Hive Mind

I’d say this technology is at least worth checking out.  About 2/3 of the way into the video, the guy shows off a composite model of the Notre Dame cathedral.  The model was designed using pictures from Flickr.  That’s awesome enough to border on the absurd.  There’s some other cool things in the presentation but, as one of the many people who is computer literate but has no in-depth knowledge of computers, I have no concept of what kind of power these processes entail.  Having gigabytes of pictures all up at once so that you can navigate and zoom smoothly doesn’t seem like the kind of thing my Dell laptop can do.

Of holes, pockets and fire.

WARNING:  This starts tame and mutates into a full on rant.  Oops.

The U.K. gets all sorts of genre awesomeness before us yanks and I hate them for it.  Oddly enough the Gollancz printing of The Necronomicon: the Best Weird Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft managed to receive a trade paper “export” edition, which I discovered at work yesterday.  The book, with its black cover and Cthulhu cover set off the my sexy alarm.  The store had only two copies left so I picked up, even knowing I’d end up importing a hardcover if it existed.  It does, and I am now anxiously awaiting its arrival.

At just over 1000 pages it has all of Lovecraft’s classic which, while I already own in the fantastic Penguin editions annoted by Lovecraftian/Weird Tale scholar S.T. Joshi, are finally bound together here and bookended by a scanned version of Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon” and what looks like a hand-drawn map of Providence.  Just shy of a Subterranean level production quality.

To make matters worse I decided to preorder the other U.K. first titles including The Steel Remains (this August in the U.K. and February!!!!!! in the U.S.), Toll the Hounds (September trade paper in the States, July 1st hardcover in the U.K.), and Return of the Crimson Guard (August in the U.K., maybe September in the states).

Four books.  After shipping and handling (more expensive because I want the books as they come out rather than all at once) that is roughly 72 pounds.  At an exchnage rate just shy of $2 USD to 1 pound that is over $140.  For four books.  All of which, I should at, are discounted by 30-50%.  Mostly I blame the weak US dollar, and my own nigh uncontrollable book lust, but is there someone out there in the publishing world that can explain to me why the fuck, in an age of near instantaneous communication, in countries that share the same fucking language, that fantasy books take so much longer to get here!?

I suspect it has to do with castles.  There has to be some strange formula involving the number of castles.   It certainly can’t be quality.  Terry fucking Goodkind gets his shit here quick as can be (though still in the U.K.) first and gave up on that hack years ago.  It can’t be do to author nationality.  Richard Morgan is british sure, but Erikson is Canadian and George R. R. Martin was born in fucking New Jersey (Storm of Swords was released in August of 2000 in the UK, and November of 2000 in the States, A Feast for Crows was October 2005 in the UK and November 2005 in the States, close but not close enough).  Someone really needs to explain this shit to me.

Best of Comics 5/13: Guardian and Captains

I’ve been quiet of the comics front for a bit, don’t expect posts regularly but if something fantastic catches my eye I’ll throw it up here.  For now I may stick to #1’s, it’s hard to review an ongoing book without major spoilers.

Guardians of the Galaxy #1 (Marvel, Abnett/Landing):  Marvel needs to lock these two writers down ASAP.  My favorite title of the Annihilation: Conquest miniseries was the Starlord series; it kind of like the Dirty Dozen on LSD with aliens and robots.  You had some great 3rd String (or worse) characters given life and turned into something completely fun.  Needless to say I was a little disappointed when I learned Guardians of the Galaxy would replace a number of those characters with the cosmic "A-listers": Drax, Adam Warlock, Gamora and Quasar (plus the returning Rocket Racoon and Starlord himself).  I shouldn’t have been worried though, I should have just trusted in the Abnett/Landing magic.

The dialogue rocks here, especially in the action scenes, as characters banter and snipe at one another.  Groot makes an appearance, essentially as a twig in a pot, and despite having speech balloons too small to read, manages some great imagined lines (likely proclaiming himself Groot).  Mantis makes a return, which made me happy, as the quirky pyrokinetic celestial madonna was one of my favorites from Starlord and Conquest.  Here, as usual, she is equal parts cute and creepy.

Paul Pelletair’s art gives things a nice, dynamic flair and his subtle management of the background, in particular the exterior of the Universal Church of Truth ship (Battlefleet Gothic anyone?  Given Abnett’s ties to Games Workshop, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was deliberate), are worth taking note of.  The team doesn’t have a uniform per se but each costume notably employs the same shade of red as a highlight color (except for Quasar where it is dominant) that actual gives the team a nice bit of cohesion.  Pelletair’s action scenes are top notch, never muddled and never static.  His art complements the writing duo to a T.

Great action, great dialog, talking dogs, hot alien babes, and Lovecraftian horrors from Beyond!  It’s like they reached into my head and pulled out the perfect comic!  Recommended times 10.

—-Links
      Line of Fire Review w/ preview pages
      Weeklycomicbookreview.com Review

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #1 (Marvel, Cornell):  This is what a tie-in should be!  Focusing on Great Britain just after Secret Invasion #1 it focuses mainly on the titular character and some former members of Excalibur/Avengers Pete Wisdom and Black Knight.  Oh and a skull in the shape of John Lennon.  Called John most often he is, perhaps, a surprisingly interesting character defecting from the "fundamentalist" Skrull invaders to assist Wisdom and Captain Britain in protecting the Siege Perilous (apparently Marvel’s gateway to faerie and all things magic).  Wisdom and Black Knight get their chances to shine as well.  Black Knight is busy throwing quips like a leather clad Spidey which he explains are a means to stave off the murderous urges of his magic sword.  Wisdom, a character I don’t know too well, is brutal, quiet and badass as hell with his flaming knife things. That brings us to the titular Captain Britain.  I was never a big Excalibur fan so I don’t know too much about the hero, though I get the impression he has as convoluted a back story as anyone in the 616.  In the book he actually acknowledges his own second-string status, and his comment about wanting to be more like a certain other Captain was a nice touch.

The book is most interesting in terms of plot.  Rather than use the Secret Invasion as a means to push the book down our throats it seems Cornell decided to use it as a backdrop to tell a completely different story.  It’s too early to say for sure but given the branding of the invading Skrulls as fundamentalists (not to mention a skrull as John Lennon), the presence of magic, Captain Britain’s musing on being a better hero, and the usually smarmy Wisdom receiving some kind of vision I expect Cornell will be telling a tale that strays a little from the normal superhero fare.  While Cornell is weaving the deliberately mythical element into his story, one might think this would come off as a bit pretentious, but Cornell manages to balance the mythic with a restrained humor that never veer too much towards the silly. 

Kirk’s pencils really enhance the action scenes and he has a sense of action that is extremely reminiscent of Japanese manga and anime; in particular with his use of speed lines to depict motion.  Black Night’s introduction could have come off as static but Kirk’s deft use of speed lines plus the subtle blurring of the background creating a startling sense of dynamicism.  I’m not sure how Brian Reber’s colors will play out in the long run but their rather sombers tones here give the book a dark air that could drag as the series rolls on.  Regardless the book featured strong art all-around and the choice of Hitch as a cover artists isn’t a far stretch from Kirk’s own style.

All in all this was a great read that surpassed Secret Invasion #1 as a first issue.  I look forward to seeing where this book goes in the future and am happy to add it to my pull list.

–Links
     
Line of Fire Review w/ preview pages.
     
Comic Book Bulletin Review.
     
Weeklycomicbookreview.com Review

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Review: Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is the sequel to Buckell’s previous novel Crystal Rain though that might not be apparent in the beginning, especially to anyone who hasn’t read Cyrstal Rain, a fact that might cause a problem when the reader hits the middle of the book and the narrative shifts from space to the previous novel’s Nagagada (or New Anagada if you prefer).  The plot initially focuses on Nashara a badass ladystyles sent from her homeworld Chimson to generally kick ass and deliver a secret weapon that will hopefully help liberate the masses of oppressed humans from non-human/alien overlords.

The novel started a bit slow, which I think was intentional, since as a reader I shared in Nashara’s sence of being trapped on a world she didn’t want to be in.  Once she hits open space though, gets a chance to really open up and kick the aforementioned ass, things really shine.  In a particularly brilliant action scene Nashara uses a minigun in a rather unorthodox, though fairly awesome, manner and later, in the novel’s final climatic battle, Nashara shines once again with brilliant use of her secret weapon.  Buckell introduces other new interesting aspects like the mind-controlling Satraps and certain revelations regarding the Teotl, both of which may or may not be related to one another.

The previously mentioned shift in narrative came right as I was starting to really enjoy Nashara so the shift back to Pepper, John and company really killed the pace for me a bit.  While I like the characters here I can’t help but feel this was the weaker section of the book.  The Jerome(John’s Son)/Xipilli element is what really brought things down for me.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t badly written, in fact Xipilli was actually quite a tragic character and what he was trying to do in the novel was actually quite noble but both it felt rather extraneous in terms of the novels actual plot and story development.  It did lead to an important moment for Jerome towards the end of the novel and did reinforce the overarching theme portraying to what levels aliens have caused humans to sink to but regardless detracted from what I felt was the more interesting and better written parts of the book.

Regardless this wasn’t enough to stop me reading and the last 75 to 100 pages were more than enough to make up for any chaff along the way.  In many ways the final scenes reminded a bit of the space battle from Return of the Jedi: a disparate alliance fighting an implaccable enemy in an against all odds scenario; thrilling stuff.  Overall, given the greater emphasis on action and overall fantastic world-building I’d rank Ragamuffin slightly above it’s predecessor.  Highly recommanded title for all sci-fi fans who enjoy a well-developed, colorful world that is at the same time familiar and refreshingly original populated by unique and, for the most part, universally appealing characters.

GTA IV Impressions

At five hours in I feel I can comment a little on the game. I was hesitant at first, I struggled with the first big mission of the game, mainly because the unarmed combat controls feel like wading through knee deep quicksand but making my way passed that part I’ve come around to something close to full on addiction. I was vaguely embarrassed by that trouble once I did beat the mission.

As reported elsewhere the story focuses on Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant, who came to Liberty City to pursue the American Dream. He comes sidled with some serious baggage and a suitably mysterious past that lead to more than a few bumps along the way. It is a startling familiar story that feels more reminiscent to something out of a 1930s gangster movie than any previous GTA title. Where Vice City drew comparisons to the 80s version of Scarface I think that GTA IV bears a closer similarity to the 1932 original version of Scarface; and that is a good thing.  The game is darker and grittier than any of the previous versions of GTA and even the humorous elements take on a bit of a sharper edge than in the past.

The gameplay is familiar, but the story pulls you along and, even as early in the game as I am, you know things are gonna be bad.  There are some slight tweaks that add to the gameplay over previous entries into the GTA series.  They’ve added a cover system that works though I’m not sure how useful it will be and the gun controls feel tighter all around.  My favorite addition is the major tweak to the wanted system.  When you get a Wanted star a blue/red flashing circle appears on your radar indicated the zone where you are actually wanted.  Escaping the circle by evading pursuing cops and your wanted stars go from white to gray.  Succesfully avoid any cops outside the zone for a little while and your home free.  The chase element this introduces to the game makes for some tense, entertaining moments particularly when it happens mid-mission and your stuck with a vehicle particularly ill-suited to evading pursuit.  Escaping pursuing police cars in a black van at night, in the rain, was intense but left me feeling satisfied when I eventually did it.  The Pay and Spray the easiest means of evading police in earlier cames is still an option but you need to enter when out of sight of police and you need to actually find a Pay and Spray, the chase element is a much more satisfying experience.

Driving is still a bit off, but better than before.  You have a handbrake now that makes pulling off big turns and 180s easy enough, with judicial use of the analog trigger to control acceleration and a bit of practice and the controls work well enough.  The graphics are good but not great, but are enhanced by fantastic lighting and inspired animation in terms of both broad movements and facial expression (in the cut scenes).  There is still some horizon popup but noticably less than in other games (**cough**MassEffect**cough***).  I don’t know if it’s the near perfect game a lot of media outfits are making it out to be, it won’t win over those who were vehemently against the game (either because of content or gameplay) but for those on the fence or who love the series it is certainly worth a look.  At least for me it has so far been a compelling, entertaining experience and has justified its purchase many times over already.

I have yet to give the multiplayer a shot.

Retro Review: NHL ’94 (Sega Genesis)

I’ve spent (or wasted, depending on your viewpoint) a significant percentage of my life playing videogames. And while there’s always some newly purchased game serving as the flavor of the week, most of my gaming time has been spent on a relatively small number of games. And with the NHL playoffs in full swing, it’s the perfect time to give you five good reasons to play one of them: NHL ’94.

Reason 1: Simple and effective controls. There’s only three face buttons on the normal Genesis controller: A, B, and C. And this particular game can really be played with just B (pass) and C (shoot/check) if you don’t feel like the dumping the puck in or changing lines. Sure, there’s a little bit of depth with one timers and wrist shots vs slapshots but in the end it’s just a couple of buttons. Fast forward to 2008 and sports games are pretty much dead to me.  I don’t want to play a simulation (unless the name is a hilarious misnomer) and that’s what the sports genre has inevitably pushed towards.  Now if you want to play sports game, you have to deal with a control scheme that’s more complex than Splinter Cell.  Do I need a button dedicated to blocking the puck during a shot?  Not particularly.  Apparently the EA team responsible for Madden thinks I need a “pump up the crowd” button.  They are wrong.  The only remaining hope is that Nintendo’s lust for leveraging the Mario brand (read: milking) by combining it with any and all activities will result in Mario Hockey and provide us with quality and simple arcade controls.

Reason 2: Quality animations. For its time, NHL ’94 had some excellent animations. Goalies dive and slide to make kicks. The players skate pretty well. But it’s not the normal stuff that makes this one of the five reasons to get this game. It’s the unique animations that show you somebody working on this game cared. If you check a guy near the bench, he’ll fold up over the wall and then fall back onto the ice. If you stop really fast, ice will actually spray up. There’s the elusive “shattered glass” scenario where the puck breaks the glass behind the goal. I’ve only had this happen to me once in my ridiculous number of hours playing the game. But my personal favorite (and the reason why I made this it’s own category) is that if you look closely, players will take one hand off their stick and swat at a puck that’s in the air near them. I don’t even know if the game is programmed so that they can make contact with the puck in that scenario but someone drew the sprites and somebody coded the animation anyway. Sweet deal.

Reason 3: Organ music. Organ music is dying out at most sporting venues. The Flyers have a great organist in David May and he gets to solo sometimes during the intermissions. Still, he’s not use nearly enough during the actual game and the replacement music is usually mediocre pop-rock. So for all of the people who’ve had their Mexican Hat Dance and Hava Nagila taken from them, this game has your back.

Reason 4: Anaheim Mighty Ducks. After playing this game for so long, you pick up lots of cheap ways to score that exploit the game design. You can loop around behind the goal, cause a defenseman to run his own goalie and grab an easy wraparound. Or on breakaways you can just drift to the side while shooting to the opposite post. The goalies never figure it out (probably because their AI is just slightly more advanced than the standard Goomba). Eventually crushing the computer becomes boring and you have to handicap yourself to bring the challenge back to a reasonable level. Enter the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. This was the year that Disney came up with the second greatest marketing idea ever (here’s the best): buy a major sports team and use that to promote movies about a fake sports team. As an expansion team, the Ducks completely got the shaft in NHL ’94. See, back in 1994 it was hard to distinguish player qualities like “puck handling” and “checking” because the games were so simplistic. So the easiest way to separate good and bad teams was to make the bad teams slower…everyone on the bad teams…even the fast players. The result is a Ducks team that looks like they’re wading through quicksand while the Red Wings of the world make a line change and still have enough time to stop your breakaway. The ability to handicap yourself (aka choosing a different difficulty level) gives this game added replay value (albeit in one of the goofiest ways possible).

Reason 5: Unsportsmanlike Conduct. In contact sports, hitting someone after the play is over is generally considered a bad thing. The primary reason is that the person assumes the play is over (he’s correct in this assumption) and then he gets blind sided. Well video games have always been about escapism and being able to do things you can’t do in real life. And NHL ’94 wasn’t programmed to punish extracurricular activities. Give up a goal? Check that lucky jerk into the boards. Score a game winner? See if you can knock down all five players from the opposing team before the game switches to the box score. You should buy this game just for the ability to duel with a friend after every goal scored.

Note from Mike:Check out this review of the NHL ’94 Manual from 10 Cent Freeze Pops.

Metal Review (Pellet): Sanctity, Road to Bloodshed

Sancity’s debut Road to Bloodshed is to Trivium what The Confession’s first full-length is to Avenged Sevenfold.  An up and coming band produced by a member/producer of another band, in this case Jason Suecof who produced both Trivium’s The Crusade and Ascendency and served as song-writer on a number of that band’s songs, that leads to an album strikingly similar to that of another band (The Confession’s first full-length was produced by A7X frontman M. Shadows).   Road to Bloodshed isn’t a bad album though and even excels over Trivium’s in several aspects.  It’s a well nuanced album that, while familiar, features top-notch production and a very mature sense of pacing.  Never veering into ballad territory Road to Bloodshed features enough musical texture that the frequent growls of lead singer Jared MacEachern don’t grate nearly as much as Trivium’s Matt Heafy.  I think these guys are worth keeping an eye on.  It’s hard to say on album like this exactly how much the producers creative element influenced the band in question, given the album’s similarity to late Trivium efforts I would suggest a lot, but I’d be interested to see how a freer creative hand in their own output effects the quality of their work.   In the end this is a solid, if slightly derivitive, outing that fans of melodic influenced thrash metal would do well to at least give a whirl.

UPDATED: Crysis (complete) vs. Bioshock (incomplete)

UPDATE:  Rock, Paper, Shotgun pointed to an excellent article over at Gamesetwatch on the design in Crysis’ first half. Manveer Heir, game designer at Raven Software, boils down my own feelings on both that first half and the problems later in the game much better than I was able to and I highly recommend you take a gander at what he was to say.

Much has been said about Crysis‘ story, mostly regarding its lack of originality and sub-par scripting.  Even more has been said about it’s ridiculous system requirements so I’m not going to touch on either of those except to say that the story isn’t amazing and that the game runs great on my rig until the final level when things go downhill.  What Crysis does well, especially in the beginning, is disguise its linear progression in a fairly open world.

The trick is that world is open at all. You’re on rails, they’re just very forgiving rails. Missions typically consist of getting from Point A to Point B, an obviously linear progression, but that tactics and means you use to do that are, more or less, up to you. Do you go the stealthy route? Using your suit and cloak to slip by enemies or do you maliciously slaughter your enemies in an almost sociopathic quest to leave no one alive behind you (Hint: I chose the latter).

I did see some complaints about the ineffectiveness of Crysis weapons a point I disagree with. Most enemies well take anywhere from one to three shots (in the head) to kill. The higher numbers on that end are for helmeted enemies and the fact that using a silencer degrades range and stopping power. It also discounts the exosuit enemies later in the game. I chose to snipe enemies from afar using foliage and and my cloak to sneak around enemy strongholds and sow death and confusion in my wake. It is sad but it took me nearly the entire first half of the game to realize I could switch my rate of fire. Once I realized I could use single shot my sniper tactics so an almost exponential improvement.

The game features a entertaining, if not entirely useful weapon modding systems. That lets you attach various tactical items to guns. Laser sights, flashlights, various scopes, a grenade launcher and a dart gun round out your options. Each set-up plays to different tactical approach to combat that turns out to work pretty well. I am less keen on multiple ammo types (I think it only applies to one gun) and am uncertain how effective the incendiary rounds are. Combining weapon load out with the suits functions enhances combat quite a bit. For example the shotgun and strength power (or a sniper rifle) reduce recoil and improves aim at the cost of armor.

It’s only a shame that all this becomes mostly useless for the last half of the game. The alien enemies feel a lot stupider than the human enemies and what was fun stealth/action combat turns into a more straight forward run and gun affair. Combine that with missions that jar with the rest of the game, in particular the hover-jet mission, and you have an overall weakening of what I found to be the games core strengths. Regardless I found the game a blast and I can see myself going back and playing the first half again sometime in the future. More than anything else, and shortcomings aside, I had fun playing this game which, when you come right down to it, is what games are all about.

This core element, unfortunately, is what brings us to Bioshock. vLauded by the gaming community at large as an artistic triumph, Game of the Year level product and my expectations for both story and gameplay were, needless to say, rather high. At first glance Bioshock does indeed seem to be all its cracked up to be.  That lasted until my first Big Daddy fight.

I remember reading about the Big Daddies in the pre-release furor of the game and their advanced AI, and general badassedness and I would say that both are spot on.  A fact that turns out to be a bad thing.  Since Big Daddies take a beating to be taken out, their resistance to all forms of attack (both your powers and your weapons) combined with the general scarcity of ammo combine into a foul tasting brew.  Throw in the fact that you need to take out Big Daddies to get at Little Sisters, arguably the most important part of the game, and I’m railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do.

I know what your saying.  I’m complaining because the game is hard.  That is true to an extent but the Big Daddy fights aren’t fun.  Not fun at all and even more of a drag since you can’t really say no to them.  There are other problems with combat since the splicers are actually quite dumb.  As a result combat swings back and forth from the incredibly easy to the frustratingly difficult.  The splicers suffer from “Diablo syndrome;”  they occasionally look different but for the most they feel like the same enemy, different skin or color, but the same enemy.

The level design isn’t fantastic.  Rapture is fascinating from an architectural standpoint, and it oozes atmosphere, but more often than not that appearance is more like a disguise hiding the traditional Doom-inspired linear level design.  Indeed even the recordings you find on your path are an element ripped straight out of Doom 3.  The story is interesting, and I’m at least curious as to what happened, what is going on, and who exactly our main hero is.  The flashes of memory(?) you get serve as a passable means of keeping you engaged in the story.  Interesting yes, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to keep playing.  With books to read, other games to play, a backlog of DVRed television, not to mention two jobs means what I’m playing has to entice me back and Bioshock just didn’t do that for me….at least until I started cheating.

I’m not using god mode, or infinite ammo instead I’m using a cheat that gives me $200 dollars every time I press the F10 button.  Indeed my enjoyment of the game has gone up considerably as a result.  Ammo is no longer scarce, but it isn’t exactly abundant either.  The long stretches from a vending machine have little to no ammo drops so I find myself low on ammo in some cases.  Special (electric buck, rockets, etc.) ammo is still scarce enough to force me to be careful with it but I no longer worry about things too much and can throw myself into Big Daddy fights with suicidal glee.

It doesn’t resolve all my complaints with the game and doesn’t address the fact that your powers never really feel totally useful.  Sure they’re interesting, they have some viable non-combat use, but I never really feel like I need them.  The game is atmospheric and creepy but never outright scary (Aliens vs. Predator and Eternal Darkness are the two games the scared me the most).  The recordings used as fluff are fun, as they were in Doom 3, and a great way to introduce story without breaking the flow of gameplay.  The lack of cut scenes leaves you in the drivers seat for the whole game, an admirable acheivment, that helps eliminate the presence of the 4th wall that video games typically share with other entertainment mediums.

I still don’t think the game is as amazing as everyone said it was.  But what the game does in terms of story and narrative is inevitably dragged down by the gameplay.  I plan on finishing the game, not because I enjoy it, but because I want to see how the story ends.  Which is why Bioshock, in my opinion at least, fails as a game.  Because, given a choice between Bioshock the game and Bioshock the novel (if it existed), I would inevitably choose the novel.

Bioshock and Crysis making an interesting side by side comparison because their faults are complimentary.  Where Crysis lacks in narrative originality Bioshock shines, where Bioshock lacks in polished, balanced gameplay, Crysis shines.  Both games seem to pander to a different audience: where fans of Deus Ex and System Shock 2 will inevitably gravitate towards Bioshock, fans of Far Cry (duh!), Half-life and more traditional shooters will gravitate towards Crysis.  Both games work, and work especially well when they focus on their strengths, but seem to fall apart when you scrutinize their faults.

I’ve wandered a bit further afield than I intended to.  Regardless of my dissapointment with Bioshock I am enjoying my experience with the game and hope that things improve more as I go on and more of the story is unearthed.  Crysis was fun to play and I highly recommend it on looks alone if you can run it.  The early gameplay, while familiar to anyone who played Far Cry, is made fresh and interesting thanks to the addition of the exosuit powers.  Both have demos at least (for the PC versions) so you can try out both before taking any kind of monetary plunge and a highly recommend you give both a try.  All in all both are good games the fall shy of great thanks to a number of shortcomings.