I Feel The Need...

Let's be real, Burnout Paradise came out in 2008 and it is still the undisputed greatest open-world racing game of all time.  Need for Speed 2015 doesn't change that.  It doesn't even come close.  Criterion, the developers who made Burnout Paradise were bought up by EA some years back and made Need For Speed: Most Wanted in 2012 which came closer to recapturing that old magic than this new game does.  But Criterion doesn't really exist anymore and now chasing the ghost of Burnout Paradise is EA's new studio Ghost.  The result is a game that tries to strike a balance between that bombastic, over-the-top spectacle of Burnout Paradise and the gritty, tuner-centric realism of EA's Shift games.  The game is simultaneously brilliant and stupid and frustrating and gorgeous.

Right off the line I found that the sound is the best part of Need For Speed.  I'm a big drum and bass fan, and the soundtrack is rife with some fantastic D&B tunes.  The score for the game was done by none other than Photek and the licensed soundtrack has a very eclectic, modern and deep mix.  I mean, they got that Rio song by Netsky 6 months before it was even released! 

The people who worked on the audio should be extremely proud.  Every sound effect, engine note, collision and tire squeal has a pop and weight to it that sounds illustrious in a good pair of headphones.  And I can't heap enough praise on the subtle touch of having the music volume raise and lower dynamically with the speed of the car.  It's utterly brilliant; perfectly capturing the rush of pegging the accelerator while cranking the volume knob.  Inspired.

Visually, Need for Speed is downright resplendent.  That's if you like the color palette of blue and pink.  The production designers did an amazing job of creating an entire city with distinctly different districts and areas that all look unique and yet mesh perfectly into a cohesive color and design palate.  The game operates on a unique dusk/dawn cycle rather than a full day/night cycle.  Which means like it or not, you'll be driving at night for the entire game.  At the end of the night you'll crest a hill and see dazzling sunbeams dancing through the tree branches as the sun rises.  Moments later the sun will sink back below the horizon and plunge you back into eternal evening.  The darkness may get a bit monotonous, but there's no denying that the wet pavement reflecting back your tail lights as you drift around corners in the middle of a dark and rainy night is atmospheric as hell. The car models are impeccable and between body kits and decals, the amount of customization you can perform on them is outright daunting.

You just can't talk about the visuals in Need for Speed without mentioning the cutscenes.  Attempting to weave a narrative between all of the races and cop chases Need for Speed employs live action cutscenes shot from the first-person perspective.  The cutscenes look fantastic.  The lighting, set design and the actors all look spot-on as if they belong in the world you've been racing in and extra touches of seeing your customized car composited into the middle of a scene fuse the two elements well.  It's admirable from a technical perspective.  That being said, the cutscenes are terrible, and not in a good way.  The actors did their best with the material and direction they were given but it all boils down to the writing and the fact that there are just too many characters.  The narrative just kind of fizzles and doesn't really go anywhere despite having some early potential.  The gameplay presents a compelling reason to have five main characters in that each character represents a particular style/aspect of racing, but it's too much to actually build any kind of meaningful character development. Ultimately the biggest problem with the cutscenes is that they ride the line.  On the one hand, they could have leaned hard on the realism spectrum, get some racing consultants and portray street racing as accurately as possible.  Early on, the game does a good job building tension around the group's suspicion of who could be the outlaw in town baiting cops into chases, causing trouble for all of the other street racers.  More of that and less fist bumping, energy drink tossing, bromides could have been something special. On the flip side, they could have gone back to the Razor Callahan camp-fest from Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2005) and just get wacky and ridiculous with it.  Need for Speed 2015 feels like they couldn't decide how to tackle it so they just toed the line which isn't what anybody wanted.

I would have also liked to have seen a bit more interactivity with the characters.  Not only are there cutscenes but lots of phone calls and voice messages while you're driving around.  Typically after every race the organizer calls you to commiserate or congratulate.  But it would have been a cool touch to include some sound bites for specific scenarios like banging up your ride beyond recognition or getting set upon by the cops and escaping by the skin of your teeth.  Just a quick throwaway line to acknowledge the crazy shit that just went down would have gone a long way.

The amount of style oozing out of Need for Speed isn't necessarily all that surprising.  All of the EA racing games from the last few years, whether they be from the Need for Speed series or the Shift series have had amazing sound design, art direction and production design.  Need for Speed 2015 doesn't deviate and unfortunately, when it comes to gameplay it also doesn't drift too far from the others.  Much like its predecessors, driving cars in Need for Speed just feels…off.  It's tough to qualify exactly what is going on under the hood here.  In the game's garage you have the opportunity to tinker with everything on your car.  Swap out tires, change the amount of downforce coming off your aerokit, adjust your suspension, soften your sway bars, but no amount of tuning ever left me feeling completely satisfied with the way my car performed.  The game lets you vacillate between drift cars and grip cars and you can change your road-hugging, earth-shoveling grip monster into a loosey-goosey, side-winding high plains drifter whenever you want.  The developers even included a handy slider you can use to change from grip to drift (or any point in between) if adjusting all of the minutia is too overwhelming.  After all that,  however,  none of it ever seemed to gain traction.  I tried buying better cars and tuning the shit out of the ones in my stable but in the end, every time I'd go out for a ride that dope-ass feeling of driving like unassailable hoonigan was deflated by one or more of the following:

  1. Collision detection: you bump a guard rail nine times and bounce back onto the road but on the tenth your car does triple Salchow into oblivion.
  2. You coming cruising off that nice straight expressway and into some serious drift territory, you tap the brake and try to kick out the back tires, but either understeer or oversteer yourself right into the guard rail (oh and drift competitions don't add the points your rack up in a drift to your total score if you collide with something).
  3. Some asshole hits you.  The world is populated with online players and NPC (non-player character) drivers that race around and do events.  You'll be minding your own business, doing your thing and a pack of idiots will come around the bend going the wrong way in a one way and wreck your run. 
  4. You can plow through street lights, mailboxes, dumpsters and electrical transformer boxes like they're made of paper mache, but a small sapling of a maple tree?  Fucking impervious.
  5. Cops.  The cops aren't all bad.  The sound design is fantastic for the cop chases.  As soon as you get spotted Photek's Heat-inspired score rises up and you feel the tension as you try to outmaneuver and outrace your way to freedom.  Annoyances pop up when the cops manage to bust you as you're hung up on something (like a goddamn maple tree) or find yourself going in circles trying to find that ever elusive onramp to the expressway.  Ultimately getting chased by the cops wasn't that big of a deal, but touches like not being able to restart an event/race because you're being pursued were lame.

I wanted to love Need for Speed. I wouldn't go so far as to say it’s a bad game.  It has so many shining positives but ultimately it has too many gameplay issues holding it back for it to be great.  I could feel my enthusiasm slipping like tires on wet pavement, but I hope Ghost gets the opportunity to rev up a sequel.  With tweaks and a bit more polish Need for Speed 2 or whatever the hell they would call it could be seriously dope.


Shelf Aware - Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth

Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth is an interesting case study in multimedia franchises gone wrong.  Based on the popular, critically-acclaimed Uncharted video game series, Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth is the one and only tie-in novel and follows the hero of the video game series Nathan Drake and his partner Victor Sullivan on another adventure that takes place between Uncharted 2 and 3 (although is a completely standalone work that makes no references to previous plotlines).

A bit of background on the series for those unfamiliar with the Uncharted brand.  In addition to the novel, there have been 5 main games to date (2016), a  4-episode motion comic, and a 6-issue regular comic, all of which revolving around Nathan Drake, a modern day treasure hunter.  The series started as an homage to the Tomb Raider series and takes massive inspiration from the Indiana Jones film series.  Uncharted games do a good job of capturing the pulpy, adventurous spirit of those films. 

After the first two Uncharted games the series began to carve out its own identity and formula and while all of the games in the series are considered good or great by critics the most common criticisms tended to call out the Uncharted formula: Drake and Sully (Victor Sullivan) get a lead on a treasure, most commonly located in a lost city.  The duo team up with someone who double-crosses them or are conscripted by someone who forces them to find the treasure.  Drake climbs on ancient ruins, fights mercenaries or pirates, and kills enough of them to be considered a mass murderer.  Drake finds the treasure and in the process has a showdown with the main antagonist.  The lost city crumbles on itself.  Drake escapes.  The anatagonist does not.  Drake ends up with only enough trinkets of treasure to fund his next ill-fated adventure.

There-in lies the strangeness of Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth.  It adheres to the Uncharted formula in all of the worst ways and ignores all of the best. 

Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth is brimming with potential and the real shame is that none of it is effectively capitalized upon.  The basic plot involves the legend of King Midas hiring Daedalus to work "magic" as an alchemist and hide the king's gold in a series of labyrinths.  It's a hodgepodge of cultural references and myths but it works and the creepy cult members in black robes out to stop the truth from spreading are a pretty great addition.  Where the novel immediately falters, however is in the level of violence.  I know this is slightly hypocritical given that through the course of a typical Uncharted video game Nathan Drake ends up racking up body counts estimated between 300 - 450 victims per game.  However the violence in the games is never gory or gratuitous.  It's a ridiculous disconnect that occurs because one of the game's core elements of gameplay is shooting a gun.  What fun is shooting a gun without someone to shoot at?  The whole thing leads to an interesting, yet well-tread analysis of ludonarrative dissonance in video games.  The point being that in a fictional medium, in which there is no need to serve shooting a gun as a required element of gameplay there is an opportunity in this novel  for Drake to shed his past as a mass-murderer and focus less on action and more on adventure.  Surprisingly, The Fourth Labyrinth takes the opposite approach and ratchets the violence up to a whole new level.  Not only does Drake end up killing scores of "bad guys" but the detail and description of the violence is more grisly than ever.  The impetus for this particular adventure occurs in the opening chapters when Drake and Sully's old friend Luka is found dismembered.  It's a sudden dark turn for the franchise and if finding Luka's head sitting on his chest seems like a bit much it's just the tip of the iceberg as throughout the book throats are slashed, people are stabbed, shot and beaten in colorful detail.

Just hanging out.
Uncharted games are also known for their spectacular visuals and "set-piece" moments.  These are huge action sequences that are amazing to watch and exciting to play.  For example, Drake survives a train derailment, climbs out of the wreckage only to have to fight his way out of a horde of enemies, or escape a collapsing building, or a cruise ship capsizing, or a cargo plane crashing into a desert.  These amazing moments led to Nathan Drake being referred to as the John McClane of video games (the plucky, unkillable hero of the Die Hard films) and became one of the main draws of the franchise.  What ridiculous situation will Nathan Drake find himself in next, and how will he miraculously survive by the skin of his teeth?  Which is why it's so strange that The Fourth Labyrinth has none of these moments.  These sequences were done in the video games at great cost, often pushing the boundaries of the technology on which the games run.  In a film these would be elaborate multi-million dollar sequences.  A novel is the perfect medium to top them all as there are no restrictions to the imagination.  Yet, nothing.

The set and production design also play a large, jaw-dropping role in Uncharted games as Drake will stumble onto a lost city or an ancient temple and find himself confronted by massive gorgeous statues or breath-taking vistas and archictecture.  This is another aspect of the series completely lost in the novel as The Fourth Labyrinth takes place in a series of labyrinths.  Underground structures with stone floors, stone, walls and stone ceilings.  Imagery about as vivid as a dungeon from the original The Legend of Zelda game.
Madagascar as seen in Uncharted 4
Christopher Golden is a good writer.  His prose is well-constructed and the imagery he conjures is vivid without being overly descriptive.  The Fourth Labyrinth was produced  in 2011, a ridiculously busy year for the Uncharted franchise.  The studio responsible for Uncharted had farmed out development of the PS Vita game Uncharted: The Golden Abyss to Bend Studios and had split their development team for Uncharted 3 to start work on their next big game The Last of Us.  I assume that the collaborative environment for telling stories in the Uncharted universe was a bit challenging for Christopher Golden and as a result we receive story with one-dimensional characters and zero character development.  It's a shame because telling Uncharted stories in novel form had the potential to capitalize on all of the things that made Uncharted great while shedding all of the criticisms that have held the games back.



I officially became a Mac user almost 14 years ago.  I was a freshman in college and I needed a computer for school work.  I wanted a laptop and planned to take out a computer loan at my campus student center to get something nice that would last me for the next 4 years.
photo of the original iBook
About a year earlier Apple had announced the iMac and shortly thereafter had introduced the iBook.  They were quite attractive, but I had been raised on Windows and was only vaguely familiar with the Mac's then-brand-new operating system, OS 9.

In the end my decision came down to a fully-loaded Dell Inspiron (or maybe it was a Latitude...) or a fully-loaded iBook SE with Firewire.  Believe it or not, when compared feature for feature the iBook was $200 cheaper and thus my decision was made easy.

Learning OS 9 was easy enough and I was constantly surprised by how similar Mac OS and Windows actually were, despite always believing that the two existed in alternate dimensions.

OS 9 was a decent and capable operating system, but I still managed to crash and wipe my system several times.  I learned the hard way (several times) never to user my computer while drunk and to never attempt to clean house in my System folder while stoned.  Ah, college.
OS X was released my sophomore year of college and it was a revelation.  It's important to remember that at this point in time Windows XP hadn't even been released yet, so when people saw the eye-popping new interface of OS X as compared to Windows 2000 or Windows ME their jaws hit the floor.  It was a great time to be a Mac user.
Later that year the iPod was released.  It was an interesting and compelling foray into the burgeoning market of MP3 players, but I was quite content with my Minidisc player.  Nevertheless, my dad surprised me with the new iPod that Christmas.  I quickly became enamored by the little chrome music player that one of my classmates initially mistook for a cigarette case.  Though, what truly captured my imagination was Apple's new promise that their Macs would become "the hub of your digital life".  

You could sync your music from your Mac to your iPod.  You could transfer your photos from from your camera to your Mac.  You could turn those photos into videos, burn them and play them on the DVD player in your living room and do all of it easily and intuitively.  It was literally promising.  I managed a glimpse at a future where all of our devices would communicate with each other effortlessly and the home PC would act as a nucleus.

The closer we got to that reality the further it seemed we had to go and every time a new device was released or functionality was added to the software the bar set itself higher.

Fast-forward six years to when the idea of device convergence had begun to take a hold of me.  I grew tired of carrying an iPod for music, a digital camera for photography, a cellphone for phone calls, a laptop for Internet access and a Gameboy to play video games.  Cargo pants were out of style.  Pockets could only carry so much and I was getting a little old for backpacks.

Apple debuted the iPhone and made a new promise.  Here's a device that does everything you want and does it well enough that you can leave all those other devices at home.  The first iPhone was a little rough around the edges, but I bought into that promise, not only of convergence, but also still chasing the idea that slowly but surely all of my devices would work together seamlessly.

The iPhone ran a modified version of OS X which, theoretically, could allow it integrate nicely with the desktop version of OS X which was in it's 4th incarnation: Mac OS 10.4 Tiger.

As revolutionary as it all seemed, progress was slow.  The subsequent releases of iOS and OS X ran hot and cold in terms of the introduction of new milestone features.

OS X's marquee releases had always been packed with massive upgrades and huge new features.  That began to change after the release of OS 10.5 Leopard.  The following update, 10.6 Snow Leopard, introduced a litany of behind-the-scenes and stability upgrades.  To this day, Snow Leopard remains my favorite version of OS X, but new features and functionalities were meager and I was still left wanting for deeper integration with iOS.

What's worse, with the release of OS 10.7 Lion, long-time Mac users like myself were beginning to fear that the intersection of the two operating systems would result in a Mac that simply ran a glorified version of iOS.  Additions to Lion like Launch Pad and the Mac App Store gave me a sinking feeling that instead of my smartphone getting smarter my computer was getting dumber.

This was a tough time for me to be a Mac user.  The relative obscurity Apple-users lived in had truly started to erode as more and more people bought iOS devices (and considered buying Macs) and Apple's famed innovation was seemingly beginning to slow as competitors like Google and even Microsoft began to create more intriguing products.  The enjoyment of being in "the Apple club" was waning.  My fellow Apple users were getting "douche-ier" and dumber and the intuitive software design and inspiring products were drying up.

I was primarily using my new iMac to run Windows 7 (another phenomenal operating system) and playing PC games.  I was seriously considering switching to a newer, fancier, sleeker, larger Android phone.

iOS 7 was a radical redesign and a breath of fresh air.  It introduced a bevy of new features, but for all it's strengths it was still a new coat of paint on an old product.

OS X Mavericks was an interesting new direction for the desktop OS but Apple's new direction of supplying annual updates to OS X with just a few token new features was underwhelming.

It felt as though Apple was meandering directionless.

Fast-forward again to the now.  On June 2nd, 2014 Apple announced another revision of their software offerings: OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.  It marked the first time I have been excited by one of Apple's OS X upgrades since 2007's OS 10.5 Leopard.

The reason?  Quite simply: massive integration between iOS and OS X.  Apple promises to let us place phone calls and send SMS messages through our computer, pass tasks like writing emails or editing documents back and forth seamlessly and do so in a more unified interface across both devices.  With new SDKs, extensibility and even a new programming language there's now even more promise than ever before that things will continue to improve.

The announcements reignited the idea of having tightly integrated devices with inherent functionality that are enjoyable to use.  It also rekindled my desire to be a part of Apple's technological vision.

With Yosemite and iOS 8 it seems that Apple has rediscovered what has always made Apple special.  By controlling hardware design and software design you can exert complete command over your experience.  This is why Apple products have always been touted as able to "just work" and innovations can occur more freely without the need to coordinate with 3rd party developers and hardware manufacturers.

Apple is now positioning itself to unify it's mobile and desktop experiences in a much greater capacity in a much more compelling way.

It is finally, once more, an exciting time to be a Mac user.

But the bar is ever-rising.  The more new features and functionality that are added, the more we will request and Google, Microsoft and the others continue to make truly awesome products that offer stiff competition.

My only hope is that Apple will finally make good on the one promise they have never delivered on.  All I truly want is for my iPhone to be able to "hand-off" my current song and resume playback on my Mac or vice versa, just as it was almost promised back in this original ad for the first iPod:

It's all I've really ever wanted.