Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line or K-Cup?

Above: Rich and powerful, mysterious and intense

One of these quotes is from IGN, as seen in the launch trailer for Spec Ops: The Line. The rest are descriptions of K-Cups available for purchase at Can you figure out which quote doesn't belong?
  1. "Spellbinding complexity... deep, dark, and intense."
  2. "Powerful and intense."
  3. "Rich, robust, and powerful."
  4. "Explore the dark side."
  5. "Intense and unique."
  6. "Not for the faint of heart...intense and uncompromising."
  7. "Raw energy in its purest form." 
If you guessed #5, "Intense and unique," you are correct. Bonus points if a cup of single-serve coffee has ever set your brain on fire.

  1. Green Mountain Coffee Dark Magic
  2. Tully's French Roast
  3. Tully's Italian Roast
  4. Coffee People Black Tiger
  5. Spec Ops: The Line
  6. Starbucks French Roast
  7. Revv Coffee

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Max Payne 3

Above: Max's barber gives him the full Walter White.

At first, I wasn't enjoying Max Payne 3. Too difficult, too regressive, too joyless. And even though those things never really changed, at some point I bought in. It won me over through sheer determination. Stuff went wrong for Max, and then it went more wrong. Shit was dark, and then it got darker. You know what? I didn't always like it, but I couldn't help but admire it. That's the crux of my Max Payne 3 review at the Phoenix.

Afterward, I read Tom Bissell's review over at Grantland. We had similar reactions, and also both invoked Raymond Chandler in characterizing Max's narration -- which I should take as a sign that great minds think alike, and instead take as a sign that it's a lazy comparison. But I have to disagree on a fairly major point. Tom mentions the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance in contrasting Max's personal failures, poor self-esteem, and tendency to get everyone around him killed with his preternatural murdering ability. I'll let him explain:
Three seconds after claiming to be an incompetent failure, however, Max is leaping in slow motion from a speedboat while shooting an incoming RPG out of the sky and then single-handedly massacring an entire army of Kevlar-encased Brazilian commandos. Max Payne 3's hero is simultaneously a barely functioning alcoholic and one of the most sublimely gifted killing machines in video-game history. Which is a little weird.
True, but I think it's all perfectly consistent. For one thing, in the game I played, Max was not a bulletproof superhero who routinely emerged unscathed from unfair firefights. Actually, he died a lot. Dozens and dozens of times. My Max did a lot of slow-motion aiming and a lot of graceful leaping, but for the most part nothing useful came out of it. He was as likely to end up sprawled on the floor, his torso filling up with bullets, as he was to take out five enemies with a procession of headshots.

My experience with the game was one of near-constant failure. I came away thinking that what happens to Max is what would happen to anybody who takes on impossible odds: he loses most of the time. The only difference is that, as a video game character, he's reincarnated until he gets it right.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my shortcomings as a player don't really count. That there is one true playthrough in which a single Max, and not his infinite multiverse counterparts, storms through all the action and survives. It's still true that Max's greatest asset is his desire for self-annihilation. Like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, he's a man with nothing to lose, and whose death wish gives him the edge against almost any opponent. Max's self-loathing narration, his alcohol and drug abuse, his continued willingness to confront armed gangs -- it's all of a piece. He wants to die. Why else would he do any of the ridiculous things he does?

In that sense, he's the most plausible videogame protagonist around.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

I reviewed Ghost Recon: Future Soldier for Paste. It's a fine game, albeit a very familiar one. I couldn't  see recommending that somebody make an effort to play this game if they already have anything like it in their collection. On the other hand, if it dropped into your lap, as it did mine, it's not as though you'd be sitting there fantasizing about jabbing pencils into your thighs.

Often times I'll get sick of a certain type of game, before something is able to shake me out of it. I loved Battlefield 3, for instance, even though it was superficially similar to lots of other games. But even with a few minutes of playing a 64-player map, you could tell that something much more was happening, and that the game was dynamic and alive in a way that few games are, from any genre. So I'd like to think I didn't go into Ghost Recon ready to reject it for being too derivative. Sometimes a game is just like that, though. There's no spark. You spend most of your time saying, "Oh yeah, this part is just like that other game." It gives you everything except a reason to care.

This Onion article says it better than I could. Especially this part:
"Let us be clear: This sandwich is by no means bad," Forst said. "But we'd be lying if we said this was a great sandwich or a particularly original one. Though we have little doubt that a handful of people will love the Beef 'N' Bacon, for us to claim that we've come up with a groundbreaking new sandwich sensation would be absurd. Boasts of that measure would be foolhardy and deceptive, especially in light of the fact that Arby's has introduced much better sandwiches in the past." 
Are you hungry? Do you mind eating the same old thing? Let me assure you, then, that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is something that exists, and will not poison you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Diablo III

Above: My weak-ass dude, CaptainPower.

In an ideal world, Diablo III would be terrible. It is cruel of Blizzard to make a decent game whose name lends itself to so many putdowns:
  • Diablows
  • Diablah
  • Diabloh-no
Sadly, Diablo III is not terrible, and so I can't use any of those in good conscience. Still, as I play it, I find myself more bemused than anything, wondering, as I often do, why this is the game that sends so many otherwise rational people into fits of ecstasy. I'm sure I played one of the other Diablo games at least a little bit, but I have no equity in the series, and have come to it, for all intents and purposes, as a newcomer. My first takeaway: all these years, I thought people were joking about the clicking!

But click you do, over and over and over. On one hand, I'm blown away that it's possible to make a relatively complex game that is almost entirely mouse-driven. Your character's movement, your primary and secondary attacks, equipping items, dealing with merchants -- all performed with the mouse! Almost brings a tear to my eye. I'll gladly trade a little bit of precision for ease of use.

Sometimes, you trade more than a little bit of precision. One thing I've learned is not to get too carried away with the clicky-clicky, because it won't actually make my character move any faster. If anything, it makes him do things like wander in circles when he's supposed to be bludgeoning goat-men. It also took some patience to remember that the function of the mouse2 button changes on your inventory screen depending on who you're talking to, so if you try to equip an item you just bought from a merchant, you accidentally sell it back to him. Thank goodness for the buyback screen.

One thing you give up with all the clicking is a tactile sense of the combat. Playing Diablo III, I keep thinking back to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game that was structurally similar but that absolutely grounded me in its physical world. My character blocked attacks because I pressed the block button, and he dodged because I pressed the dodge button. When he failed at either, it was my fault. In Diablo, dodging and blocking are functions of your stats, and they're entirely based on probability. There may as well be little animated dice on the screen.

That's been my biggest surprise: the real "game" of Diablo is entirely in your character build. Everything that happens in the dungeons is a prelude to combining gear and powers in order to maximize your stats, which itself serves only to keep you alive long enough to find better gear. For veterans, I'm sure this is no surprise, but it took me a few hours of playing before I understood it, and it turned out to be the key to enjoying the game. I had thought that the point of picking up loot was the slot machine-like thrill of not knowing what you were going to get, but it turns out that browsing a merchant's wares, or leveling up your blacksmith, is just as important. Not so important: clicking on randomly spawning wasps and shit.

Speaking of random: I understand that it's supposed to be a selling point that all of the terrain in Diablo III is randomly generated, but playing through it I honestly can't see why. It's not as though there are puzzles and mazes and interesting things happening in the dungeons. They're just grids that get bigger and bigger as you progress through the game. They could be the same every time and I don't think you'd lose anything. Do I think the game suffers for this? Not at all. It's just one of those things that sounds really neat when somebody tells you about it, and then when you experience it turns out to be immaterial.

As for this always-on DRM thing, and the notion that the game is meant to be played with others, I dunno. I do find it pretty silly that I have died lagged-out deaths when playing by myself, and it's annoying that I can't pause the game for more than five minutes without my connection to the server getting cut. But I also can't get that exercised about it, probably because I've got mine and fuck all y'all what ain't got a big pipe.

The multiplayer I'm not so sure about. I've gone solo almost exclusively, and while there is something gratifying about having your brosephs and brosephinas fighting alongside you against Hell's minions, it also doesn't seem to affect the gameplay very much. There are some co-op tactics involved, and some characters have buffs and healing abilities for their allies, but it's not as though you combine powers into super attacks or anything. And there's nothing half as cool as the medic's healing bullets in Borderlands.

In the end, I feel like someone who listened to all the bands that the Beatles influenced before they ever heard anything by the Beatles. I recognize in Diablo a whole lot of things that I've enjoyed in other games, and here they seem somehow more primitive, because, in a sense, they are. Whether Diablo has been streamlined, modernized, dumbed down, whatever you want to call it -- it's still Diablo. This series has brought us many wonderful things, not the most important of which is Diablo III.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The middle

My favorite place to walk in Boston is across the Mass Ave bridge at night. You have a great view of Boston, Cambridge, and the Charles River, all at once. Despite the traffic, it feels quiet and peaceful out there, especially on a night when the moon is out. There's a funny thing about walking across that bridge. It's only about 4/10 of a mile long,* less than a ten minute walk, and yet every time I make the journey I experience the same strange sensation.

After a few minutes, the opposite riverbank seems no closer, but if I turn and look back the way I came, that side of the bridge appears equally distant. There's no way of telling if I'm closer to the beginning or the end. One step in either direction has no discernible effect on my position. I'm somewhere out in the middle.

The middle must be familiar to anybody who's ever taken on a creative project. When you start, you're fueled by enthusiasm. You haven't yet run into any tough decisions. Your first failure is still some ways off -- for all you know, it may never come! (It will.) You're high on possibility. This time, it's all going to work, and it's going to be even better than you could have imagined.

It might take days, weeks, or months, but eventually you find yourself in the middle. This is a place of self-doubt, where enthusiasm has given way to a feeling of obligation, more often of a responsibility that you are shirking. You feel no closer to the opposite shore. You can't even remember what it was like when you started. Every step you take feels like it's leading you nowhere. You're stuck.

This is where most people give up.

It's also where I find myself lately on my board game project, Honor Among Thieves. I continue to work on it, but each session is shorter, less joyful, and seemingly less productive. I've reached a point where I don't know what to do next. The initial burst of energy, with which I wrote out the bulk of the rules and most of the systems, has worn out. Whereas before, I was creating an entire world on blank pages, now it's about filling in the cracks. Not only is that inherently less fun, it's also harder and less rewarding. I still believe in the concept, I just don't have any idea where to go from here.

The insidious thing about the middle is that it hits you on a gut level. You know there is an endpoint, and if you're lucky enough, you've been through it a few times before. Even so, it's impossible to look at the far shore and see it getting any closer, no matter how fast you walk. You feel adrift.

The only way out is to keep walking, although with a creative project the path isn't so clear. Less like walking across a bridge at night, and more like muddling through a desert in a sandstorm. You have to grit your teeth and hope you'll make it out alive.

*Or 364.4 Smoots, give or take an ear.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Flow and transcendence and wheelies

Above: A rider reaches the fourth stage of enlightenment, sick-ass jumps.

Back when Journey was the hotness, I was reading a lot of things about it that didn't match up with my experiences. People talked about the way it felt to play Journey in a tactile sense, how it "aspires to move players not through moral choices or exploration, but through the art of locomotion itself."

They talked about feeling a deep, unspoken bond with the other travelers they met on the way. "When One sat down in the shade of a giant pillar and crumbled into dust, I didn’t know what to do. No goodbye. Just oblivion. I looked at the spot where they had been for some time, dumbstruck and sorrow-stricken, waiting for them to come back. They didn’t."

Mostly, they called it transcendent. Unequivocally transcendental, in one case.

As you know, I was not on board with Journey. I've had a lot of conversations about it, and I better understand now what people responded to, but for myself I felt like I was mashing the thumbstick in one direction and feeling pressured to submit to the significance of the whole thing. Still felt like a lot of bullshit to me.

Something funny happened recently. I played a game that made me feel all the things people said they felt about Journey. I became one with the landscape. I pressed on, in the face of adversity, toward a clearly defined end point. I encountered people online who helped me along the way, but sometimes left me behind -- and who I sometimes left behind. And, ever so rarely, playing this game gave me a feeling of transcendence, as though I could see all of the invisible forces that tie together everything on this earth.

Yes, I'm talking about Trials Evolution, and just because this game also made me set a new landspeed record for F-bombs per minute doesn't mean all that other shit didn't happen too. Trials is a game about balance and momentum -- about centeredness. It is a game that requires you to remember where you've been and understand where you're going, but, above all, to be in the moment. If you lose your concentration after completing a tricky part, or too eagerly attack the next section, you will fail. But if you concentrate too hard, you'll tense up and never do anything right. At all times, you must be in perfect alignment, physically and mentally.

Whereas the landscapes of Journey felt like a pretty picture that I could admire as I lurched past, I've come to know every inch of ground in Trials, and how it might help or hinder me in my goals. It requires you to develop an intimate relationship with the terrain; the land is like a living being that will respond to your every touch, however rough or gentle. I can't pretend to have mastered it, but I do know that every minor grade, every steep ascent, and every yawning chasm asks something different of me. When I hit a flawless, unbroken sequence, catching a perfect arc across a gap and making a smooth landing on a downhill slope, I feel weightless.

(When I flip over backwards immediately upon accelerating off the starting line, I feel -- well, you know.)

The power of Trials' multiplayer component has surprised me more. I'm not talking about the four-player races, whose matchmaking that could charitably be described as "unreliable." Rather, the experience of starting a race for the first time and watching my friends' ghosts bob along the course ahead of me has been unexpectedly moving. When I'm unfamiliar with a track's layout, those grey dots provide inspiration and encouragement. I note how they ease off the throttle before a particular jump, or squeeze into a narrow pathway I might not have noticed myself. During those first few runs, when I'm bellyflopping all over the place, I appreciate how all of my friends' ghosts are waiting for me at the finish line. They won't leave until I get there.

With the few friends I have playing Trials (five of them, I think), I actually find it to be sad and lonely when I beat their scores, because their ghosts no longer appear on those runs. I'm racing by myself.

(Okay, not exactly by myself. I'm also eating Jason Killingsworth's dust when he immediately blasts off, never to be seen again until I limp over the finish line. Dude is unstoppable.)

That Trials bundles all of this stuff together in such an unpretentious package -- you are, after all, just kicking ass on a dirtbike -- only heightens the effect. This isn't a game that strains for relevance or prods you to feel a specific emotion. You regard it, as you would a mountain range or a waterfall, finding in it what meaning you will, even as it responds to you with complete disinterest. The whole experience feels almost miraculous. Hell, I'd call it unequivocally transcendental.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Honor Among Thieves: An overview

Above: From a higher angle this time!

When I decided to make a board game, I had one goal in mind above all else. I wanted to create tension between players' goals and their behavior. I was imagining a scenario in which players absolutely had to cooperate to have any hope of winning, but also had unique win conditions that required them to act selfishly. In other words, this game should require players to cooperate as it helps them achieve their objectives, and then shift allegiances the second it's convenient.What coalesced from that early vague notion turned out to be Honor Among Thieves.

The premise: a team of thieves, each with different skills, breaks into a heavily secured mansion to steal a priceless treasure. Players must ransack the mansion, find the keys to the vault, nab the treasure, and escape with their lives. Along the way, they'll have to deal with security guards, cameras, and the occasional booby trap. Fortunately, they can combine their powers to make these tasks easier. Unfortunately, two of them are traitors.

Most players are henchmen. To win, they need only to escape the mansion with the treasure. Any henchmen who come with them will also win. They have every incentive to cooperate, except that they know they can't trust everyone else.

One player is an undercover agent, in the employ of the mansion's owner. This player's true objective is to prevent the treasure from leaving the house.

Another player is a backstabber, secretly working for another crime boss. This player's men are waiting in the bushes outside. If the backstabber escapes with the henchmen, they are ambushed and killed, and he alone is victorious

The easiest and most effective way to get the treasure out of the house is to team up with the other thieves. But you can't trust that the person standing next to you is on your side. And if you're one of the two traitors, you need to keep your identity hidden until the last possible moment. Reveal yourself too soon, and everyone else will gang up to kill you. My hope is that most games end with everybody killing one another in sight of the exit.

Every character has a different set of attributes across three categories: speed, cunning, and strength. All challenges in the game are resolved through skill checks against one of those attributes. Players have the option to combine their attributes for a turn -- for example, two players who are trying to lift something heavy can combine their strength attributes and check against the total. In this way, I'm trying to force cooperation, even when two players are convinced that their counterpart is trying to screw them. The question becomes who will blink first.

I'd say I'm about halfway to having a finished prototype. The pictures I've been running with these posts come from the first and only pilot test I've run. The board was less than half-finished, and I had about a dozen cards in each category (for example, when trying to unlock a door, you draw a Lock card to resolve, similar to Mansions of Madness). I had four people give the game a shot, guessing that we'd go for about half an hour before finding holes too big to climb out of. To my delight, that wasn't the case.

For sure, we were modifying rules on the fly, and addressing significant balance and rule issues from the get-go. But we spent more than two hours playing out the entire scenario as envisioned. The core idea seemed to work. The thieves picked locks, pillaged rooms, fought off security guards, and canceled alarms. They infiltrated the vault and snuck away with the treasure, almost immediately turning on one another. When only two players were left alive, and nearly to the exit, the undercover agent showed his hand and arrested the remaining henchman.

I was left with a pile of notes to address, and a sense that the game has real promise. With the information I had from that session, I was able to finish a complete draft of the rulebook, and make several important changes to the characters' skills. Next, I need to write more cards -- a lot more cards -- and settle on a finished board design. (That's the part I fear the most -- I'm no kind of a visual designer.) Then it'll be time for more rigorous testing.

After that, who knows? I don't really harbor hopes of publishing it, but it would be nice to have a finalized version that I could share with the world, even in PDF form. Either way, that's all in the future. Right now I still have a lot of work to do.

The most important thing I've learned so far is that making a game isn't a mystical endeavor that's open only to a select few. All you need is an idea and the inclination to pursue it. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it!

Monday, May 07, 2012

How hard can it be to make a board game?

Above: Pilot testing Honor Among Thieves.

Like Quintin Smith, recently I've found myself increasingly drawn to board games. It all started about a year ago, at PAX East, actually, when a friend of mine bought a copy of Arkham Horror. He'd heard great things! We barely knew of its reputation as the most complicated board game in existence.

Shortly thereafter, we found a time to get several people together and give it a go. Our first game took eight hours. We won, somehow. In the year since, we've played a few more times, understanding a little more each time. We still don't fully grasp it, I don't think. We joke that we'll know we get Arkham Horror when we finally lose a game.

Despite how cumbersome and complex Arkham is, I get something from it that I don't get from video games. I'm not even sure what that thing is. There's the communal aspect, for sure. And how purely the game focuses on mechanics, giving us a framework to fill in our own stories, free of cutscenes and tropes that I've long since grown tired of. But there's something else, something almost indefinable, what Robert Florence calls "the way the game lifts off the table and fills the room."

In an eight-hour session of Arkham (more recently whittled down to about four hours, as we've gotten more comfortable with it), I have a sense of total focus and involvement. My brain juggles dozens of pieces of information, plucking each bit out of the air as its needed. Since the game is cooperative, even during the long stretches where your character isn't doing anything directly, you're still involved. It is a wonderful experience.

Arkham Horror was my gateway drug. Since then, I've played and enjoyed Mansions of Madness, with its innovative approach to storytelling and cooperative mechanics; The Resistance, a card game about distrust and deceit; Dominion, the game where the most useless items you acquire are the most important ones for victory; Battleship Galaxies, a welcome update to the classic that brings honest-to-god strategy to the table; and much more. And I've read as much as I've played, about Battlestar Galactica's Cylon traitors, King of Tokyo's dice-rolling hijinks, and Space Alert's time-sensitive zaniness. Board game designers seemed to be doing so many fascinating things.

After all this, it wasn't surprising when a little voice in my head piped up and said: "I want to do that, too."

The idea came to me, as most of my ideas do, when I was at the gym, where my only hope for sanity is to concentrate on something besides my workout or pray for a power outage. Pedaling furiously on the elliptical, I was thinking about everything I had responded so well to in the games I'd played. I loved the cooperation of Arkham Horror. The exploration and the traps of Mansions of Madness. The duplicity of The Resistance. And I started to think... what could I do to combine all of these things?

What if I could make a game that required you to cooperate with the other players to have any prayer of winning, but with the ever-present danger that they could stab you in the back? What if the setting weren't your standard sci-fi or horror world, but something closer to reality? What if I could pull all of these disparate elements together with humor and a true sense of narrative progression?

I don't know if I can do any of these things, but I can certainly try. And so I have been working on a board game I'm calling Honor Among Thieves, the game of cooperative backstabbing.

So far, the answer to the question that sits atop this post is: making a board game is hard, but not as hard as I thought. I've been making progress. Tomorrow, I'll share some of the details.

Friday, May 04, 2012

All the rage

My name is Mitch, and I have a problem. I rage at video games. For as long as I can remember, games have driven me to furious anger. I've broken controllers. I've screamed myself hoarse. I've hurt myself punching tables, chairs, walls. And I can't stop.

This may be news to people who know me, but haven't witnessed my fits firsthand. In the rest of my life, I'm mild-mannered and conflict-averse. I've never been in a fight. When spurred to anger at another person, I tend to walk away, cool off, and then come back with a level head. In other words, I act like an adult. Not with video games.

For people who have witnessed it, all I can say is that I'm surprised anybody is still willing to play with me. I have a solid core of friends who put up with my excitations. I don't know why. I wouldn't want to play with me. I blame them for everything that goes wrong, and have no sense of perspective when they make honest mistakes. They always seem to be in my way. They poach my kills. And they don't even care! They laugh and make jokes, and politely ignore the steady stream of howling profanity coming through the headset.

(My mistakes, of course, are the result of an unfair, rigged game, and not anything I might have done wrong.)

I'm afraid to share my Xbox Live username with other game writers because, if they have any respect for me on the basis of my work, I know they'd lose it after the fiftieth time I blurted "WHAT THE FUCK" about a minor setback -- or, honestly, after the first time. Online, I am neither racist, nor sexist, nor any other -ist, but my maturity level certainly is not any better than your average teenager's.

When I was younger, there were several occasions when I was almost kicked out of my friends' houses for flipping out about video games. My buddy Bob Dylan still tells the story of his dad pulling him aside at a LAN party and saying, "Your friend's got to cool it, or he's out of here." Is this embarrassing as hell, in the calm light of day? You bet it is. Did it matter to me one bit when I was raging at Quake 2? Of course not.

These days, I do most of my gaming in the solitary confines of my basement, but I'm still making everyone around me uncomfortable. My dog won't even come down to the basement with me anymore. All it takes from me is one stressed-out "Come on," and she slinks upstairs to the safety of her bed. My wife puts up with it only a little better. If I were her, I wouldn't be nearly as tolerant.

Every time, it follows the same pattern. When I begin a game, even a very difficult one, there's no problem. I have no idea what I'm doing, and no expectation that I should. Someone said that the enjoyment of a game is the process of learning, and when I start playing, that is often the case. Playing something like Trials, it's fun to mess around with the physics, and learn the basics of getting up hills and over obstacles. This period is rewarding, because I improve rapidly. The second run is always miles better than the first.

The trouble comes when I begin to expect competence from myself. There's a point at which I feel like I do understand how the game works, and am unable to execute at the level I desire. Again, in Trials, this usually comes after I've earned a silver medal and am going for the gold. To earn a gold medal in Trials requires a no-fault run, which means that a single mistake sinks you.

A typical scenario: I am relaxed and have a good run, earning a silver medal with a single fault and a great time. "No problem," I think, "I'll go back and nail that gold medal. Easy as pie." But it's not easy. I get hung up on a single obstacle, and fail it over and over again. When I do get past a difficult part, I lose focus and biff it on something that has never given me a problem. Hitting the back button to re-start the race becomes reflexive, and sometimes I hit it without even intending to. I feel my blood pressure rising and my heartbeat quickening, and a small part of my brain is starting to warn me that I need to stop. A dominant part of my brain tells the small part to shut the fuck up.

Before I know it, the occasional frustrated utterance has given way to unbroken streams of profanity, sometimes in sentence form but usually not. And frustrated shakes of the head have given way to stomping around the room looking for something to break. If I'm lucky, I don't find anything.

The worst part is I always know it's about to happen, and I can't seem to do anything about it. I can tell myself to take a breath and relax, to put it in perspective, but nothing helps. The rage is coming. It's like watching a tidal wave roll in.

I don't know why I'm telling you this. It's embarrassing. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, and I'm writing this for the same reason that I keep playing the games that turn me into the Incredible Hulk, minus the upper-body strength. Or maybe it's because I feel like I've been hiding a significant part of my game-playing identity for all these years. Could be that I want advice, or to know that other people have the same problem, but it doesn't really matter because I know I'll never change.

There are worse character flaws to have. I could be an addict, or a liar, or a thief. On the list of things that should disqualify you from participating in human civilization, "gets too mad at video games" is pretty low. But I hate it. I absolutely hate it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

An impassioned plea for apathy

 Above: Geralt begins his quest to hunt down a guy who said something mean about him on the internet.

I can't take it anymore. Every day, it seems like people are all atwitter about another irrelevant nontroversy. Matters that a normal human being would dismiss as trivial are elevated, on the internet, to grand morality plays where nothing less than our fate as a species hangs in the balance. It is fucking ridiculous. If we could find a way to channel self-important outrage into kinetic energy, our dependence on foreign oil would be finished tomorrow. Instead, we're going to choke on it.

The latest? Some guy at Gamer Limit didn't like The Witcher 2. Now, you or I would hear about this and think, "Huh, someone has an opinion about a video game. I wonder what I should have for lunch." Witcher 2 fanboys hear about this and see a battle as pivotal as the invasion of Normandy. They regret that they have but one life to give for a game they enjoy.

It doesn't matter to them that reviews for the game are still almost uniformly positive. If anything, that's all the more reason to start wailing on the one guy who didn't like it. You let somebody step out of line just this once, and what happens the next time? We might have to start dealing with a real diversity of opinions, which would require us to engage with games critically, and with one another respectfully, and that just sounds too hard. Easier if everyone repeats one another.

I haven't played The Witcher 2, and I have no idea if I'd agree with Bobby Hunter's criticisms or not. But they sound fair to me. He talks about a tricky interface, cumbersome combat mechanics, and a storyline that didn't resonate with him. Not only does this sound reasonable, but I've read positive reviews of The Witcher 2 that make the same points! It's not as though he accidentally played some other game.*

Of course, there's a bigger issue here. The reason many people claim to be outraged -- the reason people think they are justified in firing whatever insults and accusations they can imagine at the writer and the site -- is because the Gamer Limit review dragged down the game's Metacritic score from 90 to 89. The horror!

We all know it's bullshit that developers have powerful, often unfair incentives to hit a certain Metacritic score. I was heartbroken to hear that the Fallout: New Vegas devs missed getting a bonus by one lousy Metacritic point, especially because I consider it to be nearly a masterpiece. But does the fault really lie with the reviewers of New Vegas, who accurately mentioned that it was buggier than a Victorian whorehouse?

Further, if CD Projekt, like Obsidian, does have the fate of their business riding on a 90+ Metacritic score, something I have not seen seriously suggested, then whose fault is that? I would suggest the blame should be apportioned in this order.
1. The executives who made a boneheaded deal.
2. Metacritic, which wields its influence like a cudgel.
3. Fans who, by giving a shit about Metacritic, grant it its influence.
5,000. Someone who wrote a bad review of The Witcher 2.
What do these people want, exactly? All critics to march in lockstep all the time? You hear so many complaints about how reviewers don't use the entirety of the 0-10 scale, but as soon as someone does, it's a bloodbath. Why, it's almost as though people want a validation of their own opinions, and nothing more.

What bugs me most about flare-ups like this are the accusations of bad faith. I don't doubt that there are people out there who are not interested in writing good, honest criticism, and see controversy as a shortcut to pageviews. But there is no evidence -- none -- that this is the case here. I happen to have right here a link to another review that Bobby Hunter wrote of an action-RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Let's see what kind of incendiary lying bullshit he made up about it just so Gamer Limit could get more hits.

Oh wait. He gave it a high score! Even weirder, his approach is consistent across both reviews. What he liked about Reckoning -- smooth combat, fast-paced action, and competent adherence to genre tropes -- he found lacking in The Witcher 2. Whether you agree with his conclusions is beside the point. Judging by his work (what a concept!), he's not somebody who flings shit at the wall to see what sticks.

The way so many people default to this line of attack tells me that they don't have anything substantive to say. They just want to gang up on someone. They want to elevate a simple disagreement into a clash of good versus evil -- with themselves radiating pure white light, of course, no matter what garbage they sling, because they are armed with the correct opinion about a video game. That's borne out by reading the comments on the piece. Not that I'm suggesting you read the comments, if you value your sanity. You could guess what they sound like, and you'd be right.

You know what the truth is? Writing a negative review sucks. It feels terrible. You know that a lot of dedicated people worked hard on something, and put a lot more hours into it than you did, and you're about to tell people that it's no good. And if you know that you're going against popular opinion, you have to live with the very real possibility that you're about to become ground zero for the next round of targeted fanboy fury. Many of the angry commenters suggest that Hunter should quit his gig as a game reviewer because he didn't get the same value from The Witcher 2 that so many of his peers did. I would suggest the opposite. The day that he pretends to find something in a game that isn't there, that's when he should quit.

Really, though, it's not this particular case that bothers me as much as the pattern. Whether it's a negative review of The Witcher 2, or the ending of Mass Effect 3, or somebody saying he felt weird at PAX, the story is the same every time. The mob moves, locust-like, from one controversy to the next, with no sense of perspective or decency. They'll pick Bobby Hunter's bones clean today, forget the whole thing within a month, and then swarm the next one who strays from the pack. Guaranteed.

People, I am begging you: the next time you read something on the internet that spurs you to anger, wait a goddamn minute before you react. Stand up. Walk out of the room. Pet your cat. Ask yourself what you're so pissed off about. Ask yourself if it matters to your life and your experiences. Ask yourself if your response is going to help.

If you're still mad after all that, okay. Go ahead and write a searing blog post.

*Read this, from Jim Rossignol's orgasmic review of the PC version:
It’s a peculiarly ill-judged baptism of fire (literally at some points). Where you’re expecting a game to teach you how it works and lead you by the hand, The Witcher 2 offers nothing but a few text-based tips boxes. If you don’t take time to figure out that you have to constantly dodge away with the spacebar, or use magic to buff your combat, you are going to struggle. And the game does not tell beginners this. The spells are barely mentioned, and you’ll need to stop and figure it out for yourself if you want to know what they do. While there are situations in which they /are/ introduced to you, at no point are you explicitly taught that it is a lot easier if you use the shield power to protect yourself in combat, for example
That's almost exactly the same thing that Hunter complained about. The difference is that Rossignol liked the game despite this, while Hunter didn't. Isn't that... good? Isn't that what we want from our writers? Different perspectives? When I read Rossignol's review, I thought to myself, "This does not sound like a game for me." It didn't make me want to string him up for liking it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Raid: Redemption

Above: Boys will be boys!

I want to start with some expectations management: as great as it is, The Raid: Redemption does not belong in the top echelon of action movies. Compare it to Die Hard, another movie about an overmatched cop trapped in a building with a bunch of lowlifes, and it's easy to see why. The Raid doesn't give us a sharply drawn hero, a memorable villain, or much of a story. Its faceless henchmen are just that, faceless, not like Die Hard's unforgettable team of Eurotrash terrorists, each of whom had a clear role and identity. When I say that The Raid is the best action movie I've seen in years, that's both high praise for the film, and an indictment of the current state of the genre.

What The Raid does offer, in spades, are fight sequences that are choreographed with aplomb and photographed with confidence. In an age when most cinematic action scenes are comprised of cartoonish CGI, incomprehensible blurs, and weaker impacts than touch football, here is a movie that radiates authenticity with every bone-crunching hit. It feels real -- not in the sense that you believe a real-life person could have the stamina that these characters have, or go the whole day without once having to go to the bathroom, but in the sense that you believe the people onscreen are getting hurt. The squalid tenement where the action happens feels like a real place, not a movie set. And as our hero faces down one frothing bad guy after another, you believe, despite the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime of moviegoing, that he might not make it through this thing.

So, no, The Raid doesn't have much in the way of a story. If you've seen the trailer, you've pretty much got it. A team of cops is set to infiltrate a high-rise and arrest a crime boss who acts as a landlord to the city's worst criminals. Naturally, about halfway up the building, the cops are ambushed and cut off. The ruthless efficiency of the gangsters would make a private equity firm proud. The crime boss calls in snipers from adjacent buildings to cover the windows, and their marksmanship is shown in detail. It's a small touch, but an important one -- the cops won't even be allowed to flee with their tails between their legs.

From then on, the movie is one mostly unbroken string of action scenes. Everybody runs out of bullets by about the 30-minute mark, both cops and criminals, leaving them to contend with batons, knives, machetes, and whatever impromptu weapons they can find. It's here that the movie hits its stride. Working mostly in an identical series of hallways and stairwells, director Gareth Evans and his co-fight choreographers (stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) wring almost endless variety from their battles. I have read criticisms of The Raid that decry the repetition of the settings, but given the martial-arts chops on display, I wonder who even took the time to notice. Besides which, criticizing a low-budget movie for recycling sets is like slamming a sonnet for only having 14 lines.

Evans isn't a showy director who tries to dazzle audiences with fancy camera tricks. His m.o. here is to stick with medium shots and let his performers do the work. We're treated to full-frame displays of physical feats that are all the more impressive for appearing to be done without the aid of special effects. No one in this movie can fly or deflect bullets. The action is fast, yes, but it's comprehensible, and while there are plenty of cuts, they are all made in service of letting us know where the combatants are in relation to one another, and what they are doing. As viewers, we are grounded at all times.

With two other features under his belt, Gareth Evans is already showing growth as a director. His first collaboration with Uwais, Merantau, also featured kick-ass fight choreography, but it was slow to start and dragged for long stretches. (However, Merantau also features a fight in a service elevator between Uwais and Ruhian that is worth the price of admission alone. It's on Netflix streaming. Watch it.) The Raid gets started faster, is better paced, and has a sneakier sense of humor. But I think Evans can do even better.

What I'd like to see from him next is a movie that takes seriously its obligation to give us characters we care about, and a storyline that is about more than just the next plot point. I don't think that means easing up on the action. For instance, imagine if our hero in The Raid didn't lovingly kiss his pregnant wife goodbye before leaving for the disastrous mission, but left in a huff after a dumb argument. Imagine if, fighting for his life against a quartet of machete-wielding miscreants, in the back of his mind he knew that the last thing he may ever have said to his wife was an insult. None of that would require any more dialogue, or less screen time devoted to people kicking each other in the face and chest. Yet it would make him more of a character and less of a type.

All that said, if Gareth Evans just keeps making movies as awesome as The Raid, then we're in good hands for years to come. I hope other filmmakers are taking notice.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


Above: I'm standing on the edge of tomorrow / And it's all up to me how far I go

My review of Journey is up now at It is the culmination of a lifelong scheme to infuriate honest gamers everywhere, and to troll good-hearted players for pageviews in a cynical cash grab. Or it's an accurate reflection of my experience with the game. One of those two things.

I admired thatgamecompany's Flower, mostly for the sensation of flight it gave, which remains the best use of the Sixaxis that I've encountered. Journey isn't much different from that game in the nuts and bolts. You wang around the levels, coming into contact with things that light up, and don't do much that feels traditional or objective-based. (Though Journey is more traditional than Flower in terms of your avatar's moveset, its appeal is also not predicated on your mastery of those moves.) I didn't find the same feeling of exhilaration in the moment-to-moment play of Journey as I did with Flower, and I also thought it strained much harder for relevance. I am all for games that break the rules in an attempt to offer a different kind of experience -- obviously -- but this one didn't do it for me.

I was interested to see that Tom Chick's Journey review was the only one indexed on Metacritic that resembled my own take on the game. Even more interesting was his follow-up, "The official Journey review FAQ," which was his response to the predictable shitstorm that arose after his original review. I have to wonder why a game like Journey, which has a Metacritic score of 92 and is the fastest-selling game in PSN history, needs such ardent defenders. Journey fans: you have already won! The slaughter rule is in effect.

This does speak to the difference between a game review and criticism, though. Are people concerned that Chick's review will dissuade potential Journey fans from trying the game? Are they just looking for validation of their own positive experiences, even though they could get it from almost every other review? Do they sincerely believe that Chick missed something, or that they can change his mind if they just call him an asshole loudly enough?

It is very likely that we'll be covering these topics and more at our PAX East panel, "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want a Review!" Friday afternoon at 3 in the Wyvern Theatre. Pick up a copy of the Phoenix before you come! You can roll it up and whack me on the nose with it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Insult Swordfighting at PAX East

Thousands of eager readers have written and tweeted to ask if Insult Swordfighting will have a presence at PAX East. I am happy to reply that the answer is yes, insomuch as I will be present at PAX East physically, if not mentally.*

That's not all! I was honored to be invited to participate in a panel hosted by freelancer extraordinaire Dennis Scimeca, along with some other impressive guests. It's called "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want a Review!" You can read the full description on the PAX East site, or in the following pasted paragraph.
Is there a difference between a game review and game criticism? Do you expect reviewers to talk about why a game is important in the annals of development or do you just want to know whether it’s worth your $60 or not? Should game reviewers even CARE if you’re going to purchase a title? As the video game media matures along with video games themselves, the purpose of a review isn’t as clear as it once was. Come hear what a panel of experienced reviewers and games media pundits have to say about these questions, and then let them know what *you* want out of your game reviews.
The panel will be held on Friday at 3 PM in the Wyvern Theatre. Don't be a loser and go to the Dragon Age panel that BioWare is hosting at the same time.

As for the rest of the weekend, I have a few plans, but not many, and will probably be roaming the show floors for most of the time. This is a good time to assure you of two things: yes, I would like to meet you, and no, I will not introduce myself unprompted, because I am an emotionally stunted manchild. Last year I averted my gaze and walked away upon recognizing Justin McElroy, of all people, perhaps assuming that niceness on the internet and niceness in real life are inversely related. Regrets? I've had a few.

At any rate, hope to see you there, and hope that you do not sucker punch me if you pick up this week's Phoenix and read my review of Journey. To PAX!

*i.e., drunk.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Yakuza: Dead Souls

Above: You finally get to play as Majima, and this is the best they've got.


I gave Yakuza: Dead Souls a spin for Paste, and did not like what I found. In a month when I spent more time than necessary feeling superior to Mass Effect fanpersons, here was my own chance to flip out in a righteous spasm of jilted fanboy rage. Dead Souls is a piss-poor entry in a series that I love. It's as simple as that.

Even though the zombies were a warning sign, I was willing to roll with it. It's Yakuza! How could it not be clever and surprising? The problem is simply that Dead Souls is predominantly a shooting game, and it is a bad one. There are long stretches where you have to run through corridors strafing zombies, without any sense of connection to your character or to the gun(s) in his hand. Despite the importance of headshots, precision aiming is essentially impossible, and the best way to succeed in the game is to rely on a generous auto-aim, which is less a helping hand from the designers and more a concession to the game's inherent brokenness.

I wouldn't recommend Dead Souls to newcomers or to fans. But! This would be an excellent time to remind everyone that my 2011 game of the year, Yakuza 4, is available for under $20 at Amazon. It is much, much better.

(Also: Yakuza 2 is $80? Damn.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What happened to action movies?

Above: Part man, part machine -- all the trigger for a 2,000-word rant about action movies

This week is RoboCop week over at Unwinnable, and with their prompting I have spent the last day devoting far more mental energy to thinking about RoboCop than I have to things like work, the GOP primary, or my personal hygiene. Unlike Garrett Martin, who just saw the film for the first time, I have seen RoboCop many times. I quote it with some frequency.

(Favorite RoboCop quotes, in ascending order:

"They'll fix you. They fix everything."
"I'd buy that for a dollar!"
"I used to call the old man funny names. 'Iron Butt.' 'Boner.' One time, I even called him... 'Asshole.'"

These come in handy more often than you'd think -- as does a triumphant vocal rendition of the film's score. Duhduhduh DUH DUH, duh DUH duhduh!)

Yet every time I watch it, I realize that I've made the same mistake. Since my last viewing, I've always come to think of RoboCop as that mega-gory action movie, the one where Peter Weller's hand gets blown off in close-up, a giant robot shoots an innocent man full of bullet holes the size of baseballs, and a bad guy disintegrates after getting doused in toxic sludge and hit by a car. Don't get me wrong: that stuff is all there, and it is spectacular.

But what I tend to forget is how funny, smart, and savage RoboCop is. As a satire of the Reagan 80s, it is absolutely merciless. 25 years on, its barbs still sting. Abandoned by the government, Detroit has gone bankrupt, and even the police force is now controlled by a shady corporation in search of profits. Anything the firm can do to reduce expenses will enhance shareholder value. The logic is as unassailable as it is reprehensible: the biggest expense on OCP's balance sheet is the labor -- the cops themselves. And so when some poor sap finally volunteers for the RoboCop program, it's not by choice. It's because a gang led by the dad from That 70s Show has blasted most of the flesh off his body. Talk about cutting expenses!

From here, the narrative follows two intertwined threads. RoboCop, along with his partner, uncovers the criminal conspiracy that goes right to the top of OCP, while RoboCop himself searches for his identity, haunted by flickering memories of his old life. He knows he wasn't always a machine, programmed to follow orders; he just can't make sense of the signals he's getting from his vestigial brain. The threads come together in a potent final shot, when the grateful old man says to RoboCop: "That's nice shooting. What's your name, son?"

And RoboCop turns toward the camera, in closeup, and answers, almost defiantly: "Murphy."

(Duhduhduh DUH DUH, duh DUH duhduh!)

Above: So good, Paul Verhoeven even scooped John Woo on the two-guns thing

There you have it. A stunning meditation on laissez-faire capitalism run amok, man's search for identity, and robot policemen who can shoot the nuts off a rapist from 50 yards. Now, I understand that RoboCop was fairly well reviewed in its day, and rightly so, but in the passage of time it has come to be lumped in with a whole bunch of other films as just another 1980s action movie. This is wrong.

First, as I've already made clear, RoboCop is not just another 1980s action movie, as typified by Commando, probably the quintessential Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

(Full disclosure: I love Commando. But loving something means accepting its flaws, and let's face it, Commando is pure camp. Before the climactic scene, Arnold emerges from the ocean in a Speedo, carrying about 300 pounds of gear, which he then uses to murder like a hundred dudes before a fight to the death against the doughiest, least threatening heavy in film history, who, of course, has a mustache. And Arnold's flexing the whole time. I bet the gay porn industry tried to make a Commando parody in 1985 and realized it was impossible.)

But to call RoboCop "one of the good ones" only advances a false narrative, which is that all, or most, action movies in the 1980s were mindless. It's not the case.

Consider this stunning fact: within a 16-month span, the following four movies were released theatrically:
  • Lethal Weapon (March 6, 1987)
  • Predator (June 12, 1987)
  • RoboCop (July 17, 1987)
  • Die Hard (July 15, 1988)
Not only is each one of those movies not your standard brainless macho fare (not even Predator -- we'll get to it), they're four of the best action movies ever made. Why? Because they've all got something more happening under the surface.

Lethal Weapon today is remembered as the movie that gave us "I'm gettin' too old for this shit," but it's actually a portrait of profoundly damaged men, each of whom copes in his own way with the scars of a violent past. RoboCop, as noted, is a bitter anti-Reagan satire. Die Hard, probably the most important action movie ever made, gave us the blueprint for the next 20 years of action cinema, although nothing else would ever match it.

Above: Badass upon badass, like an MC Escher painting stabbing itself with a Bowie knife

As for Predator, it is clearly the best movie ever made about a badass alien being who travels to earth in order to hunt badass humans, but what's subversive about it is the idea that being a badass isn't always enough. I mean, the Predator is the biggest badass in the galaxy. He tears through some of the biggest badasses on earth, like Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, and still he's not enough of a badass to overcome Arnold Schwarzenegger. So what does he do?

He suicide bombs himself!

Are you kidding me? All movie long, we're led to believe this thing has a strict code of honor. It won't even attack unarmed people. Then, the second something's not going its way, it takes its ball and goes home. Like I said: being a badass isn't always enough. This was not the accepted narrative of the Reagan 80s. Even today, right-wingers will tell you that the hostages were released from the American embassy because the Iranians plotzed themselves the second the Gipper was sworn in.

(We learned that being a badass isn't enough in a more depressing way with Predator 2, in which being Danny Glover was apparently enough to take down a Predator. Really? In the first movie, the most badass dudes in the world couldn't stop a Predator, and only Arnold was barely, barely badass enough to do it, and now we're saying Danny Glover's on that level? Give me a break. Besides which, Predator 2 is horribly racist. Don't watch it.)

Here's my question: what the hell happened?

How did we go from four of the best action movies ever made in less than a year and a half, to entire calendar years where nothing good comes out? How did we go from hardcore, R-rated films where people get their brains blown out in slow-motion while Bruce Willis calls them all motherfuckers, to PG-13 movies where doughy guys are probably fighting but it's too up-close and choppily edited to tell? How did we go from action movies that snuck hidden meanings into the mayhem, to movies that clumsily comment on topical issues without taking a firm stance in case it'd hurt overseas box office?

Action movies just aren't as good these days. Not American action movies, anyway. They're still getting it done in Asia.

Above: Indonesia, gettin' it done

Part of it is genre distinction. You could ask me: what about Iron Man, or The Dark Knight? And I would say, yes, those are excellent examples of big-budget blockbusters that are fun and smarter than they need to be. But they're not action movies. They're superhero movies.

I realize it's a fine line. Why is RoboCop an action movie, but Iron Man isn't? They're both about guys who use advanced technology to give themselves incredible powers that they use for good, and not evil. They both have evil corporate antagonists who appropriate different advanced technology for evil, and not good.

All I can say is this: a good superhero movie is about wish fulfillment. You watch it, and you think, "Boy, wouldn't it be cool if I could do what that character can do?" That's not the case with an action movie. An action movie is about a desperate character in a desperate situation. You watch a good action movie and think, "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to do what that character has to do!"

RoboCop, in other words, is not an enviable or aspirational character. He's a tragic figure. So is John McClane, the shoeless cop trapped in a high-rise with a dozen highly-trained terrorists. So are the badasses of Predator, lost deep in the jungle with the one thing in the galaxy scarier than they are. So is Martin Riggs, a man suffering so badly from PTSD that his greatest asset in the field is a total disregard for his own life. That things may turn out all right in the end for some of these characters is beside the point. They are driven to action not by choice, but by necessity.

Above: No one would want to be in John McClane's (lack of) shoes

Try to think of a recent American action movie that fits these criteria. Taken has achieved "no way am I changing the channel" status whenever it's on TV. It's exciting as hell, and Liam Neeson is almost badass enough to make you think he could face down a Predator, but it's also one of those PG-13 movies where the craziest stuff is almost brushed aside. (Awesome exception: when he shoots the French guy's wife to show he means business.) What Taken lacks, especially, is that deeper level. Its message about human trafficking is a good one, but it's all right there on the surface, and not especially daring or sly.

The Bourne movies are good, and tap into the post-9/11 distrust of a government with too much data and too few scruples, but the endless shaky-cam and PG-13 violence don't have the grandeur we used to expect. Michael Mann's underrated Miami Vice is another good one, but it's too faithful a police procedural to rank with the all-time greats. (Plus, Colin Farrell's mustache is so ridiculous that you expect John Matrix to show up and impale him with a pipe.) People seem to like Crank, but holy hell is it silly -- like, Commando-level silly. Also, I feel like I'm the only person who noticed that Jason Statham's character rapes his girlfriend in public in that movie.

We could go on for awhile.

Above: Smoking? Talk about your bad role models!

The fact is, we're in a drought of great action movies. There could be any number of reasons. Studios might have realized that PG-13 movies make more money. The global marketplace might have made it more risky to put subtext in your blockbuster, either because it wouldn't translate or because it could translate too well and offend somebody. We might have lost our national appetite for shirtless men screaming while firing M60 machine guns into banks of computers. I don't know what it is. I just know it's a goddamn tragedy.

You might ask: Isn't it possible that I only think so highly of these movies because they came out when I was young and impressionable, and watching VHS copies of them out of sight of my disapproving parents was the most thrilling thing I could imagine?

Yes. Completely. I'm willing to say there's greater than a 50% chance that this is the case. And if it is, then anything else I've said here is irrelevant. But just in case, let's press on.

See, Hollywood in the 1980s knew something that today's filmmakers have forgotten. They knew that you could lure people to the theater with the promise of titillation, and sucker-punch them with a story of real substance. They knew that action was about pulling the camera back and letting the viewer see where the antagonists were in relation to one another, and what they were doing, and why. They knew that someone could be part man, part machine, and all cop.

Like Officer Murphy, the action movie industry has forgotten the best part of itself. And like Officer Murphy, they can get it back. It'll take someone with vision, guts, and the guile to completely sneak it past the studio heads. It won't be easy, but I can promise you: those of us who were weaned on 1980s action movies will show up in force.

If not, maybe John McTiernan can just do a Kickstarter or something.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Darkness II

Above: Jackie quad-wields you in the face.

My review of The Darkness II is up now at Count me among many who were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story. While the gameplay is a little slicker than before, I don't think it benefits by being more overtly game-like than its predecessor, and by having more traditional level design.

In the previous game, Jackie was the only one with magical powers, and his enemies could bring little more to bear than increasingly powerful weaponry. Here, they have enchanted abilities of their own, which may make for a more fair fight, but diminishes a key part of the allure -- the first game was like a monster movie where you got to play the monster.

The whole thing is a lot of fun and well worth playing, but after playing the PC version I would certainly recommend that you play on a console. The mouse and keyboard interface is all sorts of messed up. To use the Darkness slash power, you need to click the mouse wheel, and then move the mouse up, down, or to the side to direct it. It doesn't work well, and feels like you're flailing. Plus, you're likely to accidentally scroll and switch weapons. Additionally, when you're wielding two guns, mouse2 fires the lefthand gun, and the mouse1 fires the righthand gun. It feels completely unnatural.

Oh, and for some reason you use the N and M keys to swap between skill trees. Makes no sense at all.

At any rate, I expected the worst from The Darkness II and found it to be a worthy sequel. This has been a good winter for games, and Syndicate isn't even out yet. What a wonderful time to be alive.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2

 Above: Caius and some lady who's barely in the game.

I reviewed Final Fantasy XIII-2 for Paste. I didn't like it too much, but then again I'm the guy who did like Final Fantasy XIII quite a bit, so make of that what you will. Because the review necessarily had to cover a lot of ground, I wasn't able to mention my single biggest gripe with the game, which would have required a laser-like focus on a seemingly minor point, and a mind-numbing amount of explanation.

Minds, prepare to be numbed.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a random battle system, but with a real-time element. Whenever enemies spawn, a timer appears and a big circle is drawn around your character. If you can run up to a foe and whack him with your sword in the first few seconds, you get the first strike, which casts haste on your party, and fills up your opponents' stagger meter. If not, most of the time you'll begin the fight on equal footing. You can also try to run away, which is usually successful, and in which case the enemies vanish.

Now, if you fail to run away, or if the clock otherwise ticks to zero, nothing bad happens unless you lose the fight. Usually, losing a fight gives you the option to "retry," in this case meaning that you end up right back where you were, no worse for wear. But if you lose a fight after the clock runs down, you don't have the retry option. You'll have to start all the way back at your last save.

It's not the most punitive punishment in the world, but it is a sufficient incentive not to let the clock run down. Almost every time enemies appear, it makes sense to try to get the drop on them. But the controls aren't very good, not compared to a good action game, and so you usually end up running around in circles trying to make contact. As a segue into a fight, this is still not a huge problem.

The problem comes when the fight ends. As a remedy to complaints about the last game, FFXIII-2 features big, open levels with no clear path to your objective. It's also fully 3D, of course, with a free-floating camera that you can control at will. When you are returned to the world map after your fight, the camera is no longer showing the same perspective. Your character is no longer facing the same direction. The only indication of which way you were going comes from a dotted line on your mini-map, which shows your most recent steps, and is not at all helpful.

And so, every single time a fight ends, it takes a couple of seconds to re-establish your sense of the game. There is a moment of complete disorientation, in which you spin the camera around and squint at the mini-map, trying to remember which way you were going. By the time you figure it out, quite often another random battle has triggered, starting the whole process over again.

It reaches a crescendo of shittiness in the Academia 400 AF level, wherein you are attacked within seconds of each new encounter by flying enemies that you cannot reliably run away from. Many other levels have an option to ride this Chocobo in order to avoid random battles, but not this one. I spent a solid two hours on an otherwise lovely Saturday morning feeling like K. in The Castle, knowing exactly what I needed to do but being stymied at every turn.

It isn't the biggest annoyance in the world; it's a small annoyance that happens thousands of times. It's not like a bad escort mission that you need to push through to be done with it. From the moment the game begins, it's there, throbbing like a toothache. It keeps you off-kilter and uncomfortable the entire time you're playing. And it makes it harder to focus on what the game is doing well.

It's not just Final Fantasy games that have these issues, but it does seem like RPGs especially can be so invested in their Big Ideas that they overlook the importance of giving users a smooth and responsive experience minute by minute. From Fallout's bugginess to Mass Effect's inscrutable interface, this stuff matters. At least, it should.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rejected endings to Fallout: New Vegas

Above: The Courier contemplates his next move.

The Courier emerged from a shallow grave and became a contradictory, unpredictable force for good in the Wasteland. He always helped people when he could, even though sometimes he stole stuff when it was convenient for him. He also murdered about a half-dozen people for no reason, which he swears was by accident, such as when he meant to click through a closing line of dialogue without realizing that his hunting rifle was already swinging back up into view, and he shot old Alice McLafferty in the face. We tend to believe him, because this was the guy who scoured the desert for hours looking for a little girl's teddy bear. He never found it.


Not the brightest bulb, our Courier. Oh sure, he was eager, almost desperate for work, and he sought out and accepted new assignments with vigor. The follow-through, that's what he had trouble with. We lost track of how many times the Courier appeared unbidden at our door, begged for a job, and then vanished for weeks. At first, we worried. Eventually, we just assumed that some other damned shiny object had caught his attention out there in the wasteland. And we were usually correct.

He'd show up again, months later, babbling about some crazy-ass vault he'd found, or some loony ghouls he'd befriended, and then he'd stare at us blankly when we asked: But what about our chems? Did you bring our chems? He had not. We are still waiting for our stimpaks. Our people are dying here!

F-, would not order from this Courier again.


The Brotherhood of Steel had accepted the Courier into their private realm, and trusted him as they had never before trusted an outsider. They granted him weapons and armor, including their finest Power Armor, in exchange for nothing more than a few errands. When the Brotherhood looked at the Courier, they saw one of their own. Here was the man to bring science, technology, and learning into the new human age. The Courier repaid their trust by murdering them all when a talking computer told him to. Like, he didn't even think about it.

What a fucking psychopath.


Talk about your faux pas! Guess who showed up at Camp McCarran in his best Brotherhood duds -- again? That's right, it was the Courier, or as we like to call him, The Zero of the Tastes. (Come on, it works.)

For the third time in a month, the Courier appeared at the gates of McCarran in a run-down suit of T-51b Power Armor, with, get this, a T-45d helmet! He could have worn brown shoes with a tuxedo and not looked half as ridiculous. We certainly can't blame the NCR for opening fire immediately. We can blame them for their lousy aim, though. Fellas, what happened?


The Courier never found 50 of the Sunset Sarsparilla Star Caps. He tried. Really, he tried. He tried harder than any man should on a task so mindless. God, why did we even give him a quest like that? It was so stupid! What a goddamn waste of time! Arrgghhghgkhgdkjhdgsjhdsg


When he arrived at Jacobstown, the Courier could not escape one single, insistent thought: "Is that Lieutenant Worf's voice?"

Indeed, actor Michael Dorn did provide the voice of the wise Super Mutant Marcus, a fact that the Courier quickly confirmed on the Fallout wiki. Throughout his travels, the Courier had a habit of vanishing for minutes at a time during conversations, leaving the other party standing mutely, with a blank expression, as the Courier chased down another tidbit of casting information on the Internet. He was right more often than he was wrong, instantly identifying actors such as Matthew Perry, Michael Hogan, and Dave Foley.

The Courier did once go awry. After spending several hours with Boone, he could have sworn the sniper was voiced by Nolan North. I mean, who makes a video game these days and doesn't cast Nolan North? Boone sounds just like him. But no, according to the credits it was some guy named "Jason Marsden." Although he would never admit it, the Courier privately believes that this is a pseudonym for Nolan North. But he was always sure that the guy who did the voice of Marcus had also played Lieutenant Worf. It was obvious.

Because Worf... Worf never changes.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The loneliness of the support gunner

My sniper and I are crouched in the tall grass in a field overlooking an antenna site. We have an excellent vantage point from which to observe the comings and goings of troops in enemy-controlled territory. The sniper is an expert. Slowly, methodically, he picks off one Russian soldier after another. It is a beautiful sight. I feel blessed to be here, in this moment, in the sun-dappled splendor of these Central Asian hills. I am moved. It is not enough to witness this moment -- I must become a part of it.

Here's your ammo! I cry, hurling a crate of ammo next to my sniper.

He has stood up and is running away. The dull metal crate sits in the grass, unloved, never to know the warm touch of a restocking sniper.

I sprint after him. Wait! Wait! Got your ammo!

My energy is flagging and he is disappearing over a rise. I wonder: Had he even known I was there? Had I imagined our moment of shared transcendence?

And I wonder: Will no one take my ammo?


We are riding in an LAV through the streets of Paris. Through a small window, I see little but gray stone buildings passing by, sometimes only feet away. Judging by the thump-thump-thump of our machine gun above my head, we are eliminating hostiles with precision and efficiency. Our driver deftly navigates the narrow streets, as though he is driving a sports car rather than a truck loaded down with infantry and armor.

I am holding an ammo crate in my lap, drumming my fingers to the rhythm of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

We have captured an overpass that command has assured us is of utmost strategic importance. We have faced little resistance. We are moving on. There is a city square up ahead. Our leaders tell us that the fate of the entire battle may hinge on control of this square. Our gunner keeps firing. Our driver keeps rolling.

Soon, I am sure, we will stop, and someone will need ammo.

Someone must need ammo.


Before the war, this marketplace must have been the place to be in Tehran. I can picture families strolling through the bazaar, politely shrugging off entreaties from enthusiastic salesmen. I imagine young men buying fancy baubles for their dates. I can almost smell the roasting lamb from a nearby kebab stand. You could spend a whole day here and not see it all.

No longer. This is nothing more than a meat grinder into which dozens of young men are being thrown with a terrifying fervor. No sooner has a squadmate been been cut down than another arrives to take his place. You stop even trying to tell them apart after awhile.

I am lying prone in an alleyway, sweeping the optical sight of my M249 across the narrow opening to a nearby plaza. Behind me I hear a more lusty firefight, but I have chosen to defend our rear flank, which, to my mind, is pitifully exposed.

Now and then an enemy straggler stumbles into my line of fire. I let loose a volley of suppressing fire. They are not killed. Nor do they return.

I toss a bountiful ammo crate into the empty alley next to me. No one is there to reap its fruits.


Our company is huddled in the concourse of a Metro station, beset on four sides by encroaching enemy fighters. This is, at last, war at its most senseless. What possible strategic importance could this subway stop have for us? This isn't a battle -- it's mass murder. I can hardly hear myself screaming over the gunfire and the grenade blasts. But scream I do.

Got your ammo!

My comrades receive my ammo as manna. I have barely turned back to the fighting than the box is stripped and its contents depleted. It is no concern. I am prepared.

Ammo here!

Again they throw themselves onto my supply crate, gorging like starving men who have discovered a freshly killed boar. Again they turn toward our enemies, weapons laden with deadly cargo, and relieve themselves of their payload without sense or reason. Again their triggers click dry, and again they return to me. Again am ready.

Shoot! Shoot, my brothers, shoot! Empty your weapons and feast upon my ammo! May the fighting never end!