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A Shameful Pleasure: Crackdown 2

Just about every gamer has suffered the perverse and humiliating delight of a bad game that you can’t stop playing.

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A Shameful Pleasure: Crackdown 2

Just about every gamer has suffered the perverse and humiliating delight of a bad game that you can’t stop playing. You know that your time, your life, your precious youth is being callously wasted, but some terrible Pavlovian urge keeps the controller in your hands, even as you ignore spouse, friends, and much better games for the sake of pursuing something you don’t even want. With lazy gameplay and unimaginative design, Crackdown 2 squanders the good will its unpolished but enjoyable predecessor earned, but it does offer some shameful, atavistic pleasure.

One good gameplay mechanic can make a weak title enjoyable, and in Crackdown, it’s the jumping that renders the whole experience almost worth it. There’s so much delight in the game’s amiable physics that you’re constantly tempted to ignore all the shooty-shooty and just enjoy playing the most cheerfully undemanding 3D platformer ever. Pacific City is once again full of buildings (mostly the same buildings, I’m afraid), all of them practically begging you to find a path to the top. Once you’re on top of a three-hundred-story skyscraper, the obvious next step is to jump off it, at which point the nicely implemented wind and motion blur effects kick in to make falling an incredibly visceral thrill. It never stopped being a delightful surprise to survive a several-mile drop, with only a dent in the concrete to show for my epic plummet.

But when you come back to earth, you have to deal with the other legs of the Crackdown stool: shooting and driving. And they are some wobbly-ass legs. The driving is just what it was in Crackdown: like pushing a brick through glue. There are more cars to choose from, but it’s a long way from the racing-game fundamentals that the Grand Theft Auto series always nails. And shooting has actually gotten worse, with an auto-aim preternaturally consistent about never, ever targeting the thing you’re looking at and no way to snap between targets.

In any sandbox game, the quality of the sandbox matters a lot, but Crackdown’s city is still utterly without personality. The audio logs (sigh, yes) lay out a reasonably interesting story of citizens vs. criminals vs. Agency vs. monsters, but none of that makes its way into the world, which is stocked with boring ads, citizens with nothing interesting to say, and buildings you can’t enter. This is a prime example of one of game development’s worst tendencies: The writers were stuck in a dialogue-writing box and no narrative was allowed to escape into the wild.

Plenty of other little problems from the first game remain unsolved. The narrator retains his Tourette’s-like habit of butting in with suggestions totally unrelated to what you’re doing. The music is still generic and badly cued. And while it was just barely acceptable to release an open-world game without waypointing when the first Crackdown came out, it’s not okay anymore, and it’s even worse when the minimap is so freaking broken (how in God’s name do you screw up a minimap?!) that it almost never accurately shows you where the closest objective is.

Usually, game sequels try to expand the story, the characters, and the enemy types. Maybe the most original (not good, but original) aspect of Crackdown 2 is that it does just the opposite. The motely gangs of the first game are gone, replaced by exactly two types of enemies: criminals from the Cell gang and underground mutant Freaks (and if you think the latter is going to result in the constant in-game use of a certain ‘70s disco tune, you are already as witty as the game’s designers). Once you’ve played through the first hour, you’ve seen just about every enemy the game has to offer. It’s fun to drive your car through a crowd of splattering baddies, and kudos to the programmers who made it possible for so many of them to be on screen at once, but there’s just not enough variation to keep it interesting.

Worse yet, they’ve totally lost the clever nonlinear structure of the first game, where you could take missions in any order and have each one affect subsequent missions. Instead, there’s exactly five kinds of missions, you’ll do them over and over, and there’s nothing to keep you going but an urge for attrition. In the worst insult to the first Crackdown, none of the missions change the world in the least. You’d think that completing the Agency’s citywide anti-Freak final solution, complete with dramatic cutscenes, would have some effect on the rest of the game, but instead, the instant the Death-of-the-Freaks cutscene finishes, the Freaks are right back where they were, cheerfully munching on civilians as though no one just wiped them from the face of the Earth.

The final addition made for the sequel is online multiplayer. And it’s lame. You can play four-person co-op, which in theory should be a lot of fun, but trying it, I was quickly reminded that what makes Crackdown fun is the ease with which you can get distracted: I’m on my way to a mission, but decide to stop and investigate a far-off orb, or get involved in a shootout, or just grab a cool car. The difficulty of coordinating four people over an Xbox Live headset means these kinds of distractions are fatal to unit cohesion, so you’re discouraged from playing the game as it’s most fun to play.

Most obnoxiously, the single-player game is scattered with “Live Orbs,” that the can only be collected in multiplaye. You might think that orbs that only affect multiplayer could simply be turned off when in single-player, but that would deprive the game’s narrator of the chance to smugly scold you for playing alone every goddamn time you get anywhere near the goddamn Live Orbs. Look, Ruffian, I know you want to show off your networking code, but yelling “YER DOIN’ IT WRONG!” when I’m trying to play the game you shipped is what swingers would call “a major turn-off.”

Crackdown 2 didn’t fix any of the problems of its predecessor, and it adds quite a few for good measure. It’s boring, repetitive, and incredibly lazy. There’s almost nothing to recommend it.

But…

But it’s actually kinda fun. I hate to say it, but it is. The first few hours are a slog, but once you’ve leveled up a bit, the basic running-shooting-jumping power-fantasy-fulfillment is entertaining, and the flashy orbs flying at you every time you so much as parallel park are a potent Skinner-box reward. Even as I was telling myself how inadequate the game was, I was still hooked on a “just one more mission” cycle.

If you’re looking for a summer time-killer, you could do worse. But if you haven’t played the first Crackdown, buy that one instead; it’s a lot cheaper and a whole lot better, and I hate the thought that Ruffian Studios, a relatively new company with some real potential, is going to be rewarded for churning out this uninspired filler.

Crackdown 2. Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios. Developer: Ruffian Games. Release Date: July 6, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Mature. ESRB Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Strong Language and Violence. To purchase, click here.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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