Saturday I put the remodeled media room to good use with some socially-responsible zombie killing. The Last of Us Pt II was released on Friday; the long-awaited follow up to a game that ranked third on J's all time list and fell just behind Metal Gear Solid on mine.
Brief intro to the timeskip
Spoiler-free discussion (review?)
Some low points from the internet
The big controversy (early game spoiler)
Four years have gone by...
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the first game. Joel and Ellie have settled in the survivor haven of Jackson, run by Joel's brother Tommy. It's a neat spaghetti western town in the mountains of Wyoming. Life for the protagonists appears to be largely positive, but with a dose of reality that spans petty teen problems to some semi-betrayal.
Review (spoiler free)
The "Part II" part
So this game is a sequel in every sense. It follows the previous story chonologically and iterates on the gameplay. Everything about the first one - good and bad - has carried over to this one. I'll summarize with a synopsis from my post on that one:
TLOU is very The Road-like, but with zombies. And so it makes for an intense, bleak, and well-developed story that is told in a cinematic, immersive way. Some credits: - Awesome visual effects - reflections, textures, and lighting that is ahead of its time. - Great voice acting. - Motion capture and environment interaction that makes NPCs move more naturally than any game to date. - Writing, like a dark Firewatch.
So in this one do they just walk back to Boston?
Happily, this one actually handwaves away a geographically-long journey. While this requires a mild amount of suspension of disbelief, it would have been unfriendly to the player to implement the journey.
Is this one on rails?
Yes and no. While the first game was completely on (well-masked) rails, this one has some sections where there's a map and nonserial exploration. It's nothing intimidating like a GTA or Skyrim, but provides a sprinkle of variety. I'm largely for it, however even the two-block on-rails portions makes the scavenging a bit on the tedious side. That said, this isn't always opening 1,000 drawers, the supply canvass (an important part of the postapocalypse) often includes mini-dungeons and puzzles.
Okay so what is the game like?
Walk and talk with your companion while scavenging
"Encounters" where you face zombies or human enemies, often best accomplished through stealth
Deal with all hell breaking loose when it does
That's it. It's very streamlined experience, like the first one.
Is it a good stealth game?
Pretty good. More fun than frustrating, some clever bits. You can still creep along a desk opposite a grown up human being and have them not see you. That said, NPCs call out to each other and take notice if there's no reply. And there are scent dogs.
In your corner of the stealth ring you have half-decent listening and the ability to crawl through grass. Also one time you can throw a bottle and make the zombies attack the human baddies.
Companions are helpful and don't break stealth.
Is it still cinematic?
"Is it still cinematic?" Can you believe this guy? Of course it is. If you didn't like that about the first game, don't play this one. It's meant to be a miniseries-length interactive movie. You don't use subtitles, you don't skip dialogue.
What still blows my mind - or blows it more than the first time - is how the entire game appears to be motion-captured second-by-second. I'm used to seeing enemies move mechnically or in set patterns. There's even some of that in this game when you're stealthing non-zombie patrols. I'm also used to seeing NPC movement that looks fluid the first time but follows the same pattern a half dozen more times throughout the game. So it really stands out when, say, a character flops down on a couch in a smooth and natural way but doesn't use the same move on the next couch.
Either Naughty Dog is really good at motion scripting, or they walked the mocap actors through almost every moment of the game and streamed that to the game engine. That, in addition to the obvious elements like story and voice acting, makes the "playable movie" thing work. And I can give a counter example to emphasize the point. While TLOU2's motion capture includes the intricate facial expression rendering that was groundbreaking in the first game, there's something about how it renders a smile that kicks you deep into the uncanny valley. It's Mass Effect Andromeda-level weird and makes me happy that the game is dark enough to only rarely employ that facial expression.
One more note on this, the density of dialogue is pretty spot-on. The exploration and walking simulator parts have distinct conversations that provide backstory, character development, or insight into the environs. It's like when I texted a screenshot of the overworld map to Jon, he replied:
The square under the "no gas" is where I signed the paperwork for my house. And west of the "gate" is where Dave kept a lookout while I took a piss.
How does it handle?
Like naughty dogshit. See what I did there? No joke, if you remember how Resident Evil 4 revolutionized zombie games by allowing you to point at things and shoot them, this is more of a throwback to the early REs and Silent Hills where you would swing wildly at jump scare undead. Here's why I'm okay with this:
It's a zombie game. You're supposed to suck. It's not PUBG or Super Smash Bros where my enjoyment is derived from my competence.
It puts a premium on stealth. And that's the challenging, videogamey bit.
A player of your caliber must look at a lot of load screens, how are the tooltips?
The tooltips are helpful. While some stuff can be learned the hard way, it's nice to have the game tell you explicitly, "Zombie type x can't be stealthed" and "Yeah, running at enemies with guns increases their accuracy".
Are the craftable items in the hundreds or thousands?
Riiiiiight. You remember how this isn't Skyrim? The inventory/crafting/upgrade system is a bit more elaborate than the first game, but still very lightweight. The item additions like (Fallout grade) proximity mines and silencers allow you to approach encounters in different ways, and that's the biggest gameplay improvement compared to the original.
Crafting materials are thankfully minimized to a few item types. Upgrade currency is just bolts and pills that allow you to choose abilities from skill books. Simple. Unobtrusive. But more variety than scouring 1,000 drawers to find two types of health packs.
How does it look?
It ranges. From super high res cinemas:
... to detailed but polygonal environments:
... to suprisingly-low-detail models:
How are the puzzles?
A lot like the first one. Zelda-like, easy enough to figure out, sometimes annoying because you're just spending a bunch of time to do a very common thing, sometimes kind of clever. The rope physics are kind of neat.
But are there flashbacks?
That's a weird and specific question, but yes there are playable flashbacks that revisit the four year story gap. They're narrative heavy and are a nice break from scavenge/scour (because your items don't travel through time), but it does take you out of the unfolding story. Put me down for a single thumb up.
Is it as potty-mouthed and gorey as they say?
Yep. The foul-mouthed, throat-slitting fourteen year old grew up and just became more intense. It's the z-poc.
Can I get a lame mashup of action set to the protagonist playing acoustic guitar?
Well yeah, electric guitars are a rare commodity in the non-Mad Max timeline.
Lastly, can we see if your thumbnail algorithm is any good with very dark screenshots?
Metacritique (cleansed of spoilers)
I'm not sure how or why, but there's been an interesting internet response to this game, brought to my attention by Gage and Derrick. Apparently the plot was leaked and that might have primed the pump for scathing, anonymous reviews. This is more about the internet than the game, but I found it fascinating.
 This franchise is all about the story. Without the story the game means nothing. This game does have great visuals and great gameplay, but the main focus needs to be the story. The story just isn't good and it tries too hard to make you feel sorry for people that you immediately don't want to feel sorry for. And the ending tries so hard to make you feel sad, without making any logical sense. Hello_There23
We'll start off with someone who is reasonable. Even though Hello_There23 has 1 rating and 1 review to his name, he seems to capture that TLOU games are about the story. I haven't gotten there yet, but I think I'm in for a controversial ending.
Now let's get to the fun stuff: 0s and 1s across the board from users with no history with single-sentence reviews that are deemed "helpful" by other users. I thought about writing a script to create a histogram of user histories, but I got too much going on to deal with if there's any js to get around.
 My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined. I waited 5 years to play this And they gave me a horrible intro and **** ending I just want to forget about this game. Bulgwang, 1 rating, 1 review
 ... My rating for the game: Graphics 10 Gameplay 7 History 0. Since the main thing in the game is the story itself, the result is 0. ... Dantemax29, 2 ratings, 2 reviews. Other review is a same day 10/10 for Days Gone which was released a year ago.
 Awful story, wasting characters, false trailer, and ruined one of the best game series. [Spoiler omitted] gjahtp584, 1 rating, 1 review 639 of 871 users found this helpful
 Could have been the best game of all time, but it suffered from a bad narrative. I got the game early, I liked the world, but hated every character in it. cmpank88, 2 ratings, 2 reviews - the other is a P5 Royal review  posted on the same day (months after that game's release)
Wait, "a bad narrative"? That's an interesting word choice.
 ...less a fun sequel to a great game, and more a 10 hour long commercial for whatever agendas they want to push. Citizenmane, 1 rating, 1 review 357 of 489 users found this helpful
 disappointing plot and game play experience. NaughtyDog really know how to add PR tags to the game, but at the end of the day, what really matters is still the quality of the game and its story line. autonote, 1 rating, 1 review 398 of 543 users know what a "PR tag" is
 The game seems to push a feminist/trans/LGBTQ agenda. Which seems extremely forced.... Hopke2000, 1 rating, 1 review 124 of 170 users found this helpful
I guess I'm not to that part yet.
 Let me break this down for you quickly: PANDERING has negatively infected gaming culture and the Last of Us 2 is the quintessential example of it... [Text wall continues for many lines] LaymenGaming, 1 rating, 1 review 604 of 823 users found this helpful
 The worst game ever in this year. I don't know how the publisher allow ape sex scenes in the story and make player uncomfortable. The story in this game is totally worse than the first episode. It should be take out from the market and thrown to the trash bags. Do not buy it. Ukuhama, 1 rating, 1 review 116 of 158 users found this helpful
I honestly can't tell if this is legitimately upset fans afraid of reprisal or if bots have now moved from politics to commerce. I guess if there's an "agenda/narrative" in there, this is politics?
Some story discussion (early game spoilers)
If you hadn't guessed from screenshots or angry people posting spoilers because the game is "SJW nonsense", Joel is brutally murdered during the prologue. The game is about revenge. It's dark and refreshingly unambitious in a world of Marvel and hyperbole.
But you play for a few minutes as the villain. Like why? I let her die a few times in hopes of a Far Cry 4-like shortcut ending (also cause I was playing on hard and I suck). It's not a surprise that she's evil. Her team cases Jackson and refers to a male target who can only be one of two characters in the game.
So then the inciting murder happens and it's pretty difficult to watch - everything I expect from the series and probably the only way to make Ellie's revenge quest believable. I didn't realize until later, but they purposefully or accidentally borrowed dialogue from the one death scene more tearjerking than this one.
Teen revenge force, disassemble!
The brief adventures of Ellie and Dina is a little tough to swallow. I get that postapocalyptic young adults are probably more badass than present day ones, but couldn't they have managed a group of three? And the fact that half of Jackson seems to be traveling solo 1,000 miles to singlehandedly take down some paramilitaries gets even more farfetched. But it's not tough to accept and move on.
Like the first game, the plot of TLOU2 is fairly straightforward. The story comes from the development of characters, new and old.
The Star Wars: Squadrons gameplay trailer dropped, he's my read.
Combat sim or arcade shooter?
The X-Wing series gameplay has historically been reflected in the hud and in this regard, things look about the same as '94. It's an encouraging sign that the game doesn't appear to be watered down to the fly and point Rogue Squadron/Battlefront experience. The obvious addition is "components" which seem to be an iteration on munitions and craft-specific equipment that were customizable in previous games. Since it's wordy, I bumped the loadouts analysis to the bottom.
I think this is good. While they could have gone wild with the gameplay, I'm happier with a largely classic experience and improvements elsewhere in the game (missions, AI, game modes).
Happily, the trailer talks about a solo campaign. I didn't get a read on its weight but I hope it's not just a trainer. Community content is almost certainly a bridge too far.
Squadrons supports a straight dogfight mode but bases its signature fleet battles on the epic final mission of previous games. That is, fleet battles are a multipart engagement that looks to play like the progressive objectives in games like Battlefront and Battlefield.
The trailer teases a capital ship battle whose final act can be either assaulting theirs or defending yours. There's a lot of potential here, but also a risk to replay value if these don't have enough variety or depth.
Disappointingly(?), it appears even fleet battles are 5v5 with maybe a bunch of AIs. I'm not sure why 100v100 isn't in the plan, that's the movie experience that previous games simply couldn't support. There are - well - implementation decisions (respawn, etc.), but it seems like the only technial limitation would be user base.
The game supports VR and I think it's perfect for it. The problem with VR FPS games is that movement is very weird. Here, I presume, you're using VR for immersion and quick looks, while control is probably unchanged. Taking away an axis of motion might also mitigate motion sickness issues.
It seems like this is where things can get good or bad. Previous games allowed you to select munitions and sometimes equip tractor beams and such. There are a lot of in-universe possibilities, but things like force push and death blossom could ruin the game.
Holy crap, none of these frighten me and they all seem like a great way to have preferred builds while maintaining play balance.
So, uh, Microsoft, you still support this, right?
Polgyon inteview (update 20 June)
Mark sent a link to this inteview with Squadrons' creative director Ian Frazier. I thought I'd grab a few quotes and give my read, emphasis mine throughout.
One of the questions people have been asking a lot lately is, "Hey, what were your inspirations? Is this game coming from, you know, X-Wing or from Rogue Squadron or whatever?"
... And the answer is kind of, "Yes?"
You've got people that are coming to it and they remember Rogue Squadron and love it dearly, and what's inspiring to them. I'm an old fart, so I remember X-Wing and TIE Fighter, they're a big inspiration for me.
Oh, well, as long as you put those young'uns in their place. Also I'm now not buying your game because you're making me feel old. You're "old" and remember XvT while I fondly look back on the five-floppy original X-Wing.
If you take a freeze frame of A New Hope and you put it next to Rogue One, they don't actually look the same. Rogue One has more technical quality to it. It's better produced because it's been decades, but they managed to hit the style and the flavor spot on... I think that's similar to what we're trying to do.
If you kind of move your head forward in VR and really look closely at the displays in our cockpits, you'll notice that we've we've constructed them in a way that looks like how ILM would have built a prop in 1977.
That's actually pretty funny.
First and foremost, it's inspired by World War II aerial combat footage. You see that in the original films, even down to the fact that the TIEs have green lasers and the Rebels have red lasers. That's because those are the colors of the tracer fire in World War II for the Axis and Allies.
Oh yeah. Though there is commentary elsewhere about asymmetry, this seems way too close to parity. That's not how this universe works.
For instance, we went as a team and we saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the opening scene where you know, Poe is boosting and he goes under the shields, and he's doing his crazy kind of reckless maneuvers. We loved how that looked, we loved how that felt... You see him do that kind of spin out move by one of the turrets. Can we can we achieve that mechanically?
Ugh, a scene choreographed to make a character seem super OP. Great.
First, putting your power to engines makes your ship faster, and it makes it turn better. In addition, where you sit on the throttle also determines your turn speed.
This is slightly more reassuring. Drift-boost wasn't part of the original but seems like it could work. Cutting throttle to turn faster was a massively important mechanic and it sounds like this remains.
With full power in lasers, once they're fully charged they'll keep charging so you get it up to a double bar, and all of that double bar is doing extra damage.
Nonlinear benefits to power distribution, sounds good.
We wanted to give [unshielded craft] some kind of equivalent but different ability. The ships that don't have shields have a quick power conversion ability, using some of the same buttons and inputs. You can rapidly reroute power from engine to lasers or vice versa.
Basically, it seriously debuffs the other system when you do that [on a shielded craft].
That's a neat, in-universe way to achieve parity. TIEs don't have shield but are engineered better.
We're trying to stick to canon sources [for content], or invent new things and work with Lucasfilm to bring those to life.
This is reassuring.
I think from a conceptual standpoint, the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniature Game is absolutely an inspiration to us. A bunch of us on the team love that game.
We don't just have, you know, "My lasers do 5% more damage!" No, it's chunky stuff - even for the passives - that make a real difference.
Really it's about finding the right level of chunkiness, but I'm starting to believe.
There's a hull you can take on some of the ships, a Reflec Hull, that makes you more fragile... But it automatically stealths you, hides you from enemy radar after you get past a certain distance.
That's kind of cool. The original series was somewhat light on tactics (beyond your mission script), so this could be a major plus.
The lore says TIE Fighters don't have shields, so we don't have shields on our TIE Fighters. That's one of the things - we don't even let you mod them to put shields on them, because we felt like that's kind of part and parcel to what makes a TIE Fighter a TIE Fighter.
Take that, stupid First Order and your shielded, canon-twisting TIEs.
We try to make sure we're abiding by sort of what makes sense chronologically, and that we're never doing anything - how do I put it. Because of where we sit in the timeline - because we're after Endor...
Polygon: But we're also seeing some real meaty narrative hooks to parts of the Star Wars canon from all over. Hera Syndulla is in there. Did I see Mr. Wedge Antilles? Did he give me the thumbs up?
Ian: Ehhhh, maybe. There was there was a dude who looked a little familiar in one of those cockpits.
Got it. $40 game, limited interaction with LucasFilm. This effort is a blip on the franchise radar. It's more XvT than KoTOR. If it plays well, I'll take a game that's shallow on lore but is too insignifcant to be subject to EA franchise milking.
The vast majority of the single player story takes place after the Battle of Endor... our story plays a pretty key role in how the Rebels are ultimately able to win [at Jakku].
Okay, first of all, spoilers. Second, there being a story that can have a 'vast majority' means it's not a five minute tutorial. Thank you.
What we're trying to do is trying to make a game that's a little bit old school and it's mentality. You give us your $40, we give you the game. It is a fully self-contained experience.
Having bigger fish to fry, I hadn't really touched the media room in about ten years, aside from swapping some electronics and furniture. It seemed like a modest house project was in order when we hit reopening stage 2.5. The plan centered around repainting a darker, more cinematic color and moving the audio wiring from being exposed to hidden behind moulding.
The first step was to replace the hdmi hole in the wall with a proper junction box and outlet. The stairway behind dictated that it couldn't be completely hidden, but nbd.
Painting was straightforward once all the wiring and baseboarding was removed. Behr Suede Gray flat.
The closet(?) under the stairs always served as a perfect place for electronics. I finally trimmed it in using (in keeping with my newfound sacred commitment) only pvc ever.
I decided to go a little creative with the shelving. Rewiring stuff back there was always a total pain, as things were sitting on makeshift shelves and had to be maneuvered to get at any wiring. And all of this was especially difficult reaching in from the room.
What I needed was a moving shelf that would allow me to slide everything out of the way and crawl into the electronics cabinet. I thought about drawer sliders but decided a trolley track would be neater and more forgiving to install.
Of course, an overhead track meant the shelves had to float down from the trolleys. I borrowed the simple, industrial shelving approach I used upstairs; horizontal pieces suspended on a set of carriage bolts. This would also maximize airflow to electronics and allow versatile zip-tying options for all the wiring.
It worked great. I didn't expect the trolleys to allow swaying, but that actually works well for improving access to the shelved items. I suppose if I didn't want this I could have set up parallel tracks.
So yeah, surround wires in the crown moulding.
I went 14-gauge which was probably overkill and a pretty tight fit with just two sets.
I/Jes quickly learned that pre-nailing the moulding made life much easier.
The corners also needed trim pieces to cover the wiring going from the audio head unit to the ceiling and down to the surround speakers.
A few minutes into a Divinity session I got flickering and frame rate problems. Assuming this was my hodgepodge of hdmi cables (and hoping not the new outlets), I bit the bullet on hdmi 2.1 (4k at 120hz) to cover the tv-outlet-outlet-playstation/switch/etc. In the mean time I'm back to the old direct hdmi and optical audio cables.
Thanks to Jes, I was able to sample some beers and cheese while I worked.
Unrelatedly, I build another pool hand vac out of abs and shop vac hose attachments. The brush is actually pretty good for the purposes.
Okay, what? Elon your rockets and cars have this slick sci-fi feel but you decided the inspiration for your barge would be Waterworld? Anyway, there's the bright spot in current events. We're looking at another covid wave coupled with worldwide protests being met by (dramatic pause) the thing they're protesting.
Good time to stay in and have more Zoom chats, hang out in the pool, and of course trade based on - well I'll let a different Jon explain it:
I'm a technical trader, don't bother me about fundamentals.
This economy has had it all: covid, negative oil futures, aggressive Fed action, pharma pumps, and even a pissing match between financial institutions and WSB types.
[Brokerage is] waiting until the next business day to do the [money] transfer. But I wanna yolo nooooow
So the zooming continues, but the GBES put together an outing to Stone. We got the last rezzie, though the place was practically empty (dining only). Ordering was done completely through an app/QR code. Still, everything was very pleasant, from weather to food to tiki IPA.
I haven't done a ton of coding - as you might imagine - but I did experiment with the edge masking logic I started last month. It would basically do this for each pixel in the image:
Examine nearby pixels
Compute an average
Set the edginess to the average difference between each nearby pixel and that average (difference = dr + dg + db)
It was a simple approach that would yield a dark/bright edginess value that could be used to manipulate the original image. By using the average of an area as the value for difference judgment, it was less focused on the pixel it would ultimately manipulate. At that point, I had no basis for comparison of what this would call an edge vs, say, Photoshop's "find edges" function.
The sky is the limit for deciding what is an edge and how edgy it is. I ended up implementing three alternate approaches:
Replace step 2 with simply using the pixel I'm going to set. Instead of "how much variation is in this patch" it's "how much does this patch vary from this pixel". The latter would presumably be less smooth.
Replace both uses of "average" with "median". Median filters often have a substantially different effect in graphics.
Instead of looking for deltas in RGB, use hue and brightness. HSV (hue/color, saturation/distance from gray, value/brightness) is another way to represent pixels and this approach would say "I care about changes in color and brightness, but I'll largely ignore how intense the color is".
In addition to the top image, here are a few more applications of each technique. For some of them, I adjusted the output to fully cover the black-white range (uniformly for the dataset).
As usual, downscaled jpgs aren't the best way to view these, but you can definitely pick out differences in the edge results.
My laptop should have a breathalyzer, but for minimum caffeine
Whalers on the moon
Well actually submariners on Europa, but the post-PUBG crowd has grown a bit now that we're playing a less frustrating game that supports varying team sizes.
We finally have the sub maintenance thing pretty well covered - also handling CattleDecapitation's habit of injecting people with opiates while they're looking at instruments. But then Chase takes us too deep, or Mark runs over Shane, or I bring a "thermal artifact" on board and it lights everything on fire.
J and me are still working through the rather large third act in Divinity. And at long last I unlocked the walking bomb summon.
When we don't have enough to crew a sub, we've been expanding our Payday 2 horizons. I even photoshopped the perfect weapon for Cattle:
Choose your outdoor adventure
We hit the links for Gage's birthday. Lomas Santa Fe Executive is a rather pleasant par 3 course. No agoraphobia yet.
Mom is sending me TLOU2 this week, pretty happy that my media room is now dark enough to properly play a zombie game.
Star Wars: Squadrons / 02 October
Well this one came out of nowhere. Apparently a Microsoft studio has been working on a Star Wars game under the code name "Maverick". For those of us who have spent two decades begging for an update to the X-Wing series, the project name is encouraging. Also if there's a low-gravity volleyball minigame we wouldn't complain.
Twenty years ago, X-Wing: Alliance was a fantastic adventure. Before that, XvT gave us a pvp alternative to UT and Quake. (More nostalgia).
The game was leaked a couple days ago, possibly a move to create hype for today's gameplay-free trailer release. For me, the big question is whether it'll be more Rogue Squadron/Battelfront or X-Wing.
The game is clearly team-oriented. That's great (especially if there's a co-op/solo campiagn) and suggests that it might borrow elements from FPSes and MOBAs. That said, if each squad member has a cringeworthy hero splash screen and you're flying around waiting to pop your ult, I'm going to write some strongly-worded letters to Electronic Arts.