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Avengers: Infinity War and the Civil War Britches

If you’re any kind of superhero movie fan, if you are even passingly familiar with the thing called movies, if you have been near a television or the internet recently, then you are probably aware that a movie called Avengers: Infinity War is on the horizon.  There’s a clamor of inevitable hype around it—it’s frequently billed as one of the biggest movie events in history—but some of that isn’t actually hyperbole.

Infinity War promises to cap (or perhaps conclude) 10 years of cinematic story-telling in a cohesive franchise of 18 movies.  There are other franchises with that many movies—James Bond is the most obvious, but depending upon how you count the original Universal Monsters, that franchise dwarfs most others combined—but none of them are as spectacularly successful, and certainly none have been as deliberately unified.  Whatever else it turns out to be, regardless of whether it’s fabulous or a flop, Infinity War is in fact momentous and uniquely ambitious.  No one has ever done anything quite like this before.  There are good reasons to be excited.

This is official promotional material, the rights to which belong with Marvel, Disney, and probably a complicated throng of other people.

But there are also good reasons to be skeptical.  Most of them fit nicely under the heading “Captain America: Civil War.”

“Captain America: Civil War.”

(See what I did there?)

How we judge Civil War will of course depend on our frame of reference.  Compared to other action/adventure blockbusters like the Mission Impossible movies, it’s pretty good.  Compared to the Transformers movies and anything put out by J. J. Abrams, it’s high art.  The bulk of those judgments though are determined by the mediocrity of the comparator films.  The outcome isn’t clearly a strong positive statement about Civil War.  If you do compare Civil war to a quality film, you get a different result. Compared to Captain America: Winter Soldier for example, the intuitive and most unavoidable comparison, Civil War is lackluster, verging on bad.

Captain America Does Not Approve.
(The rights to this promotional artwork are also Marvel’s and not mine.)

I think the reason is obvious.  It committed both too much and too little to the Civil War storyline.  It didn’t commit enough to it to do it justice.  With no real time to unpack what disagreement could tear the team apart, the conflict felt forced and unearned.  Added to an unwillingness to embrace its own stakes then, most of it also felt inconsequential.  The “Civil War” became just an excuse to throw a bunch of characters at each other for an (admittedly entertaining) fifteen-minute comedy rumble.

At the same time, the commitment to telling that particular story overshadowed and ultimately displaced the much more poignant conflict the movie already had between Ironman and Captain America.  If it hadn’t been committed to adapting Civil War, it could have explored a much better and more meaningful (though less populated) fight.

Again, thanks to Marvel. This is a nice crisp image.

Instead we got a movie which tried to do two things and did both badly.  It had too many characters, most of whom were wasted.  It had too many responsibilities in the franchise.  In the words of countless people to me when I was younger, it was too big for its britches.  (For the record, I still am not certain what this means, but one should never squander an opportunity to use the word “britches.”)

Which brings us to Avengers: Infinity War, a movie with more plots, with more characters, with more responsibilities.

No pressure. It just has to justify like a billion magazine covers.

As much as anyone, I hope it’s successful.  I’m sure it will be decently enjoyable; the MCU hasn’t really had a flop yet, and like I alluded to above, their bad movies are still better than most of their chief competitors’ ones. However, I think fans have good cause for wariness.

Over the next few days, I hope to unpack most of this further, because I happen to like the craft of cinematic storytelling.  If you have questions you’d like me to answer or comments about what I’ve said so far, feel free to chime in below.

Up Next:  How to Fix Captain America: Civil War

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Mass Effect: Andromeda, Atmosphere

In a game that has focused so much on atmosphere manipulation, it’s probably fitting that what I like best is the game’s atmosphere.  (Maybe it’s an intentional connection by Bioware, a bit of high art in game development.  I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.)

The setting of Mass Effect: Andromeda is steeped in despair.  It’s really haunting.

Mass Effect: Andromeda promotional image

I mentioned the other day that one of the moments I liked best at the beginning was the one that established the overwhelming desperation and hopelessness on the Nexus.  The people there were trapped and running out of time, but they had no options.  Society was breaking down; people were breaking down.

Even the first real side-quests, a murder investigation and a hunt for a saboteur, reinforced that quality of the setting.  Bleak prospects and high anxiety had inspired one settler to murder another in a pyrrhic quest for survival at any cost.  In the aftermath of a failed rebellion, powerlessness to escape leadership that couldn’t be trusted was transformed into self-destructive rage.

Enter my character, the ersatz Pathfinder.  His tenure hadn’t started well—disaster, failure, tragedy—but he and his team were the last, the only chance anyone in Andromeda had for hope.

The Ghost Town

Finding hope meant diving into the mire and digging it out by main force.  This is where the atmosphere became so important.  Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game after all.  I, the player, knew that my character was going to be able to succeed somehow, was going to beat the odds, do the impossible, triumph with swagger, or at least glory.  Even in Halo: Reach, when players control a doomed character on a doomed planet where they went in knowing the ending, it was possible to succeed.

Mass Effect: Andromeda really needed to sell “isolated and disheartened” for it to work at all.  It hit it out of the park.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

After the Nexus my character traveled to Eos, site of many failed colonies, a barren and hostile planet that seemed exactly like the suitable home only for ruins and corpses.  Even the air tried to kill me.  My only protection was speed or the confines of a dying shield umbrella.  The whole world was littered with stories though.

Hopeful emails that trended slowly toward confusion and concern.  Journals that start out with projects, but then become little more than discussions of obstacles, injuries, and death.  Recordings of the colonists as tensions mounted and they argued about how to stay alive.  Their corpses, left and lost two-million lightyears from home.

The game didn’t pull its punches.  There was one quest a little bit later, after my character had started to show some promise in the hope restoration business, that poignantly brought my efforts into perspective.  I found the equipment of a lost surveyor and decided to complete his task.  He had set his equipment to play messages with each step however.  It was already heartbreaking when it was just the voice of a child proud of his father, now missing, probably forever.  Then each step added to the story.  The son had been dying, had been left behind in the Milky Way, but promised to be content, knowing his father was safe “in the future.”  What a future his father woke up in….

It’s brilliant.  I really don’t want my character to let these people down.  I’m invested in their plight.

Not much later my character left to track down more bodies for burial.  It was the least I could do, but instead I found a mystery, maybe even glimmers of hope.  Perhaps some had escaped?  I tracked them across two systems, only to discover they’d been hunted by someone before, and escaped (if you can call it that) only by crippling their own ship in dangerous space.  I found it drifting not far away, burned and spinning.

A screen shot of the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

But there were survivors on board.  My character exclaimed with joy.  I was right there with him.  It was the most satisfaction I’d ever felt at completing a side quest.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is an amazing game.

Mass Effect: Andromeda, Impressive, Most Impressive

Mass Effect: Andromeda seems determined to kill the completionist in me.

Promotional picture from Mass Effect: Andromeda

I mean this as lofty praise indeed: the game is both staggeringly huge and remarkably engaging.  I keep returning to the main quest not because I finally exhaust my ability to explore, but because I realize after much glorious wandering that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s available.  The setting and story are so interesting though that I don’t want to postpone them for what might very well be weeks while I dig through every available nook and cranny.

A Whole New World

I can’t say this enough; Mass Effect: Andromeda is vast.  I keep saying it to my friends, and chuckling with delight as I think about it, but I keep wanting to tell them again.  I thought I was doing a good job on Eos, the first major planet, exploring a big map—I already thought the world was impressive in size—then I realized that it was at least three times bigger than I thought it was.

Promotional image from Mass Effect: Andromeda

It’s an experience with which I’m growing pleasantly familiar: finding out that what I already appreciated about the game was even better than I knew.

The vastness is well filled, too.  I remember when I used to play World of Warcraft, I would explore and find mostly nothing.  It was always disheartening to spend time wandering through so much wasted space, or to see something with promise only to discover it was nothing but decoration.  Most of the time I would explore, then wish I hadn’t bothered.

That’s never once been my experience in Andromeda.  Everywhere I’ve looked, no matter how stubborn or inventive I’ve been in getting there, I’ve found some reason to be glad I looked.  I don’t mean that the game is showering me with treasures and loot, either.  Sometimes I find treasures, sure.  But sometimes I find monsters.  Sometimes I find quests.  Sometimes I find interesting information about the game’s backstory.  Sometimes I trigger conversations with my companions that add depth and richness to the world.  The variety itself is one of the things I find too.  The game makes me feel like I’m exploring a new world; it always leaves me wanting more, wanting to look over the next hill, and there’s always a next hill.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Everything is more expansive than I expect.  When I got far enough in the main quest to dive underground into the mysterious ancient vault on the planet, I had a certain intuitive guess of how big it would be.  If nothing else I’ve played other Mass Effect games, and I know how big the structures typically are at the end of a quest chain.  Instead, my little team and I kept delving deeper and further.  And it never felt like meaningless length.  The whole way I was interested in looking around, and there were always new features to see and wonder about, new clues to find, new conversations to have.

A screenshot from Mass Effect: Andromeda

The size and variety in the game isn’t limited to the map though.  Huge describes almost every aspect of it.  I get to mix and match skills however I want, choosing from a bigger variety than any other Mass Effect had.  I get to choose my equipment too, both its features and appearance.  I get to research and design new items, then I can modify the base items while I build them to give them unique qualities, all before adding modifications to them.    I get to make choices at every scale, from small things like which way to travel, to large things like what sort of settlements to build in the galaxy.  And I get to do it all with an interesting group of companions.  The number is smaller than in some past games, but their variety is greater, and their unique personalities have been more richly implemented.  They have interesting relationships with each other, the environment, and the NPCs, not just my character.

My time on Eos was a blast as I began to discover all of this.  None of these were my favorite part though.

 

Mass Effect: Andromeda, Rough Sailing

I’m about 10 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda now, and I can’t help but be delighted by it.  I had some rocky moments in there when I started to have serious misgivings, but then the game dropped the mighty metaphorical hammer of awesomeness on them.   I’ll get to that.  First though, let me do justice to the problems.

Game Mechanics 101

My time at the Nexus was mostly great.  Like I mentioned before, I really appreciated the general atmosphere, and the commitment the game had to developing that atmosphere; it helped me feel invested in the game setting.  I was a bit bothered by obvious questions I couldn’t ask—if the exiles and Krogan could find a place to live, why couldn’t the Initiative; if a bunch of scientists and civilians could unite to form an elite sector-wide tactical strike squad, why couldn’t they defend a colony; who was the merchant trading with, and why—but not enough to dampen my spirits.

I was still really excited as the game set up its various systems and mechanics:  solve quests on planets to make them habitable, gather resources for the Nexus, increase “viability” so that more options will become available.  None of it was laid out as seamlessly as it probably could have been, but I don’t really object to recognizing game mechanics as game mechanics.  Besides, exploring, questing, and resource gathering have long been a part of Mass Effect, and in this game, they actually make sense.  Even more, what I suspect will become a straightforward system of accumulating “viability” to wake colonists is actually reasonable.  It makes more sense than the “Loyal people are less likely to die” mechanic from Mass Effect 2.

So all told, I was having a blast even before I got access to my starship, the Tempest.  I figured it could only get better.  After all, who doesn’t want to hop on a starship and explore the stars?

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Well at first, I wasn’t so sure that I did.  Travel in Mass Effect: Andromeda involves a lot of zooming around, as seen from the nose of the Tempest.  When the rest of the game is third person, first person space flight is a little odd.  First person space flight as the nose of a space ship would probably have been odd no matter the setting.

Making it worse, arriving at a destination usually involves it suddenly appearing out of nowhere right in front of you at the end of your trip, instead of starting as a speck on the horizon that grows into clarity.  The models that appear aren’t always stellar even.  (See what I did there?)  The first one I saw was literally just a big blue splotch.  I don’t have a screenshot of it, because it was so shockingly horrible that I didn’t think to take one.  You’ll just have to trust me.

When I left though, I didn’t fly around the splotch, I flew right at it and it suddenly disappeared.  It was the most immersion crushing first person perspective experience I’ve ever had in a video game, and I have gotten stuck in pixelated corners before.  Then, the next place I flew was an asteroid field.  I know because it popped into existence around me at the last moment, like a swarm of giant rocky ninjas throwing a surprise party.

And while this was going on, I was getting overwhelmed by game tooltips and plot dialogue, and I didn’t catch any of it.  The tooltips vanished too quickly and I couldn’t follow the dialogue because I was trying to read the tooltips and so missed the beginning.  I couldn’t find the tool tips anywhere in the codex, either, and none of my quests had updated with the information my crew had just been discussing.  I was so frustrated that I loaded a save game and played the whole sequence again.

The tooltips didn’t load the second time, so I’m still not sure what they say.  I caught the dialogue.

This is one of the consistent problems I’ve had with the game though.  Understanding what’s going on requires careful attention to dialogue and triggered events, none of which are either repeatable or transcribed anywhere, and most of which happen without any warning, sometimes in a direction there are no reasons to face, and frequently while something else is going on that prevents careful attention.  There was a sub-quest I went on a little while later which involved my gathering pieces of equipment.  I didn’t catch the backstory for the quest.  In the middle there was a monster reveal I didn’t catch, so I didn’t understand why dramatic music was playing or why my sidekicks were complaining.  Then the quest completed and I didn’t hear its results or the explanation of why I’d just spent half an hour pursuing it.   All because everything was communicated by triggered events that it was too easy to miss.  I worry how much of the main story I’m missing.

In any event, I was getting frustrated with the game and less excited about it while I flew through space on my ship.

Luckily, I landed.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

More soon.