February 2009 Archives

Lately, I've been rewatching the last seasons of The West Wing on Bravo.  I know it's a TV show and it's definitely an idealized version of the Presidency and politics in general; characters on the show get away with saying things in political speeches and news conferences that you wonder how the heck anyone would get away with it in real life.  Vinick and Santos are basically the "dream candidates" for a large part of the country, and they make speeches written by TV writers to evoke drama for storylines the writers have complete control over.

Tonight though, I saw Obama's "State of the Nation" address.  I wrote a month ago about his inaugural address, and I said that it kind of blew me away.  But when I saw this address tonight -- when I saw him display the same kind of confidence and not pull any punches, when he gives some firm plans and bold statements -- it really felt like I was just watching another episode of The West Wing.  Supposedly, Santos was extensively based on Obama, but if anything Obama's rhetoric and manner of speaking seems more impressive than the "idealized" version.  When he lays out specifics and (holy shit) tells people that he is going to raise taxes, that's pretty bold -- at least compared to the kind of (attempted) feel-good pap we've been fed for the last eight years.  Yes, he goes for inspiring words, and the proof really lies in the pudding, but he's really pushing an agenda that is not "get out there and shop."

In contrast, Bobby Jindal's response...well, first off, compared to Barack Obama wading through a clamoring crowd, looking completely comfortable in the element, when Jindal walked out he struck me as looking really awkward.  Maybe that's shallow, but body language is important, especially for a politician.  Also, I couldn't put my finger on it when he was talking, but jesus does he sound a lot like Kenneth the page from 30 Rock.  I suppose that's just a Southern accent, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.

And then we get to the content.  There are some good Republican ideals, and I think that it's extremely important that there be an "honorable opposition" in government.  But to have a Republican use the mess in New Orleans during Katrina as a reason not to trust big government, to have a Republican say they are going to clean house and cut out corruption after one of the most scandalous administrations in history, it comes across as unbelievably ridiculous.

Sure, Jindal tried to show some introspection, but it fell horribly, hilariously flat.  He said that Republicans had "gone along" with massive government spending -- who, exactly, were they going along with?  For six years, the Republicans had control of both Houses of Congress and the White House.  Come on.  It's not that I don't understand what the deal is here -- no Republican wants to sit there and go "yeah, we kind of fucked up the country here," especially when most of the people who were in charge during those 8 years in Congress are still there.  But what that shows to me is that the Republicans still just won't take a long hard look and own up to their failures.  Jindal tried -- maybe.  But his hesitance in going all the way makes it seem like he doesn't actually realize it was the Republicans fault.

Also, "Americans can do anything" is an okay catch phrase.  But when you repeat it about ten times in 15 minutes, after a powerful oratory like Obama's, it shows that you either have nothing to say, or you badly need a new speechwriter.
(I suppose it would have been more witty to title this Mass Effect: SEXIMULATOR OR ROLE PLAYING PORNOGRAPHY, but that joke has been done to death at this point. :))

A couple weeks ago, the lovely Deidei bought Mass Effect for me as a gift; I'd been wanting to get this for a while, but I'd held off.  Over the last week and a half I've put a lot of time into the game and so far I've been very pleased with what I've seen.  I've beaten the game once in a quick playthrough, much like I did with Fallout 3, and now I'm going back to play through it again.

Similar to what I've done before, this is going to be a two part review; the spoiler-free version will be here and I'll include spoilers behind the cut.

Overall, Mass Effect is an evolution of the previous Bioware RPG, the much-loved Knights of the Old Republic, despite claims that it's some radical new way of storytelling.  It's much more action-oriented than KotOR as well, which I suppose is not surprising since it was very console-oriented in design, even more so than KotOR was.  However, as is usual with Bioware games, it's well-constructed and the storyline is pretty compelling; while I think Fallout 3 did a much better job with it's open-ended, exploration-style gameplay, Mass Effect feels much more like a space action movie where you're the hero.

That being said, it does fall into a lot of the usual traps I've seen in computer RPGs; I think I'll be writing another entry soon on this particular subject, but I'll touch on what I found annoying and unsatisfying with Mass Effect specifically here.  So, similar to my Fallout review, I'm going to highlight the good and bad of the game.

The Good:

  • The writing in Mass Effect is excellent.  They've changed the conversation system from KotOR to where you pick the gist of what you want to say rather than the dialogue verbatim.  This allows them to show a bit more interplay between the characters rather than having it sound like a stilted one-way conversation, and I think it keeps you in the game a bit more.  While this does lead to some places where your character could say the same thing even from two (or more) different dialogue choices, but often the intent actually makes a difference.  This kind of subtlety is nice to see actually.  The story, as I'll go into in the spoiler review, is not particularly original, but it is very well-crafted.
  • There's a fair amount of variation in missions and dialogue based on how you create your character.  Part of the character creation process (which is functionally similar to Fallout 3's, but without the integration into the story that was so interesting in that game) is deciding a few facts about your character's background.  For instance, my first playthrough, my character was someone who had lived in space all her life and had been the sole survivor of an attack on a colony early in her career.  My second playthrough has my character being an Earth native who led a suicide mission in enemy space.  During the course of the game, you will learn various facts about what you did before and talk to people who were involved with it.  You seem to get unique missions based on your background and new solutions for others based on that.  It's nice to see your backstory actually making a difference to the gameplay, and it adds some replay value.
  • Most of the combat sequences are a lot of fun.  The while the combat system itself is a little clunky and I had some problems getting the hang of it, there's very few places where you feel like you're just fighting some guys because the game decided it was time for it.  It doesn't become too tedious except in a few places, and certainly nothing on the level of the last part of KotOR2.  The cover system, which lets you duck around corners or behind the (many) crates and other pieces of cover, then stick your head out, shoot, and pull back, works pretty well most of the time.  While I haven't really gotten the hang of the many biotic and tech powers available, they do provide a lot of variation in how to tackle combat objectives.
  • Background material for the game is very deep and provided in an interesting way; examining certain objects or having certain conversations with various characters add information to your Codex (basically an in-game encyclopedia -- much like the UFOpedia in X-Com).  It's easy to see a lot of work went into developing the backstory for the game, which I always appreciate.  While some of it has some impact on things in the game, sadly a lot of it is just there for flavor; I hope this is built on in later expansions and sequels.
  • The music in the game and the cinematics are, for the most part, very cool and definitely in line with the space opera genre.  None of the cinematics are too jarring and they don't pull you out of the game for very long, which is good -- I want to play a game, not watch a movie, after all.  The music is ambient in the right parts and epic in others, which really helps to pull you in.  It's very obviously influenced by space action movies, like Aliens or Star Wars, though the heart of the music is Vangelis' Blade Runner score.
  • The achievement system in Mass Effect is another boost for replayability.  While some achievements don't really do much other than give you bragging rights, most give you some other kind of bonus.  Making 150 kills with the assault rifle, for instance, lets you take the Assault Rifle skill as a bonus next time you create a character, even if the class you choose does not normally get it.  Beating the game taking more shield damage than actual health damage gets you an achievement that rewards you with 10% more shields every time you play.  These can definitely give you an impetus to replay the game with these new abilities.
The Bad:

  • Well, first off, it's a console port.  That means that it is going to have some limitations which are a bit annoying.  The biggest one for me right now is that there's a bug that keeps crashing the game every once in a while that seems related to the fact that the game wasn't built to handle higher-end video cards.  Thankfully, a patch for this appears to be in the pipeline, but it is quite frustrating.  Another annoyance is the way to pick conversations is to pick a dialogue option from ring -- excellent if you're using an analogue joystick, but not so good for a mouse, where I often spin past the option I want.
  • While the backstory (and the main storyline) are very well done, the world building here falls a little flat, especially compared to Fallout 3.  Like KotOR, the main planets you can visit are represented by 3-4 connected zones no larger than the size of a decent-sized building for the most part.  Planets with thousands or millions of inhabitants in their descriptions only seem to have a few dozen at most.  I realize that creating a fully realized giant colony is probably not a logical demand, but I really wish this was developed more.
  • The "other" planets, where you get missions to, have maybe one or two very tiny settlements and some scattered items of interest; if you're lucky, they might have one or two indigenous forms of life.  The rest of the planet is a bare expanse of fractal terrain (some of it extremely annoying to maneuver, especially in the Mako).  It would be nice if someone could figure out how to replicate the Starflight planet exploration experience, if only on a smaller scale.  The missions that take you to these planets are relatively straightforward -- usually you end up shooting up a bunch of guys, though to be fair on a lot of them there is a nonviolent solution.  Mass Effect is an action RPG though, so it's hard to complain that characters are generally all-combat based.
  • Speaking of the Mako, as many other people have talked about, it really is a pain in the butt to drive around, especially on the jagged terrain most of the random planets seem to have in abundance.  It bounces around crazily, even when rolling over what looks like a relatively small obstruction; for an IFV, it feels like it is a somewhat heavy Superball at times.  Once you get the hang of it, it's not too horrible, but it can be really annoying trying to get to some of the more inaccessible points of interest.
  • Many of the locations in the game feel very similar; there's not a lot of variation in art style.  Most areas are pretty much the same (especially on the random planets) and filled with ubiquitous crates.  Compared to Fallout 3's lovingly crafted locations, it was pretty disappointing.  I hope that in the sequels, we'll get to visit some more exotic locations, with more varied art schemes -- planets populated by the major alien races would be really neat to see.  Probably the most satisfying "planet," the Citadel, is that way partly because it seems to be much more full of people and you get some magnificent vistas that really show how "big" it is supposed to be, even if it's really about the same size as the other major planets.
  • One of my biggest complaints with Mass Effect is that there are simply too many items to deal with, and most of them are unnecessary.  For each item of equipment (pistol, assault rifle, light/medium/heavy armor, etc), there's basically a dozen or so different "brands," each with seven or eight different "models."  So, an item in the game is usually named something like "Kessler III."  With the model numbers, the higher a model number is the better that item is in comparison; a Kessler III pistol, for instance, is always better than a Kessler II.  However, the Kessler pistol is generally the crappiest thing you can get -- so a Kessler III pistol might be worse than a Raikou II pistol.  

    This is where the confusion creeps in.  Finding out which weapons are the best to use and which to toss out takes practice, and in the mean time you end up cluttering you inventory with a lot of crap that ends up being useless (and going through your inventory to weed stuff out is a pain).  While for some items, there's a real trade off -- one brand might have better accuracy but worse damage, for instance -- that seems to be the exception more than the rule.  I hope for Mass Effect 2 they realize that having a ton of items in and of itself does not make a game better.  This is a trap a lot of games fall into, but Mass Effect seems to do it worse than most.
  • The combat system is clunky, or at least a little hard to get the hang of.  My first playthrough was as a soldier, which is probably the most straightforward class -- you don't get many powers that do anything other than make you tougher or able to do more damage with your guns.  My second playthrough has been as the dual tech/soldier class, and it's been a lot tougher.  Not only am I weaker physically, but it can be hard to get the hang of the tech powers; feedback for them is a lot more subtle.  Tech and biotics seem to be targeted like grenades too, rather than powers in KotOR; this means that unlike in KotOR, ducking behind cover can actually protect you from a biotic or tech attack.  Considering that the attacks also take time to reach their target, against fast moving enemies this can be a little frustrating.  Companions seem to run into this problem too; I haven't really done much with directing their attacks myself (most of the time they seem to do a decent job), but I see some of their effects getting stuck on pieces of cover.
That's a long list of things I am disappointed by, but don't get me wrong.  I do think Mass Effect, overall, is a very good game, and for $20 bucks from Steam it's well worth picking up.  I just hope Bioware goes back to the drawing board and works on some of these niggling issues for Mass Effect 2.

A bit of a postscript on the Mass Effect DLC, Bring Down The Sky: basically, BDtS is just an extra planet to explore, and not a heavily developed one; better developed than one of the generic sidequest planets of the original game, but not as fleshed out as any of the main planets.  For free, it's not a bad addition; if I had to pay for it, I wouldn't spend more than a few bucks on it.  It's a nice bonus for people who bought the game, but it's really nothing special.  It's not even really integrated into the game very well -- it's just tacked on.  You never hear about the problem at all unless you go to the new planet.  It would have been nice to have the DLC add a new NPC in the Citadel, or a distress call sent to the Normandy, or a news story to hear on the Citadel elevators, to point you to it.  It also feels a bit unresolved, so I hope there's some more DLC coming to show you what happens later.

If companies really want to extend the life of properties through DLC or episodic content, I think they really need to come up with a better model than most games seem to be doing it currently.  If I could be assured of getting a new DLC level like BDtS every three months, I'd gladly plunk down 10 or 15 bucks a year for a DLC subscription.  If it was longer -- if I basically bought a new planet to the level of the storyline planets -- I would have been willing to pay 5 or 10 bucks for it.  If you want to drive sales of your original title with DLC, you need to make it a bit more regular than once every year and a half and/or you need to make it free (Valve's attitude towards DLC -- especially for Team Fortress 2 and the upcoming Left 4 Dead DLC -- seems to be the way to do that).

Okay now -- on to the spoilerific section.
Well, apologies for the tardiness of this post, but I have been waiting for CCP to post the videos of our fight on Saturday before I wrote my blog entry on this one.  They finally went up today, and though the HD version of our fight doesn't appear to be up yet, I suspect it will be coming soon.  So, on with the show.

This weekend marked the return of Eve TV's live coverage of the tournament, with in-studio commentary hosted by CCP Soundwave between all the fights.  I'm one of those people that really misses the weekly Eve TV shows from last year, and as nice as the radio broadcasts the last two weeks were, it would have been nice to see them live again too.  That made this week the highlight of the tournament for me, and really made the tournament something unique you just don't see with any other MMOs, a real worldwide sporting event -- with, at its highest point during the finals on Sunday, over 12000 viewers (Eve itself reached a new peak concurrent user record of over 51000 pilots online at the same time).

Our fight was at 1900 GMT on Saturday, about midway through the last half of the day's fights.  Our opponents, Ev0ke, had beaten us in the first elimination round of last year's tournament and then gone on to take the championship, and were widely believed to be one of the favorites for this tournament.  Our fight ended up being one of the best of Saturday, according to most viewers (though Sunday had a ton of matches to rival it).

The Fourth District vs. Ev0ke

The Fourth District: Nighthawk, Drake, 7x Caldari Navy Caracal, Caracal
Ev0ke: 5x Dominix, 2x Vigil

Our setup wasn't totally out of the box, as missile-heavy teams have been fairly common in the tournament, and Ev0ke was doing a slower, more heavily armored version of the Ishtar sentry drone setup.  A lot of people have wondered why we went with a Nighthawk, a Drake and a standard Caracal instead of a Nighthawk and two more Navy Caracals; the answer is that we wanted to be able to use two different gang mods, a siege (which toughens up our shields) and a skirmish (which gives our ships more speed), so we needed either a Vulture or two battlecruiser-class ships.  We didn't really have anyone who could use both skirmish and siege gang mods, so using two ships was pretty much our only choice.

You can see from the video that going in, we were the underdogs -- understandable, considering who we were going up against.  However, after a minute or two into the match, we managed to start hammering the Dominixes and were really putting some hurt down on the Ev0ke team.  Our strategy was basically to use dampeners on the Caracals to keep the Dominixes from being able to direct their fire (which requires a lock) while flying around at high speed with MWD to evade the sentry tracking.  For a while, this worked pretty well, and we were cutting the Dominixes down while we were just slowly getting nibbled to death.

Unfortunately, we ran into some trouble as the match wore on.  The heavy armor of the Dominixes meant that we couldn't kill them very fast, which gave the sentries more and more time to work on us.  It also meant our MWDs were eating away our capacitor.  Eventually, that meant that our ships capped out -- no more capacitor meant that they lost the energy they needed to move fast and run their dampeners, so eventually the Dominixes and their sentries started to wear us down.  The one thing that didn't happen was the boundary violation the commentators called -- that was actually on one of the Ev0ke players.  What happened to that Caracal was that it was too slow, and the sentries managed to get it in their sights -- and the volley just decimated the poor thing.

In the end, the fight was down to the wire, as our Drake took down the last Vigil and second-to-last Dominix all on its own, before falling to the remaining sentries.  I'm not sure what we could have done better, aside from not having that Drake and focusing our fire a bit better at the beginning of the match there.  Just barely losing to the finalists is hardly something to be ashamed of though!  Here's what the commentators had to say after our match:

Nothing really for us to be ashamed of -- we're already looking forward to our next tournament outing when, hopefully, we won't be going up against such a tough schedule -- if you watch the rest of the tournament matches, and I highly recommend you do, you'll see that Ev0ke got to the semifinals, where they lost to Pandemic Legion.  Pandemic Legion went on to defeat RUR for the tournament championship -- and they were the team that beat us in the second week of the qualifying round.  You'll also notice that we had the best outing of anyone else against Ev0ke, aside from Pandemic Legion.

Day 6 doesn't appear to be up on CCP's YouTube channel yet, but when it gets put up there, I highly recommend checking it out.  As I said above, Sunday had a ton of really close matches with some awesome displays of piloting, and anyone at all interested in Eve really owes it to themselves to check it out.  This year's tournament rules were really condusive to these sorts of excellent fights.
At about 0130 GMT on 5 February, an era came to an end in Eve Online -- the Band of Brothers alliance, a powerhouse of Eve politics since 2004, was disbanded by a director who decided to defect to BoB's archenemies, Goonswarm.  In the process, he stole billions upon billions of ISK, ships (supposedly including five motherships), and other commodities, transferring it to GoonSwarm.  The disbandment of the alliance also eliminated BoB's sovereignty in Delve and other home regions, halting capital ship production, deactivating cyno jammers and jump bridges, and leaving their POS network and outposts vulnerable to enemy attack.  The last 48 hours have seen an unprecedented amount of fighting in Delve as GoonSwarm and their allies invade what was previously a nearly impenetrable fortress; hundreds more opportunists have descended upon the region to grab what they can while the chaos continues.  You can see the difference between the sovereignty maps on 4 February 2009 and 5 February 2009.

ISD's Interstellar Correspondents have been trying to cover the situation, fan forums Scrapheap Challenge have been discussing the situation almost since the start, with this thread on the general situation and this one on the actual fighting in Delve, and BoB Director Dianabolic and GoonSwarm spymaster The Mittani appeared on Eve Radio to discuss the situation (during which the station got more than 1800 listeners, more than they've ever had previously).  This is the biggest event in Eve I've ever seen, and the attention it is getting is unbelievable -- I don't think I've ever seen anything that has so polarized and energized the community.  Accusations of hacking were levied at GoonSwarm early on, but it looks like that isn't actually the case, which is good -- the mess it would have caused if this was all due to an EULA violation would have been incalculable.

For me, as someone in a relatively minor alliance that has no stake in 0.0 politics and has had little to do with either BoB or GoonSwarm, this has been fascinating to watch.  A lot of people in the game have had a love/hate relationship with BoB during the last few years; it's hard not have respect for what they've been able to do over the last four years, but they have been dogged by scandal for much of it as well.  The Goons are notorious as well, originating from the SomethingAwful forums and having the reputation for being, well, Goons.

As a roleplayer, I think I tend to side more on the BoB side of things, simply because I take the game considerably more seriously than the vast majority of Goons, but as I said, I don't really have any stake in it at all.  BoB's done their fair share of stuff I'm not so fond of either (I found the t20 scandal pretty sickening) and I was really impressed when the Goons and Red Alliance took down the first Titan in real combat, so I'd like to think I'm a fairly neutral observer.

My overall feeling on the whole issue is mixed.  This is a momentous event, and honestly 0.0 has been far too static, especially in the tightly held regions like Delve, so this has a lot of potential to make 0.0 -- or at least Delve, Querious, and Period Basis -- much more interesting and dynamic for the forseeable future.  On the other hand, I am disappointed to see one of the iconic alliances of Eve fall not from an epic battle but from basically a slightly more complicated version of corp theft.

People predicting that BoB is going to collapse like a house of cards are underestimating the core of the alliance; this is certainly going to be a setback, and I have no doubt that BoB (or whatever their new name ends up being) will lose a lot of ships and systems, but I suspect this will galvanize their membership and they'll fight like tooth and nail to keep their stations and systems.  We've already seen all the former BoB corporations join the KenZoku alliance (apparently just as a temporary measure, from what Dianabolic said in his interview) and they've lost surprisingly few POSes so far.  I've no idea if they will manage to hold onto Delve, but I suspect the alliance will stick around in some form through this crisis.

My prediction is that the biggest thing to come out of this is the realization of just how easily alliances can collapse like this.  A vote and a 24 hour wait are required for a corporation to declare war, for unlocking blueprints, and for joining an alliance, but it only takes one person and a minute or two to disband an entire alliance.  I suspect that there will be a lot of outcry for CCP to fix this.  However, if it isn't fixed, or before it is fixed, I suspect there is going to be at least one more fairly large alliance that meets its end in pretty much the same way.  Hard as it is to believe, I think a lot of people just didn't realize how easy it was to disband an alliance; even the Mittani, who made the suggestion to the BoB defector, seems to have just had the sudden realization.

This is something you'd never see in any other MMO, and it's definitely one of the reasons I keep playing.  There's no other MMO where you will get these sorts of conflicts, or this sort of news coverage -- the Eve Radio DJ in the (two hour) show I linked to above said it felt like CNN or BBC at their "studios," and listening to the show, or reading the GBBS thread from Scrapheap I linked to above, it is basically like listening to war reporters in some far off locale.  Even if you don't know anything about Eve, you get the sense that something is happening, with real consequences.
Well, this is just a quick reminder to everyone that the finals of Eve's Alliance Tournament VI start tomorrow at 1500 GMT (1000 Eastern, 0900 Central).  The finals will be featured with streaming video from the Eve TV folks; you can tune at http://www.eveonline.com/evetv. Our match starts at 1900 against returning champions Ev0ke, so be sure to tune in -- it should be exciting no matter the result!

I'll also be publishing an article tonight or tomorrow regarding the collapse of the Band of Brothers this week.  As an outsider, I don't really have much stake in the conflict, but it's hard not to have an opinion on probably the most momentous event in recent Eve history.
Well, as I predicted, this week's fight was a tough one for us.  I didn't take part this time, and our captain was keeping our setup a pretty tight secret, so I was going into it almost like any other spectator.  CCP is offering all this week's fights in HD, as opposed to just the high quality YouTube of last week, so you might want to watch this one that way.

The Fourth District: 4x Abaddon, 5x Ishkur, Jaguar
Pandemic Legion: 2x Drake, 5x Ishtar, 2x Vigil

I heard people discussing a similar setup earlier in the week, and I have to admit I wasn't sure how it would fare.  The problem with putting all our firepower in four battleships is that it makes them more vulnerable to electronic warfare, as there's fewer targets for the enemy to spread their EW to.  The big difference between the setup I had been told about and this one is the addition of the assault frigates instead of an Oneiros logistics cruiser, which could have been used to boost the tracking of the battleships.  I have to wonder if it wouldn't have been better to use that instead, since using the assault frigs to tackle makes them vulnerable (and leads to quick early deaths, unfortunately).

It was a disappointing loss; obviously, we think things could have gone better, and after the fight some people were thinking about mistakes they made.  All in all, though, we had a good match against a very tough opponent, and we managed to kill enough ships to advance to the next stage.  They released the standings today, and we're currently placed 23rd, which isn't great, but considering the fight we drew this week, I'm not going to complain.

Unfortunately, next week things aren't going to be letting up at all.  Our match next week is going to be against the Fifth Alliance Tournament's champions Ev0ke, who coincidentally beat us in the first match of the elimination round.  I'd say it was a grudge match if there was actually a grudge, but the truth of the matter is that I don't think we really have anything against them -- it's just a frustrating coincidence.  We fully expect they will bring their A-game and that's going to make it real tough for us to win, but I think we still have a chance if we can come up with something to surprise them.

Regardless of what happens, it'll be hard for anyone to deny that we've been a major contender in this tournament; we'll have fought two of the best teams in the tourney at the very least, and even Veni Vidi Vici are no slouches, having made it into the elimination round themselves.

For the this weekend's matches, make sure you check out CCP's YouTube channel.  I think my personal favorite this weekend was The Kadeshi vs. RUR, which pitted an all-Sansha setup against a fleet of Caldari Navy Caracals, and really just went down to the wire.

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