Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Storytelling Done Right

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed games since the beginning and always in order. I’ve never skipped a console release title, including those Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles games, which actually weren’t that bad. I’m currently behind so I only just finished Syndicate this week, but I can’t wait to play Origins and Odyssey. I, like most long time AC players, have a weird relationship with the franchise. It constantly teeters between love and hate. There are things that are truly great about the franchise and to have seen how far it has come since the original release more than 10 years ago is both impressive and inspiring. But there are also issues that have plagued the games for years, many of which have only gotten worse over time. In my opinion, the storytelling is the weakest part of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and has been since at least Assassin’s Creed III. But the storytelling issues have existed since even before that game which was already several games into the franchise. This is extra depressing because the story is ultimately why I continue playing the games. I want to see a clear ending to this franchise. That’s not because I don’t like the franchise and want to see it end, but rather that I play games for the stories and I hate stories that don’t have clear endings.

AC has a host of storytelling problems. This is due mostly to the disjointed nature of the games and how they function as parts of an overarching narrative that has itself drastically shifted in direction in non-sensible ways over the course of the franchise. The big problem with the storytelling is that the modern day content has little to do with the Animus content while also acting as the bridge between multiple games that you’re only really playing for the Animus content. But it’s very apparent that the modern day content has always been an afterthought in the creation of these games. Rather than try to clean it up, Ubisoft decided the best way to deal with the modern day storyline was to significantly reduce its presence within the games. You see this a lot in the games that take place after ACIII. The amount of modern day content has been reduced more and more until you finally get to Syndicate where you don’t even play in the modern day. It’s reduced to four or five short cinematics all with the intention of justifying a single end game cut scene that doesn’t feature anyone of significance other than the weird first civilization MCP (yes that’s a Tron reference) that keeps showing up in games since ACIII but never really does anything. Supposedly it saved the world from a solar flare though.

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I see the direction that AC has taken by almost completely diluting away the out of Animus content to non-playable cut scenes and a bare minimum of time on screen as a good thing, but that’s not actually the part about the storytelling in Syndicate that I like the most. The key factor that I think makes the storytelling superior in Syndicate to just about every other AC game to date is the fact that you have multiple never before seen playable characters experiencing directly related stories and spaces. In past games you never had this, save for a short sequence in ACIII as Haythem Kenway. You had two loosely related characters acting independently of each other in the form of an ancestor and an Animus user/viewer. This never worked well for me because the games always slacked on the setting, gameplay, and writing for the Animus user. I genuinely didn’t care about Desmond and his whiny, depressing parent issues. I cared even less when you were some anonymous drone sneaking around the Abstergo offices. Those aspects of the story (and gameplay) have always been trash by comparison to the ancestor. That’s also why you never saw Desmond on the cover of the games. What I cared about has always been the story inside the Animus. Syndicate fleshes this story out more.

In Syndicate, you have two main playable characters and a third one if you play the Jack the Ripper expansion, during Industrial Revolution London. Plus there’s a fourth playable character in the base game that takes place during WWI for a short disconnected sequence. I thought this entire presentation of interconnected stories was brilliant. It added context, emotion, and background to all the characters involved. It strengthened the overall storytelling in a number of ways. It also led to variations in my gameplay style from character to character because I felt compelled to play each character the way I thought they would play rather than how I preferred to play. In many ways it was like playing multiple games in one while still maintaining a focused narrative. And even though the WWI sequence wasn’t directly connected to the main story, it was still excellent because it followed the progeny of one of the main characters. It was like taking a break from the game without taking a break from the game while providing additional information for the overarching narrative. I thought it was brilliantly executed.

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Syndicate doesn’t have the best plot of any AC game. It’s set in a time where capitalism is already ruining people’s lives in a country that’s not that interesting in the grand scheme of the AC universe. But it tells its story better than most of the other AC games I’ve played so far. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it considering the large number of negative comments I heard about it. I genuinely don’t understand where the negativity came from because it’s way better than Unity and is a nice change from Rogue, which is just a smaller scale copy of Black Flag. Many people even told me to skip Syndicate altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Syndicate even handles the age old main character gender problem in games well. The game doesn’t center on either a male or female character. It stars both. And adds one of each additional character in the special sequences. It’s a perfectly balanced form of gender neutral storytelling that lets the player decide what/who to play as while making them both plot relevant without being plot neutral. There are also sequences that are character specific because the two play off of each other in a very effective way. And they have a few differing abilities to offer you a reason to swap between them depending on the mission you’re in.

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It’s a perfectly democratic way to make and play a game that in no way lowered the quality of the storytelling. Really it enhanced it. And, in this case they made me want to play as the female character in the right way. They made her interesting. Evie Frye is a better character than Jacob Frye. Or at least a better assassin. She thinks things through. She acknowledges the consequences or her and her brother’s actions. She has better stealth abilities. I wanted to play as her more. I still made myself rotate between the two often, even when I didn’t have to, but she’s the better character, in my opinion. That’s how you get male gamers to play games with female protagonists. You make the characters interesting and the games good. It’s really that simple. Tomb Raider does well because Lara Croft is a good character and the games are well made. There’s no magic formula. It’s not a political issue. Real gamers play good games. You could do The Witcher with a female protagonist. But it has to be at the quality level of The Witcher. Otherwise it’s just a “shitty feminism game that wishes it was The Witcher.” But by giving the player the choice in Syndicate, Ubisoft managed to make a game with a female protagonist without having to market it as such.  This made it way more appealing and accessible for everyone. Which begs the question: Why have we been playing these shitty out of Animus sequences for all these years to begin with?

The only reason the Animus is part of the franchise is that Ubisoft needed a link between all the games. For some reason they felt that it wasn’t good enough just to have the same name and general Assassin Templar war. They wanted to directly link each game via an overarching story, which in my opinion they’ve done, but failed to do well. Even as they’ve changed it over time and tried to salvage it, the modern day stuff is still trash. And with the death of Desmond, a character I absolutely hated, I all but stopped caring about who’s involved or what’s happening. I just want it to end so I can have a real conclusion. But why didn’t they just connect the games the way they connect the WWI and Jack the Ripper stories in Syndicate from the start? They could have just used the ancestry concept but directly linked the games via historical meetings. You have Altair get married and have kids. Then you have one of those kids become an assassin and travel to another country. Then that person meets another assassin named Ezio Auditore. Then the game follows Ezio.

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You get the same effect you have now of following a story through time and changing between multiple characters. You can even keep the piece of Eden thing they have going. But you don’t need all that superfluous modern day crap that no one even cares about anymore. You link the characters directly to each other through history as the war continues. That would also allow you to return to older characters later in different points in their lives. Like Ezio in Revelations. It takes place years after Brotherhood. Rather than doing the whole memory sequence mumbo jump they could have just done a game about another assassin he met along the way and then at the end of that game, years later in the timeline, that assassin reconnects with Ezio. Then in the next game a now older Ezio goes to Constantinople. No weird annoying bullshit needed. And it’s not like people can’t deal with time hops. The current games do them and it’s not an issue. You just do a sequence like Connor went to England and then wipe forward years later and show him returning from England, or whatever. The audience isn’t stupid. We can follow a shifting narrative. How else have we been playing AC games for all these years? You could go back in time as well. Just do an Edward found this old journal of a past assassin and started reading it opening sequence as a transition backwards. It’s not that hard.

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My point is that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate does a great job with the storytelling because for 99% of the game it doesn’t pull you out of the Animus. And that 1% isn’t gameplay. It’s only cut scenes. This created a much stronger and more coherent narrative experience. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t played Origins or Odyssey yet so maybe they’ve finally cleaned it all up. But I doubt it. There’s no real reason we needed this modern day storyline to make this franchise work. And I think it could still be done away with now. By implementing multiple playable characters in the same directly connected time periods, they can tell a much stronger story and solve their diversity problems at the same time. Adewale didn’t really need his own expansion in Black Flag. He should have just been playable in Black Flag with his own special sequences as well as in the open world. Haytham could have been playable for a much larger part of ACIII. These games are already connected in many ways. They simply needed to go the extra mile and not make up some weird trapped in the machine AI story filled with solar flares and faceless walking simulator sequences.

Syndicate was the best AC since played Black Flag. It has revitalized my interest in the franchise and I’m very much looking forward to both Origins and Odyssey, both of which I’ve heard great things about. Hopefully that includes great storytelling.

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Starlink: Battle for Atlas (Nintendo Switch) Early Impressions Review

I was unsure about Starlink: Battle for Atlas going into it. The marketing was good but kind of vague. I was getting some No Man’s Sky vibes from it, which isn’t a compliment, but I was also getting some solid story based gameplay vibes from it as well, which is the greatest of gaming compliments. If I’m honest I have to say that the main selling point for me was that Star Fox is in the Switch version. You have to understand how much I love Star Fox and how long I’ve been waiting for a good Star Fox game. Having played every home console Star Fox game on its original release console, including Star Fox Guard and Star Fox 2, it’s my opinion that a good Star Fox game hasn’t been made since 2005. Star Fox 2 is good, but that was made in 1996. I hated Star Fox Zero. It had some good ideas but the controls were terrible to the point where I struggled just to finish the base game and haven’t played it since. So the prospect of a good Star Fox game was very appealing, but not enough to get me to buy Starlink day one, because this wasn’t made in house by Nintendo. Thankfully I received a review copy and I’m glad I did.

Let me be very clear in saying that I’m only about three hours into Starlink: Battle for Atlas at this point. I plan on playing it a lot more and after the three hours I have played, I can already say that I will absolutely finish this game and possibly go for a 100% completion. But I wanted to write something about it now while it’s new so people who are on the fence can get a better understanding of it so they can make a more informed purchasing decision. That’s why I’m leaving this review unscored and I put “Early Impressions” in the title of the post. I also want to make clear that I haven’t looked at the non-Switch versions of the game at all. I don’t even know how they compare graphically so be aware that this review is only talking about the Switch version unless otherwise stated.

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Before getting into the finer details of the game, there are two main things that need to be said about Starlink before anything else. The first is that this game essentially took all the good ideas from No Man’s Sky, layered them over a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild foundation, and then decorated it with Star Fox paint. That’s what this game is in a nut shell. They took the No Man’s Sky open world, resource management, space exploration concept, added an actual story, dialed back the map to that of large, but not infinite, and allowed players the ability to play an open galaxy space fighter game as Fox McCloud with his crew along for the ride. In other words, they did what people actually wanted rather than try to be overly experimental for the sake of grandeur.

The second thing that needs to be said is that this is not a Star Fox game. The PS4 and XB1 versions of the game don’t contain the Star Fox team. They were added into the Switch version similarly to how Link was added into Soul Calibur II (2002) on the Gamecube version of the game. The difference though is that Fox and crew have been added into Starlink with great care and effort. It’s not lazily done last minute. It’s not a few added cutscenes and no direct interactions. From what I’ve seen so far, Ubisoft took the time to weave Fox, Peppy, Slippy, Falco, and it seems Wolf directly into the plot of the story. There are cutscenes where the Starlink regular characters and the Star Fox team interact directly. Fox and crew enter the Starlink team’s ship during cutscenes and interact with them in dialog during normal gameplay. The point is that while this is not a Star Fox game, you’re able to play the Switch version like it is one, and that’s intentionally how I’ve been playing it so far. In a lot of ways, that might be the future of Nintendo games and if so, I’m looking forward to it.

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Visually speaking, Starlink is very good, but it’s still a Nintendo game. I do believe it could look better on a more powerful machine. That being said, in true Nintendo style they’ve crafted a game that isn’t trying to look realistic so it’s fine that it doesn’t have super PC Master Race 4K graphics. The graphics are by no means bad though. The landscapes are beautiful and fairly well detailed. Fox and crew look great as far as finer details go, but they don’t really fit into the art style of the rest of the game. And the game runs very smoothly. The cutscenes look surprisingly good. Or at least the present day ones do. There are also some flash back cutscenes that are hand drawn comic strip style art. They look good for what they are, but they don’t match the rest of the game, that I’ve seen so far, in tone. Mostly though it’s one of the better looking games I’ve seen on Switch. It’s up there with Xenoblade Chronicles games. There are definitely some things that I believe are scaled down from what they would look like in the PS4 version, but not so much so that I feel like I’m being cheated playing on this platform.

What’s nice about this galaxy is that it’s both diverse and lived in. There are a lot of different settings and landscapes, even on individual planets. It’s not just dessert planet, lava planet, water planet. One planet, of which there are several, has multiple habitats. Wild life is native to certain regions and not others on any given planet. There are abandoned cities, skeletons littered across deserts, active settlements, roving bands of outlaws, and ancient ruins. It’s not a world(s) that exists for you. They just exist and you happen to be there.

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There’s a lot going on in the full HUD. I haven’t turned anything off yet, but I’ve already considered it. It’s all useful information, but it just takes up so much of the screen. Depending on what’s happening, there are times when like 50% or more of the screen is covered in HUD data. Thankfully, you have the ability to toggle off and on each individual part of the HUD and two of the options can be set to appear only at specific times. I like the menus. They’re very simple and easy to understand. They have a very space age tone to them but they still come off very Nintendo. Smooth edges, interactive pictures, and easy to read text. I also really appreciated that you can set the subtitle text size, language, and backing opacity. You can even set the temperature readout to Celsius, Fahrenheit, or Kelvin. I don’t know if I’ve played any other games that have Kelvin as an option. Enemies, target objects, and bases all have floating life bars as well, so you can always see the status of things. This is really helpful and I’m glad it’s there, but it also adds even more HUD to the screen. I guess the best way to describe Starlink overall is that it looks the way it’s supposed to. I don’t think I’d change anything about it visually other than giving it more power so the details could be even crisper in the landscapes.

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The sound is solid. The effects are limited to user interactions, which is a bit of a disappointment, but you don’t usually notice it during normal gameplay. What I mean is everything you do has a sound effect, but only certain things you do things to have a reaction sound. For example, if you shoot a canister that’s meant to be shot, you will hear your weapons fire and you will hear the canister explode. But if you shoot a wall, that’s not meant to be shot, you will hear your weapons fire, but the wall won’t make a sound. Essentially there are a limited number of sound profiles and interactions in the game. But again, most of the time you won’t notice this unless you’re actively shooting things you aren’t meant to shoot. Your ship has sounds for everything from boosting and jumping to changing out weapons. And the things you’re supposed to interact with all make sounds as well. The quality is clean and mostly clear, but it can get drowned out by your weapons fire. You do have the ability to set separate volume levels 1 – 100 for speech, SFX, music, and ambient sounds as well as change the audio mix between three sound profile options.

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The dialog audio is good. There are many different characters that speak in this game and they all have their own voices. That includes NPCs like shop keepers and outlaws. All speaking characters, including outlaws, have individual names and their talking avatar shows up on your screen during dialog. You will never see any characters walking around though. Every sentient being is in a ship at all times. Only wildlife and enemies are just walking around the landscapes. The wildlife have their own sound profiles as well, which is always a nice touch.

The gameplay takes some getting used to. It’s essentially an all-range mode fighter plane game that takes place both in space and on the ground. You have the option to free fly between space, the sky within a planet’s atmosphere, and at ground level. You are always in your ship, but the way you move is determined by the flight mode/space you’re in. In general, the controls are fairly straight forward. You have up to two weapons mounted at any time, which you control with the triggers. You can boost, shield, jump, and interact with the four buttons (A,B,X,Y) on the right joy-con and you use the shoulders and arrow buttons for special commands. When in ground flight mode, you have a lot more control and don’t have to worry about altitude. But you also have limits to how high up you can jump. What is interesting though is that the game seems to have dynamic jumping, meaning it tends to make you jump as high as you need to go rather than having a limited jump height. There is a max limit though before you have to change to flight mode, which you do by holding the right shoulder. My biggest complaint is that the buttons aren’t customizable. I wish I could swap the boost and jump buttons and make the shield a different button as well. I pretty much never shield during combat because of where the button is placed.

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The fact that you’re always in your ship is a good thing. It makes for a more streamlined experience. You travel around planets and mine for resources, among other tasks, but things don’t require as much nitty gritty work. Boxes are scattered around the worlds that contain Electrum, the equivalent of gold/money, mods, and other useful things. You just have to shoot or blow them up to open them. The items contained within the boxes are automatically collected. This saves you so much time. At first I didn’t realize collecting was automatic so I went up to every box and manually collected things. But once I realized I didn’t have to I started sniping boxes from far away and saving tons of time farming. There are also resources that need to be mined from nature like plants and metal ore. These do need to be picked up manually. They can be sold at outposts for Electrum. NPCs will often task you with collecting things for them as well a number of other types of tasks like deliveries, scouting/exploring missions, and hunts for enemies and objects. You use Electrum and special resources to upgrade the main ship, your general skills/perks, and outposts. Your weapons and fighter ships are upgraded through perks rather than individually. But each weapon, ship, and pilot has their own experience gauge and leveling, so it pays to play with various loadouts so you’re developing your entire crew as opposed to just one set. I will admit though that I haven’t been good about that myself just yet. I’m pretty much only playing as Fox in the Arwing and I tend to use the same two guns a majority of the time. In the long run though I will change them once I max them out, otherwise it’s just a waste of XP.

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The game lets you change your loadouts, including ships and pilots, on command. At any time, including in mid-battle, you can just go to the menu screen and change your load outs. Ships and weapons also have mod slots, which matter a lot. Mods can affect a number of things like base damage, elemental damage, healing speed, movement, and so on. You have a limited number of slots for each piece of gear, but these can be expanded a finite amount with general upgrades. The ability to change loadouts in real time is useful because you can create loadouts for multiple scenarios and hot swap them based on the situation rather than having to re-spec your ship for every encounter. Loadouts matter because different mods and weapons work in tandem for the best results. For example, using fire and ice weapons concurrently results in a “Thermal Shock” damage scenario. You freeze enemies susceptible to ice damage, causing them to literally freeze in place and sometimes fall over. Then you burn them with fire ammo. The resulting reaction between the two types of ammo causes additional damage and effects to enemies. There are several types of weapons combinations that have special effects. This is why preparing multiple layouts is so useful.

The Ubisoft Club rewards for Starlink are some of the most useful I’ve seen in any Ubisoft game. The four rewards give you a collection of strong mods that will greatly enhance your performance. I don’t know if these mods will be that useful down the road once you’ve started finding higher level stuff and creating your own via mod merging/crafting, but early on the rewards mods are extremely valuable. I recommend buying them right off the bat if you have the Ubi coins to spare. And since the game has more coins to earn than to spend, you still make a net gain if you complete all the rewards tasks, many of which are pretty easy.

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The game, at least at this point, is not too difficult. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but more that it’s fair and rewards you for playing both smart and dynamically. If you just sit in one spot and fire away you might win, depending on the difficulty, but chances are you will struggle. To master the game you need to understand how weapons combinations work, which enemies require which weapons, which the game helps you with, which mod combinations work the best for your play style, and you need to master maneuvering. You also need to pick the right pilot for you. Each pilot, of which there are at least 10, some of which I found later in the game, has their own strengths, weaknesses, and special moves. Fox, for example, summons Peppy, Slippy, and/or Falco to battle. They only stay for the duration of the battle, but it’s a useful technique. You can do this at ground level or in space. Once you get the hang of the game, you will push yourself to harder challenges. I started at normal, but after only two hours in I changed it to hard. I haven’t tried very hard yet. You can also turn friendly fire on or off. I keep it off though personally.

Enemies have levels and you aren’t aware of how big a difference those levels can be until you challenge something way out of your league. My Fox is level four and I haven’t struggled much, but I have had a ship blow up a few times in the normal course of play. But when I discovered a level 16 special enemy, it whipped my ass. Something to come back to later. That’s the nice thing about the game. There are things you know you’ll want to come back to later. The death system is interesting in Starlink. I think it works well for the type of game it is. Your ship has a life bar that heals automatically after a certain amount of time without taking damage, but if you take too much damage too quickly your ship will blow up, but this isn’t game over. You have a total of at least six ships. Each one has its own stats as one of four classes that I’ve seen so far. When you lose a ship, you can just swap out another one and use that one for as long as you want or until it also blows up. Then the next time you get to a repair shop you can spend Electrum to repair all your damaged ships. This system is really convenient because it means you rarely have to stop play even if you got a ship blown up. This also means that there is no stoppage in normal play. You can get hit with multiple battles back to back. Outlaws can attack at any time. You can fly into a nest accidentally. When you go to the menu the game is paused so you don’t have to worry about dying while trying to re-spec. But you never truly know what you need to be prepared for.

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There are also a number of mini-game and puzzle mechanics scattered throughout the game. Some are quite simple like pulling/plucking things. When you want to harvest plants or open doors, you have to grab them with your ship’s cable and then pull. But you have to pull the right amount. There’s a meter that you need to fill with enough pull pressure before the object will release. You aren’t allowed to over pull it though. It has to be properly measured or the object will remain attached. It’s hard to explain in text form, but as you find more important items, the pull min-game becomes harder. Some puzzles involve shooting targets with certain types of ammo or in a certain order. There are door puzzles that require you to figure out a sequence of locks in a specific order. I also really enjoy the ways you can interact with wildlife. You have to scan them to add to your database and learn more about them. Scanning one isn’t enough though. You need to find and scan three or four of the same species to get full data about it. You can also help animals, which I really like. Sometimes you find animals that have infections and you can help remove them. This will make that particular animal act friendlier towards you. To be honest I have yet to see any wildlife act with hostility towards me unprovoked, but I have had them show fear. The game is so much more than just flying around, collecting, and shooting.

While Starlink is a story driven game, it’s also an Assassin’s Creed style open world game. There are tons of side activities, special requests, hidden treasures, and random encounters you can seek out. You can spend a seemingly unlimited amount of time developing your team and resources without touching the main quest. It’s like No Man’s Sky with the option of meaningful gameplay. Overall, I’m very happy with the gameplay experience. There are some control issues you have to get used to and as with all resource games, mining will most likely get old. But as a whole, this is a great experience that I’ve only scratched the surface of.

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As I said, I’m not super far into this game yet. Less than four hours total. So my understanding of the story is still very limited, but I can say that unlike with No Man’s Sky, this is a narrative driven open world(s) game. And that includes Star Fox’s role in the game. You are actively pursuing narrative based goals. You meet characters and develop relationships with them. Outlaws have grudges against you and/or members of your team that they’ve had past interactions with. You’re not just flying around space collecting resources so you can build better ships. The game does have lots of mining opportunities and developing/upgrading your ships and other things in the game are a core part of the gameplay, but this is a single player, story driven experience with a finite amount of content. That more than anything is why I like this game and was almost completely disinterested in No Man’s Sky at release. The story is what makes the game worth playing.

The writing works. It’s not Naughty Dog level storytelling, but it’s a fairly large cast of characters, real social interactions between them, developing relationships, villains, heroes, mysteries, and side characters that you grow fond of. Now again, I’m still very early in. It’s quite possible that this is all just strong foundation to hook the player in early and then it will eventually devolve into a boring mining collectathon with little story. But it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction at this point in the game. So far I’m happy with the characters, I’m happy with the plot, and I’m especially happy with the fact that all the Star Fox team members are an active part of the story, even though they were added in later.

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I’m not gonna speak much on the replay value of a game I’m only three hours into of this seemingly high amount of content. What I will say is that there appears to be quite a bit of content and I assume there will be some future DLC as well. Because of the way the game is structured, there are multiple ways to play and approach things, which means there is the potential to want to replay the game using different pilots, load outs, and tactics. You also have four different difficulty levels. But because you can change difficulty, loadout, ship, and even pilot at a whim, I see no reason to replay the entire game at this point. It makes more sense to just change things around as you play your first playthrough fairly often and make the most out of a well-rounded experience. So at this point, I can’t say whether or not the game makes sense to replay, but in general there appears to be a lot of content anyway so that’s fine for me.

I’m really happy that I’m playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I’m not far in yet, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far. I’ll admit that my bias towards Star Fox plays a factor. It’s the game that I think many people wanted No Man’s Sky to be with the tradeoff of a finite amount of content. Finite doesn’t mean lacking amount though. A game doesn’t have to be infinite and in my opinion shouldn’t be. I enjoy the fact that the game has a lot to do but still has defined end goals. As I said, I’m not going to score this game so early in my experience with it, but I do recommend it for people who like open worlds, space fighters, and customization options in games. You can also check out some gameplay on my YouTube channel. I’ll be streaming the game via Twitch on weekends as well.

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Titans Season 2?

If you don’t already know, there’s a new TV show that just came out called Titans. It’s a live action series based on the Teen Titans comic book series. Many more people today probably know this IP from one or both of the cartoons: Teen Titans and Teen Titans GO!. This new show is live action and like with the DC movies, appears to have a much darker tone than either of the cartoons. At the time of writing this, not a single episode has officially aired. By the time this is published, according to the release schedule, exactly one episode will have aired. And yet even though not a single member of the unaffiliated public has seen a single episode of the show, I can already say that there will be a Titans season 2. This is not my opinion. This is not a prediction. This is a reported fact by multiple credible sources that Titans has already been greenlighted for a second season.

I don’t want to talk about the show. In fact, I can’t talk about the show, because like everyone else, I haven’t seen it yet. What I want to talk about is the fact that a show that no normal consumers has ever seen, that has already gotten a ton of negative reception just from the trailers, is already guaranteed a second season. This is a big problem for me.

Titans

The public is supposed to shape the direction of entertainment. That’s how pretty much all capitalism is supposed to work. The market demands what it wants and companies produce what the market wants. In some ways it’s the purest form of Democracy. But more importantly, it keeps entertainment media companies in check. It’s a problem when companies can control what the public sees and experiences regardless of the public’s opinion on it. It’s a problem when the people say they want, or more importantly don’t want, something and companies make a profit while completely disregarding or even blatantly going against those demands. It’s a problem when companies are able to operate with no oversight and no repercussions regardless of how bad their decisions are. Let me be clear, I’m not saying Titans is a bad show and shouldn’t get a second season. As I’ve already stated, I haven’t seen it so I can’t make that judgement. But the fact that it’s already guaranteed a second season regardless of how the public feels about it is not a good thing. It indicates that our opinions and demands as consumers are meaningless.

In the American system of television, where shows go on for as long as they can retain value (viewership, high ratings, and advertising sponsorships), getting an additional season used to mean something. It meant a show was good enough for people to want an entire additional year (depending on how the seasons are broken up) of that show. It meant all the actors, producers, directors, and other staff members had earned their paychecks and were being given permission from the public to keep their jobs. Those additional seasons were proof of the value of that show. And the relationship between the studio and the public was symbiotic in nature. But if shows are just gonna get additional seasons regardless of whether or not the public likes them, how are we as consumers supposed to get the content we want?

Teen Titans OG

You see the same thing happening with games and movies now too. They create franchises from the ground up without verifying that people even want the content. No one wants a Suicide Squad 2. The first one was terrible and the public doesn’t want a sequel. I’m glad James Gunn is writing the sequel if it has to happen. But the fact that it’s happening shows the studio’s complete disregard for the public’s opinion. Shitty games are getting sequels all the time now. Standalone games rarely exist anymore. Some studios have even publicly said that they won’t build them any longer. Destiny was bad. Everyone agreed it was bad. It had some good qualities, but ultimately the people were not happy. But they were already making Destiny 2 before the first raid dropped in 1. And that’s after they had already said there was a 10 year lifespan planned for the first game. This is a problem. They’re supposed to make the games the market wants. Not force the market to play subpar games due to a lack of options.

God of War is a perfect example of how the system is supposed to work. The original game on PS2 back in 2005 was made as a standalone game. No sequels were planned. There were no holes in the plot. It was just a solid game. And because it did so well both financially and critically, they made more of them. The game earned the privilege, not right, to become a full-fledged franchise. And then years after the conclusion of the franchise, demand was still so high that they made another game, which was also excellent and has absolutely earned the right to a sequel. Now I will say that clearly they planned a sequel in advance with the latest game, and I do take issue with that, but remember that we’re talking about game seven, not one. It’s fair at that point to create a story driven saga because you already have the existing market data to show demand. But if a new IP drops and the opening game is already assuming several sequels, that’s a problem.

Teen Titans

This sort of project development is especially troublesome in how it allows entertainment production companies to control what the public views with no repercussions. I truly believe entertainers of all types have the right to create whatever type of content they want with whatever inserted messages and politics they want to present. That is the right of the creator. But at the same time, there are supposed to be risks incurred when doing that. The market rewards and/or punishes creators for the content they create. If a company wants to insert a political message or idea into their content and their market doesn’t care for it, that company is supposed to take that feedback and moderate the politics they present accordingly for their next work/installment. If that doesn’t happen, the consumer base will cease to buy their products and they will go out of business. That’s Democracy at work. But if companies no longer have to create at the mercy of their markets they can just say whatever they want. They can subliminally alter the views of large groups of people by presenting ideas with no repercussions. And sure that’s fine when that idea is something along the lines equal rights for minorities. But what happens when it’s something like anti-Muslim propaganda?

Robin

The ability for consumers to control and shape the kind of media that ultimately gets produced keeps media companies in check. Yes the check goes in both directions and often progressive ideas are stomped out as well, but I would argue the potential benefits of unchecked content creation are outweighed by the potential negative repercussions. So in my opinion it’s really problematic when movie studios come out of the gate with a new movie IP and state they’re already planning multiple sequels and spinoffs. Glances at The Mummy (2017). I don’t like hearing that a new show already has multiple seasons and other connected shows in the works before the first season has even aired. And while yes I understand that the MCU is probably the greatest multi-faceted entertainment media project/franchise ever created in the history of the world, I think it’s important to realize Marvel had already been making comics, cartoons, and video games for 69 years before Iron Man (2008) released. They had already earned their right to creative control and did their homework in terms of what kind of content to create and the messages that should be presented. And sure DC may be even older than Marvel, but they’ve shown multiple times that they don’t know how to make successful movies and TV shows that the public is happy with consistently. They keep making them, but the people keep being unhappy with what’s created a majority of the time. If anything, DC is the perfect example of why no company should ever consider itself above the opinions of consumers.

I hope Titans is good. From what I’ve seen of the trailers I doubt it will be, but genuinely don’t like seeing comic book related projects fail. I like seeing them succeed. But I cannot condone the idea that the public’s opinion on entertainment is irrelevant and that companies should just do whatever the hell they want because people will probably just watch anyway out of boredom. That sets a bad precedent which ultimately leads to mediocre or even bad content as well as subliminal messaging shaping the public’s views with no ability for us to push back.

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Venom Review – 6.8/10

I went to see Venom because I watch every Marvel and DC movie in theaters. The only one I’ve missed to date since seeing the original Blade (1998) is Fantastic Four (2015) and that was only because I was in the process of moving and literally did not have time to see the movie in theaters before it was removed. So I was always going to see Venom in theaters even though I had low expectations from the very first trailer. The things I’d heard about the movie since it released just a few days prior to me seeing it did not raise my hopes for the movie either. Now that I’ve seen it myself, I can say honestly that Venom is a bad movie. But it might be the best bad comic book movie I’ve ever seen.

There are two types of bad movies. There are those that are bad and shouldn’t have been made the way they were if at all. Suicide Squad (2016), The Spirit (2003), and Superman Returns (2006) are examples of this. They are not only bad movies in terms of plot and often film making conventions, but they also don’t even really entertain past surface level visuals. They simply aren’t even good enough for hate watching. But there’s another type of bad movie. Some movies are bad, but good. Maybe you’d even say they’re so bad that they’re good. R.I.P.D. (2013), Spider-Man 3 (2007), and Batman & Robin (1997) are all great examples of this type of movie. They aren’t good by any conventional stretch of the word. They’re riddled with questionable film making decisions, lackluster writing, often terrible acting, and sometimes dialog so bad that it becomes iconic. This is where I put Venom.

face

Let’s first remember the reasons why Venom was made and the space it exists in within the larger Marvel and comic book film landscape. Venom, the character, was originally created in 1988. It came to be after a stint as just “the Symbiote” merged with Peter Parker/Spider-Man. When Parker finally separated from it, the Symbiote found Eddie Brock and became Venom. Venom started out as an arch nemesis of Spider-Man and was only that for many years. Down the road he eventually became an anti-hero similar to Frank Castle/The Punisher but that was way later. Even today, most people still think of Venom, and his host Eddie Brock, as a Spider-Man villain. Many would even say the best Spider-Man villain. That’s the character in the world of comic books but that’s only kind of relevant in the real world of business. Venom was made because of an annoying longstanding contract agreement between Sony and Marvel (now owned by Disney). Sony has to make a new Spider-Man universe film every few years or the Spider-Man IP rights will automatically revert back to Marvel. This pretty much guarantees that Spider-Man themed films from Sony will keep being made rather frequently as long as they make money. And since the original Spider-Man (2002) they have. This is also the reason they rebooted the franchise and did The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) so soon after finishing the Tobey Maquire run. Sony literally had to churn out another Spider-Man movie of they would have lost the IP rights. And those rights matter. Not just for that film money but for everything. Toys based on the movies, cartoons, merchandising. Even the recently released Spider-Man game exclusive to PS4 from Insomniac Games falls under the purview of Sony’s contract with Marvel.

symbiote fight

The main problem for Sony now is that they lost the Spider-Man in Spider-Man films. Because Disney really wanted Peter Parker to appear in the MCU, they paid a king’s ransom to get those film rights back “temporally”. But that didn’t actually change the terms of the original contract. This leaves Sony in a very peculiar place. They need to make Spider-Man movies without actually using Spider-Man. And let’s be clear that by without Spider-Man I mean specifically Peter Parker. They could easily put out movies about Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, or any other Spider-Totem characters. But that’s easier said than done. Making a movie isn’t as simple as writing a script, hiring some actors, and buying a camera. It’s quite expensive and has to be deemed potentially profitable or it could destroy the IP and even the brand. And in the current climate it might not sound like such a great idea to Sony stockholders to put out a movie with a Black or female Spider-Man/Person. Especially when also having to compete with the MCU and the much loved Tom Holland as Peter Parker. And that’s just the stuff we know about. For all we know Disney contracted for control of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacey as well. There are references to Miles Morales in the MCU such as Donald Glover playing a character who is most likely his uncle in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).

When understanding all this background information, it becomes clearer why Sony decided to do something that literally no one asked for and made a movie with Venom as not only the main character but not a Spider-Man villain. And when I say not a Spider-Man villain I mean Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned in the movie. Given all that context, now let’s actually discuss how the movie was.

tongue reduced

Venom is not a good movie, but it sure is an entertaining one. It’s cult film good. There are numerous problems with it, but I don’t for a second regret seeing it. My girlfriend, a diehard Marvel movie fan with a less than even casual background in general comic book lore knowledge, laughed for pretty much the entire duration of the movie. And really this might be the best space for Venom, and Sony Marvel films as a whole, to fill. They can’t compete with the MCU. They don’t have the planning, time, or access to characters that the MCU does. They don’t have the available casting choices that the MCU does because of so many roles already taken by phenomenal actors. So in a lot of ways it might actually make more since for Sony to intentionally try to fill the comic relief niche of comic book filmmaking. Because there’s almost no competition for that spot. It’s pretty much just Dead-Pool at this point. And with Disney’s inevitable absorption of the FOX Marvel universe/characters, that leaves pretty much no real competition for the comedy comic book movie throne. Disney isn’t going to let the MCU collapse in tone and style for one character and the brooding DC film universe simply isn’t playing for comedy, granted Shazam seems like they might be trying to break-in to that genre. My point is that in many ways it was logical for Sony to make the film they did with Venom than the film people think they actually wanted to see.

The acting is bad. Specifically Tom Hardy, who I am generally a fan of, gave a really cheesy performance. Think Nicolas Cage in Kick-Ass (2010). That’s not to say that Tom Hardy is a bad actor. More that his depiction of the character was very different from the Eddie Brock I expected. I’d say he came off a bit too geared towards a modern millennial audience. The Eddie Brock I’m used to is brooding, hot tempered, and narcissistic. This Eddie Brock was very whiny and seemed more like a victim of his circumstances than an active player. What I find interesting is that Hardy also voiced Venom, who is a wholly different character than Eddie Brock. His voice and demeanor are considerably altered. I spent the entire movie thinking Venom was being voiced by a different actor. That being said, this Venom is super campy. He’s essentially the douchebag frat boy to Eddie Brock’s whiny loser. The pairing makes for a hilarious on screen dynamic. I will say though that this Venom’s voice was clearly inspired by the 90’s Amazing Spider-Man cartoon. Some of the other actors in the movie gave stronger performances, but nothing to write home about. Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake was the most noteworthy for me. He was exactly the way I would have wanted that villain to be. He truly believed in his cause and delivered his lines with authenticity and controlled passion.

drake.jpg

The visual aspects of the film aren’t particularly good either. I took the time to go back and look at Venom in Spider-Man 3 and I have to say that it looks better. The symbiote forms, like the voices, come off super campy in Venom. They look like something from Spawn (1997). What I think it’s important to note is that this Venom is super authentic in how it recreates the source materials, both from the comics and 90’s cartoon, in terms of handling the transformation(s). They do it the way it was originally intended with the Symbiote taking over Brock’s body from behind and completely layering over him. That being said, it looks pretty cheesy in real life. It’s the Wolverine problem. Hugh Jackman would look odd actually running around in yellow spandex with that black blue/black mask and eye holes. Having the Venom suit engulf Brock looks odd in real life. The way they handled this in Spider-Man 3 was by going the werewolf route where Brock literally changes into a Symbiote merged form with actual fangs developing from his teeth. They also made it a point of not showing too many direct shots of his face during transformation. This is not authentic and it’s certainly not cool. But it does look better in live action. At the same time though it’s also quite limiting. Venom does some interesting scenes with Brock and Venom that could only work with them being two separate beings inhabiting the same body as opposed to one fully merged being. So I will give them that.

My bigger complaint about the way Venom looks is that he’s way too big. All the Symbiote human merged forms are too tall and too buff. Riz Ahmed goes from Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner to nearly the Hulk in seconds. That’s not authentic to the source material. The Symbiote makes people stronger, not buffer. Part of Eddie Brock’s development as a character is that he goes from being an average sized dude to a bulky muscle head because he wants to improve his physical prowess to be a more effective Venom. In this, Tom Hardy is a normal looking guy and Venom is huge. It might look more epic but if they’re trying to build a franchise, which they absolutely are according to the credits sequence, that aspect removed a key developmental plot point of Eddie Brock as a character. It also doesn’t help that the one time another character becomes Venom they don’t also get super bulky and muscular, so there’s a real lack of consistency there.

Shop scene

The effects are also noticeably low quality at times. I’ve seen a lot of action movies and I have to say that I rarely spot stunt doubles. In one particular motorcycle scene, I very clearly saw Tom Hardy’s stunt double. It was like that scene in Space Balls. Well maybe not that ridiculous but still quite noticeable. The CGI effects for the unmerged Symbiotes were quite good. They did a fine job of portraying them as living beings even though they were just undulating puddles of goo. Overall the visual quality of the film lands somewhere between Green Lantern (2011) and X2: X-Men United (2003), with the latter of course being the better looking film.

The sound quality, though less noteworthy, outside of voice acting, than in many other comic book films I’ve seen, was quite good. There wasn’t much noticeable in the way of music though. In fact, I can’t recall a single song from the movie other than in a specific scene that was specifically about the song and the end credits song by Eminem, which I’m sorry to say isn’t great. I do think the general lack of external sound was intentional though because sound plays an important role in the film plot wise as well as making sure you can hear the symbiotes talking to their hosts.

half face

The writing is probably the most notable part of the movie as well as the hardest to judge. I spent the whole movie teetering back and forth between cringing and being generally impressed. I will say that I laughed pretty much the whole time though. But my laughter was mostly because the dialog is in your face and often terrible. It’s not authentically funny the way Tony Stark is in the MCU. It’s more like Seth Rogan in The Green Hornet (2011) where it’s bad dialog but it makes you laugh in the way Family Guy does. The dynamic between Eddie Brock and Venom is funny. It reminded me of Star Kid (1997) if the kid and the suit had both grown up to be depressed comedians. Even though the dialog wasn’t written particularly well, the relationship and how it develops between Brock and Venom is quite good. I liked the way they actually became friends and grew to understand each other. At first they’re at odds and both seem to be fighting for control but by the end they’re working together with a genuine desire to help each other. I also really liked that the dialog took the time to explain the symbiotic relationship between host and symbiote casually over time as opposed to just spelling it out in one explanatory conversation. At the same time, there are a lot of inconsistencies about what Venom actually knows from the start. Sometimes he asks questions as if he genuinely wants to learn about something he doesn’t know and other times it seems like he automatically has access to Brock’s knowledge because of their merger. A good example of this is how he magically knows how to drive a motorcycle like a badass presumably the first time he rides one.

motorcycle sceneTo say the film is well written would be a gross misrepresentation of what it actually is. But I also wouldn’t say the writing is absolute trash like I would for The Spirit, which I genuinely hope you’ve never seen because it truly is that bad. What isn’t up for debate though is that the writing is entertaining. You laugh for the bulk of the movie. You care enough about the plot not to check out. Even though Venom is a selfish, immature monster that spends most of the movie complaining that he can’t eat people, you still sympathize with him by the end. Even though Eddie Brock, like Venom, puts his own desires and beliefs before those of everyone else, even to the detriment of both his job and his relationship, you still want to see him win in the end. Venom isn’t written to be a high minded quality film that’s going to change the way we view comic book movies. It’s simply a movie to watch and enjoy and it accomplishes that just fine.

Overall I’d say I enjoyed Venom. But I enjoyed it in the way I enjoy bad films like Zombeavers (2014) and The Pink Panther (2006). It’s not a film you watch to be impressed. It’s a film you watch when you just want to be entertained. And if Sony can maintain that tone through an entire franchise of sans Peter Parker Spider-Man films without them becoming stale and unfunny, then I think that’s OK.

 

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Take a Breather Mr. Parker

Sadly it took me longer than I expected to finish Spider-Man (PS4) so my review didn’t get published until last week. So now this post, which I had actually starting planning a couple weeks ago, looks like an unoriginal idea in response to the recent Insomniac Games interview where they said “Spider-Man is the Iron Man of Marvel console games.” The idea behind this quote is that Spider-Man, with its 3.3 million units sold in the first three days of release, is only the start of what I guess I’ll call the MGU (Marvel Games Universe). Due to its success, we can now expect to see a whole host of, hopefully interconnected, games set in the same Marvel universe following some of our favorite heroes.

I like the idea of an MGU. I think it’s a wonderful idea that hasn’t been done well before. We have some franchises that connect several characters and games indirectly like Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and of course Super Mario.  We also have countless franchises that connect many games together directly like Uncharted, God of War, and Yakuza. But what both of these types of games fail to do is connect multiple playable characters directly across several games while also allowing each game and character to stand alone in their own right. The only franchises I can think of that do both even relatively well are Devil May Cry and Metal Gear, and I don’t necessarily think either does it exceptionally well. Certainly not compared to how plots work in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).

marvel-games resize

I imagine such an endeavor being implemented in a big way, making use of multiple studios and quite possibly spanning to multiple platforms. But that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post. What I want to discuss is what else can be done by Insomniac Games with the Spider-Man map.

I was very impressed by the map/world in Spider-Man. I felt like it was a fairly well done recreation of New York that also integrates Marvel landmarks into it quite well. I did feel like it was smaller than ideal, but it was still quite the impressive, realistic, and highly interactive map. Some time ago, I wrote a post about how I thought it was extremely wasteful that game maps tend to get used only one time even if they have the potential for multiple projects. The original post focused on the map in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and how I thought it could easily be reused to make a completely unrelated pirate game, but I think the general concept of map reuse applies even more to that of Spider-Man.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-09-16 19-00-43

Even without the idea of creating an MGU, I think the Spider-Man map can and should absolutely be reused for more Marvel games. Insomniac Games can make a great Marvel game. They’ve already proved that with Spider-Man. But there’s no reason the next Marvel game from them needs to take two plus years of development. Not because they should rush out more Marvel games, but because they already have a wealth of usable assets. They have a working New York City map complete with both Marvel and real world landmarks and a bustling, interactive population of NPCs. More specifically, they already have hideouts/bases of operation for multiple would be MGU characters, big and small.

The Spider-Man (PS4) Marvel themed map locations I’m aware of:

  1. Nelson and Murdoc Law Office (Daredevil)
    1. Josie’s Bar
    2. Fogwell’s Gym
    3. Clinton Mission
  2. Alias Investigations (Jessica Jones)
  3. Sanctum Sanctorum (Dr. Strange)
  4. Embassy of Wakanda (Black Panther)
  5. Rand Enterprises (Iron Fist)
  6. E.A.R.T. Clinic (Cardiac)
  7. Damage Control HQ (Iron Man)
  8. Avenger’s Tower (Iron Man/Every Active Avenger)

Episode - Screenshot 2018-09-15 03-23-59

This wealth of Marvel Easter Egg locations can be the staging area for countless other games set in New York. And with the Avenger’s Tower other characters not usually based in New York can  visit the city for an adventure as well. Even Stan Lee appears in the game. So the question becomes why make an entirely new map for the next game when they can rightfully save the time and just change out the character and gameplay for a fraction of the development time and cost?

Let’s take Daredevil as a prime example. Hell’s Kitchen is a district on the map. Matt Murdock’s law office is already located in the game. Daredevil operates on the streets and rooftops of New York City. His main means of transportation is on foot mostly by climbing, hopping, and occasionally swinging from building to building. His fight style is mixed martial arts that’s fast paced, fluid, and a bit heavier than that of Spider-Man. He operates solely at night, which exists in Spider-Man, and even fights Kingpin, the first boss in Spider-Man. If they reuse this map, much of the game is already done. They would just have to change the character render(s), climbing, and fighting as far as gameplay. Most of the development would just need to go into writing a new story and altering the current enemies and bosses. Is that still a lot of work? Of course. Is it as much work as building an entirely new map from scratch including NPCs? Absolutely not.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-09-08 01-19-55

Because of the interconnected nature of comics, this is a rare opportunity where it not only makes sense, but is the right decision within the canon of the world to reuse the same map to make multiple Marvel character games. The shorter development time also means lower production costs which allows for an opportunity to create games for more obscure characters that might not be able to get a game greenlit with a AAA budget. Take Jessica Jones for instance. The idea of putting in the same amount of time and resources as was used for Spider-Man to create a game for her is unrealistic. It wouldn’t sell as well and probably wouldn’t be action heavy enough to appeal to a wider gaming audience. But Spider-Man already has a working camera/photography system and a perfect map for a game starring her, so why not make one with recycled assets?

While not every Marvel character could have a game set in this map, there are a host of characters that it would work perfectly for. Even characters not normally based in New York could still work as visiting heroes staying at the Avenger’s Tower.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-09-11 01-26-50Some characters that could work well in the Spider-Man map:

  1. Daredevil
  2. Iron Fist
  3. Luke Cage
  4. Cardiac
  5. Venom (if we want to go down that road)
  6. Moon Knight
  7. Hawkeye
  8. Punisher
  9. Hellcat
  10. Misty Knight
  11. All the other Spider-Totems

I don’t know what games are in the works or projected to be made in the MGU, but I think it would be a real waste to just throw out a perfectly good map just because we’ve already played a game on it. If implemented well, I would have no problem playing any number of different games featured on the same map. Especially if they were all connected via story and Easter Eggs. They could even have the games be interactive where if you’ve played one it affects things in other maps.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-09-11 20-50-00

Let me be very clear on one key issue within this discussion. I’m fine with playing multiple games on the same map, but I expect those saved development costs to be transferred to me, the end user. Spider-Man cost me $80 (Deluxe Edition). If you read my review then you know that I felt that was too high for such a short game. Especially considering that Insomniac Games usually releases games in the $30 – $40 price bracket. So if they do start reusing that map to save time and money, which I believe they should, I would also expect to see lower release prices. Even more so if these Marvel games will continue to be in the 20 – 30 hour category for the platinum completion.

It’s a good map and it definitely has the potential to spawn a number of other great games. How did you feel about the map in Spider-Man? Would you like to see other games produced on it and how much would you be willing to pay for them?

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