GTA V / Tomb Raider

Carol was away on Scholz-ladies cabin trip this weekend so I spent all weekend in front of the TV playing Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider. Also eating sardines and watching Dredd, which I don’t do when Carol is around. Not because she exists only to forbid me from doing things and I can only have fun while she is gone (OMG FORESHADOWING) but because I’m a nice guy and I know how much I don’t want her to eat custard or watch shows about people with gigantic tumours, two vile things that she does. That seems like the reasonable give and take of two sensible people, albeit of different genders. Ooh, where is he going with this? Well, chicks, man.
I’ve got 99 interesting features…
Scowling cop, sassy prostitute and california beach babe sold separately.

Scowling cop, sassy prostitute and california beach babe sold separately.

Grand Theft Auto V has annoyed me in a really weird way. I like the game. It took a billion dollars in three days; I’m not alone in liking this series. I’ve liked all the other ones and this one does all that again, mostly better and with interesting new gameplay angles. At one point my mission progress wasn’t saved properly and about four hours of story progress was lost. I wasn’t at all bothered. I was looking forward to replaying the mission. That’s a good sign.
New stuff that they introduced – Red Dead Redemption’s bullet time, heists and multiple principal characters. The first is either for causing mayhem, like Max Payne’s bullet time or slowing down the pace of the action to allow sharp, reactive driving skills during a high speed chase. The second is a more involved mission, that customizes as you make decisions about it. The third allows different types of missions, different styles of missions and the variety of having three protagonists. (Also allows you to fast travel, since you can switch to another character and then back again to return home more or less).
The three main characters are Franklin, Michael and Trevor and the story follows them from their initial friendships through to the big score that should set them up for life. The friendship is contentious and this seems to be one of the main criticisms of the game: everyone is an asshole all the time. Tommy Vercetti, good guy that got stuck in some bad stuff. Niko Bellic, bad guy who turned it around by being a bad guy for all the right reasons. Franklin, Michael and Trevor though, have serious anger problems, they cannot let any slight pass. Their problems could have been headed off at the pass a dozen times it they’d just shrugged something off. But this isn’t set in Paris. Niko Bellic was a man constantly shrugging off minor shit, until someone pushed him as far as he could go. These guys are a little more explosive. Instantly, stupidly explosive.
Man, fuck this shit said Franklin. ABOUT EVERYTHING.

“Man, fuck this shit” said Franklin. ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Franklin is an up-and-coming gangster, working his way out of his shitty neighbourhood and shitty friends. His bullet time is the driving one and he starts off the best driver of the three, so he is likely to remain that way. Franklin’s unlikeability comes from saying “Fuck it” as soon as something doesn’t go his way. Seriously, jesus, Franklin. Of the three he is the most cautious.
'I just want a quiet life" lied Michael before losing his temper.

‘I just want a quiet life” lied Michael before losing his temper.

Michael is a midwestern bank robber who is looking to… get back in to the game/retire. These two things are obviously contradictory, but… yelling. Pretty much anything that doesn’t go Michael’s way results in yelling. Lots of yelling all the time with his awful family. Michael is the thief,  stealthier than the others and a good shot.
At least Trevor is honest. He's fucking his life up and he knows it.

At least Trevor is honest. He’s fucking his life up and he knows it.

Trevor… doesn’t show up until Franklin and Michael have had quite a lot of screen time. Then you’ll want to play Trevor until you get sick of him. Trevor lives Grand theft Auto the way players play Grand Theft Auto. Someone bump you with a car? Trevor will stomp their head into the dirt, murder the police that show up and then go get blown by a prostitute, then make a ramp of prostitute corpses for him to drive his stolen moped off. Trevor is Michael’s old partner-turned-methbilly kingpin. If you play this game, and you reach the Trevor section, go to the barbers and get him “The Gerry”. If your game isn’t improved by this character having a big fuckoff beard, you and I have nothing in common worth mentioning. It looks so much better… Trevor’s problem, what makes him unlikeable is everything about his personality. He’s a cannibal, meth-head, psychopath. But that’s what makes him great. That’s what makes his missions fun. That’s what makes the story way more interesting once he has joined it. Trevor’s bullet time ability is to deal more damage and take less damage. Despite this rampage-friendly skill, Trevor stands out from the others with his piloting ability. The others are kind of shit at it. But Trevor was trained in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He has certain missions available that focus around how crazy he gets when anyone calls him a ‘motherfucker” or makes fun of his accent.
Being able to switch between these characters is nice, because you maybe want a change of pace or you wonder what they are up to. The little cut scenes that happen when you switch over are neat touches to cover that the game is loading up the surrounding area’s graphics. Being able to switch between missions is good too. You can play driver or gunman, sniper support or shotgun rampager. The downside of this is that when you get to certain scripted parts of the missions, you might end up in the wrong seat; e.g. there are a bunch of missions where Michael ends up driving, because that’s who you were playing last – even though Franklin is obviously the superior driver.
The setting is all of the things you already know about GTA environments, large sandbox, beautifully rendered with all sorts of variously funny parodies everywhere. Soundtrack is adjustable, pedestrians are entertaining, mini-missions pop up everywhere, there are locations for minigames, but fortunately no more phone calls pestering you to use them. The story missions are good – in particular the new Heist feature, which involves planning your own heist (one of two approaches) assembling a team of mercenary thieves and doing a few prep missions ahead of time. that’s all done ahead of GTA Online which is apparently going to be Heist-centric.
So I enjoyed it. That’s what I’m saying. I’ll  return to the sandbox periodically to just dick around.
Here’s what got to me though: chicks, man. Misogyny in a GTA title is a red herring, since it is an overtly misanthropic take on humanity in whatever timeframe it takes place. It satirizes everything we think of as good and glamourizes everything we think of as bad and makes us realise what chumps we all are. Good job Rockstar, we all have tremendous fun reminding ourselves how shitty we are. Women don’t get a pass on this, but no-one does, so that’s okay, right?
The thing is; the women in the game who get more than single mission screen time, of whom there are few, are all the same single-note nag. I’m trying to think of all the female characters in the game. There’s an old friend of Franklin’s and Franklin’s ex girlfriend – both exist to bother Franklin to do something he doesn’t want to do. There’s Michael’s wife and daughter both of whom don’t want to do what Michael is doing. Trevor doesn’t have any women anchor/goads like that.
My point is, GTAV is a game of broad caricatures, but at least there is variety in the male caricatures. All of the women who get screen time for any appreciable amount of time are a tween boy’s experience of women: they disapprove of everything you do and they stop you from doing what you want: women are a downer, women spoil your fun. 12 year olds who are like this are idiots, but at least its a passing thing. Men who live like this are Peter Pan emotionally-retarded fucking idiots. You may know someone like this or you may have seen them portrayed on TV – its a shitty blame-deflecting way of being a coward. “Waa, my mother-figure nagged me to do this and now I’m doing it and I blame her for me doing it… I’d have so much fun if it wasn’t for her… other guys get it? Right other guys? (Audience applause)”. Fuck off, Ray Romano. And when this is all you get in combination with the game’s in-keeping parody-misogyny… man, I’ve got to imagine that’s a harsh landscape if you’re picking up the controller and you’re a woman. And at 47% of the gaming population last year… that’s probably a lot of women. I don’t know how this game is polling with women, but you don’t make a billion in three days without some women buying this. But … fuck, I feel bad about it. It’s like having a super racist relative who thinks the world of you. You appreciate their generosity, you have a good time with them, you just cringe at how they act at chinese restaurants.
Pretty much.

Pretty much.

I’m not arguing for inclusion where it doesn’t belong. That’s a bullshit trend that annoys me, but why wouldn’t it? I’m a white guy! I am saying, there’s no reason for not having any vaguely interesting women in GTAV. GTAIII had them. GTAIV had them. Red Dead Redemption had them. LA Noire had them. GTAV is a great game but this is kind of really bugging me. Also, looking back at that list… fuck, Rockstar, would it kill you to have one female protagonist? Especially now you have that character switching down to an art?
Which brings me to the second game I polished off at the weekend…
Because Scar-tissue and Abrasions Grave Robber isn’t a good name for a game.
The great thing about reboots is that you don’t have to try to struggle through old versions to enjoy the new thing. Oh, sure, if you are familiar with the original, I’m sure you get the winks and nods, but otherwise you can just get on with it and enjoy it for what it is. And this reboot handles the upper tier of video game protagonist (distaff) elite, Lara Croft.
I never played the original Tomb Raider and then I wasn’t terribly interested in the new-improved-inflated Lara Croft that was around when I got into consoles. I did always think that people who thought her tits were unrealistic but weren’t bothered by her insane upper body strength, were missing something. That she didn’t have the shoulders of Lou Ferrigno was really a greater discrepancy than big tits. The original Tomb Raider game was another project of Ian Livingstone’s, which he did after those Fighting Fantasy books I mentioned in the last post and after co- founding Games Workshop. So that man has had a large impact on where my disposable income has been going for the last 25 years.
There was a brou-ha-ha that you may have missed earlier about the reboot, which came about when someone got really offended because Lara Gets Beaten Up And Molested And Why Do Female Video Game Characters Have To Be Victims? It was brought to you by the same people who brought you the Mass Effect Allows You To Rape Aliens! controversy and the Grand Theft Auto Is All About Killing Prostitutes! controversy, (NPR currently has a story about GTAV that gasps “… there’s a strip club and you get points for groping the women.” Only half of which is true. “Points”, lol. An article in this week’s Time refers to the Tomb Raider series as starring a wasp-waisted impossibly large-breasted protagonist, again only partly true due to being so horribly out of date) i.e. these were offended people who hadn’t played the game yet and let’s face it, had no intention of playing the games they were unintentionally sales-boosting.
Don’t get me wrong, Lara gets the shit kicked out of her. A lot. By bad guys, by gravity, by the weather.  A better title for the game would be “Young Woman Whimpers In Pain After Harrowing Near Death Experience”. But she’s certainly not a victim. She’s Wolverine with a ponytail and a home counties accent. She gets impaled, shot, beaten  and keeps going. You may spend half of one level with Lara clutching her broken ribs and making terrified little noises when she moves – but goddamn it, she gets the job done. It’s not quite whimpering, because she isn’t feeling sorry for herself, but damn; her terror/exertion breathing does a better job eliciting sympathy than almost all the scripted dialogue in any other game.
God, quit making her so sexy!

God, quit making her so sexy!

I also wanted to check it out because it was written by Terry Pratchett’s daughter, and I have enough fondness for his books that I’ll check it out just for that. The writing is nothing like TP, of course, but it really was modestly decent. Square Enix writing can tend to be a bit over the top if someone doesn’t rein it in. The plot of the game is that young, aspiring archaeologist Lara has joined up with a Discovery Channel-type voyage with an assholey academic in search of a lost kingdom. The ship wrecks, and she and the survivors wash up on an island that it turns out is full of very dangerous nutters. So kind of like Far Cry 3. A lot like Far Cry 3. Except this isn’t a sandbox game, really, so there is no self-managed break or pause in the game. The castaways can’t leave (christ, tropical islands with mystical properties are a great plot device, aren’t they?) because something controls the weather and Lara puts herself through the wringer trying to sort that out so they can leave. Across this story, Lara goes from someone who sorrowfully has to kill her first meal on the island to a stealth-murder machine who leaves a mile wide trail of bodies in her wake. It doesn’t change who she is, it just puts the means in her hands and a compelling reason to do it. There is character growth, not just changing the world to a more suitable place for that character (Hi GTA V!).

The gameplay is a lot like Assassin’s Creed (AC and Far Cry 3 were both developed at Eidos Montreal’s crosstown competitor Ubisoft Montreal – makes you wonder who the fuck is crawling around Montreal at night) especially the puzzle climbing. But really it is a lot simpler than AC’s puzzles. Part of the reason for this is that it isn’t a sandbox – so there are finite pieces to the puzzle. In AC, you can end up with so much environment that you aren’t sure what is relevant. the upside of it being a linear game rather than a sandbox is that it is A) prettier and B) has neat cinematics and great scripted sequences. Normally these are a pain in the ass, but there is enough of a timing game built into them that I really didn’t mind them. Lara has a bunch of weapons, most useful of which is the bow, which can be used to manipulate the environment. Close combat is a little frustrating because the camera doesn’t center well, meaning you are often trying to dodge someone right in front of Lara that you can’t actually see. The many gruesome ways people die in the game usually makes it worth it to do a little melee, but the piece de resistance death scenes happen if you don’t time event buttons correctly during scripted scenes. Good god, some of them are grisly.
I don't want to give away the solution to this particular map, but it involves climbing, for bloody ages.

I don’t want to give away the solution to this particular map, but it involves climbing, for bloody ages.

Like AC and FC3 there was also a ton of collectible shit all over the island that I never bothered with. Why would I? Were there bonuses to be gained? Were there items to be unlocked? I don’t know. I’m not doing that crap just so that it can tell me I 100% finished the game. The credits rolled with my protagonist gazing off into the sunset, that’s how I know I finished the game.
I like stealth games and I like stories about creepy islands full of murderers. So it didn’t really matter if this was a Tomb Raider game. If there were nods and winks to the old games, I didn’t really get them, except for the twin pistol thing, which was well done. It was cheap (because it’s been out for a while) and it was fast (because I spent all day Sunday and a large part of Saturday playing it). But it was beautiful and it was fun and that’s better than most things I could have spent that money on. And – get this – it managed to have interesting characters of both genders. Who fucking knew? I couldn’t give a toss about the Tomb Raider heritage, but this was a good game. If you like stealth, moderate puzzles and killing people in imaginative ways or watching young women get choked out and slapped around, this game is for you.