Saturday Summaries 2018-12-29: 2019 Q1 Preview Edition

Welcome, all, to the final Saturday Summaries of 2018! As is customary for the end of any quarter, I'm going to use my intro segment to talk about the games coming up in the near future. 2019, like 2018, looks to start strong and maybe peter out a little as we approach the summer months. There's still so much about the upcoming year that we don't yet know, however. The following is hardly an exhaustive list of new releases, but the ones I'm personally interested in:

2019: The Return of Kingdom Heartache, baby! Get all those funny animals out of cold storage, everybody!
2019: The Return of Kingdom Heartache, baby! Get all those funny animals out of cold storage, everybody!

January will be a big month for remakes and remasters. They include Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, Onimusha: Warlords and Resident Evil 2. With the exception of the last item on that list, I could happily recommend any of these games having played the originals years ago. Then again, remakes are fairly low priority for me unless I missed them the first time around. The biggest new game in January, at least as far as I'm concerned, is the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III. My plans to finally catch up with the series last year fell through, but there's some part of me that's relieved that I didn't fold and play through a bunch of weaker portable spin-offs for this seriously lore-dense series. Hopefully, they figure out how to deliver all the necessary information in as natural way as possible for those who stopped at Kingdom Hearts II. The other big new January game of note is Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, the more off-the-wall sequel to Suda51's series on quirky assassins and obnoxious otaku showboats. If it retains even an iota of those games' irreverence and comedic nonsense, it'll be one to watch this year. I'm also a little curious about YIIK: A Postmodern RPG from Ackk Studios, which has a pretty bold look at least.

February is the big dumping ground for a lot of the 2018 games that didn't quite make it out that year. Trials Rising is the newest game from the precision-demanding motorcycle franchise from UbiSoft, and looks to get back to basics to some extent after the absurd flights of fancy of Trials Fusion. I think a lot of Trials' humor and imagination comes through well enough without unicorns farting lasers, but I can't fault the series for wanting to take risks in being even sillier than normal. I'm still working my way through Trials Evolution, so Rising might have to wait a while. On the fifteenth of February, we're going to get flanked by Crackdown 3, Far Cry: New Dawn and Metro Exodus: three of the year's biggest open-world shooters dropping on the same day. Hard to say from this vantage point which will emerge as the critical favorite, though my money's on the moody and atmospheric Metro Exodus. Speaking of open-world shooters, a mere week after those three comes Anthem, BioWare's answer to Bungie's Destiny. Not quite as stoked for that game as I am for, say, the next Dragon Age, but maybe it won't be so bogged down by MMO mechanics that it makes for an enjoyable single-player experience. Finally, there's a couple of dark horse Japanese entries in the form of a Steins;Gate remaster (figures this is the year I finally get around to playing the original) and Left Alive: the third-person stealth shooter set in Front Mission's universe with a heavy Metal Gear Solid influence, which from trailers could either be mediocre as hell or a surprise hit. I suspect Dan Ryckert will be keeping a close eye on that one.

I can't speak for any of you, but this particular Shadow right here will be dying a lot more than twice.
I can't speak for any of you, but this particular Shadow right here will be dying a lot more than twice.

March looks a little empty right now, though I imagine it'll start to fill up as we get closer to it and various developers shake off the 2018 cobwebs and get their announcements in gear. The big draw for me is FromSoftware's new IP, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which looks to build on what From did with the Souls series as well as their time with the Tenchu license. Bloodborne benefited partially because it wasn't anywhere near as sluggish or deliberate as the Souls games, with players encouraged to throw themselves into the fray in order to recover lost health and rely more on countering and pre-emptive blows, and Sekiro looks to take that even further with its action gameplay and ninja-like acrobatics. It's probably the game highest on my wishlist for next year, at least this early. I'm significantly less enthused for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove (I wasn't a Mega Drive kid, so the original doesn't have the hold on me the way it does with Drew or Jeff) and Devil May Cry 5 (never really got into this series either, nor "character action" games in general), but they're two big upcoming highlights for many. We also have The Sinking City, the Lovecraft-inspired detective game from the Ukrainian Frogwares studio that brought us all those Sherlock Holmes games that Justin McElroy breathlessly extolled, so maybe that might make for a fun Quick Look if nothing else.

Anyway, that's about as much as I can find on the upcoming year's games, at least for its first quarter. Quite packed, but I don't see anything that might run away with that year's best game accolades besides perhaps Sekiro. It could well be that the Indies will be the games to watch next year, as often as they pop up out of nowhere, which is why I want to focus even more on my Indie coverage next year.

But we're still not done with 2018, as much as we want this year to finally be over. We're still deep in GOTY season for a little while longer yet, so be forewarned that most of my blogging content this week was dedicated to that edifice of pointless rankings:

  • Most of my blogging attention this week was concentrated on Game of the Year content, but I did find a quiet moment during the holidays to conclude my A Jazztronomical Score feature with Part Eight. This would be the eight-part series on Jazztronauts: the Garry's Mod mod that has you looting the many user-created maps available on the game's Steam Workshop hub for valuable props and a whole lot of garbage. Since I've been doubling-down on looking for specific quest objects, having long passed the honeymoon period where I'd jump into any old awful meme map for shits and giggles, I figured the feature was also running out of steam. The game's highlight are the cutscenes you unlock after every fetch quest, and I didn't want to spoil all of them for anyone interested in picking this game up for themselves. Eight entries is a sufficiently deep dive into the game's myriad charms, at least, and I may just drop by the Bar Samsara for the occasional casual visit in 2019.
  • The Mento Game Awards is a long-time institution on the Giant Bomb forums, and is presently the only time of year when I bust out the ol' MS Paint for some stickpeople comics. I'm sure at this point so much time has passed since I made comics regularly that no-one remembers why I keep using Deus Ex's J.C. Denton as my avatar, or where his animosity towards Adam Jensen comes from, or any of the handful of recurring gags I keep invoking against my better judgement, but I hope people find them entertaining regardless. I put a lot of time into those, and maybe not quite as much time into the awards themselves (but then I didn't have a whole lot of games to draw from this year, with the exception of categories that feature older games or soundtracks), but they're always fun to make and I like contributing to the site's enormous GOTY extravaganza every year.
  • It's included in the above Awards Blog, but my GOTY 2018 list can be found over here separately as well. Less a difficult process of pruning down an inventory of the year's best games than simply ordering the ten I'd actually played - I spent most of 2018 playing 2017 games, and I'll spend most of 2019 playing 2018 (and 2017) games - but I think I walked away with a solid top-ten I would be happy promoting. 2017 felt like a year that was firing on all cylinders for everyone (though, and it's worth noting, only in terms of video games), but 2018 felt like one geared more specifically to what I was into: open-world games with dense lore, Indie spacewhippers, big RPGs from both hemispheres, and a small but potent assortment of trailblazing adventure games. It's going to take a while to unpack everything I truly wanted to play from this year, but that's what the "adjusted" GOTY lists are for.

Addenda

TV: Parks and Recreation (Seasons 2 and 3)

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I had intended to watch something else for the final week of the year, but I couldn't put down Parks and Rec after finishing the first season a couple weeks ago. It felt like I was wasting an opportunity, putting the show's rough first season behind me and then holding off on the subsequent, far-better ones. Holy crap, did this show find its voice in the next couple of seasons though: all the characters now click far better than they did before, more attention is being given to what were glorified background extras in the first season (specifically, the office schlemiel and schlemazel Jerry, and the cool as a cucumber Donna), the show took a more Simpsons-like approach to expanding the burg of Pawnee and its eccentric citizens and infrastructure, and they finally move on from that overarching story about filling in the pit outside of Ann Perkins's home, which was a hole both literally and figuratively for the show's narrative momentum. Later seasons shift to smaller, though far more significant, stories like busy bee heroine Leslie Knope's attempts to get the town's once-legendary Harvest Festival back on track, or when the local government became bankrupt and had to be shut down for a spell, which also introduced to the show its last two major players: the perpetually positive and physically perfect Chris played by Rob Lowe, and the socially awkward by-the-books nerd Ben played by Adam Scott.

But what's remarkable is tracing the rising stardom of Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza, who play eventual couple Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate. Both characters are being given a lot more to do now, doubling-down on Pratt's pratfalls and Plaza's deadpan misanthropy, and their courtship is sweet as well. Ron Swanson, meanwhile, is becoming the institution I've always known him as (as someone who managed to avoid the show but couldn't help catching the occasional clip or soundbite): individualistic, libertarian, and hyper-masculine while only occasionally crossing into a toxic level of same (and usually he's back on the side of the angels after such lapses thanks to Leslie's interventions). He's a great character that holds the show together in some respects, and Parks and Rec is often at its funniest when he's put in a compromising position, usually as a result of either of his two demonic ex-wives (both named Tammy) who still hold an unnatural sway over him.

Anyway, though I do fully intend to watch other TV shows in 2019 - I might finally bite the bullet on Bob's Burgers this year, which I also stalled on after a middling first season but has a voice cast to die for - there's still... four more seasons of this show to binge through? So maybe don't expect much commentary on anything else for a while.

Movie: Ready Player One (2018)

Spielberg makes so many serious movies these days that I don't mind if he stretches his legs with popcorn trash like this.
Spielberg makes so many serious movies these days that I don't mind if he stretches his legs with popcorn trash like this.

Yeah, yeah, I watched the Super Smash Bros. of movies. I've been curious about this flick for a while, but only at a level of interest that precludes paying for it (well, exclusively at least, since it was on my streaming media service). The lead character Wade, played by Tye Sheridan (who I kept mistaking for Miles Teller; same squinty energy), is a kid living in a dangerously towering vertical stack of trailers who escapes - like everyone else - the sheer economic horror of the future of 2045 into a VR MMO named OASIS. Created by James Halliday, a kooky mumbling introvert played by Mark Rylance (who I kept mistaking for Nolan North), the OASIS provides an apparently endless variation of entertainment and relaxation opportunities to its audience of players, sort of like a less-good Rec Room. The creator put an Easter egg inside the game that's particularly elusive, and after his death decides the first person to find it will be granted his share of the trillion-dollar company that created and maintains the OASIS. As the world's greatest Halliday fan, Wade intends to find it first.

However, the movie's antagonist is a corporation who has expended a huge amount of resources on this search, headed by a disgruntled former intern of Halliday's company whose attempts to monetize OASIS were waved away. For some reason, even though this company is named "IOI" (for Innovative Online Industries), which is also the number five in binary, everyone calls their many indentured servant player avatars "sixers". This is one of many cases of the movie kinda missing the point one way or another, from the infamous example of one character recreating Brad Bird's The Iron Giant only to use them as a weapon (because that's what that movie was all about), to the biggest pop culture nostalgia nerds in the world being the only ones not using avatars based on pop culture icons: instead, Wade has an avatar that looks like an elfin Cale Tucker from Titan A.E., and his love interest is rocking a Bratz doll with those harrowing CGI Alita: Battle Angel Disney eyes. Which brings up another curious plot hole: if the OASIS is a basin of creativity and freedom of expression, which is why everyone fights to keep it out of the grasp of a cynical corporate consumption machine like IOI, why hasn't anyone invented any new intellectual properties in the past fifty years? I get that Ernest Cline's got a boner for cultish 20th century entertainment, but even with his grim future's economic collapse people would still be writing and animating and designing and composing new shit all the time. I guess this is the same complaint about nostalgia-heavy media that everyone makes, but I feel we always have one foot in the past and the other in the future when it comes to our pop cultural mores, forever teabagging the present in the process.

Anyway, dumb movie, but visually very rich in the same nigh-vertiginous manner as the more recent Star Wars and Star Trek movies. The underlying message, that we should turn off our video games twice a week to make out with girls or do some gardening or whatever, isn't the worst thing to teach the kids either. I do sort of wonder how accurate their portrayal of '80s nostalgia will be in the 2040s: I suspect by then RoboCop and Commando will be part of the AFI's most prestigious films list, since they'd then be movies only 70-somethings would care about.

Game: Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017)

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It's safe to say I was looking for something very specific when booting up Mass Effect: Andromeda: something open-worldish and relatively mindless I could stick on in the background while I devoured the site's 20+ hours of GOTY podcasts. I've heard the horror stories of the game's misfires, and while there are still copious visual glitches and some uninspired mission design, it does feel like it's been patched to an extent that has regained some level of quality (though still far from the original trilogy).

Andromeda sees the various races of Mass Effect take the 600+ year intergalactic trip from the Milky Way galaxy to the Andromeda galaxy via large "ark" seedships filled with pioneers and scientists kept in stasis. The brainchild of a billionaire dreamer - the Elon Musk of the Mass Effect universe, only without the severe personality defects - the Initiative took a sneak peek at the Andromeda galaxy with a special relay that eliminated the usual difficulty with contemporary observation of distant cosmic objects - that is to say, if you're looking at a planet that's a million light years away, you're seeing it as it was a million years ago - and observed an area of systems called the Heleus Cluster filled with "golden worlds": those ideally suited for habitation. However, shit hits the fan relatively quickly once the arks and the hub station ("The Nexus") arrives in Heleus, clobbered by a dangerous enigmatic space phenomenon called the Scourge and a race of hostile, eugenics-obsessed aliens called the kett. The human ark is the only one to successfully make it to the Nexus along with its Pathfinder - those linked to a sophisticated AI with unparalleled information-gathering and processing faculties, who are the best suited for seeking out worlds to colonize - and from there the Initiative starts to recover its momentum.

A lot of the game involves you, as the human Pathfinder, visiting the erstwhile golden worlds and clearing them of dangers, setting up new colonies and outposts, befriending any alien races that aren't trying to murder you on sight, and generally solving everybody's problems with your speedy spaceship The Tempest or your rough-and-tumble exploration vehicle The Nomad. Structurally, it's very similar to Dragon Age: Inquisition in that you traipse over all these different worlds completing main and side quests by following map icons, all the while looting a huge variety of equipment, salvage (i.e. vendor trash), mods, augments, components, minerals, blueprints, and multiple other flavors of junk. The shooter combat's been fine-tuned to be more like Mass Effect 3's online multiplayer-ready fracas, with a new "profile" system that replaces classes: instead of choosing a class from the outset with a limited number of abilities to put development points into, you instead pour points into any of the three ability types (combat, tech, biotics) and more profiles become available and level up in response. Issue with this system is, you get a huge number of active skills to choose from - around fifteen, at least - and only three slots on your quick active bar. I've not tinkered around with it enough to know if there are multiple builds you can switch between or an easier way to invoke the many skills you don't have quick buttons for, but it doesn't seem too productive to stretch yourself across all three trees. I'm sticking with tech/combat for now, as the Infiltrator profile as some useful boons and I was never one for biotics as fun as throwing people around might be, and most of my combat encounters have involved a lot of setting auto-turrets and sniping from a distance. Suits me, since close-range combat is often a little too hectic for my liking.

Anyway, while the game is hardly perfect by most metrics, it is perfect for the very specific context I had planned for it. There's a lot of incidental dialogue that I occasionally pause my podcasting to listen into, and I generally like the game's characters even if half of them look like Monster Factory rejects (the only ones that look like real people so far have been Alec Ryder, the original human Pathfinder and the protagonist's father, and your more gung-ho companion Liam Kosta), but I'm sleepwalking through it while listening to a bunch of yahoos argue about the year's most disappointing game, as originally intended. It definitely gives you a lot to do, as you complete objectives on every planet to raise its viability for settlement and are given a hundred smaller tasks besides, and I don't imagine I'll be anywhere close to done once I've run out of podcasts. Even though I started just before Christmas and have since received other open-world games I'd probably be better off playing - Marvel's Spider-Man, for one, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for another - my affection for both Dragon Age Inquisition (bloat and all) and the Mass Effect universe is sufficiently buoying me through a game that is far from Eden Prime but also far from objectionable.

That's going to do it for this week's catch-up. As far as 2019 blogging plans go, I'm sticking with Saturday Summaries and Indie Game of the Week, but there'll be whole new content dropping on Tuesdays from here on out. My first ports of call include a Wiki Project for the upcoming AGDQ event (starts Jan 6th!) and the all-new rankings of my adjusted 2017 GOTY list, and then after that I'll be bouncing between a couple of new features. I'll have more info on those next time.

All that's left is to wish you all a happy new year! Can't be worse than this one, but then I remember saying something similar at the end of 2017. And at the end of 2016. Urgh...

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