November 2018


A website suggested finishing the main quest in Destiny 2 rather than doing all the side quests, so that when you do get to them, they give you better gear. So, OK, I finished the main quest. Only now I think I’m done.

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Destroying the Death Star with handheld weapons

The main story is, I dunno, about 20 hours? It includes one mission I absolutely hated, because of the damn tank. Its controls are horrible, so I spent half the time driving it into walls and trying to extricate myself… you can call new tanks, and not infrequently I ran to the next spawn because that was easier than getting the old tank pointed in a reasonable direction. Plus I kept dying in one particular location, till I realized there was a separate fire mode I needed to be using.

But! The last few missions are actually pretty good! You have to eliminate the Legion’s Deathstar, you see.  So you go to a Legion base, fight your way through the absurdly chunky structures favored by these space fascists, kill a big bad, and steal his key codes and his ship. This apparently isn’t noticed at all, so you can fly to the Deathstar and cause havoc.  You blow it up and then head back to Earth to take out the biggest bad, old Ghaul the Inexplicable.

As I mentioned, you’re a mute unkillable zombie with no civilian applications, and that’s your secret weapon.  They can’t kill you.  So you get into a rhythm of shooting bad guys, hiding behind walls while you recover heath, and shooting some more. And occasionally ulting the hell out of them. (I still think the ults are doled out too sparingly, so you can never quite count on them. But if you think of them as a treat rather than an ability you should have, you’ll feel better. Plus, in the final battle they actually give you extra ults, so for once the final fight is kind of fun.)

There’s one brief section where you have to go into space. Now, the Deathstar is at the orbit of Mercury, so it’s hot. So you have to jump from shadow to shadow, while shooting enemies… or letting them fry as they cross the sunlit parts to come to you. This was pretty damn neat.

(The game, with its gift for astounding scientific illiteracy, calls this mission 1 AU.  That of course is the orbit of Earth; Mercury is at about 0.4 AU.)

So, Ghaul doesn’t get to blot out the Sun, plus he’s dead. After this, the game lets you back in the Last City, suddenly filled with other players.  Plus you get an engram, finally, which turns out to be a coupon for one piece of gear, and you can join factions, and you get a new spaceship, and the major NPCS have some gifts for you. And you can go back and do all those side missions.

I might, but it turns out killing Ghaul has done a number on my motivation. Look, I just saved the Sun and the entire solar system, rescued the Traveler, and now everyone’s got the Light back rather than just me. And you want me to go fight some straggling aliens here and there? You got thousands of Guardians now, let them do it.  I still have to go murder more of Ancient Greece.

I still don’t know what the other currencies are, and I think I only spent half my skill points. They have a dumb system where new skills replace the old ones– e.g. you can have three different types of grenades, but only use one kind at a time.

If I’d paid $60 for the game, I think I’d be a little disappointed… but for free, it’s a great diversion. It’s beautiful, it gives you plenty of things to shoot, and it has its moments (such as that run in the sun, or Nathan Fillion’s character). But it’s also rather clunky and confusing, it never quite knows what to do with its ideas, and it’s huge without being diverse.  And the story is overblown, throwing in threats like “destroying the sun” without having this either make sense or have any real impact.

An example of the “ideas” problem: the enemy aliens are all just murderous things with red health bars. Only two of the Legion even have voice lines, and there’s not a moment where anything they do inspires respect or sympathy. Within the same company, you could look at, say, World of Warcraft, where a lot of effort has been put into making the Horde an interesting rather than just eeeevil; or Overwatch, where the villains have something to say for themselves and the heroes may be questionable.

Another example: the game is set all over the solar system, but they don’t (say) play with gravity, or distance from the sun, or atmosphere, or temperature. The surface gravity of Titan is 0.14 that of Earth; that’d be pretty interesting.

As for the hugeness, I think the best open world games don’t just give you things to shoot, they add other stuff.  The Arkham games give you Riddler puzzles; Mass Effect has its romances; Beyond Good & Evil 1 throws in races, photography, and space pool; Fallout 4 has settlements; Saints Row lets you play dress-up and listen to the radio.

So, again, not a bad game. But, I dunno, it feels like a 20-hour game that thinks it’s a 200-hour game.

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Blizzard gave me a free game!  Well, me and everyone else, but it’s still nice to get a message that you have a gift.  It’s also huge, 80 gigabytes… well, sorry, Team Fortress 2, it was finally time to uninstall you.

So, Destiny 2.  First impressions: it’s like Borderlands without the cel shading or the southern fried attitude. And weirdly rough around the edges.

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You have learned the Gek word for genocide

The story– did you know it had a story?– is that Earth is in the middle of a bunch of interstellar war. Humans are almost extinct; they live in one last city, called the Last City (names are terrible in D2), until some interstellar fascists called the Red Legion show up and destroy it. Their leader is called Dominus Ghaul and will make you miss the more caring, friendly nature of Zinyak.

You are a mute, frightening zombie.  This isn’t perhaps what the PR guys say; they call you a Guardian. But: you have a little floating robot who can resurrect you, and this is an explicit part of the story, not just a gameplay thing. You’re a fighting machine and you never talk– the robot talks for you. Clearly he’s not your “helper”, he’s the actual intelligence controlling you, and you’re a zombie.  Nonetheless, you’re humanity’s last hope.

It really does feel like a more serious Borderlands. You go on pretty linear routes, killing everything in your path– monsters named the Legion, the Fallen, the Vex– look, names are not the game’s forte. They thoughtfully drop guns and armor slightly better than your current ones. Occasionally you level up and get points to increase your superpower.  I’m a Hunter, so basically I dress like Reaper and my ult is Genji.

OK, positives:

  • I really like Borderlands, so the whole concept is pretty nice.
  • It’s very pretty, for post-apocalyptia. I mean, there’s nowhere left with a good restaurant and even the hubs are full of monsters, but it looks great.
  • Do you like Firefly?  They got most of the actors here somewhere.
  • In the hubs you can run into other players, and fight the monsters with them.
  • You can play co-op, but I haven’t yet.
  • You can triple-jump, which is 50% better than a double-jump.
  • Inventory management is pretty streamlined… it’s generally really clear if a piece of gear is better. This is actually an improvement over Borderlands where you had to do calculations in your head to find the actual DPS given things like round size and reload speed.

Negatives:

  • It’s full of stuff it doesn’t bother to explain. I have no idea how one should upgrade a character, or what the three different currencies are. I get messages that I’ve acquired something and can’t find it, nor do I know what to do with it. There are whole mechanisms– emblems, engrams, triumphs, gear customization– that are referred to but don’t seem to exist for me. (I get messages that I have a “triumph”, but the character screen says I have 0.) My character is an “Awoken” and there’s no explanation; they seem to be basically Dark Elves.
  • It seems buggy in places. Twice I’ve had to quit because enemies didn’t appear and nothing happened.
  • There’s an annoying, punishing half-attempt at platforming. Get the timing wrong, or fail to invest in that triple-jump, and you die. Come on, games, this was solved by Arkham Asylum in 2009.
  • The ult is really powerful, but they dole it out so slowly that you never know whether to use it, or save it for the next boss.
  • You have powerful grenades, and they’re on an over-long cooldown too. Devs, if you’re terrified we’ll actually use the powerful tools, maybe make them a tad less powerful rather than not letting us use them?
  • I know, suspension of disbelief, but I’m kind of put off by an utter disregard for physics. The story has the Legion wanting to destroy the sun, which makes little sense… they don’t even bother to provide a reason, or even explain why they’d do this while their own troops are scattered over the solar system. Plus, firing lasers at a star won’t make it go supernova and stellar explosions can’t go faster than lightspeed. You visit an asteroid named Nessus. A planetoid of under 100 km diameter out by Uranus would be a rather interesting setting, but in the game it’s a lovely warm planet with plants and running water and breathable air and Earth gravity.

In between: game devs, it’s not that hard to make a multiplayer game with a single-player story that does not contradict the multiplayer. Conan Exiles or The Secret World or DC Universe Online all managed it: they came up with stories where the player is not the Chosen One; rather, lots of people have these neat powers. Destiny 2 does not manage this– you are apparently the only Guardian who can take on the story missions. Yet you see other players and can play other missions with them, or even run PvP sessions. It wouldn’t even be hard to fix this up: oh look, we have a corps of Guardians.  They seem to outnumber the civilians, since the writers insisted on near-genocide, but since the Guardians are immortal zombies, perhaps it makes sense that their numbers would accumulate.

Anyway, it looks like I’m more than halfway through the story, so I expect I’ll finish it.  Googling, it looks like the thing I found and couldn’t identify was a Relic which unlocks more powers, which requires, astonishingly, killing more monsters.  Well, OK.

Does it sound like I don’t like it?  I don’t think I dislike it. The price is right, and it’s not actively tiresome, like say Agents of Mayhem. I wish it were a little more comprehensible, though, and maybe that the story went beyond apocalyptic space opera.

Update: Rest of review, after finishing off Ghaul.

Tricksy move: write a whole book about a single day of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. That’s the one pulled by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden in How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (2017). The bulk of the book is devoted to the strip for August 8, 1959, shown below.

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I’ve purposely shown a view of the strip among other strips, on faded newsprint, rather than the big clean black & white version, in order to help make the authors’ point: Nancy survives poor sizing and reproduction intact. It’s a fast strip to grasp: bam, bam, gag. Bushmiller is a master of minimalism; the drawing and the text are just enough to carry the gag and no more.

The book reprints the strip 43 times, highlighting something different each time. The gimmick is a little misleading— e.g. one highlight is on the character of Nancy, which really covers her personality and appearance over the life of the strip. Another is devoted to the copyright notice and date, as a digression into the business of comic strip creation. (Like most strips of the time, Nancy was owned by the syndicate; Bushmiller was technically just an employee.)

The book is a pretty good primer on Nancy; as a bonus it includes about 200 full strips, plus a retrospective of Bushmiller’s career. Fun fact: he started out as a copyboy at the New York World at the age of 15, hung out with the cartoonists and started doing graphic odd jobs, such as drawing the lines for crossword puzzles; he was publishing a strip by the age of 19. When he was just 20, in 1925, he took over Larry Whittington’s Fritzi Ritz, a comic about a ditzy flapper, itself an imitation of the similar Tillie the Toiler. Fritzi was quite successful, though even then Bushmiller preferred single-strip gags to any sort of ongoing story.

Occasionally a kid cousin or nephew or niece would show up and invariably be smart-alecky— always flustering Aunt Fritzi— and in 1933 one of these was Nancy. There was something about her that outshone the other kids; she stuck around, and in 1938 the strip was rechristened Nancy. And so it went till Bushmiller’s death in 1982.

Now, Nancy used to be the comic strip sophisticates cordially hated. The 1976 World Encyclopedia of Comics complained that it seemed to be made by “some guy with Joe Miller’s Joke Book and a set of Nancy and Sluggo stamps”, and dismissed it as “the last thing the Lawrence Welk generation read and liked in the comics.” Well, 1970s hipsters, the joke’s on you: the next generation of hipsters developed a deep appreciation for Nancy. 

There’s something to be said for it, especially with Karasik and Newgarden’s help. Nancy is above all honest. It’s a half-century-long paean to the gag and nothing but the gag. It has no satirical import, no story, no pretensions to be a Graphic Novel. Based on the comics reproduced in the book, the gags are rarely LOL funny, but they’re amusing and harmless, and not tiresome in the way of Beetle Bailey or Marmaduke. (Ha ha, Sarge is beating up Beetle again.) There’s even an appealing dash of surrealism, such as a strip where Nancy and Sluggo exchange heads. (Though it’s kind of ruined by Bushmiller lampshading that it’s April Fool’s Day.)

If you value clear and direct cartooning, there’s much to learn from Nancy. Simple writing isn’t as easy as it looks, and neither is simple cartooning. As Wally Wood put it, “By the time you decided not to read it, you already had.”

The strip is still going on, and ironically, 2010s hipsters actually like the current incarnation, by Olivia Jaimes. We’ll probably be able to celebrate the strip’s centennial in just four years.

I think both the dismissal and the adulation can go too far. Bushmiller’s Nancy is workmanlike and reliable, but it achieves its effects because it sets a very low bar. It’s hard not to compare it with Peanuts, which matches it in minimalism but far exceeds it in variety, perceptiveness, and draftsmanship. Bushmiller’s cartooning is highly competent— and this goes double for today when almost all the nicely drawn adventure strips are gone, and almost the whole comics page is devoted to sketchily drawn gag strips. But his line is stiff, his facial expressions are stereotyped, and the characters barely attempt to be human. And though Nancy might make you smile more than you expected, it’ll never wow you or challenge you or inform you or shock you.

Karasik and Newgarden do great work in pointing out Bushmiller’s skill and simplicity, and pulling out lessons for cartoonists; but I think they could have gone much farther in recognizing that alternative approaches are OK too. You can go for better drawing, you can go for sketchier drawing; you can tell stories, you can be satirical or serious, you can draw five rocks instead of three.

Not content with playing Overwatch, I’ve been watching it– i.e., pro streams and games.

For the World Cup, Blizzard created a separate viewer, which lets you follow any player, and indeed control the camera. This is pretty damn neat, and I hope they’ll implement it for Overwatch League– heck, for any games.

You can also use it to look at the whole map in ways that you can’t when playing. Biggest surprise: the three-stage maps are really one map.  E.g., Lijiang Tower:

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I really thought these were separate maps with skyboxes to show the bits of the other stages that you can see.  But with the viewer you can fly from one stage to the next: everything is there, down to the last health pack. Note that you can see some of the player info– the actual gameplay is at Control Center, but we can see Night Market in perfect detail. (And note that the spaceship spawns are there, although this isn’t the current stage.)

Another example: here’s a view of the Busan map showing both the temple and the city. (There’s still some culling that goes on– if you pull back far enough from the city, it disappears.)

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And here’s a closeup on the hillside, showing that at this distance from the city, the trees
are just 2-d pictures on flat quads.  (You can see a bit of the city center to the right.)

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What about the actual pro play? Well, I really enjoy seeing Space or Emongg play D.Va or Zarya, or Surefour playing anything, or Fareeha playing Pharah. I don’t know if I learn much, but some things amuse me:

  • Pro players still destroy everything in spawn.
  • Space changes his players-to-avoid after almost every match.
  • His ult tracking is amazing.
  • Wait times for Top 500 are terrible: 5 minutes or more.  Nice for streamers: they can look at chat.
  • Top 500 players still complain about unbalanced matches.
  • If someone’s out of position, the callout is e.g. “Zarya feeding.”
  • Surefour sounds infinitely chill.

And speaking of Surefour, if you watch just one pro game, find today’s Canada-France game and watch the Busan map, especially the Meka Base.  He has some game-winning Sombra ults.