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    Detroit: Become Human (PS4)    by   dkirschner       (Jun 14th, 2024 at 09:24:44)

    Detroit: Become Human was a really interesting game. I’m not sure how I overlooked it when it came out, since I’ve played every other Quantic Dream game and even worked on a research project with someone using Beyond: Two Souls. Anyway, thanks to this summer’s Playstation Plus subscription, I have access to it and other PS4 games I never bought! It’s set in near-future Detroit, where the city has repurposed its manufacturing infrastructure to produce androids. The androids are designed to look identical to humans, minus some clothing markers and the only external physical thing that differentiates them, a little processor indicator on their temple, which was a brilliant touch. As the player, the processor conveyed information about an android’s cognition and emotional state: blue (normal), yellow (moderate stress), and red (extreme stress), as well as “spinning” animations to indicate thinking about something (their eye movements aligned with this to indicate thinking; incredible animation work all around!). So, by making androids basically indistinguishable from humans (and they pass the Turing Test), Detroit doesn’t dip into the uncanny valley. This makes sense in terms of the story, where the androids (and the game beats you over the head with this) become human and fight for their rights. It touches on all sorts of philosophical questions: What is consciousness, and can non-humans attain it? What does it mean to be human (in terms of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, morality, agency, etc.; i.e., where’s the line between human and machine)? Are struggles necessary for self-determination?

    The most ridiculously impressive thing about Detroit is that you get to shape the lives of three androids, determine their fates, the fate of all androids (and therefore of humanity too), and in doing so, offer your perspective on the game’s philosophical questions. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with such an intricately branching storyline…or three storylines that intersect, one for each android. To say it’s complex is an understatement. I read that there are technically 85 endings. I got…one; replayability is a feature! Another cool thing about Detroit is that it’s transparent about the branching storyline. After each scene, you can see the narrative flowchart, as well as the percentage of players who made the decisions you made. This is something like what Telltale games did, where you’d see what % of players aligned with you, except here you see how different choices lead to subsequent events. For most of the game, after any given scene, I saw I’d unlocked most of the storyline. Towards the end of the game though, as major events happen (and your characters can die!), I was unlocking single-digit percentages of scenes. And who knows how many scenes I never saw at all. It felt exponential how complex the story became. The more decisions you make that have different outcomes, the more considerations the writers had to make for how following scenes could begin and progress. Often, I would see that there were like 10 potential beginning states for a scene.

    The three androids are Kara, Markus, and Connor. Each has numerous paths they can follow, but general character arcs where they “become human.” Kara is a domestic android, meant to cook, clean, and take care of children. She has a sad life with an abusive man, and after a really scary interactive domestic violence scene, runs away with his daughter. She (is programed to have? develops?) a maternal bond with the child (I have some seriously unresolved questions about their relationship though). Markus, on the other hand, has a happy life, android and son-figure to an old, ill, wheelchair-bound artist. The artist encourages Markus to express himself through art, and in another violent scene with the artist’s actual son, Markus realizes he isn’t actually free. These two become what the game calls “deviant” (they deviate from their programming). In the game world, more and more androids are becoming deviant, inflicting violence on humans (often in self-defense, but the Detroit news agencies are biased!), and it becomes quite the problem for law and order and the general functioning of a society that has incorporated androids into its basic functions. The third android, Connor, is an advanced police android created for the purpose of hunting deviants. It was thrilling the first time I realized that the androids’ storylines intersect. The other two are deviants, and Connor is meant to hunt deviants, so of course they would, right?

    As I learned about the characters, I started trying to shape their trajectories. For Kara, I wanted her to protect the little girl—I liked their bond—, and by the end of the game, regardless and perhaps in spite of what happened, I was fully invested in having Kara stop and nothing to get her and the girl to safety, even if this meant doing unethical things. Markus’s storyline was my least favorite because it was so over-the-top. Detroit attempts to fit a full-scale android revolution into the game, with Markus at the helm. It seemed really implausible. Markus also goes from servant android to revolutionary leader in the span of like five minutes, and leads all these complex “operations” with a handful of random other deviants. I would buy it if they were military androids or something, but a servant to an old man and a sex robot creating an elaborate scheme to hack the city’s news network from the top floor of a corporate tower, including rappelling up a skyscraper, delivering a televised “we have a dream” speech (the game loves to draw parallels between the androids’ fight for self-determination and the Civil Rights Movement), dramatically escaping with parachutes, etc., was eye-rolling. Anyway, my Markus was shot while peacefully protesting, and I didn’t really mind.

    I was more upset the first time my Connor died (he comes back), destroyed by some sort of industrial rototiller while chasing a deviant. Connor is tasked to partner up with a grizzled, alcoholic cop named Hank who hates androids. I tried and tried to build a relationship with Hank. It was easy to say something to make Hank fly off the handle. Eventually, though, I decided that I wanted Connor to counter the other two characters and stay true to his programming, never becoming deviant, insisting to the end that androids are just machines. This was partly because I found Markus and his revolutionary android story annoying, and also because Hank does a 180 on his feelings toward androids. He said he changed his mind because Connor took a bullet for him, which proved that Connor had empathy. That’s not why I jumped in front of him though; I did it because (a) I knew that Connor would come back if he died and (b) I figure, given that, a police android would be programmed to save its human partner, not out of empathy but out of directive. So to me, Hank’s premise was wrong. Why didn’t he consider this? Why would someone who hated androids with such passion make the leap to “he saved me because he has empathy; ergo, he is human” instead of “he saved me because he is a machine and programmed to do so; ergo, I resent him even more.” The latter is what racists do, reducing behavior to biology and then framing the characteristic negatively. So, I ended up playing a cold, machine Connor who (like how I did with Kara) stopped at nothing to achieve his objective. According to the flowcharts, a tiny minority of players did this!

    Admittedly, I enjoyed the earlier game and the final segments more than the mid- and late-game. The longer it goes on, the more holes there are. Some holes were relatively nonsensical storylines (a lot of what Markus’s ended up becoming), questionable plot twists (e.g., Kara and the little girl), and disconnected events. I am sure that some disconnected events can be chalked up to making this or that decision and therefore missing this or that piece of information. But there were a handful of times where a scene would start and it would be like, “We have arrived at this place to see this person!”, and I’m like, “Who?!”, as if I should have known who this person was already. These disconnects were filled in easily enough though, but it was weird.

    Anyway, the overall experience of playing the game was excellent. I found it thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking, even if its weaker plot lines could have been better written. It doesn’t ask all the questions you might think about and it hits you over the head with Civil Rights comparisons. But there’s plenty here to prompt you to think, like 85 endings’ worth of impressive, interconnected, branching storylines. And I didn’t even touch on the utility of the game for developing moral reasoning or social-emotional learning. As you play, you’ll unlock extras. The videos are totally worth watching. There are teasers, features of the characters (including Chloe, the “menu screen android,” who brings novel elements to the game), and mini-documentaries about the “making of,” the soundtrack, and more. Probably 30-45 minutes of video content all told that provide great insight. Definitely recommend this.

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    Stray (PS5)    by   jp       (Jun 13th, 2024 at 00:18:12)

    I'm surprised by how linear the game is in the beginning. I think I only just got to the part where it opens up a bit? It is fun to explore as the cat - but the beginning was just following along (and enjoying how pretty everything looks and wondering -ooh, what happened in this world?).

    I wonder if I'll ever reunite with all the cats I was handing out at the beginning of the game before I fell "into" the "city"?

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    Gungrave VR (PS4)    by   jp       (Jun 13th, 2024 at 00:16:27)

    This is an odd game, but I did have fun! (despite stuff)

    First, the game includes the game and what they call "episode 2" - the first is called "Gungrave VR" and the second is "Gungrave VR U.N". I did not pay attention to the back of the box, and played the "U.N" one first (for no reason other than perhaps it was on the left side of the PS menu bar?...and it's really short (only three missions! not too hard, which is fine, and it looks pretty bad - even for a VR game.

    I was about to move on, when I though, huh..I wonder if the other game was the main game and this one was the "DLC"? (because it was so short!) So, I booted up the main game - and I was forced into doing the tutorial again - it's the exact same tutorial! - and the main menu is also exactly the same! But, when you go into the mission select area, things are different (new missions). AND, the missions in the main game look a lot better! By this I mean there are better character models and textures. It's almost like the DLC was the "prototype art version" with the main game the "final" art. I'm not saying the art was great (though I did like some of the enemy designs), it's just that the difference in quality of the art assets was really noticeable. Wierdly a lot of the geometry in the DLC was destructible, but there was no point/benefit/drawback to destroying stuff...

    As for the game - I can lump both together, mostly...

    It's wonky, the controls have a weird delayed response, aiming is pretty inexact and imprecise..but, the game is still fun enough (and yes, I was grateful for the brevity - the main game only had 5 areas) despite getting repetitive in terms of goals and enemies.

    BUT...and this is where it's a weird game, there are some pretty cool ideas I thought were interesting (and good design choices).

    a. The game has a lot of variety in perspective. Sometimes it's first-person, othertimes it's 3rd person, the DLC even has side-scrolling areas, sometimes you're "locked in place", other times your not. This variety kept things fresh AND also reduced the physical strain of playing in VR - mostly because at times I had to do certain movements with the head, and others had different head movements.

    b. I thought the sidescrolling levels would be dumb and not work - after all you could only fire left/right (but up/down on the left right if that makes sense). Aiming is with the head (where you look you aim) and if you the character was facing right - it was placed on the left side of the screen which meant you were kind oflooking to the right, so I had to remember to look left a lot because enemies would creep up behind the character (and when looking right you could not see what was on the left too well). So, there was lots of looking left/right (like a tennis match!)...and, this was enjoyable! Here, the looking really gave me more to see (rather than just looking to aim)

    c. Some levels I you have to really look up (almost behind as you look up) which I thought was interesting - there's gameplay on the edges of your motion capabilities - which is risky (camera loses sight of headset - this is PSVR!), but interesting as an experience - straining to look up and almost behind felt interesting!

    d. I kept on losing the final boss fight - mostly because one of its attacks was to slam you with a giant hand/arm. The game locks you into place - you can't move or dodge...and I didn't see a way to avoid the damage and kept on dying (after getting hit a few times). So, I looked online for a guide - perhaps there's some secret to the dodge and my timing was off? or there's something else I missed? Could not find a find. But, did watch a video - and the person playing in the video lost a few times but eventually barely made it. So, I tried again - maybe I was just too inefficient with my shooting and I needed to do more damage before getting hit? Well, that didn't work - so I went back to the "lets try new things". When the arms swing down they have reticules/targets on them (several) and I had tried shooting one to no effect. So, I decided to try shooting them all - and, IT WORKED! (it was hard to hit them all because there's no feedback of a hit AND the last target is on the hand which is above/behind you when you start shooting (from the shoulder up the arm, elbow, forearm, hand). I don't know if the order matters - it might be easier to start on the hand and strafe to the shoulder? - BUT, I felt really clever/smart to do something better than in the video!

    To be clear, the game is quite mediocre in terms of quality, polish, gameplay, etc. BUT - it was still fun enough that I enjoyed it (and here the brevity might be a benefit, since I didn't get tired/bored of it).

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    Mass Effect: Andromeda (PS4)    by   jp       (Jun 12th, 2024 at 18:45:17)

    Finished!

    I decided to commit to two things before moving on (which took ~10hrs). First, finish the story - which was more fun and interesting than I expected. The last few missions were similar to the first few - more dramatic, little cut-scenes in between, more action/adventurey... So, all around good. Second, I wanted to get all the planets to 100 viability. Partly this was because there was a trophy attached - but mostly because I enjoyed driving the rover around and I thought it wouldn't take too long (I was wrong about the second part).

    Overall, I really enjoyed it and could have easily enjoyed spending more time on/with the game. I decided not to continue mostly because I have a drawer full of other PS4 games (too many) I also want to play and this is the time of the year during which I can make the most progress whittling down that backlog...

    Looking back, this game is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination - there's plenty of weird wonky stuff, bugs here and there, inconsistencies in the story and characters, etc. BUT, despite all these little things, the core was fun enough for me to engage with and play. So, I really do feel like it's a good game and I'm glad I played it.

    Design-wise I think that what surprised me the most (in a good way) is how much variety and variation there is within an easily understandable goal framework. So, for each planet I knew I had to "activate" 3 towers and then visit a vault. The first planet I did this on was pretty demanding on this - the vault was a whole mission with lots of steps and so-on. It took time! So, I was kind of dreading what would happen with the other planets. Oh no, that's four more vaults at X time each...this will take forever! But, it didn't. Some vaults were pretty short/easy. Some of the tower activations were similarly short/simple. And I really appreciated this! Each planet had it's own flavor/style/innovation/difference within the broader structure. The last planet I did (Kadara?) was the one where things were more political - I had to talk to NPCs, do stuff for them and so on. Other planets were more "complete tasks at certain locations". So, lots of variation and variability within the overall goal structure and - my sense - one that generally favored the player. So, mostly, I felt like "oh, nice - that took less time or effort than I assumed" rather than the opposite.

    Fun things from the ending:

    a. You can continue playing and doing tasks and so on - but the game forces you into a little "celebration task" that is mostly you talking to your crew about "winning" and them leaving the door open to finishing tasks that are still pending. I thought it was a nice way to combine long cut-scenes with the ending AND the fact that you'll probably do more stuff. Many games sort of ignore the fact that you "beat the game" and you keep on playing as if nothing happened.

    b. My in-game inbox filled up with messages from NPCs thanking me for "winning". Nice touch! I read some but not all of the messages and it definitely contributed to making the "win" feel more impactful.

    To be fair, I was mostly ignoring story stuff and kind of zipping around completing tasks - so, not playing the game with a role-player story-first attitude. Despite this, the game's story did start to grow on me! And, I think it's pretty cool how it's really set outside the Mass Effect continuity (happens both during ME2 and 3 and long after 3) with a sense of loss. The game takes place 600 years after ME3 (aprox) because that's how long it takes to get to Andromeda. And, while you can get some communications from when ME3 was happening (oh, the reapers are attacking!) you don't really know what happened. As far as you know - the Milky Way galaxy is "over" (reapers won, life set back). Supposedly you could have a ME: Milky Way? (where people from Andromeda head back to the Milky Way to recolonize it? (assuming ME3 ended poorly, of course).

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    Star Wars: Squadrons (PS4)    by   jp       (Jun 10th, 2024 at 23:43:29)

    I tried to play online with no luck. (as in, I got bored of waiting to match up - but I only waited a few minutes).

    So, I did the tutorial for the online modes, and it was ok - the main mode is a sort of "push objectives" to get to the last objective (destroy the star destroyer if you're rebel) - and things can swing back and forth (5v5 but they also add AI pilots on both sides) since there's a sort of tug-of-war system (morale I think it's called) in which you win points for destroying things (fewer points for AI than other players) and lose points when you get destroyed. I think the enemy gets the points - rather than your side loses points?

    Anyways. I played a few rounds of this - started to level up - and then realized...ugh..this wasn't THAT fun, and I can't unlock the "real" mode (ranked play online) until I hit level 5. And I was barely at 3...

    So I bailed on the entire game.
    This was mostly because I'm looking at my drawer full of games and realizing - I think I got what I wanted from this game and I don't care to learn to fly the other ships and stuff...and I'm also a little bit tired of Star Wars in general?

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