Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Undoing of a Leader by his Own Fears...

With this incident we really got to see what our Prime Minister is made of and nobody, regardless of political association, should like what they see.

Harper's attempted attack against Liberal Jean Chrétien’s vote subsidy was just the start of it but when you think about what it would have meant to Canada the timing could not have been worse. The original point of this subsidy was to limit the influence of corporations and unions on government policy because they were essentially prohibited from making big donations. When these kinds of wealthy institutions get their hooks in we start seeing all kinds of signature legislation being lobbied like, for example, deregulation of banks.

In a time when the world is reeling from the results of such policies Harper thought it wise to get that ball rolling again in Canada. Did he not see how illogical that was? Was he so blinded by the short term wounds his political enemies would have suffered that he didn't see this policy to be the opposite of what all Canadians were hoping for?

That is a leadership test that he, Steven Harper the man, failed miserably and that's a serious problem because leadership should be his priority. He should not his party's attack dog, he has a country on the verge of crisis to run.

You can say what you want about the coalition but it happened and that in itself shows a willingness for three of the four parties to work together and unify, an act that completely caught Harper off guard. It's not just that our Prime Minister can't do this himself, he can't even envision it happening under any circumstances amongst his peers. What is a man so unprepared in this way doing running a minority government? Our whole country needs to ask itself this question.

What the coalition did do is bring about the most shocking turn yet, a descent into divisiveness that only Sarah Palin could be proud of. Desperation caused our country's leader to malign a huge swath of our citizenry and in a televised address he created an 'us' versus 'them' paradigm where days ago none existed. It's obvious now that Harper's civility towards people who think differently than him is a thin veneer. There are apparently 'real' Canadians and others who are foreigners in all but name who have no place forming a coalition against HIM.

The Bloc may indeed want sovereignty, albeit privately these days, but they are still Canadian citizens, today, and mostly likely tomorrow too. They have a say in our collective destiny. They are not second class citizens and their involvement in any Canadian process should not be held up as suspect or vaguely labelled as dangerous. Any attempt to do so, as Mr. Harper did, should be appalling to all Canadians.

The last thing Canada needs is a leader who will gladly stoke these flames of disunity, where one half of our country is seething at the other half. Did America's latest string of elections teach both him and us nothing?

Harper's legacy is that he lead the Conservatives back in force on the national stage. That's a notable accomplishment that all die-hard Conservatives and Western Canadians who support the party can be proud of. Even they however have to see that he has to step down now for the good of the country. Being a Prime Minister is bigger than his vindictive agenda, he's clearly ignoring that, and in doing so demonstrates that he is unfit to lead. So long as he remains in power the divide will grow.

That there is no clear alternative does not excuse his deep and dangerous unwillingness to rise to the occasion that the times require of him. At least with a coalition the spirit and guiding principles of a minority government; of working together despite differences of opinion, would remain intact.
THAT is the government we voted into office.

I support the Governor General's decision to prorogue Parliament however. Harper will eventually have to answer for his actions but in the mean time Her Excellency is giving a chance for tempers to cool off and for both sides of this issue to come up with measured responses. Hopefully out of this break some true leadership will emerge.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Path of Least Resistance... Ice Burn Eh? Seriously, Why Am I Not Getting Paid Huge Sums of Money for These Pithy Pearls?

Resistance 2 from Insomniac Games is the highly anticipated sequel to the fairly enjoyable Resistance: Fall of Man. Insomniac is one of Sony’s prize jewels, an exclusive PS3 developer who makes big hits on a tight time schedule. This time around however, for the very first time in fact, I wasn’t pleased with their output. This game has its moments and is sure to be enjoyed by many but I’ve played too many shooters to accept a second-rate product from a first-rate company, especially in the saturated season we fortunately find ourselves in.

Resistance 2 continues the story of Nathan Hale and an alien invasion that takes place on an alternate earth in our World War II era. The all-powerful Chimera have filled America’s skies with massive warships and are exterminating the nation in a maelstrom of nuclear fire. Playing Hale you will visit various locales throughout the States, gun down the inhuman enemy in droves, and perform the standard suite of special forces-type missions that are always used in games to explain how one man can destroy whole battalions of troops, detonate massive pieces of architecture, and change the course of a war.

Resistance 2 achieves an impressive scale in terms of both the size of its enemies and the amount of them on screen at a time. To do this however they had to sacrifice a large degree of detail. This isn’t so bad when the game has you in large, outdoor spaces but when Hale goes indoors to military bunkers the game looks cheap. The only time the game’s many indoor segments look pretty are when you are traversing through predictable alien environments with their mirror-like sheen, weird geometry, and utter absence of anything else. Just what are the aliens doing with those acres of empty real estate? Even when the environments of Resistance 2 look okay they don’t ever live or breathe. The atmosphere throughout the game is thin.

It’s apparent that the developers fell in love with Call of Duty 4 between their first game and the second. All of the shooter mechanics have switched over, from the iron sights aiming, to the 'red screen' health regeneration, to the limited weapon inventory. This could have been a good thing if they were able to achieve such precise results as Infinity Ward did with their game, but Insomniac didn’t. The shooter controls are spongy and inaccurate despite fiddling with settings so instead of achieving the more satisfactory ‘stop and pop’ style of gun play you’re forced to ‘spray and pray’ instead. As well the HUGE crosshairs are awful, part of that word is made up of 'hair' as in: thin strand of, for a damn good reason.

Hale is a super-absorbent bullet sponge on normal difficulty and as a result you don’t need to respect the lines of fire. You wind up learning that it’s okay to be hosed down with the glowing tennis balls that passes for lethal ammo because they hit you to little effect. Perhaps they had to make this concession due to the number of enemies attacking you on screen but the end result is unrealistic and inconsequential feeling combat. When an enemy has you in its sights and is plunking away at you three, four, five times, you know you still can take a couple more rounds before you need to get behind cover.

This slavish mimicry to another game went to the point where it even worked against Insomniac’s established strengths. This company has always been great at creating a variety of interesting, imaginative, and even wacky weapons with which to dispatch your foes. In the first Resistance game you eventually had access to a huge variety of firepower and the strength in that was there was always a different way to approach a battle. In the second game they went with the 'two weapons only' mechanic which is fine for realistic shooters but not so good with far fetched enemies. Every time a giant-sized monster appeared on the screen I knew there would be a rocket launcher or similar heavy weapon lying in wait for me. In Resistance 2 you are told in no uncertain terms how to play their game, a little too much for my tastes.

Hand holding: every game needs it to a certain degree, to keep players moving along, but when it happens too much it becomes the unwelcome guest. I don’t know why Insomniac thought that pulling the player out of the game into even the most minuscule of cut scenes was a good idea but it abounds and is wholly unnecessary. Another gripe I have in this regard is a certain type of enemy that cannot be killed in any way. You have the ability to bring down a three hundred foot tall creature but this one type of medium-sized enemy remains impervious to any and all weaponry.

Taking this to its logical conclusion one should surmise that an impenetrible enemy will spell the doom of the human race eventually but worry not, for there are invulnerable humans to balance out this clear advantage. Hale gains companions in this game, annoying tough guys who cramp Hale's style and chew up scenery trying to justify their existance. Also, the enemies rush right by them to attack you. Apparently poor Nathan didn't get the memo to pick up his invisibilty device and so you get to watch wave after wave of Chimera ignore your teammates and come right after you. You can hide behind your buddies but hilariously this does you no good. You are the squad's resident spank-monkey so pucker up and yes sir, you may have another. This my friends looks and plays as half-assed and unacceptable as it sounds.

What’s at the heart of these design choices is a ‘play our way or the highway’ philosophy that exposes the limitations of what you can do in the game. Once players experience this stuff they lose immersion. These are old school shortcomings and I don’t mean that in the good way. Most designers have dropped these conventions and so I am perplexed as to why Insomniac went back to them, to old design compromises that weren’t even present in the first game?

Beyond the single player experience there is what seems to be a beefy cooperative game and multiplayer competition. If you liked the game mechanics then these are welcome additions that will add value to the disk. After finishing the game I briefly tried these modes and came to realise that there was no way I was using this particular shooter to grind through a bunch of levels and upgrades. I just didn’t like it enough to spend any more time with it.

Perhaps Resistance 2 to was going to be a higher quality game that got rushed to completion? Few companies have been as prolific this generation as Insomniac has and maybe this game is revealing where their development schedule is starting to tear at the seams. I'm guessing of course. The first Resistance game was treated by most, including me, with softer gloves because it was Insomniac’s first attempt at a mature shooter and there was much of their good work ethic in place to mitigate some of the freshman errors. Now with this sophomore effort we see the game they supposedly wanted to make with the experience of the first, and the end result is my own personal final verdict on the franchise: Resistance isn’t a very serious shooter and it doesn’t need to be followed any longer. I won’t just be trading in Resistance 2 but the first title as well because this series isn’t going anywhere I’m interested in. Oh well, there’s always Ratchet and Clank.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Victory, History, Sanity...

My intention was to write my thoughts regarding Barack Obama’s victory the morning after but - being an Internet junkie - I was treated to more activity and exchanging of ideas than any other time in memory. With all of the pictures from around the world, news articles and emails sent to friends my free time has been hijacked by hope.

By eleven o’clock that Tuesday the friends I was sharing the moment with finally allowed themselves to believe what was happening. In retrospect it was a spanking early on but the effects of the last eight years were really hard to shake off. At that point one friend had the brilliant idea of going outside, finding a pub, getting some food, and soak in the moment with others. Sure enough the first spot we hit was packed, all eyes on the T.V., and it was here we watched President-elect Obama give his acceptance speech.

It was simply amazing, both the speech and the response it invoked. People were cheering with tears in their eyes. There were hugs and high-fives. I have never seen even one-tenth of that excitement and emotion during any Canadian election. I thought this strange but only for a moment. America is still the leader of the free world and when they get it right, we all benefit.

So the numbers, they always tell a tale. Over 122 million voted, more than any other election and the greatest percentage of Americans since women were allowed to vote. That in itself is phenomenal. The count is not entirely complete but Obama got a projected 53% of the popular vote against 46% for McCain, that's a difference of just over seven million voters. In the electoral colleges however is where the thumping really took place. Obama got a projected 364 to McCain's projected 162. What does that say? Obama’s team ran a fantastic campaign, one for the ages. His votes were better distributed in big states and they wound up meaning more. This is what is meant by the ground game, campaigning and spending advertising money in all the right places.

One part that chills me is the number of stars and planets that had to align in order for this win to happen. The Obama campaign was as flawless as these long, protracted, and nasty battles can get. He was eternally calm, on point, and possessing a message that remained constant and effective. McCain on the other hand couldn't have been more sloppy. His campaign was always changing directions, woefully lacking in discipline, full of mudslinging, gaffes and embarrassments. There was so much drama that it’s still going strong even though the election is over. On top of that there were disastrous wars and a tanked economy, all of which worked in Obama’s favour. Yet still the popular vote was just 53 to 46. What are some of these people looking at? The voting majority of America has seen the light but there is still much darkness there.

96% of black voters went with Obama and there’s a joke somewhere in those numbers. I have to ask, who are these other 4%? What were they thinking? Just the thought of it makes me laugh. You have the chance to vote in not only the first black American President but clearly the candidate who ran the best campaign but no, instead you decide to let history pass you buy. These people deserve “I VOTED FOR McCAIN” t-shirts. We need to identify them so that we can offer our sympathies. What are they going to tell their children and grandkids? “It was a great time in our history son but I said ‘aw fuck it’ and voted for the angry white guy.” I want to be there, I want to see that conversation play out. I want to hear a kid reply: “Grandpa, you’re a dick!”

The Republican Party is in shambles after this. The Grand Ole Party has been hit by a crippling schism; divergent paths in its evolution. The old-school conservatives; small government, pro-business veterans have been jumping through hoops trying to convince the new-style church and state evangelists that they have their interests at heart, but it’s not true and so the bible belt isn’t buying it. If they have it their way then Sarah Palin is the future of the party. That would be glorious for the sheer comedy alone and would have the upside of all but ensuring Obama’s two terms while the party purges itself of the unbelievers. I expect blood, guts, and horribly funny things being said in the years to come.

Alaska, man what a crazy piece of real estate! Not only can we thank them for a two-time dropout-raising, clothes-whoring, hockey mom of a rogue V.P. candidate but they nearly re-elected Senator Ted Stevens. This is the “Internet is a series of tubes” guy. Just a week earlier he was CONVICTED of seven counts of making false statements. This old man got his home remodelled by an oil company. By remodelled I mean they lifted the whole thing in the air, built another home underneath it, and then put a swanky deck around the whole thing. This speaks volumes of the whole democratic process in general and not just America either. His supporters and the key people that got him elected probably don’t care that he’s a crook, hell he’s probably stolen from them! They just want someone on their side, who will vote the way they want him to in order to protect their interests. They could give two shits if he pads his pockets in the process. You can in fact be a convicted felon and still have a seat in the Upper House. The senate however can hold a vote and ask you to leave because you are, in fact, a sleazeball.

I’ll be following that one with glee, as will I be following the potential doom of another Senator; the Democratic-hyphen-Independent Joe Lieberman. This guy shit-talked his own one time too many and now Majority Leader Harry Reid seems finally, FINALLY preparing to draw the political knife across his throat. Joe campaigned for McCain and raised the spectre of fear among his Jewish constituents by insisting that Barack Obama meant danger to Israel. Lieberman sits as chairperson of the Homeland Security Committee and the democrats kept him around because they felt they needed his vote. His presence and backbiting mouth mocked them though, revealed their cowardice and inability to act decisively. Now with more wins in congress I'm hoping they feel they don’t need him but I think they should have axed him from the caucus despite his vote and fully regain their honour in doing so. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already extending his hand to the guy and if Lieberman takes it then he’ll be revealed for what he was all the time: a Republican in all-but name and a rank political opportunist besides. Stay tuned.

There has been new electricity going through my body this week. Is that the change President-elect Obama was talking about? Any day now all of North America could be plunged into a full-blown depression and perhaps there has been so much damage done already that Obama won’t be able to pull his country out. What is of comfort to me however is that even if the going gets rougher the leader of the free world is once again a charismatic intellect and what’s better, a person who looks and sounds like someone from our time. Barack Obama just might be the first modern ruler on this continent and that is going to be history that we get to watch unfold every single day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Holy Welding Torch of Christ This Game is Awesome!!!

In April of 2007 a man by the name of John Riccitiello began work as the new Chief Operating Officer of Electronic Arts, one of the two largest video game conglomerates on earth. EA had fallen victim to its own massiveness in the years prior. In order to grow it had purchased and then cannibalized smaller, more imaginative game developers, absorbed the talent into their own offices, and centrally ran all operations. What happened as a result is that the people and projects they assimilated became infected with the shortcomings of the company entire: there was too much bureaucracy and too many levels of hierarchy. This took decision making and creativity away from the game development teams. As a result EA earned a rather poor reputation for making nothing but thin sequels, movie tie-ins, and sports games that did little to differentiate themselves from year to year.

One of Mr. Riccitiello’s first tasks was to issue a surprisingly frank mea culpa for the company. The big, bloated, centrally operating model was called a mistake. Instead the company would be divided into ‘city-states’ that would enjoy more autonomy and be able to make its own decisions about the games they were creating. As well, the company turned away from focusing on obtaining licences to make games with other people’s intellectual property and instead create their own fresh ideas. Over the past year and a half video game enthusiasts saw encouraging signs resulting from this shift in leadership structure in games like Army of Two, Battlefield: Bad Company, and Spore. Now with the arrival of Dead Space I think it’s safe to say that the company has truly turned a corner and is once again a best friend of the hardcore gamer.

Dead Space is a story-driven horror shooter that takes place on board a massive mining spaceship that the main character has been sent to repair. The player soon learns that something has gone terribly wrong aboard this star-faring factory and by game’s end the full nature of this evil will be revealed. From start to finish I found this game to be one of the most polished and engrossing video game experiences in memory. Video games are large affairs utilizing dozens of people working with very advanced technology and usually on tight time constraints. There is usually something or other that doesn’t work right for has room for improvement. I honestly found none of this in Dead Space. It is one of the most finely made games I’ve ever played.

I played Dead Space on the PS3, it looked absolutely fantastic and it played the same. The USG Ishimura is a spine-chilling place to visit, just brimming with atmosphere. The environments are subtle and solid, conveying both the super-science required to construct such a thing and the patina of age that convinces you of the ship’s sixty-plus year history. The Ishimura appears somehow both old and new, making every room captivating. Add to this the absolutely superb lighting and sounds and you have a place you dread entering further even while at the same time you cannot wait to see what’s next.

The entire ship is set up as a series of dungeons that you travel back and forth through, using a type of subway system as your main hub. Each of the twelve chapters brings you to one of the ship’s section, some of them twice. Some players might not like the re-using of levels in this way, preferring to be set in one directlion and the player moves constantly forward seeing new things. Being a spaceship I thought it made sense the way it was laid out and seeing how the Ishimura is packed with so many overwhelming set pieces I didn’t mind having to revisit them from time to time. Some of the rooms in Dead Space are straight from a madman’s funhouse and will have you gaping at them in wonder.

Combat in Dead Space takes the average shooter conventions and turns them on its head. The monstrous enemies seem fine with you shooting them in the body, instead you have to take off their limbs to stop them from eating you! Dead Space is dozen hours of gruesome dismemberment and to this end they give you the right tools for the job, cutting lazers and saw blades abound. Other games have had realistic damage models on their enemies but none I know of use the technology to create the core mechanic of the game. It is not only immensely satisfying, it results in your character being as big a monster as your foes are. It’s not enough that your enemies are scary, you have to kill them in ways that scare you too!

Like many games in the survival genre Dead Space has you collecting credits, ammunition, health packs, and other tools that you can store in your inventory. The wealth you discover can be used to purchase weapon upgrades and more powerful suits of armour. This isn’t anything new but it is done very well and creates an excellent inventory management system. True survival fans can play the game without ever buying health or ammo, leaving themselves at the mercy of the random loot drops. This can create a great deal of tension, as fans of games like Resident Evil 4 will attest. There were many times in my play through where I had to favour weapons that I was constantly finding ammo for while others languished. As well, dragging myself through the game at half health with none in reserve made for some nerve-wracking encounters. In a display of smart design ammo and health can be purchased for those who need the help but then the money spent can’t be used for weapon and armour upgrades, which is the true survivalist’s reward.

The story in Dead Space is truly excellent, the characters are believable and the plot is a tightly twisted conspiracy. There are not only plenty of scary thrills and revolting gore but the psychological overtones of some of the plot points are truly disturbing and had me thinking about them days afterward. Once I had completed the game I jumped right back in to see it all again rather than play new games sitting on my shelf. The game allows you to play a second time with all of your upgraded equipment, though you can only do so on the difficulty level you initially chose. You cannot take your medium difficulty character and play on hard, for example. This might irritate some but I appreciate this choice as hard with a fully decked out character isn’t really hard at all. The variety of great looking armours, plus the fact that not every weapon can be even half upgraded with a single completion means this game can be enjoyed many times.

Dead Space is a full-spectrum package and EA has planned to go multi-media with the concept from the get-go. To that end there are comic books and an animated feature already out. Other movies and of course sequel games are apparently in the works. As games get more expensive to create the recouping of costs by maximizing exposure of the property is probably the future. I can’t speak to the quality of those other products but I’ll obviously vouch for the game itself, emphatically.

It seems one of the ongoing themes of this generation of video games is products with great potential married with serious flaws. I think one cause of this is a great many software developers are still learning the new technology. Another cause is the compromise developers are making in trying to make their product more approachable in hopes of selling to a wider audience. Dead Space is remarkable because it has steered clear of that design philosophy. It’s a game without casual compromise, relying on tried, tested and true mechanics from the genre it exemplifies. In avoiding too much new ground it perfected what it was offering and in doing so comes off as a flawless experience. I cannot recommend this game highly enough, it has become one of my all-time favourites.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A retrospective as unecessary as the election that prompted it... Plus news... And disco...

The Canadian election received almost no time from me because its outcome was easy to foresee. When it became evident that none of the players involved could muster any inertia then stagnation would inevitably become the end result. In retrospect however it stands to illuminate the shortcomings of each and every party, which at the very least is what you want a pointless election to provide.

Stephen Harper gathered his forces, marshaled all of his considerable resources, selected the time of his ascendancy, and still could not move the country to a majority. You can’t even pretend there will be a better next time because there is not a single excuse to explain why he was held back or why the winds weren’t in his favour. He set the stage, this was a drama of his making, and still we weren’t collectively convinced. It’s clearly not about the vagaries of the situation but the inabilities of the man. I would be surprised if Harper stuck around for any great length of time. His value to the Conservatives at this point is being a relative success story, for thrashing the Liberals in a couple elections and raising the identity of his party as high as he personally could. To stay on is to invite eventual defeat and since total victory seems impossible to reach then why risk the legacy built? The Conservatives are back though, now their task is to find a likable figurehead, something made all the more difficult due to Harper’s authoritarian style. It is hard for a leader to emerge from a regime of followers.

Stéphane Dion of course is absolutely finished and so are the Liberals so long as they coddle him. Dion ushered in the weakest Liberal party in a hundred years they say. Had he done this while combating a power house then an excuse for him might be made but no, he lost to a chronically uncharismatic opponent. He should never have been there in the first place. Stéphane glad-handing his way to Liberal leadership undermines what’s wrong with the party entire. Politics, it really does change people, it changes how they view the world and how one interacts with others. Negotiation is key in life but when it perpetuates itself overmuch then personal potential gets left behind. The Liberal party, through its constant internal manoeuvring, stopped being a meritocracy and instead became a mediocrity. The politicians who have stuck to it the longest rise to the top and they do so in such a way where all the rest have a comfy place secured for them so long as they fall in line. I’ve heard it being called The Peter Principle. Such a formula purges the greatness from their ranks. Barack Obama, who at 47 years of age stands poised to become the next President would have never had the opportunity to emerge in the current Liberal party environment. He achieving his potential would have hurt too many feelings and upset their perceived natural order. This is still a lingering effect of the so-called Culture of Entitlement. Political parties need to be built so that the exceptional can break away from the herd and make history with their blessing.

Jack Layton and the N.D.P. never had more of the spotlight, had never before spent that much money, but they ignored their ground game in hopes of loftier ideals. This is evident when you seen that they secured nearly twice as many votes as the Bloc but earned fewer seats. Sure the people voted for them across the board but they didn’t win elections. They were the ultimate vote-splitter and that happens not by chance, but by party failing. In a political race you need first and foremost a good list, you need a census. You need to find out where you’re strong, where you’re weak, and where you’re the big maybe. The N.D.P. could have won quite a few more seats if they identified where they had a half-decent chance and then campaigned like hell in those places. Had Jack done this in Toronto he might have taken the city whole, rather than hold on to a mere two seats. Layton kept it federal, which was pre-mature. Get the seats first, secure the ridings, and then look to the higher heights.

The Bloc is at a crossroads. They shored up Quebec and made good gains but they did this on a platform devoid of separation talk, an age-old pillar of the party. So what does that make them now? As I see it they have two choices. They can play it safe and remain a party that does little but see to the interests of their home province, or they can risk re-branding themselves as a true federal force. If they want to continue making gains they have to explain to the country that the virtues of Quebec and the lessons learned guiding that province can be imported nation-wide. It’s okay for a federal party to have a home province, the Conservatives have Alberta and the Liberals have Ontario to a lesser degree. The difference is a mindset and outlook that expands beyond the provinces. Gilles Duceppe needs to find the spirit of Quebec that lay hidden in other parts of Canada. Perhaps that is a task his successor will attempt.

Elizabeth May orchestrated a serious set-back for her emerging party and probably made herself dizzy in the process. No seats, not even for herself, and that is entirely her fault. There are a couple salient facts that brought about this conclusion. First, she picked a riding where she wouldn’t have had to run against an incumbent Liberal or N.D.P. Better she thought to take a run at the extremely popular and competent Peter McKay. Recall that she also tried to make backroom deals with the Liberals and N.D.P. whereas they wouldn’t run in ridings close to home provided she didn’t field a candidate in their sweet spots. Dion’s Liberals of course accepted this shortcut to democracy, Layton rightly blasted it. When your party compromises itself to that degree right from the get-go you have to question its validity in the first place. The Green Party displayed all the shortcomings of both the Liberals and N.D.P.: Too much political manoeuvring, not enough attention to the ground fight. Now they risk irrelevancy. Elizabeth should have picked a fight she could have won and done it, making no friends in the process. That is how you forge an identity. Alliances come later, when you can bargain from a position of strength and people start to respect - or at least fear - you. The game is still about leadership, you need to be in charge of something to effect change and the first thing you need to master are your own principles. The privilege earned to be apart of the debates was squandered. Now the Greens need to prove themselves all over again.

That is all the rumination of Canadian politics I’m likely to do for a while. I like it not to linger in malaise. Our country’s politics has fallen into a trap that I see cursing generations of peaceful intellectuals throughout history. There is an aversion to bloodshed; there is no thirst for seeking victory from the defeat of others. There is too much accommodation in these races, too much thought for the day after. Such ideas may seem reasonable to the fortunate pacifist but they foster timidity which is like cancer to government. I’m actually content that Harper won it because at least he doesn’t act as if he is fearful over losing his job. We should probably pay all these people less money. Politics should remain a calling, not a career path. The results of the latter are all too uninspiring as we can plainly see.

Too many narratives will blur the image of a candidate.

Thanks to Marc for this article and his thoughts. This one goes over all of the course changes in the McCain campaign and how they have worked against him. By contrast Barack Obama has been an ocean of consistency in his run for the Presidency. He’s had one message, that of change. He has not once discarded it; instead he amazingly broadened yet refined that message to ensure it encompassed all of the topics to have come up over the campaign. The lesson to be learned when comparing these two campaigns is obvious.

Blackwater mercenaries now actually on the water.

This is cool! Blackwater has put together something of a warship that serves as a helicopter platform. They’re going to sell their military services to merchant ships that fear Somali piracy. I’ve been reading Prof. John Keegan’s “A History of Warfare” and it seems the rise of mercenary armies seems to come at the end of a civilization’s life cycle. Using them to help wage a war in Iraq is a sure sign of American decadence. That said the audacity of this business plan; the very American “can-do” mentality is rather appealing.

Pakistan and U.S. to arm tens of thousands of tribesman.

It looks like poor Pakistan is going to be hastened on its way to hell thanks to the desperation of all involved. The Taliban in the north has control over much territory and the solution to this is to arm the other half of the people living there. Arming tribesman in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets is what created the Taliban. This is a classic case of history repeating itself. I wonder then why Pakistan thinks they are going to achieve different results this time.

The 70’s news article that inspired the movie Saturday Night Fever

This is a rare, old gem. With a surprising amount of literary prose and structure a reporter uncovers the youth sub-culture of disco dancing as it first emerged. Reading the article I immediately gained new respect for the movie because it captured the atmosphere of the article perfectly. I always found it interesting that the most colourful and flamboyant street cultures come from the most industrialized, dark, and dirty of places.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Half-decent game gets half-assed review and title...

The game front has been a bit slow as of late, this is the calm before the Christmas storm. It gave me the opportunity to finish off the last game on my list of second-rate shooters and that would be Frontlines: Fuel of War for the X-Box 360.

Frontlines was put together by the newly formed Kaos Studios, who were formerly called Trauma and worked on Battlefield titles like Desert Combat. This is what piqued my initial interest in this game as the Battlefield series has always been a well-respected online multiplayer franchise with its own distinct, clear-cut style.

And this indeed is what you get with Frontines: a clean shooter cut from the Battlefield cloth. I found two things working against it however. Its use of Unreal Technology didn’t separate the game from the herd on a visual level and the oversaturated genre that is the post-modern military shooter didn’t help this in this regard either.

As should be expected the story is as limp as the title. Fuel of War? That's just plain fuel. Filling up a tank is no different than any other combustion engine. You're not saying shit with that line. If that's what you went with then what titles were discarded? Gasoline of Battle? Petrol of Skirmish? Strange but it's an ironically apt title. Frontlines lacked individuality or personal style, its own soul, which is a shame because it played competently overall.

In addition to the standard arsenal of weapons Frontlines features drones, or remote controlled attack vehicles. Miniaturized versions of tanks and helicopters mixed up the gunplay and offered a new perspective of the battlefield. Less successful were the many vehicle sections that brought nothing new to the table. The best part of Frontlines was the large maps and multi-point objectives that you had to complete without a lot of direction. You were allowed to attack the problems any way you felt like and take the heat for your decisions. These levels rewarded exploration and a patient approach, which is a far better design model than pushing forward through a script in order to activate and deactivate spawn points.

If you like how Frontlines plays then it’s a good platform for your online multiplayer as well. There is a robust community and they are releasing downloadable content like extra maps. Myself, I’ll probably be crawling back to Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat.

I also downloaded Wipeout HD on the Playstation Network, a futuristic, anti-gravity racing game with an old pedigree. The slickness of its 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second is only matched by the cool techno soundtrack. The Playstation seems to be pulling ahead of the X-Box when it comes to downloadable games. This title, Ratchet & Clank’s Quest for Booty, and the episodic Siren: Blood Curse illustrate a high level of quality, a new game experience rather than a nostalgia trip. By comparison X-Box released Braid, a game with great art but essentially a Mario clone, and Duke Nukem 3D, still a really fun shooter but clearly a product of its times. LIVE is regularly touted as the superior experience but these days I mainly see that as spin.

So far 2007 was a better year for games than 2008 but it’s an unfair comparison. To that end here is a list of games and their release dates that are on the horizon. (I'll be updating and adding to this list as more information becomes available.

Dead Space – October 14
Fable 2 – October 21
Little Big Planet – October 28
Fallout 3 – October 28
Resistance 2 – November 4
Gears of War 2 – November 7
Mirror’s Edge – November 11
Call of Duty: World At War - November 11
Left 4 Dead - November 17

Okay, so now it's nine potential game purchases over the course of a month! This industry, it is recession-proof! All of these games are getting glowing previews and all of those games are coming from developers who know what they are doing. It is therefore a ridiculous amount of content that can totally reverse my personal verdict on 2008. I hope it does.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Today's Special: Sad Kitten Sandwich with Extra Cheese

October 14th: Election Night in Canada! This very special event only happens around three times every four years so I’m sure we’re in for almost nothing of interest. Now in order to get his way Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to break his own fixed election legislation. Well good for him, that’s what I say. Look at what fixed elections have done in the U.S: nineteen goddamned months of mostly unattractive people in pant suits and flag pins saying the same things over and over again. They will have been interviewing for the Presidency for almost two years and they might only have the job for four. That’s bananas!

Plus, fixed elections have created a nerdy version of the football-desk style of news-casting that just isn’t working. Have you caught this act yet? They have four or five old dudes, actual journalists from back in the day for the most part, who go over every perceived nuance in tedious detail. Then they pass the camera over to a new generation of analyst douche-bags who pack in their very best sound bites for all of the sixty seconds they’re allotted. You can smell their desperation; this is their big chance to make an impression in hopes that one day they’ll be invited into the inner circle. Everyone in the American election process, from the politicians to the pundits, is shilling for a fucking promotion.

We got it right in Canada, kids. Six weeks, in and out, and we’re done. We pick the next steward of our collective mediocrity with minimal fuss and then get on with our lives. There’s no chance to get drunk on pageantry, no time to snipe at who stood behind what Greek column or green backdrop. What’s that? Harper’s on YouTube tearing the head of a cat off with his teeth? No time to look at that; the election is almost over. We better finish this one before they call another.

When you’re the Prime Minister and you want to hold an election you have to request that the Governor General dissolve parliament. Man it would be cool to see that actually happen just one time. All the members would be begging the G.G. not to push the big red DISSOLVE button. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean would not flinch from her solemn duties, however. With wide, hellish eyes and snarling teeth she would push that button and then all of parliament would melt into a huge pool of vanilla soft serve ice cream.

Speaking of which, who’s your honky this time, Canada? (Cricket sounds on the internet) How did they get here? I’ve been talking to friends and there is no clear-cut answer for people of our age and outlook. Sadly, most people have resorted to strategising, meaning they’re not voting for someone so much as they’re voting against someone else. How about that Canadian spirit, eh? As mushy as the Wonder white bread our politicians are made of.

It seems many don’t like Steve Harper for the same reason we would always pick him last to be on our sports team. You don’t like him because he reminds you of a middle management type: you know, the guy who fails utterly to inspire or make you feel good about your job but will bust you every time you make a filing mistake, no matter how small or hidden.

Stéphane Maurice Dion, who by all accounts is a thoughtful, intelligent man, is unfortunately nothing but third-place weakness on display. I was in disbelief at how the Liberal leadership convention played out. Was it not supposed to be a competition? Was a winner not supposed to emerge atop the pile of defeated? Gerard Kennedy seems like a solid guy but that political ploy he helped orchestrate is a far cry from his hockey playing days of old. He was barely behind Dion but I guess felt that folding in order to curry favour with the new party leader was better than risking getting beaten fair and square. At least Bob Rae deserves some props for sticking to his guns.

Shortly after the convention Dion announced that Kennedy would be his special advisor on election readiness and renewal with – get this – “intimate involvement in all aspects of election readiness and the platform.” Sounds kind of gay but it fits because it looks like those two have fucked each other and their whole party now.

What they should do is get down on their knees and BEG Jean Chrétien to come back. You need blood of the warm, red variety to win elections and it has been drained out of Canada’s premier governing party.

Who else is left? Gilles Duceppe? I like the guy, he’s got some panache but that sovereignty thing is a killer. If it ever came to pass I would have to say that I was born in a foreign country. What about Elizabeth May and the Green Party? She’s got a pretty impressive resume. It looks like she’s going to be shut out of the debates again even though they get a million in federal funds on account of the votes they received. They even have an M.P. now that former independent Blair Wilson of West Vancouver’s Sunshine Coast joined the team. The Prime Minister says that that inviting the Green Party into the debate would be like giving the Liberals two seats. That’s some classic Harper distain for you. He can’t stand the fact that Canada produces more left-leaning political parties than right-wing ones. How dare we organize government representation that reflects our personal views and beliefs!

I think Jack Layton has been rather successful this term. It’s unfortunate he’s got the reputation of being the angry-crazy man. I suppose that comes with the territory of living in perpetual opposition. I think that’s who I’ll be rooting for this time around. He’s been consistently against the Afghanistan military misadventure, he was quite the muscleman on the Clean Air Act, and the skin that stretches over his skull is clear of mar or blemish. I hope he continues gaining percentage points for the N.D.P. It doesn’t hurt that he’s married to fellow M.P. Olivia Chow either, that’s a reassuringly competent political couple right there. Do you think they’ve ever, you know, done it in Parliament? A quickie in the Legislative Assembly perhaps? A little in-and-out during the Victorian Tea Tour? I could point them out a couple decent spots in Queen’s Park.

At any rate this is the pettiest of elections. It’s just power for power’s sake: Harper’s making a run for his majority, and figures now is better than ever. This is nothing but ego politics and serving the country is way down on the list. It bugs me though. If he gets even the slimmest majority it’s a free pass to make all kinds of changes to our country. We’ll wind up going to whatever war the Americans pick next. Rick Mercer is liable to get really audited, with pliers. Canadian movies will suck even more, which hardly seems possible.

Here’s hoping that Canada doesn’t want a majority government. I don’t think Canadians should be telling other Canadians what to do just because 51% percent think one way and 49% think the other. Look at what Bush did with those numbers. Regardless of who wins we should still all be cool with letting people do their own thing. Hopefully that wishy-washy mindset will prevail. It is, after all, the Canadian way.

Monday, September 8, 2008

In this post I will claim that some Americans are unsmart and just like that - PING - I'm on a watchlist...

Look at that picture. Putin is sooo going to tap that.

My self-imposed moratorium on politics ended when the Republican National Convention rolled into town because, as the kids on the streets say, the shit just got real, son. Sarah Palin exploded on the stage with the best-in-show performance that secured the love and loyalty of her party’s base. That’s all it takes, one good speech, and with that she has generated enough credibility to take a run at the White House.

First I want to give a shout out to my main man Levi Johnston. He’s the stud who impregnated Bristol Palin.
The guy fucks this chick and as a bonus he gets the best seat in the house at the convention. What a twist of fate! The only thing I got the last time I fucked a seventeen year old was a massive guilt trip as she sat there hugging her knees while rocking back and forth saying: “I thought you were the one but you are SO NOT the one! Daddy’s going to kill me!” Actually it’s a pretty good memory, I’ve got no cause to complain.

We are seeing the normalization of teen pregnancy in America and it seems to come hand-in-hand with the dumbing-down that population is experiencing. I think I’ve figured out why the Republicans are all so gung-ho on banning abortion. Unwanted and teen-birthed children grow up to become their base, and their military of course. Planned Parenthood is the domain of professional thirty-somethings, a tool of your average Democratic voter.

There was much sweet hypocrisy uttered during the convention. Rudy Guiliani was the best example. His jokes were tired, he tried and failed to be self-deprecating and his attempts to inspire others met with similar success but when it came to attacking Obama he transformed into a spear of lighting. He had the gall to dismiss the efforts of community organizers and then deride his party’s opponents as elitist. Remember it’s the Republicans who consistently and effectively champion tax cuts for the rich. This however defines an important distinction as to what elitist means when mouthed by the neo-conservatives. It’s not wealth or standing but education and the ability to use it intelligently that is a target for insults amongs this party. The theme of this election seems to be people who are proud to be stupid versus those who are worried that they are smart.

An arena filled with people chanting “drill baby drill” is scene from a fictional dystopian political rally, a dark future satire. To my dread and amazement it happened in real life. I think the G.O.P. see vainly searching for sufficient oil in Alaska and the Arctic as a win-win situation. Hitting the jackpot is of course a mathematical possibility, something that pleases their scratch-n-win sensibilities. Failing that, the environmental destruction of the north is sure to hasten the apocalypse, and I believe that if some of the evangelicals don’t get to see it in their lifetime they are going to feel cheated.

The Republicans vowed time and again to “shake up Warshington” and that was just too rich. They have had control of the Executive and Judiciary branch for the past eight years. They controlled the Senate and Congress for five and six years respectively. America is a mess of their making and they want voters to believe they can fix it better than those who opposed those decisions in the first place. It doesn’t make any sense but remember this is the party that supports teaching creationism in school and refuses to believe billions of humans driving cars and consuming factory-made goods have an effect on the environment. We are talking about a people who are embracing wilful ignorance.

What’s telling about the Republican mindset is there is no admission of wrongdoing when it comes to their domestic and foreign policies. I saw no accepting of responsibility, expressions of guilt or attempts to atone for the war crime that is the Iraq Occupation. Instead, Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama for talking about the war and not once mentioning the word VICTORY. Palin insists that a nation can engage in a pointless, illegal, immoral war that kills thousands and turns millions into refugees yet still somehow emerge victorious, all the while remaining unrepentant. This is delusion and it threatens to sweep the country yet again.

I think it’s insane that the American presidential race is a close one but I must admit it fills my dark heart with a certain amusement. Is the American majority truly this stupid? Are they really that averse to admitting their own collective mistakes? Are they still willing to continue down a failed path in hopes of achieving different results? In 2004 it was already common knowledge that the Iraq War was a quagmire based on lies, and that Bush was an idiot, but the American people let him keep his job anyway. A precedent for making comically wrong choices in the face of facts has been firmly established.

The vice president I would like to have sex with as if she were a seventeen year old who had a mother in the White House - oh shit that's my autism kicking in - pull out!

This link is to prove that when my friend Marc talks I am actually listening. It's a Sarah Palin fansite that will update you on all things Sarah Palin and give you handy tips like what hand basket you can co-ordinate with your shoes for your trip to the Infernal Pits of Torment.

It's not moose killing that defines leadership but moose dressing really sells it for me.

This article not only introduces you to some of the issues Ms. Palin stands for but why she connects with her voters. This is not the America I grew up with.

Friday, August 8, 2008

And now for something completely different... Well not THAT different. I'm still talking about games and being a jerk...

I have been playing Sid Meier’s Civilization: Revolution whenever my lovely wife isn’t playing Civilization: Revolution, so if you really have to go pee right now then don’t bother reading the rest of this. Just go out and buy yourself a copy of Civilization: Revolution, safe with the knowledge that the game has earned my recommendation. No, this site will be gone by the time you return. It will have been erased, a rumour, like so much urine down a…

Holy Christ in Hell this new medication is making me more crazy than usual! I really need to get a proper prescription, maybe from a doctor. Anyway Civilization is an old game. The first was in 1991 and there have since been many versions that refine the game and take advantage of new hardware. This particular iteration has been made especially for the game playing console.

If you haven’t ever played Civilization it goes like this: you are the ruler of a race. You start with one meagre city at the dawn of recorded history. Your people are ignorant and disgusting, they know nothing. You haven’t even invented pottery yet. Pottery! Just how are you bringing water back from the river? Probably with the hollowed-out head of one of your own infants. Your own son, because you were thirsty, how could you? You barbarians make me sick!

From this monkey-like state you will elevate yourself. You will build things like granaries, libraries, and barracks. You will invent things like writing, mathematics, and religion. You will explore the world, finding natural resources, friendly villages, and even ancient artifacts like the Seven Cities of Gold or the Arc of the Covenant. You will create settlers who will found other cities, you will pay for roads to connect your cities, and you will even meet other civilizations making the same climb through the ages as you are. Sure they’re nice at first but then they get pushy and demanding, think Catherine the Great with a coke problem. They’ll demand you hand over Lao Tzu. Old Man Tzu! Wee little Chinese guy, wouldn’t hurt anyone, but they want him. Don’t worry though, that bitch Cathy is the reason you’re inventing catapults and submarines in the first place.

You can play the game warlike or peaceful and chances are you’ll do a bit of both in every session. The game runs through the entire human experience from bronze working to intercontinental ballistic missiles. You win the game by creating and maintaining a civilization that reigns supreme either through military domination, scientific discovery, economic mastery, or cultural pre-eminence.

A question that a devoted Civilization player might ask is: Is this game the same as the Civ. IV I’ve already got on the computer? The answer is no. This is a re-imagining of the core Civ. idea. It has been simplified, plays out on a smaller world, and you can play an entire game in about three hours rather than killing your whole weekend. It’s a great game of Civ. but it’s not in competition with the main product.

The game is such a great departure from all of the grim shooters and horror faire that I usually love. It’s whimsical and casts the whole rise of humanity in a quirky light. It’s a simple game to start but takes time to master the nuances. It’s a beautiful looking game with lots of supplemental information in the menus, be it better playing tips or the actual historical significance of all the game elements from Stonehenge to Charles Babbage. (Who? Ahh! See? This be some educational shit up in this bitch. I be learning yo!)

For the first while you would do well to play against the computer and get your empire building up to snuff on one of the five difficulty levels. You can however play on-line against multiple opponents. Another neat idea is the Game of the Week feature. Everyone from around the world can play on the same pre-generated map and your score will appear on a leaderboard denoting the finest Civilization player on earth!

This super-addictive turn-based strategy game can be found on the X-Box 360, the PS 3, and even the Nintendo DS hand-held. It is in my opinion the best PC-to-console game I’ve ever played and that’s because it’s its own game, a perfect distillation of Sid Meier’s original idea to put the entire human race in the palm of our hands.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

How can anything be so right and so wrong at the same time... I mean besides me, of course...

Ahh yes, Metal Gear Solid! We come to it at last! If the blithering of pungent otaku hermits is to be believed this legendary videogame franchise is said to act like a combination of Viagra and powdered rhinoceros horn on the superfluous appendage of the fanboy elite. Crafted over the course of years by the very kensai of console gaming, Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid 4 – Guns of the Patriots is said to be the conclusion and crowning achievement of this twenty year old epic. The game’s protagonist, Solid Snake, nears the end of his life and with his last remaining days he will battle all adversaries, both old and new, for the freedom of the very future itself!

Not bad, eh? So after all that let me just come out and tell you what you want to know right off the bat: Guns of the Patriots is a must-have PS3 title for two reasons. The first is because the latest Metal Gear has some of the greatest things I’ve seen in a videogame. The second is because this game has some of the most ridiculously pathetic things I’ve seen in a videogame. With but a single Blu-Ray disk you get all the heady highs and basement-bottom lows this medium has to offer. I regard Guns as an old high school girlfriend; gorgeous, tight, and thoroughly fucking retarded every time she opened her mouth. The constant hassle of breaking up and making up (read: cut-scenes and load times) are more than ameliorated by the high quality hate-sex (read: game play.)

First, the sex - I mean game play. From the moment the menu screen loads up you know that you are in for a treat! Metal Gear Solid 4 truly is a game that has to be seen to be believed. Graphics-wise whatever measuring stick you want to whip out, this Metal Gear will satisfy. Environments, textures, particle effects - the game excels on all fronts and is one of the finest looking console titles around. The sound, both in music and effects, is right in step with the visuals.

That however is not the great part. The game engine is capable of real time cut-scene quality close-ups that can then swing out seamlessly into the third person view. They prove this by often transitioning directly from cut-scene to combat and the only way you can tell the difference is because your H.U.D. returns to view. With the touch of a button you can shift between the traditional third person, to the newer over-the-shoulder view, to the first person/aiming down the sights perspective at any time. You can play this game in any of those modes and it will serve you well to use all three on the fly in any given scene in order to see exactly what you want to see.

What this amazing multi-view does is make Guns not only the decent stealth game it always was but a truly great shooting game too boot. There are seventy weapons to find or buy and while you can only hold five at a time the other sixty-five can be quickly accessed out of the pause menu and then equipped. You can even buy ammo and special attachments mid-battle. Assault rifle not thrilling you like it use to? Pull out your drum-fed grenade launcher or perhaps one of the Javelin or Stinger missile systems. The sheer volume of weaponry at your fingertips, from tranquiller darts to rail cannons, makes it a Metal Gear for all players and all playing styles.

This variety, the level design, the difficulty settings, plus the tons of secrets to find and special rewards to earn give the single player story more re-playability than most narrative-driven games. Perks like an in-game digital camera and virtual iPod allow you to take pictures while you play and create your own soundtrack with music from the current and all previous Metal Gears. The on-line component – aside from a torturous registration procedure – is surprisingly good once you understand that this is a multiplayer shooter that is not in direct competition with games like Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3. The game’s stealth elements are married very well with the standard on-line modes and encourage you to mix up your techniques. The overall polish, thoughtfulness, and product depth say one thing above all: there was a lot of skill and love put into this game.

The sad irony to be found in Metal Gear Solid 4 is that a title with such excellent game play and features doesn’t require the crutches of complex narrative or elaborate cut-scenes to add value to the product. Alas poor Guns has been not only been saddled with such conventions but brought to its knees under the weight it must bear. In my experience Metal Gear Solid 4 stands alone in this regard: not only is it the most comically horrible action story ever told, it requires HOURS of your patience to tell it.

There are chapters or acts in this title where the game play and the cut-scenes share equal time! This goes far beyond getting up to make a sandwich. True Story: One time my lovely wife was watching me play this game until a cut-scene came up. She then went into the kitchen and started preparing lasagna for our dinner; four layers of meat, tomato sauce, cheese and pasta sheets. She finished this noteworthy task, popped it in the oven and then returned to the living room.

“Are you on the same cut-scene?” She asks me.
“Uh-huh,” I nod, suddenly realising a film or glaze had fogged my eyes.
“Wankers,” she cursed and then went to mix herself another Cosmo.

Wankers indeed. Metal Gear’s storyline is a leviathan of narrative excess, an effort that is too galling and self-indulgent to simply ignore or gloss over as we do with so many of the games we love. Every single melodramatic Japanese anime cliché can be found within from cute animal sidekicks to weapons-laden weddings, emo ninjas to giant robots. Dead people come back to life only to give a monologue and then they die again!

Spoilers, you gasp? Respectfully, I say fuck you sir. This trite nonsense needs to be dragged out into the cleansing sunshine where we can all watch it shrivel and expire. Skipping cut-scenes would normally render my outrage moot but within these vignettes are button prompts that earn you cash and opportunities to move around the area in order to find extra equipment. Suffer through the cut-scenes and you are rewarded in ways other players won’t be. “Watch my movies” the developer is telling you, “and I’ll give you the camera.” In my mind this is the very height of egotism.

I will admit there were a few exciting action sequences and truly touching scenes, rare moments that were smothered by the meandering dialogue and pointless back-story. I have played all of the four main Metal Gear Solid titles and I can appreciate the reams of fan service this game provides. Defensive diehards have proposed that such things are what a “Metal Gear” game is made of, as if this point somehow makes the title beyond critique. This story and the huge swaths of time it takes to tell doesn’t merely besmirch the game play however, it actively works against it. The narrative destroys all manner of pacing. The excitement you feel after finishing a scene is left to dwindle and die once the cut-scenes enter double digit minutes. Having started my second go-through and skipping the cut-scenes I’m happy to report that unfettered the game takes flight. The pacing is restored despite the fact that you will still sit through multiple load screens between chapters.

Writing about this most bi-polar of games has brought out my own extremist reactions and so I thank you, gentle reader, for my own spot of self-indulgence. Again I reiterate my recommendation to put this game in the collection. While playing, I think you will find it a superlative experience and while watching, you will bear witness to something… Well something truly unique anyway. At last we gamers have our Ishtar! We have our Waterworld! It is an entertainment milestone worth mentioning.

Words from people you don't know on games you don't care about...

Jay from approached me with the opportunity to have my writing appear on his website! After reading several articles I thought it would be a good fit. The site is equal parts irreverent and insightful with a good measure of the potty humour that you know I love to roll around in. This review also appears on videolamer and I hope others will follow. If you're are looking for a new and interesting gamer site then I recommend checking out the above link.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Writing and Video Games...

The importance of video games to human development cannot be overstated. I believe there have been three major inventions that have radically expanded the human species and the reality we continue to create for ourselves. The first would be movable type and the advent of the printed word, the second would be motion pictures, and the latest revolutionary intellectual force would be interactivity. Video games and the internet that many of them run on has irreversibly transformed the human race and set our consciousness on an exciting new course of development.

I marvel at the advancements this medium has displayed in my lifetime. From photo realistic graphics to complex game mechanics to real world physics we are seeing video games mature and match sophistication with the other, older mediums in a relatively short period of time. I feel however that in one particular area video games are stagnating, shockingly and perplexingly so.

Not nearly enough games are telling us stories worth paying attention to.

These personal thoughts have coalesced into this essay over the past few months where I have played some of the most technically impressive games of my life, all the while having to suffer through some terribly ineffective stories. The magnum opus that is Grand Theft Auto IV is really just a thin tale of crime and retribution made even cheaper by how much material it shamelessly lifts from other sources such as The Wire. The latest Metal Gear Solid is even worse; a melodramatic abortion without subtlety or restraint. You may disagree with my two examples and of course that’s fine. To make my point I instead ask you to look over your own collection of games and take note of the many worthwhile titles where the narrative runs from poor to just plain awful. More often than not, story is the weakest part of any game. Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, Army of Two, Dark Sector, Devil May Cry 4, Halo 3, and Condemned 2 are titles I’ve recently played or replayed that easily come to mind. I loved the game play in each of these titles but the story in all of them was very poorly imparted. There were interesting concepts and imaginative scenes but the good writing needed to thread them all together was absent.

Good writing can and does take place, which is why the culture of narrative failure present in the video game industry is all the more mystifying. Epic, far-reaching stories have been effectively told in this medium. As recent examples I thought Mass Effect, Bioshock, and the Half-Life episodes did a fine job, at least fine enough given the overall ineptitude of their peers. Small, contained and compelling stories have also been told. In Portal we have the simple arc of a malfunctioning A.I. who hopes to lure a test subject to their doom only to be outwitted and destroyed… That and cake. Portal exemplifies the fact that it’s not what story you’re telling but how you tell it. How come so many video game developers don’t know how to tell their own stories?

Being an avid game consumer but admittedly looking from the outside – in, I have come to speculate on why effective storytelling seems so vexing to game development. Just as movie writing isn’t the same as book writing, is there some radical, hereto forth yet to be discovered skill-set needed to create the video game equivalent of a page-turner? Has the industry not committed to the writing process as they have to coding or animation? Are video games inherently at cross purposes with story telling and only rare geniuses can occasionally skirt this inevitability? Perhaps each major development house has a different answer to my question but what I can say with absolute certainly is that we, the players, should be taking some of the blame.

We accept these stories, you see. We pay, we play, we praise, and all the while we remain mostly silent on the quality of the narrative. We are silent because we have accepted that poor storytelling is the norm. We tell ourselves that the medium is still in its infancy, or that the luminary artists of literature have not yet embraced games as a career path, or that story is naturally going to take the back seat to a product that allows you to shoot people in the head for hours on end. We make excuses for the developers who in turn fail to consider story as a priority. They are not motivated to evolve.

We should demand they evolve!

If a story goes nowhere, falls flat, is uninteresting, has been told too many times, or is just preposterously stupid then it should be pointed out, emphatically. The enthusiast media’s ranking system leaves much to be desired and has been rightly vilified as of late, yet it is the only system we have and it should be made to take the writing more into account. If a game comes with an idiotic or half-assed story it should be mentioned and a perfect or near perfect score should be out of reach.

Our personal criticisms should always be constructive of course, but they should be vocal enough so that they are taken to heart by the game creators. By the same token if a game tells a fine story it should be encouraged, even if the other aspects of the game are not up to snuff. After all, isn’t turnabout fair play? For too long we have accepted awful writing because the visuals and game play are excellent.

We should be putting the writing up to the same kind of scrutiny we give the screenshots and trailers. Dedicated game players no longer accept poor quality graphics and surprise; the vast majority of games these days look beautiful, I dare say even excessively so. We the players can and have affected the culture of gaming on a wide variety of issues - for both good and ill depending on who you ask. Now we need to begin a new groundswell to bring the writing proficiency in step with the other, more advanced aspects of game design.

Video game industry to exceed 68 Billion dollars by 2012.

Last year the industry made over 40 Billion in revenue, double what it earn just five short years ago. The industry is massive and seems to be growing at an incredible rate.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If they start selling this thing at Walmart then you'll know I was right all along...

I’m surfacing from yet another blog hiatus. This time is was a vacation away from all family and children; just me alone at the house for two weeks. I KNOW!!! First there was shell shock, then gibbering insanity, then relaxation, then deep relaxation, then underwear-deep relaxation, then pizza. The last time both wife and children visited relations in the old country I partied like a fiend of various varieties and found suitable alternatives to sleep. I remember barbecuing a chicken with a beer in its butt-hole. Why should he be the only one left out at the party? This time around I surrounded myself with the hobbies and home improvement projects I would never get around to otherwise. It seems age has rubbed me into but a nub of what I use to be. I even lack the youthful hellfire to complain.

I finished Grand Theft Auto IV or at least finished the main story. In my case this accounted for around 65% of the game’s total content over a 45 hour period. Since the remaining side missions are sure to be more of the same I’ll take a break and get back to it during a lull in the release schedule. Rockstar’s latest opus was a very nice game overall with decent value. In parts it was suitably exciting and in others was surprisingly therapeutic. My fondest memories are driving in the early morning or sunset with that perfect radio tune kicking in. Liberty City was made for cruising.

It is not the perfect or revolutionary experience proclaimed by the videogame enthusiast media. These people are getting worse, not better at observation and objectivity. Lots of post mortem internet discussions have brought up a litany of critiques; things that honest reviewers could have easily pointed out from the get-go rather than the tongue bath they twirled out. My personal gripe was that the camera control and shooting mechanics are inferior to all of GTA’s third-person peers. Seeing as you’re moving the camera and shooting all the time it definitely detracts from the game. Others have remarked about the lack of interactivity; the city seems in place only to tell the main story. Driving controls have frustrated some. The constant barrage of annoying cell phone calls the character is subjected to is another common complaint. These points have merit but in the end I think the spirit and style of the game exceeds its short-comings. So get a copy, borrow mine, have fun with the good.

I re-played a ton of good games, most in co-op modes with friends. There is a thirst amongst all my friends, some who don’t own consoles, for more cooperative content. Some developers are hearing the message. I played the demo for Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution; an updated console version of this seminal franchise. Most of you have played Civilization; the first versions of this game could be stored on a single floppy and made the rounds in high school. Really it’s just a big monopoly game where you build cities and armies, promote science, earn wealth and survive in the world against opponents trying to do the same. This new version is great fun and really, really cute! It looks appealing, is simple to learn, is suitable for gamers of all ages, and has infinite re-playability. It’s coming out on multiple consoles and I can’t think of anyone who will be disappointed by this game. Sid Meier’s has been making whimsical games forever and it’s nice to see that he still has it.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has come out. I love it. It’s everything a bunch of geeky books should be. Yes, I am indeed deserving of your pity should you have any to spare.

So this was the obligatory nerd post and I will try for world events and politics later in the week. Thanks to Marc for sending me this article. The cracker-jack FBI investigation in this piece is only eclipsed by the journalistic integrity of the expose. First, hit the link and see the picture…

Can the Democrats and Captain Obama stop this picture from becoming reality?

This article has Al-Qaeda, WMD, the White House in ruins and the FBI getting all over it! There’s only one problem; that picture is art for an upcoming video game called Fallout 3. In it America has suffered a nuclear war that had nothing to do with terrorism or the Middle East. The so-called “Islamic extremists” website posted a picture it found on the internet and this is somehow newsworthy to you and me. I don’t expect government agents or “journalists” to know these things on sight. I was however hoping they would have the fact-finding acumen to prevent this kind of nonsensical embarrassment. After the Iraqi invasion’s own form of fallout it is more chilling than ever to think that our opinions of people on the other side of the world are being potentially swayed by hacks who don’t know what the hell they are talking about.

In other news it seems the Chinese have developed a new ultimate weapon; man of metal or iron – an Iron Man if you will. This strange and certain threat has been seen flying at jet speeds by means of all-powerful boot propulsion and the footage has been witnessed by yours truly on the television. This deadly opponent to democracy wraps himself smugly in red and yellow; the very colours of the Communist Chinese flag! Surely their Maoist mandarin pride got the best of them. I don’t think they thought we would notice. Luckily for us every single solitary toy I’ve either bought or stolen for my children hails from that empire and their lead-painted standard is known to me.

Watch the skies, true believers! It’s not like there’s anything you can do because Iron Man will blast to atoms while his suit disperses his pent-up urine over your crops but watch the skies nonetheless. It’s both the least and most we can do!

(Seriously, how does a guy pee in that thing?)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

News, news, more news and nothing else aside from my snarky comments... My Time: Educational once again but for how long?!?

I'm lifting my personal embargo on news and have been able to stomach passing by the Democratic Party primary articles on my way to things that really matter. I'm cooking up a response to the whole Hillary vs. Obama charade but I'm waiting still, waiting for that whole ridiculous super-delegate thing to sort itself out. Their call will factor heavily into my premise about what this never-ending dry run is really all about and I want to give them a chance to make their fateful decision before going off on a rant. Oh yes! Rant I shall! Rant like the randy rants of lower Rantington while wearing my freshly pressed ranty-pants! In the meanwhile, seeing as I'm not going to be reviewing games for a while what with Grand Theft Auto IV owning my soul, I though it best to return to world events. After all they do deserve our attention... Not necessarily all of the stuff I focus on but every so often I try to rise of the level of 'Actual Relevance' like this first piece...

Myanmar – slash – Burma Hit By Cyclone. Tens of Thousand Dead.

Those poor Burmese can’t catch a break these days. The cyclone and the twelve foot high wave that followed caused an incredible amount of damage, as the picture above clearly attests. Many of the missing may wind up dead yet and the number of displaced must run in the hundreds of thousands.

Getting aid to Myanmar is problematic. The ruling generals are not well liked around the world, especially with the violent suppression of protesters and monks back in September. The world at large wants to give aid but the generals say it has to go through them, which naturally no government is willing to accept. What this probably means is that the assistance New Orleans was given after Katrina is going to look timely and efficient compared to what the Burmese are going to get.

You ever wonder why Myanmar is still called Burma by all kinds of people in the media and politics? It was those pesky generals who renamed Burma after their successful coup and since their government isn't officially recognized by a great many nations neither is their name-changing decree. Kind of neat, huh? It's the same with Canada; I insist on calling my place of birth Atomic Cockistan but it's just not catching on, not even with the collector's stamps and freshly minted coins.

Donald Rumsfeld… More of a douche than previously thought… Impossible, I know but...

Rumsfeld has often been characterized as a bully and a schemer (by me) but here we see he wasn’t above a spot of bribery as well! Lt. General Sanchez was the first star-spangled commander to rule over Iraq. It didn’t work out though, mostly because he wasn’t given the troops and staff needed to pacify a country that had its government and army disbanded. So of course he came off as a failure and as a result his military career was over. I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to rise as high as a three star general (the highest a Latin American has achieved) and not be allowed to hit the final two stops on the military mountain.

Our man Donald wasn’t through with Sanchez yet though. If the retiring Lt. General were to sign off on a paper that would basically shift the blame of moving troops out prematurely away from Rumsfeld then he would have a plum Department of Defence position waiting for him as he entered civilian life. You have to stand in awe of the gall of this toxic warlock. He fucks the man’s career through his own disastrous military planning and then is shameless enough to dangle a carrot in front of him in some vain hope to avoid his due culpability. I feel bad for these lifetime military men who had the misfortune of serving while he was Secretary. So many good careers have been trashed on account of this criminally incompetent destroyer of civilian infrastructure.

P.S.: I wanted, badly wanted, hotly desired you might say, to make a Dirty Sanchez joke but the good Lt. General (retired) deserves better than that.

Orson Scott Card vs. J. K. Rowling! Fight! BAM! What? One punch and it’s over?

Steven Vander Ark is/was a big Harry Potter fan and created a comprehensive website containing all things Potter; a web encyclopedia if you will. J. K. Rowling seemed not only flattered by the fan’s devotion but actually used it herself when writing for the sake of convenience and continuity. She even presented him with an award! I'm not sure what kind of award Rowling would give to Vander Ark, maybe something along the line of: "You're a penniless nerd and I'm richer than the Queen so here's a medallion of tin shellacked in gold paint. Thanks for the free publicity, sucker!" Anyway Vander Ark believed his project was at a place where he could make some money for his labour and began the plans to put it into book form. That’s when Rowling litigators went to work and J. K. herself claimed to be 'violated' which - let me tell you - if that clip surfaces on the internet you'll find it here first, gentle reader.

Fictional Commentary is allowable by law provided sources are sited, something legendary author Orson Scott Card points out and many other shocking things besides. I loved all the Enders books as a teenager but I'll ashamedly admit that I never caught onto the many suspicious similarities between his work and Harry Potter. 'Tis the doom of men that they forget,' eh J. K.? I love it when writers get pissed with each other, the verbiage that gets bandied around is of professional calibre. Rowling gets totally called out in the link above, violated, if you will. I wonder if she will take the time to respond between her appointments with the plastic surgeon?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Once again I will poo-poo on someone else's hard work like the elitist gamer-nerd douchebag that I am...

I did the ‘midnight madness’ thing again for Grand Theft Auto IV. This time the gamer-wife Mike met up with me and we marvelled at the hundreds long line ups at all the stores that were selling the game, of which there were many. Crazy! I did the same thing for Halo 3 and there was barely anyone in attendance. That said the game went on to break all records. If the huge crowds are any indication then this game is going to dominate like nothing else before it. This week all over the world there have been hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands on account of this game. When the papers start putting up real figures I’ll put them here.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a dense, open world game. It’s so big that after putting a couple hours into it last night I felt as if I was actually progressing in reverse; that I was somehow undoing what I did the night prior. I am pretty lost right now with little idea of what to do. This hasn’t happened since I played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I had to sink over 300 hours into that game before I felt I was done with it. You may not hear from me for a long, long time.

I cannot even begin to review this game. My first impressions are quite positive despite being overwhelmed. Liberty City looks bloody amazing! It has a perfect combination of realism and artistic style. The game is begging you to go for a ride. There are many times when I get the urge to just drop whatever task or mission I’m in, steal a sports car, find a radio station that’s pumping a filthy beat, and just take off with no intended destination. This is an embryonic virtual reality experience and let me tell you this child is going to grow into one hell of a bright kid!

Just prior to this I quickly completed one of the last mediocre shooter titles I was interested in this year and by that I mean Turok. The first Turok: Dinosaur Hunter came out eleven years ago and grew into a franchise of four games. While the first was well received the sequels received increasingly more critical reviews and the series eventually died. Disney bought the rights, created Vancouver-based Propaganda Games to develop a new title, and basically wound up repeating the lacklustre performance of the last go around.

Overall Turok is mired in sub-par design in almost every aspect of the game. It uses the eponymous Unreal Technology to run the game and the developers weren’t able to make it shine as nicely as other third party developers. The environments are dull, rather fake looking, and use a slim palette of colours. The character models and dinosaurs look pretty good but it's nothing new and therefore fails to impress.

They didn’t get the shooting entirely right and in my bible this is the one sin thou shalt not do. A most excellent standard that good shooters adhere to is the ‘aim down the sites’ style of play. Press and hold a button and your weapon is brought close to the eye which in turn magnifies the center of your screen. It approximates taking aim with a real rifle held up to the cheek. It’s very effective and there is no need to change it unless you manage to come up with something equally revolutionary. Turok opted for none of this and the aiming is nothing but a slight magnification of the screen. It’s as if they had trouble rendering the draw distances. In the end you almost never use the aim feature and the limp mechanic in place is thus wasted. As a result the shooting winds up being imprecise and mushy feeling.

The game was marketed as a world of complex A.I. There are enemy soldiers in the game and neutral but easily angered dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were to be a random factor that you could use to take out the soldiers, to lure them into traps and the like. If you messed up they would attack you instead. The end result however is far less interesting than they originally claimed. While there are a few seemingly scripted occurrences of pitting dino versus man you mostly go through the game dispatching a bunch of reptiles, then man, then lizards again, then man. In total there are four different types of carnivorous dinosaurs and some of them get different skins in order to fake variety but it doesn't work. More was needed.

Turok is also guilty of abusing Quick Time Events (QTE) like no other game in memory. Rather than pump round after round of ammunition into the smaller, quick moving dinos it is much easier to approach them with a knife until you get a button prompt. Hit the button and you are treated to a gory cut-scene of Turok stabbing a lizard to death. I thought this was quite cool at first; it mixed up the shooting a bit. After doing it around twenty times however it became really old and even worse, it became what felt like a loophole to exploit. When the game started to throw six or seven Velociraptors at you one merely has to pull out the knife and bounce from one to the next, killing each creature with but the push of a single button. It was way too easy and there wasn’t nearly enough variety.

With all this criticism laid out I will admit that Turok had a few decent moments. In the first half of the game what kept me playing was the stealth aspect. Turok can sneak around quite a bit and kill silently with either the knife or a bow that’s powerful enough to pin people to the wall. I haven’t played a stealthy game in a while so it was pretty fun to switch from the run and gun mindset.

The other interesting thing was later in the game when you have your pick of all the heavy duty weaponry. Each weapon had an alternate firing mode, like having an assault rifle with a grenade launcher mounted beneath. At one point I realised that my guy was carrying a pulse rifle with twelve concussion grenades, a flame thrower with five napalm grenades, my bow with ten exploding arrows, and of course a trio of good old fashion fragmentation grenades for throwing. That is a lot of boom-boom - even by video game standards - and so I spent the next hour exploding my way through several rooms of enemies. Seeing as the physics were decent it actually stepped up the fun in a way the game didn’t advertise.

Towards the end there were a few big fights in some interesting areas that were good enough to carry me towards the end of the game, which was a predictable letdown. After completing the single player story I tried the multiplayer which is absolute lag-ridden garbage. I don’t understand why companies who can barely make a passable single player experience try to jam the much more demanding to develop multiplayer component into the game? They must work for years under delusion and it saddens me. What’s worse is that they have tied a great deal of X-Box Achievements with the multiplayer so I’m pretty sure this is a game that will remain half completed in that regard.

So in the end Turok is exactly what you would expect from a first time company that gets Disney to sign their cheques. Metacritic gives it an aggregate review score of 69% and I guess that sounds about right if even a bit generous. This game is really only for head-cases like me; people that treat the shooter genre as some kind of university thesis and needs to play all of them in a vain hope of further informing their overblown opinion. At the very least I hope the game was a positive learning experience for Propaganda Games. I’m eager to support Canadian game developers with my time and money, even when they’re off to a so-so start.

In New Orleans people are still living in tents under a highway.

Hit the link and hear the spoken word performance of a man who lives with a couple hundred others in tents under a highway. It appears that all levels of American government have abandoned these people. What the fuck is this if not the signs of Western society in decline? Hurricane Katrina hit on August 23, 2005, about two years, eight months ago.