Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mine, Build, Explode: A Terrifying Adventure in Minecraft. Day 1, part 1.

If you've been keeping tabs on the videogame industry over the last year and a bit, you've almost certainly heard of Minecraft: The terminally blocky super-sandbox game that's managed to ensnare the imaginations of damn-near anyone who's played it.
For those of you not in the know, Minecraft is about trying to survive in an entirely destructible randomly-generated world made entirely out of blocks, and in which you can build anything you can imagine using materials and tools made from resources ripped from said world's massive underground tunnel networks. Incredibly hazardous enemies are spawned anywhere covered by darkness, so the game's day/night cycle requires you to make a mad dash to find shelter before the sun goes down, or else have your innards lovingly rearranged by countless undead horrors.

In an effort to understand just why this game is the biggest thing in internet popular-culture since dyslexia met cats, I intend to play Minecraft in all its pixellated insanity and document the results. The very, very terrifying results.

Speaking of terror, I'm mainly going to be relaying my game experience from the point of view of my character in the game itself, since roleplaying and actively convincing myself that my fat arse is actually placed firmly in the jaws of horror rather than my comfy computer chair keeps things exciting. Everything typed normally from now on will be from the point of view of my small, blocky, extremely fragile Minecraft-denizen while everything typed in sexy and authoritative bold is an observation or explanation regarding the game from my impartial real-life point of view.
For Example:
Wow, this sure is a nice blocky world in which I actually no-bullshit reside in at this present moment, I'm glad nothing horri- AAAH! Zombies! Creepers! Death! RUN AWAAAAY!
...
Okay. Safe now. Wait, what's that hissing-
*CREEPER DEATHSPLOSION*
Blarg.

My enlightened real-world perspective tells me that the above situation suggests, the developers have designed an idyllic and world for the express purpose of making the player's eventual horrible demise particularly surprising and painful: Hastening the move towards their active goal of crushing the player's soul under their spiky cyber boots and drinking our tears through crazy straws so as to nourish their cold, shriveled hearts.

Let's get started shall we? (click images for larger versions)


I choose single player, click "empty world" on the level selection screen and let the game do its magic. When you start a new world (you can have up to five at a time), Minecraft generates a completely unique "planet" that the developers claim is four time the size of the actual earth. While I fall slightly below the margin of insanity required to actually test this theory, somehow I don't doubt it. The game seems to generate a blueprint for the entire world (as seen in the screenshot), then seamlessly builds it as you explore, which you could do until your great grandchildren up and tell you that enough is enough and still be nowhere near done finding all of the kind've wonders the game's world building algorithm throws at you.

Incidentally, to keep things exciting I'm playing the game on the hardest difficulty setting and when I die, my adventure ends. Usually when you die, you lose all the stuff you were carrying and start back at the spawn point (seen in the next screenshot) with anything you've built or stored still intact. I figure if I'm set to lose everything forever at the slightest mistake, things'll stay as tense as this game can possibly get. Analogies fail me at this point, so we'll just have to play the game to see just how tense that is.

Without further ado...

Bwuh? Where...? Ugh.

When I said terminally blocky, I meant TERMINALLY. Even the clouds have right-angles.

Dammit! I told em that ship wouldn't last us past the Cube of Good Hope, I told em! So many leaks the piece of flotsam must've gone down before I had the sense to wake up.
Dammit dammit dammit.
And what did I do? I signed on-board anyway like the avaricious little fucker I am 'cause the bastards offered a cut of the profits and suspiciously generous benefits package. dammit.

Ugh. Again. Let's see how I'm doing at least.


Still the epitome of Cubic manliness and not a scratch on me! Considering what happened to the ship I figure I should probably thank the next deity I happen to meet for my uncharacteristic luckiness. But seriously now, where the hell am I?


Hmm. One hell of a bay out there. No sign of a wreck and I'm sure as hell not going bobbing for snowglobes or whatever-the-hell else the good cap'n thought would go down big in the orient. I'm on my own over here and all I'll have is what I find. There's tons of trees at least, so it's no desert island...


Or any kind've island, really. Jesus, this place goes on for miles! Mountains, trees, caves, and are those...


COWS! Doofiest damn cows I've ever seen but near as I can tell they're fat and thriving, and if they can somehow survive out here despite the known universe apparently residing between their ears, then my infinitely more acute intellect should keep my head firmly above water until help arrives or I die a horrific, gruesome death for reasons that are entirely not my fault.
Speaking of gruesome deaths, that snow in the distance worries me. I've no idea of this place's climate; and judging by the snow-patches despite the current sunny weather, I'm guessing there's a fifty-fifty chance winter has either passed or it's on the way to bite me in the ass. I'm not sure I like those odds.

First things first: I'll need some shelter. I've heard stories from other sailors (Read: The Minecraft Wiki) that these parts are rife with nocturnal monsters that'll devour a guy whole before the thought to "fuck right off" makes it halfway across his now-very-tooth-marked brain. Now I'm not the kind've guy who believes everything spouted out by salty nutters whose entire experience of "Vitamin C" doesn't go past that chick who sang "Graduation", but whether it's from the jaws of flesh-hungry monstrosities or the nibbling voracity of these dumpy cows, I think I'm going to need protection in the form of some warm and comfy walls.

Speaking of warm and comfy:

Some sheep seem to have joined the cows in their League of Doofy Wildlife. That wool could come in handy if I'm to fend off the kind've weather that bred that snow, but with no tools I'll have trouble getting it off Fluffy over there. Still... He seems pretty docile and there's probably some wool that's been shed but still mixed up with the skin-attached kind, I'll just grab him and see how much I can get with a few gentle tugs. Heeeere, Fluffy-baby, I'll just grab here and...


Gah! Fuck! At the slightest nudge, damn-near every thread of wool explodes off of Fluffy's flesh with terrifying tearing precision! These sheep are clearly built for convenience if not survivability. I hastily collect the fallen blocks(?) of wool and look around shee- I look around anyway. Well I got plenty of wool at least, though I kind've feel bad for accidentally inflicting what must be my Poke of Sheering Death (TM) on fluffy over there.


Actually, I may need to redact the Death bit from the title. Fluffy seems pretty okay considering the eldritch forces apparently residing in my little finger have stripped him balder than Britney Spears on an off-day. Assuming winter's behind us, I've probably done him a favour, of course assuming winter's on its way I've doomed him to a slow descent into death's icy arms. I blissfully ignore this possibility as I shear some more sheep. Let's see how much wool I've got shall I?
Wait.


Uh. Okay. Every piece of wool is inexplicably larger than the entire body of any member of Fluffy and Co.: the same size as every clump of dirt, sand or stone that makes up the entirety of my surroundings. Hurm.

Just about anything in Minecraft that isn't a creature or player-related tool is a uniformly sized cube. Dirt, sand, bricks, cacti, they're all different textures (and properties such as flammability) on equally-sized rigid blocks. All these blocks are breakable and collectible so as to place them elsewhere in (usually) the same state. This is what Minecraft is ultimately about: excavating and changing the landscape around you to suit your ends. It's difficult to describe just how compelling actions revolving around this simple gameplay mechanic can become, so I'll just let Minecraft-Me get back to it.

I spend a while contemplating the economic implications of matter that can grow to a fixed mass regardless of its prior state, sheep related or otherwise, before I notice...

Damn. It's already midday and all my sheepy-shenanigans have been burning precious daylight, I need to find a place to whether out the night before sundown, but where...


Bingo.

Next Time on Minecraft Adventures: Will the dingy cave provide shelter from the voracious undead hordes? Will our hero be overwhelmed by the truly impossible amount of things that can kill him? Will we finally get to see some motherfucking Mining and Crafting?
Short answer: "Hope so", "Hope not" and "Yes"
Long Answer: Tune in next time to find out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Worst Videogame Break-Ups

We've all been there, right? You meet someone, you find them to be fantastic, certain inexplicable arcane forces cause them to find you tolerable too and you both decide to stick with each-other for a while. Completely natural, right? So you spend some time together, you're having fun and you're beginning to wonder if this might be a long-term deal. Then something happens, be it the emergence of a subtle irksome detail or a disagreement that blasts you apart, and suddenly an avalanche of disillusionment has crushed your affection under its inescapable suffocating blanket. You can't bear another second unless you get away, so you do. Cue depression. We've all been there right?

Well I haven't. Ha.

While I'm sure having no romantic ability whatsoever has its fair share of downfalls, I’m convinced that the advantages of not having to deal with romantic love outweigh the disadvantages, if that weeping beachside hobo stuffing octopi into his pants is to be believed anyway. That said: I'm no robot. I doubt you can be truly human unless you've got something to love, and don't I just love the hell out've videogames to the exclusion of all else? However, just because they're pulse-less, soulless piles of data shoved into a magical electric box, it doesn't mean they can't do a guy wrong. I've had countless relationships with videogames over the years (not the digital characters in videogames, mind you. That would be weird), and most of them begin and end fairly amicably: fun while they last, and ending because eventually I just want different things. But sometimes things are a bit messier than that. Sometimes I find a game that I fall suddenly and madly in love with before it brutally tears my nearest approximation of a heart out of its socket and crushes it between its cold digital fingers. Here are a few of those "sometimes".


Fallout 3
Some guy once said that you could never have too much of a good thing. This guy was a blithering moron for many reasons, but the most crucial flaw in his theory is his failure to account for repetition’s constant exposure of shittiness: That is, the universal truth that enjoyment of a subtly flawed experience, no matter how initially enjoyable, will gradually and constantly decline as it is repeated since good aspects lose their novelty while shitty aspects seem more grating every time they’re seen.

Also known as the HIMYM factor.

After hundreds of hours of blowing mutants of varying levels of ‘super’ into tiny bits with my inexplicably green slow motion powers, my love for wasteland-murderin’ has run drier than Helen Zille’s bathing suit area and only the game’s increasingly prevalent crap makes any impact on me. Intense bazooka duels in the ruins of the Lincoln memorial? Been and Done. Dismembered a swarm of zombies with a miniature nuke? Old news. Occasions on which I stuck a chainsaw up the power-armoured ass of a US army marine so as to steal his plasma rifle and blast his pet Deathclaw into goo? I’ve lost count. Now whenever I even think of the game, all I can see is the grimy textures of the endless wastes, the stiff animations of a hundred forgettable NPCs, and all I can hear is the sound of those three guys they got to do the voice acting, their NPCs’ faces frozen in a soulless stare, casually suggesting that I kill some giant mole-rats for them.

Real-Life Counterpart:
Marriage.

Bioshock

I could write countless essays on how bad this game truly is, and I plan to if I’m ever in a bad enough mood, but here’s the short of it: Bioshock, despite having interesting (albeit unoriginal) combat mechanics and excellent atmosphere up to a point, has the stupidest and most insulting storyline out of any game I’ve ever played. And I’ve played an adaptation of Spiderman 3.
For you see, my vastly intellectual colleagues, the stiff, unconvincing, and extremely repetitive enemies are supposed to represent the...oh wait, the game's just shit. My mistake. moving right along.

After hearing the endless multitudes of game reviewers and cavalcade of people with low standards claiming that Bioshock’s story was the most awesome thing since Big met Bang, I picked it up at a bargain price and played through it. Now, the geek code forbids me from saying any spoilers here, even though this story hardly deserves to be preserved for the lucky ignorant. Suffice to say, the game comes up with the most ass-derived idiotic twist imaginable to justify its painfully linear progression, before trying to convince the player how stupid they are for falling for it. It was kind of like George Lucas showing up at the end of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and going “Hoho, for you see, I made Jar Jar Binks specifically so you would hate him and embrace your anger, going down the path to the dark side alongside Anakin Skywalker! Now don’t you morons think I’m just the smartest fucking man alive?” When writers try to justify their own hack-itude with claims on the audience’s stupidity like this, rewarding them by slapping on game-of-the-year awards isn’t painting much of a future for the games industry, guys.

Anyway, after a first playthrough in which I kind of enjoyed the game but was indifferent to the story, and a second playthrough in which a good think about the idiocies of the game’s plot made my blood boil over like racial tension on Paul McCartney’s piano, I left the damn thing alone for good; only to be tormented by the still on-going singing of the game’s undeserving praises.

Real Life Counterpart:
That girl who initially seems intelligent, arty and interesting, but proves to be a shallow manipulative bitch with a god complex. After the inevitable breakup, you slowly driven insane by an endless stream of pretentious morons chastising you for not appreciating what you had, and refusing to believe that what you had was a girlfriend who repeatedly kicked you in the nuts so as to make an ironic artsy statement about the downfall of modern masculinity.

Tropico 3
I lent it to a friend and he won’t give it back.

Real-Life Counterpart:
“Hey, just because we got an open relationship, doesn’t mean you can move in with my best friend just because of his superior gaming rig and ability to punch me into paste. You’re so shallow. God!”

Fire Emblem

For me, the Fire Emblem series has a lot of things going for it. A turn-based strategy game with RPG character progression has pretty much been my dream-genre ever since I played Shining Force on a friend’s rapidly disintegrating Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, whenever I try to get back into Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, my favourite in the series, I’m mercilessly slapped down by the game’s brilliantly sadistic methods of getting me to bust out the crying snacks.

You see, the series seems to pride itself on the fact that if one of your (fairly few) characters dies in battle, that character can never be used again. This mechanic has some upsides, since it encourages players to use defensive strategies such as forcing enemies to only attack tougher units, and gives every move an underlying sense of tension and dread. On the other hand, battles can take up to two hours to complete and have no check points. Also, units have a varying chance of scoring a critical hit which triples the amount of damage done, and considering most scuffles are live-or-die affairs as is, this is a death sentence for anyone not covered in at least three tanks.

Only he is safe.

That’s not really the problem though, difficulty I can deal with. It’s the way that the game sadistically dangles fantastic (and necessary) rewards in front of my nose while devising impossibly hazardous requirements to get them. For example, in an early mission you are given the option to recruit one of the strongest characters in the game. Problem is, he starts as an enemy unit, an enemy unit that makes a bee-line for only your weakest units, insta-killing them with a sword designed for the aforementioned critical hits. The only way to recruit him is to get one specific character, a completely defenseless cleric chick, to walk right up to him and talk to him. He subsequently FLIPS A FUCKING COIN to determine whether he joins you or slices the cleric up right there.
The fantastic strategic combat, creative animation and (surprisingly for a Japanese-translated game) great dialogue just can’t hope to detract from the fact that in the final minutes of a three hour battle, where through a glorious but painful push filled with countless close calls, I had decisively crushed the enemy’s defensive lines and prepared for victory, only to have a squad of Pegasus-knights with critical-hitting weapons unexpectedly swooping in from outside the map to brutally and permanently gut both my favourite wizard and those three hours of my life.
And I retry the goddamned mission anyway.

Real-Life Counterpart:
That gorgeous, brilliant dream-girl for whom you feel deep uncontrollable affection even though she takes every opportunity to think up and execute new abuses and tortures that scar you down to the deepest recesses of your soul; but you take it anyway. Also she has a bear trap attached to her vagina. True story.

Dragon Age: Origins

DA:O differs from the other games on this list in that it is in no way to blame for our strained relationship. In all honesty, this game has everything I’ve ever wanted in a game: Deep, complex characters, intense and dynamic tactical combat, in-depth character customisation and progression, the ability to play a character with a personality truly of your choosing, gorgeous locations and a fully realised world-mythology. The game is an absolute dream that I could easily lose myself in for endless hours.
Oh HELL YES!

That’s the problem.

After my soul-crushing over-playing of Fallout 3 led to my utter inability to grasp anything of my past affection for it, I have become terrified that should I play any more of Dragon Age (a game for which I have nothing but the fondest memories) the same thing will happen, forever killing the brightest spark in my otherwise cold and shrivelled heart.

Real-world Counterpart:

The perfect woman: gorgeous, intelligent, kind, strong-willed, available and actually interested in you, but who you’re terrified of getting close to because you just can’t bear to be hurt again.

Well, that’s by closet-shoebox-of-relationship-doom for you. I don’t know if my experiences truly relate to the standard human-on-human deals the rest of you seem so fond of, but if yours hurt anything as bad as mine, I’ll pass on the extra heartbreak that genuine human bonding might bring to the table. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m on my third try of the last mission on Fire Emblem and I’m almost sure the game won’t randomly spawn a legion of Elite Fo’kyu Knights to tear apart my irreplaceable back-lines this time.
Actually no. No I’m not.
And I love her for it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

One Last Glimpse and a Heartfelt Goodbye: Toy Story 3 Review

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Plot Synopsis (Mild spoiler warning):

We rejoin the toys belonging to a boy named Andy just as he prepares to depart for college and leave most of his secretly sentient childhood playthings behind. The Toys, feeling abandoned and disillusioned with their lives’ purpose as a result, organise to be sent to a children’s daycare for an apparent existence of eternal attention and play. After discovering that the daycare is a far-cry from their initial expectations, the Toys attempt to escape, but are still plagued by the idea of existence without the meaning provided by their owner’s love.

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The Toy Story movies, the flagship franchise of current animation kings Pixar studios, have always held a small place in my heart (although some might say that in comparison to the rest of it, this space is relatively gargantuan, but I digress). The first instalment was the first film I ever watched in a theatre, and in what was likely and intentional move by the creators, I and my generation have aged in parallel to the series’ timeline and the character of Andy, with the final instalment arriving roughly fourteen years after main-toys Woody (a cowboy doll) and Buzz Lightyear (a space-ranger action figure) began “falling with style” into our young hearts.


In Pixar’s latest (and in my opinion, greatest) venture into animated storytelling, Andy, the subject of the titular Toys’ existence, is undergoing the transition to adulthood that strikes an all too familiar chord; particularly with my newly-matriculated generation. The experience of leaving one’s childhood behind is made intimately familiar through the excellent first act, which wrenches us from a pulse-pounding full recreation of an imagined playtime scenario (which long-time fans will surely find hilariously familiar), through time and into Andy’s barren pre-adulthood where the Toys, once central to Andy’s life, have gradually come to the realisation that having been outgrown by their child, they now face a sentient toy’s closest approximation to death, and must essentially choose their afterlife in either the deceptively heavenly day-care, or a hiatus in the attic in anticipation of the messianic arrival of Andy’s possible future children.


This theme of mortality and loss of self has always lain subtly beneath the surface of the Toy Story movies. The first film deals with Woody’s fears of replacement by the flashier Buzz Lightyear (who had to come to terms with his own syntheticity as a space ranger), while the second dealt with Woody’s chance at a loveless immortality in opposition to the abandonment that, due to his choice in said movie, faces him and his comrades in this one. This sense of consequence and character development across sequels is rare, especially amongst “kids movies”, but it’s a testament to Pixar’s sincerity and growth in storytelling that one can look at Toy Story 3-Woody’s expression of utter horror at being chosen as the favourite and only toy to accompany Andy to college, and (with no narrative discomfort) identify it as belonging to the same core character as Toy Story 1-Woody (who would probably have jumped at the idea).


Deeper meanings and emotions aside, Toy Story 3’s content is immensely entertaining: Pixar continue to display their mastery of visual comedy in totally unexpected ways, and even manages to slip in some subtle humour that the adults in the audience can chuckle at while their infants, placated by more obvious (but no less hilarious) assaults on our funny-bones drool in oblivious bewilderment. There’s also no shortage of “Grand-Heist-genre” thrills as the Toys face the familiar challenges of getting from point A to B despite their small stature and cardinal rule of not revealing their “non-inanimate-object” status to any humans; challenges that are over come with amusingly childlike ingenuity (further playing into the film’s themes). In terms of visuals, the fact that the characters look so vibrant and expressive but so familiar to their 90’s iterations highlights Pixar’s excellence in character design even then; and the film’s various locations convey their intended sense of mood (whether it be emotional emptiness, innocent contentment or suppressive horror) perfectly.


If anything about Toy Story 3 can be criticised, I would mention that Woody’s female counterpart Jessie the Cowgirl isn’t really given any meaningful development in this instalment, which seems strange considering she practically carried the second, in which her character was revealed to have abandonment issues which should have surfaced more strongly given the Toys’ current predicament. Also, I feel that the motivations of the film’s antagonist, which are revealed to be incredibly deep and interesting when given careful thought, could have been made infinitely more accessible simply through one extra line of dialogue.


Ultimately though, the film is a masterpiece of cinema and storytelling, and the most perfect possible way to end this fantastic trilogy. With deep, funny, memorable characters, great animated visuals living up to the Pixar pedigree and an ending that astoundingly managed to drag out the first shred of genuine emotion I’ve felt in years, Toy Story 3 is almost certainly the best way to spend two hours and sixty bucks that I can think of. I can’t really recommend the film on its own though, since much of its brilliance and emotional weight stems from how it builds on the first two instalments and our long-time attachments to the characters. If you’ve watched the first two films, you should definitely watch this one. If you haven’t watched the first two, you should definitely watch them as soon as humanly possible and then watch this one. The Toy Story trilogy is one that must be experienced, not just because it’ll entertain one’s kids, not just because it looks fantastic, but because unlike most movies it genuinely gives us something: A final glimpse into the magic and tumultuousness of our beloved childhoods, and the best possible way to come to terms with bidding them goodbye.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dreams

I'm in London, as it seems to be an appropriate location for this sort of thing. Dinosaurs are rampaging through the city, which not only fails to surprise me, but has a ring of boring inevitability to my dream-logic-addled mind. I'm shooting through the air in a jet-pack because (of course) I am an immensely famous person, and I therefore happened to be performing an incredible aerial acrobatics show that somehow advertised some brand of men's perfume I don't care about when the outbreak hit.

This is all really, REALLY cool.

I'm flying low now, zooming scant metres above the devastated streets and weaving between the skyscrapers of the London CBD as savage reptilian heads extend from their windows in explosions of glass and the entrails of unfortunate window-cleaners, grabbing and slashing at me as I dodge them with an air of mocking confidence.
Seriously, why aren't more dreams anything like this?

I bank upward, angling my berocketed-legs towards the ground and willing myself into a sky of utter empty whiteness. Everything freezes for an instant as I stand suspended, then what seems very much like the universe explodes beneath me and I'm shooting upward, arcing lightning and all traces of my past despair trailing behind in a blinding shower.

Looking down, I notice that the universe hasn't actually exploded after all. London stretches out for miles all around me, waves of prehistoric death machines flow through the streets while scaly titans lay waste to any buildings that their claws and tails and teeth can reach.

Central in my field of vision (as conveniently as one would expect given the circumstances) is my target. An armored body built with focused destructive purpose blitzes its way through apartment block and shopping mall and suburban palace alike, its gargantuan tail sweeping flat anything its clumsy claws couldn't finish in a fashion of sadistic perfectionism. As I swoop towards the beast to get a better view, its eye, pupil twisting and narrowing like an organic targeting reticule, meets mine. We begin.

I enter the storm of whirling claws without a second thought. Titanic blades of bone seem to fill every inch of air I'm not occupying. I'm dodging, knowing everything there is to know about the life I've taken on and how to preserve it. I duck and kick upwards, falling under a twirling tail and shooting just out of reach of the following jaws. I take the offensive, gliding as close as I can to the now exposed belly before turning my feet towards it and blasting in the opposite direction, the force of my launch sending the behemoth reeling backwards.
Sensing my chance as the beast steadies itself, I swoop upwards-upwards until everything that seemed huge and horrible in the world, the beast most of all, is revealed to be insignificant in comparison with my littlest finger. I know it's time to dive and I do, the air around me inexplicably filling with a plethora of barely glimpsed colors as my descent quickens towards its climax. I quickly spin, realign my body and divert power to the rockets in my palms: streaking towards my adversary in a blazing diagonal kick. There's an inferno in the palm of my hand now, its blue heart pumping masses of white flame into the now burning heavens. The beast turns to see its death approaching with a familiar eye, which before my boot plunges into it, witnesses the air itself cracking in submission to my velocity. In its final throes, the beast angles its fatal entry point directly upwards, whining with barely an echo of its former ferocity before I, in grim satisfaction, divert all power to my now deeply-embedded foot.

Bang.

I'm propelled upwards with the speed of a hell-bound erinyes, flaming shards of skull and spine initially surround me before disintegrating under their own force. A world of joy swells in me as my ascent peaks long after the extent of the galaxy opens up to me. My peaceful but brief descent is rewarded with a city cleansed of its reptilian horror (for in my mind, in this world, the battle has ultimately been won, and the other murderous dinosaurs have been dismissed as unnecessarily pedantic). I've won, everything feels amazing. I've won and I'm a hero and I can fly and I'm happy and I've done the most fantastic thing I'll ever do and none of this is real.

My eyes pop open and I'm in my bed looking upwards at the filthy Grey, impenetrable ceiling of my dorm.
"Well. That's that then," I mumble; turning over and going back to sleep.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Caribbean Dictators in SPACE!: Reviews of some videogames.


I'm sure that most of my readers friends you guys have long since deducted that I have a mildly crippling videogame addiction, both from the subtle hints that I include in just about everything I write and the less subtle fact that I never leave the house. Your Holmes-like intuition has proved correct once again it seems as, yes, I do engage in tons of "any-goddamned-thing-BUT-real-life" simulators; and yes, it impacts on my already lazyness-marred productivity something fierce.

I've always wanted to write proper pieces about the activity that eats up the vast majority of my free time, but I've aways had the niggling sensation at the back of my mind that the infinitely cool members of my friends list just wouldn't care.
I mean, seriously now: VIDEOGAMES! Just think about the enormity of how much you don't care right now. Go on, just think about it.
Scary isn't it? You see what I'm working with here?

However, after having finally come to the inspiring conclusion that No-one cares about ramblings regardless of their subject matter, I've decided to share my thoughts on the latest four dastardly software-contributors to my eventual total emotional death anyway!

I recently bought Mass Effect and Tropico 3 for dirt cheap online, having heard good things about all of them. I'll give my thoughts on how they measured up:

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MASS EFFECT 1



"So uh, after we kill these dudes and save the galaxy from an army of robotic dreadnoughts bent on the total extermination of organic life, you wanna catch a movie or something? If we're not killed in some contrived plot twist I mean.

Mass effect is one of the newer games to be released by Bioware, the studio who developed Baldur's Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware are widely regarded as the kings of the Role Playing genre (i.e. games where you decide how your character develops as the game progresses, both in combat style and how he/she reacts to in game situations), but although character development, equipment arranging and conversation play a large part of Mass Effect's gameplay, the core combat revolves around cover-based shooting from a third person perspective a la Gears of War.

As in most RPG's, you choose a class for your character that caters for your preferred methods of inserting bullets into certain undesirables' faces. You have the soldier, who can use all types of weapons with which to shoot people in the face; the Biotic, who has a wonderful array of psychic ways of knocking people over so someone else can shoot them in the face, and the engineer, who throws explosive mines with a variety of effects that aid in the shooting of guys' faces by you and your somewhat useless companions. There are also hybrid classes that mix aspects of the existing base three (e.g. Soldier/Biotic or Engineer/Soldier). As you complete objectives, resolve problems and of course, engage in face-shootery, you gain "experience points" which allow you to gain combat abilities or upgrade old ones, once again, standard fare for a Bioware RPG.

The combat itself is where Mass Effect differs from the Dungeons & Dragons based battle systems that Bioware utilized in its other games (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you're familiar with third-person cover-based shooters). When attacked by guys with faces deemed shootable by the game's moral code, you'll have to use cover to survive the deadly gunfire of your assorted opponents. taking out your weapons will make your character automatically stick to walls where, once attached, you can press the fire button to pop out quickly and shoot (before automatically ducking back into safety) or press the aim button to stay out of cover and shoot accurately using your weapon's sights for as long as you feel your face can risk it's consistency.

Fairly unique to shooter-gameplay is the ability to pause the game to issue orders to your two squadmates and queue an ability to be used accurately when you un-pause, so you can respond to threats tactically. Many missions also require exploration and combat within an armored buggy, which has some satisfyingly bouncy controls, but isn't used to do anything particularly interesting.

The combat is decent fun and keeps you on your toes both in terms of reflexes and tactical reasoning, and fighting your way through the often gorgeous setpieces is as thrilling an experience as you're likely to find without prying your gargantuanly lazy buttocks from your safe, comfy chair.

The stories of Bioware games are usually top-notch and defy the standard videogame premise of "There's aliens or terrorists or some shit and YOU (alongside your wisecracking ethnic sidekick) are the ONLY ONE who can STOP THEM!. In Mass Effect, a particularly unpleasant member of the galactic secret police has gathered a massive robotic army behind him to serve his mysterious agenda, while you (the only human member of this group) and your mostly alien squad have to...Waaaaaaiiit a minute.

Ok, so the premise isn't exactly oozing originality, but it certainly has its high points, not least of which is your cool, sinister antagonist, and a twist which brilliantly and hilariously both explains and parodies the game's own spotty sci-fi setting. More critical players may find some plot points to be a bit contrived and manipulative of one's emotions, but for the most part, it's Bioware doing what Bioware does best, making you genuinely give a shit about the lifeless polygons on your screen. Of course, the heart of every Bioware game is its characters, and fans of the studio's previous efforts will find learning about the game's universe through exploration and conversation with the game's great cast of characters to be as entertaining and fulfilling as ever, even if said characters lack the usual emotional depth seen in the studio's other efforts.

The conversation system itself, one of Bioware's signature features, which almost always appears in one form or another, is not without its flaws. Whereas other Bioware RPG's let you choose from a list of fairly complicated responses for your character that non-player characters (NPCs) will respond to (provoking your response and so on) Mass Effect provides a radial menu (seen in the following screenshot) with shorthand indications of the lines your voice acted character will say.




For example: Here's a screenshot of a conversation with the ruggedly handsome Wrex, one of your companions/squadmates/guys who hopefully die before you do. One of the ridiculously vague conversation choices for your character to say is "keep talking". Now, the dialog your character produces (and the direction of the conversation) only roughly follows the tone of the option you choose, and connotation-ambiguous stuff like "keep talking" can and WILL be interpreted in ways that you don't intend. You might choose "keep talking" thinking it means you'll say "Go on, I'm interested in your tales of reptilian badassery and want to be BFs-4-LYF" while the game might interpret it as "Tell me everything you know or I'll blow you back to the discovery channel!" or worse: "Oooh, keep talking, I like the way your sexy lizard lips move." You pretty much have to roll the dice at each turn and hope desperately that you don't get boned one way or another.

There are some other minor issues: The non-linear progression on the plot screws with the game's pacing in that you can inadvertently get too much conversation and too little action (or vice versa) in one stretch depending on order in which you do missions. The game is also a tad reliant on the lacklustre non-essential missions that have nothing to do with the main plot, since the missions on the main storyline can be very difficult if one hasn't gained the combat skills and equipment that these "side quests" offer.

Overall though, the game is great, and though it may be Bioware's worst game: calling it the worst thing to come out of the studio is hardly a major knock on its quality.
It's combat is fun and satisfying, it's world is great to fall in to, and its story, although somewhat mediocre by Bioware standards, is miles above most other studios' attempts to pull at your heart-strings.
4 pairs of space pants out of 5

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TROPICO 3

I'm sure most of you have played some sort of simulator in the past, whether it be a game about the building of an expansive metropolis in "Simcity" or the micro-management of The Sims' pointless little lives. Tropico 3 takes all the best aspects from other simulation titles and combines them into a complex but relatively easy to learn sandbox of political buggery that will finally answer the age-old question of how how things would be "if only I was running things!"

You take the role of a small Caribbean island's new "El Presidente", and can subsequently either lead your small island nation to a future of prosperous democracy, embezzle your way through your own personal brand of dictatorship, or anything in-between; all within the context of the cold war-dominated mid-20th century. The game has a great sense of parody around it, and everything in the game, from the light-hearted propaganda spouted by your island's radio station to the loading-screen quotes by real-life dictators, seems to make fun of the kind of "democracy" that sprang up during the last century's dingier periods.

Where Tropico 3 really shines as a strategy/simulator is its ability to cater for any type of playstyle by offering the choice of many entertaining solutions to the many problems your island might face. For example, say it's early on in the game and the island's religious faction feels neglected because your burgeoning farming nation hasn't built a full-on cathedral yet: You can either tighten your belt and build the darn thing (after appealing for foreign aid from the USA by letting them test their nukes on your pristine tropical paradise), ignore the protestors and build up your military to fight off the inevitable rebel uprising, bribe, arrange an "accident" for the faction's leader or stage a public book burning and/or order a contraception ban to appease the rioting devout at the cost of education efficiency and a huge influx of job-requiring, food-guzzling, for-you-probably-not-voting youngsters respectively. Every choice has (highly amusing) consequences for your island, and the game has a great way of mixing in unforeseen consequences so you'll never fall into bored complacency in between show trials.

Aside from balancing approval of different factions on your island, and keeping the ever-looming forces of the USA and the Soviet Union from deciding to practice their invasion techniques on your dictatorial buttocks in the name of "democracy", Tropico 3's core gameplay revolves around construction of infrastructure and the managing of your Island's economy. Unlike most building sims, which tend to revolve around "build magic money generating structure X so you can build a few of non-profit building Y", Tropico 3 has a much more realistic system to be exploited in the interest of keeping the presidential slush fund healthy. Structures have to be built by hired construction workers, and goods produced from your farms, mines and other resource generating structures must be picked up by teamsters and shipped to your dock for export before the sweet caress of cash can fill the nation's coffers. More advanced industries (and their more advanced profit margins) require said resources to function, and must be staffed with educated employees, who must be either educated on the island or hired from abroad. Managing the different aspects of your country feels really stimulating, and as in most large-scale simulators it is immensely satisfying to build from this:


(Gotta love how every cent of the island's wealth has so far been invested solely in your presidential palace while your loyal subjects have barely a handful of shacks to their name.)

to this:

*Disclaimer: This republic was in no way contributed to by the selling, eating or concept of bananas.

You can also take direct control of your own avatar, who can boost buildings' efficiency and help out in military skirmishes with any rebels that don't buy into the idea of your presidential perfection.

The graphics are beautifully vibrant, the the engine remarkably optimised so that your island will be breathtaking at any level of zoom, while keeping the strain off of your computer's hardware. Foliage sways, buildings catch the sunlight with a realistic gleam and your citizens perform the myriad actions in their daily lives with realistic animation (even though you'l spend the majority of your precious presidential time hundreds of meters above them,where you won't see it).

The level of complexity might feel overwhelming for some, especially those not used to gaming problems that require more complex and premeditated solutions than "click on these bad guys with your death-laser equipped." Luckily the game features a tutorial and a set of campaign missions that will teach you how to deal with a variety of situations, while introducing all the wonderful ways to toy with the lives of lesser mortals. The game also features a level editor and a thriving online community with which to share custom scenarios and compare mission scores.

Overall, Tropico 3 is brilliant. It's beautiful, functional and entertaining at every turn, and the gameplay's economic and political depth will definitely satisfy the control-freak nerds among you. But that's also a problem. This is a game for nerds. Big nerds. The kind of nerds who watch Dr. Strangelove and discuss the political allegories of Watchmen in internet forums while fantasizing about revolutionary income-tax systems: My type of Nerd. Many might not derive the same level of fun from the game, but if you have the patience to discover it, the inner workings of Tropico 3 will give you everything you've ever wanted out of a management sim, while its lighthearted sense of satire will keep you chuckling throughout.
5 defrauded elections out of 5 (Though it might not be your cup of tea)


Dreadlocks, Taxis, Jacob Zuma and the Flossy Courtesan: My walk down the road.

This could be interesting. The “residence what has a right screwy name” (RWHARSN) as I have named it, as it’s titular right screwy name has made it absolutely necessary that I do so, requires that I get some photos of myself to accommodate their intricate legislation cipher. Old fashioned glossy studio photos, mind you. Not like the wonderful digitally captured and meticulously printed out set of images I handed them. Seeing as I prefer not to keep stone-age devices in my presence, on account of that thing Og D. Caveman said about my mother and the walrus that one time, I lack any kind of camera that could get the needed snaps. I therefore have to scope out the local chemists for photography booths all the while hoping they don’t share my sentiments (and only keep the damned things around with a sense of detached irony, if at all).

Since my fine self lacks any personal transportation, it seems I’ll be exploring Rondebosch’s labyrinthine roadworks on (soon to be quite sore) foot. Woo. At least I have an actual existential map this time, lacking any specific indication of chemists of course, but if I check around the area filled with the pretentiously roofed condos, I’m sure to find something vaguely pharmaceutical. Upper-middle class socialites gotta get their happy pills somewhere, right?

Judging by my ravishingly high quality and not at all needlessly overpriced digitally printed map, the condos in question seem to be lingering around the quite inspirationally named “Main Road”. Since my shrewd detective skills have suggested that this Street could possibly be quite Major, I’m guessing that there’ll be at least one chemist in which I may obtain my gorily glossy goals. The road even shares a border with my Residence. This should be easy too.

*One fairly uninteresting yet long and pointless walk later*

Okay, how in the Sam Hill did I manage to walk in the exact opposite direction to the one I read off the map? There I was: Standing at a T-junction, looking at my map and thinking, “Alright, I have to turn left here”, and then I go right for some reason. Gah! Sometimes I think there’s a neuron stuck between my sense-of- my direction head meats and my doing-shit head meats that’s gone completely off its tits. Anyway, I’m back to my beginning with lead legs to bear me forward and a crystal sigh to bear the failures left behind. Or something. Damned if I get it wrong this time.

The road isn’t quite as bustling as it seems when you’re speeding down it and fifty kilometres per hour. I’d put it down to the early time of day but somehow I get the impression that this city isn’t as vibrant as the 2010 organisers would have you believe. The air shifts between various chemical flavours, from choking to sickly sweet to metallic. The people, the walkers anyway, seem to slouch onwards into the smoky beyond, shielding their eyes from a world in which they’ve seen it all before, and it had betrayed their expectations.
Upper-middle class socialites I tells ya. No sense of perspective.

Hey! Street-lamp billboards. I’m not quite as clued up on current events as I’d like to be, and we all know how reliable the abstract headlines on these cardboard curtailers of wisdom are!
“ANC big-shot behind killing.”
Whoa, that’s news. On the one hand I wouldn’t put it past some of our illustrious politicians to bestow a nasty case of death on election opponents or puppies, but since ANC-needling seems to have become a national sport popular among the media and disgruntled whities, I’m a bit sceptical on whether to believe this little factoid. I’m guessing some ANC bloke’s secretary ordered a hit on her ex-boyfriend or something and he’s getting the blame; as people whose public humiliation and suicide would cause a strong sense of arousal in Helen Zille (and her horde of flying monkeys) tend to do.

There seem to be an impossible amount of hair and beauty salons along the street. God knows how they all stay in business, though my guess is that they won’t for long. I’m getting the image of regular battle-royales between the various owners for the rights to an indecisive customer. “Five Stylists Enter the Thunder Dome; ONE Stylist Leaves!” The funny thing is, most of the salons seem to specialise only in braiding and dreadlocks (apparently, dreadlocks require something other than just dipping your locks in mud and waving ‘em around as Tarzan had me believing up till now). I guess you should work with what you know, but seeing as I’ve seen less than five people on this whole (Main) road with braids or dreads, and I doubt there’s much future in reggae stylings amongst the Upper-middle class socialite market, the continued existence of these glorified groomers seems even more unlikely.

“Zuma says sorry (again)” blurbs the next lamp-post poster. Gosh, I wonder what our glorious leader has stepped in this time, or at least gotten caught fo-WAIIIIT a minute! I wonder if this has anything to do with that other poster. “ANC big-shot behind killing”, well there aren’t any bigger shots than Big Jake up in the impenetrable sky-fortress from which the ANC rains down commands and defamed ex-members down upon our tiny heads. My aforementioned shrewd detective skills (and sense of humour) have me utterly convinced of these stories’ connection! We shall have to gather some more info! (Unofficially from these billboard headlines of course, I wouldn’t want to get the wrong idea.)

*Beeep Bip Beebib* *Phweeeeeee*
Kerrr-ist! That taxi-driver isn’t half obnoxious. Beeping and whistling and whatnot and with no potential passengers in sight. There’s gotta be a reason behind it. I guess it’s about attention more’n anything else. This guy’s a taxi driver; he soars the highways making precious little and not making any meaningful contribution to anyone, save for their convenience of getting in his taxi rather than the one further along. He probably knows he hasn’t got much time left, soon to end in a mangled heap of metal and flesh after one risky hard turn too many, or shot to pieces by another minibus jockey pushed too far into poverty to afford competition. He knows he has no future, he knows he’s insignificant, and he’s hooting his horn as if to say “I’m here now. Take a look”. He wants to get his whistle: his unique exhalation of pure sound, into as many heads as possible and as hard as possible, if only to have left something behind.
He still annoys the hell outta me though.

‘Allo: “Travoka defends Zuma”. Well he’d have to; murder is for serious and you need an alibi up ins when you’re accused of it. Unless we’re talking a more practical and involved kind of defense here. No one said this Tavorka, or Tagover, or Titpoker (I forget) was a politician! I’ll bet he’s a famed mercenary that Zuma has stationed outside the impenetrable sky-fortress (Though I wonder why he’d bother, it being impenetrable and all) and equipped with a spear tipped with a replica of J.Z’s remarkable skull (A viciously pointy weapon that my diseased brain tells me is standard issue in the secret “Zumarmy”)

I seem to be wandering dangerously close to the boundaries of my map. One turn-off outside the shown area’s comforting embrace and my well documented directional quirks will probably get me lost for eternity. No chemists so far either. I’d better head in the other direction…Hold on.
“Church of Latter Day Saints”, eh? Seems quiet now but I bet if I were to wait around I’d soon see an immeasurable wave of pamphlet chucking, doorbell ringing, me annoying Mormons emerge from the building’s black heart. I’m totally okay with you, your beliefs and your five wives, guys. Just keep the hell off my porch.

Another headline! “Pastor’s wife stabbed to death”. Yowie, that’s not a great way to go. Though it kind of annoys me that if this chick wasn’t a pastor’s wife (the epitome of socially perceived purity) and got brutally stabbed, no-one would lift an eyelash. Anyway, since the fact that this particular tidbit showed up right after the ones ousting Jacob Zuma as a cold-blooded killer CAN BE NO COINCIDENCE, it looks like we have a victim and a murder weapon. If this had all gone down in a spooky mansion and had Zuma been a military Colonel, I might almost have a joke there.

Finally! A pharmacy! Now to get immortalised on crappy wax paper that will inevitably fade and crumble in a thoroughly un-digital way (NOT THAT I’M BITTER OR ANYTHING!).
“Excuse me, miss? Do you guys do photographs?”
“Photocopies?”
“No, photographs. Pictures. Like pictures of me.”
“No, sorry.”
“*sigh* Alright. Thanks anyway.”

Coises! Foiled again! Well there’s always the bit of Main Road on the other side of RWHARSN (pronounced “Rawr-son”). I foresee another long and pointless walk ahead of my tired but still unmistakeably fine self.

*Another long and pointless walk later*

Whew. I should really organise a petition to have some benches set up along here; my dawgs are killin’ me!* At least there’s another chemist over there.

*Disclaimer: Dawgs here being the old western term for feet, not hip-hop enthusiasts of my acquaintance. Those guys would totally let me off with a light beating.

“Yo. You wouldn’t be in the photos of ruggedly handsome wanderers of the roads business wouldja?”
“Eh?”
“Of me. Can. Photos. You take?
“That service isn’t available on Sundays, I’m afraid.”
*hurk!*
“Sir?”
“Oh, don’t worry yourself, miss. You get used the regular minor heart-attack when you’re in my line of cruel existence. I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
“Very good sir.”

I’m definitely noticing a recurring theme in my adventures. Were this fiction, I’d guess my adoring multitudes would be chanting “HACK!” in a glorious chorus. But hark: a final headline! Perhaps this one shall shed light on our little political murder mystery. “Ellie’s love for a sheep”.



Yes! It’s all clear to me now! J.Z, in all his lecherous splendour, was involved in the sordid business of Ellie, the publicly loved wife of the local pastor. A business, peddling SHEEP WHORES no less! Yes, for all the charms of his 15 wives and their possibly even more numerous genitalia, the ol’ king of the sky fortress just couldn’t resist the occasional woolly embrace of his sheepish mistresses. Once Ellie threatened to come clean to the authorities (apparently because God isn’t that warm to the idea of flossy concubines after all, as one mistranslation in the holy bible led her to believe) Jacob unsheathed his presidential kukri and added a few less desirable orifices to the Molly merchandising madame. Our fearless leader then made a run for the sky fortress, leaving the infamous Titpoker McGee to hold off the authorities while the presidential death ray warmed up.

I should really get more involved in politics. It could be interesting.