Far Cry 4

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Far Cry 4 suffers from the perennial Ubisoft problems of hackneyed plot and repetitive gameplay, but its saving grace is its mechanical near-perfection and its amazingly crafted open world.

A play session in Far Cry 4 might look something like this:

You spawn in one of the gameworld’s outposts and hop onto a jeep. You drive towards an enemy encampment. The radio plays an endless medley of Hindi tunes interspersed with a rebel deejay’s endless commentary.

Along the way, an enemy jeep hurtles towards you. You whip out your handheld grenade launcher and lob a few rounds into the enemy, watching the jeep explode as you speed past. Further along, a group of villagers is being attacked by a leopard. You ventilate the offending animal with an LMG.

Nearing the base, you spot an enemy cargo truck full of supplies. You drive alongside the truck and pull the VC out of his seat, knifing the other. You drive all the way back to the outpost to deposit your new bounty and get a free ammo refill for your trouble. You got injured sometime in the past fifteen minutes, so you wander around for the next fifteen minutes looking for green plants to craft healing syringes so you won’t have to waste money buying them.

But the main objective still isn’t done – the base remains in enemy hands. You drive there again, trying hard to ignore any distractions on the way. You reach the base and decide to take a stealthy approach. You clamber up a conveniently placed ledge, bring out the sniper rifle, and start picking off targets. At first the grunts are oblivious but soon enough, they start realising that they’re being attacked. They panic, fanning out, while their numbers continue to drop. At one point, you’re almost spotted by one of the grunts, but you quickly backtrack into the bushes. If you’re spotted, an alarm will sound and reinforcements will arrive – and you don’t want that.

Finally, the grunts are all on the ground and the base is yours – and your allies roll in on their jeeps just in time to savor your victory. Now what? You think. You open the map. A huge world, dotted with bases much like the one you just took, awaits.

Rinse and repeat.

Don’t get me wrong – gameplay loops such as the above are the foundational building blocks of all video games. The issue with Far Cry 4 isn’t that it has such loops, but that much of the open-world gameplay is made up of nearly-identical segments that don’t differ in any meaningful gameplay fashion.

Luckily, Far Cry 4 somewhat makes up for this because the loop is just so much fun. It strikes a very delicate balance between challenge and player empowerment. The gunplay mechanics are weighty and satisfying, the stealth and takedown mechanics challenging but rewarding to execute. And all this ultra-violence takes place in an absolute stunner of an open-world: the mountains and forests of a fictional Himalayan country called Kyrat, filled with birds and beasts and warring factions, surrounded by the snowy peaks of distant mountains.

Even so, it can get stale, after a while. Far Cry 4 is an arcade game at its core. It offers packaged, predictable gameplay experiences to the player as an empowering, escapist fantasy. The predictability and repetitiveness wear you down after a while. Although there may be many different activities to pursue at the start – animal hunting, bell-tower climbing, spelunking, collectible-finding, outpost-clearing – these activities don’t feel particularly meaningful after doing them again and again in the course of the open world. In other words, there is breadth, but not much depth, of content. This is an issue that plagues many, many Ubisoft open-world games of more recent vintage, including Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs.

Shallow gameplay loops might be mitigated somewhat by strong narratives. In games like The Witcher 3, which are not particularly deep on a gameplay level, the strength of its narrative and worldbuilding more than makes up for its lack of scalability.

But in Far Cry 4, the plot is a paper-thin excuse for gameplay – even more so than in Far Cry 3, which at least had some attempt to mine the story for a commentary on video game violence and empowerment. Far Cry 4 features a protagonist who ends up mass-murdering for no better reason than that he has nothing better to do. This is a perfect example of ludonarrative dissonance – the gulf between doing things in a video game and the in-game narrative context that justifies those things. As Ajay, the character, we are keenly aware that we’re playing the game because it’s what we signed up for when we purchased it. Ajay himself, however, has no particular impetus to start mass murdering – he just wants to scatter his mother’s ashes in Kyrat, then leave.

The funny thing is, the game does try to lampshade this narrative deficiency. The dandy-villain Pagan Min reveals that would have helped Ajay scatter his mother’s ashes and send him on his way, if only he’d just waited for him at the palace and not tried to sneak out, video game style – but the player who inhabits Ajay knows that the idea is to leave the palace to start the game proper.

But this bit of meta-narrative cuteness doesn’t lend much in the way of narrative context and meaningfulness for 90% of the game, and therefore, doesn’t fulfill the function of giving narrative significance to the player’s actions. For most of the game, you’re playing a bona fide killing machine who kills for no reason. You can’t hinge a whole narrative on the notion that the “right” thing to do, from an immersion perspective, is to passively wait for Pagan to return at the start, and then forego the whole video game for that. It amounts to throwing away the chance to get something of the game just to score a few a-ha! points at the expense of the player.

And I don’t get the franchise’s obsession with having a whole host of hyperbolically eccentric characters as overly chummy quest-givers or villains. Pagan Min, the pink suit wearing diva, seems like a hot-air filled but ineffectual villain most of the time. Then there are the annoying quest-givers like Longinus, irritating the player with his nonsensical declamations and unwillingness to do the dirty work himself. Maybe they saw the success of Vaas in Far Cry 3 and tried to replicate it, but it doesn’t amount to much.

One more thing I don’t like is the game’s attempt to shoehorn the player into making stark binary moral choices without the ability to compromise between one choice and another, even though in the real world they would be eminently reconcilable. This characterises most of the missions in which you either help Amita or Sabal, two bickering members of the rebel faction, the Golden Path. Destroy a factory and cripple Kyrat’s economy – or use it to manufacture cocaine to export, turning Kyrat into a drug state. Can’t you re-tool the factory to, I don’t know, make something else? The worst part is that the game ultimately paints a picture of moral equivalence between the two of them – that they are at their core intolerant tyrants, interested in pursuing their diametrically opposed visions for Kyrat at any expense. It’s grim for the sake of grimness, and not particularly meaningful.

But at the end of the day, despite my many complaints about a plot that was most likely not a particularly high priority in the dev’s list – Far Cry 4 is a worthwhile purchase, providing hours of content and arcadey fun by presenting the player with a broad variety of things to do in a beautiful open world. But the sheen of fun will wear off after a while, as the mechanics start to break down and reveal their moving parts. But a good number of hours will probably pass before that happens.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 bongs

Hail, Caesar!

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***SPOILERS***

Hail, Caesar! is pure Coen Brothers, but it does feel like one of their lesser efforts.

Like many Coen Brothers films, Hail, Caesar! is an exercise in narrative meandering, a slightly absurdist window into a specific historical or cultural milieu – in this case 1950s Hollywood, populated by ever-so-slightly larger than life characters doing things ever-so-slightly out of joint with our reality.

And how apt, because that fits in perfectly with the film itself, which painstakingly depicts the artifice that is the factory-floor filmmaking industry in the Hollywood of the fifties, as told through a series of loosely-interconnected ensemble stories tied together by the tenuous narrative thread of real-life Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).

Mannix thunders through the fake sets and palm trees of Hollywood, dealing with the myriad problems of production, both above-board and below. He crafts cover stories for actresses pregnant out of wedlock, convinces a fussy director to take on a sub-par leading man for the sake of his brand, and fends off gossip columnist rivals hoping to get a salacious scoop over some of the more sordid secrets of the Hollywood set.

But his most pressing problem is the sudden kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) the star of one of the studio’s tentpole productions: Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic set in Roman times. The affable but empty-headed Whitlock has been kidnapped by a cabal of genteel communists in return for a hefty ransom, and Mannix must get him back by all means possible.

Hail, Caesar! captures a kind of essence of Hollywood – a corpocratic wasteland of mass-manufactured entertainment, policed by a man who embodies the essence of the Good Company Man; studiously Catholic, works late nights, and struggles to do right by his employer, even if it means slapping an actress across the face. Hail, Caesar! is itself a film putatively dressed in the raiments of capitalist propaganda.

It is a presentation of a capitalist-affirming narrative arc, where the Good Company Man finds new meaning in his Good Capitalist Job, and a bunch of wacky, gormless communists get put in the slammer where they belong. The scene of a tap-dancing communist cell leader (Channing Tatum) fleeing to Mother Russia on a ghastly Soviet submarine off the Malibu coast is also part of this, a manifestation of Red Scare imagery.

Hail, Caesar! does lampoon the communists who mastermind the (surprisingly successful) kidnapping by having them be rhetoric-spouting ideologues and ivory-tower types. The pipe-smoking critical theory-declaiming Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal) is a sterling example of this – a declaimer of the dialectic and historical materialism who is completely flummoxed by Whitlock’s attempts to translate his ideological declamations into a more parochial context.

But in doing so, the film actually gives them a voice. Look past the lampoonery and the message actually resonates (although my reading of Horkheimer and Adorno makes me somewhat biased). The film itself is a meta-example of the kind of film that inures you to your place in the capitalist machine. Mannix finds absolution in remaining in Hollywood, producing cookie-cutter entertainment and managing his crop of carefully groomed starlets.  His story is an example of the kinds of narrative arcs that inure moviegoers to “Hollywood values”, the kinds of platitudes that make you buy into the system by building up role-model protagonists that do so on the silver screen.

But then again, the film is a celebration of Hollywood as a historical milieu – the vaudeville set-pieces, the pompous Biblical epics, the celluloid and period trimmings, the Chinese restaurants and the trilbies. It appreciates the era as an indelible part of Americana.

In that regard, it contains similarities to that other Coen brothers film – Barton Fink, which is also a movie about Hollywood as mass entertainment. The difference is that Hail, Caesar! aims to be more subversive in its commentary. Where Barton Fink is about how Hollywood doesn’t appreciate art, Hail, Caesar! is a film – multiple films in a film – that is in itself an embodiment of how Hollywood doesn’t appreciate art – or, rather, manufactures a version of it that inures viewers to the capitalist machine.

It is quite the clever conceit, although on a surface level the film does suffer a little from it. For one, I think that the film’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t quite manage to use its impressive ensemble cast to maximum effect. There are actors in there that are criminally underused – Scarlett Johansson’s terrifically irascible aquatic ballet dancer, for one, as well as George Clooney as the somewhat spacey Whitlock and Tatum as the hilarious tap-dancing Soviet spy.  The film just tries to juggle too much, and while it does so creditably, it’s at the expense of focusing on its more memorable characters – you won’t find analogues to Jesus Quintana or Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski in this film.  

And I guess the flightiness of the film’s many great but underserved characters gives it a kind of weightless feeling, as if flitting from frivolity to frivolity. It makes for great fun, but perhaps by making  the film a sly meta-commentary on the Hollywood tendency to propagandise the capitalist media miasma, Hail, Caesar! might be consigning itself, at least in its potential for pop-cultural appeal, to a kind of deliberate mediocrity – which among the repertoire of Coen brothers films is still something to be celebrated.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 Roman hip daggers

The Man from U.N.C.L.E

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All cookie-cutter Hollywood thrillers should be so good.

If there is an Platonic ideal for the entertaining but forgettable Hollywood blockbuster, it would probably look like The Man from UNCLE. This is a technically accomplished 60s-era thriller with slick and well-executed set-pieces, a bounty of femme fatale figures, well-pressed suits and coiffed hair, and the quasi-humorous enemies-to-comrades character arcs of the two leading men, played by the chisel-jawed Henry Cavill and the icy-eyed Arnie Hammer.

This is a spy thriller set in the Cold War, with the accompanying set dressing and slightly regressive gender attitudes. It is meant to be a modern-day rendition of the original TV series, and a sort of origin story that sees the the two future U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, work together for the first time to prevent nuclear technology from falling into the hands of South American Nazis.

Honestly, the plot is irrelevant to these kinds of movies, which are all about characters and how they play off against each other. In this regard, the evolving relationship between the immaculate, smug Solo and the brooding Kuryakin is quite humorously compelling. Vikander’s character, Gaby, is unfortunately somewhat of a third wheel in this burgeoning relationship, more of a plot element – the indispensable femme fatale component of such films – than a fully-formed character in her own right, which is a shame.

The film is directed and shot with confidence and panache, with a certain old-style charm that suggests a sense of choreography – no in-vogue shaky cam here. And the set-pieces evoke a probably highly historically inaccurate, but stylish, vintage sensibility – from the shiny Italian sportscars and richly furnished Roman hotels, to the antiseptic retro-futurism of the nuclear facilities.

The humor provides the film a unique sense of character, as well. The relationship between the two men is punctuated by the kind of machismo-ridden rivalry that is the mainstay of buddy comedy. The jokes are more subtle and muted than your average Marvel film, but I think they fit in with the period setting quite well.

But when all is said and done, however, The Man from UNCLE still lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to elevate it to a true summer hit. It has all the moving parts, but they fit together in a way that we’ve seen many times before. It’s a going-through-the-motions affair, that, at the end of the day, is pretty much a highly entertaining and kinetic, but forgettable, two-hour long distraction, to be watched, enjoyed and then forgotten. It might be an unfair verdict to make of a film that has such an obvious sense of craft and style, but in today’s saturated blockbuster scene, more is needed to set it apart from the others.

I do hope they eventually make a sequel, though.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 tracking devices

 

 

Pirate Cinema

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Pirate Cinema displays the sublime talents of a wonderful writer with its snappy pacing, zinger dialogue and hip, counterculture sensibility. Shame, then, that it reads so much like agitprop.

Set in a near-future Britain when copyright laws have gone stir-crazy, Pirate Cinema is a young adult novel about a teenager named Trent McCauley who likes to create videos by splicing together clips from various, copyrighted sources. When he is caught, his entire household is cut off from the Internet from a year, which ruins his family, this being a society that relies on the Internet more than ever for basic services and employment. He runs away, falls in with a group of counterculture types, and uses the power of his videos to start a political movement to repeal a new, even worse law being promulgated by greedy fat-cats from the entertainment industry.

In principle, this would be a good premise for a novel about the social dangers of excessive copyright legislation, and I’m broadly on Doctorow’s side when it comes to such matters. The thing about Pirate Cinema, though, is that it has such confidence in its own moral superiority that it starts to read like a propaganda tract of an ideologue, something like the Pirate Bay version of Atlas Shrugged. 

Let’s start from the top. The moral argument put forth in Pirate Cinema for the liberalisation of copyright law is that restrictions on file-sharing and display stifle the creativity of secondary content creators like Trent. The novel frames the good-bad axis thus: the good guys are the creators, the bad guys are the fat-cat entertainment companies who want to earn a few extra pennies, even if it means putting kids in jail.

This strawmanning features throughout the entire novel, and the novel never really delves into the deeper issues concerning fair use. This is a dystopian formulation of copyright run amok that caricatures the relevant contemporary issues into a stark and moral black-white dynamic.

And just like Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, the protagonist Trent is a kind of Promethean figure in the book, a genius content creator with a sob story and  a hero’s quest to strike down copyright insanity. Once he gets over his initial guilt over having ruined his family’s lives, he becomes a political figure, a lightning rod for change. He is given the raiments of his new, counterculture pop-symbol status: a creative drive that reliably pumps out videos of consistent viral quality, a utopian commune of loyal mates who cook up wonderful creations of culinary genius, a smart, endlessly supportive, snog-happy girlfriend with cool, supportive parents, a genius hacker, et cetera. His very brief character arc ends almost before it begins, and after that he becomes the poster boy for the revolution.

It almost feels like Trent is created to be a sort of an aspirational ideal for the targeted readership, a kind of literary prophet-provocateur for the anti-copyright coalition: a figure you hope you will be if only you join the ranks. And while Trent may be that prophet, you don’t really feel like he truly understands why he’s fighting the good fight – he’s just along for the ride, buffeted on the tide of a strong sense of injustice over his situation, and driven by those around him to be a hero in a cause he doesn’t quite grok.

Ironically, that’s the situation that the reader is put in by the book’s machinations – manipulated to support the cause without really understanding why; but buffeted on a tide of righteous anger and a desire for justice against a straw man evil. In other words, propaganda.

It’s a shame, really, because Pirate Cinema would be a good book otherwise, if not for the fact that it favors the message over the story.

I give this book: 3 out of 5 snogs