I don't know if I'm going to be buying a PS5 anytime soon (or ever), so I may not have an opportunity to play Miles Morales, which is Insomniac's follow-up to its smash hit 2018 game Marvel's Spider-Man. Instead, I decided to go back and play the DLC for the 2018 game, "The City That Never Sleeps", which I had bought, but never got around to playing. This got me thinking more about how Insomniac implemented the web-swinging mechanics, and what I hope they'll do to iterate and improve the mechanic in future games.

This blog post is a transcript of the video essay above.

I had previously mentioned Marvel's Spider-Man essay about open world gaming's possible recent inflection point, but I didn't go into much detail. Basically, I just threw it in as an example of a recent open world game in which the traversal of the map had a large mechanical focus, turning the map into more of a play space and less of a convoluted, time-wasting mission-select screen. I didn't spend more time talking about Spider-Man, however, because as much as I like Insomniac's game, and as fun as the web-swinging is, I still felt like the web-swinging traversal in that game was pretty simple, and the environment did not act as much of an obstacle to the level of the other games in those videos.

Besides, Insomniac's Spider-Man didn't stray very far from the boring checklist-inspired open world design that my earlier videos were railing against. Traversal doesn't consume resources other than the player's time, and the player isn't responsible for balancing Peter's heroic and personal lives (the tension between the two has always been a big part of the Spider-Man story), nor are there any other mechanics that try to pull the player towards one set of content to the exclusion of another, and so where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you chose to get there is largely meaningless. It's any other open world game you've played in the last 10 years. The web-swinging is just a much more stylish and spectacular method of moving from filler content to filler content.

Spider-Man games make for an interesting case study in open world game design.

Spider-Man games in total do represent their own interesting microcosm of the virtues of open world, sandbox game design, and also of the ways in which open world games can fall flat on their faces and fail miserably. Spider-Man could make for an interesting case study to go along with Death Stranding.

Since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game, mainstream Spider-Man games have mostly been open world games. The most notable exceptions being Beenox's Shattered Dimensions (which was pretty good) and Edge of Time (which was awful). All the other Spidey games that I've played have been open world games in which you web swing around a virtual Manhattan to reach story missions or to thwart ambient crimes. The quality of these games has been very hit-or-miss, but (as we'll discuss soon) many of them still have their unique merits.

Beenox's Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time are notable Spider-Man games that are not open world games.

Web of Shadows, for instance, had lots of problems with its writing, pacing, and animation, but its novel aerial and wall-crawling combat mechanics made excellent use of the map's verticality in ways that other Spidey games (and open world games in general) rarely even approach. I won't be talking much about this game because I traded in my copy a long time ago, and I don't feel like blowing $45 of Patreon contributions on a game that I'll likely play for 10 minutes just to capture footage and refresh my memory of how the game played. So my apologies if you're a big Web of Shadows fan.

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Ghost of Tsushima - title

I don't recall the last time I played an open world sandbox game through to the end credits prior to writing a review for it. Usually, I've made my decision about the game long before credits roll. If I like the game, I usually stop before it becomes too tedious, finish up my review, move on to something else, and I rarely ever go back to finish these games. That was the case with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, and others. Ghost of Tsushima is a rare instance of me actually liking an open world sandbox game enough that I couldn't stop playing.

One of the sad ironies for me, as an amateur critic, is that I usually play a game longer if I don't like it -- sometimes all the way to end credits. As was the case with Assassin's Creed III and Shadow of War. This is because I want to find out if there's anything late in the game that might redeem it -- even if in some small way.

In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a rare exception. I was enjoying the heck out of the game and wanted to see how it ends before I commit to a review. It wasn't even a case of me rushing through the main story just to get it over with (as is the case with many bad open world games). In fact, I completed all the side missions (including the mythic missions), liberated a majority of the occupied towns, and found a majority of all collectibles. I might even play some of the epilogue. So I can say without reservation that I like this game! And it all begins with the presentation.

This is not a promotional still! Nor was it taken with the included "photo mode".
This is just what the game looks like!

You have to see it to believe it

Ghost of Tsushima is not necessarily the most technically impressive game that I've played. Games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us Part II have had better facial animation, lighting, textures, and/or draw distance. But where Tsushima lacks in technical capabilities, it more than makes up for in aesthetics and artistry. The environments are beautiful, and the weather effects (especially wind effects) are second to none. Whether it's fields of vividly-colored flowers swaying in the wind, or ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach, or the plum trees on a rocky mountain dropping their blossoms into the breeze, or a thunderstorm threatening over the horizon, or a shinto temple towering over a forest of golden trees, there is something pretty to look at no matter where you go.

Screenshots do not do the game justice. You have to see it in HD motion to appreciate it.

I'm not normally one to gush over a game's graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima really stands out for its environmental design. Over the crest of every hill, it seemed a majestic screenshot opportunity awaited me. Picking just one or two to highlight in this review was a real challenge. Even the best screenshots that I could capture do not do the game justice. You really have to see it in high-definition motion (without the compression of an internet stream) to truly appreciate it.

I haven't seen weather effects this good since [maybe] The Witcher III.

This game is perfect as a virtual vacation during the travel-restricted social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least, it would be, if not for the densely-packed sandbox content making it so that I can't take 10 steps without running into an ambient encounter of some kind. I could be trotting along on my horse through a forest lit with the golden glow of a sunset beaming through the canopy, with the serene ambiance of the wind harmonizing with the background music of Japanese flutes. But I can't enjoy this serenity for more than 5 seconds before a pack of Mongols shows up, the flutes give way to battle drums, and it's back to the swinging of swords and showers of blood.

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I'm not a particularly voracious reader of fiction. Most of my reading is in the form of books and magazines about science or history. But I do try to squeeze in a novel here and there -- usually something from the canon of classics. I never write about them on this blog because I doubt I have anything of value to say about them. Besides, being predominantly a video game writer means that I lack the vocabulary for expressing critical opinions of non-interactive media. I struggle to get by with the reviews of movies and TV shows that I write.

However, I read a rather unique novel over the summer that I do feel I can discuss. In large part, my willingness to talk about this particular novel comes from the fact that this particular novel actually has an interactive element to it that makes some of my video game criticism lingua more applicable. The novel in question is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books in 2000.

I was introduced to this book by a YouTube video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais about the 2019 Blair Witch game on the XBox. Towards the end of the video, he talks about the conclusion of the Blair Witch game, which involves surreal, looping hallways. He goes on to talk about the recent fad of looping hallways, which has been seen in games ranging from Blair Witch to Layers of Fear to P.T.. He then talks about a novel which may have served as an inspiration for these games, and which attempts to simulate the feeling of being lost in a corridor (and the ensuing madness that it brings on) through the structure and organization of the text itself. This piqued my interest, and I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy of the book. I was going to have a lot of downtime during the stay-at-home lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed something to help kill the time.

I was inspired to read House of Leaves after watching Noah Caldwell-Gervais' critique of Blair Witch.

Indeed, I ended up enjoying House of Leaves, which has become a sort of paradigm shift for me in terms of how the written word can engage the reader. For me, House of Leaves is a watershed work of literature, in much the same way that Demon's Souls was a watershed video game. House of Leaves is my first encounter with true "ergodic text" (unless you want to count the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a child) and has redefined (for me) how a textual work (such as a book) can go about engaging its audience, and how it can tell a story in a more interactive manner than other peers in the respective media.

It's impossible to discuss this book and its merits without going into spoiler territory. As such, there will be some minor or moderate spoilers in this review. I'll try to keep them as light as possible, but consider yourself warned.

Lost in the pages

House of Leaves employs several framing devices to tell multiple narratives simultaneously. At the center is a documentary movie, called The Navidson Record about a family (named the Navidsons) exploring a supernatural house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which regularly changes its interior size and geometry in increasingly impossible ways. This movie is being reviewed and researched by a third party named Zampanò, who is writing a book about the documentary in the hopes of determining if the documentary depicts a real supernatural phenomena, or if it is the work of Hollywood trickery. Zampanò dies while working on this book, and his research is recovered by a third party named Johnny Truant, who attempts to piece together Zampanò's research and finish his work. Both Zampanò and Johnny become increasingly obsessed with The Navidson Record, and eventually go mad.

To further obfuscate the work, the introduction establishes that the original version of the work was a series of scattered pages, photographs, video clips, and audio recordings that were passed around on paper, VHS, and cassette tapes before being posted piecemeal to internet message boards in the mid-to-late 90's. The scattered documents were eventually collected by a book publisher and edited together into a single published work, which is implied to be the novel that you are holding in your hand.

Danielewski employs multiple framing devices to tell between 2 and 4 concurrent narratives.

Zampanò transcribed the events of the film into text, along with his own interpretations and commentary. Then Johnny reviewed Zampanò's notes, and added his own interpretations and commentary on top Zampanò's commentaries, while also maintaining a journal of his daily life (and decline in sanity).

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Civilization VI - Menelik II of Ethiopia

Firaxis recently released the second civilization and leader pack for its New Frontiers DLC Pass. This pack includes alternate versions of the leaders Teddy Roosevelt and Catherine de Medicci, and the new Secret Societies game mode. The main part of the new DLC, however, is the new civilization, Ethiopia, lead by Menelik II. I expect to have the guide for Lady Six Sky of the Maya published within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, a preview of the Maya guide is already available to my Patrons via Patreon.

Paleontologists believe that Ethiopia was one of the earliest homes of anatomically modern homo sapiens, and that humans crossed through Ethiopia on their way to the Middle East and Asia. Ethiopia is the source for some of the oldest known examples of stone-tipped human weapons and tools, dated at 279,000 years old. Ruins in Bale Mountains suggest the earliest known example of permanent human residence at high altitudes. The earliest kingdoms in Ethiopia were founded out of Semetic traditions, and the region has been heavily influenced by both Islam and Christianity, making Ethiopia a unique melting pot for all three of the Abrahamic religions. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only two African nations to retain their sovereignty during the European colonizations of Africa, and held off an invasion from colonial Italy in 1896 before eventually being conquered by fascist Italy in the lead-up to World War II.

Civilization VI - Menelik II portrait

Emperor Menelik II helped to modernize Ethiopia, and also establish Ethiopia as an independent nation after defeating the first Italian invasion in 1896. Menelik II went on to expand Ethiopia's territory and established a Council of Ministers that served long after his death and advised at least two other emperors (and conspired to depose one of them). He adopted a strict prohibition of the slave trade within Ethiopia, and is fondly remembered by the people of Ethiopia for his tremendous benevolence to the poor.

DISCLAIMER:
Civilization VI is still a "living game". Strategies for the game (and for specific leaders and civs) may change as Firaxis applies balance patches, introduces new features, or expands the game through further DLC or expansion packs, or as the Civ community discovers new strategies or exploits. As such, the following strategy guide may change from time to time. I will try to keep it up-to-date, and will make notations whenever changes are made. I'll also post links in the official 2K forums and CivFanatics, where I'll also report any changes made. If possible and practical, I will try to retain the original content of the strategy for posterity.

I welcome any feedback or suggestions that readers wish to offer. Feel free to post on the linked forums, or by posting a comment at the bottom of the page.

This guide is up to date as of the release of the "New Frontiers" Ethiopia DLC pack (July 2020) (ver. 1.0.3.31)

Ethiopia likes to build its cities in the hills. Doing so grants access to the Rock-Hewn church, which grants faith from adjacent hills and mountains. A portion of Ethiopia's hill-folk faith will be converted to science and culture.

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Earlier this week, both the Mountain West and MAC collegiate sports conferences announced that they were going to "indefinitely postpone" fall sports as a reaction to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Both said that they are planning on rescheduling games for the spring if the pandemic has subsided. The Big Ten and PAC-12 followed up a day or two later by announcing that they will also cancel their fall sports season. The remaining power five conferences are currently planning on going through with their fall schedule.

The Big Ten specifically cited concerns over a condition called Myocarditis, which is a complication of the COVID-19 disease that leads to long-term or permanent heart problems. A number of players within the Big Ten have already been diagnosed with the condition following recoveries from COVID-19, and physicians are warning that the normal fall timeline would not give those players enough time to recover from the condition (assuming that they ever recover at all).

The cancellation of Mountain West football means that my alma mater, UNLV, won't be playing this year. 2020 was looking to be an especially exciting transitional year for the team, as they would be breaking in the fancy new Allegiant Stadium which was built for the Raiders' move to Las Vegas, and they would also be introducing a high profile new head coach in Marcus Arroyo. I was definitely looking forward to not having to sit out in the hot Las Vegas sun during those August, September, and October games.

I was looking forward to seeing Marcus Arroyo as the UNLV head coach.

That being said, I was also terrified of the idea of attending a sporting event during the midst of a pandemic. With the pandemic numbers in southern Nevada being as high as they are, my dad and I would probably have been forced to stay home for at least the first few games -- probably the whole season, since it doesn't look like the pandemic situation is going to improve at all. Even though I would certainly have had to chose to stay home in order to protect myself and my family, it was a decision that I really did not want to make. In that sense, I'm kind of relieved that the Mountain West conference let me off the hook by canceling the season.

Or at least, they delayed my decision. The cancellation is actually a "postponement". The league has said that they want to play the conference games in the fall. I assume the non-conference games would likely be cancelled altogether, unless the non-conference schools also decide to reschedule. But I'm not optimistic that the pandemic will be over in the spring. Instead, I suspect that we'll likely be on the tail end of a massive uptick in cases, as the normal fall and winter cold and flu season exacerbates the COVID-19 situation.

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Without Gravity

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