Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

A den for thoughts and discussions on games, life, tigers and art.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sitting around a campfire telling...

(alternate title, "Who ya gonna call?")
I recently finished Jim Butcher's, Ghost Story, the latest in the Dresden files series of books. For those few of you who do not yet know, Harry Dresden is the only listed wizard in the Chicago phone book. Not your pull a rabbit out of the hat variety, either. He's capable of using real magic and in his line of work as a detective it comes in pretty handy. Now go get copies of Storm Front, Fool Moon and Grave Peril right now and stop reading this blog until you finish those three.

For the rest of us who have finished the book prior to this one, Changes, Ghost Story picks up months down the line with the aftermath of the events we had read and how they have, well, changed everyone involved. Avoiding as many spoilers as I can, this book focuses on the world of the departed for Harry and friends to face against an old nemesis thought dead. Through it all we get more depth into Harry's own life, his time spent as a pupil of Justin DuMorne, his relation with his honest to God fairy godmother, and the impact he has on the lives of those around him. The short story from the collection, Side Jobs, centralizing around Karrin Murphy bridges the gap between Changes and Ghost Story but is not required reading as you get a recap in Ghost Story.

Ghost Story is well told and shows more of Butcher's skill as an author. I take issue with the way he decided to tell this tale because of what it does to our protagonist, Harry Dresden, but I guess it couldn't be avoided. He's altered many of the characters we've come to care about, many in directions I personally don't like. It's a good book and leaves me wanting to read the next, knowing that Harry has a lot of work left to do even after solving the primary problem from this book. I have a hard time trying to recommend this book without any prior reading beyond the first three novels and Changes(as listed above). I would say that if you wished to get "caught up" on this franchise with minimal reading, than beyond those one would also need to read Dead Beat and Proven Guilty at least. However this is a series that one truly needs to read every book in it to fully enjoy the experience (You can skip the short stories, if you must) and Ghost Story finds a nice, spooky, scary place to settle into.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Real American Hero

Caught the midnight screening of Captain America: the First Avenger flick today. After the credits is a nice trailer shot for the new Avengers film coming out next year. The rest of the film? Hard to comment on. It was an action-y tale of the initial rise of Cap during World War 2 and how he helped defeat the Nazis when he punched out Hitler. Oh wait, they don't do that. We get Hydra in place of Nazis and it's all about Red Skull instead of Der Fuhrer. Chris Evans did a fine job as all-American Steven Rogers. Now, did they CG the pre-operation body? Or did this guy bulk up like a steroid fiend for post-op Cap? Tommy Lee Jones is cast as the gruff and grouchy commander of the unit that Rogers eventually ends up in, Hugo Weaving portrays the German Johann Schmidt/Red Skull in a curious casting. Then again if Alan Rickman can be a German terrorist, I guess Mr. Weaving can too. Stanley Tucci plays the doctor who developed the super soldier process and comes off as grandfatherly and humorous with his little quips. We also get Howard Stark, Tony's father (or is it grandfather) played pretty well by Dominic Cooper working with the U.S. military as a technical genius. I haven't mentioned Hayley Atwell's role as Peggy Carter, the female main and to be frank, beyond a sort of "I believe in you, Steven, so you should to" role, she was pretty extraneous to the film as a whole.
The plot is a movie about a war hero. His desire to serve, the method by which he can serve, his growth from a sort of a joke into the hero we know him to be and eventually kicking ass. There's a MacGuffin early acquired by the Red Skull and it powers their technology to zap people into dust. And boy howdy do people just get vaporized. Like, War of the Worlds remake level of violence here. They insert a montage in as Cap is doing missions and I felt it detracted because clips of action are not nearly as cool as full scenes set up of assaults and fallout. Then again the film probably would have run for three hours (as it stands it's just over two, clocking in at 125 min) if we saw each of Caps missions played out in full. I don't suppose it's much of a spoiler to know the Skull's ploy is ultimately beaten and we get our Avenger tie-in involving Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury at the end (pre-credits, actually), which led to a weak ending ultimately.
It's a fine film, it falls in line with the other Avenger "prequels" we've had so far with Iron-Man and Thor. Definately not for an audience younger than 10 or so due to the level of violence.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It isn't easy, being green. Also super spy vehicles.

The new Green Lantern movie has become one of the most criticized films of this summer blockbuster season (With Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon gaining more heat) and I do not entirely agree with critics here. It isn't a dramatic work with self reflection and deep character study of Hal Jordan, but instead a pretty standard action movie with giant special effects. Does it work in that regard? Certainly! The CG here is necessary due to the power that the ring of the Green Lantern Corps. provides, which is one's imagination made manifest. There are some effects that some would consider "hokey" (such as using computers to plaster the actor's face upon a CG rendered body, why couldn't they just film the actor in the suit in front of a screen?) and the plot suffers from being all over the place as it never manages to strike a balance between the galactic problem (Parallax) versus the super-hero on Earth. (Slowly mutating scientist man) There are scenes that didn't need to be part of the film, establishing nothing for any character and introducing us to people the film will never touch on again. That said, I found the CG ring effects to be cool and the film managed to keep me entertained for its length. Oh, and I saw it in 3D, and there were times I had to take my glasses off due to eye strain and many times where the 3D felt unneeded (Like between Hal Jordan and his would-be girlfriend. Really? Why is that in 3D movie? Save it for the flight scenes. Or the fight sequences.) Ryan Reynolds makes a good Hal and Peter Sarsgaard seems to be enjoying his role as Dr. Hammond. I also thought Mark Strong as Sinestro seemed to be having a good time as the character. I felt Blake Lively (the female love interest) and Tim Robbins, unfortunately, gave relatively flat performances. The movie is slapped with a PG-13 rating, keeping it away from the younger viewers who might be more easily wow-ed by the special effects, due to the degree of violence and on-screen death. I found the movie fun enough and worth at least a matinee showing price. Just not in 3D.

The other criticized film I had the pleasure of watching was Cars 2. I had sided with the reviews on this one without having given it an honest go, accepting the claim of it being, "Pixar's worst film yet." Well, is it? Yes and no. It's not particularly groundbreaking, it doesn't invoke strong elements of emotion and pathos, and the plot seems less involved and a bit more formulaic than previous movies put out by this studio. It still does the job of giving us a spy movie set in a world of anthropomorphic automobiles. It is, however, a movie primarily focused upon Tow Mater this time instead of Lightning McQueen. Do you want to watch an hour and forty minutes of Larry the Cable Guy attempt to be a secret agent with Bond-style gadgets? If not, skip this flick. The framing device of the international races is pretty much a way to shoe horn in McQueen's character, and ultimately is superfluous to the rest of the movie. It ends up being predictable and slow, with a few comedic spots, a cameo I wasn't expecting (Bruce Campbell voices an American spy) and ultimately mediocre. It even has a few instances of on-screen death. Y'know, for children! If you've got a child in the under 10 and over 3 range they'll be squirmy during slow moments and the younger set may not be able to follow the secret agent plot, but it should keep their interest for the duration due to the silliness of Mater's antics. If you are just a fan of Pixar films, there isn't much written for adults in this installment, unless you're an avid follower of Larry's style of humor.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Opening rifts, doing detective work and kung-fu.

The end of May and the start of June saw some releases I took part in (L.A. Noire and Kung Fu Panda 2) while Trion Worlds allowed a week free of their MMO, RIFT this past week. I also attended several family gatherings with the in-laws.
To start, let us talk of gaming. L.A. Noire is a visually ground breaking title. The use of full facial recognition/capture along with decent models allows for a more immersive (and to some, a venture into uncanny valley) experience. Being a police officer on the streets of 1940's Los Angeles allows for one to act like they are in a stylish detective/crime movie of that era. The game is easy to play, especially for anyone who is familiar with Rockstar's other more free-roam games (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption), though there is less freedom for behavior due to the in-game restriction on morality. Killing civilians with gunfire or your car earns you a bad score and gets you in trouble with your higher ups in the police department. This may rankle a few expecting a GTA experience. Where the gameplay takes a swerve is the investigation aspect, either from gathering evidence at a crime scene or in the questioning of suspects and witnesses. Crime scene investigation isn't quite pixel-huntingly bad as adventure games of old like Monkey Island, but not everything your character snatches off the ground is going to be relevant to the case, either. Where the difficulty (I feel) increases is in trying to discern truth from lies while talking to people. Make a false assumption and your investigation will suddenly go astray or even come to a halt. It doesn't help that your character acts like a total dick to someone he feels is lying or even when he doubts their description of events.
Overall I am impressed with the game and pleased to have purchased it, but for me, due to the difficulty in getting investigations right (and the habit of starting over when I screw up) means I won't replay it much, even with the upcoming DLC planned for it.
The other bit of gaming experience has been with Rift and while easy to write off as a World of Warcraft clone, it does shine in a few areas. The standard MMO controls apply here, movement and gameplay are unchanged between this game, WoW, AION, or any other MMO really. Trion Worlds borrows a page from more recent MMOs by giving the player visual rewards when they achieve a new level, complete a quest and earn in-game achievements (which have sort of snuck into gaming these days as carrots on the end of sticks) That bright flash and upbeat musical cue gives the player additional sense of accomplishment over just knowing their experience bar filled up or they earned some coins. What does make Rift stand out is the amount of customization available for a character's abilities. While most games have you select a class and once you do there's abilities you train up that are the same for everyone of that class, and then specialties gained through subclasses or talent trees, Rift has each class earn all its abilities based on what talent trees the player chooses as they earn them. That's right, until you pick a specialty, your character doesn't know anything. Good thing the very first quest rewards you with, "Pick your first talent tree". As one puts more and more points into their chosen tree, they earn more basic abilities, from damaging spells to buff and debuffs to other utilities. There are eight trees per class to choose from, and some that go beyond the typical genre defined per role (tanking rogues and mages that heal? Amazing!) that allow one players character feel drastically different than someone else's of the same class. Until the"ultimate" build combinations are discovered and cookie-cutter copied off websites at any rate. The other aspect to the game that makes it stand out are the Rifts themselves. While some are predetermined and can be dealt with normally, in the manner those familiar with public quests like from Warhammer and Champions, some can open more spontaneously and suddenly everyone in the zone should muster together to fight the invaders, lest their questing experience be ruined by these infiltrators messing up the local wildlife and quest giving NPCs. Effectively being in a raid at a character level under 10 to kill a big bad was kind of astonishing. I am not certain if this novelty will enhance the game in the long run, or, if at higher level, become frustrating especially if there are few people on to help deal with it. Where Rift falls short is the graphics department. Character animations aren't superb, some look outright dumb (like most of the jumping ones), and others are recycled (both humans and elves do the same emotes with their rival-faction counterparts). There are only three races per side and very, very little diversity between them. You can be human, dark-skinned human, really tall human, elvish, dark skinned and alien eyed elvish or a dwarf. Whee. Another problem is with the textures of the ground and NPC detail. Until I put the graphic sliders on the "ultra" settings, scenery and animal textures were blurry and ugly. Ultimately Rift is solid and has some interesting innovations, but it won't be taking the current top held spot any time soon.
Lastly for this entry is the movie. I do not often rate movies beyond "This was a good film." or "That movie was a waste of my money." however I think some words need to be said on this piece. The first film established the setting. It gave us our main character and our supporting cast. This film delves into the story behind our main character. Yes, there's a guy being evil, and evil must be stopped by our heroes, but what this film, ultimately, was, is the story of Po. Who he is, where he came from, where he stands now. This movie had far less martial arts and instead focused on our hero primarily (almost to the exclusion of the Furious Five, to be honest) and instilled another life lesson for us to learn (Embrace and accept pain of loss, but do not let it overwhelm you). Apparently through this inner peace we can fling fireworks around. Kung-Fu Panda 2 is a fun movie with deeper storytelling than before. It blends traditional animated segments with CG in an interesting way (Po's repressed memory flashbacks are told in hand-drawn scenes) However, due to the elements that are character driven, there is less action and therefore it feels like a slower paced film. Perhaps fitting for a movie about a ponderous panda.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Patches and Science!

I have recently played two of the more anticipated releases of this month. The first is the long-heralded 4.1 patch for World of Warcraft titled, "Rise of the Zandalari" and the other is Portal 2. The Warcraft patch brings back the old raid of Zul'Gurub as a heroic 5-man dungeon suited for people at maximum level (85) with considerable high-quality gear. (the stuff you get out of normal heroic dungeons or even raiding) The developers also decided to retrofit the old 10-man raid of Zul'Aman that came out late in the Burning Crusade era into a similarly tuned 5-man for end-game players. the story linking the two is one that has played out in Stranglethorn Vale for the post Cataclysm quests, where the Zandalari troll tribe, once fighting to prevent the Blood God Hakkar from being brought physically to Azeroth, now stand as the pivotal villains, bringing the trolls of the world together in a united stand to fight back against all the other factions in the world in the face of apparent extinction. Only the Darkspears, headed by Vol'jin, refuse this offer to instead stay united with the Horde.  In addition to old/new dungeons, the patch brought some changes to the U.I., primarily in how the character sheet is organized and that when you target someone (NPC or player) you get a dot on your minimap to help show you where it is. Guilds got a new feature called, "Guild Challenges" that will go a long way to assisting smaller guilds rank up to have access to the better perks that larger guilds are already enjoying. These challenges grant the guild XP when they are completed (separate from the XP the guild accrues through its members questing or entering into dungeons) and are limited to defeating a level-appropriate raid boss, completing seven level-appropriate dungeons or completing 3 level-appropriate battlegrounds (by level appropriate I assume it means that the raid/dungeon/battleground is near the level of the guild members who accomplish this, allowing guilds comprised of folk who are yet to be level 85 to get the bonus guild XP on their characters performing guild dungeon runs while leveling up) the last feature I'm going to mention is the Call to Arms for their Dungeon Finder system. In an attempt to alleviate the lengthy wait period some players (those who play damage-dealing classes) have experienced using the method of being assigned a random group to enter into dungeons with, Blizzard is now offering extra rewards (bribes) for players to queue up as the class roles most underrepresented (tanking). This feature is presently only in effect for the high-end dungeons, however, leaving those who wish to gain experience by way of dungeon runs still stuck with potentially lengthy queue times.

Portal. What is there to say about this game that has not already been said? The first game defined the subgenre of action-puzzle-platformer and the sequel is no different. Coming packed with roughly four times the amount of puzzles as the original, a storyline that delves into the history of Aperture science and the man behind it, and the same acerbic wit the original boasted from the writers, this game is amazing on all accounts.
Where could it possibly go wrong? Well, one part is the camera. As a first-person game that, at times, deals with dizzying physics, it certainly won't be for everyone. This is by no means a fault of the designers, but it does mean for those that get motion-sick or vertigo watching, let alone playing, any first-person game, they will be unable to enjoy Portal. The second possible down-side to the game is the main character, Chell. As the mute protagonist who acts as vehicle by which we, the player, enjoy this game, she provides nothing to the story, even as its about her and her trials in the Aperture laboratory. We learn nothing about her save the insults hurled at us by GLaDOS and even then that calls into doubt her rationale for trying to escape. We, the player, project ourselves into the role of Chell, and the fourth wall then extends behind us, it is not Chell trying to escape, it is then we, the players who now take leaps of faith and fall through portals over gaps and toxic waters. The co-op mode brings the sarcasm of GLaDOS onto two unfortunate robots with no personality save what we put into them by way of personal actions (taunts and emotes) in addition to creating puzzles that require communication in addition to timing, trust in addition to strategy, and frankly make for some wonderful moments of triumph and betrayal. As GLaDOS would say, "You are acting more like a human every minute."

Graphics: 8/10 (Nothing mind blowing here folks, but they don't suck either. The different chapters of the game each have their own feel, from Aperture overrun by plant life, to Aperture of yore to the newest and cleanest testing rooms to.. well, I don't want to give away any spoilers.)
Sound/Music 10/10 (Ambient music chiming in at key points, musical cues when you're solving puzzles with various tools and of course the dialogue and voice-acting are all top-notch)
Gameplay: 9/10 (You have to be able to use a first-person view, have quick reflexes in a few rooms, and understand the two-portal system to get anywhere. Sometimes challenging, but not impossible to overcome)
Story: 10/10 (You expect anything else? Seriously this game makes me invested in inanimate, imaginary objects. It's a fantastic ride form start to finish and the payoff at the end was really satisfying save for one niggling detail)

Overall score: 9/10 (Probably my number 1 nomination for game of the year when we get around to that, though L.A. Noire may give it a running. A must-buy for fans of the first game, fans of puzzlers who can stand first-person acrobatics, first-person fans looking for some story and brain-busting challenges and anyone with a good sense of humor.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rotate a quarter circle from down to forward.

Recent gaming has included Magicka, Super Street Fighter 4, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the Dragon Age 2 demo.
Magicka - Cute 3/4 top-down action game in similar vein to Diablo. The spell cast system of different elemental combinations leads to some innovation, however once you learn the shield variations and elemental beams its novelty wears off some. The fake-Swedish voice acting from the NPCs is unintentionally funny, but the gore seems a bit over the top and out of place for a game with this design.
Quick Review score: 7/10

SSF4 - I loved SF 4, and this one is no exception. I'd be playing it now if my X-Box hadn't of eaten the disc when my daughter was jumping around next to it >.> Definitely one for fans of brawler, beat-em-ups and the Street Fighter line. Keep it classy!
Quick Review score: 8/10

MvC3 - Oh I wanna take you for a ride. Slick graphics keeping the "comic book" sort of feel while also retaining some of what we've seen in SF4 and SSF4. The character line up is certainly more diverse, however there's still many balance issues with some characters and the on-line is a step back from what they had going on in SSF4, much to the detriment of the game. Worth waiting for some patches and DLC to be released before a final purchase. Deadpool is a riot, however I can see people getting tired of his antics after too much exposure. I am also not a fan of the different control scheme and button layout.
Quick Review score: 7/10

Dragon Age 2 - A review of a preview of an incomplete project. Looks the same as any "standard" adventure/RPG on the market currently. character creation was disabled in the demo so I couldn't fool with the sliders any. I like the revamp of the abilities trees visually. The snip of plot was interesting, however somewhat predictable given BioWare's track record with intro scenarios. (Hint, make a mage healer) Dialogue options are excellent, I like that instead of colored text you get an icon instead to hint at what sort of answer you give is going to be (olive branch, angel wings, comedy mask, fist, hammer) I do look forward to this sequel once it hits shelves. I might even pick it up on launch. then again, I should probably wait for a patch or two first. <.<
Quick Review score: 9/10

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How do you like your fantasy?

I have just finished Brent Weeks' The Black Prism, and as I gather my collective thoughts about what the experience has been I consider a question I had asked several of my friends in hope of edging out an idea on what I should eventually write a book about.
"What kinds of stories do you like to read?"
I have discovered I really like action. I like the tension of reading about a character's charge through enemy lines and not knowing if they will be struck down. I like the rise of heroes and the telling of the defeat and victory. the book was good and the fantasy staple of a world with magic in it is taken to a different direction in this novel. However I really wasn't getting into it until I was about 1/3 of the way through the book. Mr. Weeks' Night Angel trilogy had me nearly at the beginning as I read about these people in a terrible situation up against all sorts of odds. I wasn't quite as taken in this time early on, however the last half of the book had me wanting to read more, and the last few chapters swept by as I couldn't put the book down.
There's more to liking just action, however. For one it can't be gratuitous body parts being shorn and blood and gore, I skim those sections. What really interests me is how the characters, if I've come to care about their success, will get out alive. Many novels I've written are brutal to characters I come to identify with or care about. As soon as one of those characters is done in, my interest in completing a work drops measurably. I don't care to see if they are avenged or not, the narrative hook that had me buy into the story was gone. Killing off named characters doesn't make for a bad story, in fact it's sort of unrealistic if the heroes never suffer any losses, however if there was significant time put into building up a character, the jarring loss halfway or later in a novel unseats me and diminishes my enthusiasm.
If my friends have anything to teach me, its that when I get to writing my story(ies?) my characters better be flawed, human, strong in a few areas, but weak in others, and hopefully, engaging enough to have an interest that lasts. I probably shouldn't just off them either. Probably.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Role-Playing (video) Games, an analysis.

As I sit here with my second cup of morning coffee I had an inspiration to put down my thoughts on a subject that had come up on a Live-Journal post discussion I was part of a few days back. Well, possibly flame-war might be closer to how the actual debate went. A comment that had been made was that video game RPGs had been emulating table top, pencil and paper RPGs for years. I actually have to disagree with this sentiment to a degree and here's why. Think about what comes to mind when a video game RPG gets mentioned? Final Fantasy is often the forefront of people's minds. Possibly Fable, Fallout or Oblivion for those of a western gamer mindset and view. Some people will mention the MMOs that are out there, and a frequent number of Japanese franchises will come to the fore (Xenosaga/gears, Shin Megami Tensen, Dragon Quest, among others) A few folk may even bring up computer games like Diablo or Baldur's Gate. Where am I going with this? Well, see, I feel that far too often the video game role-playing game isn't like the table-tops for several reasons.

 A Table-top RPG will have the player choose their character's name, race and gender where applicable, determine their attributes with either a point allocation or random number generation (e.g. dice rolls), sometimes work on a skill set, aquire or purchase gear, and possibly have some sort of back story to why they are in the occupation/situation they are at the time of gaming. Or they work with their game-master to come to similar. Video game RPGs are more commonly having you play a named person, pregenerated and given a predelection towards a certain occupation and skill-set and it's very uncustomizable. Some games that allow for a degree of specialization or customization punish choices made, "for characters sake" because they aren't the maximized optimum to get through encounters. (Just about every game that has magic as a character option)

There are a few exceptions. Sometimes you get to name the character, but as they overcome adversity (read: Kill things in combat over and over) and gain experience, their growth is already mapped out and their skill set improves along a predetermined path. Sometimes you can alter their skill sets as they grow, but your level 45 warlock is going to look a lot like everyone else's level 45 warlock, let's face it. Some games don't allow for any real customization of the character at all, just obtain the best gear that gives the most plusses and continue forth, selling off everything else that they come across. Really, I think, that's where I think the term RPG stops fitting these games. It's not a role that you're playing, it's someone's life you're taking control over for a while. How does that differ from any action game with a pre-named protagonist? Because there's a menu and inventory system and you have to juggle an additional resource, like "Mana"?

Let's take a look at one of my favorite games of 2010, "Red Dead Redemption." At face value you're given a sandbox (That is to say free to roam the world and do whatcha want) action game set in a fictional wild west Americana stage. Your character is John Marston and some plot has happened to him and he's been set loose in this world with an ultimate goal, but needing to acquire friends, equipment and money before being able to see that goal through. Over the course of playing the game you can gain skills related to hunting and gathering. You can be a good guy and go after wanted criminals, act politely, and help out NPCs with their millions of side-quests. Or you can be a rotten bastard and tie women to train tracks. There's various things to do in this game, yet it's not labeled as a role-playing game because why? Because the majority of the combat is resolved real time and uses guns? There's even on-line multiplayer free roam. I argue Red Dead is more of an RPG than Final Fantasy XII and XIII could ever hope to be.

I think, perhaps, that the label of RPG is slapped onto any game that decides to use numerical value to represent a character's health and break combat down into stop-motion "turns" regardless of how much actual playing of a role or player freedom for customization of the in-game characters there are.  Our characters are the vehicles by which we can experience the game world and those within it, let us at least have the options for some custom paint job and chrome rims! Well modeled character design is nice and all, but if I don't see an outward physical change when I equip a new suit of armor, there's going to be a level of disconnect. Now, I admit, the hybrid "Action-RPG" label exists and is bandied about on a few titles, however they often still have limited customization (Kingdom Hearts) or choice (Fable 3).

In conclusion, the market is saturated with games that make a claim of being "role-playing" when they're more like experiencing some form of cinema broken up between stages of fighting. (Looking at you Final Fantasy series) There's other games that have elements of character growth, customization and optimization that don't get labeled as RPGs and really, there's barely any game that actually emulates the experience of having "rolled up" a character like the table tops any more (Except possibly Fallout).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The holiday rush

Once again the holiday season has come and gone, and in its wake I am both a year older and a bit run down. I shall endeavor to find meaningful or insightful things to continue to post to this little slice of the internet, for now I leave this. The holidays went well, my birthday was nearly perfect and I rather liked TRON: Legacy.