“I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Whenever people talk about karma, I always think of this scene.
“I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Whenever people talk about karma, I always think of this scene.
I’ve been bitten recently by the NFL bug. American football was never something that interested me a great deal until recently, but over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly trying to watch it more, and now I’m really getting into it. I watched Super Bowl 51 earlier this year and enjoyed it tremendously. NFL also does this great thing where they post recent games in full on YouTube, so you can sit back and enjoy them at your leisure.
More recently, after being immersed for a while in the NFL, I watched the Manchester United vs West Brom match, which finished in a scoreless draw. It was watching this match that made me realize something that I hadn’t really thought of before. I found myself getting irrationally and explosively angry at the referee, Mike Dean. Funny thing is, Dean wasn’t in any way egregiously bad. He was your average Premier League referee: some mistakes that go for or against both sides, overall fairly decent. But the mistakes he did make – and the 50/50 decisions that went against United – made me angry at him in a way that went beyond reason. And I realized: it’s because one guy – just one guy – in a stadium of 80,000 with millions more watching is tasked with making life-or-death decisions over a match in one of the biggest sports leagues in the world, with no outside help other than the two linesmen who spend most of the match nowhere near the ball, and the goal-line thing that was introduced with such reluctance and hand-wringing. This realization finally came after 20 years of watching football because, I think, I have been experiencing just how unemotional the officiating in the NFL makes me. In the NFL, technology is integral to officiating: iffy calls can be challenged by the teams, videos are utilized directly by the officials, and the giant screens in stadiums show very detailed replays for players and fans alike. After decisions are made on the challenged calls, the chief official in the NFL explains it with clarity and brevity over the PA system, minimizing any second-guessing by viewers. But it’s more than technology; it’s the number of officials on the field. NFL has 7 officials on the field overseeing a very stop-start sport. MLB has 4 on the field in the slowest major sport in North America. Football has 4 overall, but only one on the field; the 2 linesmen are – and should be – consumed with being level with the last player for offside calls, and the fourth official is a joke, so everything falls on the referee alone to cover the vast tracts of land and keep up with world-class athletes while making split-second decisions. It’s a wonder that referees don’t completely fall apart every game, because everything is so stacked against them. I’m sure NFL officials make mistakes too, but I don’t remember getting particularly upset with them. My anger, if any, is spread across 7 people, and anyway they individually have contingencies: a better-positioned official can override a decision, coaches can challenge, videos can be used, and you get to explain yourself to the world after each important call.
The Man United – West Brom match made me come to a conclusion that it is just incredibly shoddy that the refereeing system has changed so little over the years, especially taking into account the immense changes football has undergone since the early 1990s. Players are fitter, matches are faster, cameras are more numerous / better positioned / in higher definition, infinitely greater sums of money are riding on each match, and fans have access to much more information much more readily. The only meaningful change to the way referees officiate in all these years, however, has been the goal-line technology. In so many ways, this is a ludicrous situation, and has been so long before yesterday’s Champions League match between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
The arguments against more technology have always been: 1) refereeing mistakes are a part of football, 2) things even themselves out in the end, 3) more technology would slow down the game, and 4) there are so many grey areas that even technology wouldn’t help. Arguments 1 and 2 are nonsense, as this Reddit user explains passionately:
‘The referee has become a gigantic and harmful dinosaur at this stage of football. When Marcelo passed to Ronaldo, the linesman was almost ten meters away from where he should be. It is a disgrace at this level of football.
‘The amounts of wrong decisions by referees these past years have become a disaster and it only tarnishes the game. Yes, video-help removes a certain human factor of the game, but it removes a cancer that had to be there, because it was inoperable. The players are like machines, and a lot of referees can’t keep up with them anymore.’
Arguments 3 and 4 are certainly valid, but they should not prevent efforts to improve the refereeing system in football. Simply put, referees need more help, both technological and human. Aside from the obvious tech-driven solutions like replays, just having more human input would immeasurably improve things. Have 2 referees – or just more sets of eyes – on the field with ability to override previous calls, allow managers 2 challenges per half, mic-up the refs so they can explain their decisions on challenges, etc. If nothing else, having more refs on the field would drastically reduce referee-hounding by players.
In Super Bowl 51, Julian Edelman made an incredible catch as part of New England Patriots’ game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. That catch was near-impossible to fully appreciate in real time: only the replays would show just how improbable it really was. Officials ruled it a catch1, Atlanta Falcons challenged, and after review the call stood. What if the ball hit the ground before ending up in Edelman’s arms? Or what if the officials had ruled it an incomplete pass? The combination of greater human presence and technology ensured that one of the great plays in Super Bowl history was allowed to impact the game with fair integrity. If a similar play had happened in European football, it would fall to just one set of eyes to make a call, and there would be no recourse if it was wrong. That’s got to change.
Looking through the articles at Eurogamer – a terrific scoop for Digital Foundry, which has really grown since the beginning of the HD gaming era as one of the best (or perhaps the only major) tech-oriented gaming sites around – there’s no doubting that Scorpio is going to pack a punch in the graphics department. The most powerful console of all time, indeed. However, I can’t help but wonder how this is going to solve the biggest problems Microsoft faces with Xbox One (and the Xbox brand in general). As widely observed recently, the PS4 has been recipient of a lineup of console exclusives that has thrown Xbox One’s own lineup into sharp relief. In very basic terms, PS4 has built a wide lead in sales due to cheaper (initial) price, marginally yet quantifiably more powerful hardware, more gamer-friendly corporate messaging, and more quality exclusives. Microsoft has since remedied or nullified two of these four issues through price drops and Phil Spencer-led charm offensive whose most recent coup is the Xbox Game Pass and the new ‘Steam-like’ refund policy. Project Scorpio ostensibly solves one more problem, even taking into account PS4 Pro, but looking at the spec sheet it would be a major surprise if Scorpio achieved price parity with the latter’s $3991. More to the point, it does not make up for the lack of exclusives. It was notable that a lot of the software focus during the Scorpio reveal was on existing IPs, whether in the form of older Xbox games or Forza Motorsport. Microsoft understandably wanted the narrative to be on the hardware specs, but it didn’t do much to persuade people that the ‘exclusives gap’ would be closed. Even disregarding price, Microsoft is offering a considerably more powerful machine with the potential of software to come, against a console that while weaker has also received an upgrade and which can give you quality exclusives right now.
All eyes will be on E3 this year. Price will be important, but with the Scorpio hardware reveal out of the way, Microsoft will be under the gun to announce new games. Halo, Gears of War and Forza are great, but there has to be more.
It had been a while – last time was probably Mass Effect – since a game had me pining to be back at home during work hours, eager to see what it held in store next. Actually, that’s not quite true: the last time was Bloodbourne, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s dark and brooding masterpiece on PS4; the maestro has followed it up with another exhilarating effort in Dark Souls 3. What a very special game it is indeed – daring to challenge the player as befits its reputation, but equally uplifting those who rise up to that challenge like few other games before, with a sense of wonder and accomplishment delivered through exquisite level design and the most influential combat system of the last few years. New levels are reached through intricate yet entirely organic routes, bonfires and shortcuts are ingeniously woven into the progress so that risky adventuring is deliciously balanced by the opportunity to minimize needless grind.
I’ve never completed the previous Dark Souls games, so I missed much of the connection between them and this third entry, but Dark Souls 3 starts much the same way as the first one started: you wake up in a coffin seemingly for no reason in the middle of nowhere, with few instructions other than to move forward and avoid getting brutally murdered before reaching the next bonfire. Progress is not outlined by cutscenes or mission-distributing NPCs but rather motivated by the sheer mystery and beauty – alternately grim and majestic – of the game’s environments, the compulsive risk/reward balance forcing the player to choose between ass-clenching progress and the safety of the Firelink Shrine. The Shrine is a haven you come across after the first boss where you can upgrade your character, weapons and armour, as well as purchase various accessories. At the Shrine a blind maiden called the Fire Keeper instructs you to return the Lords of Cinder to their thrones or some such in order to… well, do something that sounds quite proper and portentous and could help the world carry on a bit longer. I don’t mean to sound dismissive – Dark Souls 3 is bewildering at first and intentionally so. It is in no hurry to reveal its hand to the player in the hopes of warding off boredom or frustration, but instead has the confidence to slowly unfold itself, letting its world and the items found within it tell a truly layered and lived-in story. The levels aren’t quite wholly contiguous, but for the most part are interlinked with ingenuity and invention, and the electrifying sense of achievement as you defeat a boss and receive a well-earned opportunity to venture into a new area – with the warm glow of a lit bonfire behind you – is as essential to the Souls series as it remains rare in other games. Time and again Dark Souls 3 plunges you into the murkiest of depths like Catacombs of Carthus before lifting you up onto places that take your breath away with its otherworldly grandeur like Irithyll of the Boreal Valley. My favorite such transition was in Farron Keep. It is a poisonous swamp, an area for which developers usually reserve their least presentable creatures as well as the most malingering status effects. You run around trying to light the three fires that will open a gate to the next area, all the while fending off squelching slime-beasts and quaffing down poison cures to stay alive – your typical, all-consuming Dark Souls brand of stress escalation. You notice a long ladder on the side of a tower, and upon climbing up and passing through a room containing a huge dead wolf for some reason, come to a battlement steeply overlooking the entire swamp area – with a vista that takes in far more. You notice the swamp is cordoned off by imposing castle walls, and beyond the walls is the sea. The realization that there is a whole world out there, vast and evocative under the twilight sun, puts your brutal struggles in the swamp into cathartic perspective, and the pang of unexplained longing stays with you for quite some time. True to form there’s a humongous (optional) boss waiting for you just up the stairs from this particular vantage point, but still1.
Dark Souls 3 remains a game defined by its opacity, requiring regular visits to online forums and guides to find all that it has to offer. Triggering NPC side-quests is an exercise in arcana, while interaction with various merchants – and consequently the items and magic they offer – is governed by a hidden script only the more dedicated players will manage to unearth. Leveling up your character as well as your equipment is less esoteric, but again it requires a certain level of in-game commitment as well as google searches to truly ascertain the true depth of Dark Souls 3’s role playing system. This lack of transparency used to be one of those elements that were often decried in JRPGs as that genre declined in the mid-2000s, but the beauty of this game is that the player doesn’t really need to get to grips with its deeper nuances to have an enthralling experience. You don’t need, for example, to read any of the item descriptions to get a feel for a tired, aged world quietly shuffling towards oblivion, a world where vast abandoned cathedrals and cavernous underground cities are abandoned by all but the most dangerous or demented inhabitants, where makeshift platforms infest once-gleaming castle walls and exquisitely designed palace interiors house putrid puddles on the floor. You don’t actually need to kill any non-boss enemy to progress (hence the amazing speedruns on Youtube), unlike many first- and third-person action games that block off exits from kill zones until the area is all cleared out2. You don’t need to access the optional levels to get your money’s worth with gameplay that lasts at least multiple dozens of hours, although the optional levels are definitely worth the extra effort to find. You can upgrade your equipment as well as your character without really knowing which shard or gem does what, and still enjoy the gratification of ever-increasing power. Elsewhere, Dark Souls 3 makes some unexpected concessions. The Estus Flasks are replenished in their entirety every time the bonfire is touched, an allowance so generous that at first I thought it was a bug. Character movement is noticeably fast, certainly faster than what I remember from Dark Souls. Bonfires are rather numerous, at times redundantly so. Ambushes and traps are rare, as are situations where threats are completely unavoidable. If general progress has been made more player-friendly, individual enemies and boss battles are tougher than Bloodborne, which in its later moments tended to become less taxing to navigate3.
I feel a little sore that my first proper experience with the Dark Souls series is with its last game. Had I finished Dark Souls all those years ago, it would have made for a richer and more poignant experience. But even without it, even without really understanding what the hell is going on, Dark Souls 3 offers the kind of gameplay that is simply unmatched in its depth and atmosphere, its uncanny ability to induce stomach-churning tension one minute and then a primal sense of wonder and curiosity the next, its intensely baroque and macabre art direction, and the kind of level design which consistently makes the player sigh with admiration. Its Groundhog Day-esque cycle of death and progress, frustrating at first, creates a hypnotic hold on the player before long4. Everything – combat, platforming, shortcuts, item hunting – is beautifully, ruthlessly balanced and constantly asks the player to be vigilant, alert and watchful. In return, Dark Souls 3 provides a hugely satisfying challenge that, remarkably, manages to triumph against the laws of diminishing returns.
What a finely balanced thing nature is; what folly it is to claim we have it figured out.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, given how Harrison Ford has always spoken glowingly of Indiana Jones, in stark contrast to his lasting disdain for Han Solo. Perhaps more to the point, the widely-panned Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls made huge amounts of money for Paramount, so Disney knows it doesn’t take much for this particular franchise to pay dividends. Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars has been exemplary, with new directors and actors bringing fresh impetus to a series that was close to being moribund. With Spielberg and Ford returning, there’s not much chance of Disney doing the same here. Indiana Jones is such an attractive character, though, and regardless of how bad Crystal Skulls was I think there’s still enough pull there for it to be another massive hit. I am certainly going to be buying a ticket, no questions asked.
I was a fan of Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. It looked great, had decent combat, and most of all possessed enjoyable traversal1. Tomb Raider iterated on the best movements in third person adventure games to give players a Lara Croft who was a lot of fun to control. It was, however, was a flawed game, and two of the biggest problems were the nonsensical, mystery-free narrative, and the highly distracting and intrusive perks system. It’s unfortunate that Rise of the Tomb Raider, while improving upon the strengths of its predecessor, also retains the same problems.
Where the first game focused on an inexperienced Lara Croft forced to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, Rise of the Tomb Raider (RottR) sees her purposefully chase after an important family legacy. That legacy – her father’s doomed search for the lost city of Kitezh and the secrets of eternal life deep in Siberia – is a perfunctory excuse for Lara to set off on her journey, making little sense and failing to spark even a modicum of curiosity. Compared to the Uncharted games, which while themselves not exactly Oscar-winning material, were at least careful to establish connection to the glamour of well-known real-world figures2; the Tomb Raider reboots also use existing myths and legends, but they feel more obscure and historically lightweight. Another problem that RottR repeats is the way Lara, after arriving at suitably attractive natural location, always seems to spend more time exploring grimy military installations than ancient temples and, yes, actual tombs. This time it’s old Soviet facilities left in ruins, and trying to navigate our heroine past rusting industrial equipment and muddy storage areas doesn’t exactly appeal to our sense of adventure. The worst offender, though, is the nagging notifications for all kinds of perks, upgrades and other sundry items of ‘interest’, another carry-over from the first game. You get separate popups in all four corners of the screen for things like XP increase, ‘Region Summary’, map updates, materials and ingredients obtained, nearly challenge tombs, nearby allies, optional missions, missing gear, new gear acquired, and so on, on top of the ‘Survival Instincts’ triggered with the press of the R3 button which is the ‘highlight’ crutch developers rely on to ensure everyone manages to progress through the levels. All of this means that the player is constantly distracted from being able to just enjoy the game. Worse, these distractions do a poor job of instilling the sense of improvement that skills and weapons upgrades are meant to provide, and the side missions given by Lara’s allies are desultory to the point of obsolescence.
I don’t want to make it sound like RottR is a failure. It’s not. Crystal Dynamics has built another handsome and enjoyable game, and it’s clear that they recognized the lack of tomb raiding in the first installment was a problem, because the environmental puzzles are noticeably beefed up in both frequency and quality. In its best moments, invariably involving Lara on her own, traversing a rugged terrain against a beautiful snowy backdrop to reach a new location, RottR is as compelling as any game in the last year. There are a couple of places in particular (the astrolabe being the highlight) where the combination of the intricacy of the pathfinding, the rich visuals of the environment, and the flexibility afforded to Lara’s movement come together in such a way as to hark back to the glory days of Tomb Raider’s earliest entries. Lara has also added a couple of new movesets, so that she is now able to wield a roped hook to jump further, and most fun of all shoot arrows into walls and then hang or stand on them, further increasing her range. Both of these allow for more sophisticated and involving traversal, which obviously is a very good thing here.
The developers, however, really need to start steering away from the ‘game for toddlers’ approach and put more trust in their players. Players don’t need screen prompts for every little thing that can be interacted with. Players don’t need to be told again and again that they have discovered nth out of so many components for the next shotgun upgrade, especially when the upgrades feel so superfluous. Players don’t need to hear Lara or other characters describe every single action and every single treasure, and explain every single motive – RottR might well be one of the most garrulous games not made by Rockstar or Bethesda.
All these are distractions that add little to the game, and their continued presence betrays a lack of confidence in the central things that RottR gets right. Now is the time to put Lara in isolated environments full of mystery and danger, with puzzles and challenges offered not by modern technology3 but by ancient civilizations. Give her enough time to roam and wander exotic and hidden areas, undisturbed by prompts, notifications or inane chatter. Let her fight against a select number of interesting opponents (animals, mythical creatures, the decay and outgrowth of time) rather than battalions of faceless human goons who populate supposedly remote regions (Siberia temporarily achieves population density not too far off from commute-time Tokyo, before getting summarily whittled down by our heroine). After two games full of hedges and crutches, it’s now time for Crystal Dynamics to let Lara stand on her own.