Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ghost of a Shell

Possibly controversial opinion: there has never been a truly great version of Ghost in the Shell.

Even Masamune Shirow's original 1989 manga is uneven, lurching from philosophy to comedy to body horror to tedious politicking to pornography at its author's whims. Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime feature stripped back the humour (and sex) to present a more thematically coherent story, but lost a lot of the characters' humanity along the way. Stand Alone Complex is an uneasy mix of both, bringing back the comic relief Tachikoma robots (Fuchikoma in the manga) but still too serious for its own good. Innocence, Oshii's 2004 sequel to his own film, is immensely tedious.

The upcoming live-action Hollywood adaptation does not appear to be shaping up "great".

The visual style, half-heartedly copied from various parts of the anime and manga universes, doesn't inspire confidence. The Major's thermoptic camouflage nudity is imported from Oshii, but the live-action film hasn't fully committed to its source, or brought any of its own ideas to the table. It's replaced a quick, brutal demonstration of Section 9's tactics and efficiency with a slo-mo gun ballet setpiece that's not been fashionable since the Matrix sequels. The Major stark waking silhouette against the skyline has been converted to an indistinct, oppressive grey. The production design generally echoes the anime film's grimy future Hong Kong setting, but it's all so clean and shiny. What the hell have they done with Batou's eyes?

The most obvious shortcoming from the recently-released trailer is the plot. "How do I know I really exist when even my brain is artificial?" has been unceremoniously dumped for a "stolen past" storyline whose conclusion I'm expecting to be as unexciting as it will be predictable.

Plus, why in the hell is Aramaki shooting people? The man's a bureaucrat, a politician - more spymaster than police chief. His strength lies in outsmarting criminals and his superiors, not firepower. Maybe this is just a sign that the film is leaving behind its cerebral roots for a more mass-market action film - which just begs the question: why bother licensing the title at all, if you're going to throw everything else out?

(And none of this even starts to address the whitewashed elephant in the room.)

One trailer isn't much to go on, to be fair. Maybe they've just done a bad job with this one; it wouldn't be the first film to misrepresent itself in its marketing. But I'm not getting a good vibe off this thing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

The fundamental problem with Doctor Strange is that it's not about anything.

Marvel's latest Cinematic Universe hero bears some surface-level similarities to their first: 2008's Iron Man also starred a wealthy genius with a predilection for stylish facial hair, whose ego was challenged by an unexpected set of circumstances that challenged their existing view of the world and their place in it. But while Tony Stark's wake-up call was entirely of his own making - a result of years, if not decades, of indifference to the people who bought his company's weapons - Stephen Strange is thrust into his new reality entirely accidentally.

Even Ant-Man had Scott Lang's choices drag him into the story - he's an active participant, and it has the added subplot about what a person can be willing to do - or sacrifice - for their family. But Stephen Strange is just a spectator.

The car crash that ruins his hands is arguably his fault, but a momentary distraction when driving doesn't illustrate any kind of major character flaw or inner conflict that Strange has to overcome. It doesn't turn out to have been an unintended side-effect (or deliberate outcome) of any other characters' actions. It's just a meaningless, random event.

Strange also has nothing to do with Kaecilius' plans - in fact, it feels like no other character does. We're given the sketch of backstory (a history shared with Kung Fu Panda's Tai Lung), but there's no plan to stop him. The Ancient One doesn't even seem particularly bothered about looking for Kaecilius - she just replaces the librarian and moves on. There isn't even any indication that the three Sanctums have had their defences bolstered. Kaecilius is just left to his own devices until Stephen Strange stumbles - again, accidentally - into his way, and manages to deus ex pallium his way out of the confrontation.

The plot clips along at a JJ Abrams-esque pace, hoping we don't notice. It's all forward momentum and no breathing room - but there's never a sense of how much time has passed between scenes. When Strange stumbles into Christine's ER, there's no telling whether it's been years, months or just a couple weeks since they last saw each other. How long has he spent learning the mystic arts? No film has ever needed a training montage more than Doctor Strange.

Benedict Cumberbatch is at his Cumberbatchiest as Stephen Strange, and despite his Dr Gregory House accent even manages to find the time to act in a couple of scenes. Tilda Swinton somehow knocks her role out of the park, saved from her character's lack of depth by some great dialogue - a crutch which, sadly, isn't afforded to Mads Mikkelsen or Chiwetel Ejiofor. These are two of the most charming, talented actors on the planet, relegated to cardboard cutouts with barely a motivation between them; that they manage to turn in memorable performances at all is a testament to their abilities.

The visuals vary wildly; I'm not a fan of the acid-trip design of the "Dark Dimension" (not to be confused with Thor 2's Dark World), but there's no denying it's a unique look for the MCU so far. But scene geography is almost always disastrously muddied by the camera during fights - and that's even before they start messing around with Euclidean space. The kaleidoscope effect that twists reality would have a lot more impact if it was a location we had the measure of, but there's never a chance to get your bearings before the fighting breaks out. (This isn't helped by the television-esque way everything is shot; there's a lot of mid-closeup during dialogue with a single character on screen, which limits your view of the rooms they're in.)

I've been trying to figure out where Doctor Strange sits in my MCU rankings, but I can't place it. I almost convinced myself that it's better than The Dark World, but at least that had Loki and ended with that great dimension-hopping final battle.

It's probably better than Iron Man 2.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Fear of a Blank Planet

I think I've finally figured out what's missing from No Man's Sky: danger.

It's supposedly a survival game, but there's very little threat. Aggressive animals are, in my experience, very uncommon. The sentinels will, by and large, leave you alone unless provoked. Hazardous environments can be easily negated by digging a shelter with a few grenades. Resources to replenish your defences and weapons are plentiful.

Last night, for the first time in several months - maybe a year - I played The Last of Us, picking up a playthrough on Grounded difficulty. It took three attempts to figure out all the controls; I'd forgotten how to stealth-kill, how to run and how to switch weapons.

I'm at the point of the game, for reference, where Ellie first gets a gun. (I don't think that's too much of a spoiler.)

It was immediately and unrelentingly tense. On Grounded, in addition to deadlier enemies and reduced resources you lose the "hearing" ability that allows Joel to track enemies without direct line of sight. If I couldn't see a threat, I didn't know where it was - but even when I did have a specific target in mind, moving around could expose me.

Obviously a crafted experience like The Last of Us has ways of turning up the tension that a procedural game never could - like specific placement of cover and planned enemy patrol routes.

But even after several varied but grisly demises, when I knew the exact layout and patterns of the whole space, it didn't get less stressful - it almost felt more dangerous, as the pressure was put entirely on me to remember and execute the plan in the right order.

No Man's Sky, a universe of nearly infinite variety, feels inert in comparison.

How does the vast, uninhabited unknown so completely fail to inspire any sense of danger? I'm an explorer, striking out into frontier worlds devoid of civilisation (though always, disappointingly, inhabited).

Stepping out of my ship's cockpit should be a gamble. What I find should have the chance to offer more than a temporary inconvenience every few minutes where I have to dig a hole or refuel my shield.

I want to stand on a beautiful, vast and unknown planet, utterly alone and scared out of my mind about what I might discover.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hibike! Euphonium

Hibike! Euphonium

I've finally, months behind everybody else, caught up with the bonus 14th episode of Hibike Euphonium. It's a side-story that runs parallel to the finale of the main series, following Hazuki - poor, brave, heartbroken Hazuki - and the other nine members of the band who didn't make the cut for the big end-of-season competition. Most of the other Team Monaka members are background filler, but we also get a couple of great scenes with Nakagawa, giving sketches of her history just through body language and evasive answers. I hope we see more of her in the sequel.

It's reminded me of how amazing a series this was - truly incredible animation for a TV series, in places feeling like Kyoto's animators were just showing off. The plot is pretty basic sports-anime stuff; a rag-tag group of students get together with a seemingly impossible goal, and through hard work and just believing in yourself, they rise through the ranks to reach that final hurdle.

Where Euphonium shines is with its characters and their interactions; in particular Kumiko's reluctance throughout the series, both with personal and band matters, lends real dramatic heft to the points where she takes an active step forward.

Euphonium has a very careful line to tread with its second season, which begins airing in October. At the core of its emotional arc is Kumiko's relationship with Reina - which might be an all-timer, if the second season doesn't retreat to the safer waters of the source novels (obviously being held in reserve by the anime). I don't remember the last show that had a central pairing whose relationship evolved so naturally - maybe Planetes?

What a difference a few years make. If you'd told me, not too long ago, that my most anticipated show of the year was a Kyoto Animation series about a high school music club, I would have laughed in your face. But here we are, waiting for the second season of Hibike! Euphonium and it's not getting here soon enough.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Seven things I hate about Re:Zero, after 18 episodes

This will likely make little sense to anybody who has A. not seen any of Re:Zero or B. seen (or read) all of Re:Zero so far.

  1. The whole Light Novel schtick. Conversations that take three times longer to get to the point than even the slowest audience could possibly need; the endless digressions from the matter at hand; the tolerance for Subaru's inane interjections into matters he knows nothing about and has no business commenting on, by everyone including nobility. I hate this whole style of storytelling.
  2. The premise - genre-savvy nerd is pulled into an alternate high-fantasy reality - is lifted out of pure retread boredom by Subaru's lack of resultant special abilities, but he's such a demanding, entitled jackass that I don't care if he succeeds at any of his ridiculously stupid plans. I pray for his failure, that he might fucking learn something.
  3. Why in the name of God has it never occurred to Subaru to ask for someone to explain about the Jealous Witch? You'd think, after Emilia introduced herself with a cursed name the first time through and then the subsequent taboos around it, that he'd be curious enough to find someone - Betty, maybe - and ask, "hey, so humour me - what's the deal with Satella?".
  4. Subaru can't tell anybody about Return By Death, his Edge of Tomorrow-style time-reset/resurrection power. But you could still mention you're from a different reality maybe? Get people to cut you some fucking slack for a change.
  5. Emilia continues to put up with Subaru's perpetual creepiness, and borderline abusive attitude towards her.
  6. Rem's clearly Best Girl, but even she's fallen for the dubious charms of our "hero". I'm not even entirely sure why.

  7. I can't stop watching this show.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Calling this movie "a mess" could be seen as charitable, and certainly I'm a softer landing for the film's charms than a lot of people would be. I thoroughly enjoy a lot of The Lonely Island's previous output - both on and off SNL - and Andy Samberg's turn in Brooklyn 99 has won him a lot of good will in my book.

But the mockumentary style employed by the group's first movie foray doesn't feel used properly. Aside from inviting comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap - which will inevitably not work in Popstar's favour - it's implemented in a way that feels inconsistent, with no clear rules about where this documentary crew is supposed to be filming from. That said, the documentary style is justified by the insert interviews, with real musicians commenting on the career and music of the fictional Conner4Real, which offer some of the best gags in the film.

The music, too, is a mixed bag, but unlike their SNL and album tracks these songs are supposed to be bad. My favourite track, Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song), is borderline-offensive on the scale of Team America, but Popstar lacks the political position to give it teeth (for better or worse). Most of the songs get less than a verse and chorus to make their point - the only other song to make it into the film as more than a jingle is the deeply uncomfortable Equal Rights, though again its obvious textual shortcomings are excused by being a fake song by a fake artist making a point about homophobia.

The film's biggest stumbling block, however, is its lack of a clear point. Sure, it stumbles into a moral lesson for Conner by the end, but lacks a proper buildup. Conner's personality is at turns naive and childish, clear-headed and pragmatic, or entitled and overconfident - seemingly in whatever combination best suits the punchline to the scene in question. Taken individually, most of the sketches that make up the film are great, but they don't gel together and undermine some of the later scenes where we need to believe that Conner is an insulated narcissist for the emotional punches to land.

Even as a Lonely Island and Adam Samberg fan, I'm not sure I could recommend this film. It's the kind of entertaining curiosity I'd suggest catching on TV if you stumble across it, but it's unlikely it will ever end up on a regular ITV2 rotation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen

There are just enough over-the-top Americanisms in the London Has Fallen for my brain to struggle with Poe's Law.

The casual disregard with which a wedding is blown up by a barely-teenaged pilot half a world away, orders given based on intelligence gathered by a different country. Gerard Butler's now-infamous "go back to Fuckheadistan or wherever you come from" line, which in more capable directorial hands would be a deliberate indictment of the US military's indifference to the targets of its drones. US president Benjamin Asher's chest-puffing delivery of Agent Smith's "the sound of inevitability" line from The Matrix, where the approaching subway train is instead Butler's unstoppable Secret Service agent Mike Banning, a brick shithouse who fires profane one-liners almost as often as bullets but whose face washes blank with every kill. Morgan Freeman's closing speech which is so on-the-nose that its horrifying justification for US interventionism is "do it for our children", delivered atop a patriotic orchestral swell.

The terrorist leader is ultimately executed in a drone strike almost identical to the one which opened the film, which he escaped and which served as his entire motivation, suggesting that the United States has learned nothing from the experience.

Despite the constant culling of sidekicks (anybody who spends more than a minute and a half with Banning and Asher seems to end up dead) and enemies, there is no tension to the film. When the President is captured by the terrorists (who have, in two short years managed to plan and organise a large-scale infiltration of the Metropolitan Police and Queen's Guard, plan and carry out a secret assassination on the British Prime Minister and orchestrate the simultaneous assassinations of every world leader attending his funeral), the film places a ticking clock on his head, counting down to his supposed execution but obvious rescue.

Banning is never in the slightest danger. The most ambitious action scene in the movie, an alleyway shootout faked into a single long take, features easily a half dozen deaths of SAS soldiers on Banning's side, gunned down by enemy fire while Banning himself saunters unscathed from cover to cover. The American is impervious to bullets while his allies are bullet-sponge sacrifices to be made in his unceasing mission to save one man - and when he manages to free the President from his captors Banning gives a speech about how the United States is greater than a single man.

This is a sick, brutal sociopath of a movie, an oddly clinical parade of gunshots and stabbings that seems more curious about violence and its effects on the human head than excited by it. It's a snuff film made for the audience to revel in, but London Has Fallen itself isn't getting anything out of this exercise - there's no… joy in it.

It has no clear politics, it has no message or lesson or even point to its violence. I cannot see any reason for this film to have been made.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2 doesn't look like they've learned a fucking thing.

"Stick a black guy in as protagonist," says a fool in a plaid shirt with a beard stolen from an early 20th century lumberjack, "and give him a backstory where he was falsely accused of a crime after evidence was planted. What additional hacking abilities should he have?" "I know," a moron drools, incapable of processing irony. "Let him plant evidence on innocent people! And drones were cool when we started this project, so they're bound to still be relevant when the game is released three years later."

It's ridiculous enough that Star Hacker Extraordinaire Marcus Whateverthefuck runs around with the name of his secret hacking collective on his own bright purple hat, but it's fucking Mr Emoji Eyes that really gets me. Sure, in some kind of William Gibson cyberpunk dystopia that shit would fly, but come the fuck on - that's gonna stick out in suburban San Francisco, especially when it's paired with the world's least subtle iconic studded jacket.

Maybe come the third game the licensing team'll get their shit in gear and we'll actually be hacking around late-21st-century BAMA with the Panther Moderns, rather than this sub-Doctorow power trip masquerading as political commentary.


This tweet makes me deeply uncomfortable.

In the wake of Orlando, the idea of fantasising about being a self-appointed vigilante, righting perceived personal wrongs, seems especially horrifying. The staggering lack of empathy - even momentarily, in a twitter joke - just does not, can not, sit right with me.

With Donald Trump ready to assume control of the button in American and David Cameron's cronies already taking crowbars to the most lucrative parts of our public services here in the UK, we should be striving for more empathy, rejecting the violence that society has, somehow, allowed to become so common that we daydream about causing it.

I remember when violence in videogames was an escape, an over-the-top cathartic release to escape from the tedium and mundanity of reality. But violent media is no longer an escape - it's what we already see in headlines every other fucking day.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

No Man's Delay

In every interview about, or demo of, No Man's Sky that I've seen, lead developer Sean Murray looks terrified.

Nobody in the world is more worried that this astonishingly ambitious game might not live up to the hype. He is nervous and proud and desperate for people to love Hello Games' next release as much as he does.

I have no doubt that he wants (needs?) No Man's Sky to be as close to perfect as humanly possible, if for no other reason than to justify the hype that's been poured onto the team since E3 2013.

So if Sean Murray thinks it needs another six weeks to be as good as it can be, then I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But some "fans" - how you can be a fan of an unreleased game is one thing, but the behaviour of these people is entirely another - have taken umbrage with the delay, and sent death threats to Murray.

Leaving aside the logical issue (how is killing the lead developer supposed to expedite the game's release?), the idea that anybody looking forward to No Man's Sky could bear any ill will towards this man blows my mind.

These are people who have attached some part of their personal identity (and self worth) to this game, as ill-advised as that is. Why wouldn't they want it to be the best it can be?

This lack of perspective stuns me every time it appears in gamers (really, I should expect it by now). I felt the pangs of disappointment when I read those first reports of the delay, and the regretful acceptance when it was confirmed.

But Jesus - we've been waiting years for the game to come out. What's six more weeks?

(I'm still of the opinion that Sony should never have announced a date for the game at all, and just sent out a press release saying, "by the way, No Man's Sky is out - happy exploring!".)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rogue One

The Rogue One trailer's AT-AT sequence

I want to talk about AT-ATs.

There are a lot of other things I love about the trailer for Gareth Edwards' upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One: the grounded aesthetic that harkens back to the original film's "lived-in" universe; the shots of Jyn that bookend the trailer, one in cuffs on a Rebel Base, one disguised in the Death Star cell blocks; the use of handheld cameras that give it a more personal feeling than we're used to from the series; Mon Mothma's smirk at Jyn's "I rebel" joke.

But I want to talk about AT-ATs, because the way Edwards uses them in this one brief shot at the end of the Rogue One trailer says a lot about why I'm excited for his take on this universe.

The best film in the Star Wars saga (so far) is The Empire Strikes Back, which is also the first place we saw Imperial Walkers.

During the Battle of Hoth, a number of these barely-mobile artillery platforms attacked the rebel base on Hoth, targeting it's shield generators. Impressive in scale but lumbering, they didn't seem to pose much of a threat to troops on the ground, and were eventually defeated using ropes.

It's difficult to see them as scary, mostly (I believe) because of the way they're shot.

Gareth Edwards, for my money, made the best Godzilla movie since the 1954 original (this is a hill I'm prepared to die on - fight me, scrubs).

Few other directors are as good at communicating scale as effectively as Edwards; even as blockbusters ramp up the "disaster porn", they get more and more clinical about it. We're watching cities being ruined, but it all lacks dramatic weight because the scale isn't relatable.

Edwards always puts his camera ona very human level; the kaiju in Godzilla are almost always shown with known objects in the foreground or through a bus window, which tells you immediately just how terrifyingly huge these things are. He avoids putting you on Godzilla's eye level because that makes the buildings look small rather than making the monsters look big, which would diminish the awe.

Sorry, I'm supposed to be taking about AT-ATs.

It's a very short part of the Rogue One trailer - Jyn and her band of rogues are running across an open battlefield; at first we can only see the lower legs of the Imperial Walkers, but the camera pans up just in time to show the lead AT-AT turn towards (and open fire on) the ground troops.

That's exciting, in a way the AT-ATs never were before. They're a threat to infantry, not just infrastructure. Instead of walking slowly towards a target on auto-fire, waiting to trip, these machines are reactive - and they react fast.

Rogue One has taken these walking punchlines - big, slow, expensive and easily-defeated - and done something unexpected: it's made them dangerous.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Player of Games

The Player of Games

I finished The Player of Games today, the first Iain M. Banks I've ever read. (It was recommended to me as the first Culture novel, and I'd bought it on Kindle before the error was corrected.)

I don't really know what to make of it. I think it's accurate to say it was not enjoyable to read; impenetrably complex names and vague descriptions of everything from geography to characters' appearances to their actions had me re-reading pages to make sure I'd not accidentally skipped a sentence - and that's not going into the more disturbing scenes (which were, I suppose, important examples of the imperial society, but still not light reading).

And it's not like William Gibson's torrent of slang and colloquialisms, which can be similarly disorienting but always has a clear, propulsive flow. Banks' prose seemed to start and stop in strange places, almost like it was getting caught on the scenery. The action could be heating up and then would be diverted for a couple of paragraphs of slow introspection. The Player of Games seemed to be be toying with Gibson-style sketches of technology and locations but wouldn't fully commit, leaving it in a strange uncanny valley where things were almost properly described but not satisfactorily.

There's something intriguing about the Culture as a setting, though - even if it frequently felt deliberately (albeit lazily) provocative in its liberalness. It makes sense as a counterpoint to the Azadian Empire, but both are such exaggerated extremes that the conflict in ideologies is a foregone conclusion and the handful of revelations - not even twists - in the closing chapters made little difference to my perception of events and motives up to that point.

But I can't help but wonder how much of my indifferent reaction is due to unfamiliarity; this is the fourth book I've finished this year, but only the first I've not read before. By now I'm so familiar with Neuromancer, The Forever War and Watchmen that I can just soak in their atmospheres, enjoying their grammatical (and in one case graphical) construction.

Maybe in a few months or years I'll be able to revisit The Player of Games and, no longer worrying about following a story, I'll find that same comfort in Banks' writing.

In the meantime, I'll probably pick up Consider Pheblas.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

$60 Man's Sky

No Man's Sky

A post on the official US Playstation Blog this morning had, briefly, the preorder date and price listed for Hello Games' upcoming space exploration game No Man's Sky. To whit: preorders open on March 3rd (tomorrow) for $60.

It's still unclear who is actually outraged about the price, but the lack of a scandal won't stop Twitter from kicking off about it. Dozens of furious tweets poured onto the internet, decrying the (very possibly non-existent) idiots who thought $60 was too much to pay for No Man's Sky, based on one blog post that suggested that the small development team size might be one reason that customers might see the price tag as excessive.

Of course, people will complain about the price and team size will undoubtedly enter the conversation now (albeit only because of the Twitterstorm). But nobody justifies Battlefield's price tag by pointing out how many people worked on it, in the face of complaints about a campaign lasting "only" four hours or a lack of multiplayer maps. And with billions of planets to explore, it'll be difficult to argue that Hello Games haven't provided enough content despite their small team.

I happen to think that the price tag on No Man's Sky is going to hurt sales - simply because nobody seems entirely sure, yet, of what the game is. It's still a big question mark, and $60 is a not-inconsiderable amount of money to drop on an unknown quantity.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Division, part three.

The Division

It's because I'm not American, I decide. That's what's missing from The Division.

This is my second foray into the ruins of Madison Square Garden, now with backup. Having someone to talk to has changed the experience, and I'm not sure it's for the better. It just gives me someone to complain to.

It's when we shoot our way through the repurposed stadium that I decide that The Division's problem is my own lack of knowledge of, or fondness for, the New York landmarks it uses. This could be any hastily-assembled field hospital we're spraying with lead and blood; I have no appreciation of the original location.

The second thing I accept is the unforgiving shooting. Another member has joined our squad, and we repeat the power station mission I completed yesterday. My carbine has come back into fashion against the flamethrowers, but there's no slack to help land headshots. I wish my controller was as precise as the fictional scope on my rifle; another shot passes a pixel to the left of its intended target without aim assist to pull it back on course.

We accept a bounty mission that tasks us with eliminating a murderer who, disappointingly, turns out to be just a gang member with a larger health bar and better drops. The target is, I'm told, a woman, which very well might be the first female enemy I've seen. I don't get close enough to see a difference with her character model.

Later, The Division makes a strong statement in the Dark Zone, where every figure in the distance must be regarded with suspicion. Compared to the desolate streets outside its walls, the Dark Zone is densely populated and thick with danger.

We get greedy with our looting and pay for it when the underground car park we've just cleared is invaded. I lose half my haul to the hooligans but accept it as a necessary lesson.

Extracting the remaining items from the Zone proves to be a tense affair; as we wait for the helicopter to collect our packages, several other players approach the extraction point. There is no way to tell, for anyone, whether the intentions of any other player at the table are nefarious.

My automatic turret is deployed in the final seconds before the helicopter arrives, one of several insurance policies intended to avenge their owners should someone get greedy.

The extraction goes smoothly in the end, my anxiety unfounded and my turrent unnecessary.

Afterwards, we go on the offensive: attempting to murder a player who assisted in fending off a spontaneous attack from NPCs. The plan backfires and we are quickly gunned down by the rest of the district. I lose nearly everything I collected, legitimately, before our ill-advised assassination attempt.

I notice I'm making a lot of comparisons between The Division and Destiny, none of which are yet going in Ubisoft's favour. With more forgiving and satisfying gunplay, Bungie's online shooter/RPG hybrid is more immediately fun. Its loot notifications celebrate each piece of gear you collect in a way that The Division's augmented reality-inspired labels don't - several times I pick up loot without being able to clearly see what the label says, or even before I can identify the icon telling me what kind of armour it is.

I carried no more love for the Cosmodrome into Destiny's early days than I do for New York in this beta, but the grandeur of the Mothyard's bright, wide spaces contrast against the dark claustrophobia of Lunar Complex in a way that the various streets of Manhattan cannot, weather system or not (although a shootout against rogue agents in a Dark Zone blizzard is thrilling in a way no Destiny fight has ever been).

The grid system of the streets constantly keeps me separated from events happening just a few yards away and gives me the overpowering sense that I'm running down corridors, being kept from seeing the landmarks that would reduce my reliance on the map.

It's hardly fair given the hundred hours I've dedicated to my Guardian, but there's a sense of ownership of the character, her weapons and her armour that I don't even feel the roots of with The Division. Maybe it's because I couldn't customise her, because this character is only temporary. Maybe it's because the real-world loot is so drab and samey; I've collected a dozen jackets and can't see any major differences between them. Destiny combined the functional and aesthetic elements of equipment, making the choice of boots a balancing act between being slightly more powerful and looking awesome. The Division lets me change my character's jumper, but I can barely see it and it makes no difference anyway.

I die for the last time, in flames, while exploring a contaminated checkpoint. I decide to return to my base, using fast travel from outside the Dark Zone, but don't make it through the door. The beta is ending soon; I will not benefit from any more upgrades. I don't even bother checking the stats on the equipment I salvaged from the Dark Zone.

I log out.

The Division, part two.

The Division

I'm outside my newly-liberated HQ, but all the quest markers for activating its subsections are still there. I log into the three laptops again and on my way outside I get a cutscene, which I skip.

I pick a mission because I like its bright yellow lightning bolt icon the best: I'm going a few blocks east and clearing out a power substation. I also have to rescue a man called Rhodes, but because I'm not paying attention to the subtitles, for most of the mission I'll think it's someone called Rose and will be surprised when she has a man's voice.

The omnipotent voice in my character's headset tells me - us? - to avoid confronting the cleaners. When I notice that they're carrying flamethrowers, I decide to ignore this advice. A lucky shot ignites a man's fuel tank and he explodes, spectacularly announcing my arrival to his nearby allies. This gang do not appear to use radio communications however, as I am able to use this same explosive sneak-attack at least four more times across the duration of the mission.

I descend through the facility's waist-high forest of crates and construction equipment and die for the first time, burned alive by a sociopath performing an over-enthusiastic homage to Bradbury. My reincarnation is quick and most of my equipment seems to have restocked itself, which removes the sting from the experience; the enemies have also reset themselves, but my tactical advantage of knowing where they're coming from - and how they're armed - proves too much for them to succeed in a second encounter.

I die twice more before reaching an obvious boss arena, where I kill waves of opponents long enough for their larger, better-armoured champion to arrive. He is defeated in an uncontrolled explosion when my missed headshot instead nicks his fuel tank.

Returning to the surface by elevator, I am informed that the engineer I left behind in the power plant has already beaten me to my headquarters and am instructed to meet him there. Since he's no longer in danger I decide to take a scenic route.

I find no fewer than three more military squads being badly outgunned by amateur militias, but only help one.

When I arrive at the base I talk to the engineer and unlock an ability which feels like it's been shanghaied from a different game: to deploy an automatic machine gun turret.

A hostage rescue mission catches my eye and I assist two soldiers in rescuing a third, by running ahead of them and killing fifteen men who have the temerity not to be in the army. Perhaps with military training they would have known better than to stream out of their fortified position and into the waiting crosshairs of my new carbine and ridiculous sci-fi turret.

I decide to take a less combat-oriented task next, searching for a missing person. The science fiction quotient increases when I find an area that recreates, in garish orange hologram, an event from long ago. This historical record does not appear to offer any clues to the woman's location, but my HUD nevertheless informs me that clues have been found and offers a new objective marker to continue the search.

I log out.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Division, part one.

The Division

My beta experience with The Division, Ubisoft's third person RPG/shooter hybrid, is not off to a great start, and I've still not actually played any of it. Building my own character is what I was most looking forward to when I started the game and seeing the tabs greyed out is equal parts puzzling, disappointing and distressing.

Eventually, unable to generate even a remote facsimile of myself, I settle on a randomised, vaguely Asian woman; I'd just kept requesting a new face until I found one who looks like she's been through some shit.

But I'm still not allowed into the ravaged ruins of The Division's New York - there's a multi-minute video tutorial to watch, narrated by an Australian who sounds unable to decide if he's excited or not. I get brief instructions on using cover, special skills and grenades, which will shortly be explained by in-game prompts anyway, but am left to figure out how to sprint, shoot and climb obstacles on my own.

A brief cutscene ends with my character deposited in a safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I accidentally stumble out into the deserted, allegedly mean streets and make for the nearest non-main quest, a firefight between several heavily-armed soldiers and a trio of under-equipped rioters.

I manage to turn the tide of the battle in the military's favour, by single-handedly killing all three assailants and their two backup shooters.

This is the first of several fairly satisfying combat encounters; I am routinely outnumbered, but my use of cover, special skills and grenades suggests I paid much closer attention to that tutorial video than my AI opponents. It feels much more like an RPG than its obvious main rival Destiny, with damage numbers springing from bullet impacts, but it lacks the punchy satisfaction of Bungie's headshots.

After circling the block twice searching for a door, I enter a building and am tasked, via radio transmission, with activating a number of scanners; the building is uninhabited and filled with lootable containers, so at first I don't even notice the countdown timer. I find and activate the final objective with minutes to spare. I go to the roof to transmit the scan results and kill five more men.

Eventually I find myself at the objective for the primary mission, a besieged museum. Once again the military is being overwhelmed by an opposing force with inferior numbers, inferior training and inferior weapons; once again the deciding factor in the brief battle's outcome is my lone agent.

It strikes me that my equipment and weapons, at this point, are mostly what I've scavenged from fallen enemies. My tactical approach, too, has more in common with the rioters, given that I actually kill the people who shoot at me.

How do the soldiers know I'm not a bad guy?

I go into the museum, another safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I log out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tiny Noise

Levi Weaver

My favourite musician has announced that he's retiring from music to become a full-time baseball reporter, and released a 22-track album of unfinished songs and demos as a farewell.

It seems weird to describe what I'm feeling as "loss" or "grief", but Levi Weaver has had a profound impact on me in the short few years I've been aware of him. Being based in America and terminally indie, European performances were incredibly rare; I'm so glad we made the effort to get down to London last year and I got to meet him, to thank him in person. We'd had a couple of Twitter conversations and I wrote a long, personal blog post about how his lyrics made me re-examine my belief system; it sounds maybe selfish to say that I think he knew who I was when we were talking in Finsbury a year ago, but I felt like he was aware of our interactions - but I've been surprised before with "famous" people remembering individual fans.

I sing Kansas, I Decline to my son because he loves the chorus; from his changing table he ends up looking at the star-covered curtains in the nursery. We're Tornadoes When We Dance was the song for our first dance at our wedding. My hands automatically play Levi Weaver songs when I pick up my guitar; I only know how to play Spirit First because he was kind enough to show me on a livestream.

Today I'm going to be listening to a lot of Levi Weaver's songs.