Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Arrows in Smallville and a Trip into Video Game Future

Hole made by Arrow (aka: an impression)

[for my prescient review of the Arrow Video Game, scroll down]

Smallville was... strange. What started out as a teen-dream TV-version of Superboy and spent its first few years trying to tell the same "green-meteorite-affects-Smallville-person-in-evil-ways-and-makes-Clark's-heroics-a-little-more-difficult", matured (if you can call it that) to at least a semi-respectable comic adaptation, holding a steady prime-time slot for no less than 10 seasons. Granted, it never outgrew the feeling that even after 10 years it was still being made for a 10-year old, and its pathos, plot twists, "dark secrets" and tedious relationships rivaled at times the most bubbly of soaps.

So when fans of Smallville tuned in to Arrow, CW's re-imagining of DC's Star City vigilante Green Arrow, a show made by some of the same people as "the Struggling and Overly Complicated Relationships of Clark Kent - and Some Heroics in Cheap-Looking Costumes", they may have been surprised. Arrow is dark. Mysterious. Morally ambiguous.
Arrow kills people. With arrows. It was impressively refreshing. Superheroes don't kill people. Yes, sometimes they may choose not to save someone really evil and be forgiven, but generally it's a big "no-no". Additionally, Arrow chose to limit the spoon-feeding of plot-points to a bare minimum - which is a nice way of saying that the first few episodes left people a bit confused. Where did that list of villains for the Arrow to punish come from? Why would he choose such a strangely colored vigilante outfit in an Urban environment? Whose kid belonged that cheap rubber Deathstroke mask to that was staked out on the beach? And why would he wear so much eye-liner all alone on an isolated island? Some of these questions have by now been answered, and the way those answers came supports Arrow's claim of a more sophisticated (and darker) look at "The Superhero".

However, once Ollie had returned to civilization and met up with his former love after five years of legal death, Smallville veterans were back on solid ground. Dialog that was probably meant (or hoped) to be profound and touching, sadly most often played out as that same 10-year old's take on Batman Begins.
Still, Arrow is not bad. It's actually quite good. It's just a bit schizophrenic. Stephen Amell is charming enough and holds his own despite the green make up, the action is actually impressive for weekly TV, but surprisingly (or maybe un-surprisingly) Arrow's best moments consistently happen without the Arrow-persona actually being involved. At the very least, Oliver Queen and the characters surrounding him are definitely not as bland and boring as Clark Kent's Smallville was.

http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120603090948/arrow/images/b/b0/Portal-LaurelLance.pngExcept for his counterpart Laurel Lance - at least until now. And can I just say that a re-imagining actually gives you the right to break with certain ridiculous traditions, like the "Double-L" love interest? Lana Lang, Lois Lane, Laurel Lance... There's a thin line between tribute and tedium, and when it comes to the Double-L's, these producers have tedium down pat. I didn't like Laurel Lance the first time I heard her name. It was an instinctual reaction, as those two Ls instantly dragged up all the things I hated about Lana and Lois. I disliked her even more when she started to talk - it all felt like things I had heard a million times before, and much better phrased at that. If the killing was refreshing, how much more refreshing the absence of a moralist love-interest, possibly with a dark side waiting to break out would have been, I could not even begin to tell you. On the other hand, she is quite beautiful, so allowances can be made... Seriously though, I will withhold final judgement until the end of the first season. Katie Cassidy is a good (fine, and hot) actress, that should be allowed to show a much deeper... uhm depth of character as Laurel Lance seems to have. But maybe that will change as the season progresses. I should not (prematurely) rage on a character simply because the writers and producers failed to try something they haven't done before ad nauseam. Maybe it's one of those things you "just have to do" I never seem to understand. I will however reserve the right to tell you "I told you so."

Still, Arrow will probably be quite successful, and should the writers eventually to decide to add the same wit, brains and finesse to the "heroic" dialog as Oliver's conversations with his little sister so often contain - and tune down on the soap opera moments and the painfully obvious "this line will lead straight into a flashback"-lines - it might even become thoroughly enjoyable. Right now though, despite the mostly strong performances of Arrow's leading characters, it still feels a bit like the small and slightly annoying teenaged brother of Chris Nolan's Batman, jumping around in his home-made Robin costume.

It could be really good. All those two guys need are some better scripts.

Oops. Right. I meant those two guys:

Well, arguably, I could've meant both. I mean, all four. And no, they're not the same people. Just look at the hairlines...
(See what I did there? Robin, Chris O'Donnel and the Hooded archer Green Arrow?)
Anyways... with my freeze ray I will stop... uhm. You know. Stuff.

Arrow, the Video Game

One potentially very good thing we might get out of Arrow's success though, could be a possible Arrow Video Game. Now, until a few years ago, most license games were admittedly terrible, Riddick's Escape from Butcher Bay being probably the most notable exception. Then there was Arkham Asylum. And then there was Arkham City. And suddenly the faithful conversion of fan-favorite content into an interactive experience did not seem so impossible anymore.

If you think about it, Green Arrow is basically Batman with a Bow. And Arrows that kill.
Now imagine what homicidal vigilante-fun you could have in an Arkham City environment, with a Bow and Arrows - some tricky, some lethal - and no restrictions when it comes to how much damage you can actually do to your adversaries. Think of a modern-day Assassin's Creed III with Batman's Utility Belt, parcour-style movement with zip-line arrows and grappling-hook arrows, coupled with Batman's stealth and combat mechanics, all built around the central pillar of the Bow. Indoors and outdoors missions, stealth missions, detective missions, the options are many and various, especially with Starling City not being bound to any authentic architectural or historic entity.

Or you could go the obvious way, and make a game about the five years Oliver Queen spends on a remote island fighting mercenaries, the five years of "Learn or Die" Training that made a playboy billionaire into a Deadshot with a Bow.
The overgrown and heavily forested island would offer the open world-setting, the forest itself Queen`s main avenue of movement, and the mercenaries led by Deathstroke the evil to be vanquished.

Akin to Just Cause, the island will have to be liberated by sabotaging the enemy's evil machinations. Outposts will have to be cleared and defended, convoy's ambushed, disguises used to infiltrate bases and "pacify" and high-ranking mercenaries. Raids on Supply Depots would provide the tools to improve weaponry and create new custom arrows out of different combinable components, experimentation with plants provides poisons and "potions", while hunting in the woods provides nourishment and resources. You could even secure your hideouts by using camouflage or placing cunningly concealed traps.

And this is the way I would like to review it:

http://img9.imageshack.us/img9/1552/arrowislandarrival.pngYou begin the game washed ashore in a small lagoon on a remote tropical island. You have nothing but the clothes on your back and whatever can be scavenged from the remains of the life raft that brought you here.
As you explore the environment, you find that you are trapped in a small area, limited by steep cliffs too sheer to climb. Still, there are animals in that area, and some are not too friendly, but for now your only course of action is to run from these encounters. Until one day, you find next to the little hut you built a primitive bow and a few arrows. You spend some time training with the bow, and notice that the more you practice, the better you get, the stronger you get. In a simplified version of Skyrim's "Leveling by Doing" system, every shot with the retrievable arrows increases your aim, range and power - quite fast at first, but becoming a Master of the Bow will of course take a considerable amount of time.

After using your new-found skills to bring down some hopefully edible critters and regain your strength, your next task will be to escape the lagoon. Somebody must be up there, hopefully the mysterious benefactor that provided bow and arrow.
The idea is to use a rope or vine attached to an arrow shot at a tree on top of the cliff, a shot the untrained Queen could not have made. Getting up high enough into the forest to find a sufficiently long vine introduces the climbing mechanics, that in a way similar to Assassin's Creed III has you tentatively scaling the lofty heights to reach the jungle canopy. Your movements will be awkward at first, and you will fall, but it's part of the learning experience. Eventually having vanquished the vines of your immediate world, you will find that a small rodent sized monkey has made off with your bow. Chasing him down will introduce you to a way of speedy locomotion by swinging and jumping from tree branch to tree branch, but as with everything else, you start out helpless and only practice will make you better.

When you've finally managed to reach the top of the cliff, you encounter the mysterious man in the hood, who subsequently goes on to kick your a$$. The a$$-kicking is witnessed by the little monkey that had stolen your bow, apparently the man's pet and obviously part of a sinister conspiracy to make your life miserable.
http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/184ngpu1si758jpg/original.jpgThe intent of this demonstration was, of course, to drive home the point of your utter helplessness. The second part of the game begins with your advanced training in combat, archery, stealthy stalking and speedy movement, conducted by both the Hooded Man and his monkey. Once again, you will only be able to exit this training area if your skills have sufficiently increased to actually do so - and even then you have to figure out the way.

With your training progressing, you soon gain access to a bigger part of the island, and the Hooded Man will take you on a few hunting outings, providing you with the knowledge necessary plant deadly traps, skin and butcher caught animals, use plants to make poisons and potions, and in general forage the woods for raw materials to make weapons, arrows, clothing and other things of use. He will also teach you a few nifty tricks, like shooting multiple arrows, as well as introduce your first trick arrow, the Snare Arrow, that lets you trip and bind animals (of all kinds) from afar. The most important part of your hunting training however is your newly gained ability to focus, to slow down the time around you for precision and special skill shots.

http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/184neuqzz6br9jpg/original.jpgIt is also around that time that you first realize - and quite painfully so - that the two of you are not the only inhabitants of the island. A group of vicious mercenaries has made it their base of operation, and control most of the territory through a multitude of outposts and guard stations. You find out that your hooded friend has led a private, solitary war against those mercenaries, who, despite diligent attempts, have not yet managed to kill or even find him. But in you they have found a possible chink in the Hooded Man's armor, a weakness they will try to exploit. Especially after the Hooded Man rescues you right out of their evil clutches.

During your daring escape from the Base, the Hooded Man will show you another very useful tool, this one aimed at speedy transportation across long distances: the Paraglide-Arrow. Basically this arrow, attached to a rope and fired high into the sky, will deploy a para-chute to catch the strong winds prevailing above the island and quickly whisk you out of harm's way. The Para-Arrow is your primary means of traversing long distances, but to actually reach your destination you will first travel to an area below the wind stream going where you want to go. It sounds complicated at first, but you soon find yourself traveling across the island with ease. Of course you will be able to hijack and drive enemy vehicles, from motorbikes to Armored Personnel Carriers, but it's just not as satisfying (or impressive) as floating high above the islands.

Now that you are part of the war effort, your attacks on mercenary camps and supply depots will gain you access to technology and resources you can use to enhance your equipment and create custom trick arrows with different effects. From Stun-Arrows, Binding-Arrows, Gag-Arrows or Explosive-Arrows, the right ingredients allow you to make an arrow for every occasion, and grants a certain degree of individuality, catering to your own play-style.

The most important development however comes when you are deprived of your hooded teacher quite early in the game, and long before you have learned all there is to know. You have the basic skills to survive and fight, but are nowhere near good enough to take on Deathstroke himself.
http://www.accesshollywood.com/content/images/175/400x400bd/175838_stephen-amell-as-oliver-queen-in-arrow-episode-1-season-1.jpgAs you are now using your mentor's old hideout, you can use your old training equipment (or build new equipment) to improve your skills. During the game, you will gain access to more hideouts, all of which you can improve with the right resources. You can also spend some time camouflaging your hide-outs from spying eyes and, in a nod to the popular Tower-Defense games a few years back, can plant traps in the area around it, granting you additional time to defend or flee a hideout in case of an attack.

There are also quite a lot of different skill and trick shots you can still learn, their availability depending on your Bow Proficiency Level. Those are not just handed to you, though; they have to be earned. Opportunities to learn shots available at your current level will present themselves in semi-random events you encounter while playing.

http://www.blogcdn.com/www.comicsalliance.com/media/2012/10/arrow13.pngThese events basically present you with a challenge, a chance to figure out a new shot by doing it, but contrary to common quick-time-events, there are no button prompts - the things you have to do just all make sense once you figure the out. As an example, stirring up a trio of birds will give you the opportunity to learn the Triple-Arrow Trick Shot, by first marking two birds like a usual double-shot and shooting the third bird manually, after quickly pulling out another arrow. It's a really satisfying experience, and since the opportunities will return until you've mastered the shot, failing an event is not the end of the world. In fact, it will have you thinking about ways to pull it off. Similarly, hitting a target at extreme ranges will increase your accuracy and permanently steady your aim. It's a challenge-reward system that actually encourages exploration and experimentation in a way most tangible, since the game offers almost no hints as to how you are supposed to achieve those rewards. Granted, you could enable hints for the game to hold your hand, but the most gratifying reward is often knowing you figured things out yourself. If you think you should be able to do that, if you think it makes sense, more often than not you will find that the game will reward you for figuring it out.

The island of course offers its own secrets, from ship wrecks and tunnels to ancient ruins, and it's quite satisfying to simply explore its vast and diverse areas without sticking pointy things into bad people. But eventually the game will force you to continue the war your mentor started.

As the conflict escalates, and you liberate the island one arrow at a time, the mercenaries will bring ever bigger guns to the bow-fight, make more concerted efforts to find your hide-outs and attack you while you rest from your injuries, and every so often, a highly-skilled operative will be dispatched to deal with you. These boss-fights easily are some of the high-points of the game, as they are both diverse, yet still manage to present options of dealing with your enemy according to your preferred play-style and arrow loadout. A boss fight equipped with Net- and Stun-Arrows will play differently than the same fight with Explosive-Arrows.

And so you slowly fight your way through the mercenary hordes, hoping to get a shot at the top dog, while at the same time figuring out the secret of the island and why Deathstroke and his employers are even here. Admittedly, since the game stays pretty well within the established confines of the TV series, we do know how it will eventually play out, but how you get there is one of the most engaging, imaginative, gripping and beautiful gaming experiences I've ever had the pleasure of playing.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mysterious Ways... of 2012

There comes a time in every man's life, when he's got to look at sh@t that he now owns. Can't depend on games to help you in a squeeze, please, they got problems of their own.

Props to those that just got that.

It's a formative experience in the life of every video game enthusiast, when she looks at a certain feature of a certain game, and, quite insistently, yells the following words in her mind: "What.The. F@ck?!" And not even the sight of her own, trim body, slightly covered by nothing but a very tight "Duke Nukem" shirt and "Solid Snake" panties, reflected on the screen of a 70" HDTV, can ease her pain. But it does soothe ours.

We all know that developers work in mysterious ways, but there are certain... call them "creative decisions" that seem a bit... questionable. You know, the things nobody thought they would do, directions nobody can understand they would take, mistakes nobody would believe they could make.

So let's take a look at some of my personal favorites, the "creative mis-decisions" of 2012:

Battlefield 3, Close Quarters: 

I got into Battlefield when I got sick of Modern Warfare 2. Commando, Marathon, Lightweight anyone? Those teleporting, backstabbing Jackrabbits on Speed? Totally ruined the game for me. It may be personal taste, but the thing about sprinting as soon as you spawn is that it somewhat discourages a thoughtful, tactical approach to things - unless you count "Let's all go left and kill those motherf@ckers!" as approaching tactical. Killing "those motherf@ckers" incidentally seemed to sum up most of the available game modes, as objectives simply massed all the motherf@ckers to kill in certain areas. Then the glitches, the exploits, the hackers, the boosters, the Tactical Knife, the Akimbo Rangers... Battlefield Bad Company 2 for me was a welcome reprieve. Not only did it actually make long-range combat long range, but the game modes and the level design provided a wonderful variation of scenarios - not to mention the free map packs. I spent about a month of my life on BC2's Multiplayer, and I don't really want it back.

I was consequentially inappropriately aroused when BF3 neared its release, but the Beta already left me with a sour taste in my mouth, feeling like a two-bit whore that got cum-jumped by a John during a 10-buck blowjob. Operation Metro. What were they thinking? Not only was it buggy as hell only a month before release, it was also a very concise demonstration of everything Battlefield was supposed not to be. It felt a lot like COD. It played a lot like COD. But when the first few voices were raised to voice that particular affront, they were flamed like foxholes.

But the voices had been right. In fact, it was the very first step in a treacherous move of DICE and EA to entice the CODites to switch games, to CODify the Battlefield, ruin the experience for a lot of faithful fans, and make lots of extra money.

This trend continued when looking at the on-disc maps available at release - three small, three medium, two big and one too huge to really enjoy on consoles with only 24 people. It felt like a cheap compromise between luring the Fish-heads with the small maps, while still being able to point to the too-huge-to-be-true maps for the franchise faithfuls, with the medium maps somewhere in the middle - and yet not one of these maps came even close to the pretty much perfectly balanced and varied maps of Bad Company 2.
Then there was Team Deathmatch, the single most loathed game mode in Battlefield lore, not least because it is the foundation on which the Call of Duty games are built. Its very existence was an admission of the developers attempt to emulate their rival and present Battlefield as a viable alternative. Already, the list of things that actually made Battlefield different had shortened to the sad stump of an old man's c@ck when seen in ice-cold water.

The sad culmination of their shameless ploy for Modern Warfarers was "Close Quarters", the second Multiplayer DLC released in June of 2012. It actually advertised the kind of hemmed-in, fast-paced, twitchy, trigger happy gameplay that Battlefield players explicitly played Battlefield to avoid. Most BF fans felt their gorge raising when they saw the part in the tailer with the Russian Engineer vaulting a ledge and firing an RPG inside a skyscraper. Nothing is so reminiscent of COD than the gratuitous use of rocket-propelled anti-tank weapons against human targets in telephone-booth sized environments. That just reeks of tactical gameplay.

"Close Quarters" also came with two "new" game modes, that were actually carbon copies of well known COD game modes, right down to the names. And the question that so many people - well, fine, that I (as the only person of note) am asking myself is: why? Why would you do that? You had a good thing going. You were different. Arguably, you were better. You have a faithful following for the very reason of being different from the COD, why would you actively try to emulate the enemy? And why, if you choose to sell out, why in all the seven hells would you sell out in such a terribly obvious way?
Now, imagine how angry it would make you, if, for example, Battlefield introduced a season pass like Call of Duty's Elite Premium Membership. Of course they would call it something completely different (I mean, how obvious can you be?), but the Season Pass principle has been greedily adopted by developers, and swallowed - without even looking at the contents - by members of the non-intelligentsia. So, imagine you're one of these hardcore Battlefield players, the kind that drives pre-school COD kiddies nuts by spreading rumors of huge maps, no quick-scoping, vehicles, no kill-streaks and no One-Shot-Kills on their message boards before every release. Imagine you're one of them. The PC guys. The core of the hardened core of the center of what would be left of the hardcore players should DICE ever decide to make small COD style maps. The guys that made DICE and Battlefield into what it is today. And you pay 50$ for such a season pass, pay that money before they even announced a single detail about the content, expecting the usual quality Battlefield. It's DICE, after all. What could go wrong? And then you get what basically amounts to a "Modern Warfare" game mode. Everything you never wanted was now a part of your most cherished pastime. And you paid for it. No money back for you, mate. No guarantee that the next three pre-paid expansions will be any different. The uncertainty. The torment. The pain. Tough buns.

Boy, would I be pissed...

Anyway. What started with the BF3 Beta and Operation Metro, then found its questionable high-point in Close Quarters, left many a veteran of the Battlefield feeling angry, used and disillusioned. But most of all confused. Because, except for the money, there seems to be no possible reason why DICE would do or agree to such a molestation of everything their flagship franchise stood for. And we all know that the money could not have been the deciding factor, right?

... right?

-- tbc some other time (but preferably before 2013 comes around) --

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fireflies of World War II

A long-a$$ f*cking time ago, in a town called Kickapoo, there was a TV show that blazed like a fiery comet in the night - until it was snuffed by ungrateful fans and terrible support by its network home.

Firefly was Joss Whedon's unique vision of science fiction, and probably the very best science fiction series since The Next Generation. If you're into Sci-Fi at all, and don't mind the kind of smart humor that is Whedon's trademark, you owe it to yourself to watch the Firefly TV-Series and the following movie "Serenity". Those that know will agree. Those that don't know need to change that.

About two years ago, I tried to apply as a writer to an online MMORPG focused on the tank warfare of World War II. One of the application requirements was a WWII tank short story, and during my research into the subject I came upon a variation of the venerable Sherman Tank - nicknamed "The Firefly".

I never finished my application. Instead I wrote a piece of Firefly Fan Fiction, with a somewhat familiar crew in somewhat unfamiliar circumstances...

„We cannot get out,” the dark voice said, ominously. “A shadow lurks in the dark. We cannot get out. They are com-“
“I swear, by all that is holy,” said another voice, less ominous, but impressively irritated, “should those words escape your mouth one more time, I will personally stuff your entire being into the breech, fire you towards the Jerries and take my chances with a court martial.”
“I would like to think you’d receive a medal”, said a third voice, this one belonging to Trooper “Chaplain” Book, the crew’s loader.
“Not unless he dies, I won’t”, complained Sgt. Malachi Reynolds, his words still heavy with irritation. “He survives, they’ll probably take me to The Hague. Crimes of War against the Germans, and all.”
“Now why would I do that?” asked the owner of the first voice in a slightly teasing tone.
“Do what now?” asked Reynolds.
“Survive.” said Trooper Wilbur Washburne.
“Just to spite me. Now shut up. There’s shadows lurking in the dark.” Despite his gruff voice, Reynolds’s mouth was grinning beneath the binoculars as he scanned the countryside for German tanks. Washburne, annoying wise cracks notwithstanding, was arguably one of the best drivers of the War, and Reynolds was, for the most part, lucky to have him. Unfortunately, their Firefly Tank was in no condition to drive. Even worse, Washburne had been right. They could indeed not get out.

It had been one of those things that shouldn’t happen in real life. 15 hours ago, their troop came under artillery fire. Encased in their hull-down position with earthen berms on all sides, they were not free to maneuver, and it had cost them. One shell came close enough that the ensuing explosion knocked off one of their tracks. Only seconds later another shell hit directly from above, impacting just aft of the main hatch. It was a dud. And still it did enough damage to take them out of the fight. It was a dud, it struck like the fist of God and by rights they should all be dead. Yet, locked in his tank with three other male human beings of questionable body hygiene for almost 15 hours now, Reynolds debated if he should indeed be grateful.

On impact, the shell had bent the entry hatch beyond repair, then continued downwards and embedded itself in the bustle, the armored box that had, until recently, housed the tank’s radio equipment on the back of the turret. They were immobilized, trapped and cut off from communications. And when the dust had settled, they found out they were alone. The rest of their troop had by now moved into their new positions further south, near a small French village overlooking (French) Interstate 158, and with intermittent fire still coming from the German Artillery, nobody would come looking for them for quite some time. It had been too long already.

“Mr. Cobb. There’s an awful amount of quietness emitting from your station.” Reynolds remarked, still surveying their surroundings.
“Ain’t nothin’ to shoot, ain’t nothin’ to talk about.” Trooper FC Cobb, the crew’s gunner, replied darkly. Cobb, maybe not the brightest crayon in the box but easily the most colorful; was one hell of a marksman, but he wasn’t prone to conversing about the finer things in life. As Cobb liked to say: ”Too hard to talk over the shootin’.”
“He just warms my heart. Doesn’t he just warm your heart?” The soft voice of Washburn came from the driver’s seat with an audible smirk. It was followed by the unmistakable sound of a Zippo lighter opening.
“Could light you up, too.” Cobb’s voice was a menacing growl.
“I believe it is the Lord’s light that guides and warms us from within. It should be quite enough.” Chaplain Book interjected, diffusing the situation smoothly by mentioning the Almighty. Nobody argued with the Big Shepard. Book was a black man, and as such uncommon in tanks, but to Reynolds and his crew that didn’t matter. He was on the crew. He had fought and bled with his crew, and not one of them would hesitate to give their lives for Book. To his crew, the only color of importance was the red of their blood and the green of their uniform. Well, it had started out as green. By now it was more of a brownish color.

“Not to question the Almighty’s warm touch, but how about we launch some good ol’ fashioned mortal fire into the oncoming Hunnish Hordes?” Reynolds’s eyes twinkled as he turned away from the binoculars. He shrugged, with a grin. “Just in case…”
The atmosphere inside the tank changed in an instant. Gone was the laconic manner, replaced by cold efficiency. Well, except for Washburn, who still had nothing he could do and simply started muttering darkly in his driver’s seat.
“Target: Six, no Seven. Look like Tigers. Some Panzers and Artillery, too. Coming up from the south on 158.” Reynolds said, again looking through the binoculars.
Cobb swiveled the main turret until it pointed to the south-west. “I see ‘em. Range?”
“I’d say… 2600 yards?” replied Reynolds.
“I’d say so, too.” agreed Cobb.
“Long shot. Think you can do it?”
“Vera can do it.” Cobb said confidently, fondly patting the tank’s inside hull. Weapons of death and destruction were one of the few things Cobb openly showed affection for. That, and the women he preferred, the ones that don’t mind not being asked their name or not being kissed on the mouth.

“And yet it was you I was asking.” Reynolds voice was calm, his eyes locked onto the distant column of approaching German tanks. The question was not one of trivia. The effective range of the Firefly’s 17 pounder 3-inch main cannon against the thickly armored Tiger tanks was measured in hundreds of yards. This would be the better part of two miles, and only a perfect hit at the joint of turret and body would even have a chance of penetrating.
Vera can do it.” Cobb repeated, his emphasis on the name he had given their tank’s main gun, indicating that she was the only questionable part of their intended long-range attack.
“Then who are we to stand in her way. Loader, load one.”
Book turned, took one of the Armour Piercing, Capped, Ballistic Capped (APCBC) shells from the rack and held it in his hands for a moment. “May the Lord guide you on your path.” he softly whispered to the shell, then jammed it into the breech to his right. “Loaded One, ready.”
“I’ll just sit here and do nothing then.” Washburne said dejectedly.
“And do it amazingly well despite the lack of qualification.” said Reynolds, still staring through the binoculars. He was waiting. If he remembered the designated alternate locations correctly, the German tanks would pass right in front of their fellow A and C squadrons, now concealed within the forest overlooking the road. Their commander would wait until the Germans had come well within firing range before opening up. It would do no good for Reynolds to spoil the surprise.

When it happened, it happened fast. A and C squadrons opened fire and the German tanks vanished behind a thick veil of smoke, earth and dust.
“Permission to Kill, Sergeant?” Cobb growled eagerly.
“Why, so nice of you to ask. Kill away, Mr. Cobb.”
What followed were almost 15 minutes of one-sided excitement. Relegated to the essential role of artillery – although Cobb’s proficiency with the gun made it more of a sniper rifle – it fell to Book to load, Cobb to shoot and Reynolds to call out targets, while Washburne sat in his seat, and tried to read the loose-leafed fantasy manuscript he had bought from some Brit writer during their short stay in England several months ago and could not stop quoting from.

The only exciting moment came when one of the Tigers tried to lead the German elements into a flanking attack. The Tiger’s commander evaded the incoming attacks with astounding skill, deftly hiding behind smoking wrecks, then popping out to fire a few deathly accurate shots, all the while leading the remains of his force closer towards the exposed Allied flank.
“Mr. Cobb?” for the first time Reynolds’s voice had an edge of concern to it.
“I have him.”
“Loaded, ready. Righteous.” Book had a way with words.
“Speed about 15 miles, going north, north-east. Range… 2400 yards.” Reynolds called out, his experienced eyes quickly evaluating the situation.
The tank bucked, the enormous muzzle flash briefly blinding the entire crew. The shell left the muzzle at a velocity of almost 4000 feet per second, travelling in a shallow path from the elevated barrel towards a spot a scant fifteen yards in front of the moving Tiger Tank. 1.8 seconds later, the shell had traversed over 2419 yards and hit the Tiger, who in the same time had covered just these fifteen yards, right in the weak spot beneath the turret. It plunged through the 60mm thick armor with ease, exploding inside the tight compartments and shredding the German soldiers in fire and shrapnel.
“I have him,” Cobb said again, a hint of satisfaction in his tone. Weapons and Women.

With their leader vanquished, the rest of the German forces fell into disarray and quickly followed his example of horrible death. Even their counterattack later in the day lacked the clear determination and skill of that one tank commander, who might have turned the tide of the battle if not for Cobb’s magnificent shot.

After all was said and done, Cobb claimed six kills, five of those the dreaded Tiger tanks. He was credited with none. Apparently, the German commander leading the flanking attempt was an infamous tanker ace with over 90 kills, and it was decided at a higher level that the prestige of the kill would fall to some half-blind gunner in A squadron – who happened to be the son of a cousin of some senator or other – and not to the gunner of the outlaw crew that accepted a black man as one of their own, claiming to have made the shot from a ridiculous distance. But Reynolds didn’t mind. It wasn’t his way. He had not come into this godforsaken country to become a hero. He had come to fight a war, against the purest evil the world had seen in his lifetime. That was the plan. And it was a good plan. Also, he knew that Cobb would most definitely not let it go, and he could only imagine the pain that politically connected young gunner was about to be subjected to.

But that was still days away. For now, Reynolds and his crew were still trapped inside their tank, with nothing to do but wait for someone to find and rescue them. Cobb had wanted to send some shells into the French village, arguing that would surely get some attention, but in the light of them being here to actually help those poor Frenchmen, Reynolds thought it counterproductive. And so they waited.

“The hatch is shut,” said Washburne in that same dark and ominous voice. “It was made by those who smell dead, and there it will keep them. The hatch is shut…”

For more of Joss Whedon's fabulous creations, check out "Dr.Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog", "Dollhouse" and his legendary run on Marvel's "Astonishing X-Men". Oh, and that "Avengers" movie was pretty good, too.

Things to do in Denver when your TV is dead...

Several days ago, my TV died. It was a quite emotional experience. Me and him, we had some good times. And I'm not only talking about the Porn. Granted, there was a lot of porn, and not all of it as classy as I'd like to admit. In fact, I remember that one clip with Paris Hil-

Well. Anyways. My TV had been with me for about 6 years, and now he was dead. His absence left a gaping hole in my life, and not the enticing kind of alluring orifice seen in that clip with Par-. You get the point. You see, my TV was also my Computer Monitor. He hung on a wall, which I admit might not sound like the most comfortable of positions, but it was by far my favorite position and he loved to indulge me, and thus could I entertain myself from and on the couch.

So, there I was, alone and disconnected from the world. As one of the two people in my personal realm without a smartphone - as I still cling to that quaint misconception that a cell phone must indeed not be more than a phone to validate its existence - the internet was henceforth out of reach. My Computer transformed into a mysterious mystery of enigmatic secrecy, whose workings I could not discern. And my beloved Xbox 360 transformed into a quite useless - not to mention clunky - paperweight. With the desperate need of input our generation professes to thrive on - but is secretly addicted to - I was forced to turn to other, less familiar means of entertainment. I read. As in "books".

I know how it sounds, but it's not that bad. It's actually quite good, once you remember how to turn pages without the help of a mouse button or keyboard. It's satisfying on a level some of us might have chosen long ago to lock up in a dark dungeon of their minds, hoping to starve it into oblivion.

So, in a moment of magnificent altruism, I decided to begin a small series of Things to do in Denver when you're TV is Dead, journeying for the first time beyond the familiar boundaries of constructive video game criticism, and recommend a surprisingly numerous items of literary brilliance that might very well enrich your lives. And don't worry. At least half of those books have pictures.


an ongoing Graphic Novel by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming.

If you know comics, you know Brian Michael Bendis. One of the most polarizing writers of the last decade, and hailed for his reboot of the Marvel Universe via the Ultimate Marvel Line, he is undeniably one of the most influential creators of recent years.
"Powers" is Bendis's first off-mainstream book that garnered a lot of well-deserved attention. It's a witty and gritty take on the superhero comic, hard-boiled crime noir tales in a world of superhuman beings with all too human fallacies.

Superheroes and super-villains - "Powers" as they are called not always with affection - are still, for the most part, quite human, and accordingly prone to the same human flaws as the rest of us. They love and hate, laugh and cry. They f*ck. They kill. And every once in a while they get killed. It is at this point that Det. Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim usually get involved. As members of the NYPD homicide squad responsible for powers-related crimes, the young, wise-cracking Pilgrim and her veteran partner Walker often find themselves in the unenviable position of investigating the deaths of beings many thought not capable of being killed at all. It's not half as easy as it sounds...

What can be said about Powers? It's an amazing ride. It's funny, touching, violent, sexy, smart, rude, gruesome, cruel and sad beyond what most people would think superhero comics to be capable of. Bendis' trademark wit and driven storytelling is complemented exceptionally well by Oeming's somewhat cartoonish drawing style. There are laughs and smiles, even a bit of wisdom, but people will die - some quite horribly so - and lives will be ruined. And once you start reading, you will find yourself quite surprisingly caring about that.

If you've never touched a comic before, Powers is a good way to start a bad habit. These are not the comic books of your youth, fraught with expository dialog and the inevitable triumph of Truth, Justice and the American Way. Powers reads like Quentin Tarantino's take on Superhero Comics, back in the days of Reservoir Dogs. It's not for the squeamish, and not for the dull or ADDed, but it will reward you with a quite unique experience.

A word of warning though: Trade-Paperbacks. Powers loves the double spread, and TPs don't do the double spread well. Strangely enough, nobody ever figured out that TPs basically swallow half a centimeter of page where in a regular comic the fold woud be, no matter if those millimeters might contain art or even text. As such, the early Powers TPs often lead to the frustrating guessing of cut-off dialog that was supposed to flow through the fold. It's a minor annoyance, but still present enough to be annoying. That said, it's another great reason to buy the Definitive Hardcover Collections, all of which contain between 10 and 12 of single issues, plus lots of extras. Volume 1 goes for around 25€, and is well worth the price.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Payne, the Payne... (Max Payne 3)

Max Payne 3 now sells for 14.99 GBP on Amazon.co.uk (probably the best place to buy English-version games in Europe - the UK, not amazon), and I indulged myself in the bargain bin. It was Max Payne, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

For most of us - video game geeks of a certain age - the name Max Payne conjures up a bag of mixed feelings. Yes, mixed, although we probably won't admit their ambivalence to anyone but ourselves.

On the one hand, we took gleeful delight in Max Payne's gritty VG exploits, killing people in slo-mo "style noir", and would defend Max with a fervor akin to defending the Trilogy (no, not that one - there's only one "Return" and that's "of the Jedi"). On the other hand, most of us probably always wanted to be a little more like Max, yet knew we never would - and thus did harbor just a slinking inkling of envy.

So, when after a quite long hiatus venerated developer Rockstar Games started development on Max Payne 3, the excitement was... palpable. When the cover art was revealed and featured a color palette pointedly not consisting of black, white and red, some wise people had their first hesitant doubts. They were right, of course, but for the wrong reasons.

Displacing Max from the darkened alleyways of New York and throwing him into the colorful, yet equally violent, Sao Paulo had no adverse effects whatsoever - not with the riveting story and gritty dialogue Rockstar Games' Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries excelled in. Max is still Max - in fact, putting Max's broody persona in front of Sao Paulo's lively and bright background, makes him seem even darker. As such, the game as a whole is about the most atmospheric and story driven experience you will have seen in a long time.

The problem is that without the story and James McCaffrey, the game is... well, meh. Not a "Wow", not a "Holy Crap", not a "Good Goddamned F*ckery!" It's a repetitive, streamlined shooter with controls that feel nostalgic for all the wrong reasons. It feels like every minute or so, there's a lengthy cut-scene, and once you actually get to play, Max often as not does not do what you thought you told him to do.
In essence, this is what it seems like:

(Excerpt from a conversation in the Rockstar Games studios toilets, taken from the footage of a hidden webcam used normally for the amusement of the building's janitors and cleaning service)

"Wow. This must be the best CG movie ever made!"
"It's better than that Mark Wahlberg movie, that's for sure... and only three more weeks until release."
"I was wondering, though..."
"Hold on... Hnnng, God Sh*t F*ck, when did I eat that?!"
"It looks like... corn. And shrimp..."
"No, you were wondering...?"
"Oh, I was wondering about the controls..."
"Controls? What, you mean like Play and Rewind?"
"No, when you actually control Max."
"Well, that's just about one third of the game, you think people will even notice? Or want to?"
"Whether they do or not, we need to take the Max Payne experience from the old games, polish it extensively and update it into 2012 to give the players the best control possible! We owe that to the fans and our paying customers."
"Or we just copy and paste the control and cover code from GTA4 and add the "Dead Eye" from Red Dead-"
"Bullet Time."
"You are such a nerd-o-tron. And add the Bullet Time from Red Dead when Max lunges - the lunging we just copy from Max Payne 2. We'll call it Nostalgia. Or a Tribute. People will love us for it."
"That should work."
"Yeah, those idiots swallow anything we say."
"No, I mean it could actually work."
"Who the f*ck cares? And if it doesn't, well, we just put "From the guys that need you to buy this so they can afford to make GTA5" on the box, and that'll be that. Instant bestseller."

Creative License, here. Just saying. But still, that is what it feels like. The controls are clunky and imprecise, the cover system is a joke, and while both of these systems worked well enough in both GTA and RDD, here they are not offset by the huge open world where they can be employed. Max Payne 3 is a very linear, mission-based shooter, and the terrible controls have a quite disconcertingly jarring effect. They just don't fit into 2012. Hell, they wouldn't have fit into 2005. Arguably, you could say "Well, they're just being authentic. The dude lives on Whiskey and Painkillers, how do you expect he would move?", but I don't think that's an excuse you should build a game around. Nobody wants to be the geriatric cop that can't keep his gun straight.

Then there's the cut-scenes. It's like everywhere you turn, there's a cut-scene. You seemingly can't shoot a guy out a window without hitting one. And while they are amazing and intense, there's just too damned much of them. Of a two-hour play session, factoring in replaying sections you died in because of "control issues", you will spend about 45 minutes in cut-scenes. The kind you can almost never skip. You don't even have the usual hints about when they will occur, like after opening doors or hitting switches. No, most cut-scenes are triggered when you approach a certain area or kill the last enemy in a room.
Which might not sound so bad, but Max Payne has collectibles, and should you unintentionally trigger a cut-scene while looking for those collectibles, you almost always exit the room and cannot go back. Meaning that if you miss one, you will have to play through the whole level again, sitting through all the cut-scenes again. Of course you can choose to replay missions - chapters, as they are called - selectively, but in Max Payne you really only play the selected mission, and will be shunted out to the Main Menu after sitting through the unskippable three minutes of cut-scenes at the end of a chapter.

Combine the sub-par controls with the over-abundance of cut-scenes, and you get the feeling the developers almost resented the player his need to actually be in control of anything, and accordingly made it as hard as possible for him to do so. Just out of spite. In the same vein, the game is despairingly straight-forward, to the point that the mere possibility of an environment giving you the option to flank your opponents will have you salivating in private places (because you're happy). There is no "Stealth-Approach", no "Alternate Route", there's hardly any player choice at all - at least not in the way that games like Ghost Recon Future Soldier offered. Comparing those two, with a focus on controls and the cover system, actually supports the "authenticity argument": GRFS controls like the member of an elite military unit; Max Payne controls like the grey-haired, drug-addled drunk he is.

And, as all games apparently have to, Max Payne 3 came with a Multiplayer component. And once again, it's copy and paste time, the gameplay taken straight out of Red Dead Redemption. It's a taste thing, it's basically Modern Warfare 2 in 3rd Person, but it's not really good no matter how you look at it. Oh, and did I mention it's pretty much dead? There's about 1500 Xbox players still active worldwide, but Rockstar made the dubious choice of splitting the population in all the wrong places. You get a choice between playing with aim-assist on or off, and are thus stuck with about 700 players in each pool. You will however be put into lobbies with people that have DLC that you don't, and should you not have the DLC necessary to play the voted map, you get kicked.

To make things even worse, in recent weeks, the Multiplayer has been plagued by a bug resulting in completely invisible players - that stay invisible, even after restarting the game. Those people usually go 20-0 in a game and garner a lot of hate, but they are in fact not cheating. They are simply exploiting a flaw in the game. Right now, you get about one of those guys in every game you play. Every single match. It`s as frustrating as it sounds. And should you yourself be affected and choose not to take advantage of it - and not many people have the moral fiber to do so - the only way to fix it is to report yourself to Rockstar and ask them to delete your avatar/character customization save file. Not your progression, levels or unlocks, they simply delete the visual appearance, so one might ask why they don't just delete all of these save files, if the only thing lost is the specific face and clothes you like to wear into war.

Finally, the interesting game modes (everything beyond Deathmatches) and the Hardcore Playlists can only be accessed after meeting certain requirements (50 kills and 1000 kills respectively). Now, 50 kills is not a lot - until you play four games with the same 5 people, two of which are invisible and kill you 12 times in a row, but as Canada Bill Jones once said "It's the only game in town" so you don't really have a lot of choices. In short, at this time, the Multiplayer is dead and unless you get "lucky" enough to become invisible, it's just no fun at all. Rockstar Games, incidentally, does not care to do anything about it.

Now, this was a lot of bad things about a single game. Could you by now call me an idiot for buying it, laughing with schadenfreude at my frustration? Well, you could have had I bought the game for 60 EUR on release. Then again, on release the Multiplayer was probably a lot of fun with a lot of people, but that time is lost and never will arise again - and am I the only one to find it weird that German is the only language that has a word for the joy derived by the misfortune of others?
Anyway, the point is there are enough glaringly and blindly positive reviews extolling Max Payne 3's qualities, and you can read all about it there. But VG magazines apparently see it as their holy mission by now to liven up the economy - and who can blame them (except the people that pay good money for a bad game that was supposedly amazing).

Max Payne 3 is a less than mediocre game providing an amazing experience. It's a great movie that's blemished by slightly interactive interludes. With all the attention devoted to the story and presentation, the graphics and animations, the actual gameplay feels like a rushed afterthought that simply does not fit into the whole product. It's incredibly sad, not in the least because of how much praise the game received in the mainstream media. It will coast you through a rainy weekend, but unless you manage to cleanse your brain by LARPing Max Payne and indulging in his vices, replaying the single player becomes an exercise in patience, while the Multiplayer is just dead and could just as well not even be there.

It's worth to look at in the bargain bin, but not more. Not hardly.

Things NOT to expect here...

There are too many blogs. You should know. You're reading one right now, and not really for any obvious reasons, except maybe pathological boredom, insomnia, or a typo when looking for your favorite incestuous porn site - the last of which might be stretching it a bit, but we'll call that creative license. In fact, I plan on blithely brandishing that specific mulligan quite frequently to get me out of literal situations I have no one to blame for but myself.

So, what will you find here - or rather what will you not find here?

As already might be evident, a certain level of decorum will be markedly absent throughout this blog. Bland, boring and politically correct statements might occur, but not once will they be intentional, unless intentionally meant to mock you.
The main topic of these blogs will be video games in general, with a slightly more cynical and world-weary outlook than what the major VG news outlets might provide, but I will expand my purview should I see fit.
These blogs might not cover the newest releases of anything - unless I feel like it and can afford them - but I will tell the things I think need telling, whether anyone listens or not.
My choice of words may at times seem offensive, but only to people that lack the IQ necessary to understand the ironic, sarcastic and/or cynical genius at work here. Should you still feel offended, well, you probably deserve it, and I will welcome it as an unexpected bonus.

This is where it begins. Nobody knows where it might go...