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Video Game Review: “Doom Eternal”

Last Friday, two hotly-anticipated games launched in the midst of tightening public lockdowns across the globe. The first was “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” a cheery Nintendo Switch title full of bright colors, cultivating relationships, and building up communities from scratch. The second was…not exactly that. But “Doom Eternal” is undeniably a visceral, chaotic, bombastic experience, and it’s precisely what some of us needed to beat the COVID-19 blues.

Building on its critically-acclaimed 2016 predecessor, “Eternal” stars the Doomguy, a silent marine wielding everything from chainsaws to plasma rifles against the marauding legions of Hell. With the help of the corrupt company known as the UAC, demons have invaded Earth, killing 60% of the population and launching a campaign to cement total control of the planet. Really, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

The centerpiece of “Eternal”—just like before—is its combat, the bulk of which takes place within massive arena-styled set pieces littered with monsters, ammunition, and environmental hazards. It’s there that the Doom Hunter confronts the astonishing number of enemy types on offer. Appearing here for the first time are the the monster-summoning Archvile, the hovering Doom Hunter, the missile-firing Arachnotron, and countless others. All of this is backed by Mick Gordon’s frenetic, pulse-pounding instrumental metal soundtrack.

“Eternal” is, quite simply, the best shooter I’ve played in years. As someone whose general approach to shooters is far more “spray and pray” than “careful ammunition stewardship,” I’m quite fond of the run-and-gun ethos of “Eternal.” You’ll spend lots of time hurtling through the air and slamming the trigger amidst a storm of lasers, bullets, plasma rounds, shotgun shells, and primordial fireballs. Even the most difficult stages—those that take a dozen or so attempts to finally clear—never cease to feel fun and fresh on every try.

What’s more, by changing up the types of resources dropped by enemies, “Eternal” introduces some deceptive tactical depth into the high-speed shooting: Do I hit the “flame belch” button to get the horde in front of me to drop armor? Do I chainsaw that fodder demon over there to get some ammunition? Am I close enough to leap to that staggering Dread Knight and finish him off for some extra health? If you can make it through some of these stages without sweat dripping off your controller, my hat goes off to you.

All that being said, I can’t unequivocally recommend “Eternal” to genre aficionados without flagging the flaws—in particular, some truly mystifying design decisions that shouldn’t have made it through playtesting. Chief among these is the introduction of the Marauder, an axe-toting demon with the capacity to block almost anything fired at him—except shotgun shells fired within a half-second window during his attack windup. It’s hard to overstate how unpleasant this character is: the Marauder transforms the game’s normal rhythm of breathlessly paced combat into something slow and tactical, much more akin to “Dark Souls” or “Bloodborne.” That’s not what I want from a game that otherwise prizes how fast the player can pump a three-rocket burst or chaingun clip into the maw of a gibbering Pain Elemental.

Platforming and swimming also make it into the mix this time around. And while some elements of this really work—the double jump and midair dash mechanics are strokes of genius—the game relies on altogether too many blind leaps or swims, which leads to a frustrating process of trial-and-error where the player dies repeatedly until the path forward is identified. But if I wanted “Tomb Raider,” by golly, I’d play “Tomb Raider.”

“Eternal” is also a bit more overwritten than its predecessor. The 2016 reboot memorably featured the Doomguy ripping an audio terminal out of the wall when it started launching into exposition. Here, it’s a little harder to get away from a turgid story about malignant aliens known as Maykrs brokering a deal with Hell to convert human souls into clean energy. But hey, who am I to judge? If you get pumped by lines like “The Khan Maykr is seconds away from resurrecting the Icon of Sin! Use the Crucible Blade!” then “Eternal” is the game for you. (Well, okay, that actually describes me too.)

Of course, I couldn’t write a review like this without eventually heading in a thematic direction—and here, what’s most interesting is the stark refusal of “Eternal” to sand the edges off its central conflict. This is an unapologetic good versus evil game, one that never expects the player to feel bad for an instant about smashing the skulls of roaring demons.

That tendency runs counter to the prevailing approach for blockbuster titles. In recent years—partially in response to public pressure over issues like inclusion, colonialism, and militarism—a lot of AAA video games have tended toward noncommittal narratives that lean hard into their own “gray areas.” Just to name a few recent examples: “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” questioned Lara Croft’s quasi-imperialist sensibilities, recent “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” titles present but do not address issues surrounding the legitimacy of war, and “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” refused altogether to address the moral questions of the Peloponnesian War.

There’s a lot that’s not worth missing about the older era of video gaming—in particular, that era’s rampant sexism and objectification of women, and its regular reliance on crude racial stereotyping—and to the extent the medium has moved beyond that, that’s a big win. But the risk of the modern approach is that the only kinds of stories that get told are stories of relative good and evil (tolerance good; racism bad!). So too, modern-day social priorities can become so pronounced that they warp historical reality itself, a tendency exemplified by the decision in “Odyssey” to completely expunge the fact of historical sexism. If the player chooses to play as a female character, they will be treated exactly as if they were male. But i’m pretty sure that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act did not apply to ancient Greece, and—in a game that contains an “educational mode” designed for use in schools—it’s a bizarre decision.

Call me anachronistic, but I tend to think that—alongside the more modern sort of game—there’s still a place for stories of unambiguous good and evil, those that don’t attempt to situate the narrative around a historical moment but instead operate in absolute terms. (The reticence to do so, I think, corresponds pretty well with the unfolding “crisis of the novel” I’ve written about in other places.) “Eternal”—in all its offal-stained splendor—is precisely such a story. The Doomguy is an agent of carnage directed against the minions of literal, actual Hell—one character even suggests he might be a kind of avenging angel—and he is right to slaughter all the incarnations of evil in his path.  

Those who don’t share that commitment to doing right are pilloried. Notably, the demonic invaders’ human collaborators use the language of human resources departments, explaining that the preferred term for “demon” is “mortally challenged” and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to “welcome our new neighbors.” The game took some flak for this prior to release, but in context the jokes aren’t winking endorsements of real-world offensiveness: they’re swipes at a culture that has made itself incapable of discerning absolute evil when confronted with it.

It may seem paradoxical to describe the blood-soaked “Eternal” as, in one sense, innocent fun—but that’s what it is, in the deeper moral sense. For all the flamethrowers and grenades on offer, this is a grown-up, digitalized equivalent of running around in the forest with sticks. Not a single living human being is degraded or objectified, and I don’t even recall hearing a single curse word. (As a matter of fact, a literal film adaptation of the Book of Revelation might look rather close to what “Eternal” throws up onscreen.) It’s a perfect exemplar of the primal—and predominantly, if not exclusively, male—desire to see true evil destroyed, burned, and crushed underfoot, all in the name of freedom and the good.

Odds are that “Eternal” isn’t for you—and that’s fine (“trampling the serpent” doesn’t have to involve gouts of blood, I suppose). But I tend to think that, violence and ghoulish imagery notwithstanding, there’s still a (very) particular place for this sort of thing in mass culture. The power fantasy here involves the destruction of evil and horror, as opposed to exultation in it—as in the case of “Grand Theft Auto” or violent Internet pornography. In a particular social moment where opportunities for real-world heroism are on hold for many of us, it’s a breath of fresh air.

So as far as I’m concerned, let’s keep the chainguns blazing!

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2020 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

(Full of spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Cards on the table: “The Rise of Skywalker” is not, by any measure, a good movie.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. There’s plenty of material here—the return of old faces and old locations, rapid-fire plot twists, a heaping helping of lightsaber battles, and so on—that I love, because I’ve been a huge “Star Wars” dork for more than twenty years. But rarely have I encountered a film that forces such a sharp contrast between entertainment value and quality: I honestly don’t know if I enjoyed “Rise” because of pure nostalgia, because a certain strain of fanboy-ism runs through my soul, or because it’s really that rousing on its own terms.

But let’s take a look, shall we?

The first act of “Rise” is such a sharp turn away from the languid plotting and downbeat ending of “The Last Jedi” that you might end up with whiplash. Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is reintroduced in the first five minutes, and we immediately learn that he’s still alive, that he was the man behind Snoke, and that he’s built a fleet of Star Destroyers on the Sith world of Exogol. In that same five minutes, villainous Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) signs up with the Emperor, puts on his old mask, and we’re back to the age-old Sith master/apprentice dynamic (the “Rule of Two”).

On the other side of the galaxy, our three heroes—young Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac)—set off on a desperate search for a map to Exogol. (Sound familiar? It should, because this was the plot of 2015’s “The Force Awakens.”) Their travels take them to the Bedouin-styled planet of Pasaana, the rainy city of Kijima, and an oceanic moon of Endor. And by the way, there are some new Force powers afoot—Force healing, Force life drain, and some super-duper Force lightning and Force pulls that allow manipulation of spaceships in orbit.

Boom! Bang! Zzzt! That’s the soundtrack of “Rise,” layered over with some familiar John Williams leitmotifs. We’re swept from battle to battle without time to catch our breath as we hurtle toward a final showdown at Exogol, where Rey—just like Luke Skywalker so many years before—must confront the Emperor.

If this sounds an awful lot like “Return of the Jedi”…well, you aren’t wrong. Indeed, virtually everything that I like about “Rise” is directly cribbed from some prior “Star Wars” film. Cool masked bounty hunters? Saw them in “Empire Strikes Back” first. Alien festival in the desert? Saw that in the “Phantom Menace” podracing scene. Final duel in a menacing throne room while the Emperor forces our hero to watch the destruction of their friends in a massive space battle? “Return of the Jedi,” all the way. (Oh, and by the way, this is the fifth Star Wars movie to have its plot hinge on “stopping Death Star planet-killing weapons.” Are you kidding me?)

It doesn’t help matters much that director J.J. Abrams is practically obsessed with undoing the most criticized elements of 2017’s “The Last Jedi” In one of the most egregious instances, Rey hurls her lightsaber into a fire, but Luke’s Force ghost appears and catches the blade, chastening her that “a Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect”—a clear swipe at Luke’s tossing away his lightsaber in the opening moments of “The Last Jedi.” Similarly, the fan-disfavored Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is unceremoniously shunted aside for most of the film, despite her developed character arc in the prior film. All of this is obvious pandering to the worst of the “Star Wars” fandom—the angry subset of Very Online viewers who refuse to allow the story’s themes to progress and spend hours tearing apart anything that’s insufficiently familiar.

Now, considered purely as blockbuster entertainment and nothing else, “Rise” is…fine. It’s big and propulsive and full of high-dollar action set pieces that are certainly entertaining. But I would like to think—and i doubt I’m alone in this—that “Star Wars,” at its best, is more than just groundbreaking sci-fi action (if I just want that, there are half a dozen films every year that’ll provide it). The pull of “Star Wars,” for me, has always been rooted in the fact that there’s a rich metaphysical dimension underpinning all the action that unfolds onscreen, a dimension totally absent from stories like “Star Trek.” At the risk of sounding too theological, the finite (the visible action onscreen) is always permeated by the strange infinity of the Force.

For all the failings of “The Last Jedi”—and they were legion, even if I do think it’s a pretty compelling movie—director Rian Johnson seemed to understand this. It’s impossible to watch Episode VIII and not see Luke Skywalker’s struggle as a crisis of faith; he even uses, for the first time since 1977’s “A New Hope,” the phrase “the Jedi religion.” Johnson teed up the possibility of serious thinking about the Force’s nature , and laid the groundwork for a genuinely satisfying conclusion to the nine-part saga. For instance, what if the much-discussed concept of “bringing balance to the Force,” at bottom, meant an end to demanding that the Force fit the rigorous concepts of either the Jedi or the Sith—a willingness to let the Force be the Force? What if Luke’s “Last Jedi” crisis of confidence wasn’t reducible to “fear” (as he says in “Rise”), but rather the product of a genuine discovery that the Jedi tradition had gone astray in certain crucial ways?

Those are the issues I wanted “Rise” to tackle. But we simply don’t get anything like that onscreen—we get, yet again, the Jedi simply driving back the Sith, rehashing the conclusion of “Return of the Jedi” for all intents and purposes. We don’t get any reflection on the themes at play. And frankly, it is not even clear to me that Abrams is aware of these story angles—“Rise” plays out like a love letter to the prior films in the saga, but only by way of aesthetic imitation rather than thematic continuity.

Despite how this review may read, I did not hate “Rise.” In fact, I liked it and would happily see it again (there’s one spot at the end that’s a genuinely triumphant, fist-in-the-air moment—in addition to what may be the most erotically charged lightsaber fight in cinematic history). I just wish it possessed an iota of its predecessors’ narrative courage—or, at the very least, understood what made the “Star Wars” saga so special to begin with. (Honestly, I’m halfway tempted to break out the old PC and replay the “Knights of the Old Republic” titles, just to scratch that particular itch.)

So be it. With the House of Mouse working the strings, I fully expect I’ll live to see Episodes X, XI, XII, and heaven knows how many more. There’s still time to do this thing right.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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