March 2009 Archives

The expansion for World In Conflict, Soviet Assault, came out last week.  You may remember that I was a fan of the original game, and I've been looking forward to the expansion since it was announced a year ago.  Unfortunately, it's had a bit of a rocky evolution; it started out as a console version of the game, became both that and an expansion for the PC game, and then got held up when Ubisoft acquired Massive Entertainment.  I assumed it was pretty much dead in the water after there was nothing new about it for several months.

When word began to trickle out that it was finally getting a release, I was a bit surprised, but needless to say I was optimistic.  In retrospect though, the fact that the console portion had been dropped and that it had disappeared off the radar for so long probably should have been a warning sign.

The final product is, sad to say, rather lackluster.  For $20, you get six new single-player missions which are integrated into the original WiC campaign.  While the missions are up to the same standard as those in the original game, the small number makes the expansion feel a bit overpriced.  This is only compounded by the fact that of the six maps for these missions, four of them use previously-released multiplayer maps.  While I suspect that the reason they were released over the last year is because Massive's level designers finished the maps for Soviet Assault and figured they could release them for multiplayer when the fate of the expansion was up in the air, it does feel a little cheap.

The two new maps -- the Berlin Wall and a Norweigan base -- are pretty neat, and the missions that take place there are impressive.  Storming West Berlin and leading an amphibious assault from ekranoplanes are pretty impressive things to be a part of, equal to the Seattle fighting and Cascade Falls missions in the original game.  Unfortunately, the other maps are a bit boring (especially the two farmland-style ones), and really left me wishing there was a bit more heft to them.

As far as the story for the Soviet missions, I found it a tad bit cliched but it did manage to surprise me a bit at a few points; it wasn't as good as the story with the original campaign, but it had half as many missions, so that's not particularly surprising.  I did like the fact that it tied in at least a little with the American campaign, and I wish it had actually done that a lot more. 

Overall, Soviet Assault feels very much like something Massive felt like that had to just get out the door in order to recoup the development costs.  If that's the case, it's unfortunate, and I hope they get the chance to do a real sequel in the future.  At this point, it's hard to recommend paying $20 for the expansion, since as far as I can tell it doesn't give you any new vehicles or content other than the new single-player missions.  At $10, I'd say it was worth it, and if you don't have the original game, I highly recommend picking up the combined pack from Steam for $30.

Kings

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If you haven't heard of this show, it's NBC's latest attempt at something ambitious that will probably be canceled within a month - a modern-day retelling of the story of the Biblical David (of David and Goliath), starring Ian McShane (of Lovejoy and Deadwood fame) and Chris Egan (of nothing I've ever seen).  Set in the fictional Kingdom of Gilboa, the show appears to take place in an alternate universe of some sort, which the show is dropping hints about slowly as it goes on.

If you know me, you probably know alternate universe sort of stuff pushes a lot of my buttons, and so far, Kings has been doing a good job of putting things together, with a lot of tantalizing leads dangled out there.  I've enjoyed the first two episodes; the writing is pretty good so far, though considerably more theatrical than say The West Wing, which is the closest comparison I can really make.  Considering the subject though, that seems somewhat appropriate.

The religious stuff has, so far at least, been pretty subtle -- another bit I like.  David, protected by divine favor, is basically just really lucky so far, though there is one moment in the first episode where it's a bit more heavyhanded.  That moment is set up well, however, and I was willing to give it a pass and just go with it.  If the show sticks to this sort of thing, and doesn't try to make itself a retelling of the Biblical story with the serial numbers filed off and instead uses that as a general idea and goes in its own direction, I think I'll be pretty happy with it.

The show does suffer from one issue, and that is that the lead, Egan, is a bit of a weak link in the acting of the show.  Considering who else is on the show, that may be forgiveable -- McShane is an acting juggernaut, Eamonn Walker and Dylan Baker are both regulars, and Brian Cox and Miguel Ferrer guest-starred this week -- but hopefully he'll grow into his role as the weeks go on.

Fortunately, they have already shot the full 13 episodes of the series, so if nothing else we should get a decent miniseries out of it -- but I hope NBC gives it a chance to survive.  I encourage you to watch if it sounds at all interesting -- you can find all the episodes here on Hulu.
If you haven't seen this documentary, you should.  I think it's the most frightening thing I've ever seen, but the scale of the heroism displayed by the ordinary people in it is amazing.  Though they did not know really what they were going into -- they were lied to, but even the people telling them the lies had no idea how bad it really was -- they probably saved thousands, maybe even millions of people.  The fact that to this day they have never really gotten the recognition they deserve is tragic.

You can find it on the web here.
Recently, I've been Netflixing the DVDs of the James Burke's Connections series.  If you're not familiar with them, the premise of the show is to illustrate how seemingly unrelated historical events and technological innovations create some of the most important things that you find in the modern world.  One episode, for instance, shows how a test for the purity of gold is related to the development of atomic weapons, and another shows how an Arab caliph's sickness in the 8th Century led to modern mass production, and yet another shows how the Little Ice Age led to the development of aircraft.

Aside from being fascinating to watch on their own, this series of documentaries is extremely interesting to me in that it mirrors my thoughts about world building -- that each element of a fictional world should be interconnected to as many other elements of the world as possible, and that those connections should be considered very carefully when you're going through and building that world.  This is something that I tend to argue about a fair bit on the Chatsubo, with regard to Eve Online and its storyline; my latest trouble has been with the given population on Seyllin I, the focus of the latest big patch day downtime news barrage.

Why does this bug me so much?  I don't know.  A deep and complex world has been a big selling point for me on RPGs, books, movies, TV series...pretty much everything.  I think it's largely just personal preference -- some people really like well-developed characters or witty dialogue, I like well-developed settings.  And, ever since I started writing, that's been a focus for my writing, possibly to my detriment, since I tend to focus on that almost above everything else a lot of the time.  I would like to think that there's more to it, though.

In a way, Connections is a world building exercise that works in the opposite way an author usually works; whereas I say "okay, if we have this in the world, how did it come out about and what does that mean for the rest of the world," Burke says "we had this and this and this, and how did all those things come together to create a world in how we have that?"

I really feel like this sort of analytic approach is key, especially for creating a game setting.  In a novel or movie, your viewpoint is generally limited -- for instance, if we look at something like Alien, we don't need to know much really about the state of the world outside the Nostromo, except as it affects the main characters in that movie.  We know there's a corporation, and it hires these spacers to go around and haul this ore, and they can travel faster than light, and so on and so forth -- but we don't need to know what sort of government there is, or how many people live on Earth, or how many colonies they have, or anything like that.  We only need to illuminate as much of that other world as the characters in that story see; if you think of it like a film set, actually, we don't need to construct a full-scale replica of the Nostromo, we only need to build the parts the camera is going to see.  We should make those as detailed and lifelike as possible, but if it's out of the camera shot it's not really going to show in the final product.  Yes, you can do it -- the attention Syd Mead paid to a lot of the elements of Blade Runner is an example -- but it is far less necessary.

In contrast, in a game setting, especially an RPG, where you are going to have people using it in all sorts of different ways, and have characters from all sorts of different backgrounds, and have all sorts of different adventures, the "camera shot" of the universe becomes far wider.  You can't simply ignore a lot of this stuff because at some point, it may very well come into play.  Obviously, you can constrain this somewhat; you don't need a 300 page sourcebook on medical technology if the game is not Space Doctors: The Healening, but you should at least give some mention of the general things that medical science can do if the characters are likely to have to deal with it at some point.  John Ossoway has done something like this for Cthulhu Rising, for instance, in the Rough Guide.

And this is where I think I run into my issues with some of the things in the Eve storyline, especially over the last year or so.  Where is the Rough Guide to Eve Online?  As far as I can tell, there isn't really one; certainly, there's nothing really out there available to the public, which is frustrating for at least some of the players (I know it can't just be me).  One of the things I really liked about Mass Effect is that they actually took the time to think about a lot of that stuff, even though, as a single player game where your "camera shot" is going to be a lot smaller than in a pen-and-paper RPG or MMORPG, most of it is not really necessary.  While you could say this was all just wasted effort, I suspect the primary benefactor of the Codex was not the audience but the writing staff of the game.  By writing down and setting that stuff in stone, now the writers can all work from the same assumptions about the game world and play off each other's ideas without making the setting seem schizophrenic and disjoint -- you don't have one part of the game where you're told everyone has personal rocketships and another part where everyone is living in abject poverty eating gruel three times a day.

I think it's the fact that that's dismissed as a backburner issue by a lot of people in the discussions I have about the Eve storyline is what frustrates me so much.

The Typealyzer

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Something interesting I got from the slacktivist: the Typealyzer.  You know those personality tests that give you one of those four-letter acronyms to classify your personality?  Well, it does it with a blog.  Or any webpage really, I suppose.  Surprisingly accurate for me, I think (though I am not exactly a race car driver):

ISTP - The Mechanics


The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts.

The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

Taking a look at a few friends, we have CK also an ISTP, Mike as INTP, and benoc as ESTP.  Judge the reliability for yourself. :)
Last Friday marked the debut of Watchmen, the eagerly anticipated film adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel.  It's been years in the making -- various incarnations of the project have been in the works since 1987 -- and as one of the most respected parts of the comic "canon," so to speak, the bar was set pretty high.  I've seen it twice now, and I feel like I have a fairly good handle on my feelings about it at this point.

When I saw the first trailers for the movie with The Dark Knight, I was extremely optimistic.  From a visual standpoint, the movie looked perfect, and this is largely borne out by the final product.  You can easily take stills from the film and compare them with panels from the comic; here's one such example.  The actors, by and large, look right for their parts, though Matthew Goode is a bit slight for Ozymandius.  That's only a very small part of what is important about Watchmen though, and as a result I was prepared for the movie to possibly end up as an ambitious failure.

What Zack Snyder has given us is not a failure, but it isn't quite as good as I and probably many others would have hoped.  Yes, visually, it is stunning -- the fact that Dave Gibbons, the artist on the original graphic novel, was brought in to help with the production design no doubt had a great effect on the movie.  Sets look like they were plucked out of the pages and it looks and feels very much like a New York of the 1980s.  Even the writing, while subtly altered in many places, is largely lifted from the graphic novel.  Unlike a lot of film adaptations, I feel like Snyder was at least trying to be as true to the original material as he could -- the closest comparison I can make is to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies; even if you don't like what he's done, it's hard to say he was just doing it to cash in on an established property.  It's not a Starship Troopers-esque rape of all that is good and holy.

On the other hand, while it seems like all the parts of the movie have been well crafted, the greater whole of the movie itself seems a bit rough around the edges.  Part of this, I think, is due to the fact that Snyder is trying to squeeze an incredibly dense twelve-part comic series into a 165 minute movie.  In a comic book or novel, it's relatively easy to refer back to a previous panel or spend time absorbing the small details that are embedded on the page -- a film can't really do that, though Snyder's signature slow-motion shots allow for a small amount of that sort of thing (for those of you worried it goes over the top, I did not find it really that distracting and didn't think he went overboard like some people thought he did with 300).  At times, it seems like the movement of the plot slows to a crawl -- such as during the Comedian's funeral, when all the other characters are flashing back on their interactions with him in the past.

There's other problems though; while the alternate history is illustrated beautifully in an opening credit sequence (probably the most "visionary" part of the movie), it's still hard for some people to grasp, and the fact that none of the characters in the movie are exactly household names like Batman or Spiderman means that the above problem is compounded.  Hence we get some conservative critics being shocked and appalled at the fact that these "superheroes" are all pretty messed up people, and the violence and sex in the movie gives it a well-deserved R-rating.  People who take their kids to this movie will regret it -- and if you're squeamish about people being pulverized into a bloody mess in a graphic fashion or seeing sex scenes that can come off as tasteful Skinemax soft core, you probably won't really like the movie either.

When the movie gets things right, though, it really gets them right.  Jackie Earle Haley is the spitting image of Alan Moore's Rorshach in nearly every way; his voice, presence, and appearance feels ripped straight from the page; he probably won't get another Oscar nomination for this part, but you could certainly make the case he deserves it.  Only slightly less impressive are Patrick Wilson as the Nite Owl II and Jeffery Dean Morgan as the Comedian.  Wilson manages to bring across Dan Dreiberg's frustration and impotence (literal and figurative) with aplomb; his relationship with Rorshach in the movie seems much stronger than it did in the comic, and that gives Rorshach's pathos an extra layer.  Morgan's Comedian gets across both the menace and the emptiness within; the only place his performance seemed a little weak to me was his conversation with Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, where I felt like it was missing something.  In contrast, nearly every other scene he appears he's really good, and people who are saying he's a "Robert Downey Jr. lookalike" are really not giving him enough credit.

Speaking of Dr. Manhattan, Billy Crudup does an admirable job with a difficult part; while I was watching I felt like there was something just a bit "not right" about Manhattan, though it's hard to place why.  The CGI is good, but as always it's not quite right, and maybe that was it. Maybe it was because some of the line readings seemed a little off; Manhattan's "miracles" monologue on Mars with Laurie doesn't have quite the impact it does in the comic with Crudup's detached tone.  It's hard to tell, however, if this is intentional or not; certainly Manhattan is supposed to feel detached from humanity and strange -- the man, after all, is a god in all but name.  If it is intentional, it's remarkably subtle compared to some of Snyder's other choices.  And yes, you see a lot of his penis.

Matthew Goode as Ozymandius and Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre II, however, don't really live up to the rest of the cast.  While neither is horrible, compared to the rest of the main cast they fall a little flat, and Ozymandius' part doesn't come across as layered and ambiguous as it is in the graphic novel.  Ackerman misses out on some of the characterization she gets in the comic; in particular, the pressure her mother placed on her to follow in her footsteps was not as well fleshed out.  Even so, her chemistry with both Manhattan and the Nite Owl seems off at various points of the movie, and the film suffers slightly for it.

The rest of the supporting cast does a very good job; it's always good to see Matt Frewer getting work, and Carla Gugino as the first Silk Spectre and Stephen McHattie as the first Night Owl are both good in their roles, what there is of them.  The actors playing Nixon, Kissinger, and other real-life figures worked a bit less for me, but that's a problem you almost always run into with playing well-known real life figures.  They are serviceable enough, anyway.  Unfortunately, the movie, at least the theatrical cut, does get rid of most of the small characters, like the newsstand owner and the taxi driver, that give the finale some of its impact in the comic.

The big question for the movie for many people was about the ending -- it has been changed from the graphic novel, but, in my opinion, the ending is still in the same spirit as the original, and in my mind the important parts of the antagonist's plan at the end is kept largely intact.  The important revelation -- 35 minutes worth -- is there, though the line delivery falls a bit flat for me, and the ending confrontation between Rorshach and Dr. Manhattan is a much more emotional than in the comic.  Whether this is more or less effective, I'm not sure; in the comic, this underlines Rorshach's resignation and Manhattan's detachment, while in the movie, it gives Manhattan a bit of humanity and makes Rorshach a bit more sympathetic.  I'll leave it to you to decide which is better.

Overall, I certainly can't say I'm perfectly happy with the movie; I found The Dark Knight to be a much more compelling film when it comes to comic book movies, but as an adaptation of Watchmen I feel pretty confident saying that it is about as good as we're likely to get.  It's clear that the director and the writers tried to tread a very fine line between strictly sticking to the story and images of the comic and making a movie accessible to more than just die-hard fans, and sometimes that doesn't quite succeed at doing either particularly well.  In this case, I don't think it's failed in that way -- it's a good movie and a good adaptation, and I am now eagerly anticipating the extended cut on DVD -- but it certainly didn't meet the admittedly high expectations I had going in.  It is still well worth seeing, however, and if it gets more people to read the book, that's always a good thing.


A couple weeks ago the Scout update for Team Fortress 2 came out and I finally got a chance to play with it a little.  Looking back, it looks like I've never reviewed TF2 for my blog -- when I first got it with the Orange Box I didn't play it much -- the cartoony graphics didn't really do much for me at the time and I tend to prefer slower-paced tactical shooters, like Rainbow Six or Day of Defeat.  I finally tried it out a year or a little longer ago and I've been hooked ever since.  Valve did a great job balancing the classes and making them distinct and all useful in their own niche.  I won't say much more about the base game, since it's been out for quite a while now -- if you haven't played it though, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.  You can get it for 20 bucks off Steam (or just get the Orange Box or the Valve Complete Pack), or wait for it to go on sale (as it often does, especially around the time new updates come out) for $10.

However, one thing I really like about TF2 has been Valve's updates to the game over the last year and a half or so; every few months they've put out new maps, as well as a bunch of new stuff for one of the classes.  This has been in the form of about 30 or so achievements and three new weapons you can unlock by getting those achievements, which, by and large, have not been "better" than the original ones, but simply different.  The Medic, for instance, got a medigun that comes with an ubercharge that lets the target do critical hits instead of making them invulnerable.  So far, the Medic, Pyro, and Heavy have gotten this treatment, and the Scout got it a couple weeks ago.

The Scout has never been one of my favorite classes.  I'm not very good at the hyperkinetic gameplay that the Scout sort of requires -- I tend to prefer the Heavy, Pyro, and Medic.  With the new update though, I thought I'd give it a try and I found out that the Scout can be a lot of fun.  While you definitely have to play differently, the hit-and-run style of attack and bouncing past the enemy team while they chase after you is hilarious.  I still get pinned in, which I'm pretty sure is my inexperience showing -- I know people who are good enough with the Scout to dance around enemy Heavies and Soldiers and beat them with impunity, all the while spouting the Scout's hilarious dialogue.



The three unlocks for the Scout are the Force-a-Nature (a shotgun with fewer shots but with higher damage and an impressive knockback), the Sandman (a bat that can also be used to stun a target with a baseball) and Bonk! Atomic Energy Punch, which is an item like the Sandvich, and gives the Scout a short period of near-invulnerability (I'm not sure if it works against area effect weapons).  I've only unlocked the Force-a-Nature so far, and I'm a bit ambivalent on it; it's a lot of fun to knock people around with it, but the limited clip size makes it a lot harder to take out anyone at anything beyond absolute point-blank range.

That brings me to my one quibble with this update.  In the previous updates, a few of the achievements required you to have one or more of the unlockables to complete (eat 100 Sandviches, kill 50 Scouts with Natascha, etc), but the Scout update seems to take this to a new level.  I'm pretty sure a quarter to a third of the achievements require the use of one of the unlocks, which is annoying, since the only way to get those unlocks is to actually get the achievements.  I wish they would tone that down a little; by requiring the unlocks to get more unlocks, it basically traps you into a certain progression with the achievements with isn't all that fun.

Overall though, it's another winner from Valve, and the fact that it's a free, substantive update for a game that's 18 months old already only proves that Valve is looking towards the long-term viability of Team Fortress 2.  Other companies looking at how to to use DLC to extend the life of their games would do well to follow their example.

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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