Chinese Girl Cartoons – B: The Beginning

Occupying the awkward territory between gritty police procedural and daytime soap opera, B: The Beginning is the story of people who live in a country that is basically Italy but with a different name, where everyone speaks Japanese and has a supremely dumb name. Also there are homoerotic glam rock sadomasochists popping ampoules of what appears to be either piss or really nasty light beer in a zeppelin. When the RIS (it stands for something, I just forgot what it is, promise!) find themselves at a loss as to how to deal with a mysterious serial killer who only targets criminals, who else but disgraced genius detective Keith Kazama Flick (yep!) has to be brought back to active duty to advise. Flick, who is basically Sherlock Holmes but with worse people skills, quickly establishes connections between the killer in this case and those encountered in cases he has worked on in the past, and becomes personally involved, much to the consternation of the police force. Put it all together and shake it up and you end up with whatever the hell this is.

Well, that’s a little misleading. B is not weird, nor is it particularly original. It’s an anime conspiracy thriller that moves from police procedural to detective noir to total fantasy. But it does what it does with a certain panache. At its best, it reminded me of some creepy-as-shit moments from Big O and Monster, both of which I guess I would call better anime noir, but not being as good as those is hardly a harsh criticism. At least, it’s not harsh coming from me, because I love both of those series. B‘s downfall, for me, is its main story being wrapped up in teenager bullshit. I get it, I first became interested in anime as a child, I wanted the angst, because that was me, but now that anime has branched out into telling more varied stories, where’s something for the rapidly aging young people who are facing 30 and looking for something a bit less “smoking cigarettes whilst hanging out with ruffians to spite my father whom I hate very much”?

It’s not so much that teenagers can’t be compelling, but these ones aren’t. In fact they’re pretty much all whiny brats with no insight as to why they’re like that. They’re just kind of angry and stupid. While it is easy to think all teenagers are like that, for those of us who do remember the awkwardness and the seemingly inexplicable moodiness, the cloudmass of boredom broken into by the brief sunshine of exploration and small illicit joys, we know that isn’t the case, that something far more interesting lurks. B doesn’t have time for that, quite literally. With 13 episodes at 25 minutes apiece, it has to deal with the competing demands on time of its manifold genre commitments, and I think overall the people in charge made the right choice of getting as much of the juicy detective work in there as possible. It’s by far the best part of the show, and yet I feel like with an extended duration there would have been ample time to offer some pathos to the supernatural kids and their supernatural kid conflicts. There’s a lot of brutality carried out by, near, or against them, but any psychological torment these characters may be experiencing seems like so much affectation when displayed, just like the extremely homoerotic way some of them carry on seems like typical anime “haha gay dudes are creepy” with little substance behind it. I mean, it seems that way because that’s what it is. I believe gays are as much a valid target for humour (or source of horror) as anyone is, but here it feels particularly thin and flimsy. I don’t see that there is a way to cut back on anything else in the show’s 13 episodes to expand on this, so even just a few more episodes to explore the psychological lives of certain characters would have helped greatly.

Part of the problem is that really, when you get down to it, there isn’t much to the supernatural element of the story. At the beginning of the series we are told that researchers unearthed what amounts to the DNA of a fallen race of godlike beings, and that a project was launched with the aim of engineering new life in the mould of those ancient super-powered humanoids. Now, without giving away any twists, you can probably guess that this is revealed to be either not the truth or somewhat less than the entire truth. It’s pretty basic, not enough time is spent looking at the specifics of what went on in the laboratories where this project was being worked on, but you have to wonder if giving it more time to explore these ideas wouldn’t have made for a worse show. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a mystery story and discovering that there was actually nothing to it. The best mysteries, at least in my view, are the ones that provide revelations containing keys to the understanding that the real mystery, the “supermystery”, is one so vast and impossible that you could never hope to even begin to solve it. Gravity’s Rainbow, Twin Peaks, the better episodes of The X-Files (or how about that unfilmed Thomas Ligotti script?), you go in thinking the bigger picture can in the end be parsed into something simpler, some unifying summary, but it can’t, not because it doesn’t make sense or the writers were just throwing things together for appearance’s sake, but because it contains, or fails to contain a world. B is half-hearted as a mystery in the sense that what it contains is fragments of a world, the broader picture is missing. As it stands, for the 13 episode run I would have cut all the back story about ancient gods and whatnot and presented a stripped down murder mystery that hints towards the supernatural but in such a way that those elements could easily just be imagined, the psychological weathering of the characters being just as much a factor in what is seen and understood as the facts of the case themselves.

In its presentation, B fares about average. Visuals and animation are perfectly fine, what you’d expect from a 13 episode series. Perhaps the best of its visual information is its character design. Everyone has a distinctive face and body type. At least, that’s true within the confines of the show itself, there are clearly some clichés being drawn upon for certain of the supernatural homo murder dudes, some of which can transform, and upon doing so bear an amusing if slight resemblance to Baoh‘s Ikuroo in alien cat form. But that aside, it does among the supporting cast make characters who just aren’t important enough to be lavished with good screen time easy to recognise. It’s a great misfortune that the villains aren’t so well treated, they all have this neon glam thing going on, but most of them barely have any lines and are quickly disposed of, by the time you’ve heard their names once or twice they might as well be alien cat dinner. Sure, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, I’ll own up if that’s the case, but I do feel like so much of what doesn’t work is attributable to time constraints and trying to pack too much in.

Hey, at last it’s one of my classic short, dismissive anime review paragraphs: the music is so forgettable I barely even remembered there was music. Oops, not quite. It is notable in that it doesn’t have a 90 second intro with naff J-pop all over it, rather what sounds like halo drum and solfège, and that in itself is quite nice. The end theme, though, you bet your arse it’s crappy anime music. I think I will have “SAAAHM DAY AHHLLL BE GAWWWWN TUH SAAAHM WEHHH WEE BEEELAWWWN” playing in my head, lingering quite uninvited like a drunken party guest who can barely walk, let alone find the door, for some months to come. In fact it may be with me for life, a grim shadow of late youth reminding me in old age as I near sweet death that I used to waste time watching anime and writing about it. Is B: The Beginning a waste of time? For me, no. I quite enjoyed most of it, its flimsiest and silliest moments, while they intrude upon and drag down what could have been a pretty damn good serial killer story, can be quite funny, if unintentionally so, and at its best it offers a compelling if not exactly sturdy mystery with its more richly defined characters helming the action, and can do equal parts creepy and funny with good timing and pacing and atmosphere. Despite strong reservations, worth a watch.


Some Kind of Update

Howdy buckaroos. As you’ll notice, new material has been a bit sparse lately. A lot of stuff, including the game journals, the essays on music, and of course new work from everyone’s favourite worst composer in the world, has had to take a back seat while I try and figure out some things in my personal life. I’ll spare you the details on what exactly those things are that I’m working out, but I thought I would post a little update here today to let anyone who reads this know what I’m working on and hope to be producing in the coming months.

On to upcoming projects. I’m doing preliminary reading and planning on a critical essay about John Cage’s philosophy of music. I don’t know when I’ll actually start writing, because it is a complicated subject that requires a lot of close reading. It will probably require me to do a lot of additional reading on music from Satie through to Cage also, since Cage talks a lot about Satie, Ives, Varèse, Schoenberg etc. in defining a certain view of modern music history. I mention it here in the hopes that it will not be another thing I start in earnest and then get totally defeated by.

The Zappa Reviews, a project I started years ago, should be coming back this year. I say “should” and not “will” because, while I am working on it, I am having a lot of difficulty picking the work back up. When I look at the mission statement, that is “constructing, through in-depth looks at lyrical content, album structure, instrumentation, and other elements, a logical array of “lenses” through which to view the body of work [of Frank Zappa]”, I don’t understand what I meant. When I come to write a new review, I don’t understand how to apply that idea. So, I’m settling for “should”.

A while back, I wrote A Foundation in Modern Music for Beginners and said that I would also be providing, in a follow-up article, extended listening lists for further exploration. The big list is under construction. I don’t always have time to work on it, because a lot of listening is involved, but it’s getting there. From the “extended” list, I’ll be compiling a bunch of smaller lists, including guided lists in the manner of the original article, which aim at offering chronological views, with commentary that will help people who find the music difficult.

I am hoping to get back into writing anime reviews, probably a bit more in depth than what is currently available on my RYM List but it isn’t a “project” as such, and will basically be crossposting, so I’m not making a big deal about it. Game journals aren’t really a “project” either, they’re just 1000-or-so word things I write if I’ve been playing a game I like or whatever. Off the cuff opinion pieces much the same. So all of those will be making appearances as and when I get the inspiration to do them.

Oh, Work-a-Doodle-Day!

Since I finished Starlite Revue, a near 50 minute composition featuring a complex structure based around breaking up the instrumentation (a septet of piano, harpsichord, bandoneón, French horn, English horn, cello, and marimba) into smaller ensembles and solos, the ol’ well’s been running a bit dry in terms of ideas for longform composition. I had also been working on a soundtrack (stay tuned for the World Unbuilt article on music!) for some time before that, so it was also a matter of convenience for me to shift focus away from ambitious personal projects. To that end, I turned to writing short pieces that I could dash off in an hour or two, depending on what else I had to do that day. Inspired to some degree by the internet’s seemingly infinite parade of visual artists, which (the author said without a trace of envy) seem to be all anyone cares about on social media in terms of creative work aside from games and video content, I thought of these pieces as “doodles”. I aim to get at least one of them out per week, but that hasn’t worked out so well. Still I have completed 20 of these YouTube exclusive pieces so far, and I thought I’d post some of the best of ’em here!

No. 10 is a kind of ritualistic sounding type deal for piano, cristal baschet, trumpet, and clarinet.

No. 9, titled “Dorothy” for reasons I’m not entirely sure of—I think I just like the sound of that name—is a triptych for a 19-TET piano. Dorothy. Dorotea. Doritos. You know.

“Tan Suit” is a suite for piano comprising doodles 14-20. I see it as an attempt at combining the 12-tone method (as in my longform composition Urgynes I use multiple 12-tone matrices but combine the materials they generate with free writing) with the baroque partita.

The very first doodle! The name speaks for itself, it was my friend’s birthday, and he actually kind of likes my music sometimes, so I made something for him.

A man once said “never mix music and politics”, and I’m pretty sure that man was me. Nonetheless, when my friend (the titular Maister Gaczkowski) requested an anthem to capture the spirit of Brexit, I felt it was my duty to rise to the occasion. Turn captions on for patriotic commentary.

There’s Christmas, there’s Hanukkah, there’s Yuletide, and for a long time that’s all there was (this is actually not true). But now there’s Festive Yuletide! Give it a shot, you’ll love it!

Some Thoughts on “David Lynch Teaches Typing”

Note: This article contains *SPOILERS* for a game type thing that literally came out this week. Spoilers also abound for some Lynch films and probably some other things too. Be forewarned!

Inspired by two things, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a classic educational software for children from way back when, and American filmmaker David Lynch, David Lynch Teaches Typing is basically what it sounds like. An affably old school GUI with a pixel art portrait of David Lynch, who is voiced by someone else in what is actually a rather decent impression of Lynch’s “unique” manner of speaking, although more than anything seems to have come from Lynch’s own self-parody character Gordon Cole (Twin Peaks), teaches you how to type. Or at least it does for a little while before things start to get a little weird.

One of the things that tends to happen with a Lynch parody, or anything “inspired by” Lynch, is lots of references to Lynch’s work. Another thing that tends to happen is lots and lots of non-sequiturs, which are “weird”. If it’s “weird” then it is “Lynchian”, there is no difference. After Twin Peaks, anything on TV that was slightly odd was suddenly “Lynchian”. “Lynchian” is a meme. Memes exhibit extreme fluidity of meaning. What a meme means at its inception is probably not what it will mean a few months later, because the meme is subjected to variations over and over, and those variations have their own variations, and so on. Yet the original meaning, at least in the case of something like “Lynchian”, cannot be escaped, so it is sandwiched together with the new meaning. So “Lynchian” is “weird”.

After completing the Home Row exercise—pressing F and J, basically—you’re told to place your left ring finger in the undulating bug to the left of your keyboard. Right off the bat my mind was not thinking of Lynch but of Naked Lunch, the quasi-adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s famous novel made by David Cronenberg in the early ’90s. Cronenberg and Lynch are often mentioned in the same sentence, and it’s easy to see why. They both tend to feature grotesque and strange images and situations, characters may not always be who they appear to be, identity can be fluid or multiple, endings may not be easy to understand. In Naked Lunch, Bill Lee (Burroughs’s proxy) hallucinates (or does he?) that his typewriter is a talking insect that tells him what to do. It may be a manifestation of paranoia, like the Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, but it is not outwardly adversarial, and in fact helps to guide Lee through the strange world of Interzone.

The undulating bug does bear some resemblance to the baby from Eraserhead, yet the atmosphere is at that point far more Cronenbergian (there’s another one!) than Lynchian. In fact, technology in general is far more Cronenberg country than anything Lynch. Technology in Lynch’s films serve odd purposes, and they may not always do the things they’re supposed to do. Telephones in particular seem to literally be a means of communicating with entities in other places. In Lost Highway, the Mystery Man shows Bill Pullman’s character a mobile phone and tells him he is at his house, then asks Pullman to call him, when the phone at Pullman’s house is picked up, the Mystery Man is on the line. Telephones in Twin Peaks: The Return seem to act not only as communication devices but means of teleportation in some cases, which would make sense given the Peaks saga’s use of electricity. But it isn’t a “real world” application. In Cronenberg, a piece of technology is far more likely to be “hard science fiction”, or something close. The titular television channel in Videodrome sends a strange signal which generates tumours in the brains of its viewers. In The Fly, the teleportation pod accident does not turn Jeff Goldblum into a man with a fly’s head, but into a kind of chrysalis man who slowly transforms into a giant human-fly hybrid.

Quite away from science fiction, Lynch is interested in the psychological in an inward looking fashion, his characters’ psyches transform the world around them, everything is subjective. Very often the way these psychological influences manifest is seemingly supernatural. Strange beings appear out of darkness, paintings begin to move, people turn into other people. Cronenberg is conversely a very objective kind of filmmaker, even though his films are often about the intersection of psychology and technology, and the influence they have on each other, sometimes to world altering effect. Lynch could not have made Crash, just as Cronenberg could not have made Inland Empire. A computer game is far more up Cronenberg’s alley, he even made a sort of “update” of Videodrome in the late ’90s called Existenz, about a virtual reality worldspace, one of those science fiction films of that era which was buried under the mountains of praise and hype for the actually-kinda-rubbish The Matrix. In Twin Peaks: The Return, which as far as I’m aware is the only one of Lynch’s filmed works in which they have any real presence, computers are used pretty much exclusively as part of the show’s satirisation of modern crime procedural shows. Their functions are not technologically accurate, they exist in that world exclusively to serve that show’s absurd sense of humour.

So maybe a computer game isn’t the greatest medium for a Lynch parody, but then, is there a great medium for such a thing? If “Lynchian” and “weird” are the same thing, then, as in this game, all you need to do is load it with references and fake glitches and voila, you’ve got yourself a Lynch thing. For me this doesn’t work so well, no matter what format you’re doing it in. In Lynch’s own work, when something inexplicable happens it either has story or character relevance, or it serves an atmospheric purpose. The approach in this game has more in common with cattle prod cinema, or quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG!, to paraphrase film critics Pete Bradshaw and Mark Kermode respectively. Lynch certainly isn’t above jump scares, but he tends to use them as a means of introducing something which will then linger mysteriously in the back of the mind, colouring what comes later.

I know that I’m being very serious about what is intended as a joke, and in my criticism I mean no disrespect to the people who created what is a pretty amusing and well-done thing in itself. To me, David Lynch Teaches Typing in fact teaches—perhaps, through its interactive portions, even more saliently than filmed parodies—that Lynch really is impossible to replicate. It’s one thing to take things he has already done and directly copy them, but it’s something else entirely to have come up with those things in the first place. I appreciate David Lynch Teaches Typing, beyond its competence from a design perspective, as a reminder of this more than anything. Sometimes it takes imitation to highlight just how special the real thing is.

“David Lynch Teaches Typing” was created by Rhino Stew Productions. The game is free and can be downloaded for Windows, Mac, and Linux here. Though it probably goes without saying, I am not affiliated with Rhino Stew Productions, nor am I being financially lubricated in exchange for producing this vaguely promotional piece.

Game Journal – Dark Souls

Dark Souls, the Dark Souls of video games. It is impossible to approach this game in 2018 for the first time, or even many prior years, without having considerable baggage just from looking the damned thing up. Even if you’d never heard of it before the very moment you were prompted to check it out, you’ll be plunged into a roiling deep sea of opinions. Alternately I was promised the hardest game ever, rich in atmosphere and full of intense fights, or a poorly designed low budget piece of shit with no story. The truth is perhaps somewhere between these extremes.

First off, the game is challenging. “Hard” would have sent me packing in about ten minutes. I’m someone who has given up on many games just because I couldn’t figure out how to get past a certain bit after a handful of tries. But beyond that, it’s about how rewarding you are expecting the payoff for defeating a particular boss or clearing a certain level to be. I gave up on Mirror’s Edge what I reckon to have been around halfway through, because the combat is so unpleasant that the payoff of those kind of nasty looking cel-shaded cutscenes, and the uninteresting whodunnit they tell, was not recompense enough for toughing out endless barrages of riot gear cops with shotguns. I’m more than a bit of a wuss about having to do “hard” things in games, because I suck at games, but for some reason Dark Souls made me want to play on from the first time I hesitated dropping down to face Asylum Demon, causing him to jump up and one-shot me by smashing the platform I was standing on to pieces. My reaction was not to quit the game in frustration but to laugh, I thought it was hilarious that the developers had put that in there. “No fucking around here, buddy boy!” Or whatever that sentence is in Japanese, I guess.

The game is a process of trial and error. Like learning to play a piece of music, you have to do some things over and over in order to get it right. The difference between Dark Souls and other games where I’ve had to bang my head against a wall to pull off a tricky sequence, is that in Dark Souls there’s a kind of moment where everything comes together, what seemed impossible the first time around becomes somehow manageable on the fifth try, you see the grander design and you feel like you’ve come to understand the structure of it. Following the musical analogy, it was like not exactly mastering, but learning to play at a somewhat competent level a guitar transcription of the fugue from BWV 1001. There is a logic to it, and at its best there can be an almost balletic beauty to fighting something like the Sanctuary Guardian boss from the Artorias of the Abyss DLC. It’s also far less arcane than hearsay would lead you to believe, the essential controls you need to beat pretty much anything are given freely in the opening few minutes of play, mastering them can take longer, especially since different enemies require different tactics to beat, but learning where and when to do which move, and how to combine them effectively feels, for want of a better word, “organic”.

Also organic, for a substantial part of the game’s play time, is the level design. After the opening tutorial area, you are flown by a giant crow to the Firelink Shrine, this is a hub area to which you gradually open up more and more direct paths from other areas. It feels great opening up a door or finding an elevator and realising that you’ve come full circle. The layout of the areas around Firelink feels great. It gives a real sense of accomplishment to stand atop a tower, for example, and look down on the undead infested town you just conquered to get there. It’s also daunting to enter a new area and see it, as you sometimes do, laid out before you, brimming with danger and secrets. One particularly cool moment for me was dying in one area, respawning at a bonfire which, it turned out, was somewhere higher up above it, and looking down to see my souls hanging out on the edge of an abyss waiting to be reclaimed. One of the cool things about the design is how vertical it is, very few areas exist at the same height, you’re always climbing towards heaven or descending to dark and forgotten places.

I’m sure most people know how the game works by now, but since I made mention of souls and bonfires it’s probably worth explaining them a tiny bit. Souls are basically experience points and currency rolled into one. You gain souls by killing enemies or finding soul items scattered about the levels, and you lose them if you die. When you die you leave a bloodstain which, if you can reach it without dying again, will give you the souls you lost on your previous death. If you die again before reaching them, they’re gone for good. You can use souls by going to a bonfire and resting there, allowing you to level up. You can only increase one attribute per level, and like most RPGs, the amount you need to gain a level goes up each time. Resting at bonfires refills your Estus Flask, which is the basic HP recovery item; it doesn’t do anything to alleviate status ailments, some of which can be quite nasty, but it can be upgraded to recover more HP. Resting also resets all enemies except bosses and mini-bosses, so anything you killed before resting will be back and ready to fight you again. Whenever you die, you’ll respawn at the last bonfire you rested at, but it isn’t a checkpoint, Dark Souls autosaves, so any progress you made in terms of killing bosses, activating elevators, getting items etc. is saved, you just have to make it back to where you were to keep progressing.

At the start of the article I said that both extremes of the game’s reputation were true to some extent. I’ve been praising it for the past 1000 words, but now it’s, sadly, time to get into areas where the game falls flat for me. I should note at this point that I played the game fully offline, I had no players helping me fight bosses, no invaders, no notes from other players to guide me when the going got tough. I don’t say that to brag, only to point out that for some people my experience of the game may seem to have been less than complete. When I’m playing a story driven game, I like a singleplayer experience much better than multiplayer. I understand that Dark Souls‘ approach to multiplayer is quite novel, only having access to the support of others or being invaded by enemy players when you meet the specific criteria to do so, and then only for a limited time. There are NPC helpers and invaders in the game as well, and the criteria for accessing them is similar. Personally, I dislike the idea of people being able to enter my game and kill me, stealing my souls, but it is certainly an added layer of challenge, and in the latter parts of the game, where the sense of progression and of connection that once was all fades away into a series of dead end areas, it probably helps to spice things up a bit.

This is my first major criticism. While I had some issues with the game prior to clearing Anor Londo—for me, and, it would seem, many others, the peak of the game—it was only after acquiring the Lordvessel, which allows you to warp around between certain bonfires, and later opens the way to the final boss, that I began to realise I had played through a brilliant, structured two acts which led to a third act of disjointed action, an aimless finale with so many loose threads to tie up and no apparent reason to do them in any order. If the game can be criticised for being esoteric, that shoe definitely fits it here. It was only by chance that I ended up doing the things I needed to do in order to reach the end. What I didn’t understand at first was why. Why had the first forty hours been so much fun, even at their most nerve-racking or frustrating, but now everything I did felt like a “just ’cause I was there”, a mere chancing upon something I hadn’t yet done? Well, it’s precisely because of what I said at the end of the last paragraph, the game goes from being this web of interconnected areas with lots of cool shortcuts and hidden paths to discover and explore, to a bunch of areas leading to nowhere but boss fights of often underwhelming levels of challenge, and beyond them, where before there would have been more to see, or a neat way back to Firelink, a dead-end. The game starts dropping “homeward bones”—these are items you can use to warp to the last bonfire you rested at while keeping all of your accumulated souls—like they’re going out of style, and all you do is warp around until there’s nothing left to do but face the final boss.

There are some lesser issues. In some areas like Blighttown, which has a lot of clustered ladders and platforms and sheer drops, the camera can freak out and send you falling to your doom at a moment’s notice. That area in particular also has, somehow, some frame rate issues which must simply be down to bad porting (I’m playing the Prepare to Die Edition, which was originally a PC port with DLC included). Frame rates also drop in the underground areas Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith, both of which seem to have trouble dealing with the magma and fire emitters they are filled with. The developers acknowledged some of these issues, along with the 30 fps framerate cap (60 fps mods exist, but apparently these can cause serious problems with the game), but also said that basically their goal was just to get the thing on PC—it was a straight port, by no means an upgrade.

I also dislike the way the game handles slowdown from encumbrance. Basically, you can go up to 50% of your equip load (that’s just the stuff you have equipped right at that moment, the rest of your inventory, despite its massive combined weight even early on, is not counted) before you start to get super slow and do the “fat roll”, which is less an evasive manoeuvre than throwing yourself on the floor like a submissive dog and hoping the enemies take pity on you and leave you alone. Below 50% there are two different classes, medium weight is functional in terms of speed and evasive capability, and the fastest is super fast, letting you sprint like Usain Bolt and roll like mad, making it very easy to get up behind enemies and perform a devastating backstab. This in itself is fine, people who equip heavy armour and hold in their right hand a greatsword while wielding an impenetrable tower shield in their left should be much slower than people who wear robes and wield a magic wand, it just makes sense, right? Well yeah, but it would have been great if the game told me what the actual percentage was, so that I could settle on an equipment loadout instead of having to trial every combination to see if I could roll fast or not. Basically: I’m crap at maths and any normally intelligent person wouldn’t have these issues, but like every other moron on the planet I demand that my stupidity be catered to.

In case you can’t tell, I really, really like Dark Souls. I had to pick on some pretty damn minor issues—most of which, I believe, have been addressed in the sequels, although my major issue with the game’s latter third seems to have become more prevalent and commonplace in its successors—to balance my gushing praise with some much needed for balance’s sake criticism. However, it is an imbalanced work. After a climactic high-point it loses the magic that, almost wordlessly, told you all you needed to know. The epic hero’s quest through Lordran devolves into so many chores to be crossed off a list, and while the sense of achievement for beating the final boss may be high, the amount of busywork that must be attended to leading up to it is a less than ideal comedown from the heights both you and the game itself were scaling previously. In spite of its flaws, however, I do feel that Dark Souls is worthy of the praise, if not the reputation for insane difficulty, that it so often gets. An excellent game, and one that even I, a weak-willed gamer who loves an easy ride and balks at even not-so-Herculean trials, enjoyed playing for the vast majority of my time with it.

Game Journal – Metal Gear Survive PC Beta

This weekend Steam is hosting the free beta of Metal Gear Survive, Konami’s Phantom Pain zombie mod. This is a multiplayer only beta. Maybe I should have read the stuff it tells you to read before letting you play the game, but I didn’t, and it took me a while digging through the irritatingly laid out menu to find the “Return to Mother Base” (i.e.: single player) option greyed out. I should state up front that, due to the game refusing for whatever reason to work with the ordinarily fabulous x360ce, I was forced to play with mouse and keyboard controls, which are not quite as bad as you might expect, but still far from a smooth means of controlling third person action. So whatever you read here, keep in mind that I was labouring somewhat with suboptimal peripherals.

There has been much said about this game. Lots of people think that Konami is taking a beloved franchise and wringing a quick buck out of it by adapting Phantom Pain‘s base resource acquisition mechanics and adding zombies, hunger, and thirst into the mix, and I agree with them. The Metal Gear series has had survival mechanics before. My favourite instalment in the series, Snake Eater, took place largely in woodland and mountain environments and required you to hunt your own food and heal your own wounds, gun suppressors would wear down and break from use, and your radar and other gadgets would run out of battery life. So it isn’t an entirely alien concept.

What is alien is that series creator and “gaming auteur” Hideo Kojima is nowhere to be found. Kojima ended his time with Konami after the tempestuous rushed finish of Phantom Pain in 2015, and is now working on Death Stranding, which will finally see his dream of collaborating in a full game production with Norman Reedus realised. Previously they had worked together on P.T., a cleverly designed little puzzle box of a horror game meant to tease Silent Hills, which Konami promptly cancelled, presumably because it needed to divert extra computing power to its pachinko machine design AI. (I don’t know if they actually have one of those, but would anyone be surprised if they did?) Metal Gear games have been made in the past without Kojima’s involvement, from the infamous Snake’s Revenge to the well-received Revengeance, and often forgotten minor entries like Ghost Babel, but this is the first time that the series itself has been without him. In a way it’s probably very freeing for him, not to have to continue telling the same story, but for fans of the series it’s less than ideal, especially when Phantom Pain was released with its main story in a somewhat less than finished state.

Much has been made of Konami’s decision to make new Metal Gear titles. So far as I’m aware, Survive—which is a spin-off, a what-if based around wormholes opening up during the climactic sequence of Ground Zeroes so that, instead of becoming the Diamond Dogs of Phantom Pain, the MSF are Samurai Jack‘d into a world where zombies with red crystals in their heads mill around trying to destroy mining equipment, or at least that’s what seems to be going on—is the only one they’re currently committed to, whatever that means. Even so, the game is seen by many as an insult to the series and to Kojima himself, although he doesn’t seem to be taking it personally. He has however commented that he doesn’t feel that zombies belong in Metal Gear.

But all this has been discussed endlessly since the game’s announcement last year. What about the game? Well, the game is… Phantom Pain with zombies. Or rather, it’s Phantom Pain with most of what made that game what it was removed and replace with zombies. Also you can spawn fences out of thin air, but I didn’t get a chance to use that mechanic, if indeed it exists in the co-op horde mode, which is the only thing you can do in this beta aside from knifing endlessly respawning training dummies. Horde mode revolves around a “wormhole generator”, which actually appears to be a drilling machine, and which you are suppose to defend. You play as one of a team of four people, all of whom in my matches seemed to prefer to run off to collect resources rather than actually defend the thing, which is under assault from wave after wave of zombies.

Like most zombie games, Survive features a few different classes of enemy. There are the generic crystal-headed dudes who shamble about aimlessly until they detect you, at which point they start running full pelt until they get you. They aren’t very smart though, as you’d expect from people with crystals where their brains should be, and their AI often had difficulty navigating its way around basic obstacles like broken walls to get to me. Stepping up from that is the bomber class. This is the obese zombie that explodes either naturally or after taking too much damage. They can take a lot of hits, be it from knives, guns, or the apparently totally useless punch move which seems to do absolutely nothing to anything, and the only way to stop them is to blockade them.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any more types than that, if indeed there are any in this beta, because I never got past the second wave. I don’t wish to paint the other players as people who had no interest in trying to play properly and were only there to farm mats for the full game (I believe cloud saves transfer from the beta), but they kind of were exactly that. Also unfortunate: the one Steam friend I have who also played this beta was not online when I was playing, so the only potentially good match I could have had, barring the fact that we would need two others to make a full party, was not in the offing. The matchmaking is also quite slow, it took almost four full minutes (the beta has a generous five minute wait time to find all of four people) just to populate a room on the European servers in early evening (GMT) on a Sunday, plus extra every time someone quit.

While I obviously cannot talk about how it will work in the final release, the game’s emphasis on resource gathering and crafting, which is definitely a mat grind timesink, feels at odds with the immediacy of the horde mode’s fast, action oriented gameplay. You have a couple of minutes to run around getting materials before the “wormhole generator” begins generating wormholes drilling and thus attracting zombies, and the zombies hit it and then you shoot them and then you run out of ammo and then they all blow up for some reason and then the fat ones show up and explode at you and it’s over. Whatever emphasis on survival style gameplay the final game will have, what I played in this beta feels like an action game laden with mechanics which only serve to hamper the action itself.

I thought Survive was a dumb idea from the very first time I heard about it, but I tried to go into this experience without too many preconceived notions of what it would be. After all, trailers are rarely if ever an indication of what the actual product is going to be like. It’s often true of films, where the “best scenes”, whatever that might mean for a given film, are excerpted and cut together in a 90 second reel, but it is inherently the case for games. There is no way to know what something plays like just by watching someone else play it, much less a member of the dev team, who has been living and breathing it for the past however many months or even years. Had I just gone by the trailers, or even gameplay footage from third party companies, I might have thought that Survive was going to be another dumb zombie game. It isn’t. Zombie games, no matter how mindless or derivative, are usually at least a little bit scary or overwhelming, this is just confused and unpleasant.

The New Fear Effect Is Not Fear Effect

Probably a cause for confusion more than anything, Sedna, the even-more-obcsurely-than-usual named third major entry in the Fear Effect series, is coming out next month. It looks exactly like its two predecessors, both released on the original PlayStation console way back around the turn of our glorious abysmal millennium, it’s got the cel shading, the in-your-face sexuality, the lesbian fanservice, and the strong gore, and yet it looks nothing like Fear Effect. The classic Fear Effect look and feel is somewhere between old school Resident Evil and full CGI anime, and you might be thinking “well thank fuck it isn’t like that!”, but what they’ve gone with for the latest instalment might not be any better.

“What’s popular right now? MOBAs, squad tactics, Infinity Engine inspired RPGs… Yeah, let’s do that!” Though I have just made this quote up for illustrative purposes, it could well have been transcribed from a preliminary meeting of the dev team. But why not do that? Can tank controls and fixed-camera perspective really offer anything but a nostalgia trip for jaded young oldsters who just want to see cel-shaded underboob again but in 4K, like it was for the first time? In all likelihood they’re just going to become frustrated by the frankly awful controls and look-up “The Movie” supercuts on YouTube instead, wherein minimalist accounts of gameplay serve as transitions between one cutscene and the next.

So then, in an age of remakes and reboots and remasters—a treatment which, by the way, the original Fear Effect is currently undergoing (also slated for release this year)—shouldn’t we be glad that the developer has decided to brave a different path in order to give the player something new? Well, “different” and “new”, much as I might nominally prefer them to “same” and “old”—and disregarding the fact that in marketing terms they are largely synonymous with each other—don’t guarantee “good”. A cursory glance at Sedna‘s pseudo-isometric real time tactics gameplay can be added to the Everest-sized mountain of supporting evidence for that statement.

It’s not that tactical action is a bad idea, or that old series can’t be reinvented with radically new gameplay, but feast your eyes on this demo footage and see what comes to mind. People of a certain age, old enough to remember the PlayStation 2 as an exciting new thing, will probably be reminded of the curious quality possessed by a good many of its more cut budget titles, especially the slew of superfluous and terrible character action games such as Tekken’s Nina Williams in Death By Degrees (and yes, that is the actual title), in which impactless hits and slow gameplay made slower still by bullet sponge enemies were the stale bread around a rotten meat filling of badly written, acted, and directed cutscenes every bite of which delivered a story that actively disincentivised continuation of play.

Obviously Sedna is not a character action game from the mid-2000s, cheapo or otherwise, and more’s the pity, for the campy high-octane style of a Devil May Cry would suit Fear Effect‘s B movie silliness to a tee. Alas, our oversexed assassins/secret agents/softcore idols are to be contained like ants (and they are about the size of ants on the screen) in an isometric farm. The tone is appropriately clinical and rote, and while the dialogue aims towards the knowing daftness of its predecessors, it too is rendered clinical by the presentation, consisting of two or more light-up cardboard cut-outs like the very worst movie tie-in games.

Even though the old games could not really be called good as games, what they did have was great visual style and fully animated cutscenes that helped bring the characters and story to life, in turn making the often tedious action or obtuse puzzle gameplay less intolerable. Sedna does appear to have some proper cutscenes, but either I’m overestimating the quality of Fear Effect‘s presentation, or the simple passage of time has made what was once novel and interesting far less so, because it just seems kind of bland. Without a doubt, something is very off about the proper cutscenes in this demo.

Looking back at the old games, the real problem seems to lie in the 3D models and skins. Previously, characters’ facial expressions were handled through manipulating the skins themselves to create less fluid animations that had a sort of Harryhausen-esque charm to them, offsetting the smoother 3D animation of the models while static camera work contained the action like a comic book, each shot its own panel. Sedna‘s cutscenes look like they could have come from just about any game of the “cinematic” era, they’re slicker and of a much higher fidelity than those of the originals, but what they have gained in overall image quality has come at the unnecessary expense of character.

Now, the demo footage I’ve seen came out going on a year ago, and a lot can change in a year’s development. Games get cleaned and polished, stodgy mechanics are reworked and fine tuned, look and feel is made snappier, at least in an ideal world. But the games industry is not an ideal world, it’s an industry, and like any industry its focus on profit and machine-like creation of product often means that a game which starts off being developed misguidedly keeps on sucking because there simply isn’t enough time to fix problems tantamount to the game itself. Politics may lead to some minor, superficial changes, like JonTron being removed from the voice cast of Yooka-Laylee, but that’s all. In terms of game design, if you start off going the wrong way you will end up in the wrong place, not necessarily because you didn’t realise you were heading in the wrong direction, but because even if you did realise it, trying to turn back is like trying to change the course of a ship on an ocean that has suddenly turned from water to molasses.

It comes as little surprise then that the trailer for Sedna published today looks exactly the same. The characters move around the isometric space slowly, shooting things which seem to be able to take a lot of bullets, fire damage, and whatever else, no matter whether they’re some beast of Chinese mythology or just a regular guy in a shirt, before even getting hurt at all, let alone being killed. The cutscenes on show also offer no hope of improvement in terms of direction, they all have the same bland “cinematic” feel, and for all the facial contortions the character models are forced to make, they do not have anything of the expressive quality of the simpler, lo-fi aesthetic of the older games. The classic Fear Effect games were not masterpieces, but they were unique, and having the latest addition to the series throw away almost everything that made them what they were seems like such a waste.

Game Journal – Toribash

Although I’m really very bad at them, there’s sometimes nothing as exhilarating as a fighting game. Whether it’s a round of Street Fighter IV or Smash Bros. Melee, beating the crap out of your friends—or, if you’re like me, getting the crap beaten out of you—is among the most fun you can have in a video game. The challenge of mastering Akuma, which I never really succeeded in, is still one of my best gaming memories. But what if instead of learning move sets and combos, you could actually design entirely unique moves with a high degree of granularity? Cue Toribash. Toribash is a martial arts “simulator” in which you control a ragdoll by manipulating its joints in a turn based battle. Each joint has four modes, and used in a well-orchestrated manner you can get your ragdoll to do pretty much anything. You can grab and flip and twist and turn and punch and kick, potentially dismembering your opponent, or more likely yourself.

My first experience with Toribash was some years ago. The game was released in 2006, and I must have played it around 2009. Two things I remember: 1) It’s obtuse, 2) Everyone else is better at the game than you are. Both of these were confirmed when I returned to it in January. If you’re the kind of person who likes a pick-up-and-play level of simplicity or tutorialising, this game might not be for you. Then again, I’m someone who gave up on the fairly straightforward Ratchet & Clank, and I really enjoy this game, even if I’m no good at it. There’s something incredibly satisfying, even when your plan goes horribly wrong, about watching your ragdoll execute your instructions. However, in my experience this is not the kind of game where watching replays is especially instructive. Even watching high-level play only really serves to attack your own resolve to keep playing.

So the game is obtuse, yes, but an even bigger barrier to entry is the small and dedicated community which remains to this day, some twelve years after release. Like classic Counter-Strike, the only people who are still playing today are phenomenally good, so for a newcomer for whom even Uke, the training bot, is intimidating, having your head ripped off by masters of the game in a dazzling tour-de-force of balletic kung fu over and over is maybe not such a great incentive to continue. But for me, at least, the beauty of movement that is attainable with mastery is appealing enough that I keep coming back for more punishment.

The game has amassed a vast collection of mods, which include everything from rule sets (e.g.: disqualification for touching the ground with body parts other than feet and hands), to modes with weapons, to environments such as obstacle courses, which require you learn how to run and jump and climb. On some level modes like this seem to be spiritual precursors to Gang Beasts, although that game has nowhere near the same level of granularity. Unfortunately trying to load these mods seemed invariably to cause the game to crash, so I can’t relay my experiences with them beyond that.

Despite the issues I have encountered, I still feel like Toribash is novel and well-designed enough to deserve a bigger following than it currently has, and I’m not just saying that because I want to play against people who suck as much as if not more than I do. It costs nothing, the learning curve is a steep but a rewarding one, and it’s still actively supported by the developers after all this time—check it out!

On the Lack of Motivation to Do Anything from a Role-Playing Perspective in Fallout 4 (Game Journal… Sort of…)

Recently, Bethesda held a Fallout 4 “free weekend” on Steam. For about four days, the game was available to any and all to download and try out. Very probably you could play through the main story and then some in that amount of time, should you be dedicated enough to do so. Lots of people are that dedicated to Bethesda’s open world games, but then those people all bought Fallout 4 already, so I’m not sure who this was for. Maybe Todd Howard thought it would be a great idea to put it out there so that I could play it for a little while and then write an over-long blog complaining about it. He knows I would never make the decision to give Bethesda my money, so this works out nicely. Thanks, Todd.

Fallout is a series of “post-nuclear” RPGs which began in the late ’90s. Developed by Interplay, its first two instalments were isometric, turn-based death marches into the wild unknown of an America which had diverged from our own timeline somewhere around the 1950s. In this reality, space age visions of the future came true, and the goofy retro-futuristic science fiction setting is today instantly recognisable, with its gangly robots and giant talking supercomputers sitting nicely alongside a fixation on body horror that is without doubt a child of the 1980s. When Interplay bigwigs decided that what Fallout fans wanted instead of an actual Fallout 3 was an X-COM style squad tactics spin-off, no one complained. But then they decided that what the series really needed was a third person shooter with a nu metal soundtrack developed exclusively for consoles. Much as I might lament what the series has become under Bethesda’s stewardship, its previous master did not treat it kindly either. Eventually Interplay suffered insane losses, and amid the vulturing of its assets Bethesda purchased the rights to the series.

The Fallout 3 we eventually got was Bethesda’s first attempt at translating the wasteland into its alarmingly bad Gamebryo engine. In that masterpiece of jank, the player was tasked with rescuing Liam Neeson from a mad scientist and purifying some water, against the wishes of the Enclave—the villains of Fallout 2, resurrected presumably out of laziness, but more charitable views might paint it as an homage, as they might all the other lazy cribbings from previous entries—who want to use the purifier to infect the water with some kind of toxin that will kill all creatures contaminated by radiation, so that the world can be made safe for repopulation with their pure genes. Unlike previous Fallout stories, in which the player was encouraged to invent their own character with a history and traits of their choosing, Bethesda’s approach sought to create the Heart-Wrenching Personal Story™, with Liam “Taken” Neeson as the player character’s father, who escaped from Vault 101 (gee, how’d you come up with that one?) to fulfil his life’s mission: clean drinking water for the people of former Washington DC. The game begins with the player character’s birth (during which their mother dies), moving through their childhood and teenage life in the vault. One day all hell breaks loose, dad’s gone, and you gotta get gone too! It’s prescriptive to a degree which precludes real role-playing, yet it is but a taste of what was to follow.

Fallout 4 also features a prescriptive introductory sequence, but handles it quite bizarrely. It is 2077, the year of the nuclear war that tore the world apart and created the world of Fallout. A man stands before a mirror, his wife staring at him. He says to himself “War. War never changes.” This is the series’ well known catchphrase. From the classic games through to the newer entries, a playthrough always begins with a monologue, which in turn always begins with that phrase. However, in previous entries it was spoken by Ron Perlman, a gruff-voiced narrator with no relation to anything in the game itself. This time, it’s the male player character who delivers the monologue, and for the first time the protagonist is fully voiced. Where previously you picked dialogue options from a menu, free to imagine what you sounded like, now you have no option but to play a monotone goon. You can choose to play as the female if you wish, but from the get-go the choice is heavily skewed in favour of the male: he voices the introduction, he’s the default option at the character creation screen, in which he and his wife stand around staring at each other with the cold glassy gaze of Terminators in front of a bathroom mirror as you stretch, colour and otherwise skew their faces, making the same three comments, two of which are “there’s the handsome man I married” and “I clean up pretty good”, over and over until you’re defeated into just saying “fuck it” and going with whatever sub-Jon Bernthal looking mess you’ve ended up with.

Once you’ve gotten away from the plastic surgery bathroom nightmare, you are treated to the world’s frostiest middle class domestic environment. The robot servant Codsworth bods about the place making chummy conversation while trying to do a John Cleese accent, and there is a Baby Thing you can play with, sort of, left unattended in a bleak room. After being forced to open the door for Paul Eiding (Metal Gear Solid‘s Colonel Campbell), a vault placement salesman, whose job it is to quickly get you signed up for a place in Vault 111 (really pushing the boat out there guys) and introduce you to the anti-role-playing and frankly abysmal dialogue system, you are then forced to placate the crying Baby Thing. Within ten seconds, Codsworth alerts you to a news report on the television, and you are forced to go to the living room to watch someone talk about an imminent nuclear attack. You are of course then forced to run with your family to the vault, which as it happens is just up the road. Kind of funny they only got around to registering you three minutes prior and you’re approved for entry already, but that’s because war, war never changes. Or something. Shut up.

Once you’re in the vault, you, your wife and the Baby Thing are for some reason placed inside cryostasis chambers and frozen. At some point a man who looks like Vinny Caravella’s evil brother arrives, unfreezes your wife, kills her, steals the Baby Thing, and then freezes you again. When at last, in 2287, you are thawed for good, you rush over to your wife’s pod, steal her jewellery, and depart, determined to find your Baby Thing. You exit the vault and return to your neighbourhood, finding it in ruins. But somehow, miraculously, Codsworth survived, and wants to help you, though it is in denial about the death of your wife. But you are a man unstuck in time, before you lies a world that was once your own, but now, now… Hang on a minute… You’re not any of those things. Sure, the “character” you are “playing” just about qualifies for it, but how are you supposed to get into that headspace? The wife he loves has been killed, but your level of interaction with her doesn’t extend beyond her staring at you in the mirror, then telling you to open the door for Paul Eiding. You don’t know her, you barely spent five minutes with her. And the Baby Thing? You literally had to be forced to interact with it, otherwise it would have been possible to miss its presence entirely.

So here you are, lumped with the blandest man in the United States, or what’s left of them, and you have to somehow find it within yourself to care about avenging and/or rescuing “characters” who have only existed for you, in all their mannequinoid flatness, for the past few minutes. Call me crazy, but maybe, just maybe, if you want me to become attached to things which are to be the protagonist’s sole reason to go on living for the bulk of my time controlling him, you should have let me spend more time with them. How far can you stretch that kind of an introduction out for a game that is largely about shooting abominations in the face? I don’t necessarily need ten hours of gameplay in which I take my family to the zoo or a picnic or whatever, but maybe we could have had multiple episodes across a period of time, showing us courtship, engagement, wedding, childbirth, buying a house etc., as Fallout 3 did in order to establish at least some kind of connection to the father character, however tenuous and dramatically unfulfilling it ultimately proved to be.

Rather than that, though, what I would have done is have the whole family emerge fit and healthy from cryosleep into a terrifying new world where they have to adapt quickly, learning to survive and thrive by hunting their own food and defending themselves from marauding gangs. Moving as a unit across the world map, they would seek out a place to call home, and the story would be delivered through a number of chapters, each one corresponding to a year, over the course of which the child would mature and become a skilled survivalist as their parents face the trials of growing old in an unforgiving wasteland. Then if over the course of the game my lovely wife, with whom I have experienced great hardship, were to be killed, then I might feel something, approaching what the character themselves should be feeling. If my son, who I had spent hours of play time protecting, were kidnapped, perhaps then I would be motivated to go and find him. Perhaps then any of what Bethesda’s writing staff wants to be meaningful to the player in Fallout 4 would actually be meaningful. But it ain’t. This is a Bethesda open world RPG: don’t worry about the story, or the setting, or the people in it, go forth and shoot things, because war, war never changes. And we’re going to keep saying that over and over again until it becomes absolutely meaningless, just like the story in this game.

Game Journal: Unreal Tournament Pre-Alpha, Thoughts and First Impressions

I finally got a new graphics card after years of nursing a much-in-need-of-retirement Nvidia 8800 GTX. In a direct comparison the GTX 1050 Ti is obviously much better, with over four times the amount of VRAM and DX12 compatibility, but in terms of what the 8800 was in its own time, nothing less than a Titan would suffice for parity. Alas, I ain’t got thousands lying around to spend on my shit, not to mention I only need 1080p, so this really quite amazingly good budget card will more than suffice. Anyway, with my GPU situation fairly well proportioned to the rest of my system, I reckon now is the time to get in on all the gaming I’ve been missing. To that end I’ll be trying out as many new-ish (and maybe old-ish as well) titles as I can and recording my thoughts here. As usual I make no claim to objectivity and am probably wrong about everything, but thaaaaaaat’s my life!

To begin with, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend to ease yourself back in. Well, maybe ease is the wrong word to use when talking about this series. Unreal Tournament, in its various incarnations, and especially 2004—for my money the best arena shooter ever made—took up a large part of my teenage gaming time. For me there was nothing more satisfying than a round on Face 3 with zoom instagib. For the past few years, Epic has been crowd developing a new addition to the series, the somewhat irritatingly named Unreal Tournament. I would have thought the taint of Sonic ’06, officially titled Sonic the Hedgehog (go ahead and try to guess why they didn’t want that title associated with that game), would keep people away, but no!

Currently Unreal Tournament is in a public pre-alpha, so it’s very rough around the edges. But, as an old hand of the arena shooter, I was impressed with how well the game has already captured the instantly recognisable movement of the older games. Dashes, wall dashes, elevator jumping, shield gun jumping, rocket jumping etc. all feel like they should. Dashing is still triggered by the double-tap gesture (e.g.: tapping W twice will perform a forward dash) but you can also hold shift, which is handy for performing lots of dashes in sequence. On top of the classic movement framework, the devs have added wall running, a Mega Man style slide manoeuvre, and slope dashing, which can be used to get up certain walls at high speed. The only area in which the movement is noticeably lacking right now is the absence of the double jump. Hopefully, this is just a pre-alpha limitation and not a design choice.

A full complement of weaponry (minus the Target Painter superweapon) is in evidence. Basic stuff like the Translocator, Enforcer, Rocket Launcher, Shock Rifle, Shield Gun is all there and feels authentic, plus killing people by translocating into them never gets old. My old favourite the flak cannon is back with hailstorms of shrapnel and explosive shells, and the ubiquitous Redeemer nuke launcher can still lay waste to everyone in the room, including you. It was cool to see both the Sniper Rifle and Lightning Gun available to play. The Lightning Gun still zooms, but now it has a charge shot that makes it more than just a Sniper Rifle with fancier particle effects. Best of all, they look great and feel great to use. One thing I’ve noticed, however, and this may just be a case of me being out of practice, is that the shock combo, triggered by shooting a regular shock beam at the Shock Rifle’s alt-fire projectile, seems a lot more fiddly than it ever used to. In a way, however, that just makes it more satisfying when you do pull it off, especially with the awesome gravity well kills it produces.

Team Deathmatch, my favourite mode of old, feels as crazy and chaotic than ever. Close quarters combat on the Outpost 23 map, new to this instalment, is as intense as the series has ever been. I haven’t really played around with the new modes too much yet, but if they can get the old stuff right, to me that’s what’s really important. Excepting the lack of double jump, it feels right. The levels themselves feel like UT levels, but the look is a little clean for my taste. For me, UT‘s style was exemplified not just by intense combat, but by the variety of its settings, which ranged from grimy, abandoned industrial buildings, to natural beauty spots including alien forests, to literally on top of a spaceship travelling through hyperspace. Above all they felt substantial and appropriate unto themselves, while the current selection of maps for this game seems kind of bland and clinical. However, I love the latest incarnation of Facing Worlds, and lots of maps (including remakes of classics like Deck) are in development right now, so I hope to be eating those words eventually.

Somehow to call this a pre-alpha seems a little disingenuous, the gameplay is there, the maps are coming (at least, I hope they are), if anything it’s just a matter of polishing the presentation. The sound mixing, even with the granular volume controls, can be horrendous. Voices seem to be cranked to the maximum no matter what I do, and the ear-numbingly bassy menu sounds propa did my nut in guv. As I mentioned earlier the art design is a little underwhelming. It’s early days yet, but it definitely looks blander than its predecessors. UT has always been mod friendly, so it’s cool to see that almost all of my issues, should they persist at release, could be taken care of by the community marketplace, where people can upload their own creations like weapon skins and model redesigns to share with other players either for free or as microtransactions. Epic’s free-to-play business model for UT is banking on turning a profit by taking a cut of marketplace sales, which seems extremely risky given the arena shooter’s fall in popularity to bland Call of Duty type shooters. I don’t think the package is currently complete and polished enough to compete at that level, and unfortunately it seems like Epic has shelved it for the time being in favour of developing Fortnite, which currently stands to compete with the insanely popular Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a great shame, but one of my favourite series of all time may well be gone for good if this keeps up.