release anyway (so, basically only Kotaku), but ultimately Kotaku suffered for it. In the past year, quite a few games refused the games press early review copies, with some ending up well-received whilst others were less so. Publishers have instead turned to influencers to do their games coverage — some who are extremely dodgy, and you should absolutely never take their advice even if their advice was the difference between life and death because they would sell you out in a heartbeat for their personal gain — which makes business sense if you consider that games coverage, something currently provided by the gaming press, is an extended form of marketing for a game in the eyes of publishers. No matter what the gaming press tells you, at some point they were responsible for your exposure to a game, be it through news, trailers, or pre-release hands-on previews.

The thing that needs to be understood is that the gaming press in the traditional written long-form is slowly but inevitably fading away. And in my opinion rightly so because this industry contracted cancer in 2014, and has never recovered from it. A fair amount of gamers don’t trust the games press any more (which should be relevant since the argument here is that Bethesda’s decision affects a small but “significant” amount of gamers, see how it works both ways?). When you’re part of the traditional games press, you start to operate on a level of self-righteousness and self-importance that you don’t really notice until you’re away from all of it (speaking personally here) – you come to believe that you play a far more important role than you actually do, perhaps a consequence of how well-taken-care-of games press usually are at events and expos, and how many people comment on and follow their work. It’s a big part of why I personally wanted out, last year. I wanted no part of the self-aggrandising that went on (which may be difficult to believe if you’ve seen my Twitter, but at least I can admit to it), and I realised that there were other, better avenues for getting the same knowledge of games that I used to get from traditional games press without having to deal with egos, politics, and the phrase I jokingly coined, We Do Important Work™. Nowadays I prefer to watch a quick YouTube video or watch some streams to get my information about games prior to making a purchasing decision. Note that I’m not talking about the marketing-approved official gameplay trailer that is totally actually an accurate representation of the final product that game developers release, but rather I’m talking about third-party gameplay as provided by the multitude of YouTube/Twitch personalities out there. You are free to choose which of them you trust, and want to get your news from.

Besides those people who have a direct stake in the games press (PR, journalists, etc.) it doesn’t seem like anyone else much cares for Bethesda’s new policy. Should these people be so upset about Bethesda’s decision if they can still do the reviews anyway? Is this a disproportionate response to an immeasurable issue since gaming press cannot show a metric for their reviews being useful to gamers so they’re just throwing a fit about not being the special kids any more? Is it the most ironic thing that games press calls gamers entitled and then feel entitled to early game reviews when they’re still getting them albeit slightly later than they want? I suppose the answers to these questions depends on your relationship with the games press.

Ultimately, my advice to gamers is simple and effortless: Wait for reviews.

My thoughts on A Universe From Nothing

It’s not often I get to write about the books I read!

I love science non-fiction. Next to high fantasy, it’s my other favourite genre to dig into. Learning about the world and our understanding of how it works is endlessly fascinating for me.

I’ve never much cared for travel to other countries; what could I possibly need to see that I couldn’t see using Google Maps? Learn that I couldn’t learn from Wikipedia? Experience that I couldn’t experience in virtual reality? The smells, perhaps. The weather, sure. Other than that? The thing I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve wanted to do it since I was a wee little runt on momma’s lap, was travel into space. I grew up hoping to the point of desperation that at some point in my life I would venture in that dark unknown (even if only as far as just beyond the Earth’s upper atmosphere). That for me, is what travel should be. Countries have cultures but cultures come and go. Space is an altogether different beast.

A Universe from Nothing spends half its time educating you — to the point of brutal realisation — that despite our current technological and theoretical limitations, we really do live in the perfect time for space exploration and discovery. More than that, we only have a limited number of years (albeit an infinity by human lifespans) in which to explore as much as we can before it all fades away, moving so fast that it stops being visible to us in our night sky. Imagine that.

It delves into such topics as dark matter, dark energy, the origins and life of the universe including its geometry and expansion, and the implications of all of this for past, present, and future theoretical trends including relativity, gravitation, and string theory.

The other half of A Universe from Nothing is spent teaching you that god is redundant.

Capture 20160610a

Stay with me for a second, and allow me to share a personal story. I grew up in a relatively religious household. My family literally helped to build the temple (a Hindu place of worship) in our area, they housed and taught our immigrant guru (Hindu priest) English, and as such I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in that temple. But next to my books about dinosaurs and space, the religious stuff just never seemed to feel like much more than a story. I was taught to fear the gods, and told that I had a duty and a responsibility to treat them with respect and admiration, and in return they would solve all my problems. I came to find a comfort in one particular Hindu god, Ganesha. The remover of obstacles.

As I grew older and experienced more of the world, it became apparent to me that every different religion had some form of faith. Jesus. Allah. Krishna. Etc. Every religion had someone, but they each insisted that theirs was the better, superior god. I found this fascinating, but it also began my journey away from religion. I started reading about the Crusades, a real-life part of our history that goes forgotten now. And then I looked at all the current, ongoing conflicts around the world. Those that weren’t about technology were invariably about religious differences (at their core). So many injustices along our storied history, committed in the name of scripture. It drew me to ask tougher questions of the gods. But I stuck with them because it made more sense to me than not doing so (see: Pascal’s Wager) and besides that, I had an opinion of atheists that they were all awful people so I tried very hard to find reasons to hold the gods dear to me.

One day my life was shattered (by someone who loves me, no less) with the realisation that I was living ignorant on purpose, and should at the very least endeavour to do better. Not for my family, or for society, but for myself. And so I did. By reading a hearty mix of science and scripture, I explored the complex situation of religion and its evolution alongside humanity. Now here’s the kicker. The more scripture I read, the more holes I was able to poke in it. The more science I read, the more I realised I really did not know nearly as much as I thought I did. Science, as a foundation for all knowledge – including the thing you are using to read this, the thing you drive, the stuff you eat, and everything else – provides difficult-to-understand but irrefutable answers to almost all of the things previous generations assumed some god to be responsible for.

The final hurdle for me was that of initial creation. Sure, evolution happens and if you’re willing to put in the time to understand it, makes a ridiculous amount of sense in the same way that oxygen burning provides us with energy makes a lot of sense – in other words, it would be utterly stupid, once you understand it, to think it could happen any other way. But the thing that always stopped me in my tracks from letting go entirely of god was the question of how the universe in its entirety could come to be from absolutely nothing whatsoever.

A Universe from Nothing attempts to answer that question with hard, pure science. And it’s not afraid to say, “Look, we don’t know all the details perfectly right now, but the overwhelming evidence points to X.” Point me to any scripture that says, “Look we think it was god, but it could just as well have been that guy Larry from down the street.”

Capture20160610b

Why is there something rather than nothing? How does something come from nothing? The answers — if you’re willing to read and try to understand them — have an incredible ripple effect on a person’s core beliefs. Just like morality is a flawed concept based more on accepted norms rather than hard truths (because let’s face it, when one book says it’s moral to own people but you won’t do it in real life then whose Word are you really living by?) so too is reality as we know it. And while you are welcome to reject everything proposed in the book, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the bigger picture. This is the picture science has currently painted. This is what millennia of research and discovery has provided us. But there’s still further to go.

The rabbit-hole of understanding runs deep, and we might never quite get there within our lifetimes.

Yet with A Universe from Nothing, author Lawrence M Krauss both fascinates and brutalises the mind by giving you a perfect rundown of the history of scientific discovery that has led to this point in our understanding. It goes from the original ideas of our universe, and how it got here, to explaining the complicated and perplexing discoveries we have celebrated over the years, right up to the point we realised that we really don’t know as much as we thought we did. To try and explain a many-thousand-word, deeply technical scientific theory in the space of a blog post would do it a mighty injustice but suffice to say, science doesn’t offer happy endings and perfect conclusions; it offers hard-won evidence-based facts. It’s up to you what you do with them.

That’s what inspired me to want to write about it here. It’s not an easy read, and some parts are going to take a few reads to fully understand, and even then you’re going to be left head-scratching. And yet, it’s the best history book I’ve ever read, because it doesn’t simply stop at “This is how it is, and that’s that.” but rather attempts to explain things as best as possible (without the years of hard research required to fully understand these concepts) as possible. And for that, I can’t help but respect Krauss.

I used the word “redundant” above because I particularly feel it’s the most suitable word in this case. A Universe from Nothing is not Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It’s not trying to tell you that your religion is incorrect, or tell you that you are wrong for practicing it. It doesn’t want to change your beliefs. Ultimately, if a person chooses to do a thing and they are not harming others, there is no reason to stop them from doing that thing (even if the overall effect could lead to others being harmed). This book is not trying to replace or erase religious belief. Rather, by explaining the science behind the concept of creation it indirectly contradicts all forms of scripture, and gives an answer to the long-disputed question that many theologians have brought up in debates with scientists, that of, “But if you’re so smart and think you know everything, how did we get here? Who created all of this if not god?” Krauss answers this question with an eloquence and enrapturing elegance that it almost serves to make the concept of god redundant.

As in, if you so desired, science had the answers for you that religion has claimed for very long to not exist away from a god. Now you don’t need god to explain creation.

Krauss did it with science.

Provable, verifiable, testable science. The bedrock for all human progress.

My thoughts on the Xbox Live Gold price increase

This past week, the cost of an Xbox Live Gold subscription increased for a few markets, notably South Africa.

Drastically.

Here is a quote from the Game Informer article I read.

The current price of Xbox Live in that territory, R50 per month is equivalent to about $3.25. Pricing in the U.S. is $9.99 per month. The new monthly fee, R159 works out to about $10.33. The new yearly pricing in South Africa will be R979, or about $63 (against United Stats pricing of $59.99 per year).

The article does go on to mention that Xbox Live Gold codes are not region-locked, so one could potentially source them elsewhere at a more favourable exchange, but that’s neither here nor there for the average consumer. If you can find ’em cheaper, that’s great for you.

However.

I have some problems with this price increase, and it seems I’m not the only one. From what I can tell, besides games journalists (who let’s be honest have been known to get gaming-related things for free review purposes anyway), pretty much everyone else in South Africa is upset about this. Those games journalists few who have defended the price increase (albeit erring on the side of brutal reality, admittedly) mentioned things like South Africa’s abhorrent exchange rate, as well as the smaller market in South Africa.

I think they’re full of shit, and I’d like to explain why, here.

 

Bullshit #1: A vastly inferior product

With Xbox Live Gold comes Gold-exclusive access to discounts on the digital store, the ability to enter party chats with friends, free games in the Games with Gold monthly promotions, and very importantly the ability to play the online multiplayer segment of all your games. One of the justifications people used for the price increase involved the cost of running Azure servers for online multiplayer on Xbox One, as well as the various Xbox content systems that are free to all Xbox owners (Xbox Music, Xbox Video, etc.) – which is great and all, except those content systems are region-locked and currently unavailable in South Africa (I’ve heard this is a licensing issue, locally) and further, we have no Azure servers (granted, we connect to EU servers, but then why isn’t all of Europe getting a price increase?).

This essentially means that people are using services that we in South Africa do not have in order to justify an increased price that we will have to pay, or our multiplayer experience will be gated off from us.

To emphasise, if you want to play Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare multiplayer (let’s say for a few months) on your Xbox One, you will need to fork out ~R2500.

People then say, “But you would pay it for DSTV so what’s the problem?” The problem is simple, friend. I could opt out of getting DSTV and get an alternative. What alternative is there to gating off the multiplayer component of the game I just paid for? I suppose I could just get it on another gaming platform, which seems to be what a lot of local gamers are deciding… which leads me to my next point.

 

Bullshit #2: The local market is insignificant

If the local market is insignificant, then could it be argued that a price increase is equally insignificant? Further, could it be argued that a price decrease would make more sense, because you want to increase adoption on your platform? Games with Gold has been a massive success on Xbox One, but I suppose it’s time to pay the piper. Which for a lot of people, means moving over to another platform because the Xbox One they invested in is now unaffordable for them.

It feels more as if Microsoft have turned their back on the South African market and gone, “Well, if they won’t buy our obviously incredible console, we’ll just overcharge for it and that will show them.”

I’ll say it again. If the local market is so insignificant then what’s the point of pricing high when you can price low and gain a dominant market share. Even an insignificant market (albeit one estimated to be worth R3 billion) has the potential to become huge with time. As Sony will no doubt discover.

 

Bullshit #3: Exchange rates, and global pricing

Other countries affected by the subscription increase include Sweden, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Austria. Austria in particular uses the Euro system. Despite this common adoption of an established international currency, the price of an Xbox Live Gold subscription in Austra increased. That means an Austrian Xbox Live Gold subscription will cost you more with the same currency than it will in other countries based on the Euro system (including those with higher VAT percentages, such as Finland). Xbox explains this away with:

“This is based on market rather than currency, and the new price in Austria aligns with other European markets.”

While this might lend credence to an argument that the market for Xbox is diminished in Austria, it does not necessarily support the thinking that the weakening South African Rand is the sole reason for the increase here. A contributor? Sure, I’ll allow it. But to that extent? Come now. The Rand has weakened, relative to the US Dollar, by around 50%. You cannot justify a 200% increase to any charge, because you would still have to explain the extra 100% increase that does not account for the weakening of the Rand.

Another thing people have raised is that the local price increase is not too far off from the US Dollar and Euro prices.

Here’s the problem with that.

If you go to the USA and order Starbucks or KFC, there’s a solid chance you will pay more for it than you would at the same franchise in South Africa (a breast piece of chicken might set you back $5 in the USA, but costs R15 in South Africa which is $1 in US terms). This is because products are priced in market terms. The so-called “cost of living” in South Africa is relatively low compared to many first-world countries, therefore items for sale are priced accordingly. This isn’t just a food thing either, since cars, houses, and clothing are priced differently based on the country. However admittedly this doesn’t always apply. Certainly not in the technology industry — perhaps due to a lack of proper regulation here — which does suck, but it’s no excuse.

For all the progressives who scream “Why do we accept things as they are?” about a billion different things, why don’t we challenge the price-setting of such entities as the technology industry?

You can fix that.

 

Have your say

Start right now by clicking on this link and voting for Xbox to reconsider their price increase.

You don’t necessarily even have to be directly affected by this.

Do it because you care about consumer empowerment. Do it because you want your friends to be happy. Hell, do it because Xbox are being total dicks and you don’t like that.

That’s all I have to say on this.

UPDATE: Apparently, the line above is not entirely true.

I will now add a few points that I thought went without saying, but nonetheless have been necessitated by the discussion around this post.

  • This is not a problem exclusive to Xbox, where last year Sony increased the subscription price of their PlayStation Plus subscription. The PlayStation Plus subscription is required for online multiplayer on PlayStation 4, but not on PlayStation 3. And the increase lined up a lot better with international models, so it seemed a bit more acceptable, especially since to my knowledge there is no content on PlayStation that is region-locked for South African audiences. With the PS Plus sub, you get what you pay for. Nonetheless, the PS Plus subscription is also expensive. This should not negate any of the discussion points above, referring to Xbox Live Gold.
  • Games journalists are extremely defensive of the free review stuff they get. I was one for many years. I know what I’m talking about. I may joke about it, or poke fun, because that’s what I like to do. But don’t for a moment think I’m talking out of my ass – I have the emails to prove that I received Xbox Live Gold subscriptions for review purposes in the past. Importantly, I don’t care about trying to justify it.
  • Gaming is expensive, yes. It is a luxury, yes. This is a large part of why markets like South Africa have shaky times with international brands. Our entertainment needs are fickle, and they are wrought with licensing and regulation issues, as Netflix will no doubt explain to you. That should not be used as justification for a price increase that is, and I can’t believe I need to emphasise this, larger than is reasonable by any form of educated logic.
  • There was a time when people defended Online Passes for the same reasons they are defending the Xbox Live Gold subscription increase. It costs a lot to keep servers going, the market necessitates it, it’s a way of giving back for what you get, gaming is expensive, etc. Thing is, Online Passes went away because consumers didn’t want them. So… what’s the problem here?
  • For what it’s worth, I’ve studied economics at university. I understand how markets work, and I understand that you cannot accurately predict fluctuations. You can, however, apply basic models to existing markets to make predictions. I applied this thinking when explaining my second and third points above. I could use graphs, and do all sorts of fancy things, but I thought I wouldn’t need to. If you feel I need to, please comment and I’ll do so.
  • Early in 2015, I made the decision to move the majority of my gaming onto PC. I did this because I foresaw the price increases on the Xbox and PlayStation platforms, and I wanted none of it. Owning a console has become even more complicated than owning a PC nowadays. So sure, I could have said something like “embrace PC” or similar, but how does that help anyone who has an Xbox One right now, and would like to keep it?
  • Fuck anyone who puts their personal beliefs before the consumer, in any market that exists to cater to the consumer.

And that’s it. Please do comment if you feel I’m being unfair, or if I’ve said something you disagree with.

My thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

SPOILER ALERT: Please do not read this if you haven’t watched Captain America: Civil War yet. Honestly, why do I have to say this?

If nothing else, Captain America: Civil War has taught me a valuable lesson in parenting.

How do you criticise something you love?

You always want the best for them, but you cannot blind yourself to their flaws. If your child is not the most intellectually adept, no amount of encouragement and enthusiasm on your behalf is going to turn them into the next Einstein; no matter how hard you try.

Sometimes you just need to lay it all out, and work with what you have.

So. Time for some tough love.

I really wanted to love Civil War. In the months leading up to it, I watched the reveal trailer multiple times, and got goosebumps each and every time. I re-read the entire Civil War comic book storyline (all 100+ comics, including those random and only slightly related off-shoots — Moon Knight still twists my brain into knots) to get myself fully prepared for what was to come. I went into the movie with no real expectations or ‘checkboxes’ I needed it to fill. All I wanted out of the film was to feel satisfied. You know the kind of satisfied I’m talking about.

And you know what? I did love it. And I was satisfied.

The first time around, it was as if the comic book reading kid in me had awoken to witness his dreams come true. Spider-Man doing loop-de-loops off War Machine. Captain America punching Iron Man in the face. Scarlet Witch and Vision in the early days of what would become one of the strongest, most endearing romances in the Marvel universe. It was all there. Maybe shy of a few X-Men but hey, who’s counting?

I didn’t mind that Civil War switched up its story to better fit with the meta of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I didn’t mind that the pivotal character, Spider-Man, had been swapped out for James Buchanan Barnes AKA Bucky AKA “The Winter Soldier” AKA Steve’s BFF. I didn’t even mind that the so-called “Civil War” would take place on a much smaller scale due to the realities (licensing or otherwise) involved with having 200+ characters on-screen at any point in time. In fact, I embraced this new story. I warmly welcomed the Black Panther to the fold, I cheered on both Tony and Steve at different points in the story, and I laughed myself to tears when a genuinely great Spider-Man was finally introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Homecoming indeed.

664215

And then the unthinkable happened.

I started to really consider what I had watched.

And a lot of it… just wasn’t enough for me.

Let’s start with the primary motivation for this entire story; it’s not the bromance between Steve and Bucky no matter how much you want it to be, but rather it’s the destruction caused by the Avengers throughout the various films that came before. Now this is actually a major criticism fans have had for the previous films; that they never addressed the rampant destruction and chaos caused during previous films. Yet in doing so, Civil War presented some continuity issues where they correctly addressed the collateral damage to come out of New York, Washington, and Sokovia, but failed to address the events of Iron Man 3, Thor 2, or indeed anywhere else that wasn’t Sokovia in Avengers 2 (Africa and Asia, for example). I suppose it could be argued that the former two took place before Captain America 2, so S.H.I.E.L.D could well have covered it up, but I’m sceptical. In any case, it does lend a certain disconnect to all of it. As if the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t nearly quite as connected as it claims. That, or the Russo brothers skipped Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, and only skimmed Avengers 2 — but hey, they were probably busy working on the Captain America movies so who’s to really blame them?

As an aside, a friend mentioned to me that the government was willing to nuke New York in Avengers, and sanctioned most of the destruction that came in Captain America 2, so a lot of the things the Avengers are being blamed for are actually ‘best-case’ scenarios where the destruction could have been a lot worse without them.

That’s not all however, because we still have to talk about how that primary motivation evolved throughout the story. The chain of disaster-level events that led up to Captain America: Civil War started with the first Avengers movie, in 2012. Since then, Tony Stark had notably suffered from PTSD (which we believed to be a direct result of his near-death experience), while Steve Rogers exposed and then had a hand in ending the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. which spoke of an embedded mistrust in organisations existing as political tools. That’s about as pure a planted seed as you can get, in the events leading up the second Avengers outing, subtitled Age of Ultron. Here we saw that Tony was in fact trying to put an end to the hero antics, which led to he and Steve butting heads often. And here, we realised that they were very clearly setting up the central conflict for what we would eventually see in Civil War. So that’s all fine and dandy.

Then Captain America: Civil War happens, and after destroying entire cities in Age of Ultron, a comparatively smaller event happens in Lagos, and the world is up in arms. Believable? Perhaps. Contrived? Absolutely. What would have made a lot more sense to me was to have had the Lagos incident happen, then have the United Nations meeting occur to discuss what to do about it (after the mounting tension related to superhero activity), and then, only after the death of T’chaka, initiate the Sokovia Accords. That would have made a lot more sense to me.

Following on from this, I recall fans berating the subtitle “Age of Ultron” for the second Avengers outing because in that case “Age” referred to a meagre two hours of their time. The irony of this is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron most certainly served as an extended trailer for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice setting up the DC Extended Universe), it did at least introduce, discuss, and then conclude the primary motivation for the entire story as well as the central conflict it introduced. Civil War does not do this, opting instead to leave both aspects wide open, but somehow still nauseating in its insistence on concluding on a happy note (see: Steve’s letter to Tony).

To put it another way: The Sokovia Accords, the very obvious callback to the Superhuman Registration Act from the Civil War comic book event, is not resolved. It remains entirely up in the air, as well as that of the fate of all the Avengers. “Story for another time,” you might argue, and I would typically agree with you. But there are teases, or cliffhangers, and there are half-stories. Ultimately (no pun intended) Civil War seems to be cut off, rather than end in any satisfactory way. And I don’t blame the Russos for this, because the comic does the very same thing — subsequently, the events of the comic also lead to some of Marvel’s most questionable character reboots, including those of Captain America and Spider-Man. But that’s neither here nor there, for this discussion.

captain_america_civil_war_wallpaper_for_desktop

Before we leave the primary motivation, I would like to speak of another thought I had: The film seems to be teasing something big to come with Wanda (perhaps she kills Thanos?), whom many know as Scarlet Witch from the comics. In the comics, she is a mutant of incredible power; an entire Marvel storyline centres on her powers, and deals with her effectively going mental and wiping out nearly all of the mutants in the world with a singular thought following the death of her baby. Put simply, Wanda is the most powerful Avenger, plain and simple. And it really doesn’t show in the movies, where we still don’t even know what her powers actually are, reduced to “I can move things with my mind” in a rather tawdry fashion. But what if the primary motivation, stemming once again from an act of Wanda’s powers in Lagos, revolved instead of Bucky (and situations we will discuss shortly) but around Wanda? Granted, it is a Captain America movie, and is naturally trying to follow on from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but what if the Sokovia Accords (named as such) were formed as a direct consequence of the world’s mistrust of a former ally of Ultron, who attacked the Avengers with still-unexplained powers, before joining them? What if the world mistrusted the Avengers, because they mistrusted Wanda, and used her as an effigy-of-sorts to pin all of the blame on, for the destruction in both Sokovia and Lagos. Would that not have seemed a bit more believable than what happened with Bucky?

Instead, we’re expected to believe what we were presented with. That a man who had previously gone on missions while masked, had done a mission back in 1991 uncharacteristically without his mask on a stretch of road conveniently located in front of a camera with a functional audio and video feed that has enough clarity to easily identify him. That a man who had previously been unknown to world, “known only as The Winter Soldier” as previously discussed in Captain America 2, is now an international superstar who can easily and unquestionably be identified by media and news agents as a World War 2 soldier from Brooklyn. That a man who is very obviously not guilty of the thing he is being accused of would not make mention of it sooner and thereby avoid further conflict throughout the events of the movie. But “plot reasons” I guess.

All of this said, I don’t think the central conflict could have existed any other way than by having it revolve around Bucky. It was a magnificent way to tie in the entire story, as well as previous (world-altering) Captain America films, but it was also very cheap. Cheap because it took a previously unmentioned event, that of Tony Stark’s parents dying in a car accident, and made it Bucky’s fault (because nobody simply dies in this series unless their name is Peggy, I guess). Cheap because it shrank a satisfyingly large and further-expanding universe by giving two characters yet another way to be connected. Cheap because it dared to tell us that Steve had somehow already known about Tony’s parents but never told him. But “plot reasons” once again. Let’s move on.

captain-america-civil-war-desktop-background-wallpapers

The next topic I have noted down in my list of things to spend overly long discussing is the severe lack of consequence involved in anything going on, at any point in time. You are told of all the death and destruction going on, but the movie ultimately suffers from the same automatic powering up trope that nearly every other movie or TV series follows; the grunts and foot soldiers die easily, but any character in the top twenty names of the show credits will take literally hundreds of hits before going down unless they are Sean Bean. Remember how the entire audience grimaced when Rhodes fell from the sky before Sam or Tony could reach him? Why do you think it was filmed that way? It was meant to convey consequence; specifically, that these people are fighting each other. For all the criticisms of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and even though it ultimately used Gwen Stacy as a plot device, it cannot be faulted for having the guts to go there, resulting in Gwen’s neck snapping and doing its hardest to convey the dread-filled realisation of the mortality of the people involved. In Civil War, Rhodes just got a Stark Industries upgrade to his legs, and that was that.

That’s just not okay, for a movie based on a comic book storyline that featured quite a few deaths including that of Steve Rogers himself (spoiler alert, by the way).

I get that Disney want to keep every character alive to maximise merchandising and spinoff opportunities (on that note, really happy to see a Black Widow movie being considered) but at some point you have to stop and look at what you’re presenting, and think about it. Really think about it. You’re talking death, destruction, and the consequences of those. But nobody ever dies (yes I get the “pulling punches” thing, but I don’t accept it away from the context of that airport scene). So what’s the point? Even the one not evil character I can recall who did die, Phil Coulson, found his way to Marvel’s TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — Game of Thrones, this universe most certainly is not.

Contrast this with Batman v Superman, where one of the titular characters ended up getting himself killed before the end of the movie (spoiler alert, again). Prior to watching this movie I promised myself I wouldn’t draw comparisons to Batman v Superman and Civil War due to the differences between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe, and what Marvel and DC are going for respectively. But it’s impossible not to, because there are so many parallels (besides the obvious Paragon of Good wearing blue and red vs Dark but well-intended Billionaire in a suit).

Consider:

  • Both movies’ central conflicts involve two stalwart superheroes exchanging words, ideologies, and fists (not necessarily in that order)
  • Both introduce new cinematic characters so fantastic and refreshing that they entirely steal the show (Wonder Woman, Black Panther)
  • Both central conflicts culminate in parental baggage, and the resolution of such through a third party
  • Both movies use wanton destruction, death, and consequence as their primary motivators
  • Both movies rely on your belief that the world would reject superheroes if they existed
  • Both movies have villains who are more like side characters, with questionable roles in the overall events of the film

Civil War only narrowly edges out Batman v Superman because of Spider-Man reasons, but ultimately Batman v Superman presents the more believable demonstration of destruction with real consequence. A man who lost his legs. A child who lost her mother. A hero who lost his life trying to save the world that didn’t trust him. In the end, I watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice twice, and I still want more. But the only reason I would watch Civil War again would be for Spider-Man, who turned out to be breakaway success of the movie and made me more excited than I have ever been to see a high school kid from Queens wearing tights, in my life. Uhm.

Captain-America-Civil-War-Iron-Man-vs-Steve-Rogers

One thing that was mentioned to me was that Captain America: Civil War was Marvel’s attempt at squeezing three movies into one: Captain America 3 obviously, but also Avengers 3, and Iron Man 4. I would say four, actually. The fourth being Black Panther, who indisputably owned the first and third acts of the movie. As I previously mentioned, Marvel carefully planted the perfect seeds to provide the motivation for the Sokovia Accords with Tony’s PTSD and attempts to end evil, Steve’s mistrust of political agendas, and the consequences for all Avengers after dropping a city out of the sky. In doing so, we’re presented with something special. Something that hasn’t really happened before. Yes it’s called “Captain America” so naturally it must focus on Steve, but it adequately gives exposure to other characters, and feels more like a culmination than any previous Marvel Cinematic Universe outing. And this perfectly addresses fan complaints that previous movies did not involve all of the Avengers even though they clearly existed in the universe, and could have stepped into help. But “budget reasons” in this case, I guess.

The only real problem about it is the disconnect between the various acts. I previously mentioned that Black Panther owned acts 1 and 3. That’s because those acts had a significantly different tone to the second act, the so-called “airport scene” which swapped out the seriousness and severity of the situation for more humour, quips, and more of what we’ve come to love from Marvel: Light-hearted, feel-good, superhero stimulation. I couldn’t understand why this was the case. It was as if two distinctly different directing styles were used. The result, however, was that my second viewing of Civil War felt like a drag all-through the first act. It was so serious, so deliberate, so… dark. Perfect for Black Panther, but every other character just felt out of place in this imagining. Skip to act two and the excitement returns. Spider-Man! Ant-Man! I’m laughing! I’m crying! It’s agonising but in a good way! This is the Marvel movie I signed up for. And with that second act, Marvel have made me happier than anyone save for my girlfriend has ever made me. Carry that into act three and I’m barely even paying attention… the first time. The second time, I’m easily able to switch back into serious mode, and really take in what I’m seeing. And it just doesn’t flow.

By the end I’m just exhausted. I loved the ride, it was wild, I definitely feel as if I got what I paid for and then some, but I want a break from it. And I think about the movies coming up: Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and then the next Avengers movie. And I feel so much better about all of it. I don’t have to endure this exhaustion for a while. I get some breathing space to rest and recover from what I just saw. And Marvel, conveniently, can leave the unresolved Sokovia Accords and shattered Avengers for sufficiently long enough that hopefully most fans will forget all of it by the time Black Panther comes around. Perfect, right?

Despite all that, I really do love Captain America: Civil War. I’ve neglected to adequately convey the praise I feel for the movie, mostly because when I was asked to write-up on the movie, I was asked for any points of contention I felt required further discussion. And so here we are. Consequently, these thoughts and discussion points are rather nitpicky. I make no apologies about that much. But just know that despite all of this, I hold Civil War right up there with the really great superhero movies spectacles, and I am happy that it happened, even if it didn’t hit all the spots it could.

We love our children, with all of their flaws. As they are.

Always.

Oh, hello there

Come in!

Take a seat.

Kick your shoes off.

Put up your feet.

If you don’t know me, my name is Caveshen Rajman, and I was the Managing Editor of a South African website called EGMR (formerly eGamer) which closed down in late-2015 following my departure from the site.

To put it quite simply, I miss writing. I miss creating. I miss doing something I could unequivocally call my own. And mostly, I just miss being able to write my thoughts out.

So here we are. Consider this EGMR v2 but specific only to me. I will not adhere to any schedules, and I will only use this think-space to express my thoughts and opinions on certain goings-on as I deem fit. That means there won’t be “regular updates” or any of that PR nonsense. I will simply write (type?), and whatever comes from that, will be what you read.

Stay awhile and listen, won’t you…