Sunday, March 22, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: I Don't Give a Fuck About Far Cry 4 Anymore!

I quite dislike being right sometimes.  And, sure enough, Far Cry 4 proved me right over the course of the last two weeks.  Far Cry 4 got stale.

It's not fair to say that the gameplay got stale.  The gameplay, in the Bungie-derived "fifteen seconds of fun" sense, is still very fresh.  There's a rush that comes from chaining together takedowns, pulling a pistol off the last man standing and unloading it at a crowd of enemies.  Chasing down trucks from a gyrocopter and raining grenades down on them is tremendously enjoyable.  The climbing, the dodging and shooting, the exploration, it's all great.

Well, maybe not the exploration.

While the world is varied and splendid with narrative, some of it has started to feel stale.  It's not entirely fair of me to say that; so much love has gone into crafting the "history" of each place in Far Cry 4.  A random cave I stumble into, filled to the brim with loot, will have a pair of intertwined skeletons in it, or a tiger pinned under a dead bear, or a set of paintings paying homage to an old, dead god.  It's a dense kind of semiotic storytelling, where a handful of symbols, presented in an offhand fashion, tell a narrative as complex and interesting (sometimes more complex and interesting) than the one illustrated by the main story of Far Cry 4.

But the doodads in these configurations are getting repetitive.  Even after I broke through the northern gate in a pulse-pounding action sequence (that was actually less difficult than some side-quests I did) there wasn't too much new stuff to see.  A little more snow, which was nice, and some new posters, but for the most part the art felt like a color shifted version of things I'd already seen, a slightly dimmer pallet casting all the scenes I'd visited in a light that reduced their vivacity and increased their brutality.  It makes perfect sense, in one light: the northern land is colder and more brutal, got it, got it.  But here's the thing that Dragon Age: Inquisition taught me: even the most brutal kind of landscape can be rendered beautiful.  DA:I showed me desert after harsh desert and swamp after stinky swamp, and managed to make each and every one gorgeous and distinct.  Far Cry 4 has trouble make mountains sufficiently majestic at times, or cave paintings interesting enough to catch my eye.

Perhaps some of this is owed to the way exploration works.  There are so many collectible items in Far Cry 4, and so little incentive to pursue them, that I find myself no longer caring when an indicator shows up telling me I should check an area out.  I'm 70% through the game, maxed out on experience and karma and, for the most part, have all the weapons I want, so at this point I'm really just ticking boxes when I explore, trying to uncover interesting bits and pieces of the world around me so I can roll around in them later.  Some of the collectibles are pretty smart and savvy: my dad's old journals, for example, tell a story about this land before I came to it, and the British soldier's letters do a much better job of the same, though with a more "drug trippy" bent oriented around the Shangri-La side-quests.  But there are far, far fewer of those collectibles than there are masks illustrating cute little bits of murder scene work.  And there are even more propaganda posters littering the landscape, some of them lovingly arranged, some of them haphazardly throw into locales where they're difficult to see, let alone find to destroy.

And therein lies the rub: there's meat on these bones, interesting bits and pieces to Far Cry 4's narrative and the ambient narrative of the world in which that narrative sits, but there's also a tremendous amount of associated fat.  As grand as Far Cry 4 can be in moments, for every real and passionate debate that occurs between Amita and Sabal, I've got a cartoonish fight-sequence where someone tells me not to fight a particular enemy because this isn't the appropriate narrative moment, followed by a follow-up sequence where I fight in a slightly different context, because the person whose murder would've inconvenienced the narrative has fled the scene.  And those Amita and Sabal arguments aren't even that interesting anymore.  Their nuanced positions are growing to cartoonishly extreme proportions.  Amita is becoming an avid drug smuggler.  Sabal is a sexist asshole.  The most interesting character has, in recent times, become the fashion designer living in exile that I murder rare animals for.  With his stereotype defying speeches on the nature of "being fierce," and his quiet rage at both his presently reduced stature and Ajay's shit eating side commentary, he's got some chops going on, and I'm genuinely excited to see if I get to have any moments where I really get to know him a little better.

But all of this is couched in a samey narrative that seems to play out through the same emaciated patterns.  And here come the spoilers.  When you capture the first "mini-boss," a sociopath named Paul, there's no question, you're going to kill him.  He tortures and murders people, taunts you as you drive him to be executed by the Golden Path.  He's a nasty character, and there's nothing redeeming about him.  His weird relationship with his daughter is perhaps his only distinguishing feature, but that does little to soften him and more to reinforce his stature as a monstrous kind of righteous-minded devil.  It makes sense, and it's fine - there's no complexity there, and no need for a choice to be presented.  It would be like choosing between shooting a rabid dog and letting it go on a playground, a non-choice aimed at exciting the worst in players and doing nothing to forward the narrative.  But then there's another mini-boss, a complex woman named Noore who works for The Big Bad because her family was kidnapped.  She introduces herself in a profoundly odd way that casts her as a potential ally.  Relatively little about her makes any sense, but she is sympathetic and, on the face, your resolution with her gives you a choice to kill her or spare her life.  It's fair (she's kind of a war criminal but she seems capable of genuine good) but it's essentially a non-choice: if you don't kill her, she jumps to her own death.

That little turn took all the narrative oomph out of the campaign.  It's clear now: I'll be making a series of decisions about who should live or die, and they'll end up dying anyway.  There's a slight chance that the next mini-boss might just lose her mind instead of dying.  That wouldn't surprise me at all, though it wouldn't change the central issue: the narrative of Far Cry 4 made up of a series of non-choices dolled up as choices.  There's nothing wrong with that if you're clever about it and execute on that concept for a purpose, the way Bioshock did, but there's no evidence of that here and, given that I'm 70% through the game, it's reasonable for me to assume that no such moment will occur as I continue to limp through the narrative.

I'm having trouble caring.  The same way that Far Cry 3 more imposed than encouraged when it came to finishing up the game, Far Cry 4 is making me feel a disconnect from its systems.  Not because it isn't a fun game; it is a thoroughly fun game.  But it lacks the sensibility of Far Cry 2, wherein the narrative really was unpredictable, right up to the last.  The betrayal that unfolded in the final moments of Far Cry 2, where your every friend from the game turns on you and tries to murder you for the blood diamonds you've spent most of the game acquiring, was a real shock, as was the slow burn realization that you'd be sacrificing yourself, in one way or another, to make a real change.  Far Cry 4, in trying to introduce narrative convention to a gameplay form that disdains narrative, and in trying to highlight its collectibles to encourage exploration, has essentially made me walk through places I've already been, again and again, until they begin to lose meaning and I begin to lose steam.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The PAX Journals!

I was lucky enough to visit PAX East last week, and I'm just now starting to recover from the experience.  And what an experience it was!  PAX is rightly preserved in nerd-culture as a sort of Shangri-la, a remarkable collection of sub-cultural fetishes that occurs four times a year in varied locale, a swirl of positive energy that overrides any ambient cynicism native to its host city (no mean feat in the case of the "fucking Sully" filled rage-bastion that is Boston).  But what amazed me wasn't the positivity, or the raw number of people attending the get-together, or any particular video-game that I saw there.  What amazed me was the sheer density of the event.

Part of that may have been highlighted by the way I arrived at PAX East.  Since I teach on Fridays, and live in New York, attending PAX meant driving through Connecticut in the middle of rush hour after teaching two classes.  I ended up arriving in Boston at around midnight, missing Friday's events completely, and barely getting in with any time to decompress and sleep if I wanted to actually be able to see the main-event panel on Saturday, and not because the panel was particularly early.  See, while the number of people at PAX isn't the most remarkable part, it is undeniably impressive.  Driving from the suburbs, where I grew up and was staying, in to South Boston, where the convention center is located, normally takes about 20 minutes.  That means, to get to a 10:30 panel a little early and have plenty of time to settle in and find nice seats, you might need to leave maybe forty-five minutes beforehand, or an hour, if you're nervous.  The friend I was attending PAX with picked me up from where I was staying two hours before the event to take a twenty minute drive, and we didn't even depart the overflow parking lot we ended up in, two miles away from the venue, until 30 minutes after the event had already started.  That's the traffic footprint that PAX leaves: an hour of backed up traffic centered around the convention center, so composed that a single traffic light funnels scores of vehicles from a major highway into a two-lane street wholly unequipped to deal with the mass of humanity spilling into Boston's remarkably well-appointed convention center.  The presence of a single entrance also complicated matters: while we were driving in we saw a line roughly half a mile long, doubled over on itself, and this was 30 minutes into the event opening its doors.  Once we were inside, there was a virtual sea of people on the expo hall floor, shuffling from line to line, trying to get a look at a particular tournament or game or impressively nerdy piece of kitsch or clothing.  That sea of traffic, both automotive and human, kept us from making it to the Make-A-Strip panel until half-an-hour after it had started, and that was with the well-thought-out measures that the convention center staff, the MBTA, PAX's planners, and the laudable Enforcers of PAX put into place.  Twenty minutes stretched to three hours, and by the end I was just happy to get in the door and have a chance to sit in a nearly full hall, listening to two nerds joke while they drew pictures.  The number of people was staggering, but the way they were so artfully packed into these spaces was nothing short of amazing.  PAX East stuffed people into every nook and cranny, and managed to simultaneously fill an expo hall, and partially fill a major theater, and there were still events going on all over the theater that we could've attended if the main panel we were attending had been locked up.

That brings me to the second kind of density present at PAX: the density of activity.  PAX East's human population is one thing, to be expected at a sold-out event that stuffs a major convention center to its bursting point.  What sets PAX aside from, say, a sold out concert or a sporting event is that once you're inside the convention center there are a minimum of three limited time events starting at any given moment, and odds are at least two of them are pretty interesting.  Attending the Make-A-Strip panel meant missing out on panels about narrative in Indie games and un-typifying gender in play structures, and some other bullshit panels I couldn't care less about.  There were also multiple game tournaments going on at the same time, a tournament for whatever medium you fetishize.  Stand-up arcade, console games, PC games, board games, and CCGs were all repped on the schedule, and all overlapped with things you wanted to do.  The PAX I attended probably wasn't the PAX that other people attended.  In fact, a group of my Boston-based friends spent their entire PAX on the expo floor, where I was barely present, playing demos of upcoming games (or, perhaps more accurate, waiting in line to play demos of upcoming games - PAX East's showroom floor is a latticework of people waiting in line to try their hand at upcoming titles, with lines spilling out of already overwrought booths and across the expo floor).  When I told him about the event I'd bought a Sunday ticket just to see, he was perplexed.  He had no idea what Acquisitions Incorporated was, and, moreover, hadn't even bothered to see any Penny-Arcade events.  He just didn't care about them - they weren't why he was attending the convention.

And that brings me to the next kind of density PAX presents: subcultural density.  It's hardly news that nerds compartmentalize avidly, breaking into sub-groups more vociferously than nearly anyone else, but PAX takes it to an extreme.  While I was attending that Make-a-Strip panel that I arrived late to, one of the founders of the event told a story about watching an overcrowded autograph desk inhabited by a Youtube-star (an odd turn of phrase for my aging hands to type) and asking Is that guy a big deal or something?  A tween waiting to meet this You-tuber turned to him and scolded him: Yeah.  Six million subscribers.  That's a pretty big deal.

That's the diversity of nerds attending PAX: there are people who spent a minimum of $45 to get in to the event who don't know the people who founded it, people who not only can't recognize these creators, but are so avidly devoted to their own subculture to project that wanton disregard for the other cultural spheres of the convention out into the cultural id.  Penny-Arcade is a subsection of PAX East, and a pretty small one at that.  While the Acquisitions Incorporated panel was packed to bursting, the Make-a-Strip panel had plenty of seats open, and the general population of PAX had its attention largely focused elsewhere, away from the very activity that formed the kernel of this convention.  That kind of condensed cultural sprawl is weird, and weirdly infectious: PAX is first and foremost a place where people who care deeply about things that other people are either unaware of or annoyed with or ashamed by come to indulge in their passions.

What's amazing about that is how the nerds populating PAX, with the exception of a few people like the aforementioned tween, are so welcoming and generous with their passion.  There were a few assholes (and at moments, I may have been one of them) who jealously championed their own passions with the kind of contempt you'd expect from a stereotypical nerd, but for the most part people were generous: they'd share what they loved with you, hurl it your way with aplomb.  I've been to anime conventions where gaggles of Cosplayers hop from show-event to show-event while pasty nerds in sweat-stained t-shirts consciously avoid looking at their cleavage, but at PAX people in elaborately constructed suits of armor wait next to people in standard issue nerd-gear who wait next to men in suits who wait next to scantily clad comic-book-villainesses come to life, and they're all just trying to play Overwatch.  If you want a picture with the girl in that dope ass suit of armor, or, more likely, the fifth Poison Ivy you've seen this weekend, you can ask, and they'll probably say yes, chat you up about the game, and get back in to the line in the spot they left, which will have been dutifully held by a combination of natural community good-will and administratively projected good will, courtesy of PAX's Enforcers, volunteer assistants and general social tone-setters for the event who walk the floor in red shirts, making sure people are generally okay, and that no one acts like too much of a fuckwit.  The sharing, the intellectual generosity of PAX-ites, is infectious.  A week past the event, I still feel a glow inside myself for other people's passions, and the love they can bring to them.

That magnanimity actually shaped where I spent most of my time at the show.  Usually I'm a pretty heavy PC gamer.  I sit around and fuck around in front of a keyboard for fun whenever I'm not doing it professionally, but at PAX I had zero interest in waiting in line to play new games in front of what was essentially a stadium full of people.  Instead I spent most of my time in the board game area, sitting down for pick-up games of titles I'd never heard of, let alone played before.  I found some pretty cool stuff that way, too.  From the mystifyingly titled but surprisingly engrossing Billionaire Banshee (whose creator I may have unintentionally insulted - sorry guy, you made a really fun party game) to the generic-as-fuck titled but marvelously original Castle Dice, there wasn't a single game that didn't have both an enthusiastic and high-energy staff pimping it and a crowd of interested people waiting to get a seat at a table and learn to play.  Some of these people were tweens or tween-a-likes who were actively or passively rude, but mostly they were just psyched, game to try games.  At one point a young man, unaffiliated with a game creator, flagged me and my friends over to a table to get us to play a game.  I sat down with people I'd never met to try games I'd never seen before, and got to know both the game systems, and more than I'd like to about the relationship status of my table mates as I played.  Don't get me wrong, there were certainly douchebags and dicks on the floor.  The swag-bag line was filled with shitheels ducking under tills to collect as many bags as they could in short order.  But for every douchebag there were ten genuinely nice people looking to enjoy themselves, to indulge in their subcultural passion of choice.  From moms dragged there by Enforcers gamely trying their hand at weird, avant-garde games, to cartoonists just trying to sit down and get a hand of Magic in at a table, PAX was rich with the kind of forthright intellectual generosity nerds are capable of when they're at their best, and the kind of monomaniacal focus that makes that generosity so revelatory when it emerges, four times a year, splayed across two continents.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Far Cry 4 is Considerably Less Racist!

As the opening sequence of Far Cry 4 plays out, it already feels familiar.  I arrive in a foreign nation.  I'm on a bus.  Things get violent, people get shot in front of me, a stranger who was kind to me, the only survivor, seems to be concerned about me for some reason, so much so that he risks his life to save me and, in turn, is tortured for it.  As I fly through the tutorial portion of the game, learning to run, shoot, jump, and stealth-kill my way to better living, it starts to click into place: I've been here before.  This isn't new.  This is Far Cry 3, repackaged and repurposed, with new enemy skins, new wildlife, and new terrain.  And yet it is, in many ways, a wholly different game so far.  Part of it has to do with what happened in those opening bars.

Last year Far Cry 3's lead writer, Jeffery Yohalem, launched a loud long form defense of his oeuvre when critics panned its problematic engagement with race and racial constructs.  It's understandable: the game features a white male of privilege and little training or experience landing ass-first in an island conflict.  He proceeds to carry the weight of the native people's campaign against the vicious warlord ruling over the island, implicitly imposing the aforementioned white privilege in order to do so.  With a wink or a nod, it might've been easier to buy, as a satiric criticism of imperialism, which Yohalem claims to have intended, but it constructs itself without any such trappings: there's never any reference to how absurd it is that a random, adventure seeking teen murders thousands of people in rapid succession, or that he is promptly accepted as a sort of messiah by the island's people.  Each over the top character plays their role with forthright, witless abandon and overblown emotionality, attempting to bring a sense of emotional verisimilitude to the abuses and deaths suffered by characters who, in any other framework, would serve as disposable comic relief, scooped off to the side after their punchline landed, inching out of the story to either die on a laugh beat or merge into the sort of obscurity that side players in ensemble casts usually end up in.  Yohalem's satire was, in large part, a failure because of its tone deaf inability to frame what was absurd and what wasn't: in a game where the plot effectively serves as a manifesto for imperialism as a positive force, you need some sort of touchstone if you want to claim to be mounting "satire" or even meager "commentary" on that deeply problematic aspect of western history.  Far Cry 3 never provided that requisite nod.  There's no character who isn't a profound exaggeration, and only one or two of those profound exaggerations are treated as profound exaggerations.  The rest all play their roles close to the vest.

Far Cry 4 opens with a crazy person in an impeccable suit stabbing a man in the neck, then taking a picture with me.  Sounds very similar to the problematic situation I just described, but hold on.  In that moment, it's exposed that I'm not a white person.  I am, at least visibly, Indian.  I look like most of the people in the world around me.  I then learn that I've apparently got a backstory that places me firmly at the center of the events I'm drudging through.  Even though I have some level of agency in the game, I actually spend most of my time working for other people, actualizing their goals.  The blithe actualization of western imperialism is thusly alloyed in this narrative, even though I'm a dude from America shooting lots of people, the vast majority of whom are people of color.  A few simple movements have annihilated the puerile and infuriating white-male-gaze bullshit that made me want to find a way to shoot myself in the fucking face in Far Cry 3. 

The conscientiousness doesn't stop there.  The drug references in Far Cry 4 are real: these are references about how drugs get grown, processed, moved, and sold told by people to whom their trade is deeply relevant, who understand the way that that trade impacts the people of a region where drug production is a prevalent economic force.  I'm not rolling into a field with a flamethrower and torching the whole place, at least not yet.  I'm listening to truck drivers tell me about how they lost their families when they refused to switch over to exclusively growing opium, or how the sex trade needs to stay in place for the rebellion to continue, even though it's disgusting and exploitative.

Even the crazy or absurd characters that I run into seem like real, fully fleshed out characters that I can believe, and the ones that feel exaggerated seem to be aware of just how exaggerated they are.  So far I've met a number of memorable people, and while many of them feel like archetypes (the DJ, the fashionista, Hurk, and so on...) there's enough humanity underneath each of these people to make me feel some kind of connection, and enough self-serious, well developed characters in the mix for me to be able to look at this cast and think "well, these people feel like actual members of a community who have acquired a following because they're actually trying to do so something."  The choices I've been asked to make between Sabal and Amita feel like actual choices, voiced by people who have different, viable viewpoints: Sabal's idealism and Amita's pragmatism are both reasoned approaches to the world, neither one wholly absurd, not without some middle ground between them.  There's a sense of self-awareness that Far Cry 4 brings to the table, a sense of self-awareness that makes it easier to digest its frequent absurdities (one scene involving honey badgers comes to mind, wherein the dialogue is oriented almost entirely around how vociferously various parties don't give a fuck) and still take the point it's trying to make about revolution, rebellion, and legacy more seriously.

And the game, while mostly unchanged, adds a few new twists that take advantage of some previously ignored mechanics.  Ever since Far Cry 2 had me bunny-hop up mountains to grab diamonds, verticality has been a big part of the series, but it's been haphazard in its execution.  Far Cry 4's primary contribution is making scaling mountains and flying little helicopters a major part of ordinary play.  It makes sense, given how mountainous the new setting of Kyrat is, but these new little twists make me realize just how asinine some of the things that previous Far Cry games made me do were.  Even though these objects are limited in their utility by various tricks (scaling mountains can only happen at preset points, and the one-man helicopter has a flight ceiling that keeps you from skipping over massive portions of the game entirely) they make me understand just how destructive the long-form path seeking sessions I'd engage in during Far Cry 2 were.  A multitude of approaches present themselves here.  It feels like the game is more fully realized, more wholly embracing its heritage of exploration and engagement.

And these changes, slight as they are, have made me genuinely excited to sit down and play the game.  Towards the end Far Cry 3 was something that felt like it was hanging over me, a chore I needed to finish so I could move on to other games.  Hell, it felt that way a bit from the get-go, despite having some pretty compelling gameplay elements behind it.  Right now I wake up and sort out just how much Far Cry 4 I can play before I need to quit and get work done.  I've already fallen behind on a few projects because of its tender ministrations, and other games, even the hook-rife Darkest Dungeon, have moved to my back-burner.  I'll come back to them, certainly, and I'll set more time aside for my manuscript soon enough, as soon as I dig a little deeper into Kryat.

I say all of this with the distinct impression that Far Cry 4 will burn up my good will ere long.  It has many of the same problems that Far Cry 3 had: the progression feels truncated in certain ways, and exhaustive in others (three days of play have netted me most of the craftable items, and have allowed me to complete a number of skill-tree threads, but I know I'll spend hours yet unlocking areas of the map and playing through the story), and I get the impression that the narrative will jump the rails at some point and make a fun, burgeoning story into something hackneyed and overwrought.  But for now I'm taken with how much of a difference minor changes make.  Just by adding a few new elements to the game, and backing away from a problematic construction of protagonist, agency, and authority, Ubisoft has created a game that feels simultaneously familiar and original.  I can provide them with no higher compliment to say that I find their protagonist, flat and quiet as he may be, far more palatable than I've found anyone since Far Cry 2, and that that makes playing their game an absolute pleasure.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: A Brief Explanation of Why I'm Not Playing More Evolve!

It's been almost two weeks since Evolve came out, and yet I haven't written a word about it.  There are two reasons for that.

The first is that I don't feel like I've properly played it yet.  It's a game best played with three friends against a stranger, or with four friends in regular rotation, sliding between the "odd man" position of being the monster and working as part of a team with three other hunters, and I've only managed to play it, so far, with half-full teams of friends.  Even then, there have been fairly major problems, similar to the problems I encountered when I started playing Left4Dead at release.  Voice chat is an iffy prospect, relying on inconsistent detection or inconvenient push-to-talk methods, like most integrated VOIP outside of Left4Dead 2.  Matchmaking is fine when you're just trying to find a random game, but while playing with friends I was repeatedly "banned" from a friend's server without him issuing a command of any kind.  It would sometimes happen in the middle of a game, and required both of us restarting our clients completely to resolve the issue.  Even then, it kept happening with irritating frequency.

Those kinds of bugs can seriously discourage gameplay, especially when people have lives outside of the game.  A younger version of me would've soldiered through and troubleshot all of this shit, but present-me has papers that need grading waiting in his backlog, and present-me's friends all have kids and lives and responsibilities.  Ain't nobody got time for this sort of shit.  So even though all these bug related experiences happened a few days after released, I haven't tried to play properly again since.

I have sunk a little bit of single player time into the game, a few solo drops here and there to unlock new hunters and monsters, but that's not the same.  It's akin to doing maintenance: there's a certain catharsis to it, and the function of play, the function of the game itself, is all there, but the spirit is missing.  Without those tight multi-person maneuvers, without weird, customized teams based on preferred play style and discussion, there's something missing, something fundamental.  It's clear that Evolve is meant to be a social game, an iteration on the tradition of trash-talking social shooter play that Goldeneye established so long ago, and while it's situated in a decidedly virtual couch environment, thanks to the asymmetry, the hook behind the game, which makes split screen play an impossibility, it's still clearly a game you're meant to play with a small group of friends.

The time I have spent in single player has made that clear.  The colorful banter that marks play is sparse, mostly limited to a quick set of quips at the start of each mission.  There's a little bit of dialogue representing situational and environmental issues, but that's just there to give audio cues to players who wouldn't get them any other way while playing alone.  Missions unfold in much the same way each time.  While the Monster's AI is quite solid, there just aren't that many tricks it can pull, and with quick, punchy rounds marking Evolve's play, you get to see those tricks on display relatively quickly.  If I spend an hour playing, I'll see between three and five matches unfold, and two of those matches will likely be the same kind of match, possibly even on the same map.  Bereft of the human element, the game stops feeling random, and feels like an exercise in basic coding: I see the way the AI has been mapped, and while I'm impressed by it, I can still see the seams at the rough edges.

Solo-play is also hamstrung a bit by a shallow progression tree.  It took relatively little time to unlock all of the hunters and the monsters, eight, maybe ten hours all told.  And while that's nice on a certain level (it does, after all, give me a lot of neat toys to play with) it has the unintentional side effect of discouraging grind play.  While the "ah-HA!" response is still there, with leveling up and hunter and monster specific perks unlocking as play progresses, the rewards are so iterative and slight (the first in a series of stacking 2% boosts to damage for one weapon, or an upgrade that makes my 10% movement speed boost a 15% movement speed boost, to name a few) that it's difficult to remain engaged by them.  The initial progression was smart and pressed me into trying new classes, testing out each aspect of those classes, and learning to play them "properly" in game, and additional challenge tiers seem to aim at teaching me how to use my character class in new and interesting ways.  It's a savvy new take on training, but it's a crap incentive structure to keep me playing.  When I do hop in to get some Evolve on, I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, especially with so many other excellent titles hanging out in my Steam Library.  There's something missing in Evolve when you try to play it alone.

Which brings me, at long last, to my second point: there's just something missing in Evolve in general.  I shelled out the absurd $100 for Evolve's super-duper fanboy pack, and while I don't regret it (I think Turtle Rock is an excellent studio, and I'm happy to support them financially) I also don't think I actually got my money's worth.  Evolve released with a staggering amount of content missing, content that is theoretically going to be released in due time but, at present, is just absent.  Hunters, monsters, skins, and maps are sure to come down the pipe later, but for now, Evolve is clearly not complete.  There's a lot of game here, and with a good group of friends it's a promising, enjoyable game, but the fact that I'm sinking time into a product that I know isn't completely released yet does dull my fervor a little.

That's not to say that I've given up on Evolve.  Schedules will soon align, and I'll be beyond psyched to get some Evolve time in with real live human beings.  Content will release, at some point, and I'll have even more incentives to keep playing.  Patches will shift things, I'm confident (based on Turtle Rock's relationship with its community) that new maps and modes of play will emerge over time.  Evolve will, to cornball it up a little, continue to evolve.  Right now it just feels like it's in mid-transformation.  It's been sort of fun before, and when it's finished?  I get the distinct impression it'll be explosive.  I just worry that I'll wear it out before then.