May 2008 Archives

It's heeeeeere....

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Just a quick update....the first episode of the new season of Venture Brothers I mentioned back here is now up at Adult Swim's website.  You can find the video here.  Previously, these have only been up for a while on Friday night, and then you'll have to wait until Monday, after it's shown on TV Sunday, so see it now if you don't want to wait.
So this week marked the release of one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  I've now seen it twice -- once in a mostly-empty theatre on opening day with the guys from work, and once in a pretty crowded theatre on Sunday with Marc.  I'm a big fan of pulp stories -- I am probably one of the few people that really enjoyed The Shadow movie, I guess -- and of course, the Indy movies are some my favorite movies of all time, so I was pretty excited about this.  However, I was prepared for disappointment; let's face it, the Star Wars prequels definitely weren't up the hype, Harrison Ford is in his 60s, and there's no Nazis in the movie, even though it takes place in South America.  The Boys from Brazil, anyone?

After the first viewing, I admit I was really disappointed.  I felt really let down, and I had some gripes, but I couldn't really put them into anything solid.  However, I have to admit I was in the minority of the people I saw it with (CK and Pat).  Knowing I was going to be seeing it again with Marc, I decided to reserve judgement until I watched a second showing with a bigger crowd and reevaluate.  I also got pointed by RPGnet to Todd Alcott's blog posts on the movie, which made me think a bit more about it thematically and I decided maybe I hadn't given it quite a fair shake (by the way, if you've never read Todd's dissections of the Bond movies or anything else, you owe it to yourself to take the time to do so, especially if you're interested in film).

So, after seeing it twice, the second time with a real crowd, I can say that I definitely feel I was too hard on the movie at first.  It still isn't as good as the others, I think -- even the much maligned Temple of Doom was better, in my humble opinion (but I admit I have a weakness for Mola Ram as an iconic villian).  However, it's still a serviceable movie, even if I'm not totally thrilled with every aspect of it.  Do yourself a favor and either see it with a crowd or wait for DVD though -- there's a definite difference in seeing the movie with a big group and feeling the reaction of the audience, as is often the case with big spectacle movies like this.  Unfortunately, coming immediately after the completely awesome Iron Man and right before what promises to be an amazing movie in The Dark Knight, the movie suffers from just being "good enough."

I have some more specific comments about what I did and didn't like behind the cut, since I don't want to spoil the movie for people who haven't seen it yet.  For those of you who have, I'm very curious to hear what you guys think (especially the esteemed Mr. Chesnut).
Wednesday marked the release of the new game from the Penny Arcade folks, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.  Tycho and Gabe have been talking about the game in the Penny Arcade news posts for quite a while now, and I have to admit I've only been marginally interested.  While I am a big Penny Arcade fan from a considerable while back, from the way they were talking about it it sounded like the game was going to be very much oriented towards the console crowd.  I have been very wary of console games, and aside from social games like Guitar Hero, few of the games that are geared towards consoles have much in the way of appeal to me.  Console-style RPGs have especially always struck me as very weak compared to more traditional computer RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic notwithstanding).

However, one of the things Penny Arcade has in spades over most webcomics is Tycho's sublime writing.  Granted, the comics can be a bit...well, juvenile at times, but behind the dick jokes, it's obvious that there's some real thought being put into it.  And, to be perfectly honest, I'm a sucker for good writing in a game.  So, Thursday, I downloaded the demo of the first episode from Greenhouse, and played it through.  I wasn't sure about it at first; the combat mechanics are very similar to Japanese console RPGs, and at the beginning, it seemed a bit overstuffed with the crate syndrome, both of which are warning signs to me.  However, the writing was pretty much what I expected, and the plot was intriguing enough to pull me in.  I bought the full game that night and ended up playing until 0100, which was considerably later than I really wanted to.

Needless to say, I thought the game was pretty good, though I do think it was a little short; it took me about six or seven hours to play through from start to finish, which is a bit short of what I expected for $20.  The art style is very cool; it reminds me a lot of a cross between Psychonauts (which is awesome) and the Curse of Monkey Island (also awesome), with of course a heavy amount of Penny Arcade thrown in.  Combat is a bit difficult to get the hang of at first, at least if, like me, you haven't played a lot of console RPGs, and the difficulty takes a considerable jump upwards after the tutorial section, which you may not be prepared for.  However, you never get totally screwed for losing a fight, so if it takes a few tries to get the hang of it, don't worry too much.

The basic game consists of you solving "cases" with the Startling Developments Detective Agency, which is to say Tycho and Gabe, in a sort of steampunk/pulp/Lovecraftian setting, of course with the requisite Penny Arcade bizarreness mixed in (the two main plots involve a giant Fruit Fucker terrorizing the city and a diabolical cult of mimes).  You, along with Tycho and Gabe, handle a bunch of these cases (or quests, if you prefer), some related to the main plots and some not, while fighting a variety of enemies, including anthropomorphic trash cans, villainous barbershop quartets, and hobos, and receiving help from some familiar characters.  On the surface, these aren't really that much more than the usual "kill X numbers of bad guys" or "bring me the MacGuffin" style chores that have been the hallmark of RPGs since time immemorial, and there's not usually that much nuance to what you have to do (part of its console-style heritage, I suspect).  However, as always, the devil is in the details, and Tycho's writing perfectly translates the Penny Arcade-style humor to what these quests are and how you go about them, putting the writing on a level near Psychonauts, though I will admit it is not nearly as family-friendly.  If you don't want your kids reading Penny Arcade, don't let them play this game either.

If you like Penny Arcade, and you're reasonably okay with console RPGs, this game is definitely worth picking up, assuming you can accept the relatively few number of gameplay hours for the price.  Unlike Portal, which was similarly short in length, it doesn't have a whole lot of replay value that I can see, unless there some subquests you missed on your first play-through.  There's not a lot of different ways to solve the puzzles, and your character building is purely cosmetic (and at least for the female characters, pretty limited), so once you play through it once there's not a lot more to it.  If you're kind of iffy on the price, I suspect once the rest of the episodes come out, the whole package will be offered for a lower price ($40 for 3 episodes, or something similar), at which point you might feel better about it.

And so it begins.

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Last Thursday saw what appears to be the opening blow of Eve Online's upcoming "factional warfare," the focus of the new Empyrean Age expansion due for release this summer.  During a peace conference between the Federation's economics minister and Ishukone CEO Otro Gariushi, Admiral Alexander Noir, a leader of the Gallente delegation who had just recently won the Adonis (Eve's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize), rammed his Nyx-class supercarrier into the space station, killing hundreds of thousands, including Gariushi and the economics minister.

In case you haven't been following Eve's ongoing plot (and I suspect that's most of you), CCP has been turning up the tensions between the various in-game nations for a few months, with things reaching a rather frantic pace lately.  Factional warfare, which has been promised for at least a year or more now, and the Empyrean Age expansion has been the focus of a multi-layered explosion of content; not only are there going to be some rather radical new game mechanics, but a tie-in novel describing the events of the war beginning is coming out this summer and there's evidence that the plotline will result in some rather sweeping changes to the in-game world as well (such as the replacement of the station model in Malkalen with a badly damaged one following the events of Thursday).  Thursday's event coincided with a rather snazzily done trailer in the form of a news report from the scene of the disaster, and from the looks of testing and the latest dev blogs, we're probably seeing factional warfare roll out in the next month or two at most.

The good part about this is that CCP is trying to do something that, as far as I know, has never been done before.  No other MMO has done something with as close a tie between in-game content, a metaplot, and out-of-game tie-in materials.  CCP is making a bold step and that's to be applauded, and it's probably something that Eve is uniquely capable of doing with a single-shard universe.  However, I (and others) have had some concerns with the way it's being rolled out.

My chief quibble, I think, is the fact that things are moving far too fast, and that that problem wasn't taken into account when this was sketched out who-knows-how-long-ago (I've heard the Empyrean Age novel has been in the writing stages for at least a year or two now, and I know the author read part of it at FanFest last year).  The latest Caldari plotline started only two weeks ago, and has gone from "sporadic Caldari labor riots" to "corporation upended by hostile takeover" to "nationwide race riots" to "worldshaking cataclysm" in the space of two weeks.  If there was that much preplanning put in place for this, you'd think the timing thing might have come up....but evidently not.  What this has resulted in is a feeling that things seem too forced and people can barely keep up with the news, let alone really get into discussing it and dealing with it before the next crisis hits.

That's only compounded by the fact that some of the events have strained credulity; Tibus Heth goes from assembly line worker to corporate CEO in two days?  Why him?  Alexander Noir goes from hardline advocate for peace to ramming a mothership into a Caldari space station?  I'm of the opinion that less is more when you're writing plots, especially since I think in game design, a chief concern should be verisimilitude.  If a game world is largely supposed to act on the same rules as reality, like Eve (which at least is supposed to be grim and gritty), then over-the-top events seem out of place -- it's like trying to shove Rambo (and not First Blood Rambo) into Platoon.  I'm also not very happy that at least at first it seemed very much like there were going to be definite "good guys" and "bad guys" in the war; I'm less worried about that now, but I'm still bothered because it really seems like Tibus Heth is being set up as a Hitleresque cardboard villian.  Only time will tell, but race-baiting demagogues are pretty....meh.

If I had been in charge, I would have had the war be a culmination of six months or a year of slowly building tensions, and I would have made the origins of the war be much more nebulous, happening in spite of the best efforts of the national leaders, rather than because of it.  I think I would also have tried to involve a bit more internal wrangling; I think we're likely to see some of that with the Caldari and possibly the Minmatar, but it doesn't look like we're seeing much of that with the Gallente or the Amarr (which is surprising, considering the competitive nature of their government institutions).  I would try to make the war a tragedy, ambiguous and disturbing to everyone involved with its horror, a World War I-style scenario.  CCP could still surprise me with something like that, but I haven't seen that yet, and the description for the novel seems to focus heavily on people with mysterious pasts and other "linchpin" NPCs, something that I think forgets the biggest strength of Eve, its player community.  The lead up to factional warfare has, so far, been largely railroaded, and players have had little to no input (made even worse by the rapid pace of events).  This is disappointing, when we've seen players do very cool things with CCP events before, like with the Defiants and Brothers of Freedom.  If I were working for CCP, I would advise against scripting things so tightly in the future (like they have painted themselves into a corner with by having a novel written and waiting) so that the players feel more empowered and therefore have much more reason to really feel involved with the story.

With all my complaints though, I have to give credit where credit is due.  After things began happening on Thursday, the traffic on the Intergalactic Summit message board and in the Malkalen system in the game shot up, and even players who have scoffed at roleplaying events in the past took notice.  That's a pretty big step, and it is exactly what CCP intended when they started this whole process, I'm sure.  While maybe everything is not to my taste (and I admit I have much higher standards than most), it's hard to argue with success, and I have to admit flying to Malkalen and swinging by the ruined station is a pretty powerful image.  I know a lot of people have given CCP's staff a bit of stick on this (me among them), but in this case I think aiming for the fence and maybe falling short worked out better than bunting and trying to leg out a single.  I do hope, however, that they will take some of the comments they've had during this process and apply it to the next big event they want to set up, because if they make the same mistakes (well, I think they are mistakes anyway) again, I will be pretty disappointed.

Weekend in Review

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I spent last weekend up in Chicago with Marc again, perhaps at an inopportune time Eve-wise (more on that later), but it was definitely worth my while.  Aside from just being able to spend time with Marc, we managed to squeeze in a fair bit of fun stuff to the weekend.

  • We went to another Wolves game on Friday, this time the first game of the conference championships against the Toronto Marlies (yes, that is a really silly name).  Unlike the last time I saw a Wolves game, this game was much cleaner and better played, and resulted in a pretty strong Wolves victory.  I had a lot of fun and am definitely looking forward to seeing more games next season, assuming I can fit them in (and that I am still living around here).  The Wolves do seem to have a problem with consistency though; you could tell during the game they swung between playing good hockey and just sort of lazing around on the ice, not challenging for the puck or bunching up.
  • Saturday we saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another Judd Apatow production, and we weren't disappointed.  It was very funny, though I don't think it was quite as accessible or "friendly" as 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up -- closer to the level of Superbad.  Not sure it really needed that much Jason Segel full frontal, though.  Still, it did a good job of not going overboard with cheap laughs and having some serious heart to it, so it keeps with the other three movies I mentioned in that vein.  It also seemed to be longer than I expected, but not in a bad way; the story just seemed to keep going.  I wasn't annoyed with that so much as just surprised.  It's also impressive how the old Judd Apatow players are turning out to be good writers in their own right.
  • We also started watching Firefly, which was probably long overdue; I'm not a completely rabid fan, but it is one of my favorite shows and a good reference for taste.  We've watched all the way up through "Out of Gas" now, and Marc seems to like it, which is good.  I wasn't sure at first, because he seemed awfull quiet during "Serenity" and "The Train Job," and he finds River annoying (which I suspect is going to make the movie a little less enjoyable to him), but the fact that he kept wanting to squeeze in extra episodes makes me a little less nervous that he's just doing it to mollify me.  I suspect we'll probably finish up the series this weekend when he comes down to visit.
  • Sunday afternoon we had dinner at the Weber Grill Restaurant.  I'd seen the Indianapolis location when I was at GenCon (it's on the way from the hotel I usually stay at to the Convention Center), and I'm a big fan of the Weber cookbooks, so I have been wanting to try it out, but I've just never had the chance.  We thought about hitting it on Saturday, but it was a bit far from the theatre we went to, so we hit it Sunday.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but holy smoke (no pun intended) was it good.  The rolls they start you out with are awesome -- they call it pretzel bread, and it really is just like a roll made from soft pretzel dough, from what I can tell.  I had the herb-marinaded flank steak, and Marc had the tomato basil chicken, and both were, quite frankly, mindblowingly good, and the garlic mashed potatoes with both of them were delicious.  I can't speak highly enough of the place, which has a great atmosphere in addition to the food, and I will definitely be trying to stop at the one in Indy this year.  Even the prices were not that out of whack with what I'd expect -- a bit expensive, but not really disproportionate with the quality.  If you get a chance to visit (I just found out they are only in Chicago and Indy), I highly recommend stopping by.
I'll probably have another post coming up today in relation to Thursday's events in Eve, of which I've been slightly critical -- look for that later tonight, probably.
So over the last few months, there have been two new releases from Nine Inch Nails -- the instrumental tracks Ghosts I-IV and the latest full-length CD, The Slip.  Both are being released digitially via the NIN website, and it sounds like everything else is being done by Trent himself (including the eventual CD release).  Considering his history of trouble with his record labels, especially with Year Zero, it's not particularly surprising to see him do things this way.  I have to applaud him as one of the few artists that seems to have decided to embrace the future rather than being dragged there kicking and screaming, probably hurting their image (and their profit margins) in the process.  However, the music industry isn't really my field of expertise, so I'll let others weigh in on that and give more useful analysis; what I wanted to get to was my impressions of these two releases.

Two of my favorite NIN tracks are A Warm Place (off Downward Spiral) and Help Me I Am In Hell (off Broken); I can still remember seeing them play A Warm Place live at the Assembly Hall when I saw them during their tour in 1994.  Two full CDs of NIN instrumentals is something I can only drool over.  However, when Ghosts I-IV was announced, I didn't realize it was all instrumentals until Marc told me that one of his kids had mentioned it and included that fact.  It didn't take long for me to grab it, and I've been listening to it a lot lately.  Like the other NIN instrumentals (and the soundscapes that Trent developed for the Quake soundtrack), the music is atmospheric, evocative, and definitely emotional, if you're primed for it (though nothing quite reaching A Warm Place's heights in that area).  I could listen to this release for days on end (and I have).  My only complaint is that most of the tracks are relatively short (about three minutes on average), but that's not really a huge complaint.  There are a wide variety of instruments and styles featured, something I've come to expect from NIN, but it all works together beautifully.  If you are a big NIN fan, especially if you really like the instrumentals like I do, check it out.  At five bucks for the full download, it's a steal.

The Slip, released last week, is a bit more uneven for me.  My first exposure to the CD (if it isn't on CD yet, does it count as a CD?) was from hearing Discipline on WPGU.  It's definitely the most mainstream thing on the CD, I think, and remiscent of the style from Year Zero (noisy, but still very...melodic?).  On the strength of that, I downloaded the rest, and for the most part I'm quite happy with it.  Most of the other tracks are in a similar vein, but vary in mood.  1,000,000 and Letting You are faster and noisier, while Echoplex is much more sedate, for instance.  The CD also features a pair of instrumentals, much longer than those on Ghosts, and they are just as good as anything on that collection.  Overall, I have to admit that it's not quite as strong as Year Zero, which I thought was probably NIN's best CD since Downward Spiral, but it's still pretty damn good.  It's well worth picking up from the website (I mean, Christ, it's free!), and I'll probably be buying the CD when it comes out this summer.
So Saturday, Marc, CK, Mel, and I went to see Iron Man, joining the throngs of people evidently also doing so, by the looks of this weekend's take.  I don't think Marc, Mel, or CK knew much about Iron Man at all prior to the movie, while I have a bit of knowledge about the character, mostly through osmosis from RPGnet (and I read a lot of comics when I was back in middle school).  For all of us, I think, the movie was definitely a hit out of the park; for me, Iron Man is now competing with Batman Begins as my favorite superhero movie of all time.  As Jeremy pointed out though, the two are so different in tone that it is hard to really compare them.

Robert Downey Jr. does an awesome job as Tony Stark (evidently alcoholic playboy is not a hard role for him to grasp), and he definitely nails the personality in each aspect -- Tony as the pre-epiphany playboy, Tony as ubergeek, and Tony as post-epiphany superhero.  The supporting cast is good too -- Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges all do a good job, and the movie isn't overly crowded with villians or supporting cast like some recent movies have been (see the latest Spiderman outing, for instance).  There was plenty of stuff that was obviously for real fans of the comic book (I'll give some examples behind the cut), but you could definitely enjoy the movie without ever having read the comic.  The special effects, while impressive, never overshadow the rest of the movie, and "in helmet" shots of Stark keep Downey from being a glorified voice actor for much of the film, as can sometimes happen with movies heavy on the CGI.

This is a movie I'm definitely looking forward to getting on DVD, and I'll probably try to pick up the soundtrack as well, which was pretty good.

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